It was the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who, back in 1882, famously declared “God is dead”. And, whilst many might argue the UK is indeed suffering a moral crisis with little regard for the values of institutions like the church, it may still be too early to call time on the guiding role of faith within our lives – even if many do not profess to belong to any organised religion.
Britain’s first Faith Museum, which has just opened in the former mining town of Bishop Auckland in North East England, shines a new and illuminating light on how religion and spirituality have shaped our country, its culture and the very laws we live by, for more than 6,000 years – and how, often in unexpected ways, they continue to do so today, despite statistical evidence to the contrary.
The museum focuses on how Christianity arrived and came to be the national religion, but reflects the fact faith is now more diffused and diverse.
More than 250 exhibits – ranging from a decorative burial stone from the Neolithic era (around 4300BC) found in nearby Gainford, to expressions of faith by renowned contemporary artists, including a touchingly poignant installation, representing Christ on the cross, by English artist Mat Collishaw – help to explain how religion, and specifically Christianity, began, grew and flourished in Britain.
Housed partly in a 14th-century wing of Auckland Castle (historic home to the Prince Bishops of Durham whose power once rivalled that of the King), this state-of-the-art museum, spread over 740 square metres, deals objectively and non-judgmentally with a contentious subject – religion – that, over many millennia, has been used as an excuse to commit some of the worst atrocities and injustices in human history, but which, paradoxically, still brings comfort, hope and meaning to millions of people.
Despite the evidence of Christianity’s impact on Britain’s society, culture, architecture, the way our towns and villages look (often built around a central church) and even the music we listen to (through the influence of Gregorian chant on musical structure), the church in Britain today seems to be in a rather sorry and contradictory state of affairs.
An infographic in the museum shows that the number of Britons who identify as Christian has fallen from 72 per cent of the population in 2001 to just 46 per cent two decades later.
It’s possibly not the most shocking news to anyone who, over the last 20 years or so, has noticed how many churches have been converted into bars or nightclubs – and are now being converted yet again, only this time into coffee shops and gyms, as people turn away from alcohol as they once did from religion.
What is perhaps more surprising is a recent poll which revealed that three-quarters of frontline clergy believe the UK could no longer be described as a Christian country; many of them fear the church could even face “extinction” if ever-declining attendance figures are not addressed.
And yet, whilst 51% think God doesn’t exist, according to ONS statistics 42 per cent do believe in the supernatural, numbers suggesting we are clearly a nation who still wants to believe in something, even if we don’t necessarily want to go to church.
The number of people actually going to a traditional church has fallen to less than five per cent of the population since legally compulsory attendance ended in 1689 with the passing of the Toleration Act.
These days, in fact, identifying as Christian or a member of any traditional, organised religion seems to have fallen out of fashion.
So is it fitting religion has become a museum piece? The new museum forms part of the , a regeneration charity funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund and supported by Jonathan Ruffer, a wealthy local philanthropist and devout Christian who has injected millions of pounds of his own money into the town’s leisure and tourism industries.
The project encompasses several other public attractions including Auckland Castle and its soon to open Walled Gardens, The Mining Gallery (which shows how the town of Bishop Auckland, once known as “Bish Vegas” was where miners would come up to spend their pay after a hard week working below ground), The Spanish Gallery (housing Ruffer’s own priceless collection of 16th and 17th-century art) and Kynren, a live action show depicting 2,000 years of English history, performed each summer by a 1,000-strong cast on a 7.5-acre outdoor stage.
Vicar, radio presenter and former star of Channel 4 TV show Gogglebox, the Reverend Kate Bottley told the Express: “We talk about gender fluidity but let’s talk about faith fluidity. It’s the idea that we still want all this stuff, but we feel embarrassed to want it, because we’re rational, scientific human beings. We may not tick the ‘Christian’ box on a form, but we [still] light a candle when someone dies, or pray on a plane.”
She adds: “I don’t think we’ve lost our faith as a nation, but we’ve changed our language around it.”
Yet however much Britain’s right to call itself a Christian nation might be diminishing, many of the rules that we live by are based upon religion.
Most of the West’s legal traditions and judicial systems are in some way founded upon the principles of the Ten Commandments – they’ve come almost straight from Moses, via the Romans, and into our statute books.
And our Christian heritage is very much in evidence when it comes to family and national celebrations, and especially rituals involving the royal family.
“Religion follows the ruler,” explains Amina Wright, senior curator at the Faith Museum, pointing, as an example, to England’s move from Catholicism to Anglicanism under the English Reformation, led by King Henry VIII – an important part of British history which is documented in the museum’s displays.
Amina’s adage still rings true today as it did back then in the 16th century: we may not go to bed and pray each night any more but most of us still stand and sing “God save the King!” when we hear the national anthem played at a ceremony or event.
Douglas Davies is a professor at Durham University’s internationally renowned Department of Theology and Religion, situated on a World Heritage Site next to Durham Cathedral, just 10 miles from the Faith Museum.
He explains that, “In Northern and Western Europe we are, just now, experiencing a decline in active participation in formal religious institutions.
“That’s obvious and all the statistics point in that direction. What those figures often miss, however, is the dynamic nature of cultural heritage… how, over 400 years, the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer have entered into our way of thinking.”
Religion is like a foundation, he continues: “We always forget the foundations of our houses until something goes wrong, and then we inspect them and think about them.
“And at this point in British cultural history, I think that our foundations are there, very deep and very certain, as we saw recently at the coronation of the King where the bible and prayer and talking about God were absolutely key to the ceremony.”
Professor Davies also draws a parallel with the current trend for people to use civil celebrants, rather than traditional clergy, at weddings and funerals.
“Research has shown that even in these civil or humanist ceremonies, which are not religious in the traditional sense at all, the people organising them still want the Lord’s Prayer or a hymn, or some religious music, somewhere in the proceedings.
“So there’s a tremendous mixture in our current cultural life: it’s not a matter of whether we’re religious or secular, it’s mixed. And that mixed factor, it seems to me, is precisely the result of our cultural heritage.”
Yet, in modern Britain – a highly sensitive society where anybody can be instantly ‘cancelled’ for saying something that in some perceived way offends somebody else – strict laws that prohibit blasphemy against other religions which have become, through
immigration, an integral part of Britain, do not seem to apply to our home faith of Christianity.
Jokes, jibes and insults – which would be prosecuted and punished if made against other monotheistic religions – appear to be tolerated, encouraged even, when it comes to followers of the Christian faith.
As Faith Museum curator Amina – whose name, appropriately, means faithful – puts it: “There are more Christians being persecuted today than there were in the days of the Roman Empire.”
Amina’s comment serves to highlight the paradox of religion, for though, as the Faith Museum shows, it was the Roman prefect Pontius Pilate who ordered the crucifixion which led to the establishment of Christian-ity, it was also the Romans who brought that religion to our shores.
That paradox continues today as religion struggles to remain relevant in secular, modern-day Britain. Amina hopes that visitors to the Faith Museum “will come away thinking, ‘I hadn’t realised how important faith was’ in both the history of Britain and in Britain today”.
The opening of this museum might be an opportune time to reconsider the role of faith within British life, and to acknowledge that, regardless of our own personal beliefs or lack of them, it can still be a power for good – but also, in the wrong hands, for the most appalling evil.
● For more information, visit: