England, Wales and Northern Ireland are three parts of the United Kingdom (UK), within the group of islands known as the British Isles. Scotland is also part of the United Kingdom. Although there is much that we share, we are also diverse, with different languages, cultures and governments. Our histories are interlinked, sometimes peaceful, sometimes bumping up against one another, sometimes including times of oppression and violence.
Places and Spaces
In many ways we are defined by our coasts: surrounded and shaped by water, kept temperate by the Gulf Stream, which gives us a damp island climate with mist, rain, seasons and soft light. We have longer periods of twilight than most other parts of the world. We are green, crossed by many rivers, which cut across the landscape to form fertile agricultural land, lakes and areas of outstanding natural beauty, some of which we preserve in National Parks. We are small, about 80th in the world when countries are ranked according to area (under 165,000 square km or 64,000 square miles in England, Wales and Northern Ireland).
Wales is rural in character, straddled by mountains and bounded by a rugged coastline. Its large coalfields to the South provided a key export from cities such as Newport, Swansea and Cardiff. Northern Ireland boasts Lough Neagh, one of the largest freshwater lakes in Western Europe, as well as the spectacular Giant’s Causeway, a mass of interlocking basalt columns off the Antrim coast, caused by an ancient volcanic eruption.
England has less dramatic landscapes but includes a spectacular coastline, especially in the West Country, while the north has lakes, mountains and large areas of moorland and forest. England has the highest level of urban development.
People, Diversity and Migration
We have a population of approximately 70 million people. Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland, and Cardiff, the capital of Wales, each has a population of more than half a million. Many parts of England are marked by urbanisation, with huge conurbations including Manchester and the West Midlands, as well as the megacity of London. In recent times, London has attracted a huge, diverse population of about nine million to work in its financial and service sectors. Transport networks, cultural facilities and other amenities serve London and the South East more effectively than the rest of England, Wales and Northern Ireland.
The population of England, Wales and Northern Ireland has been enriched over the centuries by waves of migration. Sometimes this happened within the British population, as in the case of the ‘plantation’ of Scottish Protestants in Ireland under the Tudors, and later through the encouragement of Scottish landlords and managers. Other early immigrants included people from mainland Europe, for example the Huguenots, fleeing from religious persecution, who were given royal protection. Diplomacy, trade and academic learning have always accounted for numbers of writers, thinkers and politicians. As Britain’s influence overseas spread, larger numbers from further afield came to live in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, often around ports, as in the case of London, Liverpool and Cardiff, all of which have long-standing Chinese and Jewish communities.
The relationship between the peoples of England, Wales and Northern Ireland has not always been straightforward or peaceful. In the 13th century, Wales experienced oppression and conquest at the hands of King Edward I of England, symbolised by his line of imposing castles stretching across North Wales. More recently the pressure exerted on Wales by its larger, more populous neighbour has been cultural and linguistic rather than military; up until the early 20th century school children in Wales were stigmatised by having to wear a ‘Welsh Not’ around their neck if they were caught speaking their native Welsh language. Concern grew about the language’s decline and possible extinction, and after years of campaigning it was finally made an official language in 2011. According to the census data, it is now spoken by around 19% of the population of Wales; there is a strong emphasis on Welsh-medium education, and a thriving Welsh music, media and cultural industry. The Welsh translation of the Bible by William Morgan (1588) and its use in non-conformist churches (churches outside mainstream Protestantism) throughout the 19th and 20th centuries played a significant part in perpetuating the language through difficult times. Today, the Welsh language remains a foundational aspect of Welsh identity, particularly in the North and West of the country. Since 2007, Wales has had its own government with certain functions devolved to the capital Cardiff from the Westminster Parliament.
Northern Ireland was formed in 1920 after the Unionist majority in the province decided they wished to remain in the United Kingdom and not join a United Ireland. This led to periods of civil unrest when, in 1968, violence erupted. Conflict continued in Northern Ireland for over 30 years with terrorist attacks in mainland Britain, the Republic of Ireland and even continental Europe. This period of time is known as The Troubles during which 3,600 people were killed and thousands more injured. During the 1970s, influential in seeking ways to end the violence were Nobel prize-winners Mairead Corrigan Maguire and Betty Williams who founded the Community of Peace People. In 1998, the signing of the Good Friday Agreement signalled the end of most of the violence of The Troubles and, as a result, a power sharing Assembly was established with representatives from both Unionist and Nationalist communities being elected and taking seats, forming a power sharing Executive. The Assembly was suspended in January 2017 following allegations of corruption and mismanagement of a Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. The Assembly was reinstated three years later, in January 2020, after all sides had resolved their differences with a new First Minister and Deputy First Minister, both women.
Many in the government and voluntary sectors, schools, churches and the community have been working towards managing conflict, embracing diversity and enabling greater respect and mutual understanding. The Corrymeela Community, since its foundation by Ray Davey in 1965, has also been working to transform division through human encounter at its Centre in Ballycastle and beyond.
Finding Our Place in the World
With the United Kingdom voting for a government that has taken the country out of the European Union (EU) in 2020, we still remain uncertain about our place in today’s world. Part of this is due to the legacy and arrogance of the Empire, as we face the long-term consequences of colonialism. In spite of the continuing popularity of Queen Elizabeth, a woman who has been constant in her Christian faith and values and who over the years has determinedly kept out of political debate, large sections of the population feel themselves to be locked out of an affluent society based on the financial and service sectors of London. The north/south divide has robbed parts of the country of jobs and infrastructure. The impact of the government’s attempts to reduce budget deficits following the global financial crisis of 2008 has also had an impact. A 2018 United Nations report described the levels of poverty in Britain as unacceptable, with 14 million people in the UK found to be living below the poverty line.
