Visiting our religious past

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Westminster Abbey

Bethlehem may be a huge religious tourism destination this weekend but during 2010 the number of people visiting destinations at home has grown because of the sheer number of churches, cathedrals, abbeys and sites we have.
Take Coventry Cathedral for example. Not the modern one but the one almost reduced to rubble during WWII. The World Monuments Fund is working to preserve what is left. This year the General Synod passed a motion encouraging all dioceses to support church tourism. We have an open churches Sunday just like we have an open gardens weekend and a week in September when historic buildings, not normally opened, can be visited.
Two years ago, Visit Britain estimated that about 40 million visits a year were made to churches and places of worship. Well known ones such as Canterbury Cathedral, Westminster Abbey, York Minster and St Pauls receive hundreds of thousands of visitors each year but even smaller, parish churches can easily see a thousand visits. Take Margam Abbey. This Cistercian abbey was one the richest house in South Wales before Henry VIII intervened. Today its museum houses 28 standing stones from the late Roman period through the Dark Ages until the Anglo-Norman period. In Whithorn in Galloway at St Ninian’s Cave there are medieval carvings that date back 1,200-1,300 years. These have been transferred to the Whithorn Priory Museum where 60 Celtic and early Christian standing stones can also be seen.
Anyone who has been to Fountains Abbey in North Yorkshire, Lindisfarne, Iona, Glastonbury or Bardsey (the island of 20,000 Celtic saints) off North Wales knows how awesome (in the true sense of the word) these sites can be.
But smaller sites have much to offer as well. At St Cadoc’s Church at Llancarfan in the Vale of Glamorgan, they have found fourteenth century wall paintings of the seven deadly sins. In bold colours hardly dimmed by age, these remind us how brash churches once were in comparison to what we are used to. Covered by over twenty layers of lime, two of the sins have yet to be restored. Near Caterham, just south of London is the parish church of Chalden which has a similar mural but others as well such as Adam and Eve which adorn the walls. A smaller church, St Botolph’s at Hardham in West Sussex may have the oldest wall painting of St George anywhere. No wonder the number of visits is up.
At this time of the year when many go to church for the only time in the year, others are joining the ever increasing number who look on our religious past as a tourist attraction and an opportunity for a day out.

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