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Mithras to Mormon: A religious history of London, by Philippa Bernard

21 December 2018

Religious life in London is always on the move, Malcolm Johnson finds

THE splendid colourful jacket, with photographs of St Paul’s Cathedral, the Hindu Temple at Neasden, the Mosque in Regent’s Park, Westminster Abbey, a Jewish Menorah, and the Temple of Mithras, reveals what the contents are.

Philippa Bernard, an academic of the Open University and the University of London, has lived almost all her life in the capital, and in this well-researched book about the religions of London covers two thousand years, beginning with the Romans to the arrival of a woman as Bishop of London, who, in a thoughtful foreword, writes: “The relationship between London and religion has meant that the Church has never had the luxury of remaining unchanged.

“Wars, revolutions, famine and disease have shaped the human spirit and the way religion is represented in the capital. Through monarchs, popes, bishops and reformers, and through movements of lay people, the Spirit of God has disrupted and subverted, and caused the Church to reimagine its shape and ministry.”

The story begins in 1954 with the discovery of the Temple of Mithras, a mystery religion akin to freemasonry, in Walbrook. The temple was built in the third century, but the entire site was later relocated a little west of the original site.

The author’s range is immense, and her sensitivity to the subject is profound. She is careful to supply references, so that ideas can be followed up; there is a large and useful bibliography.

After a detailed and careful study of London and its religion in the times of the Normans, the Angevins, and then the Plantagenets and Tudors, the author suggests that the capital’s population in 1500 was around 50,000 to 75,000 and that it was a sophisticated city with a firm government to rule over it. There was an established legal system, and the city had become cosmopolitan, but it was still in thrall to the only English Church, the Church of Rome.

All this changed at the Reformation, but there was no revolution. Money was provided by the dissolution of the monasteries; in London, there were 37 religious houses with at least 30 more near by. The Act of Supremacy asserted Henry’s leadership of the Church and the superiority of civil over religious laws; the link with Rome was broken.

Eirian EvansThe memorial to the Suffragettes in Christchurch Gardens (formerly the site of Christ Church), Westminster, by Edwin Russell, which is one of the colour plates in the book

Under Henry’s daughter Elizabeth, many Protestants, Huguenots, and Jews who had fled came home, and the capital became truly cosmopolitan. Sections follow on other religious denominations in London, such as the Mormons, Zoroastrians, Baptists, Buddhists, Muslims, and Methodists, although the author does not mention the Methodist-Anglican conversations torpedoed in the 1960s by Bishop Graham Leonard.

What of the future? Philippa Bernard questions the establishment of the Church of England, which, as one would expect, is defended by George Carey. Anti-Semitism is rife, and Muslims often face discrimination, but the majority of Londoners go about their daily lives without too much fear of violence. London has gained much by opening her gates to almost every religion known to man, and schoolchildren visit strange places of worship and teach their parents to be more tolerant of differences.

The East End of London has sheltered various groups of immigrants, who now worship as they wish. Christian churches are not growing, except for the Charismatic ones, and organised religion is going through a crisis, although many still see religion as based on man’s search for meaning in life: understanding our place in the universe

This book, in my view, should be on the shelves of all ministers and ordinands.

The Revd Dr Malcolm Johnson is Master Emeritus of the Royal Foundation of St Katharine.


Mithras to Mormon: A religious history of London
Philippa Bernard
Shepheard-Walwyn £25
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

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