My family and I just returned from two weeks in the U.K., and while we were there, several major British religion news events transpired. First, on a day we happened to be in Edinburgh, Church of Scotland delegates voted to allow gay ministers. Then, when we returned to London, came the appalling murder of a British solider by two Muslims, one of whom was arrested in Kenya in 2010 for seeking al-Qaeda training. Finally, a new study of U.K. census data indicated that within a decade, perhaps less than half of all people in Britain will identify even nominally as Christians.
These disparate developments suggest several religious patterns: first, prominent churches in the U.K. seem generally inclined to follow the lead of mainline denominations in the U.S. and Canada on issues related to gender and homosexuality. The Church of England has recently decided to ordain celibate homosexuals as bishops, and has issued a new plan to ordain women bishops within two years. These developments make inevitable more difficulties between the shrinking mainline churches in the west, and the burgeoning ones in the global south, which are generally more traditional on issues of sexuality.
Second, the U.K. (like much of Europe) has a pressing problem of how to handle its growing Muslim population, some fraction of which are jihadist sympathizers. (Anecdotally, I was struck by how ubiquitous the signs of Islam are in the U.K., from mosques to burqa-clad women.) While America’s Muslim population remains proportionately low, especially outside of large cities, in the U.K. a tenth of the under-25 population is now Muslim, and the self-identifying Christian population is stagnant and aging. If it were not for Christian immigrants to the U.K. from sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, Christianity would be in utter free-fall as a percentage of the British population.
Third, the legal establishment of the Church of England looks increasingly strange and antiquated, when you consider how Christianity (Anglican or otherwise) is losing even a nominal hold over much of the population. It is hard to imagine how the church will survive calls for its disestablishment (meaning withdrawal of state financial support and other trends toward stronger separation of church and state) unless a very different pattern emerges in the next generation. In a democratic country, it seems impossible to justify an established Christian church when so few actively practice Christianity, and when even nominal Christianity seems destined to command no more than a plurality of the population’s adherence. Yet the British government – particularly the monarchy – is still closely identified with Christianity. They still pray “God save the queen” in Anglican liturgies.
Given all this, is there hope for Christian revival in Britain? Christians, of course, always believe there is hope for redemption and renewal, because of God’s power. The observable facts are not promising, but there are certainly pockets of flourishing Christianity in Britain. The Kingsway International Christian Centre, an African Pentecostal congregation which is London’s largest church, attracts as many as 12,000 attendees every Sunday, and there are many other growing immigrant-dominated congregations across the U.K. Evangelical renewal efforts within the Anglican Church include the Alpha Course, pioneered by Nicky Gumbel (see more on the Alpha Course in this Anxious Bench post by Philip Jenkins).
While my family was blessed to attend Evensong services at both St. Paul’s Cathedral and Westminster Abbey, the most vital church we visited was an evangelical Baptist congregation in Stirling, Scotland, which sits prominently in the city center. While nowhere near the scale of Kingsway, it is filled with young Scottish families. The worship is heartfelt, the preaching biblical and accessible, and community life and prayer support are vibrant. Those factors, enlivened by the Holy Spirit, would seem to be essential ingredients for revival in the U.K. and beyond.
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