Importance Of Church Slips Rapidly Among British

Third in a five-part series

For 40 years, British naturalist Charles Darwin lived at Downe House off the Canterbury Road. i i

For 40 years, British naturalist Charles Darwin lived at Down House in the village of Downe, just off the Canterbury Road. His home is now open to the public. Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images
For 40 years, British naturalist Charles Darwin lived at Downe House off the Canterbury Road.

For 40 years, British naturalist Charles Darwin lived at Down House in the village of Downe, just off the Canterbury Road. His home is now open to the public.

Carl de Souza/AFP/Getty Images
The study at Charles Darwin's Down House i i

When Darwin's seminal work, On the Origin of Species, was published in 1859, it sparked an exodus from the established church that has continued to this day. Here, a view of his study at Down House. Carl de Souza/AFG/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Carl de Souza/AFG/Getty Images
The study at Charles Darwin's Down House

When Darwin's seminal work, On the Origin of Species, was published in 1859, it sparked an exodus from the established church that has continued to this day. Here, a view of his study at Down House.

Carl de Souza/AFG/Getty Images
Lindsay Powell/NPR

The New Canterbury Tales

A five-part NPR series retraces the steps of Geoffrey Chaucer's pilgrims in The Canterbury Tales to explore Britain in the early 21st century. It offers a portrait of a changing nation some 600 years after the pilgrims made their colorful journey from London to Canterbury. Read an overview of the series.

Part 1: Britain Struggles With Questions Of Identity

Part 2: An England Coping With Change, Loss

Part 4: Chaucer's Cheek Too Bold For Britain?

Hayley Harvey i i

Hayley Harvey, 25, is among the crowds thronging the pub-lined main street in the town of Rochester. hide caption

itoggle caption
Hayley Harvey

Hayley Harvey, 25, is among the crowds thronging the pub-lined main street in the town of Rochester.

Great Britain has changed substantially since the time of Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, which described life in late 14th century England. For this five-part series, Rob Gifford retraced Chaucer's steps, walking the 60 miles from London to Canterbury, to give a snapshot of Britain in the early 21st century.

Once upon a time, England was very Christian. One can tell just from the number of church men and women whose tales grace the pages of The Canterbury Tales.

The parson, the pardoner, the nun's priest — the list goes on. But the church was just starting to change at the time, as the early stirrings of the Reformation were just beginning. Fast forward several centuries beyond that Reformation, and there has been plenty of change in the church in Britain in recent decades, too.

Church attendance is slipping rapidly as Britain has become one of the most secular countries in Europe. The English church has always seemed to swing between the two extremes: from the piousness of Puritanism to the dissolute courts of the Restoration; from the high tide of Victorian evangelicalism to the deep and broad secularism of the 20th century and beyond.

Some lay the blame for the modern departure from God at the feet of one man, who lived for 40 years not far from the Canterbury Road.

The Impact Of Darwin

It is 150 years exactly since Charles Darwin published his book On the Origin of Species: By Means of Natural Selection. His former home, Down House, in the tiny village of Downe, is now open to the general public.

When On the Origin of Species was published in 1859, it sparked an exodus from the established church that has continued to this day. Many people in Britain still say they are Christians, and of course, under that sometimes frosty exterior, the British people are generally among the warmest, most hospitable people on Earth.

But they don't go to church much, and now believing in God and attending church are no longer seen as an essential part of being a moral, upstanding citizen.

"Now it's quite unusual if you belong to a church; I think people think you're a bit strange," says Nicola Ely, a visitor to Down House. "Older people tend to belong, but I don't think it's really something for the young. I wouldn't dream of going to anything if it's church-based."

Push To Get Back To Roots

For people who do still believe, though, there doesn't seem to be the same conflict that exists in the United States between the idea of evolution and the idea of God. There are no culture wars in Britain — it's all so jolly moderate now. Still, visitor Vivian Haskey admits she is struggling a little to reconcile the two.

"I'm still torn. I believe in evolution. Sometimes I believe in God, a Church-of-England-type-of-God," she says. "I go to church occasionally, and sometimes I don't."

What people tend to mean by a Church-of-England-type-of-God is that the church has settled on a moderate — critics say wishy-washy — type of God who doesn't challenge people too much. But now that premise itself is being challenged within the church.

Michael Nazir-Ali, the 106th bishop of Rochester, is also the first Asian bishop in the history of the Church of England. He was born in Pakistan, but moved to Britain for theological studies.

Nazir-Ali is one of the new intellectual evangelicals who have tried to shake up the Church of England. He is also ruffling feathers by saying the country needs to get back to its Christian roots.

"I think modern Britain has had an identity crisis, and we have now reached a stage where we need recovery, and it must be recovery rather than simply the forging of a brand new identity," says Nazir Ali, who announced last month that he would leave his post later this year. "All of Britain's cultural, literary, political, legal life is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition."

Nazir-Ali has earned himself death threats by being very critical of Islam in a way that few white bishops would dare. But he says his comments have also earned him thousands of letters of support. He sees the irony that he and the Ugandan-born Archbishop of York John Sentamu are perhaps the two most outspoken supporters of Christian Britain.

In the living room of a house in Rochester, a small group of Nigerian Christians is gathering for its weekly Bible study and prayer meeting.

Adunla Ogunlade says she was shocked by the lack of belief in God in Britain when she first arrived five years ago. And she says she believes that is why there is so much "lawlessness" in British society and binge drinking every weekend. She says Britain needs to be re-evangelized.

"If you come to our church or come to our house or even when we are praying in the night, we pray for Britain to be evangelized back, to go back to their first love," she says. "British people brought Christianity to my country. Then why should they lose it?"

The Youth And The Future

You don't have to go very far to find out exactly what she means. In downtown Rochester, on the road to Canterbury, the main street is lined with pubs. And, as in most towns in Britain, every Friday and Saturday night they are filled with people drinking to get drunk — among them, people like 23-year-old Philip Purnell and 25-year-old Hayley Harvey.

Purnell says he'll have "as many as his body will allow" — and that the last time he was out drinking he had 30 pints.

"I'll have about 30 [shots of vodka]," says Harvey. "I'll be on my bum, I'll be on the floor, I'll be sick, and I'll be carried home probably. I love it."

Taxi driver Bashir, who didn't want to give his family name, says there are many things he likes about Britain. He says he does not regret coming — he is a recent Muslim immigrant from Kashmir — and that there are many opportunities for his children. But, like the Nigerian Christians, he has discovered a different Britain to the one he had been taught about and was expecting.

"I can't believe when the people sit here, and at the end of the journey, instead of saying thank you, they run away without paying," he says. "And sometimes they kick our cabs — they spit [in] our face. So, the future is in these people's hands?"

It's a question that many people are asking.

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