Magazine article The Christian Century

Cambridge Evangelicals

Magazine article The Christian Century

Cambridge Evangelicals

Article excerpt

Having just spent my third sabbatical year since 1978 in Cambridge, England, and having made a number of visits in between, I have been able to witness the seemingly inexorable process of secularization in Great Britain. By "secularization" I mean not only the waning power and influence of religious institutions in other sectors of modern life, but also the diminishing influence of the Christian faith in the individual lives of British citizens. Each visit to Cambridge has brought depressing evidence of the general loss of Christian presence in British life.

The statistics recorded in Social Trends - 1993 are pretty grim. Between 1975 and 1990 over a million people deserted Christian churches. The 8.06 million participating members in 1975 fell to 6.77 in 1990. That figure includes all Christian denominations - Anglican, Catholic and nonconformist. Total British Christian membership amounts to that of a good-sized American denomination - and that in a country of 56 million people. There are more Catholics in church on a Sunday morning than Anglicans, but that is simply because Catholic decline has been less precipitous than Anglican. Meanwhile, Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus have grown from 810,000 to 1.86 million and Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses from 330,000 to 460,000.

Anecdotal evidence confirms this trend. One encounters growing numbers of "ordinary" people- not academics or other professionals who have a long history of secularist tendencies - who have had no meaningful connection with Christian churches. Sunday mornings are increasingly the time for shopping, athletic events and tourism.

In spite of all this, there are continuing marks of Christian presence in many aspects of British life. Religious intellectuals - lay and clergy alike - still seem to be taken more seriously in the media than in America. The news media pay attention to churchly events and decisions. Certainly there are more high-quality religious programs on radio and TV than in the U.S.

It is also possible to discern distinct shoots of renewal within the dominant Christian tradition. They are provided overwhelmingly by the evangelicals, who are identifiable within the Anglican communion as well as other Protestant denominations and independent churches. They include charismatics as well as Reformation types. The former are also present in significant numbers among Catholics. Evangelicals have distinct characteristics that make them feel more at home with their compatriots in other traditions than with the high-church or liberal factions of their own churches. They have great esprit de corps and are growing rapidly.

Cambridge is an unlikely hotbed of evangelical strength - unlikely because of its domination by a great secular university as well as because of its high-tech economic base. Great doses of modern education and spiritual renewal seem an unlikely combination.

But the city has at least a dozen flourishing evangelical and charismatic churches. in the past year I observed four churches - Eden Baptist, St. Andrew's Street Baptist, the Round Church and Holy Trinity. The last two are Anglican. Each of these churches is very attractive to students of Cambridge University; literally thousands of students worship at these churches during the academic term. They are rapidly gaining members from among the permanent population of Cambridge as well. What follows is a composite portrait:

Expository biblical preaching. These churches not only have Bibles available to every participant, but most insist strongly that you bring your own so that you can underline and make notes. The expositions last from 30 to 40 minutes and no one even sighs. Whole biblical books are taken up over a period of weeks; complete narratives are worked through. The preaching is not flamboyant. Indeed, preachers go out of their way to diminish themselves in relation to the text. There is very little personal testimony, virtually no reliance on "my story. …

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