Hope for Revival in Britain?

Hope for Revival in Britain? May 28, 2013

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.

@ThomasSKidd on Twitter

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  • Evan L. R. Hays

    I realize it is much more complicated than this, but let’s not forget that most African Anglican churches do at least ordain women as Presbyters/Priests. They may not ordain them as Bishops, but I think in the post (due to the desire for brevity) you set up a dichotomy between the Western churches’ perspectives on homosexuality and women in the ministry on one hand and the more traditional ones of the Global South on the other. That’s not quite the case. Mainly, when I have spoken with African (mainly Rwandan and Ugandan ones in my case) priests, bishops, and archbishops about their lack of open support for female clergy in the American Anglican context (even though they ordain women in their countries), they have told me something to the effect of, “that is an American battle, and not one that we want to get involved in.” Time will tell how it will play out.

  • Ben Thorp

    This is probably much like trying to tell the waves to halt, but I would like to clarify the situation within the Church of Scotland, which (as has happened for the last 3 or 4 years around General Assembly) has been poorly reported.

    Some points:

    1. The GA has made no formal decision. Nothing has changed or been ratified. A counter-motion was filed and voted for. This needs to be formulated into an overture that will come before the 2014 General Assembly. If it passes, then, under the Barrier Act, it will go to the Presbyteries to vote, before (if passing) it is ratified by the 2015 General Assembly.

    2. The overall decision was to reject the previously hinted at trajectory of a revisionist viewpoint, and actually to affirm the traditional, Biblical stance of the Church.

    3. By way of compromise (and, I’ll be honest, it’s not a compromise I’m a fan of), individual congregations are allowed to “opt-out” of the traditional stance, and call a minister who is in a civil partnership.

    4. As a result of (3) the church would need to lift it’s ban on calling, training and ordaining of ministers in civil partnerships. Individual presbyters would not be required to involved in the ordination or induction of such candidates.

    So – it _is_ a compromise, but the underlying decision is a traditional, Biblical one, and no decision has actually be made.

  • Paul

    Thomas, I would love to see the churches in Britain packed with believers. However, the examples you gave of Holy Trinity and Nicky Gumbel – are you saying such places are templates of good practise to be emulated? I would say that in my thirty years as a Christian the church here in England has not grown through the model mentioned and typified by the leadership and ethos of the newspaper ‘Evangelicals Now’. What I literally see is many evangelical churches without pastors and the affinity with charismatic worship and leaders which is now embedded in evangelical churches has not helped them.
    I would contend that England needs a Reformation unto the Scriptures, creeds and confessions.This at least will give the church a more solid foundation. But to mention creeds and confessions to evangelicals is almost an anathema to them, and seminary training like that found in the USA is hardly mentioned as churches continue with in house training. There is no revival or any signs of it in the UK, and while the churches continue to forge links with questionable groups like that mentioned above this tragic trend will continue.

  • Jerry Lynch

    The Church has brought this upon itself. Councils and discussions and ruling bodies and traditions and everything else but feet on the ground bringing love to the lost and needy. Thousands of sects. Keep it simple. Sell all your possessions and give to the needy. Turn your churches into shelters and hospitals and community centers. Be as Christ actually was in the world and let Paul’s fears be forgotten.

  • Thomas Kidd

    yes, it is important to note that the process is hardly over in the Church of Scotland