What Fundamental Transformation Looks Like

The summit of Glastonbury Tor

What Fundamental Transformation Looks Like

Musings from a visit to Glastonbury, England

For most North Americans, a trip to the United Kingdom would bring to mind images of Big Ben and Stonehenge. Few may have heard of the small city of Glastonbury in southwest England. Yet since moving to the UK in 2020, Glastonbury has been high on my priority list of places to visit. Historical tradition claims it was one of the first, if not the first, Christian congregations in Britain. As somebody with an interest in early Christian history and a proud Commonwealth citizen, I felt a visit there would bring some of that heritage to life.

I visited the site recently with some friends. Seeing the ground the early disciples may have walked on was inspiring, but I also felt disconcerted. Glastonbury’s early Christian history has been overtaken by an entirely different heritage. This transformation reveals an important lesson on compromise.

According to tradition, Joseph of Arimathea, the early Christian who claimed Jesus Christ’s body from Pilate, had investments in early Britain’s tin trade and had some sort of base of operations in Glastonbury. Ancient mariners had been traveling from the Middle East to Britain for metals like tin since the Bronze Age. The biblical account describes Joseph as a government-connected “rich man” (Matthew 27:57) wealthy enough to own his own rock-cut tomb. According to the Ecclesiastical Annals of one Vatican cardinal, Joseph introduced Christianity to Britain and died there.

Glastonbury’s prominence didn’t end there. It became a center of early Christian learning. “Early records indicate there was a college or school [at Glastonbury] during the first half of the second century a.d.,” Ryan Malone writes in a sidebar of The True History of God’s True Church:

This was a small-scale operation …. Records exist of a scholar of that college named Elvanus Avalonius—“a disciple to those who were the disciples of the apostles” (Edward Stillingfleet, Antiquities of the British Churches). He is the only student of the church in Glastonbury of whom any record has survived. In a.d. 180, he wrote a document titled “Concerning the Origin of the British Church.” This was well over a century after the original apostles had begun working there, and he was trying to keep this knowledge alive.

A ruined Catholic abbey sits at the traditional site of the early Christian community. The abbey and its grounds are now a museum that explains some of those early stories and how the site developed since.

This early history is why I came to Glastonbury. But it’s not what most people in Britain associate the town with today.

The city hosted a Woodstock-style rock festival in 1970 and has kept the tradition going every year since. Because of that, Glastonbury has become a mecca for alternative lifestyles, which is hard not to notice as one walks through the center of town. The town information center advertises a conference for psychics and mediums. A prominent center of worship is the “goddess temple,” which calls itself “the first formally recognized public indigenous” religion in Europe since pre-Christian times, committed to worshiping what they call “the indigenous British goddess.” A bookstore on the high street beckons browsers to purchase a handbook on summoning ancient Egyptian magical forces. Plenty of people I walked past looked dazed, smelled of drugs, or looked like they hadn’t visited a barber or taken a bath in years. As travel writer Rick Steves writes, “Today, Glastonbury [is] a center for ‘searchers’—too creepy for the mainstream church but just right for those looking for a place to recharge their crystals.”

How did what 17th-century antiquarian Sir Henry Spelman called “the most ancient church” of Britain turn into modern Britain’s Babylon?

It’s not only because of a festival in the 1970s. As the Catholics consolidated their hold on the area in the Middle Ages, new legends emerged. A story surfaced claiming Joseph of Arimathea brought with him the “holy grail,” supposedly the cup Christ drank from the night before His crucifixion. He supposedly hid the grail in a well, which now is red with iron. To this day, people line up to drink from the well. (Never mind that the Catholic Church claims the “real” grail is in a cathedral in Spain.)

After a fire in the 1100s destroyed the monastic complex, Glastonbury’s abbot claimed to have discovered the grave of King Arthur on-site. This may well have been a publicity stunt to raise rebuilding funds, but the Arthurian association is still part of Glastonbury’s mystical draw.

Glastonbury’s early Christian community apparently stayed strong decades after Jesus’s death. But the Church cracked under outside pressure. Once it caved, it was assimilated into the belief systems of its persecutors—all under a “Christian” name. “Elvanus’s preaching of the gospel brought a strong reaction from the Druids,” Malone continues.

After he was gone, the early pure apostolic faith all but disappeared from the British Isles. … Though true Christianity attained some footing due to the original apostles’ evangelism, it soon died out. King Lucius, who ruled in the second century, is said to have blended Christianity with Druidism.

In the fourth century, as so-called Christianity blended with pagan Roman teachings under the political pressure of Emperor Constantine and his successors, religion all over Europe became a far cry from what Christ and the original apostles taught. But it kept the name “Christian.” It gave religious-sounding names and arguments for its imported pagan ceremonies. Superficially, many may have thought nothing of importance was changing. Maybe they thought conforming would take societal pressure away, giving freedom. Maybe they thought light was still light, though mixed with darkness.

“Be ye not unequally yoked together with unbelievers,” the Apostle Paul wrote in 2 Corinthians 6:14, “for what fellowship hath righteousness with unrighteousness? and what communion hath light with darkness?” What happens when light mixes with darkness? The Apostle Peter answered in 2 Peter 2:19: “They [false teachers] promise them freedom, but they themselves are slaves of corruption; for whatever overcomes a man, to that he is enslaved” (Revised Standard Version).

The Bible reveals there is a devil who is very skilled at masquerading evil as good (2 Corinthians 11:13-15). He deceives the whole world (Revelation 12:9). But he also knows how to be an intimidating bully. He is a devouring lion who exerts maximum pressure on his opponents (1 Peter 5:8; Revelation 2:10). He attacks in every way possible to get one to cave in just a little.

Once that happens, Satan has his opening. That opening is all he needs to fundamentally transform something or someone from light to darkness. He fundamentally transformed the United States from a “city on a hill” to the brink of national collapse. He fundamentally transformed men of god like King Saul into servants of evil.

Glastonbury’s example shows what happens when a place is fundamentally transformed. And it shows what Satan wants to do to each and every one of our personal lives. Satan can take a follower of God and turn him into a “searcher” without the victim realizing what happened.

We recently passed the spring holy days of Leviticus 23—festivals that are still binding on New Testament Christians. At that time of year, God commands true Christians to examine themselves (1 Corinthians 11:28), to scrutinize for any spiritual chinks in the armor Satan could take advantage of.

Glastonbury’s example shows what happens when somebody doesn’t repair those chinks. What’s at stake is not meaningless issues. It is fundamental transformation.