Canterbury, Greensted and Europe’s Largest Guru Nanak Gurdwara

This is a transcript of episode 26 of our podcast series A History of England in 100 Places. Join Dr Suzannah Lipscomb, Very Reverend Dr David Ison, Dr Joe Flatman, Remona Aly, Hazel Southam, Preet Kaur Gill and Jatinder Singh as we continue our journey through the history of faith and belief in England.

A History of England in 100 Places is sponsored by Ecclesiastical

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Voiceover:
This is a Historic England podcast sponsored by Ecclesiastical Insurance Group.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Hello I'm Dr Suzannah Lipscomb of the University of Roehampton and you're listening to Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places.

In this series we're uncovering the amazing places which have helped make England the country it is today.

10 expert judges are choosing from thousands of your nominations to find the 100 places which best tell England's story.

Before we dive into more of our Faith & Belief top 10, please do leave a review and a rating for this show on iTunes, so more people can hear about it and hopefully enjoy it.

You can also join us in the conversation online using #100 places.

Here with me in the studio are Historic England's Dr Joe Flatman, and journalists Remona Ali and Hazel Southam.

Welcome to you all. Thank you for joining me.

Together we will be looking through more of our category Judge's, The Very Rev Dr David Ison, selections for England's Faith & Belief story.

We begin this episode with location 4 on our list of the top 10 Faith & Belief locations in England. David Ison told us why he selected Canterbury Cathedral, along with the nearby St Martins Church.

David Ison:
I was looking for something, which summed up the long historic connection between England and the tradition of Catholic Christianity.

It was a place where the Roman missionaries first came because they had connections with the wife of the King of Kent, so they knew they had a sympathetic hearing and people at Court who would look out for them.

There is that continual tradition of usage as a Christian church and Cathedral since the end of the 500s- that is a very, very long time. Also the way in which the Roman Catholic Church came into this country and gradually became more formalised as the church of the nation, although that took a couple of hundred years to achieve.

The other side of Canterbury is that in the more modern world, because of the development of the British Empire and the way in which the Anglican Church spread around the Empire, it does have a world-wide location. The Church of England is very proud of its links, which are now mutual links rather than "we are the Mother Church of the Empire"! These are the links that we have with independent Anglican churches around the world.

One of the other reasons for choosing Canterbury of course is because it has that essence of what is a church's relationship with the state. So there are times when the state challenges the church about the way it's not doing things, as it should. The Victorians were very good at reforming the church and making it more fit for purpose, and quite rightly so.

There were also times when the church challenges the state and says actually what you are doing is not caring for those in need in the community. One example would be during Mrs Thatcher's government in the 1980s, when the publication of the report Faith in the City, led by the Archbishop Robert Runcie, was seen as a challenge to the policies of the then government. It created a lot of thinking about where are we going socially and some very good work was done in engaging with poor people particularly in cities to try and change the quality of life. But Canterbury Cathedral is also the site of the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas à Becket- a reminder of the dangers of interacting with power.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Canterbury Cathedral is a World Heritage site and rightly so, because it is one of England's most famous Christian buildings. It is the Cathedral of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the leader of the Church of England and therefore the capital of English Christianity. In addition, the shrine to Thomas Becket here has been an important site for pilgrims for generations. It is still visited by floods of people every year.

The building as we see it is a vast and beautiful Gothic structure, which was built after a fire destroyed the original cathedral, founded in 597.

We heard in our last episode how Roman monks were sent as missionaries to England to spread the word of Christianity. Today let's pick up that story and hear about what happened in Canterbury in 597 AD.

Hazel Southam:
So this is a monk called Augustine who comes to the UK, comes to England, and is made welcome by the local King. King Ethelbert was okay about Christian missionaries and so gives him St Martin's Church, which is still part of the World Heritage site that's around the Cathedral today. He is the guy who establishes the cathedral.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
How has the building changed through the centuries?

Joe Flatman:
It's constantly been evolving, and that's why I think it's such a fantastic example for this podcast. That sense of it being a bit like a Russian doll. Starting off really quite a modest church in the Saxon period and that grows a bit and grows a bit and then it has this horrible fire in the 11th century, then it is rebuilt and that grows. And it just keeps growing and changing and growing and changing. We carry on doing it. We have to remember these days that even a big building like that, it might look a bit static, but actually it is constantly being repaired. It is a gigantic exemplar of all the Parish churches and all of the religious buildings pretty much anywhere in the world, which change constantly. If you are going to use them, you have to use them. By using them you're constantly changing them.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
It is extraordinary isn't it that it has been a place of worship and a house of prayer for 1400 years. So you have got that sense that people are turning up with all their fears and hopes and beliefs that have been in this space and stood on this holy ground.