In 2016 England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland voted collectively for ‘Brexit’, to leave the European Union (EU), which many saw as a rich ‘club’ of Europeans, holding down wages and facilitating unlimited immigration into the country. In England and Wales, the vote to leave won by 52%, even though London voted to stay in; Scotland and Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union. The Brexit plan was approved in 2019, and the government is in charge of its implementation. In the words of Charles Dickens, “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness.”
Some in the UK still see our country as a great and deserving international power. Britain maintains an arsenal of nuclear weapons, builds aircraft carriers it cannot afford and still sits on the UN Security Council. Some people seek to retreat from this world, believing there is safety in isolation.
But there are other innovative ways of relating to the world that we are looking to and trying to understand. In a world where natural resources are scarce and the planet is warming, what is our role? Britain currently has climate targets, and has set 5 yearly carbon budgets until 2032 to try and meet these targets. The first carbon budget (2008-12) has been met and the UK is currently on track to outperform the second (2013-17) and third (2018-22) carbon budgets, but is not on track to meet the fourth, which covers the period 2023-27. As a country that industrialised early, there is an argument for limiting our emissions to a greater extent by using alternative sources of energy: solar and wave power, and wind farms. There have been weeks when no coal has been burned.
Similarly, in a world where there is vast inequality, there is an argument for increasing the percentage of Gross Domestic Product (GDP) given to foreign aid. But there are many who disagree, saying that aid should only be given if it supports the UK economy in some way, but this could be seen as a new form of colonialism.
Underlying the uncertainty we face today is the poverty and discontent of many who have seen us move forward as one of the richest areas in the world while their own personal income, security and self-esteem has shrunk. Wars in different parts of the world have enriched suppliers of arms and led to many escaping desolation and poverty in their own countries and looking, not always successfully, for security and salvation with us.
There have also been huge shifts in terms of religious observance. Like much of Western Europe, the general picture in terms of church attendance in England, Wales and Northern Ireland is one of decline, particularly in the mainstream denominations. Yet despite this, the church is often at the forefront of projects to help those in need, such as food banks, homeless shelters and work among refugees. The church, too, has been reinvigorated by recent immigration.
Perhaps, both as churches and as a society, we need to embrace a new humility, learning from the countries of the world that we once dominated so that we can become a place of freedom, welcome and generosity.
How We Live
England, Wales and Northern Ireland each have their own character and culture, but there are some traditions which span all three. We all agree that there is nothing better for comfort than a lovely cup of tea, and the weather is a constant talking point as it is always unpredictable. We attempt to hold on to a tradition of etiquette, politeness and common courtesy. The self-deprecating, witty, sometimes sarcastic British sense of humour has been exported throughout the world in the form of books, TV shows and films.
World Day of Prayer in England, Wales and Northern Ireland
As a single World Day of Prayer organisation, the three voices of England, Wales and Northern Ireland, have come together to present this years’ service, recognising our differences but also our common ground. Our neighbours, Scotland and the Republic of Ireland, both have their own World Day of Prayer organisations.
In 1928, at the International Missionary Conference in Jerusalem, Scotswoman Grace Forgan first learned of the World Day of Prayer and brought the news to the United Kingdom. The first service was held in 1930 in Scotland; followed by England in 1932, Wales in 1933 and Northern Ireland in 1943. The first services in England were held in the London area and the wave of prayer moved across the south of England to Wales. In those days, travel was not as easy as it is now so it was more sensible for the women of England and Wales to set up their own National Committee rather than unite with Scotland. The two Committees remain separate but are on good terms, exchanging ideas and meeting regularly together with the Committee from the Republic of Ireland.
During the period of the Second World War, women felt the urge to get together in prayer and fellowship. In 1967, after Vatican II, Catholic women began to take part in our service. In England, Wales and Northern Ireland there are now about 3,000 branches holding more than 4,000 services every year. In 2019, 275,000 copies of the order of service were printed.
Currently, WDP National Committee includes 18 different Christian denominations. We allocate over 40 grants to national and international charities. We support prayer partners in Albania, sending representatives to visit the WDP in Albania on a regular basis.
We continue to review what we do and to adapt to changes in communication and technology. Our office in Tunbridge Wells co-ordinates the distribution of service materials, including activities for children and youth and our website carries news of all we do. We also post on Twitter and Facebook and have been delighted with the number of ‘hits’ we get.
In response to what we saw as a need to involve younger participants, our WDP now organizes an annual Y Pray? event in May, when younger women are encouraged to join us for a weekend of prayer, fellowship and entertainment. Hear the feedback of Gladys Kusiwaa, one of the participants:
“I attended Y Pray last year and I am glad to say I had an amazing and lovely time meeting, learning from, having fellowship and relaxing with other women from all walks of life. Listening and sharing our experiences in life was very moving and inspiring. The speakers from both years were great and their messages have encouraged me to not give up and keep on helping people and changing lives in every little way I can. Even though we had all come from different Christian backgrounds and denominations we felt we needed time from our everyday lives to relax, reflect and revive our faith and our journeys with Christ.”