God and War: a review

God and War. The Church of England and armed conflict in the twentieth century
Ed. Stephen G. Parker and Tom Lawson
Farnham, Ashgate, 2012, ISBN:9780754666929

I recently reviewed this timely and important collection, for the Journal of Beliefs and Values, which I thought ‘required reading for students of British Christianity’. The review should appear at some point in 2014, just in time for the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. It begins:PARKER JKT(240x159)

‘As public perceptions of the First World War have petrified around images of futile slaughter in the mud as the clergy led the cheering, so an image has been reinforced of the Church of England as merely an arm of government public relations; part of the Establishment deployed to defend the indefensible. Yet this theme is dissonant with trendy vicars marching against the war in Vietnam or to ban the Bomb, and Robert Runcie’s conspicuous failure to celebrate victory in the Falklands with sufficient enthusiasm to please Prime Minister Thatcher. And so there is a job of historical work to do, to understand the relationship between the established church in England, successive governments and the armed conflicts into which the British have been drawn.

‘The idea of an established church, or of a national church, held always within it a tension between aspects of the role. It was a bolster of morale, and part of a united public face against an external enemy, but also a critic of armed interventions that were harder to justify, and referee of the debate that decided which wars were just and which were not. And the balance of these forces within the church also shifted over time, as the centre of ideological gravity within the church shifted leftwards, particularly after 1945.

The collection goes a long way towards a fresh consideration of the issues, and neatly illustrates the tensions between these two aspects of the Church’s role.

‘For Dianne Kirby, the predominant note in the relationship of the church and the government during the Cold War is one of subservience. Governments expected practical co-operation in the positioning and re-positioning of the UK in relation to powers of east and west, and by and large that co-operation was forthcoming, even if it came with misgivings. In contrast, in perhaps the outstanding contribution, Matthew Grimley adroitly delineates the significance of Anglican opposition to nuclear weapons, bringing out the constant negotiation within the Church of England between its established and prophetic selves.

Also of great interest were Philip Coupland’s important relocation of the Christendom group in the ‘conventional left-right mapping of British politics.’ Stephen G. Parker argues that the ‘Church’s promotion of compulsory religious education, as embodied in the Education Act of 1944, contained within it the seeds of a later dilution of Anglican distinctiveness in schools.’

Some of the other essays are less successful, being ‘muddily written, poorly structured and based on a thin layer of source material, and would have benefited from a firmer editorial hand.’ In some cases, I had the sense that some contributors had ‘only a limited acquaintance with the Church of England itself. The view is often that from outside, which leads to an over-reliance on voices in the press.’ Lawson and Parker as editors were also badly let down by their copy-editors, with typographical and factual errors in several places. I have remarked on this apparent slipping in copy-editing standards in reviews here and here, and it seems to be becoming a trend.

Despite these gripes, as a whole the volume is essential reading; and I’ve already had cause to cite several essays while revising my text on Michael Ramsey.

Britten at the BL

I have an ambivalent relationship with exhibitions. Not so much with art exhibitions, since all I ever expect to do with a painting is look at it. But exhibitions of books and manuscripts, like this excellent (and free) exhibition on Benjamin Britten by my British Library colleagues, feel fascinating and frustrating in equal measure. There is a fascination in the object, made sacred, as it were, by the touch of the great man’s hand; and I had not realised how many of Britten’s autograph scores the Library holds. There are also recordings here, of Britten himself in conversation with broadcasters, and also of Peter Pears.

The frustration comes from what one instinctively expects (as a scholar) to be able to do with a source, but cannot due to the inevitable clear glass box that separates viewer from viewed. I’ve seen and handled a good few of Britten’s letters in relation to his Rejoice in the Lamb (1943) in amongst the Walter Hussey papers, and so one instinctively wants to begin work on these manuscripts and other artefacts straight away; to turn the pages, and follow the thoughts that present themselves as one views.

That aside, there are many rewarding things on display. There are films, such as the Crown Film Unit production Instruments of the Orchestra (1946), for which the piece known as the Young Person’s Guide to the Orchestra was written. Malcolm Sargent had a deserved reputation as a showman and populariser, but after nearly 70 years of media history he appears as from a quite different age, so stiff and didactic is his delivery. Also showing is Night Mail (1936), Britten’s collaboration with W.H. Auden for the GPO Film Unit.

There are items related to Britten’s sacred music as well, including the autograph short scores for both the War Requiem (Add. MS 60609) and the Hymn to St Cecilia, another collaboration with Auden. (Add. MS 60598).

I was also reminded of the connection between Britten and the Peace Pledge Union, set up before the war by Dick Sheppard, rector of St Martin-in-the-Fields. Britten signed the pledge, and was accompanied by Canon Stuart Morris, general secretary of the Union when he appeared before a tribunal as a conscientious objector in 1942, at which his Pacifist March was offered as evidence of his pacifism before the war. Shown here is a printed chorus part of Pacifist March, written for the PPU in 1936-7 with words by Ronnie Duncan. The Union disliked it (and a quick sing through it, sotto voce, shows why) and so it was withdrawn, and this is one of the few surviving copies. Britten’s Canticle I was later given its first performance at a memorial service for Sheppard in November 1947.

The exhibition continues at the Library’s St Pancras site until 15 September. If you’re in London and have a spare hour, I would heartily recommend it.

[Additional information from Humphrey Carpenter, Benjamin Britten. A biography (Faber, 1992)]