The contemporary religious history of the Web: themes, prospects and pitfalls

A paper I gave on 9 October to the Digital History seminar at the Institute of Historical Research in London.

Abstract: The emerging discipline of Web history is at a point of inflection. Over nearly ten years, a small but worldwide community of scholars has been grappling with the methodological questions raised by the Web, and the archived Web in particular, as scholarly sources. (Some of this exploration has been aired in this seminar in previous years.) At the same time, the continuously moving frontier that marks the further extent of the interest of contemporary historians has now reached the 1990s, the period during which the Web begins to take its place as a truly revolutionary medium of communication. This paper sets out to connect the preoccupations of contemporary religious history with the developing area of Web history, and to suggest an agenda for the near future of the contemporary religious history of the Web.

My slides are available at

Chagall in Chichester

[It is forty years this month since the unveiling of a stained glass window in Chichester cathedral, designed by Marc Chagall. This edited extract from my book on Walter Hussey, dean of Chichester, who commissioned it, tells the story of its making.]

Hussey had begun to think more or less immediately, on his arrival at Chichester in 1955, of new stained glass for the cathedral. However, it was only after his retirement in 1977 that he achieved his goal, in between which he had commissioned work from Graham Sutherland, John Piper and many others.

The Chagall window is located in a curiously obscure area of the building. Geoffrey Clarke’s pulpit in aluminium faces out into the nave; Sutherland’s Noli me tangere is visible from the full length of the south aisle; the colours of Piper’s tapestry frame the high altar, the focus of the central liturgical work of the cathedral, and are visible from the west end. By contrast, the Chagall window is tucked away in the wall of the north quire aisle, and so the visitor to the cathedral must venture deep into the building to find it. As Robert Holtby, Hussey’s successor as dean, noted in his sermon at the service of dedication, it is also all but invisible from the outside. Inside, it is the frame or backdrop to no liturgical action, being connected to none of the chapels and their altars. As such, of all the artistic work in the building, it is most like a painting in a gallery: an object for personal viewing and contemplation, not a companion to the collective action of the congregation as the Body of Christ as it worships.

The Chagall window in Chichester cathedral

In one sense, this more detached position suits the work itself, a work of art in a church on the theme of the arts in the Church. The theme of the 150th psalm was suggested by Hussey, the common property of Hussey and of Chagall the Jew. But the subtitle – ‘The arts to the glory of God’ – suggests that the project was also a gloss on Hussey’s life’s work, which took on a valedictory quality as retirement approached. ‘True artists of all sorts, as creators of some of the most worthwhile of man’s work, are well adapted to express man’s worship of God’ he wrote to Chagall. ‘I can imagine a window showing a variety of these artistic activities all caught up in a great act of worship – Psalm 150….. it has been the great enthusiasm of my life and work to commission for the Church the very best artists I could, in painting, in sculpture, in architecture, in music and in literature.’

In the early 1950s, Chagall, after decades in Russia, Germany, France and the USA, had returned to France where he would stay for the rest of his life. This late period in the artist’s work, which was to extend for three decades, was marked both by a return to the Biblical subjects of Chagall’s Russian childhood, and a move into new media: in particular, stained glass. In 1959 he received his first commission for new glass for a church building: the cathedral at Metz. Several other such commissions were to follow; particularly notable were the twelve windows for the synagogue of the medical centre at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, completed in 1961. These windows formed the basis of a record-breaking exhibition at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, preceded by a similar show at the Louvre in the summer of 1961.

Hussey visited Paris to see the Louvre exhibition, and was impressed by Chagall’s handling of colour. This impression was shared by ‘sensitive and expert friends’, one of which may well have been John Piper, who had been impressed by the only other Chagall windows in an English church, at Tudeley in Kent. The other such friend may have been Robert Potter, cathedral architect, since it was Hussey who had recommended Potter as architect to Lady d’Avigdor Goldschmid, in the memory of whose daughter the Tudeley windows were made.

Others were less sure. In 1970, Hussey sought the advice of Edwin Mullins, art critic of the Sunday Telegraph, who thought rather too much attention was being paid to both Piper and Chagall and suggested several other names, including Ceri Richards, Patrick Heron, Bridget Riley and Richard Smith. But by this time, Hussey had approached Chagall; by October 1969, he understood that Chagall was considering the idea seriously with his maker of all his glass, Charles Marq, after a visit to Chichester, possibly in connection with the unveiling of the first Tudeley glass in 1967.

