The Church in Britain – Three Days, Three Perspectives

I’m in Britain with my family for a few weeks. As a Brit and an ex-pat, living overseas for more than twenty years it has been a privilege to drop in on the church scene in the United Kingdom now and again. I know quite a number of church leaders across the spectrum at the grass-roots level so it’s always good to be able to get some perspectives from those who serve full-time within church and community. I’ll share three of those perspectives from three successive days in June.

On Friday 19th June we had the opportunity to be in Oxford to attend the graduation of a good friend who recently completed his PhD studies in missiology, the study of the mission of the church. He was one of eight from all around the world being awarded their degrees by the Oxford Centre for Mission Studies under the authority of the University of Middlesex.

The ceremony took place in the hall of St. Phillip and St. James, which was formally a church of the Anglican communion. Medieval painting and statuary are much in evidence. The lighting is provided by hanging circles of wrought iron upon which candles would have been mounted but where now electric candle bulbs have been affixed. Coupling these features with the reds and blues and blacks of a variety of academic caps and gowns and you could be forgiven for thinking you were on the set of Wolf Hall.

The ceremonial however complements the hard work of academic research that in this case covered subjects as diverse as the role of the church in alleviating poverty in Kenya; the work of the Orthodox church in Christian-Muslim dialog; and church growth in Sabah, Malaysia. Within the arena of academic excellence provided by Oxford it was special to glimpse an intellectual inspiration that furthers the growth of the church around the world.

Our Saturday saw us attending the GoFest at Bulstrode near Beaconsfield. This annual festival is an event which serves to mobilize the church for mission in the nations. The festival runs for the weekend but we dropped in for the day on Saturday and, taking advantage of the program for kids, were ourselves able to hear some of the missionary statesmen attending. I had been to a similar event at the same location thirty-one years ago at which time the plenary speaker was Dr. Helen Roseveare, veteran missionary from the Congo. This time one of the main speakers was James Hudson Taylor IV, great-great grandson of Hudson Taylor who in 1865 founded the China Inland Mission which, as the Overseas Missionary Fellowship, continues today in great service to the church in Asia.

Another speaker who we enjoyed hearing from was David Garrison, author of A Wind in the House of Islam, an analysis of the evidence of movements to Christ in the Muslim world. His research, conducted over three years of travel conducting more than one thousand interviews with Muslims who have become Christians, reveals great testimony to the impact of the gospel in many parts of the world. As a church historian he can point to only three times in the history of the church prior to the twentieth century in which more than a thousand Muslims were voluntarily baptized Christian among a particular community. The twentieth century saw eleven such events, but he has documented sixty-nine defined and confirmed movements to Christ among Muslims during just the first twelve years of the twenty-first century.

With about a thousand people in attendance at Go-Fest it was encouraging to learn that there are many across Britain who are inspired by the missionary call and testimony.

Sunday 21st took us up to London to the Westminster Central Hall where my friend and mentor, Martin Turner, has served as pastor for the last fourteen years. He was preaching his farewell service as he enters semi-retirement in the West of England.

Parliament Square is often the scene of demonstration and protest. Churchill’s statue broods over the scene along with those of Oliver Cromwell and Richard the Lion-heart. The Palace of Westminster, complete with the Elizabeth Tower housing the chimes of Big Ben, is often the scene of earthly tension as political voices compete to shape the nation. But Westminster Abbey, where many a British monarch has been crowned before God and man, stands testimony to more than a thousand years of unbroken worship, and the Central Hall opposite, complete with a non-conformist tradition, witnesses to the growing evangelical movement across the British church.

Central Hall has a beautiful domed sanctuary that serves as a conference venue during the week, but filled with over five hundred worshippers on Sunday it resounded to the praises of God’s people. It was a wonderful experience to worship with a congregation that has almost doubled under a leadership that has successfully drawn together the very diverse elements of London’s community. The voices of worshippers, black and white, Asian and Latino, blended together in a mix of the great traditional Wesleyan hymns and the contemporary offerings of writers such as Matt Redman and Jarrod Cooper.

At a memorial service commemorating the London bombings ten years ago at St. Paul’s Cathedral, held July 7th, Richard Chartres, the Bishop of London stated: Our London is a laboratory for testing whether it will be possible for the cosmopolitan civilisation which is becoming a global reality to hold together.[i] Our experience of the worship at Central Hall demonstrated that certainly in Christ the laboratory test has become an every day reality.

During the days that have followed, our travels have taken us to several other areas of the United Kingdom. We have participated in or witnessed several other encouraging expressions of engaged and growing church giving much hope for the future of the Kingdom of God in this corner of Europe.

[i] http://www.london.anglican.org/articles/the-tenth-anniversary-of-the-london-bombings-a-service-of-commemoration/ – Accessed July 7, 2015

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