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Mourning in Manchester, religious and secular traditions meet and meld

People look at floral tributes for the victims of the Manchester Arena attack, in St. Ann's Square in central Manchester, Britain, on May 27, 2017. Reuters/Stefan Wermuth

LONDON (RNS) A week after a terrorist bomb killed more than 20 and left scores injured, the people of Manchester will make their way through the streets of their grief-stricken city in one of its most traditional and religious events: the Whit Walk.

This will be a moment where the old Manchester meets the new, when the Christian tradition of the walk, commemorating the Feast of Whitsun — or Holy Trinity — meets the secular rituals that have come to define public mourning since this increasingly irreligious nation said goodbye to Princess Diana, who died 20 years ago.

Then the people, as much as the churches, began to take responsibility for public mourning.

The 200-year-old walk Monday (May 29) will begin at the cathedral just a few hundred yards away from the arena where a suicide bomber set off an explosive belt at the end of an Ariana Grande concert, with the seeming intention of targeting her young fans. The walk will make a stop at Manchester town hall, where thousands have gathered on recent evenings for vigils to commemorate the dead.

These vigils are a more contemporary, secular expression of ritual, with their ever-growing piles of flowers, candles and balloons left by people to honor the dead of the Manchester Arena atrocity. The laying of flowers and the lighting of candles do suggest Christian ritual, but they are the practices of people who are not necessarily members of a religion.

The Whit Walk, by contrast, is an overtly religious event. In most years — as Manchester Cathedral describes it, the walk is “all about celebration and joy. The watching crowds see Christians laughing, smiling, singing and some dressed in bright colors. It says to them that the Church is a welcoming place.”

It will be hard for the people of Manchester to express much joy this year, but the Whit Walk remains a collective experience that, like many others this week, has proved so vital to those who want to express their solidarity with the victims of the attack. But the walk is different from most of these gatherings, because of its religious nature.

Britain, with much of Europe, is an increasingly secular nation. A new survey on faith, traditionally defined by the Anglican Church here, shows that affiliation with formal religion, particularly Christianity, is in sharp decline. Now 49 per cent of the population are “nones,” those who do not identify with a religious tradition. That compares to a quarter of Americans, according to the Pew Research Center.

Yet the “nones” do have religious beliefs of their own, despite not belonging to a church, mosque or temple, said Stephen Bullivant, professor of theology and the sociology of religion at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, and the author of the report. They believe in God and pray. It is these people, believes Bullivant, who are influencing the rituals of grief on display in Manchester.

“At least a quarter of the ‘nones’ do engage in prayer and you see expression of some kind of religiosity at times of horror and grief like this. When there is a pressure point something religious comes to the surface,” he said.

How different this contemporary expression of grief is to the past can be seen in the news reports of what happened almost 60 years ago in February 1958 when Manchester faced another dreadful tragedy that cost young lives: the Munich air disaster in which eight players for the Manchester United soccer team were killed in a plane crash, players who in death became known as “The Flowers of Manchester.”

Then, there were no balloons in the city center, or day after day of the laying of flowers. Instead Manchester waited for the funerals to pay its respects, with a six-mile long queue of traffic to the outskirts of the city for the funeral of one player.

The large-scale, quasi-religious expressions of mourning now seen in Manchester — and elsewhere when tragedy strikes in Britain and beyond — began 20 years ago with the death of Princess Diana in a Paris car crash. In the week after her death, crowds flocked to her home in London’s Kensington Palace, and to where her body rested in the chapel of St James’s Palace, bringing flowers and lighting candles.

“Diana’s death was the turning point. The immediate response was orchestrated by the people, rather than the churches,” said Linda Woodhead, professor of the sociology of religion at Lancaster University, who has studied these contemporary mourning rituals.

“What we are seeing now is people instinctively coming together to create bonds and express values. We see religious influence but in Manchester it went even further from religious or humanitarian convention. Rather, the emphasis was on being Mancunians (as those who live in the city are known); there was a localization of universal values of kindness and love but also of diversity.”

Formal religion has played its part in Manchester since the bombings. And sometimes the line between the religious and the secular blurs.

The Church of England’s Bishop of Manchester and the Catholic Bishop of Salford attended the vigil with other religious and civic leaders, and had helped lay the groundwork for the event.

“I had been working for three years to bring religious leaders, including imams, together, and to work with civic leaders,” said David Walker, the Bishop of Manchester. “So we had the network in place; we could move fast when this atrocity happened. It helped bring the city together for the vigils.”

Relatives of the dead are still waiting for the coroner to release the bodies for funerals, but the language used in their comments about their bereavements are informally religious. “She is singing with the angels,” said the mother of 15-year-old Olivia Campbell, who was killed in the explosion.

The families of victims Chloe Rutherford, 17, and Liam Curry, 19, said in a statement: “On the night our daughter Chloe died and our son Liam died, their wings were ready but our hearts were not.”

“Many of the people who do not have a formal religion do have belief in God, in souls going to heaven, and in angels. They like pilgrimages and candles,” said Woodhead. “This is very different to the Protestant tradition in England. It is like a de-Reformation,” she said, referring to how Catholic practice and ritual was disapproved of after the English Reformation and Puritan era.

