Anglican women: Mollie Batten

In recent months I’ve had occasion to look at the lives of several Anglican women of the last century or so, for possible inclusion in a biographical dictionary. Many of these names have been overlooked by historians (or at least historians of the churches), and I may reflect (in another post) on why that has been the case. It has also been a different kind of writing experience for me; I’ve written two book-length studies of individual lives, but not the kind of short summaries that are required here; that too probably merits another post. But for now, here are the first fruits, on Mollie Batten, teacher, administrator and college principal.


Edith Mary (Mollie) Batten was born on 8 February 1905, the third of the four children of a London draper, and the family subsequently moved to Southport. The nature of the Batten family religion, if any, is not clear. Batten read chemistry at the University of Liverpool, graduating in 1925, and then returned to London. An early vocation to the service of others showed itself in her appointment, in 1928, as secretary of the West Ham branch of the Invalid Children’s Aid Association, which had been founded by a clergyman in 1888. Though it is not clear which came first, she resided for a time at St Helen’s House in Stratford, (a women’s institution linked to the men’s mission originated by Trinity College, Oxford) and was also confirmed in the Church of England. Her guide in the latter was Leslie Hunter, vicar of Barking.

In 1933 Batten moved to Birmingham to become warden of the Birmingham University Settlement. During this time the connection with the Church continued: in 1935/6 she taught a course in social studies for the ordinands of the Queen’s College in Birmingham, covering education, public health, work and recreation, and public and private assistance. (She later recalled that this had probably been the first such course at a male theological college.) Her work in rationalising and expanding the settlement’s work brought her to national attention, and into the role of organising secretary of the British Association of Residential Settlements (from 1938). In the same year she became an adviser to the Ministry of Labour, and in 1940 joined its staff, with a particular responsibility in manpower planning and the welfare of workers.

Batten had in 1932 gained a degree in economics from the London School of Economics, by means of evening classes, to add to her knowledge of chemistry. After the war, she turned down the prospect of a permanent position in the civil service, moving instead to St Anne’s College, Oxford, in 1947 to read for a third degree, this time in theology, awarded in 1949.

Recognising Batten’s considerable administrative ability, the central bodies of the Church of England made increasing use of her talents. Under the chairmanship of Leslie Hunter (by this time bishop of Sheffield), she was a member of a committee set up by the two archbishops in 1944 to examine the training of women for work in the Church, which produced the report Training for Service in 1945. Later, and also in conjunction with Hunter, she was a member of the committee on central funds which recommended (in 1956) the creation of the Church of England’s Board for Social Responsibility. In 1957, she was considered (at Hunter’s suggestion) for the honorary Lambeth degree of M.Litt – which had not hitherto been awarded to women – as the Church looked for ways of recognising the work of women in particular; she had already been appointed OBE in 1948.

Such recognition by the Church, had it in fact been granted, would have been largely for her work as principal of the new William Temple College. It had been founded by Hunter in 1947, based on a syllabus drafted by Batten (with F.A.Cockin, canon of St Paul’s). Batten was appointed its second principal in 1950. The original conception, as set out in Training for Service, had been of a college specifically for women, but under Batten’s leadership it accepted both men and women; mostly laymen, but including some clergy and ordinands, both for long programmes of study leading to formal qualifications, and for shorter courses. It also hosted consultations and conferences on particular themes aimed at a national audience, and at those who would not have identified themselves as Christians. A typical course of study included the Bible, church history, and the life and worship of the contemporary church; yet almost as prominent were history, psychology, sociology, law and government. Students were encouraged to apply their learning directly to their present and future professional life: in ordained ministry perhaps, but also in education, industry, social work or public administration. The college in this form survived only a short time after Batten’s retirement, but a member of her staff, Freda Matchett, thought Batten had been a ‘courageous, shrewd and enterprising’ leader who had won the college a worldwide reputation.

