Tuesday 27 March 2012

A Guide to English Christianity

I'd like to thank Anonymous for his/her contributions to this site over the last couple of days. It's really opened my eyes up to how Americans do (or probably don't) think about us over on this side of a pond.

So I'd like to try to explain how church life works over here. To assist me, I'll be able to call on my considerable amount of experience of American religion, having been to two services in the States. One was in a little church in the communal hall of a trailer-park, and was notable for being small, welcoming, and not unlike some URC churches in the UK. The other was a giant Southern Baptist church, whose congregation was bigger than the population of the average British town. The pastor did not endear himself to me, by first telling his congregation that England is a terribly ungodly place, and then when saying "goodbye" at the door asking if I was "a Britisher". Sadly I was on holiday, and open-toed sandals are poor footwear in these circumstances. But fortunately the congregation was so large, I was able to nip down the road to a mall, buy a pair of steel-toe-capped boots, go back to the church and kick him in the shins before he'd finished saying goodbye to the congregation. Truly, it is a land of opportunity. You can achieve anything you want, given sufficient money and energy.


I realise that some friends from across the Pond have trouble understanding our geography, so to help you understand - "Europe" is a small group of countries on the western fringe of Asia, and to the south-east of England. "London" is a part of England but not all of it - only in London are there red buses, bobbies on bicycles two-by-two, chimney sweeps, flying nannies and people driving around in minis. There are other parts of England - for example, Liverpool, Birmingham or Scotland - where this kind of thing doesn't happen at all.

The words "Britain" and "England" are used synonymously. There is no difference, and those parts of Britain that believe they are not part of England (eg Wales and Scotland) are just deluded. I'm not going to mention Ireland as that just makes people get upset. Suffice it say that none of Ireland is part of England.

I'm also not going to mention Welsh church-going (as few do) or the Scottish variety. Except to say that in some Scottish churches, all pleasure is banned. The official Strict Kirk (Free Independent Presbyterian) Bible has the word "joy" replaced throughout by the words "strict rectitude and quiet and appropriate self-examination".

Church Politics

In America, it seems to me, you can tell politicians apart by the age at which baptism takes place. Broadly, I reckon, Democrats baptise children and Republicans baptise adults.

In England, a good rule of thumb is as follows. A lay member of the Church is likely to be a Conservative or a Liberal Democrat. Whereas a member of the clergy will be either a Labour Supporter or a Liberal Democrat. You can tell the Liberal Democrats of both orders apart these days. They're the bitter, disappointed ones.

Church and State

It's important to remember that the key difference between the church in the US and in England is its relationship to power. In the US, there is no relationship between the church and state, and the church is therefore politically quite powerful. The Church of England actually has a number of seats in the House of Lords (our equivalent of the Senate), while the Governor of the Church of England is the Queen. In any other country, this would give the Church quite unfair advantages in the way of political power. But in England, with our fear of boasting and natural love of the underdog, it's quite the opposite. The Church of England has no effective power at all, and its natural diffidence means that even "church schools" will have almost no tendency to cause their scholars to grow up as Anglicans. It's much the same way that we don't really have "mega-churches". Why have a church where you can boast about the size of the congregation, rather than one where you can complain it's so cold that the water in the font has frozen?

If you weren't English, you might think there was something odd in the idea that the Archbishop of Canterbury (i.e. the Primate of England) crowns the King or Queen of the United Kingdom. But then I'm not, so I'll go with it.

"A Christian Country"

Nope, not no more. Not if ever.

"Becoming an Islamic State"

No, not that either.

"Over-run by the forces of political correctness".

No, nor that.

The Church of England

As the Established religion, the Church of England has the responsibility to spend its historical assets on the upkeep of buildings that people never visit. Historically a via media, the "good old C of E" holds in tension two very different groups of people - the ones who expect to attend Communion at 8am on Sundays, and the vicar, who doesn't see why they can't turn up at 10 o'clock like everyone else.

Many Church of England (also "Anglican") buildings have a royal coat of arms on the wall. This is a reminder that after we rejected the dictatorship of the Pope at the Reformation, we were quite clear who was the One who the Church had to obey. No, not God - that other bunch, just below him with posher voices. These days, of course, the Queen has no more power in England than anyone else. That's because, since she doesn't carry cash, she never has £250K in readies handy, which is what power costs these days.

In reality, ultimate power in the average parish church is wielded by a shadowy group of Illuminati called "The Choir". They decide what music can be sung, which century the liturgy should come from, and when it's time for the vicar to call it a day and go somewhere else. The Church Wardens have important responsibilities in road repair and painting walls, and are issued with long sticks called "wands". These wands are rubbish, incapable of even the simplest expeliamus incantantion when the sermon's gone over ten minutes. Although they have pointy ends which can be handy in hooking flying bishops and bringing them down to earth.

The other key groups in a Church of England church are the "bellringers" and "flower-arrangers". These people, like the "little folk" of tradition are never seen - it is said that they slip out just before the first worshipper arrives - although some claim the bellringers can be found in the public bar of the local pub on practice nights. And every other night.

It is a myth that English vicars drink only tea. They drink only gin.


Some Anglicans, of the tea lights-and-pebbles variety, quite like icons. These are not to be confused with real Orthodox, who go through interminable liturgy because they think that's right, and because it's pleasing to God, and not because they think it is in some way "ethnic".


