Who put the great in Britain?

Union flagWhy is it always called “Great” Britain? I’m sure many people wonder, especially those from other nations. It must seem appallingly cocky for the inhabitants of this little group of islands to insist on always being called “Great”!

The reason is that there is another Britain – a region in the north west corner of France. It's called Brittany in English but, in France, both Britains are called “Bretagne” and they put the word “Great “ (Grande) to show when it is the bigger of the two that they are referring to. In fact, the name "Great Britain" strictly speaking applies only to England and Wales – the Britannia that the Romans conquered. Scotland was a separate country known as Caledonia and Northern Ireland was patrt of Hibernia, so Britain (if not the United Kingdom) would still have been intact and just as great if Scotland had voted to be independent.

Great influence

However, the greatness of Britain is more than a matter of size. Historically, the impact Britain has had on the world has been way out of proportion to its geographical area. At one time half the known world was under British rule. This  amazing, worldwide influence owes a lot to military conquest and commerce. There were many aspects of Britain’s interaction with the world which were far from Great, things we should be ashamed of.

And yet, the rest of the world, for the most part, still looks at Britain with admiration, respect, even affection, They imitate our democracy and our judicial system and look to us to train their armies, navies and air forces and police forces. And Britain is a popular destination for refugees and economic migrants who are seeking a safer, more prosperous life.

Size doesn't matter

Britain’s greatness is not just about size. It is about creativity, freedom, democracy, justice, integrity and good workmanship – all things our nation has been renowned for in the past.

The things that are really great about Britain nearly all derive from its Christian heritage. Christianity came to Britain during the period from 500 to 900 AD, starting with missionaries from Ireland that brought the faith to Wales, Cornwall and Northumberland and then a later mission to the Saxons. England was already a Christian country when the Normans invaded. Something of a religious revival  took place in the 13th century largely through the influence of the monasteries. Many of our lovely rural parish churches date from this time.  This revival brought Christian principles to the centre of our national life as well as bringing about some of the famous schools and hospitals which would ultimately be the foundation of our education system  and the NHS.

The Puritans weren't all bad

The reformation had a huge impact on Britain. Henry VIII made capital out of this but without the grassroots clamour for Bible-based religion, his break with Rome would not have been possible. The Puritans are often vilified for their opposition to fleshly indulgence and their suspicious avoidance of fun. But they brought us democracy and a work ethic based on doing your best as an expression of worship to God.

In the 17th century, Christian reform groups such as the Baptists and the  Congregationalists further strengthened our hold on democracy and added a revolutionary new concept of tolerance. One of the earliest Baptists, Thomas Helwys, risked his life by asserting in a book dedicated to King James 1 that “Men’s religion to God is betwixt God and themselves; the king shall not answer for it, neither may the king be judge between God and man…” It is to him and others like him that we owe our treasured national values of toleration and free speech.

Avoiding revolution

In the 18th century, revolution hit France bringing discord and mass murder. Britain was spared the same upheavals largely as a result of the preaching of John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, who offered his working class hearers both the hope of a better life to come and the example of using oratory rather than the gun and guillotine, to change the world in a more peaceful way.  British Christians led the world in social reform as Wilberforce urged the abolition of slavery. This reforming zeal continued through the nineteenth century. It included making opportunities for ordinary working people to have leisure and to be able to fill their spare time with activities such as travel and sport. Many football clubs began within a church context. Sunday schools, started by churches, pionered education for the poor.

Democracy, charity, education, health and welfare all have their origin, not just within Great Britain but as part of the religious faith that undergirds our national life.

Building Jerusalem

Our patriotic fervour as a nation reaches one of its annual peaks at the Last Night of the Proms. Among the patriotic songs that make up the traditional repertoire is the hymn, Jerusalem, which begins with the words “And did those feet in ancient time walk upon England’s pastures green?” This was the poet William Blake’s response to the legend that Jesus Christ’s uncle, Joseph of Arimathaea, traded in tin with Great Britain and, on one of his visits to these islands, brought Jesus here with him as a young man. His response is an increased dedication to see the Kingdom of God that Jesus taught about, coming into being in this nation.

So I come to the conclusion that it was Jesus who put the greatness in Britain.

Keeping Britain Great

Nowadays, a huge change is taking place in British Christianity. Most of the traditional denominations, including the Roman Catholic, Anglican and Methodist churches, are in decline and their hold on our national life is slipping. However, there are new churches which are growing rapidly. Most of these bear some relation to the Pentecostal movement which in the last century rekindled faith in the supernatural power of the Holy Spirit. Generally they also have a more contemporary and popular style of worship. Some of these churches are within the older denominations and others have formed their own groupings and networks. Overall, the Christian influence in our nation is declining but if the growth in the new churches  continues there will come a time when Christian influence will again be significant.

Another factor is the increasing plurality of our society and the need to peacefully accommodate large numbers of Moslems, Hindus and Sikhs and allow them a place in our culture rather than marginalising them.

In this time when our national religion is declining and being adulterated, it is important that we don’t lose sight of our heritage. Whether you are an Atheist, a Muslim or a traditional Christian, you can’t really understand Britain apart from its Christian heritage. You owe it to our ancestors to study and understand the faith that has made us what we are.

I for one believe the true greatness of Britain cannot be maintained without that faith. Remove the Christian foundation and Britain becomes just another dog-eat-dog commercial jungle where you can’t trust anyone.

© copyright 2014, Michael R Jobling