The sesquicentennial of the Church’s presence in the British Isles is cause for celebration. It is also a time for reflection. What is the status of the Church in the British Isles? What challenges do Latter-day Saints face there, and what are they doing to meet those challenges? To answer these and similar questions, the Ensign interviewed the Europe Area Presidency—President Carlos E. Asay, President; President Russell C. Taylor, First Counselor; and President Hans B. Ringger, Second Counselor.
What is the present religious climate in the British Isles, and where do Latter-day Saints stand as far as religious activity and commitment are concerned?
President Asay: Traditional Christian worship and values have declined in the British Isles since the Second World War. Church attendance in the major denominations has fallen, and their congregations are predominantly middle-aged or elderly—and often largely female.
In The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, however, the position is much different. Polls by British newspapers show the LDS church to be one of the fastest-growing Christian denominations. From a church membership of around 6,500 in the mid-1950s, we have grown to around 140,000 members today. More than 50 percent of all British baptisms since 1837 have come in the period since 1950. The Church is growing dramatically in Britain—at a rate of about 5.5 percent per year, compared with 3.5 percent for the United States, for example.
We have a much younger membership profile, too. In the British population as a whole, 43 percent are under age thirty; in the Church, the majority of British members—53 percent in fact—are under thirty. Many churches in Britain seem to be struggling with some of the fundamental doctrines of Christianity—the nature of the Resurrection, for example, or the virgin birth. Amid such confusion, it is the unchanged and unchanging declaration of our church that God lives, that Jesus is the Christ, and that truth is timeless, not transitory.
What is the public image of the Church in the British Isles? There have been some periods when the press and others have ridiculed the Church. How are we viewed today?
President Taylor: We’ve come a long way since the beginning of the century, when missionaries suffered both verbal and physical persecution. Today, we are on something of a middle ground. We are not persecuted, but the public at large still does not appreciate that ours is a Christian church—the Christian church, in fact, restored by Jesus Christ.
In the British media, the Church receives about 1,300 column inches of newspaper coverage each month. That’s the equivalent of about sixteen pages of an average-sized newspaper. Some 96–97 percent of that coverage is positive.
Right from the beginning, in 1837, our missionaries found success in the working-class areas of the country, especially in the industrial towns and country areas of the North-West, the Midlands, and Wales. As the image and the reputation of the Church improve, the net is cast wider into other spheres of British society, bringing people with additional talents, skills, and backgrounds into Church service.
We have had three or four LDS mayors, so far, but no LDS member of Parliament. As we reach into all parts of British society, however, this will change, and Latter-day Saints will be represented in all sectors of community life.
Considerable progress has been made in many areas, but there is much more to be done. Above all, we must consistently make clear that we are Christians, partly because critics often seek to obscure that fact. That this is the restored church of Jesus Christ—with all that entails—is the single most important truth we have to communicate.
Within the framework of the teachings and policies of the Church, what challenges in the British Isles require adaptation to meet the needs of members there?
President Asay: The mobility of the population poses immense problems in terms of locating and retaining contact with Church members. Studies have shown that around half of our British members move at least once every five years. As a result, we have lost contact with far too many, and we must be especially conscious of this. The Savior spoke powerfully about the “lost sheep”; we must remember that we are his shepherds—as home teachers, visiting teachers, neighbors, and friends.
Compared with the average ward in the Salt Lake Valley, British membership is highly dispersed, and traveling to and from meetings and fulfilling other Church commitments is time-consuming and expensive. The introduction of the Consolidated Meeting Program helped, but there has, perhaps, been some drifting backward to the use of additional meetings. We must be careful not to overburden the Saints. Meeting with each other is good—but we must not do so at the expense of associating with our nonmember neighbors and friends and becoming involved in “good works” on a private, family, and community basis.
Primary-age children make up one-fifth of the Church population. One-tenth of our members are old enough to be in the Young Men or Young Women programs, and one-quarter are in the Young Single Adult (18–30) age group. These young people are the future of the Church in the British Isles. We must keep them active, keep them involved, and train them well for present and future leadership positions. We must use our family home evenings effectively, since the home is where all basic gospel teaching starts and where the teaching of moral principles is refined.
We urgently need more worthy Melchizedek Priesthood holders to help the British stakes, wards, and branches, which are, on the average, much smaller than their counterparts in the United States.
Seminary and institute have key roles to play, and we reiterate President Ezra Taft Benson’s declaration to all young men, at the October 1986 general conference, that a mission should be regarded as a priesthood duty that every young man should look forward to. (See Ensign, Nov. 1986, p. 82.) Following a mission, a young man should look forward to a temple marriage.
These four activities—gospel training in the home, enrollment in seminary and institute, missionary service, and temple marriage—set the foundation of faithful gospel living.
The problem of a dispersed membership and the high cost of public transportation affects programs such as those for the single adults. Single adults have a real need to associate and to share spiritual and recreational opportunities, yet they may be scattered throughout a stake one hundred miles across and have almost no means of transportation. Obviously, we must be resourceful in helping meet their needs.
How does the present rate of growth of the Church in the British Isles compare with the rest of the Church?
President Taylor: In recent years, the overall growth rate of the Church in the British Isles has been around 5.5 percent. That compares favorably with the 4.9 percent rate for the Church as a whole. If this growth rate continues, there will be just over a quarter of a million British Church members by the turn of the century.
In a very real way, the history of the Church in the British Isles is a history of two main growth periods—the time from 1837 to 1869, when British converts were needed to build the Church in the United States, and the period from 1950 to the present. Around 87 percent of all British converts have come into the Church during these two periods.
The British Isles are currently suffering economic difficulties. How are our members faring during these times?