After retiring from the college in 1966, Batten acted as research officer for the Board of Social Responsibility, but was also to tread a larger stage. She had known Michael Ramsey in his role as president of the college, and the two had corresponded on social matters being debated in Parliament such as education, the New Towns, or Sunday trading. When, during the planning of the 1968 Lambeth Conference, Michael Ramsey became conscious of the overwhelmingly male composition of the group of observers and consultants assembled to aid the bishops, it was to Batten that he turned to in order to betoken a redressing of the balance; she was one of very few lay people present amid hundreds of bishops, and the only woman. Two American clerical observers noted a ‘buxom, gray-haired, plainly dressed’ presence, whose interventions from the gallery were widely heeded. Particularly notable was what became referred to as ‘Mollie’s leave-us-as-we-are talk’, in which she courteously yet insistently prodded at a kind of semi-clericalising of the laity that had been latent in the discussions about a permanent diaconate; it was not at all clear that lay men and women needed any kind of commissioning other than their baptism and confirmation to carry out their various secular ministries, or to minister within the church itself.

The Lambeth fathers should not have been surprised, since Batten had contributed an essay (one of her very few publications) to a volume of preparatory essays on ministry for the Conference, under Ramsey’s editorship, with the title ‘Laymen in Society’. It contains a robust assertion of the role of the laity in the broadest sense, both those identifiably committed to the visible church and the so-called ‘laymen incognito’ who are not so identified but who nonetheless act in response to the Holy Spirit in pursuit of the good, as they ‘with singleness of mind and integrity of purpose, try to discern the truth of things’. It was vital that the Church worked out how to enable the totality of the laity to be ‘the salt of cleansing, the light of illumination, and the leaven of change in the world’. The essay reads as a summation and a justification of her life’s work.

Yet this emphasis on the esteem of the vocation of the laity sat well alongside vigorous support for the cause of the ordination of women, which came to the boil in the 1960s. A sermon given in Great St Mary’s church in Cambridge in 1966 was entitled ‘For God’s sake: put woman in her place’; Batten played a leading role from the late 1950s in the Anglican Group for the Ordination of Women to the Historic Ministry of the Church, continuing into the early 1980s even after suffering a debilitating stroke. Later leaders of the movement came to regard her as a role model.

Batten moved to Midhurst, West Sussex, in 1969, where she played an active part in both the dioceses of Chichester and Portsmouth, and in the local government of Hampshire. She was for a time chairman of the Chichester Labour party, in a parliamentary seat that has returned only Conservatives for a century. She died on 28 January 1985.


Mollie Batten, ‘Theological education’, Theology 68:535 (1965), 25-31.
Mollie Batten, ‘The education of “The Laos”’, Theology 68:540 (1965), 278-85.
Mollie Batten, ‘Laymen in society’ in Michael Ramsey (ed.), Lambeth essays on ministry: Essays written for the Lambeth Conference 1968 (London, SPCK, 1969), pp.17-29.
Mollie Batten, ‘Five glimpses of Geoffrey Lampe’ in C F.D. Moule (ed.), G.W.H. Lampe: Christian, scholar, churchman: a memoir by friends (Oxford, Mowbray, 1982).
Andrew Chandler, The latter glory of this house: a history of two Christian commonwealths in modern Britain, 1828-1980 (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2013), subsequently republished by I. B. Tauris.
Sean Gill, Women and the Church of England. From the eighteenth century to the present (London: SPCK, 1994).
Grace Heaton, ‘Smashing the stained glass ceiling: an exploration of the campaign for women’s ordination in Church of England, 1968-1994’ (unpublished Ph.D. thesis, University of Oxford, 2023)
Gordon Hewitt (ed.), Strategist for the Spirit: Leslie Hunter, bishop of Sheffield, 1939-62 (Oxford, Becket, 1985).
James B. Simpson and Edward M. Story, The long shadows of Lambeth X (New York: McGraw Hill, 1969)
Peter Webster, ‘Archbishop Michael Ramsey and the Lambeth Conference’, Anglican and Episcopal History, 91:2 (2022), pp.152-75

Lambeth Palace Library, Fisher Papers, vol 205.
Lambeth Palace Library, Ramsey Papers, various volumes.

Oxford Dictionary of National Biography
Who was Who

Joining the fedi-blogosphere

To regular readers of this blog, this will appear as a normal post. But thanks to a significant move by Automattic (the people behind who host this blog), it can now be read directly by users of Mastodon and other parts of the fediverse. Users need only follow the feed at [at] to see posts in whichever app they use to see their feed. What’s more, comments made in those apps end up (once I moderate them) as comments on the blog itself; a very interesting reversal of the trend by which Twitter and Facebook sucked the interaction away from content platforms into their own walled gardens.

