Tag Archives: Darlington

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Not so long ago, when finalising Newcastle-upon-Tyne’s new RE agreed syllabus, my thoughts turned to Darlington’s draft RE agreed syllabus rejected by the SACRE (Standing Advisory Council on RE) as unfit for purpose in April 2014. One of the many complaints levelled at Darlington’s draft syllabus was its failure to take adequate account of the religious diversity in the borough (SACRE members had in mind the number of Jehovah’s Witnesses in the locality, and the immense influence that the Religious Society of Friends/the Quakers had had on the economic and social development of Darlington in the 18th and 19th centuries). But, because part of Summer 2014 had been spent in Mormon-dominated Utah, and because we have had visits at home by Mormon sisters and elders since our return, I now knew that Darlington has a growing Latter-day Saint presence. In fact, Darlington is a Latter-day Saint ward forming part of the Billingham stake, which also includes the wards of Billingham, Middlesbrough and Newton Aycliffe, and the branches of Hartlepool, Peterlee and Redcar. Moreover, there is a Sunderland stake embracing the wards of Gateshead, Newcastle, North Shields, South Shields, Stanley and Sunderland, and which includes the branches of Alnwick and Ashington. Fascinating, don’t you think? It’s so unfortunate that a disproportionate amount of attention is devoted to the so-called “world religions” of Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism when so many other manifestations of religious commitment exist on our doorsteps. We’re inclusive? Pull the other one!

The Temple, Manti, Utah

Temple, Manti, Utah

Just for the record, here are some notes about the Mormons because it surprises me how little people outside the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints know about them.

We walked to vast Temple Square in Salt Lake City and, after being given a talk by two female missionaries that lasted about twenty minutes, began to look around in earnest. We encircled the Temple itself, off-limits to non-Mormons of course, entered the gothic Assembly Hall, listened to an organ recital in the large Tabernacle with its outstanding acoustics, and were given a guided tour of the vast Conference Centre by an elderly man who kindly took us to rooms not generally accessible to all members of the public. The man also took us onto the roof of the Conference Centre with its excellent views in all directions. The roof has many delightful gardens, some that are formal and carefully tended and others that evoke what you might find simply by walking around parts of southern Utah where nature is left to care for itself. We also looked around the two visitor centres on the square and Joseph Smith Memorial Building, the latter a massive and very elegant pile that had been a hotel before the Mormons bought it. We examined the exteriors of Church History Library, Church History Museum, Family History Library, Relief Society Building, Church Office Building, Lion House and Beehive House, the two latter structures dating from 1854 and 1856 respectively. Lion House and Beehive House were originally the homes of Brigham Young, Joseph Smith’s successor as, among other things, prophet and revelator. Brigham Young is also identified in some Mormon literature as “the great coloniser of the West”. Many of the buildings just listed, especially if they are on Temple Square itself, stand among water features, trees and flowerbeds, all of which are kept in enviable condition throughout the year. Just outside Temple Square at its north-east corner is Brigham Young Historic Park, and three blocks west of the Temple is the Latter-day Saints Business College.

Joseph Smith Memorial Building, Salt Lake City, Utah

Joseph Smith Memorial Building, Salt Lake City, Utah

It is the existence of the business college that I found quite enlightening. By the end of our day exploring Mormon Salt Lake City, I could not expunge from my mind the idea that the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints is run like a vast multinational corporation from its headquarters in Utah’s capital. Everything appears to function smoothly and with enviable efficiency, and the Mormons with whom we interacted were admirably cool, calm, collected, polite and helpful. The fact that not one building you visit requires an admission fee is intended, I am confident, to create such a positive impression of Mormonism that non-Mormons will be tempted to convert to the faith either immediately or at some point in the future, but we were not subjected to a hard-sell routine. In fact, to extract information of substance from our Mormon hosts we had to pose the questions ourselves.

It is frequently said that, to fully understand many manifestations of faith in the US, you must interpret them in terms of business operations great or small, because so many manifestations of faith in the US are preoccupied with the generation of money. Mormons are “asked” to donate 10% of their annual income to the Church, and an article on the internet published by NBC News in 2012 estimates that the income from tithing and other donations amounts to about 7 billion dollars per annum. It is said that the Church has about 15 million members worldwide, but the NBC News article suggests that a large number of Mormons do not contribute financially to the degree expected of them. Nonetheless, the Church “owns about 35 billion dollars worth of temples and meeting houses around the world, and controls farms, ranches, shopping malls and other commercial ventures worth many millions more”.