Remona Aly:
You really feel it when you visit there, that it was the nucleus of the community, of life, of the economy, of everything. No wonder there are nearly a million visitors that visit the cathedral every year. So you really get that sense of dynamic history.

Hazel Southam:
You also get that feeling of the prayers said by people, ordinary people like us with hopes and fears and worries and concerns, down the ages. I think that then means you can bring your own prayers into that space, especially as you get up to the shrine of Thomas Becket, which I know you'll talk about.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Yes, let's talk about Thomas Becket. One of Canterbury's most famous Archbishops. What happened to him, poor bloke?

Hazel Southam:
So he was good mates with Henry II. That's a good thing, but it turned out to be a bad thing because they had different views about the power of the clergy, the reach of the clergy. So this is not a new argument. You might have heard it in the newspapers in recent years, and it's been going on a while.

During this long-running debate it is said, that the king said, "who will rid me of this turbulent priest?" So because he was king, some of his knights took that very seriously and went to Canterbury Cathedral and killed Becket.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Actually, that phrase has been passed down in history. It turns out to be incorrect. Henry actually said, slightly less catchy, "what miserable drones and traitors have I nurtured and promoted in my household who let their lord be treated with such shameful contempt by a low-born cleric". Obviously it was enough to set them on him.

Henry probably thought he was safe in that he made Thomas Becket, a priest one day then he was made Archbishop the next. So he thought this is our great ally that I can rely on. But very quickly became a thorn in Henry's side about, yes, the power of the clergy, predating even the Reformation and whether Henry could anoint the next king and all the rest of it. But I don't think that Henry necessarily meant this. Actually he became a bit of a pariah for ordering Becket's execution. So people go don't they, to Becket's tomb?

Hazel Southam:
They do. I can remember when I went first time I took my mother and I didn't really know what to expect. We walked round the corner, and kaboom! The emotion hits you because it's very, very simple. On the place that he is said to have been killed, there is just a candle lit. It is fantastically arresting, really.
Some shrines can be a little overdone, can't they, in my humble opinion.

Joe Flatman:
I don't know where you're suggesting?

Remona Aly:
No idea. Nowhere in mind at all! This is underplayed and because of that it just speaks volumes. So I stood there for a long time.

What I like about this story is that, didn't Henry go himself as one of the first pilgrims, as a way of penance?

Suzannah Lipscomb:
That's right, he walked barefoot to Canterbury allowing himself to be whipped by monks. Henry did mind that this had happened. He didn't intend for it to happen, I don't think. So yes, he was one of the first to go on pilgrimage.

Hazel Southam:
I think modern day leaders could take a note out of that book…

Remona Aly:
Our politicians could be whipped, barefoot?

Hazel Southam:
Yes! Go on pilgrimage, barefoot as a means of apologising, or not apologising…

Suzannah Lipscomb:
We also need to talk about another Archbishop of Canterbury, some 40 years after Becket, Archbishop Stephen Langton. He also fell out with his King, King John in this case, and played an important role in establishing our nation's constitutional code, such as it is. What is this all about?

Hazel Southam:
This takes us really to the heart of the relationship between church and state, as we have been talking about, a slightly tricky relationship at times. But there is this moment of triumph where the two sides work together to establish the Magna Carta. The Magna Carta really gives us our laws, if you like, about personal freedom and human rights- the things we have today. So it is a pretty important document.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Yes, I think that is fair to say. Remona, do you think that religious buildings still play an important part in broken relationships between people's faith and their sense about rights, their own rights?

Remona Aly:
Yeah, picking up on the Magna Carta being really important in 1215- there are parallels for me with the Muslim faith. In the 7th century there was also a charter that spelled out the rights and the beliefs and equal rights for the community in Medina. The Prophet Muhammad actually established that. It is called the Charter of Medina, where the pagans and the Jews of the city and the Muslims all kind of came under one umbrella of one community. So for me that is a model of pluralism and it is like the Magna Carta of the 7th century.

Hazel Southam:
Places like mosques, like cathedrals are safe spaces aren't they? They are public spaces. They are places you can go to have a conversation about broader issues, because everybody is welcome to come.

