Importance Of Church Slips Rapidly Among British Once upon a time, England was a very Christian nation. Now, Britain has become one of the most secular countries in Europe. While some say the church plays no role in modern life, there is a highly Christian sector of British society — largely among immigrant communities.
NPR logo

Importance Of Church Slips Rapidly Among British

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
Importance Of Church Slips Rapidly Among British

Importance Of Church Slips Rapidly Among British

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.


And I'm Robert Siegel.

In the time of Geoffrey Chaucer, the late 14th century, England was very Christian. Just look at the characters at the center of Chaucer's classic work, "The Canterbury Tales." There's the parson, the pardoner, the friar, the prioress, the nun's priest and so on. But with the early stirrings of the Reformation, the church was also starting to change and England with it. In the last 150 years, British beliefs have transformed again, as the country has become one of the most secular in the world.

NPR's Rob Gifford is following Chaucer's steps to Canterbury. And today in the third part of his series, he asks: Whatever happened to Christian England?

ROB GIFFORD: If you get off the main A2 road that runs from London to Canterbury and start walking on the smaller rural roads, you'll find the country that Geoffrey Chaucer knew: rural, agricultural, beautiful. It's easy, as a pilgrim on a spring day on the way to Canterbury, to believe that God is in his heaven and that all is right with the world. But in the middle of the 19th century, not very far from here, one man realized that he didn't believe that, and he published a book that would change England and change the world.

Unidentified Woman: Hello, and welcome to Down House, the home of Charles Darwin. We have here your new video guide, and I'll just show you how it works.

GIFFORD: It's 150 years ago exactly since Charles Darwin published his book "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection." His former home, Down House, where he wrote the book and where he lived for 40 years, lies just off the Canterbury Road, and is now open to the general public.

Steven Brindle is senior historian for English Heritage, the organization, which now owns the house and its grounds.

Mr. STEVEN BRINDLE (Senior Historian, English Heritage): We're in Darwin's kitchen garden. And at the far end of it, there's a gate, which leads into his thinking walk, sand walk. The point of the walks was to be alone and undistracted and just think for about an hour every afternoon pacing and thinking and then back to study to write.

GIFFORD: When "On the Origin of Species" was published in 1859, it sparked an exodus from the established church that would have astounded Geoffrey Chaucer, and which has continued to this day. Many people in Britain still say they're Christians. And, of course, under that sometimes frosty exterior, the British people are generally among the warmest, most hospitable people you could meet. 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, as Nicola Ely, who's visiting Down House today, makes clear.

Ms. NICOLA ELY: Now, it's quite unusual if you belong to a church. I think people think you're a bit strange. I mean, older, older people tend to belong, but I don't think it's really something to the young. I wouldn't dream of going to anything, you know, if it was church-based.

GIFFORD: 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.

Ms. VIVIAN HASKEY: I'm still torn, you know. I believe in evolution. Sometimes I believe in God, you know, a Church of England type of God. I do go to church occasionally, and sometimes I don't.

GIFFORD: 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. The Church of England is sometimes called the Conservative Party at prayer. But now that premise is being challenged within the church.

Mr. MICHAEL NAZIR-ALI (106th Bishop of Rochester): This is Bishop School, which is where bishops of Rochester lived. And I'm the 106th bishop, though, the only Asian, as far as I know of the 106.

GIFFORD: Bishop of Rochester Michael Nazir-Ali was born in Pakistan, but moved to Britain for theological studies. Nazir-Ali is one of the new intellectual evangelicals who've tried to shake up the Church of England. He's also ruffling feathers by saying the country needs to drop its new multicultural, multifaith agenda to get back to its Christian roots.

Mr. NAZIR-ALI: 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, because all of Britain's cultural, literary, political, legal life is rooted in the Judeo-Christian tradition.

GIFFORD: Nazir-Ali has also 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.

Mr. NAZIR-ALI: Yes, I mean, it is ironical. But, of course, the Christian Church is worldwide. And whilst there is a debt of gratitude that people in Africa and Asia and Latin America owe to those who went from here with the gospel, well, it may well be the turn of others to bring the gospel back here.

Unidentified Group: (Singing foreign language)

GIFFORD: 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 here five years ago. And she believes that's why there's so much of what she calls lawlessness in British society and binge drinking every weekend. She says Britain needs to be re-evangelized.

Ms. ADUNLA OGUNLADE: 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. British people brought Christianity to my country, then why should they lose it? No.

GIFFORD: You don't have to go very far to find out exactly what she means.

(Soundbite of a crowd)

GIFFORD: The music may be slightly different, but the scenes on Rochester High Street look remarkably similar to how they might have done when the drunken pardoner and his fellow pilgrims rolled into town more than 600 years ago. The street is lined with pubs. And, as in most towns in Britain, every Friday and Saturday night, there are thousands of people here just drinking to get drunk, people like 23-year-old Philip Purnell and 25-year-old Hayley Harvey.

How many are you going to have this evening?

Mr. PHILIP PURNELL: As much as my body will allow - has to have been about 30 or 40 pints.

GIFFORD: Thirty pints?

Mr. PURNELL: At least.

Ms. HAYLEY HARVEY: Probably I'm going to have 30 tonight.

GIFFORD: Like, what is that, 30 shots?

Ms. HARVEY: Yeah. Yes, 30 shots of vodka.

GIFFORD: And what kind of state are you going to be in at the end of the evening?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HARVEY: I'll be on my bum.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. HARVEY: I'll be on the floor. I'll be sick, and I'll be carried home, probably. I love it.

(Soundbite of laughter)

GIFFORD: At the end of the evening, I take a taxi driven by a recent Muslim immigrant from Kashmir. Bashir, who didn't want to give his family name, says there are many things he likes about Britain and he doesn't regret coming. There are many opportunities for his children. But like the Nigerian Christians, he's discovered a different Britain to the one he'd been taught about and the one he was expecting.

So, is it always this crazy?

Mr. BASHIR: Yes. No etiquette, no manners. I can't believe when the people sit here, and instead of end of the journey, instead of saying thank you, they run away without paying. And sometimes they kick our cabs. They spit our face. So the future is in these people's hands?

GIFFORD: It's a question that many people here are asking and a question that rings in my ears as I continue along the road.

This is Rob Gifford, NPR News, on the Canterbury Road in Rochester.

SIEGEL: Tomorrow, Rob goes fox hunting to get a feel for Britain's longstanding class divide, and a return to Chaucerian bawdiness in contemporary Britain.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.