Conference Centre, Salt Lake City, Utah

Conference Centre, Salt Lake City, Utah

We could tell that the Church is not short of money because everything on and around Temple Square looks so immaculate, because the tours and the organ recital are free, because, if you ask them, missionaries will provide you with a free copy of “The Book of Mormon”, and because every Mormon, young, middle-aged or elderly, is dressed in sober but well-tailored clothes. But the middle-aged and elderly men are particularly interesting. They look like successful businessmen or skilled professionals such as lawyers, doctors, accountants or old school (and therefore reliable and honest?) financial advisers. It struck me that, to be a Mormon who bubbles to the top within the Church, your ability to generate money might be more important than your commitment to the doctrines, covenants, rules, traditions and conventions of Mormonism. If I am correct, or even only half correct, about this, we now have an explanation for the existence of the Latter-day Saints Business College, and an explanation for why the ugly block called Church Office Building resembles the headquarters of an immensely profitable, but somewhat secretive, multinational corporation.

Lion House, Salt Lake City, Utah

Lion House, Salt Lake City, Utah

The NBC News article has the following interesting quote from a University of Tampa sociologist called Ryan Cragun:

Most of the revenue of the religion is from the US, and a large percentage comes from an elite cadre of wealthy donors like Mitt Romney. It is a religion that appeals to economically successful men by rewarding their financial acuity with respect and positions of prestige within the religion.

And this is the next thing that is very obvious about Mormonism: it is a male-dominated faith in which males hold all the most senior, important or powerful positions. It subscribes to outdated ideas about gender differences and therefore assigns to males and females markedly different roles within the family, the Church and wider society itself. True, polygamy has long been outlawed among mainstream Mormons, but the patriarchal nature of the faith from its inception helps explain why such marital arrangements were once encouraged, and are still encouraged among a statistically small number of “dissenting” Mormons in the US.

Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Utah

Temple Square, Salt Lake City, Utah

By the end of the day I was of the opinion that the expression of faith that Mormonism most resembles is none other than that of the Roman Catholic Church (although members of the all-male Mormon priesthood, known variously as bishops, stake presidents or high priests, are allowed to marry). Both manifestations of faith seem preoccupied with accumulating wealth and property, both have sometimes alarming ideas about sex and gender, both are intensely patriarchal in their structure, both have rigidly hierarchical lines of command from the top, both discourage ideas or actions that do not conform with long-held tradition, and both are secretive or evasive about some of the things that inspire the most curiosity among outsiders.

Joseph Smith Memorial Building, Salt Lake City, Utah

Joseph Smith Memorial Building, Salt Lake City, Utah

Back home I learned that Mormons prefer to call themselves Latter-day Saint people, or LDS people for short. They therefore prefer to say “LDS people believe…” rather than “Latter-day Saints believe…” I also learned that bishops oversee a congregation, stake presidents oversee a group of congregations in a particular geographical area (such an area therefore resembles a diocese in some Christian denominations) and priests divide into two types, Aaronic and Melchizedek. Inevitably, I found the last point, with its echo with Judaism in the distant past, very interesting.

Temple, Salt lake City, Utah

Temple, Salt Lake City, Utah

But back, briefly, to the buildings themselves. The Assembly Hall dates from 1882 and has been conceived in a most appealing gothic style with white spires and stained glass windows. The organ in the Tabernacle is enormous and generates an awesome sound. The Temple itself was built between 1853 and 1893 and, from certain angles, presents onlookers with an impressive collection of pretty spires, themselves in a muted gothic style. One of the spires is crowned with a gold-coloured statue of Moroni. The Conference Centre has an auditorium with no columns obscuring views of the stage, but it nonetheless seats 21,000 people. When you remember that the roof has a garden with four acres of flowers and trees, and a waterfall cascades down the south façade, you begin to realise that the structure is a remarkable engineering feat. North Visitor Centre has an imposing eleven foot marble Christus statue that Mormon families love to stand in front of so they can have their picture taken (the walls and ceiling of the room containing the statue have a vast mural of the universe as a backdrop), two art galleries, an interactive map of Jerusalem, interactive exhibits on scripture and revelation, and the “God’s Plan for His Family” exhibit. It is here that it becomes apparent that Mormons see the world through the perspective of prosperous white male heterosexuals. Some of the paintings depicting scenes about important events involving Jewish people in the distant past are more often than not full of men, women and children who look as if they originate from England, Germany or Scandinavia rather than the Middle East. This said, such people are suitably dressed in clothes that might have been worn by extras in old biblical epics such as “Ben Hur”.

