National Religion and the Prayer Book Controversy, 1927-28: a review

[A review due to appear in the Bulletin of the Christianity and History Forum in 2011. It is published here by kind permission of the Editor.]

John Maiden
National Religion and the Prayer Book Controversy, 1927-28
Woodbridge, Boydell, 2009 (Studies in Modern British Religious History, 21)
978-1-84383-521-9

The events often known collectively as the Prayer Book Crisis of 1927-8 occupy a singular status in the historiography of British Christianity. To many observers of the period in general, one of acute economic and social strain, the sight of Parliament concerning itself with the theological significance of parts of the liturgy of the Church of England is curious at the very least. As John Maiden notes in this admirable new study of the crisis, it took a full two minutes to restore order in the chamber of the Commons after the first vote in December 1927; this was no dry-as-dust matter but one that generated considerable heat. To scholars of the religious state of the nation, this display of Protestant political muscle has often been seen as an anomaly; a re-animation of spirits left for dead in the previous century. In what might be termed the ‘company history’ of the Church of England, itself often a product of the ‘Centre-High consensus’ that Maiden sees as dominant at the time, the episode has often been met with incomprehension; a strange irruption of the ‘Protestant underworld’. Hensley Henson’s famous image of ‘an army of illiterates generalled by octogenarians’, massing to oppose the new Book, has had an influence that far exceeded its accuracy.

Yet despite its apparent marginality, the crisis cast a long shadow, not least within the central hierarchy of the Church. The shock of the defeat in Parliament of the proposed Book, properly formulated and brought forward by the church’s own legislative body, was to condition all subsequent dealings between Church and Parliament right up until the establishment of the General Synod in 1970. The great strength of Maiden’s book, the first full-length study of the episode, is that it draws out the full import of the questions raised by the crisis about English, and British, religion. Chapters 1 and 2 set out the background, dealing with the attempts over the previous decades by the Church to secure a modicum of independence from Parliament in its own affairs, culminating with the institution of the Church Assembly under the Enabling Act of 1919. In a way that complements usefully the work of Matthew Grimley, Maiden also describes the ‘Centre-High consensus’ dominant within the institutional church and to which both Archbishop Davidson and Prime Minister Baldwin in their different ways subscribed: a consensus, according to which the national church ought to be comprehensive of all the doctrinal emphases and varieties of sacramental practice that had historically found a niche within it.

Chapters 3 to 6 then proceed to analyse in detail the varying trajectories of response among different bodies of opinion both within and outside the Church of England. Amongst Anglicans, what might be termed ‘Low Church’ responses are carefully distinguished from those of evangelicals, and the varieties of catholic opinion are skilfully and usefully described and distinguished. Chapter 4 considers the reactions of the other English Protestant denominations, pointing out the tensions between latent disestablishmentarian feeling among some, and the increasing value placed on the existence of a national church by others, so long as it remained distinctively Protestant. Chapter 5 considers the wider British aspect, since the anomaly of Scottish, Welsh and Irish MPs voting on what was considered by some to be a domestic matter of the English church went unnoticed neither at the time nor since. Implicated in the matter was a still deep-seated sense among many in the country at large of the importance of ‘national religion’, the subject of the concluding chapter. Far from being a private mania of a lunatic fringe, the crisis activated Protestant understandings of national identity and their attendant anti-Catholicism which were of greater importance to a greater number of Britons than many within the ecclesiastical and political establishments cared to acknowledge.

If there is any criticism to be made of the book, it is one not of fact or interpretation but of structure, in that a good deal of the material in the climactic final chapter is foreshadowed in earlier chapters, such that it loses some of its force. That aside, John Maiden has provided a useful and important study that is likely to remain the starting point for study of the Prayer Book Crisis for some time to come.

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