Remona Aly:
Even in the Prophet Muhammad's first mosque he invited a delegation of Christians to pray in there, while the Muslims were praying as well. That happens with churches. For me, I know so many Uncles who prayed in churches when they first arrived in the UK from the Indian subcontinent because there were no mosques. So you have this beautiful harmony of different faiths and people praying in the same space, because it's all sacred.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Well we are sticking with churches for our next location. This is one of the world's oldest timber churches, in fact, possibly the world's oldest wooden church. It's certainly the oldest known timber building in England.

It is a very special little building. It is St Andrews Church at Greensted in Essex, just outside Chipping Ongar.

Like so many of our parish churches in England, St Andrews Church Greensted is among the country's oldest extant buildings, having been refined by years of worshippers. It has been adapted, adjusted, added to, and altered for over 1000 years.

It is thought there was a building of Christian worship here as far back as the 5th and 6th centuries, when St Cedd tried to convert the Saxon people to the Christian faith. This is what David Ison said about it.

David Ison:
I was delighted to see Greensted Parish Church in there because I grew up in Brentwood in Essex, not very far away. I can remember as an older child cycling out to Greensted and enjoying the beauty of this very humble, but amazing historic church with these split log walls that go back to the Anglo-Saxon period.

I had to choose this one because it was the only representative that made it high up on the list of a parish church, and it is a very good representative. They have been community hubs for hundreds and hundreds of years. The church building would be the only community building in the village and was used for all kinds of things. It was used for people to sleep in: people who were wanting to be healed would stay there. The priests might put their cattle in there, or the village would store its leftover harvest produce. They would have booze-ups and parties in there to raise money for the church building! Nothing new about that…

So they were the community buildings. So they have got a huge importance as the reservoirs of history of our communities.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
It is a remarkable looking building. If you haven't seen it, Google it now. It is like nothing I have ever seen in England. Describe it for us, Joe?

Joe Flatman:
It really doesn't quite bear the resemblance to any church anywhere. In fact if you look at it, apart from the fact that it's got a tower with a steeple at one end, you might conceivably think it's more of a barn or perhaps some sort of farm building, which isn't to disrespect it in any way.

There would have been timber churches like this up and down the country for thousands and thousands of years, but one by one they got replaced. This is just an extraordinarily rare survival.

The peace and sense of sanctity if you do go in there…Again it's one of those things where it changes with the seasons, like any wood building. If you go in the depths of winter, you have got much more sense of that dark timber space. In summer time you'll get that smell of the timber, or nowadays some sort of polish and the cleaning of things these days.

It is a very modest, but for that, very lovely building. It is such an interesting contrast with Canterbury where originally Canterbury would have been like this. You get the sense that actually, Canterbury just grew, and grew, and grew, out from this.

Essex has got this incredibly long religious history and I like the fact it's kind of a hidden corner of an expected county.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Also, as well as the timber part of course there's a brick and stone part, where you can spy historic graffiti. Hazel- you've been thinking about graffiti recently?

Hazel Southam:
I have, yes. I was paying attention at church, when they were given the notices, and I learnt that there was mediaeval graffiti in our church building- our church dates back to 1142. There are some horsemen and we are on the Pilgrims Way, so they could have been horsemen going to Canterbury couldn't they really? Let's extemporise!

There was a beautiful bird and there are lots and lots of circles, which were meant to ward off witches and the devil. That is important because the city was absolutely devastated by plague. So it lost half the population and didn't recover for 500 years. So the theory goes, if you have got something to say and you know that everything around you is just likely to vanish in a moment, your life could just go, then you will leave your mark on the only substantial building that there is, which is the church.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Which must explain why people have carved their names into St Andrews as well, into the bricks there.

Are there any famous connections with this church, or is it simply, do you think, an example of the sort of building in which ordinary, unsung people would have worshipped?

Joe Flatman:
It's a story of the famous and the not so famous. It is so often the story of these parish churches that you will have an incredible sense of local people and local community, but then quite often you will have a name pop up. So people might well recognise the name Sir Edmund, England's first patron saint. It is said that his body, after martyrdom, rested fairly close to here, probably, let's be honest, at the church. There is a small arch panel and some stained glass from the 16th century in the church. Then 300, 400 years later, you have got some of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, these farm workers who were part of early labour protests. They've got connections to the church. You have really got that continuity of generation by generation feeding through on the site.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
I'm sure that's true of every parish church to an extent as well. The story of the local parish church is woven into our history.