Hussey was accustomed to waiting for his schemes to come to fruition, but the six-year silence that then ensued must have tried even his patience. In 1975, he wrote again, stressing that time was now short, as he was to retire in 1977. Marq and his wife Brigitte then came to Chichester in April 1976, met with cathedral staff and inspected the site. Chagall was fit and active, and his wife was keen for him to take on the commission, but there would be a further delay. Chagall, it turned out, was having difficulty getting started; would Hussey go to see him?

Hussey described his difficulties in getting to France in December 1976, and in finding the Chagall’s home: a sorry tale of flight delays, linguistic incomprehension and wrong directions on a rainy night. Once there, he and Chagall conversed over a full-size drawing of the window, with Madame Chagall interpreting, and in the company of the Marqs. Chagall asked how Hussey imagined the window; Hussey ventured the idea of an array of figures representing the various arts, arranged around a central figure. It should also have the ‘rich and luscious colours’ that Hussey had been so impressed by in the Louvre. Chagall seemed to like the idea, and indeed the final design was along these lines.

This meeting seems to have released Chagall’s thinking, and the sketches were begun in January, and a maquette had been made by March. Marq sent a colour photograph of the maquette, stating that the glass work could not be finished until the summer, and possibly rather later, as a particular kind of red glass was only produced by the manufacturers at St Just twice a year. Now clear that the window would not be installed before he retired, Hussey resolved to move the matter as far on as it could be. The design was accepted by the cathedral chapter on the basis of the photograph, apparently without dissent. Both Potter and the Clerk of the Works, Eric Brooks approved the design: ‘happiness and satisfaction all round’. Even then, the window was not to be installed for over a year; it was unveiled by the Duchess of Kent in October 1978.

One critic has described the Chagall window as Hussey’s ‘crowning achievement’, which ‘immeasurably enriched the Cathedral’. Kenneth Clark thought it a ‘triumph’. How significant is the Chagall window in the history of patronage and of religious art in England? On the one hand, it is one of only two Chagall works in English churches, and the only one in a cathedral. On the other, the twelve window scheme at Tudeley is on a much larger scale, and was commissioned earlier (although the whole sequence unfolded over several years, between 1967 and 1985). Neither was particularly early in Chagall’s work in glass.

The Chagall commission shows the limits of Hussey’s engagement with the very contemporary in art as he had grown older. The commissions of Henry Moore and Sutherland at Northampton were of relatively unknown young artists by a young provincial priest, which provoked scandalised reactions amongst press and public. The Chagall commission is by one old man of an even older man, who was still producing fine work, but who had long since ceased to be in critical favour. The window provoked no particularly adverse reaction: there was little to fear from Chagall in 1978.

Chagall was also now a very expensive man to hire; the eventual cost of the commission was in excess of £20,000, not including fees and expenses for Chagall and Marq. For previous commissions, Hussey had been supported financially by either a collecting box, as at Northampton, or by the private funds of a donor connected with the church (as with Moore at Northampton, and Cecil Collins at Chichester). The Friends of the cathedral had also funded the Sutherland painting, copes from Ceri Richards, and the Piper tapestry. In the case of Chagall, Hussey had assured the Chapter that he would not be calling on Chapter funds. Not only that, but he had also undertaken not to approach any Chichester people who had not yet contributed to the restoration appeal for the cathedral fabric, or any trusts and charities that might support it. Hussey was thus obliged to seek the aid of trusts that specialised in art, with or without any particular connection with the churches. The target was met, with a significant contribution from Hussey himself (£4,000), as well as public funds from the Arts Council. In this, Hussey moved some way from his earlier model of funding, in which a local church community commissioned a work of art and covered the costs in its own strength. Both models of patronage have survived him.

The Devil’s music: a review

[A review published in July in Reviews in History.]

The Devil’s Music. How Christians inspired, condemned, and embraced rock ‘n’ roll
Randall J. Stephens
Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2018, ISBN: 9780674980846

When viewed in a long perspective, the modern history of popular music has very often been one in which new styles are adopted by the young in spite of (and indeed because of) the incomprehension and disapproval of their elders, only to enter the mainstream as those young people age. At the same time, Christians, when confronted with the arts of the societies in which they find themselves, have variously ignored, embraced, adapted and tried to replace or eradicate those arts both in worship and in public. It is in these two ongoing stories (in their American variant) that Randall J. Stephens makes a timely and important intervention. It will be required reading for students of modern American cultural history, but specialists in the religious history of other countries will also find much of value in it, as will the growing number of theologians and musicians concerned with the relationship between the churches and the arts. No serious academic library will want to be without it, and since it is generously produced and sensibly priced, it should find a wide readership outside the academy amongst Christians and ageing rock fans alike.

