The church in the US and UK

And no, I do not mean a world tour by an Australian rock band!

I have commented previously on the emotional nature of some aspects of the American super-church phenomenon, and I was reminded of this again recently when asked by an American Christian if the Church of England Christians were actually Christians. Now aside from my amusement that such a question is reminiscent of the Bill Clinton line “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is” the question does have some interesting angles for consideration in terms of the large perceived differences of the Christian communities in the US and the UK.

Kate Fox tackles this subject for the English in Watching the English, in the chapter “Rites of Passage,” writing:

  • “In any case, the Church of England is the least religious church on Earth. It is notoriously woolly-minded, tolerant to a fault and amiably non-prescriptive. To put yourself down as ‘C of E’ (we prefer to use the abbreviation whenever possible, in speech as well as on forms, as the word ‘church’ sounds a bit religious, and ‘England’ might seem a bit patriotic) on a census or application form, as is customary, does not imply any religious observance or beliefs whatsoever — not even a belief in the existence of God.”

Now this is a bit tricky taken out of the context of the rest of the book, as the book’s overall tone is as self-deprecating as anything I have read and this paragraph is no exception. But anecdotally this sort of perception of attitude towards Christianity is prevalent across much of Europe and the developed world, and America comes across as the strange exception.

My axiom (not a theory, not sure it could even be tested by its very nature) is that in reality, the differences between the two are not great, but the public faces are very different. The nature of the churches themselves then help to amplify this public face distinction resulting in propagation of the prevailing attitude.

In either country, there are a number, some small-ish proportion of the population, that are fervently religious Christians and who attend church regularly and seriously, with deep philosophical thought, soul-searching, and other hallmarks of devotion. The remaining fraction who do attend church in the US do so for other reasons than pure devotion, instead behaving in a certain manner to identify with this peer group of strongly identifying Christians.

I would propose that peer pressure causes people who are less religious to choose to strongly identify as Christians in the US because it is “the thing to do.” The structure of the modern church in America makes it really easy (and even painless) to do so. The ultra-conservative relgious types get lots of TV face time, lots of media attention, and therefore start to seem normal. Money is spent on super church buildings and creationist museums and this is seen as good. A recent article in the Economist argues that in these churches the message of God is actually disappearing in favor of the American love of capitalism–these are churches made to serve the congregation, not congregations meeting to serve God. So it is working, and people in the US like the churches (with their bookstores, foodcourts and sports fields) more or less independent of God or Christianity.

I suspect that the average real attitude is little different than in the UK. Here, the default position is more ambivalent to the point that people downplay any religious feelings they have, or at least do not feel the need to ‘share’ it with complete strangers, to the point of appearing ambivalent as in the extreme case of the Kate Fox comment above. The peer pressure is not pro-church but anti-religion, especially within certain circles. The Church of England is clearly far less consumer-friendly than many US churches; traditions are followed, hymns are sung, and old Catholic style rules exist (divorced people are not routinely allowed religious ceremonies to become re-married). The lack of a rock-star sensibility changes the job of the church’s officient, and the traditional style of worship contrasts sharply with the pop-song-and-drama approach. The whole UK church experience is steeped in history and based on a tradition that does not involve changing dramatically to please the “customers.” So the church itself plays into the hand of the peer pressure favoring ambivalence by not becoming “fun” like American church.

It’s an interesting question as to whether or not this UK approach represents a somehow lesser Christianity compared with the version popular in the US right now. I know what I think.

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3 responses to “The church in the US and UK

  1. Given the prominence of religious rightists on US national TV, with its emphasis on Old Testament-style explanations of the world, it seems paradoxical if there is, as you describe, so little emphasis on actual religious content in the emergent megachurches of the US Midwest. I am wondering if there are regional differences here. I gather that C of E practices vary widely, and the almost ‘Anglo-Catholic’ style that you describe may well not be representative. Fervency of belief seems to vary widely amongst the clergy, too, even at the very top of the hierarchy. Having said that, perhaps one consistent difference is that the C of E, despite being a state religion, emphasizes the importance of being on the side of the poor and downtrodden. Some variants of the megachurch phenomenon clearly don’t, even in theory, and their alignment with Republican politics tends to give aid and comfort to the rich (charity and missionary work notwithstanding). What would Jesus do?

  2. Pingback: More on US Megachurches « Not From Around Here

  3. Pingback: Politics and the church « Not From Around Here

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