Global Perspectives: United Kingdom
In this episode, Darrell Bock and Krish Kandiah discuss what Christianity is like in the United Kingdom, focusing on the Christian presence in positions of influence.
The Table is a weekly podcast on topics related to God, Christianity, and cultural engagement brought to you by the Hendricks Center at Dallas Theological Seminary. The show features interviews with guests who are experts on the chosen topic, and each episode is hosted by a member of The Hendricks Center’s team.
- Overview of the United Kingdom
- Political and Social Identity in the United Kingdom
- Church Attendance in the United Kingdom
- The Voice of the Church in the United of Kingdom
- Call For Christians to Serve Their City
Welcome to The Table where we discuss issues of God and culture, and today our topic is Christianity in the UK. So we're going to be over viewing first the United Kingdom, and then we'll talk about Christianity in the United Kingdom. And my guest is just a delightful friend, Krish Kandiah, who is director for the Sanctuary Foundation in the UK. What does the Sanctuary Foundation do?
Hey, Darrell, lovely to be with you. Sanctuary Foundation was set up to support refugees that are coming to the UK and we bring together the church and wider civil society and business to wrap around those communities, so we're quite excited. It's a unique kind of catalyst that is leveraging as much support as we can around vulnerable people.
So when we do a global perspective on a given country, we first kind of overview the situation in the country and what the country is like, and a little bit of its history, and then we turn to the church. So I'll start off by asking a simple question that will be so simple, you'll laugh, but still, what is the difference between England and the UK?
Oh, that's a good question. The United Kingdom is made up of Great Britain, which is the land mass that has Scotland, Wales, and England in it. But the United Kingdom is including Northern Ireland and some of the little islands around as well. So Great Britain is a land mass. England is one of the countries within that land mass. And the United Kingdom is the bigger political realm.
So when we think of parliament, et cetera, it's the UK parliament, it's not just the English parliament. Is that correct?
That's a great question. We have devolved some powers to regional governments. So Scotland has its own Assembly, as does Wales. And so they can discuss their own approach to education, things like adoption, which is in my world, that's different in Scotland than it is to England. So some things are UK-wide and some things are devolved down, so it's even more complicated.
And there's a big conversation now, since Brexit, when 52% of Britons that voted decided they didn't want to be part of the European Union, there's a big conversation about whether the United Kingdom will remain one. And so there's a big vote that happens periodically in Scotland about whether they're going to become an independent nation and go back and join the European Union. So these are interestingly hot topics at the moment, Darrell.
Interesting. But technically speaking, Parliament has representation from all parts of the United Kingdom, is that correct?
It does, yeah.
Okay. Well, you mentioned Brexit, so we might as well go there. So are the British people European or not?
Well, there's two levels of answering that. We are definitely part of the continent of Europe. That has not changed. We have not become a separate continent. There's a debate about the relationship that Britons want with Europe when it comes to law making and economics and trade. And so there was a huge kerfuffle, big vote. I don't think even those that were in the Leave campaign thought they could possibly win it, but they did, by a very small majority. And it's still an issue of much contention about how people in Britain feel about themselves.
So there has been a rise in nationalism and isolationism, and that was typified by the phrase, "Take back control. We don't want anyone telling us what to do." And even the church got implicated in that a little bit, which will be a fun conversation. So yes, we're part of Europe, we always will be, but no, we're not currently part of the European Union when it comes to law making and also economy.
So here's another tricky question. When a person says, "Yes, we're European, but we're British," what does that mean?
Well, it's an interesting conversation, isn't it? We're in a time of identity politics and your nation or patriotism are an important part of who people think they are. And a lot of the debate was around immigration, which is fascinating because right now today, Britain is just about to have its first prime minister who is non-white. We're having our Barack Obama moment. And so you could say we've reached a high point of inclusion and diversity, that we've never had someone who wasn't typically white as the leader of our nation.
But at the same time, immigration was such a hot topic that people wanted isolation from Europe because they didn't want the free movement of people across borders. For me personally, I'm a foster parent and the way I see it is that my foster family needs to have porous boundaries. I need to be able to let people come in if they need help and assistance from me. That's why we've got six children that live with us. Some of them have a birth connection with me, some of them don't.