Stephens’ argument is relatively easily summarised, although the introduction to the book does not do so adequately. Chapter one shows the close linking between the early development of rock and roll and the music of the Pentecostal churches, such that (although some Christian critics did not care to admit it), the stylistic differences between music inside and outside some churches were small, even if the lyrics were very different indeed. Striking here is the relationship between the Pentecostal televangelist Jimmy Lee Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis, his cousin, but similar debts of influence were owed by James Brown, Little Richard, Johnny Cash and indeed Elvis himself. Stephens’ exploration of the agonies of conscience that some suffered as a result of the disapproval of their own churches is vivid and convincing.

Chapter two describes a short but intense period of concern, not to say panic, over the dangers of rock and roll in the years before 1958, followed by a period of relative calm as several of the stars either died or were kept out of trouble in the armed forces. Stephens evokes the cluster of interrelated concerns in play: of the impact of ‘savage’ music (the possession of a subjugated culture) on white America; a more general anxiety about the young in an increasingly affluent and consumerist context, and their apparent slipping out of the control of their elders; there are overtones too of the fear of Communist infiltration. This is all deftly done, but it would have been useful to examine more closely the degree to which these concerns were distinctively religious (or, the prerogative of religious people), as opposed to those of a particular race, class and generation. After this period of calm, chapter three then shows the remarkable storm of dispute with which the Beatles were met after John Lennon’s famous comment to the London Evening Standard in 1966 that the Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus now’. Though Stephens is not quite right in saying that the comments made little impression among British Christians, the protests were of a quite different order in the USA: radio stations ceased playing their records, death threats were made, and effigies of the band burned in Dixie.

Chapter four and five, taken together, deal with the central paradox of the story: from the late 1960s onwards, how did part of the evangelical constituency come to see that these forms of popular music were not passing phenomena and as such were to be reckoned with, and perhaps used, rather than simply rejected? Stephens is vivid on the interconnection between the new ‘Jesus rock’ and an ongoing Christian negotiation with the wider counter-culture of the period, as Billy Graham, previously an opponent, grasped the need for a different approach to the extent that for a time he wore his hair long. For proponents of Christian rock then and since, it was possible to adopt an artistic form while changing its content; medium and message were separable. At this point Stephens’ book intersects with other recent work on the subject, notably that of David W. Stowe, and it appears at almost the same time as a new biography of the Christian musician Larry Norman, by Gregory Alan Thornbury.

Chapter five documents the backlash amongst other Christians, which Stephens calls the ‘fundamentalist reaction’. For these preachers and moralists, the proponents of Christian rock were variously too effeminate, too emotional, their stage acts too sexualised, and too closely associated with the charismatic movement. More often, though, the issue at stake was one of genre: rock, because of the associations it carried, could never be turned to a positive use and had to be shunned. Nonetheless, as Stephens’ story ends in the years after the millennium, Christian rock had become ubiquitous in American churches of an evangelical kind, with the remaining redoubts against it becoming fewer, and crossover artists had achieved mainstream recording and touring success.

All of this is wholly convincing as a characterisation of the period and as a chronology. This reviewer would wish, however, to make some criticisms on grounds of method and analysis, not so much to contradict the argument as to draw out and make explicit some things that are latent in it but which Stephens does not spell out.

Stephens’ method is documentary rather than narrowly analytical, which has both advantages and disadvantages. Having unearthed a vast, teeming field of Christian voices arguing about rock and roll, Stephens’ evocation of this cacophony is brilliant; his ear for the cadences of the preacher and the moralist is acute, and his ventriloquising of their concerns rings true throughout. Just occasionally the style becomes overripe, however; preachers ‘thunder’ and ‘howl’ in ‘raging fires’ of controversy but rarely just speak; guitars blast and drums thump but rarely do musicians just play or sing. In short bursts, the heightened register that Stephens adopts is vivid and evocative; over the length of a whole book it becomes somewhat wearing. It is also the case that quite often the argumentative thread is lost amongst the clamour of voices, and there is a tendency to repetition, as the same themes recur again and again; we hear about the length of Billy Graham’s hair at least four times.

