July 19, 2005
When Lord Bromley Betchworth returned to the United Kingdom (U.K.) after living in the U.S. for 12 years, he returned to a culture that had dramatically changed.
"I was shocked at how moral values had changed in such a short time and how church attendance in mainstream denominations was in free fall," he said. "Four out of five churches were either declining or simply static."
Betchworth wrote those words in the forward to a fascinating new report that seeks to explain the moral breakdown in a once vibrant Christian nation.
A Moral Collapse
In many ways, what has happened in the U.K. may be in the future for the U.S., because the two nations have had a similar religious past, according to Christie Davies, professor emeritus of sociology at the University of Reading, England, and author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain.
"At the end of the 19th century, there were comparable levels of religiosity in Britain and the United States. The British lived in a culture in which the assumptions of Protestant Christianity were taken for granted," Davies wrote in The New Criterion.
But he said that, generally beginning after World War II, the nation's morality collapsed, and the U.K. saw dramatically worsening trends in illegitimacy, substance abuse, crime and other sorts of behavior that were once considered sinful.
In 2000, the Anglican archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. George Carey, also noted Britain's moral decline. "A tacit atheism prevails. Death is assumed to be the end of life. Our concentration on the here-and-now renders a thought of eternity irrelevant."
A year later, Cardinal Cormac Murphy-O'Connor, who as archbishop of Westminster is the spiritual leader for more than four million Catholics in England and Wales, agreed. Quoted in The Times (London), he spoke of the rising popularity of New Age and occult beliefs, and to the growing tendency of people to find temporary happiness in alcohol, drugs, pornography, sex and consumerism.
"It does seem in our countries in Britain today, especially in England and Wales, that Christianity, as a sort of backdrop to people's lives and moral decisions -- and to the Government, the social life of the country -- has now almost been vanquished."
'Let the People Speak'
How did such a spiritual catastrophe occur? Some might be quick to point to the rise of secularism in the late 1800s and throughout the first half of the 20th century, which culminated in the U.K.'s acceptance of a welfare state after World War II.
However, secularism may be a result, and not a cause, of the death of religion in the U.K. In fact, Davies traces the first major evidences of Christianity's decline to the 1950s, when religious participation began to droop, especially as evidenced by Sunday School attendance.
In order to delve into these issues, the interdenominational Ecumenical Research Committee (ERC), convened in 2002, designed and executed a year-long survey of churchgoers "of every denomination and theological persuasion." More than 14,000 people responded to the questionnaire, which was designed with open-ended questions, instead of the more traditional "check box" format. This was done to allow respondents to elaborate on their feelings, rather than being steered to a limited number of options.
The report of the results, "Let the People Speak," noted that 91 percent of the responses expressed the same opinions.
"What was causing this erosion of values? Why were people turning away from the church? And more to the point, what can be done about it?" were the questions that the ERC's survey was attempting to answer, Betchworth said.
So, when the people spoke, what did they say? What were they looking for? The following are some of the answers found in the report:
Believing and Caring Shepherds.
The failure of many ministers to defend the faith and responsibly carry out what parishioners expected of the clergy was a theme throughout the survey results.
For example, many respondents complained that their ministers hardly seemed to believe in Christianity themselves. Said one churchgoer: "Often clergy do little to try and convince us that God exists, let alone outline the logical reasons behind our belief in the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection."
Ministers also came in for serious criticism when it came to conducting worship services. The report said many churchgoers complained about "shoddy services" and "ministers going through the motions," even to the point of virtually speed-reading through the sermon or preaching it in a voice that was "inaudible" or without any "real conviction or sincerity."
One middle-aged couple said, "We used to go to church expecting very little and came away with nothing. This has now changed to expecting nothing and coming away with even less .... [W]hat we want are services taken with a conviction and a passion for Christ."
Many people said they wanted clergy "to give greater priority to home visiting and pastoral care, in order to reflect God's love and concern for the individual."
That was something that most people couldn't get anywhere else. As one woman said, "It is a very uncaring world now, and the church should not be emulating this but rather standing out against it and being seen as a caring community."
However, due to organizational priorities in their denominations, parishioners said ministers were given so many administrative duties that they had no time to tend to the needs of the people beyond conducting services.
The report noted that there is "a spiritual hunger among congregations for a greater understanding of a wide range of relevant topics," and Christians think that hunger should be fed, at least to a large extent, during the sermon.
But they aren't getting that substance. Time and again, respondents complained that they were getting only "platitudes," "political and social sermons" or "matters of little spiritual significance."
A churchgoer declared, "I need help to grow in my faith and help to become the person Christ wants me to be."
"Tinkering around with service times or liturgy won't work if the message isn't there," said one churchgoer. "The heart of the matter is that congregations want to hear what the Bible says in a relevant way, with conviction and passion."
A Worshipping Community.
"People want churches to give priority to the ministry of worship, satisfying all the various aspects worship involves," the survey report found.
As one might expect, there were thousands of responses dealing with the form, or style of worship in the service. While some called for more traditional liturgy, and others for a more modern approach, both sides conceded that a balance of styles would be fine. Almost all were in agreement, however, that services that "bordered on entertainment rather than worship" were the most disappointing.
Moreover, many of the respondents realized that their spiritual journey was not one to be taken alone, and so it is not surprising that "the sense of fellowship experienced" was also something that made a difference for churchgoers.
"They said that they derived pleasure from worshipping with others, it gave them a sense of belonging," the report said, " a sense of comradeship and a sense of being part of a 'spiritual family.'"
This sense of belonging to a spiritual family was made more critical because of the brokenness of relationships, marriages and families in the U.K.
A Prophetic Church.
There was a real desire expressed in the survey responses for more teaching emphasis "on the nature of God's holiness and the implications this has for individuals and our two nations."
Many said this message had been missing from the church for decades, having been gradually replaced by a one-sided proclamation that God was "loving and nothing more."
Approximately 75 percent of respondents -- more than 10,000 in number -- saw the lack of a clarion call for holiness as a very real explanation for the decline of Christianity's influence in the U.K.
"Many who used to attend church are now filled with apathy," the report summarized. "They no longer see any point in attending, because the message they have been given is that 'God loves me anyway,' regardless of whether or not they attend church or change their lives, so why bother?"
This was one of the central laments of the Christians that answered the ERC questionnaire. People "are calling on churches to robustly defend moral values with conviction and courage and cease being 'silent' and 'lukewarm' in the face of moral collapse" in the U.K., the report said.
To accomplish this, the church must arise to its "divine calling" as a prophetic voice in the nation, because the church was given the task of "being the moral conscience of the [U.K.] and a proclaimer of the true character of God."
Defense of the Faith.
In the face of an entrenched secularism in the U.K., many respondents said they wanted churches to "emphasize the many reasons why believing in God and Christianity makes sense and to challenge a doubting society."
This was a factor that was mentioned in 73 percent of the letters received. Said one churchgoer: "It is a myth to say that the people of this country have rejected Christianity; they simply haven't been told enough about it to either accept or reject it."
The lack of both a bold declaration of the Christian faith and a vigorous defense of Christian truths -- apologetics -- seems to have occasioned much discouragement among those Christians in the U.K. who remain true to the faith.
"If churches started defending these beleaguered [Christian] values, the effect would be profound, galvanizing and encouraging millions of ordinary decent people," Betchworth said.
Will the churches -- and especially the clergy -- listen to the thousands of Christians who responded to the ERC survey? Only time will tell, but the future of the United Kingdom may rest on that decision.
Ed Vitagliano, a regular contributor to AgapePress, is news editor for AFA Journal, a monthly publication of the American Family Association. This article appeared in the July 2005 issue.