Part 4: United Kingdom

Over the next couple of days I will be posting a Q & A I did with Dr. Andrew Goddard, Professor of Christian Ethics at Trinity College, and editor of the UK’s Anvil Theological Journal. He asked me 14 questions, some of which you all have heard me answer before. So instead of posting any repeated information, I will only post the questions that he asked that I have never been asked before – most of which focus on the differences between the State and the UK.

Here you go (yes, the spelling is British version):

Most of your work has obviously been focused in the US but a few months back you visited the UK.  What did you discover on that visit and what do you think might help Christians in the UK?

I spent a significant amount of time in my recent tour throughout the UK interviewing people from both the GLBT community (secular and Christian) and the straight Christian community (liberal and conservative), including scholars, theologians, bishops, pastors, believers, non-believers, members of Parliament and everyday people on the street.

If there is one common thread that arose throughout these different populations it’s that culturally, the most common large-scale practice regarding faith and sexuality is just safely to avoid the awkwardness that is inherent with the disconnect between the two topics. This observation was no more apparent than in the significant political and religious apathy, especially in the younger generations. That caused me to wonder how tightly correlated is the culture of secularism woven into the potential works, impact and relevance of the Church?

Statistically speaking, with such a minority of the UK population professing Christianity, it is rightly categorized as a post-Christian nation; especially in the light of almost 70% of Americans who claim Christianity as their faith. I would argue, however, that from what I experienced, the small percentage of Christians in the UK are more passionate than the 70% of American Christians have ever been throughout my lifetime. I would also argue that, despite the grand number of Americans claiming their Christianity, America is also a post-Christian culture. To me, Christianity should never be a label, but an action. The moment the actions stop, no amount of intellectualization can tangibly reclaim and regain an impactful relevance. The pure and honest love and hunger I experienced throughout the churches I attended in the UK left me pondering: if there is so much excitement inside the church walls, why is there so little impact outside of those walls?

Sociology adds a few important thoughts to these quandaries. First, minority cultures usually form tighter bonds to each other within their inner-group settings. Thus vibrant Christian communities flourish amongst themselves; together they are united around a common minority structure which is based, in this case, on belief in God. Second, the dominant culture sets the tone for the minority culture outside of the minority’s own gatherings. After a gathering I spoke at on the recent tour, one UK Christian leader told me, ‘The Church is more concerned with preserving a perception of respectability than it is with realistic Kingdom work’. I was shocked by that statement and the bluntness in which it was so boldly claimed. Since the Church is already numerically small, add to that the institutional hierarchy’s fear of becoming completely obsolete and one can see how the majority secular culture does indeed influence a potential Christian impact outside the walls of the minority Christian gatherings. Therefore, instead of risking further irrelevance, it is more rational for many institutional leaders to remain relatively silent on divisive and potential ‘relevance–threatening’ topics such as homosexuality. 

One UK gay leader gave me a variety of examples where there have been pockets of public conversations between the GLBT and Christian communities at seminaries throughout the country. He also noted however that these types of dialogues are not sustainable because very few from either community are willing to put themselves out there to take the attacks that will come from both sides and yet still keep pressing on building a bridge. Once again, the fear of entering into a perceived no-win journey trumps what could turn into a countercultural Movement towards a very public biblical reconciliation. The most succinct summary about the lack of structural dialogue regarding homosexuality was what I was told by a UK Christian leader: ‘It is easier and safer to just not say or do anything’. That strategy, however, has backfired.

A good friend of mine who works for a religious organization in the UK recently told me a story about an experience she had while attending a UK Christian conference. From what many other UK Christians have corroborated it gives a well-balanced picture of the current landscape regarding homosexuality. She was talking to a group of five teenage boys and asked them, ‘What is the biggest ethical dilemma you face in your lives today regarding your faith?’. Their response? Each of them said homosexuality. Why? ‘Because the Church isn’t giving us a framework of engagement, the silence leaves us wondering what teachings are right: the Church or mainstream society’. In a post-Christian culture, in which secularism dominates perception, is it any wonder the younger generations, even those who are Christian, are solidifying and aligning themselves more with a mainstream point of view? As one young person, who was raised in the church, told me when I stopped to talk to him on the street: ‘It’s just too easy to walk away from the Church because they’re not running after us’.

Shortly after that conversation I was interviewing a youth pastor from London and when I told him what that youth had just said, he prophetically stated, ‘The Church needs to realize that power and relevance do not come from a denomination; they come from the incarnation’. I believe his words provide the final answer to solve the issue of regaining cultural relevance amidst a dominant secular society: sustainable cultural influence can only be achieved through a movement of believers incarnationally living out the power of the gospel outside the safety of their own minority gatherings. This is so difficult because it is the exact opposite of human intuition that innately gravitates towards those who we are most similar. Yet sometimes a forced reassessment of how belief and life need to intertwine can be the exact awakening the Church needs to unleash a radical love filled with an unquenching passion that cares not about image, but about living a faith that even mainstream culture stands up and notices is uniquely inspired, no matter what the outcome. Just as in Joshua 3, it only takes one step into the place where death is a certainty before God parts the waters for the faithful who care about doing His work in real time, in a really messy life. Intellectually understanding such a construct and actually living it out are worlds apart. Whether in the UK or the States, my passion is to see the Church remove the cultural burdens of oppression from herself and live in the power we have been given through the incarnation, and the Incarnate’s death and resurrection.  

What do you think about this assessment, both from you all in the UK, and also how this relates to the US for all of you Americans (or your own country if not from either of these two)?

Much love.

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  • This is really interesting to me. I just moved back to the UK two weeks ago, after living in the US for two years. I agree with you, as an American Christian, that the small percentage of believers in Britain seem to be more passionate than the large percentage in America. Sure, it’s a generalization. Of course it is. But I think what’s going on here is that secularism here in the UK is so overt, that professing Christ is actually much more of a challenge for people. It flies hard in the face of everything that is considered “cool.” I think I always found it quite easy to be a Christian in America because there were just so many of us, and Christianity was so public. It’s different here, and that secularism, of course, includes homosexuality.

    The current season of Celebrity Big Brother in Britain just started and Stephen Baldwin (younger brother of Alec), who professes faith in Christ, is making waves with his eccentric personality and mini-sermons. A few days ago, Lady Sovereign, another participant, asked a couple of her housemates, “Stephen’s a Christian, so he must be like, homophobic, right?” There was some debate about this among them, but it is one of the big questions Christians deal with, and I think where we struggle is the balance between proving to the world that we’re not “homophobic” and walking in the Truth we believe. Too far one way, and we’re bowing to the world, too far the other way, and we’re in danger of shutting people who really need the Lord out. I don’t pretend to know the answer, except that I’ve always been a believer – kind of like you said – in the fact that Jesus is relevant all by His lonesome. He knows the hearts of the Lost better than I ever could, and doesn’t need me to put my PR spin on His gospel. What I am responsible for is love, and grace, and more knowledge of scripture and His character…and for taking that out of my house and into a world that so desperately needs it.

    Thanks Andrew!