The children of Isacchar “had understanding of the times to know what Israel ought to do” (1 Chr 12:32). “Understanding of the times” is a really good thing to pray for. While we don’t want to be “carried about by every wind of doctrine” (Eph 4:14), and just jump on trends around us, we do want to have our eyes open to our specific situation. If you want to get your head around religion in modern Britain, here’s a summary of six interesting factors to bear in mind taken from this book:
1. the role of churches in shaping British culture. Britain has been hugely influenced by Christianity for a very long time and it still is. E.g. Our view of the week, and public holidays are shaped by Christianity. Wherever you look, church buildings are still scattered across the land and form part of the landscape.
2. these churches still have a place at particular moments in the lives of British people, though they are no longer able to influence – let alone discipline – the beliefs and behaviour of the great majority of the population. So, the reaction to the death of Princess of Diana still involved churches. Churches housed the books of condolences and facilities for lighting candles. It was the Church of England that took responsibility for the funeral. In crises, people do still look to the church and expect her to act in certain ways, even if they don’t regularly take part themselves.
3. active churches increasingly operate on a model of choice, rather than a model of obligation or duty. Religion is less something passed on from one generation to the next and is more based on the individual choice of the consumer. In the 21st century, the two groups of churches attracting most active participants are charismatic evangelical churches and cathedral-type churches in city-centres. Though both are offering quite different experiences, what they have in common is a noticeable experiential element.
4. the arrival into Britain of groups of people from many different parts of the world, and with very different religious aspirations from those seen in the host society. After World War 2, there was an influx of immigration from the Indian subcontinent, West Africa, and the Caribbean, because Britain needed workers. These migrants included Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus, as well as diverse kinds of Christians. In the 2000s, there was an influx of eastern European workers. Compared to France, which has emphasised the need for migrants to have primary allegiance to France rather than their religion, Britain has been more relaxed. But new arrivals bring new ways of being religious, and challenge the status quo about the role of religion in public life.
5. the reaction of Britain’s secular elites to the increasing relevance of religion in public as well as private life. Sharp secular voices have emerged, arguing for an alternative to religion. Richard Dawkins and the late Christopher Hitchens are two obvious examples. Their books have sold in the millions.
6. a growing realization that the patterns of religious life in modern Europe (including Britain) should be considered “exceptional” in global terms. Religion is vibrant in America. Christianity is growing fast in the global south (especially in Pentecostal forms); large parts of the world are dominated by non-Christian faiths. In many places religion, and religious difference, mixed with politics leads to violence. It’s a mistake to think that what’s happening in Europe is “typical”.
These 6 things would be good to pray about as we ask Jesus Christ to build his church in 21st century Britain.