Discuss the religious element in Philip Larkin's poem Church Going and its significance.

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thanatassa | College Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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Philip Larkin's poem "Church Going" begins with a deeply ambivalent view of religion. The titles sets up the expectation that this will be a narrative about one or more people attending a church for religious purposes, and yet, the opening reverses that expectation; the narrator says: "Once I am sure there's nothing going on I step inside". In other words, the narrator is visiting churches with the explicit aim of avoid religious observances. 

The description of the church would be familiar to anyone who has visited a small parish church in Britain. The layout is typical of the architecture prevalent in the Church of England, with a central aisle flanked by wooden pews with cushioned kneelers and prayer books placed in small shelves on the backs of the pews. An altar rail separates the sanctuary on the east end from the rest of the church. Behind the altar rail one sees a pulpit on the left, a lectern on the right, and in the center a large altar or communion table. Large Bibles are normally kept open to the day's reading on both pulpit and lectern. Although the narrator himself is not an active member of the Church, he nonetheless mounts the lectern and reads the lesson, even closing with the words "Here endeth the lesson," (which would not be in the Bible itself -- suggesting the narrator recalls them  from memory) precisely as a lay reader would during a service. He then returns to his persona as a non-religious tourist, dropping a sixpence (roughly equivalent to a quarter in U.S. terms) into the collection box and signing the visitor book. 

The narrator speculates in an agnostic vein about who, when churches have become obsolete, will be their last visitors, possibly archaeologists or antiquarians. Yet underneath the secular surface of the narrator, there is the fact that he attends churches regularly, albeit outside of the normal hours of worship, and even himself enacts, in his own fashion, a small part of the service. As we move towards the end of the poem, the narrator ponders the association between the great life events of birth, marriage, and death and churches. There seems a conflict between the narrator's secularism and his church going.

In his conclusion, the narrator resolves this contradiction with an understanding that the value of churches and religion lies in what he calls their seriousness, or their long tradition of being a place concerned with the great and meaningful issues of life and death, as opposed to the ordinary and everyday. The narrator finally understands his own reason for seeking out churches and the purpose of the churches he seeks in the final two stanzas:

It pleases me to stand in silence here;

A serious house on serious earth it is, ...

And that much never can be obsolete,

Since someone will forever be surprising

A hunger in himself to be more serious,

And gravitating with it to this ground,

Which, he once heard, was proper to grow wise in ...

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