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IS CHRISTIANITY MAKING A COMEBACK?

The scene is rocking, and the most racially diverse I have encountered in contemporary London.  Lots of Afro-Caribbeans, plenty of Asians, lots of white folks, too, and almost every other variety you can imagine.  The joint is hopping.  Singer and guitars and a big, big sound.  Boom! Boom! Boom!  After the “concert” the big crowd, as diverse in age as in ethnic origin, spills out on to a precious patch of green in central London, there to enjoy an informal lunch of many ethnic cuisines, curries, paella, chilli con carne, pizzas and ice cream.  There’s no cost, though you can make a donation if you like.

I am attending the Sunday morning service of Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), one of the most dynamic and important Anglican parishes in the world (though the good folks there would never make such flattering comparisons about themselves).  The big feature of the service is the music.  But the spiritual highlight, perhaps, is the legendary pastor, Nicky Gumbel, interviewing Christian musician couple Matt and Beth Redman.  Gumbel and the Redmans are stellar names in British evangelical Christianity.  One of Gumbel’s books sold more than a million copies.  The Redmans have both written books of Christian testimony and they are sell-out musicians in the US and Britain.

The big story of contemporary Britain is the radical loss of belief. It is a transforming social dynamic.  But there are now, perhaps equally important, tentative signs of a counter-trend.  Right next door to HTB, is the Brompton Oratory, the historic, world famous Catholic church.  Just a little before the rocking and rolling at HTB, the Catholic priests at Brompton Oratory celebrated the old Tridentine mass.  Not only is this mass conducted in Latin, the liturgy follows the ancient rites from the 16th-century Council of Trent, which was universal in the Catholic Church until it was replaced with an updated liturgy in vernacular languages by the Second Vatican Council in the 1960s.

The music at the Tridentine masses is sublime, exquisite, liturgical, stylistically a world away from rock ’n’ roll contemporary style.  I have been to mass and other services at the Brompton Oratory a few times and they, too, are strikingly well attended.  These two churches, so superficially different, are, in my view, not so different after all.  One, with its ancient Latin liturgy, looks shockingly countercultural.  The other, hip and groovy, seems to be riding the wave of contemporary culture.  But the liturgy and music in both places is based squarely on the words of the Bible, Old Testament and New, and the message of basic Christianity is also essentially the same.

Tellingly, both forms of Christianity are thriving, in London and elsewhere.  Holy Trinity Brompton uses contemporary cultural style but it does not endorse the contemporary culture in toto any more than the Latin mass Brompton Oratory folks do.  Beth Redman, in her impressive comments, recounts how she has basically gone off Twitter and scaled back her Facebook.  Partly this is theological; the Bible says do your good works in secret.  Partly it is, like everything in this tradition, experiential.  She found that even when she was trying to pray, her iPhone distracted her.  She was inclined to check it.  So she chucked it.

She tells people to be careful of the films and television they watch, of the evil they put in their heads.  She and her husband also had much to say about more profound issues of life, but I was struck by the good and uncompromising nature of her social media advice.  The genius of this style of Christianity is that it is as hip and groovy and contemporary as you like, but it doesn’t shirk tough messages that in other contexts may sound wowserish.  The question is whether the two Bromptons and the other signs of life in contemporary British Christianity are really signs of hope, or are they more like crowded lifeboats bobbing around in the wake of a sinking ocean liner?

Whether you are religious or not, the pivotal point of history that we have reached in Britain and western Europe is awe inspiring, and little understood.  Britain and western Europe have abandoned the faith of their fathers, and even more their mothers, and with it much of their cultural and civic inheritance.  Before asking whether the trend has reached a turn, we must realise how staggering the trend is.  According to well-based research published last year, among 18 to 29-year-olds in France, there are as many practising Muslims as there are Catholics.  As many young Muslims go to mosque in France as young Catholics go to mass.

In London, the most religious part of Britain, of a total population of more than eight million, there are 4.1 million people who self-identify as Christian and 2.4 million who self-identify as Muslim (although Christians at last seem to be holding their numbers).  According to survey results of two years ago, 7% of 18 to 29-year-old Brits identify as Anglicans, while 6% identify as Muslims.  There are three reasons Muslim numbers have grown so fast.  They have been a very big part of the immigration cohort.  They generally have more children than non-Muslims do, and are much more successful than European Christians in passing on their faith to their children.

It is not necessary to be in any way anti-Muslim to recognise that this represents a huge, epic shift in the cultural and civic identity of Europe.  People who follow other religions are also growing in Britain, among them Hindus and Sikhs, and even, off a very low base, Orthodox Haredi Jews.  All of these religious groups are more successful than Christians in maintaining their religious affiliation across generations.  There is one critical point of context that is slightly mitigating.  For a long time now, Christianity has been a nominal affiliation for huge chunks of European populations.  So secularisation, the loss of God, has meant in part the end of nominal Christianity.

As Nick Spencer from the influential London think tank Theos tells me: “For the last generation or two, Christian identity and ethics are no longer the default position.  That’s been replaced by a default liberal outlook, me and my choices.”  But the civic identity of Europe, and its civilisation more broadly, derived overwhelmingly from the Judaeo-Christian tradition.  Britain is now, according to the surveys, a majority atheist society, as are some other west European nations.  This is a much stronger trend in western Europe and Britain than it is in the US or Australia, though all Western nations are experiencing some version of the same symptoms.

