Hello everyone and welcome to another video from France. I’m here at the Abbey of Le Bec Hellouin in Normandy. The Abbey is a Benedictine monastic foundation. It was the most influential Abbey of the 12th century Anglo-Norman Kingdom. Founded in 1034, the founding saint, Herluin, was a Norman knight who left the court of Gilbert, Count of Brionne, to devote himself to the religious life.
Three of the Abbots, Lanfranc, Anselm and Theobald became Archbishop of Canterbury and another Roger de Bailleul, was elected but declined the offer! It is named after the local stream or Bec, as indeed is Tooting Bec in London because this Abbey owned the land on which it was built.
All that remains of the medieval Abbey is the 15th century St. Nicholas tower. Much of it was destroyed in the French revolution. Most of what you can see today was rebuilt in 1948.
As you travel around France, the evidence of the destruction of that time is everywhere. The events of those years are to some extent written into the French psyche. Just our personal character is the cumulative effect of life experiences, so communities develop a corporate personality based on their history. The Church of England is no different. A knowledge of that history can be very helpful in understanding ourselves. The different paths taken by France and Britain is fascinating. Neither can be unpicked from the life of the Church.
At the beginning of the 18th century, Thomas Carlyle described Britain’s condition as, “stomach well alive, soul extinct.” Deism – the belief that God made the world, set it running, and then went off to do something else, was widespread. Sir William Blackstone visited the church of every major clergyman in London and said, “I did not hear a single discourse which had more Christianity in it than the writings of Cicero” Bishop Berkeley wrote that morality and religion in Britain had collapsed “to a degree that was never known in any Christian country.” France was very similar. I believe its possible to trace the spiritual torpor of the early 18th century to the great ejection of 1662. 2500 puritan ministers were thrown out of the Church of England for refusal to comply with certain elements of the book of Common Prayer. J.C. Ryle, the great 19th C. Bishop of Liverpool referred to it as “an injury to the cause of true religion in England which will never be repaired”. The puritans had their faults, not least their attempts to impose a religious and moral code on the English. That never ends well! The Commonwealth under Cromwell became despotic. However, they had a spiritual vibrancy and fervour which was a necessary corrective to the nominal religion that marked English Christianity at the time. The great lesson from this is that different traditions in the Church of England need each other. Any tradition, be it liberal, catholic or evangelical needs the others to expose its own blind spots. Left to their own devices each has a tendency to gravitate to extremes. Heresy is more likely to be rooted in an overemphasis on a good part of doctrine to the neglect of others, than in absolute denial of a credal truth.
But back to the comparison between France and Britain. The economic injustices and vast disparity of wealth in the two countries had very different outcomes. France as we know, had a revolution, but Britain didn’t. From the 1730s onwards, the preaching, first of Whitfield and later of Wesley, led to a widespread revival of Christian faith. Lives and communities were transformed. Faith spread to the poor and needy, not just the middle class and well off. France had its revolution but Britain had a revival.
You cannot explain this in simple economic or cultural terms. This was a case of divine intervention. The Holy Spirit was powerfully at work in individual lives. Enough people came to Christ to change a culture. You can point to the preaching of Whitfield and Wesley as a catalyst for this, but there was a preparatory work in certain sections of the church. There is evidence of a holy desperation for
things to be different, a fervent prayer for God’s intervention and a resolve to live holy lives as a counter to the prevailing mores of the time.
Throughout history one of the great Christian prayers has been, ‘Maranatha'. Its Aramaic meaning, 'Come our Lord'. There are plenty of reasons for us to be praying that prayer today, with the same fervency as our 18th-century predecessors.