British v American Christianity

A few things I have noticed about British Christianity in contrast to American Christianity.

  1. Britain is a much less religious country than America. Most people I know are either non-religious or are nominal Christians only.

  2. In spite of this, a disproportionate amount of Christian intellectuals in the anglophone world seem to come from Britain rather than America. Figures such as NT Wright, CS Lewis, John Polkinghorne, Richard Swinburne, Kenneth Kitchen, Peter J Williams, Keith Ward, Alister McGrath and John Lennox come to mind.

  3. Yet in spite of this, most of these individuals are no less conservative than their American brethren, so why the difference in proportion?

Why is this? For me the answer is simple. US style evangelical fundamentalism encourages anti-intellectualism, by suggesting that the holy spirit alone (and not biblical scholarship, tradition, science and philosophy) is sufficient for forming theological opinions. This is not an opinion shared across the pond by the CoE.

What are your thoughts on the differences between Christian theology on both sides of the Atlantic?

American Christianity was heavily affected by the 2nd Great Awakening which was a series of religious revivals throughout the 19th century and some fallout bleeding into the early 20th century. It was a revival of the Christian faith, Bible reading and scholarship and kind of a push back from theological liberalism and “dead faith/religion” which had gripped the church for a long time as in people attending church on Sunday out of cultural normality rather then true devotion to God. It divided churches, even denominations within the USA over various issues. The Christian religion during this period was seen as an individualistic emotional experience of some type and the Holy Spirit was seen as the one who makes sense of Holy Scripture, thus no real need to higher Biblical scholarship or seminaries. Just trust the Bible and Bible alone in its most radical form of Scripture Alone.

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Yeah but we’ve got Pete Enns. :smiley:


But seriously, that is probably fairly subjective. If by “intellectual” you mean “academic,” we have those too, but it does seem that Americans are much more prone to give attention to celebrity pastors (regardless of their education), and Britain has fewer and smaller megachurches for pastors like that to gain popularity, so perhaps you are right.


I’d never thought about that! Are there any megachurches in Britain? (Mega church buildings - yeah - I guess they’re called cathedrals, but mega congregations?)

I think there is some truth in that, and it will be good if it changes.

But there are lots of us who are US Christians and don’t feel that way.

I think this is a pretty subjective judgment. If you look up lists of the most influential Christian intellectuals, scholars, academics, etc., it is not true that a disproportionate number are British, or that America is not represented. I doubt your average Brit on the street could name the people you mention any more quickly than the average American could name Mark Noll or Marilynne Robinson. I bet most people in both countries can’t name a single scholar, Christian or not.

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To be fair though @Reggie_O_Donoghue, there are a lot of opinions that British churches don’t share with the CoE. Crumbs, there is a large proportion of CoE churches that don’t share opinions with the CoE. If you follow my meaning…:wink:

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Not a megachurch perhaps, but close, Holy Trinity Brompton is pretty awesome. Shows the diversity in Anglicanism. You may know them as the origin of the Alpha class.


Reminds me on when I visited Westminster Abbey, and was impressed with how many famous English authors were buried there. Then realized…Duh, we are in England. Also looked down to see I was standing on Darwin at one point, had just tread on David Livingstone.


But do you not think it’s telling that one of the most popular NT scholars of our time, NT Wright is from Britain? This being in spite of the fact that serious orthodox Christianity has a stronger hold in the states?

Yes I know, I am a massive fan of David Bentley Hart, and Edward Feser, for example.

I love N. T. Wright, but the sad truth is if I asked how many know who he is in my Baptist church, I would guess only 10 % or so would know anything about him. Perhaps it reflects the anti-intellectual bent of American evangelicalism.

They think the great Christian thinkers of our day are Chuck Swindoll, Max Lucado, and Rick Warren. The big men’s Bible book study at church is reading a book by Robert Jeffress. Now some of those guys write nice inspirational books, but…

It is interesting to me how many little niches there are in Christianity each filled with books by different groups of authors largely ignored outside their domain.

With that in mind, I have debated about leading a group study using Wright’s new series over viewing the New Testament. Our pastor likes Wright and would approve, but our discipleship pastor, who is in charge of such things, I am not so sure. Our church is primarily pre-millinialist, and I don’t know if the partial preterist leaning of Wright would be a problem.


I think it figures that one of the most popular NT scholars of our time is from Britain. They have great schools and a long tradition of Christian scholarship.

But I’m not sure what you mean by “telling.” Telling of what? N.T. Wright is amazingly talented, but it is fairly rare to have one individual who is a scholar, a talented writer at the lay level, a gifted speaker, and a pastor. Though I don’t think they are in the same tier at all with scholarship, I’d say John Piper and Tim Keller are just as popular in the U.S., and they aren’t anti-intellectual at all. Canada had John Stott. I think it will be interesting to see how emerging adult generations in both countries will fare in terms of pursuing Christian scholarship. C.S. Lewis has been dead for a while and of the names you listed that I’m familiar with, they aren’t exactly spring chickens.

I think it has more to do with Reformed traditions valuing scholarship and having good schools than nationality. So to the degree that the average Evangelical in Britain is likely to have ties to Anglican or other Reformed institutions, maybe they are more likely to value scholarship and intellectual life than the average American who has no ties to Reformed traditions and institutions. And it is probably true that non-Reformed strains of Christianity have more influence in the U.S compared to Britain if you are just comparing numbers.

Maybe American Christianity is more diverse, but I don’t think it’s fair to lump all or most American Evangelicals in with non-thinkers. (If we are using Evangelical in terms of actual practiced religion, not political identification.) I have been to Evangelical churches that had book clubs on Bonhoeffer and whose pastors regularly quoted Barth and Kierkegaard. I just went to an Evangelical conference where a half hour of the closing banquet was a tribute to Lamin Sanneh.

Is it really all that much of a surprise that a people with a longer tradition and history of work in a particular business have some advantages and greater skills in that business?

Well it doesnt really is a subject of whether they had a longer tradition. Here in Greece people had a tremendous time of tradition and Christianity was dominant over centuries before America and yet we dont even have scholars.

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From what little experience I’ve had in England and with the english it seems to me generally true that there is more respect for clever wit, intellect and those who wield it well. Those who feel less well endowed in those areas seem less inclined to smear the educationally elite. Perhaps some who have spent more time there will tell me that my impression indicates the unrepresentative sample on which they’re based. Regardless what is ‘generally true’ is rarely universally true.

I think the second great awakening did indeed have a significant influence on this topic, but there are theologians who should not be discounted, even though they may not be quite as well known.

  • Darrell Guder
  • Marva Dawn
  • Os Guiness (I know he’s British, but he’s been in the U.S. since 1984…)
  • Bruce Metzger (not really a “theologian” per se, but an excellent biblical scholar
  • Gordon D. Fee

Those are just a few that I’m familiar with. There are more popular figures too…Tim Keller and Andy Stanley are quite popular, and their theology seems pretty robust to me…

By that do you mean that scholars from Greece don’t remain in Greece?

or… simply that there isn’t much of a tradition of scholarship in Greece anymore?

There does seem to be talk about whether there are more Greeks living outside of Greece than living in the country. And there seems to have been a number of waves of emigrations to flee deteriorating economic conditions.

I actually meant the second one.) Although i agree with you). In a little years there will be no Greeks as people in the country. Anyway what i meant is that Greece have a good scholarship tradition that actually faded out. And keep in mind that Greece “received” Christianity wayy earlier than the Americas