Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
February 7, 1952
NUMBER 39, PAGE 8,11b

A Survey Of Religion In England

Harold Wiley Freer, Westlake, Ohio

(Editor's Note: The following article was written by Harold Wiley Freer, pastor of the Dover Congregational Church in Westlake, Ohio. Mr. Freer spent several weeks in the British Isles last summer on an "exchange pastorate" arrangement with a British clergyman. His observations concerning religious conditions in England will show that an established church (State supported) under even the most favorable circumstances cannot win the loyalty or support of the common people. Our British brethren have a great responsibility, and a great opportunity, to present the true gospel of Christ to their confused and disillusioned countrymen.)

Lesser numbers even than last year are connected with churches in England. Dr. Bryan Green, rector of the parish church of Birmingham, popular evangelist in both New York and Boston, reported last summer that just under ten percent of the population of the British Isles were in any way connected with a church, either the Church of England or a free church. This summer from general sources both Anglican and free I am told the percentage is closer to seven.

Most of this loss is among those in ages from 20 to 40. Rare is the congregation with more than a handful under 50. Dr: Leslie Weatherhead of City Temple (Congregational), Dr. W. E. Sangster of Central Hall (Methodist), and Dr. Donald G. Soper (Methodist), as well as Dr. Green of Birmingham, all do have large numbers of young people. But the very fact that these four can be mentioned suggests the paucity of ministers and churches able to win and hold the youth.


One young man reported to me, "The church people don't want to answer our questions. They tell us just to accept what they say, and believe it as they say; and we want to know why." Yet he is a churchgoer himself, speaking for his college mates who like him are searching for answers. But far too often the "naughty-naughty" attitude of the older folk toward any of their questionings is turning them away from the church.

"Our minister doesn't know we face problems," another young adult said. "I am embarrassed to be the only person in the 30's at many church meetings for men, but other ministers are like mind. He lives in a dream world. We don't go to church to hear lectures on the Bible. We want sermons that show how the Bible gives spiritual strength for today."

Tradition Weighs

What is more, tradition is a heavy burden upon the English churches. Two services each Sunday are almost mandatory, with the evening service at 6:30 usually the larger in attendance. Women's groups normally meet once a week, and like the youth groups as well, have miniature church services, including the inevitable four hymns, almost always sung in slow tempo, truly "dragged" to American ears. Vitality is missing, and the colorless routine is terribly monotonous.

In the Church of England this tradition-loving is even more apparent. I visited one such village church, an ancient building with fascinating pews and quaint glass, whose choir still was lighted only by candles overhead. But there are only two houses within a half mile, those of the vicar and of a fairly well-to-do farmer. The two families make up the congregation, and through endowments (the "living" of the church) the vicar receives his income. Yet he is quite content to conduct services for the handful, because it is a good "living."

Out Of Step

Further, many of the Anglican church buildings are museum pieces, with crowds on holidays walking through them during the week, but mere handfuls being there on Sundays. They come to see the windows or the Norman arches or the weird tombs, dead things. A young school teacher, himself a church member, declared that undoubtedly the emphasis of the church upon its ancient backgrounds did much to make it out of step with the present world. "People won't attend divine services when they are surrounded only by the dead," he said.

Of course, it has not been only in recent years that attendance and interest has fallen away. With the lords of the manor condescending to attend the church, the villagers have basked in his glory; but gradually the wealthy alone have supported the church. The poor folk, finding no help from it, have slipped away. Now they won't come back to a church that has long forgotten them.

The Wrong Tack

Bishop Stephen Neil, Anglican representative on the staff of the World Council of Churches in Geneva, told some of us: "The church has taken the wrong side in nearly every social issue."

While that is quite true in America, it is especially true in his own Britain. Because the church here has long aided with the landed gentry or with the industrialist, the common folk distrust its motives. One of the wardens of London's oldest settlement houses refuses now to have anything to do with the church just because it has long ignored the people of his area.

Hence, when the Anglican churches only partially damaged are quickly repaired after the war bombings, and the Free churches have great trouble getting permits for the slightest reconstruction, yet homes of the poor still cannot be put in proper shape, the poor look with suspicion upon the state church, and so upon any church.

Dictatorial Control

Within the churches themselves there is far more dictatorial control than we would permit in America. The minister in almost every church, Anglican or Free, presides at all business meetings, of the deaconate, of the Sunday School, of the congregation. His word is almost law; so that he can readily push aside any suggestion for change, whether good or ill.

In the Methodist churches when the minister is not present at a business meeting, the officers carry on just the same without him. But not one single item of their business can be executed until the minister has himself gone over the records, and approved each item. The congregation or the officers have no say in the matter. The other Free churches are equally under the control of the minister.


In one small-town church near where I served my exchange pastorate there is a Congregational minister in his 30's who has won the youth to his church. He talks with them and finds their thoughts. Through them he has won their parents. And by the vitality of his program and the sharing with others of both responsibility and planning, he has one of the few smaller churches that is answering the spiritual searching of the British young adults. But so unusual is this man and his church that it is the talk of many, some with approval, and a few with jealousy.

Yet this man feels that his service is handicapped both by the burden of tradition and by the lack of lay participation. He is patiently teaching his people to begin thinking for themselves in their religious life, but he has little cooperation among the other ministers. For he might create a condition among his own people by which some of the other men will face revolution. And who wants to face revolution, even in church? It is far better to keep to the old ways.

Yet within the young people, especially in the universities, there is a true search for spiritual valises. If the church cannot give it to them, they will find it in small fellowships. But they would like to find it in the church. So far they can't.