What's remarkable about this building is you won't see anything like it anywhere else in England, frankly. It's hidden away. It is this unassuming village in Essex, but it's unique. It is rare that a timber building has survived this long. But in this case, it's because it's been loved by generations of worshippers.

Joe Flatman:
And you can get a steam train there from the end of the tube, to Epping Ongar, then you can walk along to it. So you can ride on the steam train to walk through a village lane, to get to a church hidden in a little glade of trees.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
What's not to like?

Joe Flatman:
Absolutely.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Let's add that to our list of things to do!

For location number 7, let's take a look at one of the many other faiths that make up England's complex journey. For this location we're journeying to Birmingham to visit the Guru Nanak Gurdwara in Smethwick.

Sikhism has its origins in the 16th century in the Punjab region of what is modern-day India and Pakistan. The leader Guru Nanak and his teachings are embodied in the scripture called the, 'Guru Granth Sahib'.

There are over 336,000 Sikhs living in the UK today. The community of those who have been initiated into the faith are known as the Khalsa.

The UK Sikh population especially increased in the 1950s and 60s, when Sikhs from Punjab in north-west India sought work and life abroad following the divisions created by the British Colonial war of India and the trauma of Partition. Many Sikhs came to Britain to settle in areas like London, Birmingham, and West Yorkshire, where industrial work was available.

Smethwick's Gurdwara was built in the 1990s and continues to expand with Smethwick's Sikh community. The centre of worship houses one of the largest congregations in the UK and is the biggest Gurdwara in Europe.

David selected this building as a piece of architecture that represents both community faith and the spread of diverse religions throughout England.

David Ison:
The Gurdwara in Smethwick is a representative of the way in which the faiths of the Empire have come back into England. It is not a new phenomenon. The Gurdwara is a late 20th century building and still being worked on. It represents a tradition of a few hundred years where people have come and brought other faiths in this country, many of which have been part of the social fabric here for at least a century and often much longer than that.

There is an identification between the faith and the community and that is different from generally how we imagine faith and belief to be now in modern Britain, it's something that you individually choose.

Preet Kaur Gill is MP for Birmingham Edgbaston and this building is particularly important to her.

Preet Kaur Gill:
I'm Preet Kaur Gill. I'm the Member of Parliament for Birmingham Edgbaston and I'm here at the Guru Nanak Gurdwara Smethwick. This is very close to my heart- it's where I have been as a child, where I grew up. I came to this Gurdwara- my father was President here for 18 years. Today we're going to meet the current President, which is Jatinder Singh.

Hi, how are you?

Jatinder Singh:
All right thank you very much.

Preet Kaur Gill:
We are here in the Langar Hall?

Jatinder Singh:
Langar Hall is a free community kitchen for everyone. Anyone can come in to the hall as long as they've got their head covered, their shoes off and they're not intoxicated, they can l come in and enjoy a free meal. It's open to anyone, whether they worship here or not.

As you can hear in the background, there are women who are chanting their God's name. They are cooking the Langar.

Preet Kaur Gill:
How many meals do you think you serve here a week?

Jatinder Singh:
We have 10,000 meals served here to people from all walks of life.

Preet Kaur Gill:
That's amazing! And times that by 250 Gurdwaras in the country- that's the amount of free food being served through free donation by the community isn't it?

Jatinder Singh:
Yes, absolutely. It's the concept that our gurus have set up and it started in Punjab and spread throughout the world.

Preet Kaur Gill:
Can you tell us what a typical day for a President looks like?

Jatinder Singh:
A big part of it now is engaging with people. People's concerns might range from something that is in the Gurdwara to something that is personal to them. Everyone is in a safe environment and everyone is looked after.

Preet Kaur Gill:
So many people centre their daily lives and where they come to live, around this Gurdwara. How would you describe this Gurdwara?

Jatinder Singh:
I think this Gurdwara…number one it's a gateway to Sandwell from Birmingham. It is an iconic building. It is a landmark building. It is a historic building. It is a spiritual building. It means so much to thousands and thousands of people, whether they have moved out of the area, they are still connected to it.

When it was originally built in 1837, since then and up to now, over 150 years, God's name in some way or form has been meditated. It is something we are proud of and it will carry on for years, and years and centuries to come.

The community grew in this area with God's grace. We have developed, not just as a building, but as a community as well. So we have added a function hall, which is used for various functions, weddings. I think there's about 8 classrooms, modern, up-to-date, teaching the Punjabi language. There is also a lecture theatre, which holds up to 80 people. We are registered as a hate crime-reporting centre for everyone, not just the Sikh community.

