Pullin’ in the rich–A tail of London’s soul revival

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Why, as Time did last week, profile an evangelical course in Christian basics that began almost 20 years ago in a London Anglican church?

Aren’t Holy Trinity Brompton and the Alpha course (now a staple in many Protestant churches) old news?

Well maybe–and maybe not. Time has a very audacious hook for this tale. Eben Harrell asserts that HTB (as it’s called in Anglican shorthand) is another sign of burgeoning spiritual life in an area long considered a faith wasteland — this time, among the city’s affluent classes.

The writer’s lede sums up his argument by citing the case of James Mumford:

James Mumford is a well-dressed 27-year-old from the posh London neighborhood of Pimlico. He holds degrees in philosophy from Oxford and Yale and, like many of Britain’s elite, spent a post-graduate stint working in London’s finance industry. But tonight he wants to talk about how he came to accept the Lord Jesus Christ into his heart. “I don’t mind talking about my faith,” he says, sheepishly. “But it’s a touch embarrassing. Just don’t brand me as a mindless evangelical.”

That peculiarly British reticence may be one reason that an unexpected spiritual awakening among London’s high society has gone unnoticed in recent years. Long considered an aggressively secular city, London has quietly become one of Britain’s most Christian areas, going from the least observant region in Britain in 1979 to the second most observant today. Much of that resurgence in piety is the result of the city’s expanding and devout immigrant population. But there is also a growing number of young, highly educated and moneyed Londoners — people such as Mumford — who are turning to the church.

Although I don’t know whether spiritual awakenings are ever expected, this one has not gone unnoticed in church circles–the U.S. and U.K. media have certainly covered Alpha and its viral growth extensively.

Soul-searching among the wealthy and the literary are not new in England, or we would never have had, way back in the 20th century, Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisited or most of the novels of Graham Greene. And Britain has long been a center for alternative Christian worship and the so-called “emergent” movement.

What’s truly intriguing here is Harrell’s argument that the “supposedly godless” city of London is undergoing a spiritual revival, and has “quietly become one of Britain’s most Christian areas.”

He also says that much of the reawakening is due to new immigrants.

But he doesn’t either give us links or references so that we can investigate his argument.

Is it possible that England, conventionally considered another devoutly secular European country, is experiencing a significant resurgence of Christian faith?

And spurred in part by a Church of England Church (albeit an evangelical one)? That really is news!

Hard to tell from reading this article. But I really hope that Time and other media fortunate enough to still actually have reporters in London will get beyond HTB, and give us that story, too.

Pensive Kensington Garden squirrel perhaps pondering spiritual reawakening in his neighborhood from Wikimedia Commons

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  • Carl

    Nice choice of images: In England now, there’s a “war” on between the native red squirrels and the American gray squirrels which are displacing them.

  • Zak

    If I recall correctly, church attendance rates for Anglicans in London and elsewhere in the UK aren’t all that different. But London has many more evangelical and pentecostal churches, most of whose members are West Indian or African. London does have higher attendance rates among Catholics, but that’s largely because of immigrants/migrants from Poland, Brazil, and other Catholic countries.

  • http://www.misterdavid.typepad.com David (in Edinburgh)

    It’s interesting that the article is very keen to emphasise Alpha as some kind of ‘outreach to young people’ – not the usual angle, especially since you have Youth Alpha and Student Alpha and all those sorts of more specific things. If HTB’s average age is 27, then does it follow that every participating Alpha congregation is the same? I’ve also heard that Alpha is gaining prominence in certain Catholic and Orthodox quarters (French & Russian respectively) – I have all sorts of questions about that kind of denominational cross-over, but it’d probably be asking a bit much of Time …

    A nice addition would have been to draw a contrast between Alpha and traditional methods of evangelism – meetings, preaching, and ‘cold contact’ – especially given the British reticence to engage with strangers (have you ever tried talking to someone on the Tube in London?!!). Showing why Alpha courses strongly emphasise meals and non-confrontational discussion is rare in coverage.

  • FW Ken

    I’m surprised the article didn’t mention that Sandy Millar, the rector under whom Alpha revitalized Holy Trinity, Brompton, is now a missionary bishop working in London under the auspices of Anglican Church of Uganda. Unlike what has happened in the U.S. with the Episcopal Church, this was not a schism in the Church of England, but rather a cooperative venture between Uganda and the Anglican bishop of London, with the blessing of the current Archbishop of Canterbury.

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sandy_Millar

    Also, I wonder if it’s accurate that the “There’s probably no God” campaign is directly related to HTB. The BBC didn’t make the connection, but then, it’s the BBC.

    http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/uk_news/england/london/7681914.stm

    http://www.getreligion.org/?p=4050

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As a point of information the Alpha program–adapted slightly–has been used in many Catholic parishes in the Boston, Ma. area–including at least a half dozen near my Catholic parish.

  • Joe

    HTB is not a diverse church. It doesn’t represent London. All would be welcome to start an Alpha course at HTB or attend a service but only a certain (narrow) type stays on as a regular member of the church.

    It’s probably more of a cultural fad than a spiritual revival. The same affluent class organise their social life around other “hobbies” that nobody else cares about – organic farming, eco-activism etc.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    Deacon John, thanks for the information about Catholic Alpha.

    I found it interesting that HBT is encouraging members to go to other churches — what happens if and when they do would make an interesting piece in itself.

  • http://www.getreligion.org/?p=3978 E.E. Evans

    Sorry, I meant HTB — HBT has the ring of a food additive ;-)


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