English Catholics are frequently Irish, although some of them are Italian or Polish. A few of them are English. If you meet a married Catholic priest in England, he's likely a Church of England bishop.


Non-conformity was an 18th Century English religion dedicated to the building of ugly red-brick chapels, on the grounds that religion wasn't meant to be pleasant. They are called "non-conformists" because historically they wouldn't do what they were told.They vary from some Methodists, who are so "high" they are nearly Anglicans, to fire-breathing fundamentalists who are so (King James) Bible-believing that they are constantly on the lookout for unicorns.

Today, most non-conformists are very nice, and largely undistinguishable from the more Protestant members of the Church of England - except for being lumbered with those red-brick chapels.

Church Coffee

Since some Anglican churches are also ugly and made from red-brick, and some non-conformist buildings are actually quite nice - and some non-conformists also use stoles and other "liturgical" apparatus - you need a more reliable way of distinguishing them. I recommend waiting until after the service. If you find you are drinking bad instant coffee from a green "Beryl" or other Woodsware cup, you are in a non-conformist chapel. If you're drinking bad instant coffee from a chipped bone-china cup, you'll be with the Church of England today. If you've unexpectedly been given a pint of Guinness, you'll have wandered into a Catholic church.


The English don't do this. We're talking about a nation that responded to the fire-bombing of its capital by bemoaning the lack of tea-making facilities in the Tube stations.

The English are capable of singing the most emotionally heart-rending words, to the most stirring tune imaginable, while preserving a demeanour that resembles Buster Keaton having a boring day. Emotion in religion is regarded with the utmost suspicion.

If the English discover that one of their own is showing inappropriate emotion, they put them on a ship to America. A person incapable of keeping all emotions completely to themselves is known as a Winslet.

There are a couple of exceptions to the "no emotions" rule. An Englishman is allowed to laugh, cry, sing and show all emotions between despair and elation, openly and freely - provided he is watching a game of football. At weddings, the bride's mother is allowed to cry. Although it's regarded as bad form if the bridegroom does.


  1. This is why you are my favourite Christian :)

  2. Your American follower appreciates your summation of Christianity in Britain. Likewise, I've been to two church services in Britain as an adult - one was St. Martin in the Field's Evensong service and the other was an unexpected Pentecostal service in a church in Scotland (somewhere near Inverurie). I had actually wanted to see a staid Sunday service with my own eyes and somehow accidentally wandered into the Doctor's Tardis and ended up in a hand-waving, tongue-speaking church and was very confused. The first time I was in England as a teen, I was with a Catholic group and after the nuns argued about how to find a Catholic church in Dover (where we were on Sunday), we gave up entirely, sang Kum-by-ya in a field and called it good. I read the part about the choir owning the service with great interest...you see, I've been to and worked as an organist/choir director at almost every type of worship house all over the US and never once have I ever felt in control of anything, least of which the choir. Once, in a Catholic service, the priest was so irritated at the length of our communion anthem, that he just started the post-communion prayer right over our singing. When asked later, he said, "just sing one verse, shut up and sit down". Roger that, Father. The fact that the song had a story and a climax in the final verse was clearly not as important as ensuring that everyone got out of church at precisely 60 minutes after they stepped into it. Episcopalians here, are sometimes referred to as "The Frozen Chosen" - especially in the south where things at other houses of worship can get...well...exciting. I have stories. Some are entertaining. I must get back to life on this side of the pond, but I appreciate the diversion and hope you don't mind my intrusion into your wonderful blog.

  3. I forgot to add a bit about where I live currently. It sounds like you've never visited the Pacific Northwest where church takes on an entirely different meaning. We have rural PNW America that is staunchly Fundamentalist (many flavors, one stance) and then we have citified peoples who are staunchly Atheist, Wiccan, or some eclectic form of ecumenical Christian/Buddhist/Taoist/etc with some mainstream church-goers thrown in to make things really interesting. I invite you to visit sometime and I'll introduce you to my varied and interesting crowd of friends. I think you'd make an excellent addition to our discussions.

  4. Nary a thought for us benighted Quivering Brethren upholding against the storms of the scoffing heathen Ammonikites

  5. Archimandrite Simon12:00 am, March 28, 2012

    You should indeed leave the country. I am appalled, and very disappointed.

    I would have bet my house that you would know that the Archbishop of Canterbury is not the Primate of England.

  6. Flower Arrangers can also at times be found in the local pub. Especially when the daffodils are being obstreperous.

    love Mags B x

  7. Archimandrite Simon is quite right. It augurs ill for the future of the Church in this land when even a respected Archdruid doesn't know John Sentamu's job title.

  8. Archimandrite Simon is quite right.

    *goes off to write a thousand times, "Archimandrite Simon is always right"*

  9. Archimandrite Simon is quite right.

    *goes off to write a thousand times, "Archimandrite Simon is always right"*

  10. May I have your permission(to be polite)or your blessing(as a way of saying I'd do it anyway as public domain) to post this in one of my teaching blogs, as a cultural note ? I'd email, only I know blogger can be worked to do this, but I don't know how to.

  11. Mike, I shudder to think (and would refer you to the copyright notification) - but go ahead. Let us see the link!

    1. Mike CliffsonApr 5, 2012 02:12 PM
      Many thanks, what more delightful than teaching the young idea how to shoot......

      Tis here


  12. You missed out the bit about the aristocracy being mainly catholic.

  13. Best thing I've read online in ages! I feel a link coming on...


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