But if I invited 2,000 children into my family, my family would lose its integrity as a family. It wouldn't be a family anymore. So I think there needs to be a porous boundary when it comes to welcoming immigrants and refugees and asylum seekers, but there do need to be some limits around it in order for us to actually help anybody. Now, it was quite a digital debate, immigration in the UK. It was either door fully open or door fully closed, and I don't think either of those extremes are actually helpful.
There are two ways I could go here, but I think I'm going to continue a little bit down the path that I was on, which is... Well, let's do this. Let's talk about the demographic makeup of the UK a little bit, because one of the things, because of the history of the UK, it's association with the Commonwealth, et cetera, it's really quite a diverse country. Most people, I don't think, realize that. So talk a little bit about the makeup of the UK.
Oh, I wish I had the stats on the tips of my fingers, Darrell, but you're right. The UK is a diverse place. If you were to be traveling on the underground in London, it would not be unusual for you to hear maybe 15 or 16 different languages as people come in and come off. We've got a really exciting melting pot, if you like, of different cultures here. Our favorite food in the nation is chicken tikka masala, which is an Indian dish. That's our most preferred dish.
So we have this beautiful, rich tapestry that is who we are now as a nation. It's very unusual for a talk show to have an all-white cast list. Our game shows and our radio presenters are all made up of a wide variety of different people, which is beautiful. It's absolutely wonderful. And some of that, as you say, is due to the commonwealth, that Britain went and colonized the world, sometimes bringing wonderful things, sometimes imposing horrible things, and we've got to deal with that kind of colonial history. But it's meant that a lot of people have felt it safe to come here and to build a life here, which is wonderful.
So it's a wonderfully diverse country. It's made up of several nations, each of which, by the way, we're talking about the identity thing. This is the other place I could have gone and I'll go there now. So you have several nations that make up the United Kingdom. They each have their own sense of identity. You've suggested that by the fact that they have their own assemblies and that kind of thing. One of the questions I was going to ask earlier is when I say we're European, but we're British, does that mean we're European and we're English? Or does it mean are we European and Welsh or European and Scottish, or we're European and Northern Irish?
That's a really good question. Scottish identity, Welsh identity, Irish identity are more defined than English identity. And that's often the case when a minority find it easier to define who they are. England is the largest land mass and the largest population out of the United Kingdom, but we have the least defined sense of who we are as English people. And every time English people try to assert their identity, it comes across as xenophobic or nationalistic in a way it doesn't in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland.
And I think that's because they're the smaller nations and they're not going to try and take over everybody else. Well, when the English exert their identity, that's a little bit more complex. So it's a big issue that we have at the moment. What is English identity, as opposed to Great Britain or Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland?
And isn't one of the other adjustments, and it's kind of a duality, England having to deal with, and I meant talking about the English in particular now, having to deal with the shift from being a commonwealth to being its own entity, detached. It still has relationships, commonwealth relationships, but it's not the same, as well at the same time, trying to figure out how it fits into Europe?
Yeah, again, there's a huge identity crisis going on, if you like. What does it mean for us to be the UK outside of Europe? What does it mean to be English within the United Kingdom? What are our core values, our core identities? Those are really up in the air at the moment. And post-Brexit, the UK wanted a different relationship with the rest of the world. We haven't necessarily figured that out.
I've been involved in some really exciting movements of people to the United Kingdom. So just as lockdown happened, the UK opened its borders to anyone from Hong Kong who was born in Hong Kong before 1997 when it became independent from Britain or who had ancestors who were born in Hong Kong before 1997. That's a huge group of people. And in the first year alone, over 100,000 Hong Kongers came to the UK. And I saw this as a huge opportunity.
Britain is wrestling with some of its colonial past, particularly the way that we treated people from the West Indies, from places like Jamaica, who came to Britain at our invitation to help us rebuild our economy after the 1950s. But Britain did not treat those new arrivals well. And there's lots of cases of injustice and repatriation and racism that are a bit of a national scandal. It's called the Windrush scandal. The Windrush was the boat that first arrived from the West Indies carrying these migrants that we'd invited to come and help us.
And this movement of people from Hong Kong was going to be the largest migration of people to the UK from outside of Europe since that time. And I thought, wouldn't it be amazing if we could do a reverse Windrush? Instead of it being an embarrassment and a scandal, wouldn't it be amazing if we did a fantastic job? One of the sad things about the Windrush scandal was the church was implicated. People came, who had been part of local churches in let's say Jamaica. They went to their local Baptist church or Anglican church or Catholic Church, and they came to the UK and turned up at those churches expecting a warm welcome back at the mothership.