Christus statue, North Visitor Centre, Salt Lake City, Utah

Christus statue, North Visitor Centre, Salt Lake City, Utah

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Religion and Belief in the UK, with an emphasis on Darlington in North-East England.

Now let’s engage with some realities about religion and belief in contemporary Britain. Without engaging with such realities, posts on the blog run the risk of being no better than much of the nonsense about religion and belief that currently clogs up the internet.

According to the 2011 UK census, 67.2% of British citizens have a religious commitment, 25.7% do not subscribe to a religion and 7.1% did not state whether they had a religion or not. The same census suggests that 59.5% of UK citizens are Christian, 4.5% are Muslim, 1.3% are Hindu, 0.7% are Sikh, 0.4% are Jewish and 0.4% are Buddhist. 0.4% subscribe to “other religion”, but a breakdown by faith for this group does not exist (however, we can assume that the number of people subscribing to each faith in this group is very small). This means that about 37.5 million UK citizens are meant to be Christian, 2.7 million are meant to be Muslim, 835,000 are meant to be Hindu, 432,000 are meant to be Sikh, 269,000 are meant to be Jewish and 261,000 are meant to be Buddhist. I say are “meant to be” Christian, etc. because statistics about religious affiliation are known to be extremely unreliable. As a general rule, such statistics significantly exaggerate the true level of faith commitment.

The discrepancy between the level of religious affiliation as revealed in censuses (and in smaller surveys not national in scope) on the one hand and the reality about religious affiliation on the other is perhaps most obvious in terms of how many UK citizens engage in regular attendance at a house of worship (not that attendance at a house of worship, regular or otherwise, is the only way to measure commitment to religious belief, although statisticians and academics accept that it is one of the more reliable such measures). Every week, about 5 million Christians attend a church, about 2 million Muslims attend a mosque, about half a million Hindus attend a mandir, about 300,000 Sikhs attend a gurdwara, about 150,000 Jews attend a synagogue and about 150,000 Buddhists attend a temple, a monastery or a centre where devotional practices can be undertaken. But what of the other faith groups in the UK, small though they are numerically? For example, what of the Bahais or people who subscribe to faiths such as Chinese Religion (a complex fusion of Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism which is sometimes called Buddhism for the sake of simplicity), Rastafarianism, Jainism, Zoroastrianism, Shintoism or Animism (which assumes many forms, especially in parts of Africa and Asia)? And what of people who subscribe to the various forms of faith known collectively as Paganism? In fact, North-East England has a number of well-known pagan “centres” such as Allenheads and parts of North Northumberland. Note, also, that a leading follower of Paganism lives in Newton Aycliffe. She has campaigned to have Paganism taught alongside the other religions which maintained schools in England and Wales must teach to pupils and students (Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism and Sikhism).

Surveys and censuses suggest that religious commitment is higher than attendance at houses of worship because:

  • attendance at houses of worship is not the only way that commitment to religion manifests itself;
  • many people say that they have a religious commitment because they have been baptised in a church or married in a house of worship, or because they occasionally attend an act of worship, perhaps during a major festival such as Easter, Christmas, Wesak, Divali, Eid-ul-Fitr, Pesach or Baisakhi;
  • although most people seem to retain a belief in God/gods/supernatural forces creating/shaping the cosmos, etc., they may not feel that organised religion shares the same ideas that they have about the divine/spiritual, or that organised religion pays homage to the divine/spiritual in an appropriate manner;
  • many people lie about their religious affiliation.

