EARLY in the morning of July 9, 1984, York Cathedral caught fire. The wooden vaulted roof of the south transept was destroyed. The interior suffered extensive damage.
Only the determined efforts of more than 100 fire fighters saved one of Europe's largest Gothic cathedrals from being consumed. The official explanation was that a freak bolt of lightning touched off the fire. But many in England are not so sure — not so much about the lightning but its being accidental.
Only three days before the blaze, Dr. David Jenkins was consecrated Bishop of Durham in the cathedral. Dr. Jenkins had been the center of much controversy in the Church of England. He had made public statements that left many wondering if he really believed in some of the fundamental tenets of his faith — especially the virgin birth of Christ and his resurrection from the grave.
Dr. Jenkins was entitled to his doubts, said the critics, but he was not entitled to be a bishop. Nevertheless he was ordained in an impressive ceremony in the cathedral by the Archbishop of York, Dr. John Habgood.
On the Sunday evening following the ordination, the Archbishop preached in defense of Professor Jenkins' appointment. A few hours later, lightning struck the cathedral! And that, thought some, was not just a coincidence. They saw it rather as evidence of divine displeasure.
As the London Times pointed out in an editorial the next day: "A bolt from heaven the very night after the Archbishop preached in defence of his Durham appointment before the assembled synod: It is hard not to be reminded of Elijah and the priests of Baal."
Most people in England were sorry about the fire. The cathedral — any cathedral, even if it doesn't represent "your church" — is an impressive building and a national treasure. York Minster (that is the cathedral's official name) took more than two and a half centuries to build. It was shocking to see it so badly damaged in a single night.
But not many in England really believed that God had anything to do with it. If they thought about it at all, they dismissed that notion as superstition. It was, after all, not the kind of thing that God does these days, is it?
Back in "Bible times" a jealous God used to rain down fire and brimstone from heaven when his people got out of line. Maybe in the Middle Ages he was active with plague and pestilence. But in sophisticated, modern Britain, God (even if he does still exist) just doesn't do things like that.
A Service in the Cathedral I visited York Minster a few weeks after the fire. It was open and most of the mess had been cleaned up. A temporary roof protected the ruined south transept and repairs were already in progress. I arrived early in the morning before the tourist crowds. The cathedral looked deserted, but I could hear a service in progress in the Lady Chapel at the eastern end of the huge building.
A Book of Common Prayer that I found on a bench informed me that this day was the Feast of the Transfiguration, one of the "festivals or greater holy days" of the church calendar.
I took a seat among the congregation. Actually, among isn't quite the right word because apart from the celebrant and his acolyte, and two nuns who had assisted in preparing the service, only two other people were present — an elderly clergyman and a middle-aged woman. Four more came in late and left immediately after receiving communion.
This pathetic little congregation was lost in the vastness of the great church. They seemed more like a group of clandestine believers meeting furtively in some repressive nation where religion is banned. But this is England, a so-called Christian country. And York Minster is the main center of worship for all the northern dioceses. And this day was listed as a "festival or greater holy day" of the church!
But if the officiating clergyman was dismayed at the size of his audience he didn't show it. He and his assistant resolutely declaimed their way through the order of service for the day. The nuns and the faithful two gamely gave the responses and dutifully stood, kneeled and sat on cue. An account of the transfiguration from the gospel of Luke was read without further explanation. Also some verses from the book of Exodus, and a passage from the apocryphal book of Ecclesiasticus that didn't seem particularly relevant.
But then, nothing about that service seemed particularly relevant to the spiritual needs of Britain today.
The Decline of Religion Since the end of the Second World War the British have abandoned religion in general, and the Church of England in particular. The Church of England has been, since the days of Henry VIII, the established church of the nation. In theory half the population belong to it, but less than 2 percent attend its services regularly. Even at Christmas and Easter only about 5 percent show up for communion services.
Although many still consider it the church's job to marry and bury them, baptisms have fallen off drastically in recent years. One fifth of the clergy are approaching retirement age, and the church is failing to attract qualified new blood into the ministry. Some Anglican clergymen, frustrated at the mounting irrelevance of their profession, have begun to ask, What exactly is the Church of England for?
