The Church of England and theatre censorship

I was delighted yesterday to find on my doormat Studies in Church History 48 (2012), in which there is my own article on the archbishops of Canterbury and theatre censorship between 1909-49. It is available direct from Boydell and Brewer or from the Ecclesiastical History Society, or at an academic library near you. It will not be available on Open Access for a while yet, but for now, here is an edited extract which gives a flavour of the whole.

[from the Introduction]

“The position of the archbishop of Canterbury at the heart of the Establishment engendered requests to be patron, advocate or opponent of almost every conceivable development in national life. One such entanglement was his role as unofficial advisor to the Lord Chamberlain in the matter of the licensing of stage plays.  According to the report of the 1909 Joint Select Committee on the system, the Lord Chamberlain was able to refuse to a licence to any play that was likely ‘to do violence to the sentiment of religious reverence’, to be indecent, or ‘to be calculated to conduce to crime or vice’. It was on matters such as these that from time to time the Lord Chamberlain’s office would consult the archbishop.

“Despite the apparent oddity of a senior churchman being asked to adjudicate on artistic matters such as this, the matter has hitherto received little attention from religious historians to match that given to the censorship of the cinema and to the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960. It receives scant attention also from successive archiepiscopal biographers, due perhaps to its apparently epiphenomenal nature. The role of the archbishops is treated in passing in general accounts of the censorship, but by its very nature this scholarship has not treated the theme directly.

“Taking as its period the forty years from the Joint Select Committee report in 1909 to the unsuccessful attempt in Parliament to reform the system in 1949, this article details the curious unofficial position of the archbishops within the system of censorship. The various grounds on which Archbishops Randall Davidson (1903–28) and Cosmo Gordon Lang (1928–42) in particular offered their advice to the Lord Chamberlain are then examined. The article thus provides a case study of the singular and often anomalous position of the archbishop at the heart of the Establishment in Britain, and the extent to which the secular and ecclesiastical powers combined in the regulation of the life of the nation, both moral and aesthetic. In addition, it examines a unique nodal point in the interaction between the Church and the arts.

[from the Conclusion]

“In 1940 Colin Gordon of the Lord Chamberlain’s office solicited Lang’s opinion on the play Family Portrait by the American playwrights Lenore and William Joyce Cowen. A.C. Don, Lang’s chaplain, accepted the ‘obvious reverence and restraint’ of the script but raised some fundamental concerns. The first issue was the portrayal of the brothers and sisters of Christ, the very non-existence of whom was a matter of some importance to Roman Catholics and to some within the Church of England. The second was the downplaying of the incarnation to the extent that Christ appeared as solely an ethical teacher, although a great one. Don concluded that the play ought not to be licensed in the usual way.

“Here was the archbishop’s representative advising in accustomed fashion. When called upon, Davidson and Lang had advised on the licensing of plays on a number of different grounds: the likelihood of incitement to vice; of gratuitous offence to religious people; and, more controversially, of theological or artistic defect. They helped shape the formulation of guiding principles, and advised in cases where there was doubt.

“It is, however, an indication of the degree to which the situation had changed by 1940 that Family Portrait had in fact already been licensed the previous year, without reference to Lambeth at all; and the exchange was one of the last of its kind. After a peak in the 1920s and early 1930s, there had been a marked decline in the number of plays referred to Lambeth. Lang’s successors William Temple (1942–44) and Geoffrey Fisher were seldom consulted, although Fisher was kept informed of major changes in policy, such as the relaxation of restrictions on the portrayal of homosexuality in 1958. One of Fisher’s few interventions was to reinforce the longstanding ban on the representation of God in The Green Pastures in 1951, a decision reinforced by Michael Ramsey ten years later. So it was that the single stipulation relating to the impersonation of the persons of the Trinity was by 1949 the only remaining matter on which the archbishops advised the Lord Chamberlain.

“I hope elsewhere to continue the story beyond 1949, and to treat of the attitude of Anglicans to the final abolition of theatre censorship in 1968. Anglican support for abolition was in part fostered by the manifest anachronism of the remaining rule and its stultifying effect on religious drama within the Church. That aside, the operation of the system to 1949 is demonstrative of some governing assumptions concerning the joint operation of church and state in the regulation of morals; of understandings of the appropriate modes of representing the national faith; and of some of the tensions in the relationship between the church and the arts.

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2 thoughts on “The Church of England and theatre censorship

  1. Pingback: The Church and literature | Webstory: Peter Webster's blog

  2. Pingback: The church and censorship of the theatre | Webstory: Peter Webster's blog

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