London, UK

What springs to mind when you think of a church? Candles and stained glass, perhaps, or figures kneeling in long wooden pews, peaceful prayers and sweet-smelling incense. It seems a far cry from the common image of a pub which, for most Brits, might conjure up images of the crashing together of pint glasses and the roaring of football fans screaming at the TV.

Yet, with more pubs in the UK than church buildings - 47,000 pubs versus 40,300 church buildings according to reported figures, for some Christians, pub culture is simply another mission field in which to engage people with the Gospel of Christ.

Church on the Corner


PICTURE: Supplied.

 

“As a Church of England vicar, I was trained in the traditional way, but always felt a calling to those who were on the margins of faith. The sort of people who wouldn’t necessarily walk into a church building to ask their questions. The ethos of a British public house is about hospitality and acceptance, and church represents all those things as well. That’s why our ministry exists.”

- Mark Fletcher, minister-in-charge of Church on the Corner.

Mark Fletcher, minister-in-charge of Church on the Corner which runs out of an old pub in north London, is one of them.

“As a Church of England vicar, I was trained in the traditional way, but always felt a calling to those who were on the margins of faith. The sort of people who wouldn’t necessarily walk into a church building to ask their questions," he says. “The ethos of a British public house is about hospitality and acceptance, and church represents all those things as well. That’s why our ministry exists.”

Fletcher, who has worked in the minister for 17 years during which time he's helped to run "pub theology" events and Bible studies where members bring non-Christians friends to a pub for a drink and an open conversation about Christianity, says that many have come to faith through the ministry.

But, while he also admits that others have found the concept strange, he believes the church provides a valuable point of connection for a demographic of people who move to London in their 20s.

“Drinking is quite a big feature of London life and socialising," he says. "We want to be non-judgemental about that. Jesus had this reputation of being someone who liked to party. I think He was really relaxed about alcohol. I want to give people the same sort of freedom that God gives us, to be able to make mistakes and to understand His grace and mercy. There’s as much damage done by the guilt and the moralising I see churches doing as there is in people having a bit too much to drink sometimes.”

Fletcher adds: "It’s an important personal issue to be able to look after yourself and handle alcohol in a healthy way, and to have a healthy relationship with it. It is is a really important personal issue, but we’re not making a moral issue of it."

As well as encouraging members to develop a healthy relationship to alcohol, Church on the Corner runs outreach events for London’s secular community including events where they hold church services inside pubs.



The UK's drinking culture is also the focus of many Christian Union initiatives. Based at universities around the country, many of these run nightclub outreach programs on campus, handing out water and snacks in venue queues, and sharing their faith with people who want to chat. 

Gemma Batch is a second-year student at the University of Leicester, in the east of England. Batch, who is also a committee member for her university’s CU, explains that club outreaches help make sure people are safe and looked after.

“Sadly, people often stereotype Christians as people who hate drinking and hate people who drink," she says. "There’s been times when I’ve done club outreach and people say, ‘I’m so embarrassed that you’re seeing me in such a mess’ and stuff like that.

“But the whole reason we do the things we do is to show people that we aren’t weird. We aren’t freaks who don’t have fun. We want to debunk the myths that people believe about Christians. We don’t see people as just someone to convert. We want to be friends with them and care for them.”  

UK Leicester University CU

Leicester University Christian Union. PICTURE: Courtesy of Leicester University CU

While Batch acknowledges that some feel uncomfortable with the CU’s outreach, she says that many people who come to university, religious or not, are made to feel equally uncomfortable by groups who pressure them to drink. She recalls going to netball socials in her first year and seeing people impose drinking forfeits (where a person is asked to take a drink for losing a challenge in a game or such things as wearing the wrong costume) on others. 

For Batch, the CU is a place where students can seek support about peer pressure and even go to the pub or club with a group of friends who won’t push you beyond your limits. 

“I really enjoy going out. I think it’s about going with the right people. Once a month I go with a group of Christian friends, and there’s no pressure to drink or go beyond what you’re comfortable doing. We also go to the pub every week after our main meeting. I do understand, though, when people who won’t want to go clubbing because it’s too much of a temptation or they don’t like the environment.”

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It is not only young people who risk controversy to minister to people in this way. Centuries-old UK cathedrals have, in recent years, stirred up barrels of attention for producing and selling their own alcohol products. Rochester Cathedral, in Kent, in south-east England, last month released their own brand of gin, becoming one of five British cathedrals to do so. 

The product, named “604” to honour its history and founding by St Justus in 604AD, has been the butt of many a joke in the British media as the Church of England cathedral rolls out its limited, 240 bottle supply.

UK Rochester Cathedral 604 gin

Rochester Cathedral's 604 gin. PICTURE: Courtesy of Rochester Cathedral

Rev Gordon Giles says the idea was to bring joy and cheer to people, and to work together with the local community. The gin is produced in partnership with the Copper Rivet Distillery in Kent, who Giles says were extremely proud to produce a bottle of gin with the cathedral’s name on it. 

He points to the teachings of St Benedict, who wrote that a monk should drink about half a litre of wine per day. The cathedral sometimes serves wine in the basement on celebratory occasions and has a café on the premises where visitors can buy a bottle of beer with their lunch. 

“We’re not encouraging people to drink loads and loads of alcohol," Giles says. "A gin and tonic, like a glass of wine, as the Bible says, can gladden the heart and facilitate good relationships. That can be a very good thing in these COVID-restricted and damaged times.”

Not all Christians in the UK have found that alcohol has been conducive to fellowship or to their faith. While many may enjoy going for a drink with friends after a service, others turn to the church to be coached out of addiction and alcohol dependency. 

Victory Outreach UK is a Christian charity in South Wales that runs residential support for alcohol and drug addiction. It has helped people from a range of backgrounds, Christian, Muslim and atheist, including ex-prisoners and rough sleepers. The program equips residents with Christian-based training on health, wellbeing, and preparing for return to employment. 

Director Andrew Parsons, says dependence on drinking "is a major part of our country’s culture".

"I think that, firstly, we must show people that there is something far greater to live for. We must present a lifestyle of transformation and of genuine encounter with a Saviour.”

Parsons says he does not drink himself, and shared some concerns about ministries that allow people to become too well-acquainted with alcohol.

 “I think that outreach in pubs can be done well for evangelistic purposes, but ultimately, we aren’t trying to lead people there. We’re trying to lead them away from that lifestyle. 

“We’re supposed to be a counter-culture, and though alcohol is permitted in Scripture, for me, giving up alcohol is a small price to pay for people to be able to see that the life that they hope for is possible. They need to see that it can be a reality.”