A major 2018 Pew Research Center survey of religious beliefs and practices in Western Europe reported that Western Europe, where Protestant Christianity originated, and Catholicism has been based for most of its history, has become one of the world’s most secular regions. The survey shows that non-practicing Christians (defined, for the purposes of the report, as people who identify as Christians, but attend church services no more than a few times per year) make up the biggest share of the population across the region. In the United Kingdom, for example, there are roughly three times as many non-practicing Christians (55%) as there are church-attending Christians (18%) defined this way.
Recently, my wife Tammy and I, along with four family members, visited a number of sites in Great Britain over a twelve-day period. We were talking about why Christianity declines like it has in Great Britain. According to the Pew survey, some say they gradually drifted away from religion, stopped believing in religious teachings, or were alienated by scandals or church positions on social issues. Sadly, the United States may be headed in the same direction.
Our trip was not specifically a church history trip, but we did visit a few churches and came across other items from Great Britain church history that I wanted to share with you. To prepare for the trip, I listened to Michael Reeves excellent teaching series from Ligonier Ministries The English Reformation and the Puritans.
Here are a few brief reflections on what I saw on our trip.
The first stop of our trip was London. We visited Westminster Abbey, which travel expert Rick Steves calls “the greatest church in the English-speaking world”. We took a tour of the church, and I found it to be a mix of church, museum and cemetery. Steves writes that Westminster Abbey is where the nation’s royalty has been wedded, crowned, and buried since 1066. There are about 3,000 tombs included in the church, including those of 29 kings and queens, as well as hundreds of memorials to poets, politicians (including William Wilberforce) and more.
A few days after our tour, Stephen Nichols published an interesting article on “Medieval Cathedrals”, which makes reference to Westminster Abbey.
Another church we visited in London was St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is England’s national church, the center of the Anglican faith. There has been a church on this spot since 604. The church has been the site of important weddings such as Prince Charles and Lady Diana, and state funerals such as Prime Ministers Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher. While at the church we attended an evensong service.
Not far from Buckingham Palace, on a walk, my brother in law and I came upon Westminster Chapel, the church Dr. Martyn Lloyd-Jones ministered at from 1939-1968.
We stopped in Salisbury to visit the Salisbury Cathedral, an Anglican cathedral. The cathedral, which has the tallest spire in Great Britain, was completed in just 38 years, from 1220-1258. While at the church we attended an evensong service.
We then moved to Oxford, home of the University of Oxford, where the great theologian John Owen once served as Vice Chancellor. There were a number of church history items of note that we saw in Oxford, beginning with this plaque about John Wesley on a building wall.
We saw the Martyr’s Memorial, as well as a cross on Broad Street, marking the spot where Reformers Nicholas Ridley, Hugh Latimer and Thomas Cranmer were burned. I first heard about these martyrs in a wonderful church history course at Covenant Seminary, taught by Dr. David Calhoun.
We toured the grounds of Oxford University’s Magdalen College, where C.S. Lewis taught from 1925 to 1954.
In Edinburgh, Scotland, we saw St. Giles Cathedral, where John Knox – a former Scottish priest who became the great Scottish Reformer, preached beginning in 1569. The church was founded in 1124, and in the 16th century became the focal point of the Scottish Reformation. The Scottish Parliament abolished papal authority in 1560 and decreed that Scotland was now a Protestant country. St Giles’ 400 years as a Catholic church officially came to an end. This was despite Scotland still having a Catholic queen, Mary Queen of Scots.
According to the church’s website, the church is regarded as the Mother Church of World Presbyterianism.
Knox is buried near the church in what is now a parking lot, in space #23. The marker states: “The above stone marks the approximate site of the burial in St. Giles graveyard of John Knox the great Scottish divine who died 24 Nov 1572.” As we approached the marker indicating where his grave was, I was sickened to hear a tour guide defaming him, dancing on his grave and encouraging those in his tour group to do the same. Sadly, Douglas Bond, in his book The Mighty Weakness of John Knox, writes that for the most part, Scotland has resented the life and ministry of Knox.
Despite being one of the world’s most secular regions, Great Britain has a rich church history. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading about these sites we saw on our recent trip.