There are emerging a number of interesting discussions of what the arrival of millions of individual WordPress instances might do to the Fediverse (notably this one). How well do long-form posts land in a hitherto short-form space? What does moderation look like when each user has their own instance? We’ll have to see. But for now, here it is.

Rowan Williams and the cost of communion

I really didn’t want to write this post. The grim sound of the Anglican churches tearing themselves to pieces over human sexuality has been a constant through the quarter-century over which I have studied the history of those churches, yet I have until now largely kept my counsel. What follows will not add to the biblical and theological arguments about the status of same-sex relationships, which are (as I see it) now stale, and unlikely to yield any further development. Those who are convinced by them are now unlikely to change their minds. However, the decision of the General Synod (as I read it) moves the Church of England into quite new territory, in that it commits the church to some kind of affirmation of same-sex relationships, but stops short of identifying them precisely with heterosexual marriage in its full symbolic and sacramental significance. This has been roundly dismissed as Anglican fudge, but that is to evade the issue. The church now has an opportunity: to take the time it has given itself, and to work out what it would mean to affirm permanent, faithful and stable same-sex relationships as something of equal value but distinct. There is, for now, some space open in which to develop a theological understanding of those relationships that is durable and not merely a staging-post to something else.

I fear, however, that it will not be possible to keep that space open, because too many on both sides of the debate do not wish it to remain open. For some, the current situation could only ever be an interim stage in a longer transition to full equality; on the conservative side, the implications of the Synod vote are already unacceptable, and require an ecclesiological fix to create two churches within the Church of England, in order that the two sides need no longer be required to acknowledge each other. Similar lines are being repainted in the wider Communion. Everyone, of course, must decide which issues are fundamental. But too many on both sides have simply ceased to listen. Worse, I fear that too many have reached the stage where they have ceased to think of the Other as really Christian at all. Most are too polite to say as much in public, of course. But when one simply cannot comprehend the position of the Other, it is dangerously easy to suppose that their position is not held in good faith – that it cannot really be the product of a prayerful and sincere reflection on Scripture, history and the world which we see around us. It must therefore (the argument goes) instead be the product of something else: from one point of view, a refusal to attend to the prompting of the Spirit, or deeply-held fear (homophobia, in its strict definition), or a desire to preserve a heteronormative and unjust social order (of which one is a beneficiary), or a simple failure to love one’s neighbour; on the other hand, it is tempting to assume that the liberal position is evidence of a fundamental lack of seriousness, the refusal of the proud fallen mind to accept what has been clearly revealed. At such a point dialogue, or even co-existence, become difficult if not impossible. But it must be attempted nonetheless.

As always, I turn to history. The 1998 Lambeth Conference is well known for its rancorous exchanges over sexuality, and (eventually) the wholly conservative Resolution 1.10. In 1998, Rowan Williams was bishop of Monmouth, yet to become archbishop of Wales or of Canterbury; the controversy over the abortive appointment of Jeffrey John as bishop of Reading lay ahead. Williams gave an address to a plenary session of the Conference, a revised version of which was subsequently published in the Cambridge Companion to Christian Ethics, entitled ‘Making moral decisions’. In it I find a call to a kind of Christian deliberation that speaks directly to the present situation. It is a rich and complex piece of writing, and hard to summarise, but I here try to draw out some key themes.

In order to frame the issue of moral discernment in a less heated way, Williams is talking here not of sexuality, but of the manufacture and retention of weapons of mass destruction, against which Williams had campaigned for many years. ‘I believe it is impossible for a Christian to tolerate, let alone bless or even defend’ the possession of such weapons. However, ‘I at once have to recognise that Christians do it; not thoughtless, shallow, uninstructed Christians, but precisely those who make themselves accountable to the central truths of our faith…. I cannot at times believe that we are reading the same Bible; I cannot understand what it is that could conceivably speak of the nature of the Body of Christ in any defence of such strategy.’ But Williams knows that these are the people whom he meets at the Eucharist, who do indeed hear the same Scriptures as he does ‘and I am aware that they offer their discernment as a gift to the Body.’ So though Williams wants to argue against such views ‘with all my powers’, and believes that Christian witness to the world is weakened by the expression of them, ‘yet it seems I am forced to ask what there is in this position that I might recognise as a gift, as a showing of Christ.’

