Eric Mascall and the rise, fall and (partial) rebirth of “Christian sociology”

The period from the 1950s to the early 1970s was one of rapid change in the British churches, and in their attitudes to the society around them. The period saw a sweeping relaxation of the ‘moral law’ in the UK, an emptying of that law of its Christian content; from suicide to capital punishment, divorce to abortion, male homosexuality to censorship, the direction of travel was clear. There was British military involvement in Korea, the Suez crisis, and an American war in Vietnam, all of which engaged Christian opinion sharply on all sides of the argument; all this unfolded under the pervasive threat of nuclear conflict. Christians also disagreed over the post-colonial politics of Rhodesia and South Africa, and the welcoming or otherwise of immigrants from former colonies in the Caribbean and the Indian subcontinent. There was increasing Christian concern about the effects of unrestrained capitalism on both people and environment, both in the UK and abroad; the early Seventies saw economic instability that cast doubt on the economic settlement of the post-war period.

Eric Mascall, subject of a forthcoming article in the International Journal for the Study of the Christian Church, is not usually associated with the debates that raged around all these issues. While at Christ Church Oxford (1945-62), and then at King’s College London until retirement in 1973, he produced a formidable body of work, in philosophical theology, Christology, ecclesiology, the sacraments, and the relationship of Christianity and the natural sciences. Mascall was also deeply involved in the more immediate affairs of his day: a trenchant critic of developments in liberal theology, and an enthusiast for ecumenical progress on a catholic basis, while a vigorous opponent of other schemes which seemed to depart from it. However, the social, political and moral life of England outside the churches seemed not to concern him to anything like the same extent.

However, this picture of Mascall is overturned entirely if we consider two short periods, one at the very beginning of his public career and one in retirement. In both cases Mascall was drawn directly and deeply into political, social and moral comment. The first period began in the mid-1930s, when Mascall was a curate in London, and spans his time teaching at Lincoln Theological College; it ended in the mid-1940s, when Mascall’s first significant books of academic theology were beginning to appear. In these early years, Mascall’s output was in fact weighted significantly towards questions of society, economics and ethics, though these rather extensive writings have been largely overlooked. More fragmentary, but significant nonetheless, was Mascall’s return to some of the same questions from the mid-1970s onwards, after his retirement from King’s College.

Eric Mascall. (Rights situation unknown).

My new article examines the two periods in turn. It explores Mascall’s involvement in the 1930s and 1940s with the so-called ‘Christendom group’ of Anglo-Catholic writers on society. The bewilderment of the 1930s and the war years, Mascall believed, had its root in the loss of a proper sense of the human person: made in the image of God, both bodily and spiritual, dependent on the action of God for their very existence, open to the action of grace, a worker on earth yet a pilgrim on a journey towards glory. The fulfilment of humankind, and of the society in which men and women were to live, was contingent on a right relation of each person to God, and the subservience of society, economy and politics to human need, properly understood in that context. Mascall was not alone in expounding such a view. He was, however, rare among his contemporaries in living and continuing to write into the mid-1980s, and thus being able to look back on the eclipse in the 1950s and 1960s of much of what he had advocated. I argue that the waxing and waning of Mascall’s public interventions mirrors the rise, eclipse and (finally) a partial revival of a kind of catholic understanding of man and society which was sometimes given the name of ‘Christian sociology’.


The time immediately before and during the Second World War was a moment in which the whole political and social life of the West seemed to be in flux, and indeed in danger. In the UK, the political and economic settlement often dubbed ‘liberal’ was widely perceived to have failed even before the outbreak of war. In the search for solutions, Christian and non-Christian thinkers alike broke in every direction: for the kind of strength and stability that fascism seemed to offer; for a communist alternative, and for paths in between. The term ‘Christian sociology’ denoted something other than the ostensibly neutral descriptive discipline of the sociology of religion as practised in the universities. The label was most often applied to the thinkers of the inter-war period associated with the journal Christendom, with whom Mascall was closely connected. The group’s outstanding thinker was V. A. Demant, canon of St Paul’s cathedral in the 1940s and, later, regius professor of moral and pastoral theology in the University of Oxford. ‘The change I am now indicating’ wrote Demant in the first issue of Christendom, ‘is one which insists that a Christian judgment is demanded not only on the conduct of men within, but upon the nature of the social structure itself. A Christian sociology recognizes that there are objective social relationships which are to be judged better or worse from a doctrinal Christian standpoint.’ Mascall attended the annual conferences of the Christendom group, and also the summer schools of sociology organised by the Church Union, which ran for thirty years. He was also present at the so-called ‘Malvern Conference’ of 1941, convened by William Temple, archbishop of York, at which the influence of the Christendom group was strong. Mascall read, and wrote for Christendom, and contributed to other publications emanating from the group.