Some of the impression of repetition could have been avoided had Stephens included a more precise analytical framework in which to work, into which his narrative could have fitted well. The first such structure that is missing is a musicological one. The music here is ‘driving’, ‘revved-up’, ‘blasting’ or (in the case of the Christian metal band Stryper) ‘schlocky’, but to really apprehend what is at stake this reader at least needed a clearer sense of genre, instrumentation, performance practice, melodic and harmonic structure and so on. To borrow a quotation often attributed to Elvis Costello amongst others, writing about music is like dancing about architecture: exceptionally difficult to do well, but here the reader needed more nonetheless. As it is, readers without Stephens’ prodigious knowledge of this music are left with a great deal of work to do.

Stryper in concert, 1986, promoting their album To Hell with the Devil
Image via Wikimedia Commons: By Rafael Faria, CC-BY-SA-3.0

The second area in which the book would have benefitted from a clearer analytical framework is in the definition of different strands of Christian opinion. There are here pentecostal voices, Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics: denominational divisions that are reasonably robust as analytical categories. But Stephens never quite defines the differences between those who are ‘evangelical’, ‘fundamentalist’ and merely ‘conservative’. The term ‘fundamentalist’ is particularly difficult to define, and Stephens only meets the task head on in chapter six. ‘Fundamentalism’ has often been defined in strictly doctrinal terms, particularly concerning the authority of the Bible; the virgin birth, nature and eventual return of Christ; and the doctrine of the atonement. Defined in this way, several of those within the Christian rock movement appeared very ‘fundamentalist’ in their views of the Bible and on the issues that tended to trouble those with a conservative view of Biblical authority, such as gender, sexuality, and creationism. Stephens instead defines fundamentalism in terms of a determination to separate the faithful from the culture around them. This is clearly what is happening amongst some Christians during the period, but even if such cultural separatism was a marker of those Christians who were ‘fundamentalist’ in doctrine, it is not at all clear that they were the only Christians who took such a view of culture. On its own, cultural separatism seems insufficient as a definition of the term.

And it is the theologies of culture in play here, the guiding principles that underlie the rhetoric, that are often submerged in Stephens’ account and that most needed to be named and analysed. From time to time they briefly break the surface only for the reader to be swept downstream in the chronological and rhetorical flow. Christians have historically taken the arts seriously for two main reasons. The incarnational sense that all human creative endeavour was a sharing in the creative work of God was the key element in the Catholic recovery of the modern arts in the 20th century. Stephens notes in several places the pervasive sense amongst secular critics that Christian rock was more often than not mediocre, a poorly executed example of an art form. This ( at least in the British context) was also the objection raised by Christian critics of ‘church pop’ in the 1950s and 1960s; if there were Christian voices in the USA making the same point, it would have added to the narrative to hear more of them.

However, this incarnational understanding of the arts has historically been a minor theme at best in evangelical thought, with many being prepared to embrace bad taste in the service of the gospel. Evangelicals have been more interested in how the arts can be made to communicate a message, and (correspondingly) most exercised by the particular dangers posed if the arts were made to carry the wrong kind of message. The phenomenon of Jesus rock, far from being an anomaly, is part of a long tradition of evangelical efforts to adopt an artistic style for use in worship and/or evangelism while rendering it safe by supplying appropriate words, performed by those whose personal lives met the required moral standard. The insistence that a certain style of music – a certain arrangement of sounds in time, produced by a certain combination of instruments – could never be sanctified; that an element in God’s creation could never be redeemed for His use, is only one of the several theological options available to evangelical Christians, and has been the option least often chosen in evangelical history at large. All this is implied in Stephens’ account but only comes into focus in chapter six; it would perhaps have added to the impact had it been placed front and centre, earlier in the book.

To reiterate, none of these criticisms is fundamental to Stephens’ argument, and to adopt a more analytical structure and style may have lessened the significant media attention which the book is attracting at the time of writing, which it deserves. That said, although The Devil’s Music is a timely and important book, it leaves the reader with some work to do.

[See also Randall Stephens’ response.]

Interpreting Christian history: a review

[My review of Euan Cameron’s fine Interpreting Christian History: the challenge of the churches’ past, first published in Reviews in History in 2005. Still in print, I would still recommend the book for anyone interested in what history might mean for the churches.]