But they were told, "It's very nice that you've come here, but wouldn't you be more comfortable worshiping with people your own kind down the road in the Black church? You're making our other congregants uncomfortable." The church did a terrible job. So with Hong Kong, we made sure the church were the first at the front of the queue to offer welcome and hospitality to Hong Kongers. And it's been incredible. Just in the last year alone, the Chinese-speaking church congregations across the UK have tripled in size, and many white-majority churches have received dozens and dozens of people from Hong Kong. It's a real success story of the church getting it right when it comes to national identity, welcome and immigration.
Now, I have one other generic question and then we'll shift specifically to the church. And the generic question's this: so you've shifted from a queen, which is the only queen I've ever known, I lived in Scotland for three years at Aberdeen, so I have some feel for the UK, to a king. And the issue of the king and the queen or a king or a queen in general is another issue for Britain, isn't it?
It's a huge change. I mean, we saw a ridiculous response. People were surprised by the scale of it, people queuing for 20 hours just to walk past the coffin of the queen. She was one of our kind of constants, like a foundation stone of our culture. And she was so clear about her Christian faith. It was the motivator for her life of service and kindness. And yes, there's some colonial questions that need to be asked, but in the middle of this tumultuous time in Britain, just coming out of COVID, who we are in Europe, economic crisis going on, war in Ukraine, suddenly our queen dies. And that really threw everything up in the air.
And at the same time, we've had absolute chaos in our parliamentary politics. Well, we're going to have a third prime minister in a matter of 50 days. It's just unprecedented in our history. So there's a real time of change and what our king is going to be like when he gets his coronation in the new year, that's an open question. Like you, most Brits have only ever experienced Queen Elizabeth II. They're not ready for a king. And what kind of king is he going to be? That's a huge question.
Okay, so let's shift now to the church. And one of the reasons I went to Europe to do my own education was not just for the educational part, but for the cultural part. And what I mean by that is that I wanted to see how Christianity functioned when it was a cultural, or becoming a cultural minority in many ways, and yet at the same time had this rich history that was underneath it that actually was in the warp and woof of what it meant to live in this country. So talk about that dimension of the church experience and then probably the best way to start off is most people don't realize how few people go to church in the UK. So let's start there.
Yeah, you're right. Church attendance in the UK is nothing like it is in America. I'm just pulling up the latest stats that we've got published here. Here we go. In 1980, it was around five million people went to church in the UK. That was about 11%. But by 2015, the level of church attendance has fallen to about three million people, or 5% of the population. And that's an interesting issue, isn't it? Because we are officially a Christian nation, Christian in the sense that the head of our parliamentary political system sits the queen, now the king.
For example, Rishi Sunak is our new prime minister, but he's not the prime minister until he goes to visit the queen and asks the queen if, oh sorry, asks the king if he can become the new prime minister. Now, the king is also the head of our state church, the Church of England, and the king gets final say on who gets to be a bishop in that church and who doesn't. The king is very open that he is a defender of the faith, that's the Christian faith. He's also mentioned that he wants to be the defender of all faiths, which is about pluralism and inclusion and diversity. Those two things aren't necessarily at odds with one another. You can be a Christian and still passionate about helping others to have freedom of religion in their own context.
So we have this really bizarre situation, very small church attendance, and that's everybody. That's not evangelicals, that's everybody that goes to church. It's such a small percentage of the population and yet our system is founded, and as you say, the warp and woof of our culture has Christianity baked in at almost every level. So we're in this really weird state that we are increasingly secularized and yet Christianity has an unprecedented access to power.
For example, not only is the king the head of the church and the head of our state, bishops of the Church of England have a seat in our House of Lords, which is our second house in government. And they have that because they're a bishop, not because they're great politicians. They have it because they are holding an important role within the Church of England. That automatically grants them a say on some of our law making.
So we are not a secularized nation. We are being increasingly secularized. We are a pluralistic nation in that most people in the nation still would say they have Christian affiliation, whether they go to church or not. But we also have large numbers of people who would say they were Muslim or Hindu or the biggest group that's growing, as it is in the US, is what we call the nons, not Catholic nuns, but people who have no stated belief or allegiance or affiliation to a faith. So we're in this interesting mix. I would say, in many ways, we're ahead of America in that secularization curve, but also behind because faith has some access to parrot it doesn't really have in the US.