Surveys and censuses may exaggerate the true level of religious commitment in the UK – we are said to be among the most godless of societies, but still some way behind our Scandinavian neighbours who are acknowledged to be among the most atheistic peoples on the planet (North Korea, which is even more godless than the Scandinavian nation states, is a special case, of course, in that it is technically an atheist state in which religion is discouraged, sometimes brutally. There is evidence that a very small number of courageous North Koreans subscribe to Korean Shamanism, Chondoism, Buddhism and Christianity, but the great majority of North Koreans define themselves as atheist or agnostic. Only Chondoism has official status in the nation state) – but religion is still a potent force. Note, for example, that:

  • the Anglican Church is still the established church;
  • the monarch must be a practising member of the Anglican Church;
  • legislation passed through the Parliament a few years ago making it unlawful to discriminate against people on the grounds of their religion or belief;
  • it still counts in many parts of the UK if you have a faith commitment (c.f. the persistence of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, Western Scotland, Glasgow, Liverpool and even some parts of North-East England. Thankfully, sectarianism is less of a problem now than it was even ten years ago);
  • there are approximately 7,000 faith schools in the UK (out of a total of nearly 21,000);
  • a third of all maintained schools are faith schools (the vast majority of such schools are Anglican or Roman Catholic, but a small number are Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Hindu, Greek Orthodox, Seventh Day Adventist or belong to the Religious Society of Friends/the Quakers, etc.);
  • about 600 faith schools are secondary schools (again, almost all such schools are Anglican or Roman Catholic);
  • of all the academies now open, a third have a faith designation;
  • when a moral or ethical issue is debated, the opinion is always sought of those who have a faith commitment;
  • some faith groups are very competent when campaigning for causes dear to their hearts and know how to ensure that their points of view are listened to/heard;
  • in some schools across the country, creationism is taught as fact;
  • in maintained schools, RE must be offered to all pupils and students from Reception to age 16 or 18 (but parents can withdraw their children from RE);
  • in maintained schools, a daily act of collective worship must be provided to all pupils and students. According to the law, the act of collective worship must be “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character” (parents can withdraw their children from acts of collective worship, as can sixth form students. But, according to the law, schools should provide withdrawn children with an alternative act of collective worship which isn’t “wholly or mainly of a broadly Christian character”).

Earlier, we learned that there are many different religions represented in the UK today. However, it is important to realise that, within each religion, there may be divisions/schisms/denominations that should be acknowledged. Take, for example, Christianity. Even in Darlington, a borough of about only 100,000 people, we have:

Anglicans, Assembly of God Pentecostalists, Baptists, Congregationalists, Eastern Orthodox Christians (c.f. St. Cedd’s Eastern Orthodox Chapel, West Auckland Road), the Religious Society of Friends/the Quakers, Methodists, Plymouth Brethren, Roman Catholics, Salvationists, United Reformed Christians, etc.

But on the margins of Christianity we also have:

Christian Scientists, Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints people (the latter two in numbers that are statistically significant locally).

Darlington

Darlington, United Kingdom

If we were discussing Newcastle-upon-Tyne we would also draw attention to Greek Orthodox, Ethiopian/Coptic Christian, Seventh Day Adventist and Lutheran communities.

Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

Within some denominations there are divisions that make co-operation problematic. There is a world of difference, especially in terms of practice, between, say, services in St. Cuthbert’s in Darlington’s town centre (a traditional “mainstream” Anglican church. Such churches are sometimes dubbed the home of the “frozen chosen”), St. James the Great (a Forward in Faith church more Roman Catholic than the Roman Catholic Church) and an Anglican church where charismatic elements of worship prevail (such churches are sometimes dubbed the home of the “happy clappers”). A few years ago, the congregation at St. James the Great split (relatively amicably) and about half the congregation eventually relocated to a church in Gainford as part of the Personal Ordinariate of our Lady of Walsingham, which was established in 2011 by Pope Benedict XVI to allow Anglicans to enter full communion with the Roman Catholic Church while retaining much of their heritage and many of their traditions (the Ordinariate has appealed to Anglicans, but in numbers smaller than originally anticipated, worried that the Church of England would eventually ordain women as bishops, which it eventually did, of course). But differences in belief persist, even among the remaining Anglicans. For example, some Anglican congregations remain opposed to the ordination of women (because of biblical example and/or tradition) and to homosexuality (because of how they interpret scripture), while other Anglican congregations are energetically supportive of the former and cannot understand why there is such a fuss about the latter.

