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Ronald A. Wells


Whatever Happened to Religion in Britain?

Studies of region, class, and gender explain just who is no longer going to church.

Religious thought and practice in Britain is of perennial interest to Americans. Many of us have been influenced by the Anglo-American evangelical movement with its roots in the transatlantic activity of George Whitefield and the Wesleys. Some of us go down the Canterbury trail, and with the expatriate American T. S. Eliot, we sense we have come home—and know the place for the first time—when we go to England. Other Americans are struck by the undiluted charm of an English parish church; we who hail from places with mundane names (Park Street Church, Twelfth Reformed, Central Avenue Baptist, First Methodist) can be swept away with delight and nostalgia by, say, the parish church of Saint Catherine, Chiselhampton, Oxfordshire, as the poet John Betjeman once was:

Across the wet November night
The church is bright with candlelight
And waiting Evensong.
A single bell with plaintive strokes
Pleads louder than the stirring oaks
The leafless lanes along.

Other Americans, with theological and historical interests, wonder about the state of religion in the mother country. One often hears that the churches are empty and that religion in the land of Wesley and Knox, of Cardinal Newman and Archbishop Temple, of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott, is in parlous condition. And if we actually visit a British church, we may wonder, with poet Philip Larkin,

When churches fall completely out of
use, what
we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
a few
cathedrals chronically on show, their
parchment,
place and pyx in locked cases, and let
the rest
rent-free to rain and sheep, shall we
avoid them
as unlucky places?

The books under review here help us to sort out several important questions: If Britain is more "secular" than America, what would that amount to? If there is a religious crisis in Britain, can we detect the antecedents of that crisis? And if there is a diminishment of religion, what in the cultural history of the islands can explain it?

David Hempton ...

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