President Ringger: Unemployment is a major social problem in the British Isles. Unemployment for LDS men stands at around 13 percent—a figure similar to the national total. Certain areas have been particularly hard-hit—especially south Wales, parts of Scotland, and the Midlands. Generally speaking, the problem is much less acute in southern England.
Where they are employed, around 50 percent of all LDS men have white-collar occupations, compared with 36 percent of other British men. Wage rates are lower in real terms, though, than in the United States, and as a result about 52 percent of British LDS women are in the labor force—though that figure is still less than the figure of 64 percent for British women as a whole.
The full Church welfare program was introduced into Britain in 1980, and it has played an important part in alleviating short-term problems. Employment services are expanding, and the Church has taken some significant steps to help the short-term unemployed and disadvantaged. As members, though, we must remember that the foundation of our welfare program must always be personal and family preparedness and the wise use of resources.
Are the youth of the Church strong in the gospel and successfully meeting the tests of faith?
President Taylor: We are pleased to report that we see much evidence of strength among our youth. The majority of British youngsters attend state-run schools. The standard of education is generally high, and 13 percent of our members have attended some form of higher education. Among recent converts, this figure rises to 18 percent.
Seminary and institute are well established, and the trend is toward use of early-morning seminary rather than home-study. This calls for great sacrifices on behalf of the youngsters and their teachers. Often, they meet at something like six o’clock each morning, and many have to travel some distance to attend classes. There are countless stories of the faith and sacrifice these valiant young Latter-day Saints make to attend seminary and institute. One enterprising young man, for example, got a lift on the milk van each weekday morning so as to get to his classes on time.
We are currently in the middle of an exciting adventure into Scouting here. Working closely with the Scout Association, we are establishing Scout troops throughout the country. We feel that much good will come to our young people as they participate in the Scouting program.
What is the current condition of temple and genealogical work in the British Isles, and what challenges lie ahead?
President Ringger: We are happy to report that temple work is progressing, although the Saints do need to make greater use of the temple mid-week. Saturday sessions are quite full, but there is still plenty of room in the sessions held Tuesday through Friday.
We must continue our efforts to teach new members to work toward receiving the temple ordinances, and we must encourage current temple recommend holders to use their recommends more often.
Submissions under the four-generation program are a steady stream, but we’d like to turn that stream into a flood!
Members and nonmembers can now take advantage of the Family Registry—the Salt Lake-held register of people working on particular family lines. This resource can save a lot of time and duplication of effort in genealogical research.
We plan to work on indexing the British census this year, in cooperation with British family history societies.
The importance of missionary work was mentioned earlier. What is the current status of missionary work in the British Isles?
President Taylor: The opening of the London Temple Missionary Training Center located at the London Temple on 10 January 1985 represented a milestone in the development of the Church in the British Isles.
We are pleased to report an ever-growing number of full-time British missionaries—some serving within the eight British missions, and some assigned to other parts of the world. There can be no greater apprenticeship for life than serving a full-time mission proclaiming the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. The Church needs every young man to prepare for and to serve a mission—and every young man needs that mission experience, too, for the blessings that will come into his life are immeasurable.
We have to remember, though, that the vast majority of parents within the Church in Britain are first-generation members. As a result, most families have not had the experience of welcoming home a returned missionary and so have no tradition of missionary service. Parents can establish such a tradition by ensuring that their oldest son serves a mission, thus setting the pattern for the children who follow.
What is the significance of this anniversary year for the Church in the British Isles?
President Asay: According to Leviticus 25 [Lev. 25], every fiftieth year in Israel was to be a jubilee year. Three essential features characterized a year of jubilee: First, liberty was proclaimed to all Israelites who were in bondage. Second, there was to be a return of ancestral possessions to those who had been compelled to sell them. And third, the people were to live simply; it was to be a sabbatical year—a year of rest for the land, for example.
In this, our 150th anniversary year—our third year of jubilee in these Isles—we see many parallels to those practices of ancient Israel.
First and foremost, this should be a year when liberty is proclaimed to those who do not yet know the peace and freedom that living gospel principles can bring, for the Savior’s declaration was that “ye shall know the truth, and the truth shall make you free.” (John 8:32.) We need to have a Christ-centered concern for those not of the Church. We need to share with them our knowledge of the saving ordinances of the gospel.
Second, the British Latter-day Saints should take a renewed delight in their ancestral heritage. When the Lord needed to strengthen the infant Church, he had the Prophet Joseph send Heber C. Kimball and his small band of missionaries to the British Isles. Between 1837 and the turn of the century, perhaps as many as one hundred thousand British converts immigrated to the United States to help build up the fledgling Church. Let us, as members, take courage from their lesson of commitment to a righteous cause and find strength in the story of their sacrifice and selflessness.
Third, let this be a “sabbatical year”—a year when we turn our thoughts from things of a temporal nature and seek to know the Savior better. Let us strive for personal perfection, through study, service, and prayer, so that we shall not be caught up in the thick of thin things.
We are mindful of the progress which has been made. We should take pride in what has been achieved to date—but we must not become complacent. It was the Greek orator, Demosthenes, I believe, who said: “We must earn new praise … or we shall no longer deserve the old.” As an Area Presidency, we have asked our British members to participate in five basic activities that bring the fruits of the Spirit. (See Eph. 5:9; Gal. 5:22.) These are:
Obey the laws of the gospel.
Converse with the Lord in consistent, earnest, daily prayer combined periodically with fasting.
Search the scriptures daily, particularly the Book of Mormon.
Participate regularly in religious services, including partaking of the sacrament worthily and performing temple ordinances.
Render service righteously within the Church and among nonmember friends and neighbors.
It is our testimony that in so doing we will please the Lord and will truly turn this year of jubilee into one of joy.