Interesting. So let me ask you an evangelical question or a Christ follower question. I won't even ask the question about what people think of evangelicals. But, of that percentage, you said it was 5% who are attending, what percentage of that would be evangelical?
That's a tough question because, as you say, the word evangelical doesn't mean the same thing to everybody. But the Evangelical Alliance used to say they could claim there are around two million evangelicals. That's harder to justify these days. The numbers aren't clear. But out of a population around 60 million, they would say there was around two million evangelicals. But I think the term evangelical is proving more difficult nowadays in that I would say I hold evangelical theology, but I don't necessarily hold evangelical political ambition.
So those two words are being confused. I saw even from some studies in the US, people that identified as white and evangelical weren't necessarily clear on things like the deity or the divinity of Christ. So it has become a political position in some places, more so than a theological set of convictions. So that's difficult, who is identifying as evangelical anymore in the UK?
Yeah, we're sometimes finding that we have to clarify between what we call political evangelicals and theological evangelicals and make that distinction in order to make some of those differences clear. So the condition of the church is it really does operate as a minority in the culture, but it's a strange minority. It's not large in numbers, but its history has left it a place in the culture, which means that sometimes on major issues, how the church, and now I'm speaking church broadly, particularly perhaps the Church of England, speaks to issues, is pursued and in some cases heard, which is different in some ways than here, which is a more independent kind of voice into the culture. Talk a little bit about that because that's distinctive, I think, to Britain.
There is definitely a lost narrative in Christian understanding or approach to our place in society. I remember I had to go and give evidence at a select committee hearing of the relationship between state and faith and state and Christianity in particular. And I had a fold-up bicycle, which meant I had to go a certain way into the parliament building and I ended up being the last person in the room and everyone else was telling me, or telling the committee, all the ways in which they'd lost access.
So they're saying, "Oh, Christians are being marginalized, we're being persecuted. You can't even stand on a street corner and preach the gospel without fear that you might offend someone and end up being arrested. These are difficult days." And my experience has been very different. I do a regular service on the BBC, which is a state-funded broadcasting network. And every day for over 100 years, there has been a daily worship service on that station broadcast out to the nations. It's not listened to by as many people as it used to be, but it's still there. And they pay you a little stipend, 50 quid I think it is, to give a little sermon and have some hymns.
And I've never been edited for saying too much about Jesus. I've never been told, "You can't say that. You can't say Jesus is the way, the truth and the life. You can't." I had to give a sermon on when Jesus said that it was better for someone to have a millstone tied around their neck and thrown into the heart of the sea than to cause one of these little ones to suffer. That was the text they gave me. And I actually chose a Johnny Cash song as one of the songs that I think people should hear. "Sooner or later, God's going to cut you down."
So we could talk about judgment, we could talk about anything you like. I also have a slot on Radio 2, which is one of our most listened to radio stations. Normally about nine million people listen. And I'm deliberately invited to talk about faith and culture three times in a row, nine times a year. It's an incredible gift. I have access to parliamentarians and politicians. I'm asked, "Could you help us? Because we've got 3,000 Afghan refugees moving house, moving from one hotel to another in the next couple of days. Could you help us? Can we call on the church?"
That's a call I got from the Ministry of Defense. So I don't feel marginalized or persecuted, but that lost narrative is there in our culture. And I think we assumed that because, in the past, Christians used to run things, we should have access to running things in the future. And I think what we need to have is more of a mustard seed mindset, to realize that we are supposed to be having a positive impact in our culture, but we shouldn't assume that we'll always have that access. But we are here ready, a little bit like Daniel in Nebuchadnezzar's kingdom.
He wasn't invited to speak truth because he was a Hebrew. As a Hebrew, he demonstrated he was a man of integrity, he had supernatural insight and therefore he was given access to power. I think that's the situation we're in. And there are huge opportunities for the church to make a positive impact in society, but we shouldn't assume it. It's not a privileged power that we have because we're Christian. I think Christians should use the gifts and skills that we have in order to be great citizens. And when we do that, when we take that mindset, the opportunities are endless. So that's the little conundrum, the paradox that we're in at the moment.