There will be limits to what can be tolerated, however, which when reached would justify a breaking of communion; the paradigmatic case is among the German churches in the 1930s. But that point will not be easy to discern in advance, and will not yet have been reached if ‘we can recognise that our partners in this conversation are speaking the same language and wrestling with the same given data of faith… We watch to see if our partners take the same kind of time, sense that they are under the same sort of judgement or scrutiny, approach the issue with the same attempt to be dispossessed by the truth they are engaging with.’ In the meantime ‘this leaves my own decisions to some extent under question. I cannot have absolute subjective certainty that this is the only imaginable reading of the tradition’. If I still conclude that the brother and sister that I recognise is mistaken in their decision, and that that mistake is a deep and damaging one, then ‘I accept for myself the brokenness in the Body that this entails. These are my wounds; just as the one who disagrees with me is wounded by what they consider my failure or even betrayal’. So long as we have a language in common – and what Williams calls a ‘grammar of obedience’ – then to remain in communion is vital, despite the cost. The need is not for separation, or some other form of impaired fellowship, but ‘to turn away from the temptation to seek the purity and assurance of a community speaking with only one voice and embrace the reality of living in a communion that is fallible and divided.’

At Lambeth 1998 Williams was already known as a ally of gay and lesbian Anglicans, and his intervention was no doubt mostly read as a tacit rebuke to the conservatives. Yet, read without prejudice, it catches both sides in its net. In a diverse church, no-one should hope to avoid the hard work of dialogue, and its cost. If it really is the case that Anglicans can no longer recognise each other as members of the same Body, responding faithfully to the same data – and the situation cannot somehow be recovered – then the Communion will not survive in its current form, and will not deserve to.

Eric Mascall and the knowledge of God

In the last couple of weeks I’ve reached something of a resting point in my work on the Anglo-Catholic philosopher and theologian Eric Mascall. Slightly to my surprise, the project expanded to fill what are now five articles or book chapters, two published and three coming very soon. Readers have in general been very supportive of the work, but also somewhat curious: why Mascall, and why now? One peer reviewer, while complimentary about the article in question, suggested that ‘it would be worth emphasising the importance of Mascall lest readers should find themselves wondering why somebody who was often regarded as a dinosaur and who was quite outside the theological mainstream should still be worth studying’.

The identity of that reviewer was of course withheld from me, but I very much suspect that he or she is a theologian. For the historian, there is (at one level) quite an easy answer to their question. Mascall seemingly read everything published in English theology during his career, and much else besides, and his work covered the full range of dogmatic theology and philosophy of religion. He also wrote a very great deal, and over fifty years. As such, his work is an excellent lens through which to look at what was going on in English theology from the 1930s right through into the 1980s. He also involved himself very publicly in several of the controversies of the 1960s and 1970s, most notably aspects of the ecumenical movement, and the ordination of women, being widely acknowledged as one of the most cogent spokesmen for a particular kind of conservative Anglican catholicism. For all this, his historical interest is clear, I think.

But to say so avoids a deeper question about most, if not all, historical work: why this subject, now? To which current preoccupations in church and society do these stories speak? To be sure, there are still those in the Church of England who cannot accept ordained women; the question of Anglican-Methodist unity is still open. But what I think interests me most about Mascall is a question of method and attitude that, as he saw it, underlies all these other questions.

In his later years, Mascall several times argued that the most salient division within the church was becoming one between ‘those who believe in the fundamentally revealed and given character of the Christian religion and those who find their norms in the outlooks and assumptions of contemporary secularised culture and are concerned to assimilate the beliefs and institutions of Christianity to it’. For my own part, I think this a false dichotomy, though I don’t want to pursue the thought here. But for Mascall, holding to this formulation was made easier by his fundamental conviction that the content of that revelation could be known, with a clarity and certainty that relatively few of his contemporaries could really feel. This conviction in Mascall was formed as a young man in the 1930s and never left him. As I shall show in a moment, it was as chalk and cheese in relation to the kind of liberalism that held sway in the universities at that time. The revival in interest in Mascall in recent years may in part be due to an appetite for the kind of uncompromising restatement of a kind of orthodoxy that he provided; other readers, I suspect, find this approach – which might be described as ‘dogmatic’ – impossible to engage with. My own fascination with Mascall is to do with the peculiar intensity of his pursuit of truth, to which I am myself drawn, but cannot quite fully inhabit.