In an effort to become more appealing to the masses the church has compromised its traditional conservative position on such issues as divorce, homosexuality and women clergy. It hasn't worked — England's largely agnostic population is not impressed, or (what should be even more devastating to the church's morale) isn't even interested. And yet the established church still sees itself as the nation's spiritual guardian.
"When I mention religion, I mean the Christian religion; and not only the Christian religion, but the Protestant religion; and not only the Protestant religion, but the Church of England," wrote the English essayist Henry Fielding in the 18th century. Fielding, of course, had his tongue very firmly in cheek, mocking the ecclesiastical smugness of his day. But have things changed?
Leading churchmen dismissed as nonsense the notion that God would set fire to a cathedral just because a doubting bishop was ordained there. Ironically, they are probably right. God almost certainly did not send a bolt of lightning to set fire to the roof of York Cathedral last July. But not because he doesn't "do things like that now" and not because he no longer cares what a bishop believes. And certainly not because he is, after all, still satisfied with the religious status quo of the nation.
Britain has become a spiritual wilderness, and it does need a jolt.
Most churches today have failed miserably in understanding and teaching the truth. In their ignorance, compounded with complacency and a spirit of compromise, they have fallen into the condition that Jesus anticipated in Mark 7:6-7. "'This people honors Me with their lips, but their heart is far from Me. And in vain they worship Me, teaching as doctrines the commandments of men'" (Revised Authorized Version).
Is God Concerned for Britain? But has God lost interest in Britain as the island's inhabitants are losing interest in him? The answer to this question should astonish our British readers. This battered but still proud nation is still a very special concern to Almighty God. He remembers something about the British that they either don't know, or if they do know it, tend to dismiss as ridiculous.
God has not forgotten who they really are.
Above the heads of the congregation in that rather inconsequential service in York Cathedral was a magnificent stained glass window, one of the largest in the world. Its many panels portrayed scenes from the Hebrew Bible.
One of the panels pictured the patriarch Jacob blessing his 12 sons. The morning sun streamed through that beautiful window, filling the Lady Chapel with light. Light perhaps, but not understanding.
In the biblical account of this event, Jacob, who had been renamed Israel, passed on the promises that he had inherited from his forefathers Abraham and Isaac (Gen. 49). He had already bequeathed his name "Israel" on Ephraim and Manasseh, the children of his favorite son Joseph (Gen. 48:16). Ephraim was to become a multitude of nations and Manasseh a single great nation (verses 17-20). This promise of national greatness was unconditional — a promise from God that would be fulfilled come what may.
Now believe it or not (and I realize not all readers do), the descendants of these two grandsons of Jacob have become the dominant people making up the modern nations of the British Commonwealth and the United States of America. God kept his promise even though these nations have lost the knowledge of their origins. God has blessed the United States and the British nations more than any other nations have ever been blessed.
But with those blessings came a responsibility. Modern Ephraim and Manasseh should have been God's model nations, setting the world an example of a right way of life. This they have failed to do. And so, also as he promised, God has begun to strip his blessings away. Britain is already deep in decline, its former greatness a memory, its industry limping, its people becoming ever more frustrated and disillusioned.
Greatness to Be Restored Toward the end of the service that morning in York Minster the clergyman read a prayer with a plea to "restore the triumphs of Jacob." I wonder how many realize the significance of that?
It is exactly what God is intending to do. He will eventually restore the preeminent position of the descendants of Jacob. But not before they have suffered the worst national catastrophe that has befallen any nation anywhere. That was essentially the good news — bad news message of the prophets that God once sent to the people of ancient Israel. That message was also intended for their 20th century descendants. So why doesn't the established church of the nation teach it?
It is time the British people were told the real reason for their decline — from the greatest empire the world has ever seen to a down-at-heel, second-rate power struggling to make ends meet.
It isn't just bad luck or the ebb and flow of history. The same God who blessed the British is stripping them of their greatness because of their national sins. He must deal with them just as he dealt with their forefathers in ancient Israel. Then and only then can he "restore the triumphs of Jacob."
That has been the consistent message of this magazine for more than 50 years.
That — not a bolt of lightning on a cathedral roof — is God's message for Britain today.