So what I'm hearing you say is that there's a way of service, serving the city, if I can use some Jeremiah language, that commends Christians and commends the gospel that the faith community in Britain is trying to embrace, even though their numbers are small, and I find this true across Europe, this isn't just particularly British. There's still this historic place for Christianity which allows them to have this voice that, it may be pushed against, but it's not totally repudiated. And therefore the tone that you bring to that voice and space that you have impacts significantly the impact that you have as a result and the opportunities that get created. Fair?
Yeah, but I think the dynamics are changing. So the voice that's there because it's Christian and because we used to be a Christian nation, that opportunity's diminishing, but governments have very few deployable resources they can call on. For example, with the Afghan refugees, I was told the MOD had two choices. They were either going to call the military inn to kind of help people move house, which would've been a nightmare because people were already traumatized, having come from Kabul where guns and camouflage uniforms, what they saw, and it would just re-traumatize everyone. Or they had the church.
And the reason they were calling the church is because we were a deployable force, not because of our doctrine, not because of our situational positional power. It was because we were good at doing stuff and getting stuff done. And I think that's the way things are going to go into Europe and in the US. They won't call on you because you're Christian, you are a means to an end. And I don't mind. When there's overlapping ambition, when there's something the government needs to do, like for example, I'm passionate about seeing vulnerable children find foster and adoptive homes. Guess what? The government has responsibility for that by law. But guess what? Christians have responsibility to that by God's word. That's how we're judged. How have we cared for the widow and the orphan?
So when those two things overlap, we've got a sweet spot and we can show compassion and kindness to the most vulnerable and we serve an issue that the government doesn't have a solution for. I think that's the new place we need to get to. And that's the Daniel moment, I think. And you can see that in Daniel and Joseph and Nehemiah and Esther. That's the space we need to recapture again, and be less worried about our own positional power and being heard because of our history. We need to be able to be heard because of what we're actually delivering.
Okay. And what I'm hearing in the background of that is when you do that and do that well, that actually opens up doors for the rest of what makes you tick and creates an interest in why are you in this space and why do you do the things that you do and how can you be so altruistic, or whatever, however you want to fill in the blank. Is that what you're saying?
Exactly right. What did Jesus say? "Let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven." It's interesting that seeking justice, compassion to the poor, that's actually be built into the DNA of who we are as the church anyway. And guess what? When we live like that, that shines a light in the darkness and makes people want to know the God that we serve. I've seen that at every level.
So the Home Office, which is our, I suppose it's your Homeland Security Office, they phone me and they say, "Krish, where are you?" And I say, "Well, we are the church. We're in every village, every town, every city." Christians have got two jobs. Love God and love their neighbor, and Muslim refugees coming from Afghanistan, they're our neighbors. How can we serve them? Just let us at them and we'll do our best to show them dignity and kindness and compassion.
And I'll tell you, it was such a blessing at two levels. One, Afghan refugees, the first people that wanted to help them were Christians. That's beautiful, isn't it? We're we're not coming with bible tracts and Jesus videos, we're coming with kindness and compassion and dignity and that builds a bridge for all the other conversations we want to have. Wonderful. But what a signal it says to the government. Here are a group of your citizens that are driven by compassion and love for God. We want to be your best citizens because we are here to do what God's called us to do, which is love our neighbor.
Well, I know you're tight for time today, so I'm going to let you go, but I just want to thank you for giving us this glimpse of the church in the UK. We probably need to do a follow-up so we can dig a little deeper.
I'd be happy to.
But this is a good start, Krish, and I just wish you all the best as you continue to minister there. It's always good to see you when you're back in Texas. There's more barbecue that awaits you, so thank the Lord.
Darrell, thank you. I'm a big fan of yours and I love the work that you've be doing on racial justice and racial reconciliation. The church has got so much to offer in that space and I'm so glad for someone like you that's leading the charge, so it's always a pleasure, Darrell. Anytime we can talk again, I'm happy to do so.
Well, thank you again, Krish, and we thank you for being a part of The Table. We hope you'll join us again soon. If you want to follow up on other episodes of The Table, you can see us at voice.dts.edu/tablepodcast and you can see the variety of episodes on a variety of topics we have because this is The Table. We discuss issues of God and culture, which is a nice way of saying we discuss anything and everything.