Writing as a young man in the 1940s, Mascall felt himself to be in the vanguard of a confident Anglo-Catholicism, the success of which seemed evident in events like the 1933 centenary of the Oxford movement. The liberalism against which he set himself had several features, but fundamentally (he thought) it dealt too lightly with the accumulated treasure of Christian tradition, and was too ready to assume that unaided human reason could ‘erect an entirely new theological edifice to twentieth-century specifications’. As a result, it left itself open to the adoption of the governing assumptions of its time; of marrying the spirit of the age, only to be a widow in the next. Mascall’s first two books of academic theology appeared in the 1940s: He Who Is: a study in traditional theism (1943), and Christ, the Christian and the Church (1946). What follows is a reflection on how they were received by some of his readers.

Eric Mascall. (Rights situation unknown).

Mascall’s early books were certainly thought to be an attack on ‘liberalism’ by some older men who owned the name.  In 1941 A. E. Garvie, the Congregationalist philosopher of religion, reviewed three of the books in a series entitled Signposts (which Mascall co-edited) that included Mascall’s Man: his origin and destiny. Garvie could not, as one twice the age of the oldest of the authors, accept the general tenor of their argument; the matter required ‘more appreciation of the values of modern thought … and a more progressive attitude to the catholic tradition, as needing more adaptation to those values’ than the three displayed. Like Garvie, Clement Webb was approaching the age of 80 and long since retired as Oriel Professor of the Philosophy of the Christian Religion at Oxford when he reviewed Mascall in the 1940s. Webb wrote as ‘an old man, undertaking against the vigorous assaults of his juniors the defence of principles which inspired and guided the minds of his generation’. Mascall, and others like him, were too much taken ‘by a mood of self-congratulation, excited by a sense of being carried forward by a flowing tide that has left behind the out-of-date fashions of yesterday and the day before.’ But Mascall seemed to define liberalism by its faults rather than by its essentials. Though there was a temptation to be ‘mere idolaters of the passing mode’, for Webb, liberalism was characterised more by the commitment to following an argument where it led. Men like Webb and Garvie were no more committed to the new for its own sake than to the old, but to what seemed to the free and conscientious mind to be true.

That this critique was not merely that of the old and comfortable was evident from the review of Christ, the Christian and the Church by Alan Richardson, a near contemporary. Mascall’s insights were at a disadvantage ‘through being set forth in thought-forms which without reinterpretation are no longer credible to the great majority of non-Roman Christian thinkers today.’ Dark allusions to unnamed ‘liberals’ were not enough, Richardson thought, to rescue Mascall from his ‘refusal to look at the difficulties which the rise of the critical method has created for the traditionalist theory of Natural and Revealed Theology’. Even a figure as sympathetic as Donald Mackinnon had reservations. Mackinnon, then teaching philosophy at Keble College Oxford, was in fact younger than Mascall, and wrote two of the books in the Signposts series. Reviewing He Who Is, Mackinnon thought Mascall too dismissive of the modern philosophers, the exposition of whom was Mackinnon’s daily work in Oxford, and of Kant in particular. ‘One could wish again that Fr Mascall had dealt more sympathetically with the difficulties that minds, fashioned by the methods of modern science, find in learning to think ontologically. It is not mere stupidity, but a problem of reconciling perspectives that may, if we handle it sufficiently carefully, deepen our very insight into being itself.’ For Mackinnon, as for Clement Webb, Mascall’s method was of little help to those who felt the force of conflicting approaches and wished, however messily, to hold them together.

