Since I am now in Britain doing a whirlwind tour of the place, it might be appropriate to do a whirlwind tour of its Christian history and current state of play. Britain has been around for a long time of course, and so has the Christian faith, beginning around the second century.
It was not only once the greatest empire on earth, but also one of the greatest homes of Christianity. To discuss English church history is to go through a who’s who of famous Christian names. Just consider this very much abbreviated and abridged listing of some famous Christians from England:
-St Patrick, the fifth-century “Apostle of Ireland”
-The Venerable Bede (672-735), monk and first English historian
-John Wycliffe (c. 1330-1384), who translated the Bible from Latin into English.
-William Tyndale (c. 1494–1536), who translated the New Testament and part of the Old Testament into English
-Thomas Cranmer (1489-1556), a leader of the English Reformation and Archbishop of Canterbury
-John Knox (c. 1514–1572), Scottish clergyman and leader of the Reformation
-John Bunyan (1628–1688), Puritan Baptist preacher and author of Pilgrim’s Progress
-John Wesley (1703-1791), revivalist, preacher and founder of the Methodists
-Charles Wesley (1707–1788), clergyman, brother of John Wesley, and great hymn writer
-George Whitefield (1714–1770), clergyman, evangelist and early Methodist preacher
-John Newton (1725–1807), Scottish clergyman, author of Amazing Grace
-William Wilberforce (1759-1833), evangelical Christian, Parliamentarian and abolitionist
-William Carey (1761-1834), known as the founder of modern missions
-Charles Spurgeon (1834-1892), one of England’s greatest preachers
-William Booth (1829-1912), founder of the Salvation Army
-Martyn Lloyd-Jones (1899-1981), a world-famous expository preacher
-C. S. Lewis (1898-1963), Christian author and apologist
-John Stott (1921-2011), Christian writer, preacher and teacher
Many more names of course could be added to the list, and I apologise in advance if I have left off your favourite English Christian. Part of the reason I raise all this is because yesterday I was at a meeting with some key Christian leaders and movers and shakers in London.
In fact, as my wife and I were walking up to where this meeting was held, we stumbled upon All Soul’s Church, an evangelical Anglican church in central London, noted for being the place where John Stott preached for some three decades.
At this gathering of around 25 key Christians, I was impressed with how God always has a remnant left for himself. As many of you may know, this once great Christian nation is no longer great, at least in terms of Christianity. It is now a very dark and secular place indeed.
Just last month the former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams declared England to be a “post-Christian” country. In an interview with The Telegraph he said that Britain is no longer “a nation of believers” and that the Church is likely to decline even further in the years ahead.
His comments follow from remarks made by the Prime Minister David Cameron that Christians should be “more evangelical”. As one newspaper report puts it, he said Christians need to share their faith and “get out there and make a difference to people’s lives”:
In his strongest intervention on religion to date, Mr Cameron said that in an increasingly “secular age” Christians need to be even “more confident” and “ambitious”. He said that he has personally felt the “healing power” of the Church of England’s pastoral care and highlighted its role in “improving our society and the education of our children”. He said he wants to “infuse politics” with Christian “ideals and values” such as “responsibility, hard work, charity, compassion, humility and love”.
How much of a genuine believer Cameron is may be a moot point, and the reality is, Williams may be slightly more on target here than Cameron. All this serves as a backdrop to my time yesterday, where I was honoured to be able to share a few words with this group of English Christian leaders.
The meeting, put on by the dynamic and heroic Dr Lisa Nolland, lay minister and blogger for Anglican Mainstream, was held at the Christian Concern offices. I briefly addressed this group of champions, and urged them to keep standing strong.
I mentioned that Jesus had a dozen followers, and that they managed to turn the world upside down (Acts 17:6). I suggested that with over two dozen present, we had even better odds of transforming our world! I encouraged them to not grow weary in welldoing, nor to let discouragement overcome them.
I mentioned some success stories from Australia, and how we so far had managed to withstand the push for homosexual marriage. I also mentioned some of my experiences in Holland, and my belief that God is not finished with Europe yet.
During Q&A, I was asked if I thought England was too far gone. I replied that in the short term, yes, it probably is, as is the rest of the West. Perhaps the West has reached a spiritual point of no return as mentioned in Romans 1. But I said that we must also consider the long term.
I said God can well bring life out of the spiritual and moral ash heap of England. This will not happen overnight of course. It will not be the stuff of months or years or perhaps even decades. It may well take centuries for the spiritual transformation of England and the West to occur, should the Lord tarry.
But that is how it went 2000 years ago. Paganism took centuries to be routed by Christianity, and we may need that same time frame again. A new dark ages has settled over the West, and we are indeed “post-Christian”. But God is still on the throne, and still able to make dry bones come to life.
I mentioned that we certainly do need more people like Spurgeon and Lloyd-Jones and Stott today in London and in England. Let us pray that God raises up such men, for such a dark time as this. But the group of 25 or so I fellowshipped with yesterday gave me very great hope that all is not lost, and God is still at work in deepest, darkest England.
That phrase is from a title of a book William Booth penned in 1890: In Darkest England and the Way Out. Since I am appealing here to Booth, let me finish with a few of my favourite quotes from this great saint. They should stir the hearts not only of English Christians, but believers the world over:
“The chief danger that confronts the coming century will be religion without the Holy Ghost, Christianity without Christ, forgiveness without repentance, salvation without regeneration, politics without God, heaven without hell.”
“The greatness of a man’s power is the measure of his surrender.”
“Work as if everything depended upon your work, and pray as if everything depended upon your prayer.”
“God loves with a great love the man whose heart is bursting with a passion for the impossible.”
“If I thought I could win one more soul to the Lord by walking on my head and playing the tambourine with my toes, I’d learn how!”
“While women weep, as they do now,
While little children go hungry, as they do now,
While men go to prison, in and out, in and out, as they do now,
While there is a drunkard left,
While there is a poor lost girl upon the streets,
While there remains one dark soul without the light of God,
I’ll fight – I’ll fight to the very end!”