Mascall’s analysis of society was consistent, and is to be found reiterated across his writings of the period. There was all around a common frustration with the modernist experiment: ‘man to-day, like Frankenstein with his monster, sees himself on the verge of destruction by his own creature.’ The root cause, for Mascall, was the loss of the Christian doctrine of human nature and purpose. For Mascall ‘our very existence from moment to moment depends on the never-ceasing creative love and power of God.’ This anticipated the formal metaphysical treatment of the same theme in He who is (1943), but it was the social implications with which Mascall was concerned in 1940.  Men and women had no natural power of knowing God, but as a result of the taking of human nature by the incarnate Christ, the Christian was open to the action of God’s grace, progressing gradually towards the final vision of God in heaven. In the meantime, man is ‘a dweller in two worlds at once; his citizenship is in heaven, and his sojourn on earth is brief, uncertain and, unless it is brought into relationship with his eternal destiny, extremely unsatisfying.’ All human activities must result in frustration if made ends in themselves, ‘but if they fall into line … in such a way that his life as a whole is making him more and more fit as time goes on for the vision of God in heaven, they are to be accepted …. as the gifts of God.’

For Mascall, the markers of a true Christian society were properly ordered relationships between three things: man, existing solely for the glory of God; ‘things’ (that is, all the rest of the created world), existing ‘for the good of man’; and money, solely the facilitator of the production and distribution of things. But the ‘humanist adventure’ had removed God to a distance at which He could be safely ignored. In the meantime, the whole created world had been subjugated instead to the production of things, and man existed only to produce and consume. Goods and services that served no social purpose, or even caused harm, were produced if they returned a profit to capital, while things that satisfied real human needs were left unmade. Workers laboured in inhuman conditions in order that others should accumulate; unemployment was always to be solved by the making of additional unnecessary things, in response to artificial demand created by advertising. And the demands of the machine drove nations into competition with each other, sometimes armed, and into ‘ruthless and avaricious exploitation of God’s earth.’ All this was an inevitable result of the neglect of the right relations of God, man, things and money; to solve it, a revival of personal religion, though vitally important, would not be sufficient. ‘It means putting an end to the profit motive as the main incentive in industry and to opportunism in politics. And if it is objected that this is too much to hope for, the only answer … is that if it is not done then our civilisation is inevitably doomed to perish.’

The ending of the war, and the creation of the welfare state that followed, brought a loss of impetus for the kind of social thought that Mascall pursued. Christendom ceased publication in 1950. Anglican social concern was far from exhausted, but insofar as it did not achieve its vast aim of a refounding of society on catholic principles, the Christendom group was a failure. The first phase of Mascall’s public intervention had also largely come to an end. In 1943 there appeared He Who Is, his first book of academic theology; his second, Christ, the Christian and the Church (1946), was substantially complete when, in May 1945 with the war at an end, he took up a temporary position at Christ Church Oxford which was in fact to be his until 1962. In July, the Labour party won a general election by a landslide and the political and economic landscape had thus changed utterly. For the rest of his career before retirement in 1973, his work was dominated by metaphysics and dogmatic theology, ecumenical prospects and dangers, and the threat of the secular theology associated with John Robinson and others.


