Beautiful churches that could be the centerpieces for Christmas tales crown English villages-but fewer than one in 10 Britons regularly attend church.
Churches and their ministers once spoke out for biblical values, but Anglican bishops now argue for human cloning and the lifting of restrictions on what schools can teach about homosexuality. A survey after the parliamentary election in June showed that churchgoers voted almost in exactly the same way as nonbelievers. And this summer, the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) appointed an agnostic to run its religious programming.
This retreat of the Christian witness within Britain has contributed to increasing rates of family breakdown, crime, suicide, and loneliness. Neither 50 years of a comprehensive welfare state nor higher-than-ever living standards have reversed these trends.
Materialism has consistently failed the most vulnerable members of society, but today Britain's middle classes are becoming aware that drugs, sexually transmitted diseases, and incivility respect no boundaries of income, ethnicity, or place. Middle-class parents once worried about whether their children would find a job after school. Today they worry about the pressures at school to experiment with drugs, alcohol, or sex.
This restlessness in the national mood is an obvious opportunity for Britain's churches, yet booksellers devote much more space to New Age and occult titles than to the home-grown Christian literature of C.S. Lewis and others. One helpful trend: The Alpha course-which began at London's Holy Trinity Brompton Church-is leading the way in reintroducing biblical basics to the nation's churchgoers.
Britain's most-watched TV channel is screening a 10-part series on Alpha, and viewing figures-despite late-night scheduling-are respectable. Other Christian programming would be helpful, but there is actually a statutory ban on national Christian broadcasting. (The opposition Conservative Party has campaigned against this-so far, unsuccessfully.)
Britain greatly needs a recovery of social responsibility. The country of Nightingale, Wilberforce, and Shaftesbury once saw love for a needy neighbor as integral to Christian discipleship. Today, bishops of the Church of England are likely to be at the front of any chorus calling for increased taxation to pay for this or that government project. This deprives the poor of the hope, dignity, and moral strength that church-based welfare, at its best, provides.
Nearly two centuries ago William Wilberforce wrote words that remain true for his home country as for any nation: "[The best hope for Britain is not] in her fleet and armies, not so much in the wisdom of her rulers, but in the spirit of her people and in the persuasion that she still contains many who, in a degenerate age, love and obey the Gospel of Christ." My prayer is that more people-not least within the church-will realize this.