Euan Cameron, former Professor of Early Modern History at the University of Newcastle, now Henry Luce III Professor of Reformation Church History at Union Theological Seminary in New York, has written a fascinating and, in many ways, remarkable study. It contains much that may be of interest to professional religious historians, to historians of ideas, to students and teachers of theology, and to the general reader. In addition, its approach neatly demonstrates the dilemmas facing historians of Christianity who are themselves religiously committed, and the contrasting audiences for writing on Christian history.

Cameron’s central enterprise, as outlined in the Preface and developed in the Introduction, is one that is of pivotal importance to many historians of religion in general, and of Christianity in particular, yet entirely beside the point to others. The usefulness of studying Christian history for many, if not most, Christians lies in the degree to which it aids the process of identifying which elements of the inheritance of one or other of the denominations constitute part of the ‘core’ of the faith, and which may safely be reformed, re-ordered, or discarded. This set of priorities may well be familiar to church historians working in some denominational theological colleges, and also conceivably (although less likely) in university departments of theology or divinity.

Cameron rightly identifies the damage done by an uncritical use of the past to settle issues in the contemporary church, and the problematic nature of the notion of a timeless, ‘pure’ core content that can be traced developing under the guidance of the Holy Spirit throughout the millennia of the Church’s history. As the archbishop of Canterbury recently put it, ‘When people set out to prove that nothing has changed, you can normally be sure that something quite serious has’ (1). In many ways, this view of the history of doctrine as the progression and ‘emergence’ of key ideas, detached and floating free of context and free from the minds required to think them, sounds very much like the style of writing of the history of political ideas that Quentin Skinner so effectively destroyed over thirty-five years ago.

The second, and diametrically opposed, approach is that prevailing in most secular history departments. This sets aside entirely all consideration of the ‘truth’ or otherwise of religious statements and practices, and seeks to understand those statements and practices purely in terms of their functions in the society in which they are embedded and from which they grow. To pose questions of ‘truth’ attracts the taint of the most partisan historical writing of the past, most often, but not exclusively, concerning the Reformations.

Having delineated this seemingly irreconcilable opposition, Cameron seeks to identify a Third Way, for which this volume is both a manifesto and a series of exploratory essays. Nailing his own colours firmly to the mast, he correctly identifies the fact that for most Christians the adoption of a thorough-going relativism — the abandonment of any core in historic Christianity — would surely be difficult to accept. Thus to capitulate would truly be to build one’s house on sand. For Cameron, there does exist an ‘essential Christianity’, reflecting the immutable nature of God. However, all visible Christianities are always and everywhere a composite of this eternal core, and the inevitable situation of the Church and its members in particular places, cultures, and languages. Cameron then looks to assert that, whilst it would be impossible ever to sort out definitively the core from the time-bound and conditioned, it is nevertheless possible for historians, by a process of ‘triangulation’ of different periods and churches, to infer useful things from the churches’ past.

After a brief overview of Christian history in chapter 1, designed mainly for the non-specialist reader, in chapter 2 (‘Constantly shifting emphases in Christian history’), Cameron looks to draw out some examples of periods in the churches’ history in which a particular and repeating pattern of development can be detected. For Cameron, Christians have often collectively seized upon a particular practice or doctrine as particularly expressive of a need or useful as a tool. These particular elements of the faith, often blameless and indeed admirable as means of Christian perfection, have often become ends in themselves. Such practices have often then been elaborated upon and developed in such a way as to conflict with, and distract from, other, arguably more important, principles, thus leading to an unbalanced and distorted whole. These shifts of the centre towards one extreme or another are often accompanied by a lesser, but nonetheless clear, counter-movement, such as the emergence of Lollardy in the context of late-medieval sacramentalism. Sometimes, but not always, these imbalances have led to the outgrowing structures collapsing under their own weight, and a re-balancing of the church occurring — a prime example being that of the Reformations.

Without claiming that the ‘core’ elements thus obscured and then recovered are necessarily easy to discern, Cameron convincingly lays out examples of such a pattern in the medieval church, taking in examinations of asceticism and martyrdom in the medieval period, and Protestant emphases on catechesis and the integrity of the visible church community since the Reformation. Cameron is not concerned to establish any grand narrative of why this pattern should be, although he provides much material for the theological pursuit of such a question as he proceeds. His aim, and one which is achieved, is to demonstrate the pertinence of such a pattern, and the use of a wide enough historical lens to discern it, for the enterprise of writing Christian history.