Mascall’s apprehensions of the prospects for theology had darkened as he approached retirement in 1973. This was perhaps in part a function of increasing age, and of the fact that several of his closest interlocutors in earlier years had predeceased him. It was certainly the case that by the late 1960s the Anglo-Catholic wing of the Church of England had lost a great deal of the expansive self-confidence, in the context of which Mascall had been formed in the 1930s. There was also a more general theological disorientation, Mascall believed; English theology had lost sight of its proper responsibility to the Church, become wrongly oriented in scope and employed the wrong tools. One aspect of this more general crisis was, he thought, an evisceration of the tradition of Anglo-Catholic social theology.

Why had this happened? The problem was theological at root: the loss of the dual sense of man as both spiritual and bodily, a pilgrim journeying towards a heavenly life, but also created and creaturely. Christian sociology could only be possible where natural and supernatural were distinct, but held together nonetheless. By the early 1970s, Mascall thought, this connection had been obscured by secularising theologies such as that of Honest to God and (from the USA) the work of Paul van Buren, Harvey Cox and others. After a long examination of Honest to God in 1965, Mascall had concluded that ‘the programme which [Robinson] sets forth … so far from transforming the secularised world in which we live by transfusing into it the redemptive power of Christ, would simply reduce Christianity to a condition of impotence by conforming it to the pattern of the secularised world.’ Similarly, the attempt by Van Buren to understand the gospel in secular terms ‘excludes any criteria that might help Christians to heal the ills of the contemporary world by understanding secularized man in Gospel terms.’ To empty the concept of God of any transcendent or personal element was to sever any connection between nature and grace; it was to rule out the possibility that the relation of man and God demanded a social life other than the status quo. Mascall noted a tendency of such theologies to a kind of political and social quietism, a sanctification of the present.

The problem was not only with the doctrine of God, but specifically Christological. A highly influential intervention was the 1978 Reith Lectures by Edward Norman, published as Christianity and the world order. Norman argued that ‘the teachings of the Saviour clearly describes a personal rather than a social morality’; the involvement of the divine in the structures of time did not require Christians to attempt ‘inappropriate explanations of secular culture.’ This, Mascall deduced later, was the result of a faulty Christology: an assertion that in the Incarnation ‘the visible and the unseen world were briefly joined’. But the Incarnation was no passing episode, but permanent, in which Christ had joined human nature up to himself in a ‘complete and indissoluble union’, from which the whole of Catholic social theory flowed: there was in Norman’s work an ‘extreme confusion of thought [arising] from a basic error in Christian doctrine, which distorts all his subsequent argument.’

But there were some signs of hope in the 1970s, Mascall thought. He was encouraged by the long succession of pronouncements from Roman Catholic sources, from the decrees of the Second Vatican Council to very recent statements from John Paul II, and regretted the ‘quite abysmally minimal’ attention that these had attracted among Anglophone theologians. But in Gaudium et spes, the longest of the documents of the Council,  ‘nothing less is offered to man … than the traditional Gospel that the Creator of the universe has entered into his own creation, becoming what we are in order that we might become what he is.’

The other source of hope was rather closer to home, in the form of the so-called Jubilee Group. Formed in 1974 by Rowan Williams and Kenneth Leech, it was motivated by a sense that Anglican Catholics were politically lethargic and prone to (in Leech’s words) ‘sickly pietism and a right-wing stance on political and social issues’, having learned little either from the movements of the 1930s or from the Vatican Council. Mascall contributed in 1979 to a Jubilee Group pamphlet in response to Edward Norman. He was particularly appreciative of the Essays catholic and radical, edited by Leech and Williams in 1983, and their call to ‘a critical orthodoxy and … a theological critique of capitalism’; in their ‘disquiet and anxiety at the present failure of Anglican Catholics to meet [the need] I seem almost to hear the echo of our own voices fifty years ago!’


When read as a group, Eric Mascall’s seemingly rather scattered writings on politics, economics and ethics are bound together by his understanding of the relation of Creator and creature which, though it was refined in his specialist philosophical writings as his career progressed, exercised largely the same force in his social thought from beginning to end. Though Mascall was hardly unique in his understanding, his expressions of it were among the clearest and most forceful published in the war years. As well as this, his long career, and continued critical engagement with the same issues, deep into retirement, affords the historian a useful vantage point from which to view the rise, eclipse and (finally) partial rebirth of ‘Christian sociology.’

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