James Mumford is a well-dressed 27-year-old from the posh London neighborhood of Pimlico. He holds degrees in philosophy from Oxford and Yale and, like many of Britain's elite, spent a post-graduate stint working in London's finance industry. But tonight he wants to talk about how he came to accept the Lord Jesus Christ into his heart. "I don't mind talking about my faith," he says, sheepishly. "But it's a touch embarrassing. Just don't brand me as a mindless evangelical."
That peculiarly British reticence may be one reason that an unexpected spiritual awakening among London's high society has gone unnoticed in recent years. Long considered an aggressively secular city, London has quietly become one of Britain's most Christian areas, going from the least observant region in Britain in 1979 to the second most observant today. Much of that resurgence in piety is the result of the city's expanding and devout immigrant population. But there is also a growing number of young, highly educated and moneyed Londoners people such as Mumford who are turning to the church. (Read TIME's Top 10 religion stories of 2008.)
The focal point for many of these new believers is Holy Trinity Brompton (HTB), an evangelical Anglican church in plush Kensington. The church's 4000-strong congregation has almost tripled in the past 15 years, and its average age is 27 years. While HTB does not keep records of these young converts' wealth, a look at its bulging collection hat offers some clue: the church raised over $7 million from donations last year alone (An average London parish, by contrast, can expect to raise around $150,000, according to data provided by the Anglican church). The church has become so popular that it recently began encouraging hundreds of its congregation to attend dying churches around London as much to ease its own congestion than anything else.
Underpinning this success is Holy Trinity Brompton's Alpha course, a 10-week introduction to Christianity aimed at converting young people. Since the course was first run out of HTB's basement in 1990, it has gone global and reached more than 11 million people across various denominations. But it is at home where its appeal is most apparent. Every Wednesday, crowds of teenagers and twentysomethings line up hundreds deep at Holy Trinity Brompton for a chance to share a free meal, listen to a sermon, sing devotional songs and decide if they want to let Jesus into their heart. At a busy Alpha course session in November, attended by some 900 people, long-necked beauties in Ralph Lauren swanned among blond, ruddy chaps in blue velvet blazers. Nicky Gumbel, 53, the .0former Etonian and one-time barrister who founded the course to better reach young people, wore green socks, loafers and an open collar shirt. Gumbel, HTB's vicar since 2005, started proceedings by suggesting that participants choose adjectives starting with the same letter as their name. He introduced himself as "Nautical Nicky".
HTB's success stems from its ability to foster a sense of community in its youthful participants, says Gumbel. It may also be able to openly discuss issues with which Britain's famously stuffy elite remain uncomfortable. Even in cases were all material wants are met, Gumbel says, there remains a "spiritual hunger" among London's wealthy youth. "No matter how nice your house or car is, there's something missing," he says. "If you go to the pub and ask what the meaning of life is, people will just laugh at you. But if you can find a group of people who are like you, and want to discuss these questions, it can be a profound experience."
Nestled between London's Natural History Museum, a monument to scientific secularism, and Harrods department store, Holy Trinity Brompton has not always fit easily into London's society. In 2006, local residents blocked church plans to build a large theological study center. And secular groups have raised concerns about the course's content: Concerned about the influence of Holy Trinity Brompton on Britain's future ruling class, the British Humanist Association recently partnered with Richard Dawkins, secularist Oxford professor and author of The God Delusion, to raise funds for advertisements to counter the Alpha course's own advertising campaign, with posters on buses carrying an inscription with a similar font to the Alpha's posters: "There is probably no god. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life," they state. Within a few weeks, the fund raised $180,000 after setting a target of just $7000.
Judging by the success of the HTB, however, the humanists may be fighting a losing battle. Once considered a stalwart of rural England, the Anglican church has found new life in the largest of Britain's supposedly godless cities. And the new converts are perhaps even more fervent than their small town equivalents. HTB's Sunday services include singing, dancing, and speaking in tongues. "I've looked everywhere for the answers to my deepest questions," the philosophy major Mumford says. "It took me a while to realize that I'd find them in a London Church."