There is a debate about whether secularisation is a process that has progressed over centuries, from the Renaissance de-emphasising the divine in art, through the wars of Christianity to all the savage disruptions of the 20th century, or something much more sudden.  The classic account by Callum Brown, The Death of Christian Britain, argues that the process was much more sudden.  It was kicked off by the cultural revolution of the 1960s, the sexual revolution and everything that followed.  Brown’s book suggests that Christianity reached a high point in Britain in the early 20th century, but the proportionate numbers of Christians were still not far below those highs in the 50s.

Indeed, there had even been some serious revival of Christian sentiment and practice in the 40s and 50s.  There is some evidence, at least a suggestion, that the decline of Christianity in Britain has now hit bottom and may be slowly turning around.  If that is so, it is in part at least because of the efforts of Gumbel.  He is the son of a German secular Jewish refugee.  Oxbridge educated, he was a highly successful barrister.  He converted to Christianity through reading the New Testament.  Although he did not found it, he has run the Alpha program, one of the most successful Christian formation and evangelisation efforts in modern history, since 1990.

It is an approach to teaching the basic Christian faith mainly to non-Christians, although so many nominal Christians have so little knowledge of Christianity, and contemporary Western culture provides almost no positive signs or clues to it, that the distinction between non-Christian and nominal Christian when people first come into contact with Alpha can be pretty meaningless.  Around the world, perhaps 26 million people have taken the Alpha program.  Within Australia alone, a half-million have done so.  A week and a half after I attend the service at Holy Trinity Brompton, a friend arranges that I might go and see Gumbel at his home near the church.

Whatever his success with selling books and the like, his house is modest.  He makes me a cup of tea and we walk through to his study, which is book-lined and lived-in, a little ramshackle, and contains more than one chair that doesn’t bear very vigorous use.  He doesn’t think Christian decline is inevitable, ongoing or irreversible: “If you take the church in the UK, people think it’s a steady decline.  But actually it’s back and forth. In 1750 the church had declined to almost nothing.  “There were 10,000 sex workers walking the streets of London and 16 people at St Paul’s Cathedral on Easter.

Then along came the Wesleys (John Wesley was an Anglican minister who founded the Methodist denomination) and William Wilberforce, and Christianity builds all the way to 1910.  “From 1910 onwards there’s been a decline.  But even within the cycles there are reverses.  When Billy Graham came there was a blip of growth.  “The question is: are we at the end of that decline?  The old Christians are still dying but the young are still coming forward.  There’s been a huge rise in Anglicans studying for the Anglican ministry.”  Paul Bickley, like Spencer also of Theos, points me to research that shows that religious communities of “experiential difference” are flourishing.

This term “experiential difference” means two things: the idea that there is “something different” about being a Christian, and combined with this some kind of transcendental experience of God.  Gumbel’s movement of Anglicans has been involved in “church planting” in Britain and around the world.  Where a church is about to close or there is a need on a housing estate or some other part of the community, the HTB network, as it is sometimes called, tries to step in with volunteers and energy and passionate commitment and see what they can do.  A decade ago HTB founded a seminary, a college to train new ministers.

In many churches, certainly Anglicanism and Catholicism, for hundreds of years now the typical way to train to become a priest was to go away to a residential college and study theology and philosophy and the like for years.  This college offered a new model.  For a few days a week students for the priesthood studied, but for a couple of days a week they worked in a parish and on Sundays they took part in parish life.  All the while, they lived at their homes.  This has now become one of the biggest and most successful Anglican training colleges in Britain.

I ask Gumbel just why Alpha has become such a worldwide success.  “One thing is the genuine community.  There’s food, people are welcomed, it’s non-confrontational, everyone’s loved for who they are.”  Alpha is organised around a series of talks, each followed by group discussions in which the Alpha leaders facilitate discussion of the talk just held.  At a certain point there is a weekend away.  Gumbel outlines some of the Alpha themes: “The talks are organised around peoples search for meaning and purpose in life.  The first asks: what is the purpose of life?  The second is: who is Jesus, why did he die?  It’s all around forgiveness. The next is about faith, who do you trust?”

The average age of Alpha course participants is 27: “The weekend away is about the Holy Spirit, it’s an opportunity to experience God.  This generation is much more interested in experiencing God than learning facts about God.  There is an evening on healing, healing and mindfulness are very in now.”  The success of Alpha crosses Christian denominations: “Alpha is running in all parts of the church, the Reformed Church, the Pentecostals, the Catholics, Methodists, Baptists, Salvation Army.  We’re Church of England.  That’s very good because we’re less of a threat than anybody because no one really knows what the Church of England believes.”

Finally, I ask Gumbel what a person loses if they lose the knowledge of God.  In a long, animated, fluent conversation, it is the first time he pauses.  “I was not brought up as a Christian,” he says slowly.  “I know the difference between belief and not having belief.  Ultimately, you can lose everything.  “A person obviously can find purpose outside of the faith, but I don’t think you can find ultimate purpose and meaning outside of a relationship with God.”  Another pause: “And if Jesus did rise from the dead, there’s hope, and meaning. And love.”

Source: Article written by Australian journalist Greg Sheridan for the weekend Australian