Manchester is a city with two passions – music and football. On Thursday morning as the city marked a minute’s silence for the victims, people at the main gathering chose not to sing a hymn, but the song “Don’t Look Back In Anger” by the Manchester band, Oasis.

But as Manchester United’s players celebrated their triumph in the Europa League on Wednesday night, they were photographed holding a banner, Manchester: a city united. Beneath it was the hashtag: #prayforManchester.

About the author

Catherine Pepinster


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  • Religion is not needed for people to express grief and show respect for the dead. Old traditions die and new ones are born.

  • ” Old traditions die and new ones are born.” But Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever.

  • Atheists grieve:
    Dirge Without Music
    I am not resigned to the shutting away of loving hearts in the hard ground.
    So it is, and so it will be, for so it has been, time out of mind:
    Into the darkness they go, the wise and the lovely. Crowned
    With lilies and with laurel they go; but I am not resigned.

    Lovers and thinkers, into the earth with you.
    Be one with the dull, the indiscriminate dust.
    A fragment of what you felt, of what you knew,
    A formula, a phrase remains,—but the best is lost.

    The answers quick and keen, the honest look, the laughter, the love,—
    They are gone. They are gone to feed the roses. Elegant and curled
    Is the blossom. Fragrant is the blossom. I know. But I do not approve.
    More precious was the light in your eyes than all the roses in the world.

    Down, down, down into the darkness of the grave
    Gently they go, the beautiful, the tender, the kind;
    Quietly they go, the intelligent, the witty, the brave.
    I know. But I do not approve. And I am not resigned.

    And Christians grieve, too:
    But herein lies the difference!

    I Thess. 4:13 But I would not have you ignorant, brothers, concerning those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others who have no hope. 14 For if we believe that Jesus died and arose again, so God will bring with Him those who sleep in Jesus.
    And ——————–
    I Cor. 15: 51 Listen, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed. 52 In a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet, for the trumpet will sound, the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. 53 For this corruptible will put on incorruption, and this mortal will put on immortality. 54 When this corruptible will have put on incorruption, and this mortal will have put on immortality, then the saying that is written shall come to pass: “Death is swallowed up in victory.”

    55 “O death, where is your sting?
    O grave, where is your victory?”
    56 The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!


  • Death is the great unknown. Religions make up what happens after death and they vary wildly one from another. They all share one thing in common: they are based on writings and have no proof even after thousands of years. We know that dead animals (yes, humans) decay and their molecules go back to the earth to be recycled. I remember nothing prior to my birth so I expect that I will return to nothingness. Why should I try to deceive myself?

  • You clearly do not understand Christian theology. Read the following text and answer the question:
    John 16: 8 When He comes, He will convict the world of sin and of righteousness and of judgment: 9 of sin, because they do not believe in Me; 10 of righteousness, because I am going to My Father, and you will see Me no more; 11 and of judgment, because the ruler of this world stands condemned. 13 But when the Spirit of truth comes, He will guide you into all truth. For He will not speak on His own authority. But He will speak whatever He hears, and He will tell you things that are to come.

    According to the text who convinces people of spiritual truth?

  • Not faith. The outcome with the highest probability. The question is why I should believe what any of the religions teach?

  • Good question. You shouldn’t believe what “just” any of the religions teach. But belief in Jesus Christ isn’t just any religion. Here are several reasons to believe in Christ.
    1. Acts 17:30 He commands all men everywhere to repent.
    2. John 14.6, 9-10 – I [Jesus] am the way, the truth,
    and the life; no one comes to the Father, but
    through Me….
    3. John 8.24 – …unless you believe that I [Jesus] am He [the Messiah], you shall die in your sins.
    4. John 10:10 I [Jesus] came that they may have life, and that they may have it more abundantly.
    5. Matt. 28:28 “Come to Me [Jesus], all you who labor and are heavily burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take My yoke upon you, and learn from Me. For I am meek and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For My yoke is easy, and My burden is light.”
    6. II Cor. 5:17 Therefore, if any man is in Christ, he is a new creature. Old things have passed away. Look, all things have become new.

    Personally, I was tired of the emptiness in my life and my sin. On August 6, 1973 I trusted Christ. I must say life has never been the same.

  • [Lol. Only in an atheist’s world.] Every bible believing Christian knows that he/she is incapable of convincing anyone of the truth that is in Jesus. Only God’s Holy Spirit is capable of that. So not only “Not off topic”…but 100 extra points for explaining the right answer.

  • You’re telling me to believe you because, and without external proof, your book says to? Well the other religions ask me to do the same. You and I both agree these other religions and gods are nonsense. The only difference is I add your religion to my list. If I’m wrong you get the last laugh.

  • I think that these vigils serve as a stand-in for funerals for people who are not directly connected to those who lost their lives and who would not otherwise attend funerals. But they still experience grief at a number of levels. I think it is helpful for people to use the vigils as a venue for expressing these feeling in a shared manner with others they do not know but who are part of their larger community. The Whit Walk for the community will likely serve another purpose – an end to community mourning and a return to ‘normal’.

    What is not mentioned is that many of those directly affected who are religious are likely to not only grieve loved ones but whose grief will be complicated by spiritual despair and dark questions.