BY LAUREN KAWAM
LONDON — Michael Shrewsbury speaks to us with a faint smile in his eyes. We can see that he’s proud to be a prebendary at St. Paul’s Cathedral. He conducts services and plays an administrative role at this Anglican cathedral, which crowns the highest point in London.
His blue eyes gleam in the midday sunlight that filters through the stained-glass windows lining the cathedral’s nave. He is really enjoying talking with a group of budding journalists about religion.
In the middle of a sentence recounting the brief history of how he got involved with St. Paul’s, a woman’s voice comes over the loudspeaker announcing there will be a prayer. I can’t tell if she has a heartbeat or if she’s pre-recorded, but her voice is soothing and deep. She kindly asks churchgoers to take their seats and remain silent for a few minutes.
Michael reluctantly sits down, not because he doesn’t want to pray but because he’s eager to teach our willing minds. I can see his neck muscles move as he recites the Lord’s Prayer to himself. I can ever-so-faintly hear his voice whistle as he says “trespasses.” He moves his head slightly from one side to another, moving with the motion of the words, his thin gray hair never out of place.
He finishes and scurries off because he’s speaking at tonight’s evensong, a daily service of prayers and hymns usually sung by the cathedral’s all-male choir. He must prepare and dress for the service.
We go our separate ways while we wait for evensong to start. Some of us would rather be sleeping or visiting a pub, while others relish our visit to such a beautiful building with such a beautiful purpose.
As I stroll around the cathedral, I think about religion and what it is meant to do in our lives.
I think about how some people rebuke religion as a man-made fluke, while others revere it as the guiding beacon in their daily lives.
I decide to do a story on what religion is meant to do in our lives. I’ll ask people of various religions and record their answers.
I make a mental note to ask Michael about it after evensong. But first I head to the streets to get a feel for what others think.
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Gunjan Kaur, a follower of Sikhism, didn’t take more than a moment to answer the question. She flicks her waist-length black braid and softly says, “Religion guides you to the divine path, which directs you on how to reach a state of peace.”
According to Tonia Thorne, a non-religious Londoner, “Religion gives you faith and a meaning to things.” She follows her 4-year-old godson, Henry, as he starts to walk away from the stroller she has parked at a café table. “It gives us some security, which I don’t have any, and that’s why I’m not religious. It’s also a good way to have a social life, as far as I know. We go to this play group at a Methodist church. They have things like coffee mornings, and that’s a good way to connect.”
Deepa Leelamany, a Hindu, is friends with people of many different religions. For her, religion “is everything. I believe in a supreme God. It helps me to be optimistic in life. I have faith in one God. and that is the purpose of why I am alive. God is always there for me, even tomorrow.”
Oliver Wadsworth, a non-religious man from Brussels, sits outside Al’s Bar and Grill, sipping a pint of Carlsberg. “I think religion is supposed to guide you the right way.” He thinks for a moment, his blue eyes shifting between my face and the sun behind me. “It’s supposed to keep your morals in check and your person-to-person respect there.”
David Smith, verger of Saint Bride’s Church in London, says in a matter-of-fact tone: “We’re here for God’s pleasure. We’re all God’s works of art. Religion helps to remind us human beings to love one another.”
“Growing up in a church, I think it was more a sense of community and a sense of family,” says Brad Bell, a dad from North Carolina who is a follower of Christ. He teases me about being from Arizona, where “only those who can stand the heat survive.” He gets serious for a moment and says, “I don’t know. As far as God in my life, I don’t have an answer for that one.”
“I believe God is one,” says Jasvinder Kaur, a Sikh. She sips tea as she thinks about what she’s going to say next. “It’s all about faith. I have blind faith in my God. Whenever something goes wrong, I pray from my heart, and everything works out.”
Riazat Butt is Muslim and a religious affairs correspondent with The Guardian newspaper in London. She talks with her hands to illustrate her points. When I ask her the question, she has no hesitation: “Religion is meant to provide you with a moral framework in your life that is otherwise lacking…. It is one of the biggest forces for change — good or bad.”
Claudia Haizmann is Christian. She twirls her blonde ponytail as I ask her the question. In her thick German accent, she says, “I believe that Jesus Christ came on the Earth to save our souls, and so I’m glad to know God. It’s good to have faith and feel free.”
London mother Leigh Hodgkinson is not religious. “Religion is meant to give us some hope and make us believe that there’s something bigger out there. When you’re younger, you believe in your parents, and they give you hope and strength. But when you become a grownup, you’re meant to deal with everything yourself. To believe there’s somebody bigger and better than you and they’re looking out for you, it’s kind of a reassuring thing.”
In 2002 the British Broadcasting Corporation asked about religious identity in a census of England, Scotland and Wales. More than 75 percent of respondents said they have a religion. Of those, more than 7 out of 10 called themselves Christian. Islam came in as the second most common faith, with nearly 3 percent identifying themselves as Muslims. The third largest religious group were Hindus, followed by Sikhs, Jews, and Buddhists.
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I catch up with Michael after evensong. I ask him what religion is meant to do in our lives. I think I know what he’s going to say, as he’s involved in daily services and has such an important job at St. Paul’s.
He says easily, as if the words were waiting on the tip of his tongue: “It gives us a whole-purpose framework in which to put things. We’re all here to seek and find truth. God gives us this framework in which to look at things, including truth.”
He smiles, shakes my hand firmly but kindly and walks away. Behind him stands the cavernous bulk of St. Paul’s Cathedral, symbolic of the religious framework that brings meaning to his life and to the lives of countless other believers.