Monday, June 24, 2013

June 22, 2013, column:
Christianity maintains presence in England
By Mike Haynes
Hampton Court Palace in London
            I had the topic for this column all figured out before Kathy and I left for England a couple of weeks ago. I was sure that, while touring the spectacular Windsor Castle, seeing some plays in London’s West End and exploring three flea markets, I’d notice plenty of evidence of the decline of Christianity in the United Kingdom: a good, if sad, religion topic.
            After all, a poll published by Dr. Peter Brierly showed that 3.6 million people attended church weekly in the UK in 2011. That’s in a population of 62.7 million, or less than 6 percent.        
            It’s well known that in past decades, the country of William Tyndale, burned at the stake in 1536 for publishing the Bible in the English language, and the land of quaint, stone church towers in every village has become a secular nation despite its official government-church connection.
            So I was surprised when, on the back of a red, double-decker London bus, I saw an ad for Jubilee Church London with pictures of people raising their hands in worship. Its website shows that the congregation meets in movie theaters and attracts crowds in the thousands.
            I was surprised again at a poster in crowded Waterloo train station for an open-air play at Wintershall Estate in Surrey called “Life of Christ.” An online search revealed that the production has attracted large audiences since 1999.

Jubilee Church on back of London bus

            In our hotel room a block from Trafalgar Square, we ran across a TV program on BBC Two called “The Most Dangerous Man in Tudor England.” It was a serious look at Tyndale, whose Bible text makes up a high percentage of the King James Bible that came 75 years after his death. I didn’t detect a word of cynicism about Christianity in the documentary.
            We saw a street preacher at Piccadilly Circus, the famous central London intersection. In addition to shouting the expected, “Repent!” message, we heard the young man giving insightful advice to a guy who was challenging him: “Stop trying to impress your friends by making fun of me, and when you get home, actually read a Bible and see if it makes sense.”
            Kathy and I also toured Hampton Court Palace. The tourist hype at that grand residence dealt with Henry VIII, who lived there with all six of his wives (not all at once, of course).
            But our main reason for visiting was because Hampton Court was the site of the momentous 1604 church meeting where James I decided England needed a new Bible. Although that event wasn’t promoted like Henry VIII’s antics, the tour guidebook did have a short segment about the 1611 King James Bible.
            So we saw glimmers of hope that faith isn’t completely stamped out in England. Just glimmers, but those small positive signs are heartening. Christians there should not give up yet.
            The United States is on the same path away from belief as the UK, just not as far down that road. The Hartford Institute says we have 60.2 million weekly churchgoers, or 20.4 percent, but that’s way down from the past. Much of our population can be described by Romans 8:5: “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires,” with a smaller group defined by the rest of that verse: “But those who live in accordance with the Spirit have their minds set on what the Spirit desires.”
            Unless we’re going to be missionaries across the pond, our task is to spread Christ’s good news to those around us – those who haven’t heard it and those who think they don’t need it.
            Returning from London, Kathy and I stopped at an I-40 restaurant with her mom for some down-home American food. Just after we were seated, 78 kids invaded the dining room. They were from East Texas churches in Carthage and Beckville, on their way to the Baptist camp at Glorieta, N.M.

            It felt good to be back in the Bible Belt. And the spiritual future of our country might depend on kids like them.