So Mascall’s work attracted criticism on account of its content. But there was also a question of tone, as Mascall’s apparent certainty itself gave readers pause for concern. Clement Webb noted the impression given in He Who Is of definiteness where none was quite justified. Mascall seemed ‘curiously unappreciative of the difficulties which yet indubitably beset [the Thomist approach] and may at least excuse those Christian thinkers who have found themselves unable to subscribe to it… he is always the man who has found the right explanation, not the seeker after a truth which eludes a perfect statement in terms needing no qualification and subject to no dialectical development.’ ‘I am bound to confess’, Webb wrote later, while reviewing Christ, the Christian and the Church, ‘that Mr. Mascall, when he is pluming himself on his “orthodoxy”, constantly puts one in mind of those Pharisees in the Fourth Gospel who were so sure they were Moses’ disciples and confident in their knowledge that God spake unto Moses’ that they need take no account of anything that seemed to conflict with it. Alan Richardson detected an ‘un-Anglican outlook and temper’ in Mascall, marked by special pleading of his own orthodoxy and an unwarranted willingness to ‘make pronouncements where many would prefer to keep a reverent silence.’ Mascall had ‘magisterially pointed out the errors of a great number of eminent theologians but we are still left wondering how he knows that he is right and they are wrong.’ This very certainty was in itself decisively different from the liberal temper, and an implicit rejection of it.

Though Mascall in 1943 was a young man with a vision in a time of national crisis, this fundamental certainty was never to leave him. It was particularly plain to see as Mascall took up the cudgels against the liberal theology of the 1960s and 1970s; his combativeness was a product of the cosmic seriousness, as he understood it, of the task in hand, and the consequences of getting it wrong. It was Mascall’s unbending conviction that made him a prominent opponent of the Anglican-Methodist union scheme in the late 1960s, a product of what one critic called his ‘theology of the trenches’. But it has to understood in the context of his equally clear sense of the limits of human knowledge. The mind, without the aid of grace, can never progress from natural theology into the fullest knowledge of God as derived from revelation, and there were still limits once it had. Just as revelation surpassed reason, ‘so does the experimental knowledge of God that is granted to the mystics surpass revelation.’

This was given fullest expression in the book which was perhaps closest to Mascall’s heart, the short popular exposition of the Christian’s vision of God, Grace and Glory (1961). Mascall returned to the mystical writers that had influenced him deeply in the 1930s: Teresa of Avila, Julian of Norwich, and (in particular) St John of the Cross. In the latter’s The Ascent of Mount Carmel Mascall found the paradox that faith, as it purified and perfected the understanding, brought certainty but without clarity: ‘the more accurately we come to know God, the more fully we understand that His infinite and transcendent being outstrips our finite powers of apprehension.’ It was the gift of faith that allowed the Christian to hold on in the dark night of the understanding, in the face of (in Jacques Maritain’s words) ‘that sacred abyss before which the angels fall trembling with love and terror.’ Mascall’s work drew the boundaries of what may be known of God more widely than some of his critics thought legitimate. But it is at those boundaries that the sheer distance that remained between God and human understanding could be seen most clearly. The apparently unwarranted certainty that so perplexed Clement Webb was only one part of Mascall’s constitution, and has to be read in relation to its other elements.

There was also a certain aesthetic element to Mascall’s understanding of knowledge. One of the pen portraits in Mascall’s memoir is of the poet, novelist and theologian Charles Williams. Mascall noted the pure aesthetic effect on Williams of the grasping of an aspect of the truth of God, while reading He Who Is. Williams had found himself ‘savouring a particular doctrine with an almost physical delight … it was in my mouth “sweet as honey”; it melted exquisitely into my corporeal organism and bestowed a richness.’ Although Mascall never quite explicitly owned the same kind of experience, that he admitted it as a type of experience is clear in He Who Is. Speaking particularly of mathematics, he wrote of the true grasping of a theorem, where ‘premisses and conclusion are related as parts of a whole possessing a definite – one might even say, an aesthetic – form.’ The theorems that were often described as beautiful were those that ‘stimulate precisely this kind of intuitive grasp of theorems as a whole.’ The scholar had ‘penetrated to the nature of the object and made it part of himself.’ Such an experience, or one analogous to it, was possible in metaphysics, but Mascall’s whole written output is suffused with a sense of the beauty of doctrine too, if only it could be stated as clearly as the human mind was able. There was beauty both in individual doctrines and the inevitable way in which Mascall thought he knew, both intellectually and aesthetically, that they all corresponded. And so part of the explanation for what Webb saw as arrogance, and what later looked like an impossible inflexibility to many on the other side of debates about ecumenism or the theology of the 1960s, was a sense that a beautiful, pristine system was at risk of being sullied or besmirched.

Some of this material is adapted from part of a forthcoming article on Mascall and his embrace of Thomism, forthcoming in the Journal for the History of Modern Theology. For more on Mascall, see the project page.

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.’