Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“Church Going” records the spiritual longings of a man who has lost religious faith. It may be seen as representing the spiritual longings of a generation of British citizens for whom the church has ceased to be important.

That religion has lost its central position is assumed. After all, the narrator would have observed the serious decline in church attendance in England since the nineteenth century. He would also, perhaps, think of Stonehenge, a religious site whose purpose has been forgotten. The narrator does not wonder if churches will fall out of use. Instead, he wonders what will happen when they do. Understanding the rest of the poem requires the recognition of that assumption.

The discussion about what will become of the unused church buildings is, in fact, an exploration of what has caused religion to be so important to so many for so long. Uncovering those reasons also reveals the needs that must still be met in the secular world.

The church, the narrator discovers, “held unspilt/ So long and equably what since is found/ Only in separation—marriage, and birth,/ And death, and thoughts of these.” People have always turned to the church for these major life events. Weddings, baptisms, and funerals are conducted in churches (or at least by ministers), and even in an age that lacks religious faith, people need to affirm the special significance of these events. They want God to take notice of them, even if, paradoxically, they don’t believe in God. Love, birth, and death all transcend the ordinary and must be “recognised/ And robed as destinies.”

Finally, the church is a place that is “proper to grow wise in.” The secular world, the world of work, bicycling holidays, suburbs, and sheep, can do very well without the influence of the church, but “someone will forever be surprising/ A hunger in himself to be more serious.” That hunger, a spiritual longing, can be met only by going to a place where it is valued, where it has been valued for centuries.