The British Churches in Crisis
By “Awake!” correspondent in the British Isles
IS IT really correct to speak of a crisis for the churches in Britain? Outwardly one might not think so, for the traditional respectability of the churches in English life seems to have changed little; and some churches are well attended.
Yet British church leaders today continually speak of “crisis.” For example, after a 1972 gathering of five hundred religious leaders in Birmingham, David L. Edwards wrote: “The conference was unprecedented, for the crisis it faced is without precedent. The recent statistics of decline in church attendance, membership and finance are alarming to anyone who is in any way involved in the organization of the Christian religion in Britain and Ireland, but most thoughtful observers expect worse statistics to come.”
And things have gotten worse since then. What is the true condition of British churches today?
The results of a survey were interesting. It revealed that the Church of England claimed some 28 million baptized members. However, only about one third of this number, 9,514,000, were confirmed, and still fewer attended church services, with a total of only 1,814,000 communicants at the peak Easter season. The so-called Free Churches (such as the Methodists, Baptists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians) are in similar straits.
Poor church attendance has given rise to another problem—unused church buildings. Many of those built in the last half of the nineteenth century are in a state of decay. The cost of restoring them is so high that some of these structures are beyond reclamation by the time all the decisions have been approved. Nicholas Adam, writing in the Illustrated London News for December 1973, noted what has happened to some prominent London churches. In an article entitled “Disappearing Churches,” he reported that one is now a rehearsal hall for two London orchestras, another an Elizabethan theater, and others are used for storage. Many have vanished altogether to make way for development schemes and wider roads.
A report published in 1973 by the British Council of Churches lamented that these church buildings seemed “in many cases to be more of a burden than an asset.’’ Really important matters were being overlooked as 90 percent of available resources went into buildings that were empty for 90 percent of the time.
An example of decaying church structures is Wesley’s Chapel, the most important place of worship for thirty million Methodists throughout the world. The gallery is collapsing; woodworm and dry rot threaten the structure. One day a heavy coping stone fell, narrowly missing a group of visitors. Therefore, a notice now reads: “Keep Out.”
“Unity at Any Price”
Another area of crisis that afflicts British churches concerns unity. After many years of discussion and dialogue, a hoped-for union between Anglicans and Methodists was rejected by the General Synod of the Church of England on May 3, 1972. Yet it appears that the desire for unity is so strong with some that they are willing to make large-scale compromises to achieve it. In the Church Times of November 23, 1973, Dr. Cuthbert Keet observed:
“In a misguided desire for unity, basic articles of the Catholic Faith are being undermined by those in high authority. Fundamental tenets are being lightly discarded in the mad search for unity at any price.”
Why the desperate quest for unity? Perhaps it is because the very existence of some bodies is threatened if they do not unite with another group or denomination. Does it seem that British churches will ever achieve unity? With regard to the Church of England, a well-known clergyman, Dr. Leslie Paul, said in an article entitled “The Church: Aid or Obstacle?”:
“The period of darkness has come upon it and reunion movements of national significance are dead in England for a decade or two, for the Church of England no longer dare advance them, and no other communions would feel confident enough to initiate them. . . . it might very well be that the Church of England would prefer to die rather than to change. It throws itself into an anguish of nostalgia when serious proposals of reform disturb it. . . . Its decline is statistically predictable . . . if it does happen it may never be noticed.”
Another Crisis—the Moral Decline
An important factor contributing to the decline of British churches is their attitude on morals. Under the heading “The Moral Crisis,” Crockford’s Clerical Directory had this to say: “It cannot be overlooked that the moral crisis is within the Church itself as well as in the nation at large. Standards of sexual behaviour which have been an accepted part of Christian teaching since New Testament times are now openly called in question by some of the clergy, not only in books . . . but on the radio and television, where millions of viewers and listeners are given the impression that the Church has now abandoned its moral standards.”
It is well known that the conduct of many church members has bred contempt for anything called “Christian.” Even the matter of smoking has contributed to this lack of respect. Writing in the Norwich Churchman, Professor C.M. Fletcher called for no smoking in public at the least. “If they do smoke in public,” he remarked, “then it would seem that their religion is either divorced from the needs of their fellowmen or too feeble to enable them to free themselves from their slavery to the habit.”
The Problem of State-appointed Bishops
The Church of England is still ‘by law established,’ which means that its administration, property and doctrine are controlled by the public laws of the land. The State appoints its bishops, and even quite small changes in worship have to be approved by Parliament.
The present arrangement is that the names of two or three clergymen who are recommended as bishops are submitted to the Prime Minister by the Archbishop. During the twentieth century five commissions have reported on this question. The most recent report decries this system as “obviously inappropriate, because bishops . . . are the representative leaders of a religious society, while the State is secular and the Prime Minister may not be a member of the Church in which the bishops are to serve.”
While some consultation takes place with the Standing Committee of the General Synod of the Church of England, a clergyman from Essex denounced this as merely intended to pull the wool over the eyes of a “stupid and complacent church.”
Further protest followed the decision of a leading gambling firm to start a ‘religious book’ for betting on who would be the next archbishop. Interestingly, when representatives of this firm approached certain church dignitaries about this, they met with very little objection.
“A Sign and Foretaste of Death”
These are but a few of the symptoms of crisis that worry British church leaders today. It is no wonder that a recent conference of college principals recommended reducing the number of theological colleges from the present seventeen to ten.
Many are convinced that it is too late to do anything to assure a healthy future for Christendom’s churches in England. One who feels this way, Presbyterian minister Ernest Marvin, writes:
“It is no use thinking that we can tinker with the structure of the church as it has developed, or failed to develop, over the centuries. She is dying. The pity is that before her final spasm she will have had more needless time, talent and money spent on trying to keep her alive. . . . Far from the church being a sign and a foretaste of the kingdom, she is more akin to a sign and foretaste of death, from which there is no resurrection.”
Christianity Very Much Alive in Britain
The desperate situation of the British churches does not mean that the people of Britain are uninterested in God. These very church crises have made scores of thousands of Britons hungry for knowledge of the Word of God. When Jehovah’s witnesses call at their homes offering to study the Bible with them free of charge, they willingly respond. This has caused a problem of a different type—an attendance explosion at Kingdom Halls of Jehovah’s witnesses.
Since 1967 the number of baptized Witnesses in Britain has increased some 50 percent, from 50,000 to over 75,000. During the sixteen months ending in late 1974 they started sixty-five new congregations, an average of about one each week. They have no crisis in meeting attendance either, for in their 1,000 congregations attendance at meetings regularly exceeds by 30 to 40 percent the number of baptized Witnesses.
Instead of closing down buildings for religious worship, Jehovah’s witnesses have found it necessary to open at least 150 new Kingdom Halls during the past five years. In some cases older buildings were remodeled, including some former churches. Frequently, though, it was necessary to put up completely new structures.
Commenting on the work of one congregation in building a new Kingdom Hall, a reporter for the Newmarket Journal wrote: “Much of the work on the new place of worship has been carried out by members of the congregation in their spare time at weekends . . . Neither do they hold whist drives or fetes to raise money—all funds come from voluntary donations.”
Thus, while British churches are in a serious state of crisis, many people are seizing the opportunity to gain an accurate knowledge of the Bible. Would you enjoy doing that? No matter where you live, Jehovah’s witnesses will be glad to conduct a free Bible study with you in your home. Feel free to contact them.