Cover Story

Two Faiths Colliding

Church and state in England have long been brothers under the same monarch, and today such state programs as the National Health Service have become the British religion. But some Christian conservatives are beginning to take on the worship of government.

Issue: "UK: Two faiths collide," July 22, 2000

in London - Many of us know that Wimbledon ended last week, the British Open comes up soon, and the storybook Prince Charles-Princess Diana marriage failed. A few of us know that Labour Party leader Tony Blair became prime minister in 1997 and is having a Bill Clinton-like (minus the Monica Lewinsky) run of popularity. That's about it when it comes to American familiarity with British government and politics. And yet, as the three accompanying articles show, major changes may be underway in Great Britain. Exploring and interpreting those changes is much harder than it may seem at first: Because people in England and America speak the same language, more or less, and have some common historical experiences, our tendency is to assume cultural similarities that actually are not present. British Christians and conservatives are trying to renew a country that has become even more reliant on government and less reliant on God than our own. Journalist Matthew d'Ancona wrote last month in the Sunday Telegraph, one of London's major newspapers, of "a faith much more deeply ingrained in this country than Christianity. Since [World War II], and to a much greater extent than in America, an astonishingly powerful superstition has arisen that only the State is truly competent to preserve the fabric of society and to address its most pressing needs." Mr. d'Ancona continued, "The British like their charities and churches well enough, but they have lost the sense that such bodies can be a principal source of social cohesion and welfare." Instead, the British worship their socialized medicine plan, the National Health Service, which is held up as "the closest thing the English have to a religion." Mr. d'Ancona concluded, "For all the rhetoric of a 'new civic politics'... we still turn instinctively to the State for solutions. When politicians refer to 'compassion,' the public still thinks they mean 'public spending.'" Why? Part of the reason is long-ago history. The Church of England and the government of England have been brothers for almost five centuries, with the monarch serving as both head of state and supreme governor of the denomination. In the United States, however, no single domination was "established" (supported by government funds), so a multiplicity of denominations took the lead in educational activities until the mid-19th century and in welfare activities until the 1930s. When those activities were taken over by government, with its secure funding base, some church leaders felt uneasy. Not so in England, where the establishment of a National Health Service a half-century ago is still viewed less as socialist victory than the state rightfully taking on Christ-like duties of healing. In recent times, British Christians never had a shock similar to that affecting American Christians when our Supreme Court in 1973 legalized abortion-on-demand throughout the United States. No "Moral Majority" or "Christian Coalition" developed in Britain. Now, while more than a third of Americans apply the description "born-again Christian" to themselves, fewer than one of a hundred does so in Britain. That may be a matter of nomenclature, but experts say the evangelical population in Britain does not exceed 3 million, or roughly 5 percent of the total. Many American evangelicals talk about Christ readily and pray even in restaurants; British Christians often feel uncomfortable about public expressions of piety or discussions of belief. The idea of faith-based charities taking over some welfare functions is a great stretch in Britain, where churchmen are far more ready to praise the welfare state in ways that suggest government's activity not as secular but deeply moral. And yet, as the current Labour government works to legitimize homosexuality and opposes biblical standards in many other ways as well, Bible-honoring conservatives in Britain will have to debate what is Caesar's and what is God's. Christian MPs (Members of Parliament) will have to decide whether to step up and into a national debate where animosity toward biblical Christianity is rampant. Sometimes the hostility is palpable: Services in one church were disrupted by motorcyclists driving around the pews, and members sometimes faced pelting with stones as they left services. More often the hostility comes out in the form of sarcastic press references and mockery of biblical views. Some Christians head into the closet and stay there, but some are willing to stand up. WORLD will be watching as they do.

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Marvin Olasky
Marvin Olasky

Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD News Group and the author of more than 20 books, including The Tragedy of American Compassion. Follow Marvin on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.

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