Preet Kaur Gill:
It's fascinating. You just described the integral parts of Sikhism embodied by this building. You have certainly talked about the classrooms and learning.

I remember when I came here to learn Punjabi at the age of 6.

Jatinder Singh:
There is something going on at the Gurdwara for every age. Whether it's something for elderly gentlemen, or elderly ladies, young children, there is something here for every age.

There are various classes happening, whether it's fitness, health related, yoga, youth clubs, every part of the building is being used in some way or form for the benefit of the community.

Preet Kaur Gill:
We are sitting here in the Langar Hall but we can actually hear the prayers in the main hall-taking place. We can hear the ladies praying in the kitchen as they are preparing food. We see people enjoying the food and also listening to such an immensely spiritual environment.

What has been absolutely fascinating is how Sikhism as a modern religion is giving back in so many different ways. It has evolved so much from being just a place of worship to being a place of haven for so many different aspects of our communities.

Jatinder Singh:
I think you've summed it up. Welcoming, accepting and respecting.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Community is a core part of the Sikh faith, so it's no surprise that buildings like this are an important focal point. There is something about these buildings being so important to a sense of belonging, isn't there Remona?

Remona Aly:
For sure. There are about 200 Gurdwaras now in the UK and it really speaks of that sense of belonging and identity and community that is here. Actually the Sikh-Anglo history goes back a bit further, to the 19th century, where you had the Maharani Jind Kaur who resisted the British. Then you have her granddaughter who was on a British stamp as a suffragette. So I love that transition! It was Sofia Dalip Singh who was the suffragette and her father was Dalip Singh who was brought to Britain, became an Anglican and is buried in Suffolk. So it is a really fascinating story. He actually eventually came back to Sikhism but it is a very, very interesting history that Sikhs have in the UK.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
I suppose it suggests something about the way in which faith is very important to think of in this communal sense, not just as individuals. Perhaps there is something in that, that makes faith provide a sort of soul solution for the disconnect, from our fragmented, atomised, anxious, metropolitan lifestyles. What do you think?

Hazel Southam:
Definitely. There was a moment a few weeks ago, where I was feeling a little stressed. I looked at my Fitbit, and it said my heart rate was 118 bpm. I thought, I can't tell you what I thought. I thought, oh dear, or something close to that, and that made me feel more stressed. Then I remembered all of the stories I've written down the years about how prayer has been medically proven to make you feel better. So I went and got my Bible and I read my Bible for 5 minutes, then I prayed for 5 minutes, so really brief. Then I looked at my Fitbit and my heart rate was 64, which is my normal resting heartbeat, in 5 minutes. So it just proves that we all need a little bit of time out, which places of worship give us. Whether we go in for the worship or we go in individually, quietly in the week ourselves, just to reflect and to get away from all the stresses of day-to-day life and put them down.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
I think that is absolutely true of prayer. I think it's also worth reflecting specifically it seems that the Sikh faith has a real tendency towards inclusion and quality, and a community feel. Do you think so?

Remona Aly:
They feed people for free every week. That is a beautiful way of including the community. The wider community as well. Everyone comes together in a sacred place, sharing food and sharing stories, and sharing love.

Suzannah Lipscomb:
Guru Gobind Singh, who is the last of the Sikh gurus, advocated finding solutions as a community when scriptures didn't offer guidance. Furthermore, some of the beliefs of the Sikh religion are actionable through being part of a community. So you use everyday life as a way of becoming closer to God. They are: 'Keep God in mind and heart at all times; Live honestly and work hard; Treat everyone equally; Be generous to the less fortunate; Serve others'. So as a result, many Sikhs put in time doing chores, working in the Gurdwara as service to their community, whether it's cleaning or cooking or something else. So, pray, work, give are the kind of central tenants and the Gurdwara stands testament to the importance of community and benevolence, even in busy urban lifestyles.

We have learned today that the buildings great and small have played their part in England's Faith & Belief journey. Across the centuries the patchwork of our religious and spiritual life becomes ever more complex and exciting.

We have 2 more episodes to come so make sure you subscribe for the next step in the story.

You can join the conversation by using #100places to tell us which destinations you think deserve to feature. Please do share this programme with your friends.

Thank you Hazel, Remona, and Joe. I am Suzannah Lipscomb and you'll hear from us all again next time.

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