Monday, February 13, 2012

Is Christianity doomed in Britain?

Tim Keller spoke at Town Hall in
Oxford all last week, to large
"Christianity Under Attack!"  The headline on the front page of the Daily Mail read Saturday morning, if not in VE Day font, almost in VJ day font. 

"The right to practice the Christian faith in Britain is under attack after two controversial legal rulings against worshippers," the paper somewhat breathlessly, and it turned out a bit inaccurately, added.  The article on the front page and on an inner page, along with a long, pugnatious but reasonable editorial by George Cary, a former Archbishop of Canterbury, dealt with these rulings. 

The first concerned City Council meetings in the town of Devon.  Since the reign of Elizabeth I, prayers had been part of these meetings.  But now, due a suit brought by an atheist and former counsel member, they were to be discontinued. 

The second ruling had to due with a Bed and Breakfast run by Peter and Hazelmary Bull, in the small resort town of Marazion in Cornwall, at the extreme southwest tip of England.  The Bulls are a Christian couple of about seventy.  A few years ago, a man in his thirties booked a room in their house, then showed up with his gay lover.  The Bulls asked the couple to take separate rooms, since as Christians, they did not accept unmarried couples as guests in their home, either heterosexual, or homosexual.  The man brought suit, and now, has won the suit, and some $6000 in damages.  (A lot, one would think, for not being allowed to stay at a hotel -- if I were given equal damages from every hotel I was not allowed to stay at in China, I might be able to buy my own B & B!) 

So is this a sign of the times?  Has the England of King Alfred, John Wycliffe, John Wesley, and C. S. Lewis now become a de-Christianized, secularized haven of infidels?

One might think so, judging also by church attendance figures, which have been steadily declining for decades. 

Yet that is not the overwhelming impression I get, over the now, seven or so months I have spent in the UK.  Christianity does not appear to be on its last legs:

* Saturday I went looking for the Uffington White Horse, a 3000 year old figure of a horse made of chalk, longer than a football field, on a hill that now belongs to Oxfordshire.  This figure was celebrated in G. K. Chesterton's rousing Ballad of the White Horse

Unfortunately I did not find the horse.  But I did find the town of Faringdon, which I hoped would be within walking distance.  (The distance was not the problem -- finding a path was.) 

Anyway, the old market town was charming enough, its winding roads flanked by 3-story shops crowding against one another, bringing one into the town square.  Within a few blocks, I noticed four churches.  There was also a Christian bookstore in the town square.  You need some business to run a book store, these days, with on-line competition.  I also noticed a "Jesus is the answer" type banner along the way. 

* Christians in Oxford sponsored a series of evangelistic meetings, led by Tim Keller, the Manhattan pastor, this week.  Total attendance for Keller's meetings (there were other meetings as well) was probably about 2500-3000, including  repeat visitors over five days.  Obviously most in attendance were Christians, but also obviously most Christians in Oxford did not come. 

Keller's presentations were quite good, I thought, based on the stories of the Gospel of John, and followed by lively questions. 

* I knew that the church was pretty healthy here in Oxford.  There are dozens of churches in this small city, including two ancient churches -- St. Aldates and St. Ebbes -- within a block of each other, that are very large, and cooperate on outreaches like this one.  One could, of course, ascribe the vigor of Oxford Christianity to its spiritual traditions -- colleges generally also have chapels -- or to the influx of more pious foreigners.  (I have met Christians from more than 40 countries, here, which makes for interesting potlucks in the International Pastorate!)

Also, it may be that in England, Christianity is more popular among the educated classes, than in society as a whole.  Indeed, one girl (a foreigner) who works in an office of 60 or 70, said she was the only Christian in the office. 

OCMS, once an Anglican church, across Port Meadow, where
horses and cattle have grazed for millennia.  The ruins of
Godwin nunnery lies to my back half  a kilometer.
There are plenty  of other churches in town,
though, still doing a booming business, and Godwin
seems sometimes to have served as a whorehouse during
the alleged "Age of Faith."  Smaller numbers may,
perhaps, serve the cause of mission clarity.
* On an earlier visit, I road a bus up to Stratford on Avon, where William Shakespeare was born, and conducted business.  His grave is at Trinity Church.  This church holds a lively evangelical fellowship.  They  have a good little Christian bookstore in the back, which of course also sells souvenirs, but also books on miracles, for instance.  The church looks pious for the great man whose bones it holds. 

* I've been staying at Wycliffe Hall, which is, among other things, a training facility for young Anglican clergy.  There seem to be plenty of enthusiastic young trainees, also at Aldate and Ebbes. 

So how is Christianity doing in Britain?  From passing visits, it doesn't look like it's about to fade away and disappear.  Maybe nominal Christianity is on the ropes.  Most identify with Christianity and don't want to lose the magnificent historical and cultural memory that the churches hold, and that are entwined about such quinscientental celebrations as Christmas.  Serious Christians are fewer in number, as perhaps they usually have been, but it doesn't look at all like they're about to go away.

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