Church, state division a different experience in Great Britain

By the Rev. John Wagner

I'm writing from a city where the sunset lasts until midnight and folks worship in churches more than 1,000 years old. Newcastle-Upon-Tyne is in northeast England, near the border with Scotland. A local pastor has granted me the great privilege of exchanging pulpits so that I may get to know this beautiful land and experience a different culture.

First lesson -- the cultures aren't all that different anymore. I was here nearly 30 years ago as a student, and considered this place fairly exotic, but now there are McDonald's and Burger Kings and images of the Simpsons everywhere. Just about anything good or bad in American life can be found if you care to look.

One rather striking difference, however, is the official role of religion in this society. The contrast was made apparent as I read about the latest church/state controversy back home.


Some parent of a school-age child in California has persuaded an appeals court to bar the words "under God" from the Pledge of Allegiance. President Bush quickly responded by saying the American people value "our relationship with the Almighty." The British paper I read suggested, "Republicans believe the ruling will be a good political issue in the November mid-term election." I'm sure this is true. The whole "prayer in schools" debate will once again become campaign fodder.

But to my great surprise, here in England I was actually assigned to speak in several publicly funded primary schools. I read from the Bible and even gave a personal witness in front of the entire student body. At one assembly, an administrator followed up with a prayer invoking the name of Jesus Christ. Nobody batted an eye.

In Great Britain, government-sponsored religious education is the law. I asked Carol, a highly respected head teacher, if she supported this practice.

"I actually believe it is very important," she said. "Most of these children don't go to church. This is the only contact with religion they will receive. Later in life they will be able to make a decision about God on their own. Otherwise, they wouldn't have any exposure."

Carol also expressed the conviction that religious education of any sort was necessary for developing moral behavior.

"We would welcome clergy of any faith if they would express a belief in God," she said.

I've spoken with a fair number of educators and pastors, and nearly all of them seem to agree that religion in the schools is crucial. David, who pastors a nondenominational evangelical church, has made this the cornerstone of his ministry. He brings in puppets, sings songs, and is invited back again and again. With the school's encouragement he has developed ongoing friendships with the children. He's like an unpaid chaplain.

Even so, with typical English grace and good manners, David insists he would never use this relationship to build up his own church or pressure the students. "Our job is to show what religion is like, not to proselytize."


What the church hopes for, of course, is that eventually these children will decide to give religion a try. Only 63 percent of adults in this country call themselves Christians, and that figure appears to be declining, as has church attendance. There have been calls for a return to days when religious education was strictly Christian with an emphasis on conversion.

One pastor who strongly opposes this idea is Barry. He heads up one of the few rapidly growing churches in this area, and while he agrees that exposure to religion is important for a well-rounded education, he believes faith is compromised when it joins forces with the government. As a young person, he was repulsed by church efforts to recruit him while he was attending school, and fears the same reaction from kids today.

"Identification of church and state," says Barry, "has done us nothing but harm."

I confess I would normally be rather quick to side with someone like Barry, yet the relationship between church and state obviously has an entirely different history in England, and this makes a difference. One of the keys to profiting from an overseas trip is maintaining an open mind.

Tune in next week.

The Rev. John Wagner is a United Methodist minister from Dayton, Ohio.

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