Similar divisions/schisms/schools may exist in other faiths. Thus:

within Judaism there are Haredi Jews (sometimes called Ultra-Orthodox Jews. C.f. Gateshead), Hassidic Jews (Hassidism is a product of Jewish mysticism dating back to the medieval period, but, today, in their belief and practice, Hassidic Jews are not far removed from Haredi Jews), Modern Orthodox Jews, Reform Jews and Liberal Jews, and

within Islam there are Sunni, Shia, Sufi and Ishmaeli Muslims.

Especially in Islam, you encounter within some sects/schisms a range of views/approaches to life not dissimilar to the range of views/approaches to life within a Christian denomination. Sunni Islam is a good example of this. The great majority of Sunni Muslims incline toward a pragmatic live and let live outlook on life in general, which means that they are not dogmatic and tolerate diversity. But a minority of Sunni Muslims have been influenced by the austere Wahhabi ideology of Saudi Arabia with its inflexible outlook on life shaped by a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an. Wahhabism has strongly influenced groups such as the Taliban in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and we all know what Taliban rule did for individual and civil rights generally, and women’s rights more specifically, when the movement held power in most of Afghanistan.

Jewish Burial Plot, Carmel Road North Cemetery, Darlington

Jewish Burial Plot, Carmel Road North Cemetery, Darlington, United Kingdom

Darlington may be a fairly small town, but its population is ethnically mixed and, as a result, its faith diversity is perhaps greater than many people imagine. Beside having a multiplicity of Christian denominations, and various groups on the fringes of Christianity which increasingly prefer to be defined as distinct religions (this is especially the case with Jehovah’s Witnesses and Latter-day Saints), we have Buddhists, Hindus, Jews, Muslims, Sikhs and followers of various manifestations of Paganism (c.f. in particular Druidry). The Atisha Buddhist Centre, the Sikh gurdwara and the mosque all welcome visits from groups/individuals in the wider community and regularly engage in events designed to foster mutual understanding. Sadly, our synagogue on Bloomfield Road very rarely opens – the Jewish community is in terminal decline – but a visit to the beautiful cemetery on Carmel Road North reveals not one but two burial plots for the town’s Jewish dead, thereby confirming that Darlington once had a significant Jewish presence. All the town’s small number of Hindu families have a shrine in the home in front of which they can engage in ritual worship/puja twice or more often a day, but, if they wish to worship in a mandir assisted by a pandit, they must travel to Middlesbrough or Newcastle-upon-Tyne.

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

Hindu Mandir, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

By the way: an interesting statistic from across the UK. Today, well over 2,000 churches have predominantly black or non-white congregations. Yes: Christianity, the religion intimately associated with the UK for the last 1,400 years, is increasingly sustained by people who originate from nation states in Africa, Asia or the Caribbean. White people in growing numbers are turning their backs on organised religion or joining one of the religions which have been brought into the UK by migrant communities. Sheffield has been identified as the city where whites are most likely to convert to Islam, and a group such as ISKCON (International Society for Krishna Consciousness, perhaps better known as the Hare Krishna Group) is almost wholly dependent on white converts to sustain its membership/public profile. Moreover, although the Bahai faith has its origins in modern Iran and reached our shores in significant numbers only in the early 1980s when persecuted Iranian Bahais fled their homeland following the Islamic revolution led by Khomeini, the great majority of UK Bahais are white converts. North-East England has emerged as an important area for the Bahai faith nationally.

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne

ISKCON Centre, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, United Kingdom

P.S. If anyone wishes to write about the rich diversity of religion and belief that exists in their home town/locality/region/nation state, by all means do so and send me the result: it may be worth uploading to the blog. Alternatively, if someone wishes to write a post devoted to explaining what their religion or belief is all about (perhaps in terms of beliefs, practices, approaches to moral decision-making, sources of authority, etc., etc.), by all means do so! Such posts will, if nothing else, contribute to mutual understanding – but, where appropriate, please support what you say with reference to scripture, key texts, reputable research, historical evidence, etc., etc.

P.P.S. Yes, I know we are lucky to have a lively humanist presence in North-East England. My links with the humanists are mostly via North-East Humanists itself, but I also know some members of the British Humanist Association. A post about Humanism would be welcome at some point! It’s a belief system which does not get the exposure it deserves (but humanists frequently engage with interfaith endeavours in a highly constructive manner).