By Martin Surridge – In the cold, northern reaches of Western Europe there is a small country that doesn’t often make international headlines, but might actually be a useful barometer for understanding the continent’s spiritual diversity and religious future. No, not France, Germany, or even England, but rather the western edge of Celtic Britain, Wales. Welcome back to Article18-RLTV’s first weekly blog specifically dedicated to religious liberty issues in other countries around the world. Each week, we will be focusing on a different nation, and the struggles facing its various religious communities. This week: Wales featuring the President of the Seventh-day Adventist Church in Wales, Pastor John Surridge. Pastor Surridge is based in Cardiff, the capital of Wales, and is the administrative head of the country’s sixteen-church denomination. Pastor Surridge studies the Welsh language and travels throughout the region preaching sermons each Sabbath (Saturday). He is also a fan of fireworks and is an excellent cook. I can attest to these last two facts, because John is also my uncle.
The country of Wales–part of the United Kingdom yet separated from England and Scotland by culture, language, and history–has been quietly attracting my attention during the last few weeks, partly due to my recent visit last month, but also because of the curious number of religious news stories coming from the larger cities on its south coast.
Despite the fact that only 6% of the Welsh population attends church on a regular basis, a recent article from Wales Online revealed that hundreds of children across Wales are being withdrawn from school to be educated by their parents at home possibly due to “religious issues”. In addition, when one drives through the Welsh countryside it is clear that there is a rich Christian history with thousands of quaint historic churches along with towering cathedrals and abbeys. Yet the current status of Christianity in Wales remains slightly less majestic than it once was as Pastor John Surridge explained,
“In this new era there is a general suspicion of Christianity as society becomes increasingly secular. Despite the 1689 Act of Toleration, which gave freedom of worship to denominations outside of the Church of England, the Seventh-day Adventist Church is still viewed with some suspicion by most Welsh people. Although we have had a presence in Wales for more than 100 years now, there are many who have either not heard of Adventism or consider it to be an American import.”
Additionally, a 2008 study predicted that by 2050 church attendance levels in Wales will drop to “less than a quarter of its current level according to an analysis of the country’s religious trends.”
The news is not all negative however. A homeless family in North Wales made the news last week after they settled in a council estate in Holywell where the friendliness of many born-again Christians made it feel “more like home than anywhere else [they’ve] been.”
Pastor Surridge also described some of the positives, “Prejudices are soon broken down when these people are engaged in conversation, and we are treated with respect by official bodies such as Churches Together in Wales (Cytûn), but it is hard to change the ingrained attitudes of the population as a whole.”
This perhaps is understandable given the long religious history of the Welsh people. Yet, “at the beginning of the 20th century” he continues, “Wales was a still a deeply religious country, with the great revival of 1904-5 leading to an increase of around 100,000 practicing Christians in the country and the building of hundreds of new churches or chapels.”
However, to fully understand the role of religion in Wales, one must examine how in recent years the country has been shaped by immigrants, many of whom have taken strong stands on religion, albeit with varying degrees of civility. In 2007, a young Sikh girl was sent home from school and subsequently filed suit after refusing to remove her silver Kara bangle–an important symbolic bracelet for Sikhs. More recently, three men from Cardiff with suspected links to Islamic terrorist groups were arrested and face trial for allegedly planning to blow up London’s Houses of Parliament in a nearly literal Fawkesian blast from the past.
Those immigrant populations in Wales, whatever their religion may be, appear to be more receptive toward religion and in the Adventist church make up a considerable percentage of their population.
“Although the Seventh-day Adventist Church is continuing to grow at a healthy pace in the United Kingdom,” said Pastor Surridge, “a closer analysis reveals that most of this growth is coming either from immigration or from within the established immigrant communities within the UK.”
He attributes this to the possibility that “Adventist congregations might be perceived as more welcoming by the new immigrants” than other groups. But after all, whether those individuals are immigrants or ninth generation Welsh Christians, Pastor Surridge reminded us that no matter where you are on earth, “God does not have genetic favorites.”