Chapter 3 examines the status and development of church history as a distinct and self-conscious activity from Eusebius to the late-twentieth century. Whilst making no claims of exhaustiveness, this section is an admirably concise and, on the whole, convincing narrative of changing priorities, and fills a gap in the literature. In order to show that his approach is not purely a late-twentieth century exercise in relativism, Cameron demonstrates that historians of the churches have for five centuries been dealing with just such an awareness of the flawed and time-bound nature of the historic church. The writing of church history is to a great degree predicated upon the ecclesiological point from which one begins.

Particularly interesting is Cameron’s account of the development of the relationship of sixteenth century theologians, both Protestant and Catholic, with the Catholic past. The crucial shift in Reformation church history was the jettisoning of any emphasis on the integrity of the hierarchy as a mark of the True Church, and the relocation of that essence in the presence of a saving remnant, however small. Christian thinkers were for the first time faced with the task of identifying how and why the institutional church could have become so corrupt as to cease to be a True Church. This necessitated a new relationship with the historic church. Cameron also draws out the incongruous co-existence of this increasingly critical approach to sources with the continued attribution of influence to divine or Satanic agency, and the reading of church history through the prism of the Apocalypse. As his narrative proceeds into the modern period, Cameron rightly identifies the crucial nineteenth-century withdrawal of professional historians from explicit theological reflection on the implications of their work; a task that was picked up almost at the same point by theologians, and latterly by sociologists of religion.

In chapter 4, the work reaches its theological core, and as such is the point at which many, if not most, historians of religion may choose to stop reading. To do so, however, would be a shame. Cameron samples some of the attempts of historically-informed theologians to solve the central epistemological problem outlined in the Introduction: is it possible to develop an historico-theological method with which to begin to discern the core elements of Christian doctrine and practice from the history of the flawed, human, error-prone institutions that are the churches? Whether or not the reader accepts the validity of, or sees any point to, such an undertaking, there is much suggestive material for historians of ideas along the way. Fascinating conjunctures are presented between Hegelian thought and the currents within German liberal Protestant theology of the nineteenth century. The reaction of Karl Barth, in the context of the turmoil of world war, against the profound optimism concerning human nature of many of his predecessors also suggests many fruitful avenues of new research.

For this reviewer, with interests in British history, the absence of British, and in particular Anglican, theologians from this endeavour is striking, and indicates much about the Church of England’s own and perhaps rather particular view of its own past. What is perhaps of the greatest general interest in this section is the picture it gives of a sister discipline to history grappling with many of the same issues relating to language and epistemology, globalization and social change that have exploded to the surface in recent years.

In summary, Cameron has produced a work that, whilst unlikely to surprise period specialists in matters of detail, may profitably be read as an examination of a crucially important part of church history, and as a peculiarly fascinating meditation on Christian history, theology and the relationship between them.

[See also Cameron’s response to the review.]

The disappearing church in English fiction

[A feature piece commissioned by the Church Times, and first published in the edition of 27 July 2018. It is republished here by kind permission of the Editor.]

BY DEFINITION, writers of fiction must take the raw materials of life as they observe it, and modify, disguise, distort, invert and amplify those materials as they create new stories. But when interviewed, most authors try to resist any simple reading of this or that character as based on a real person.

Buildings, too, take on new lives in the stories we read. Outside the particular genre of science fiction, the buildings we are invited to see, and into which we can step, must necessarily be a fusion of aspects of real buildings in particular places. They would be unintelligible if not.

Sometimes the author sets their story in a real building, such as the ruins of St Giles-without-Cripplegate in The World my Wilderness by Rose Macaulay (1950). The author Penelope Fitzgerald has recalled being with Macaulay as she clambered over the rubble of the City of London in the years after the war; St Giles was not rebuilt until a few years later.

The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden.
Image: Peter Webster

More often, however, the fictional church is more carefully disguised, and so there is another game that readers can play: the hunt for the models for places and buildings, as well as characters. The church of Fenchurch St Paul, the centre of the village community in The Nine Tailors by Dorothy L. Sayers (1934) incorporates particular features from more than one church from her Fenland childhood. Sayers credited the architect W.J. Redhead with having “designed” it for her, and with providing a line drawing of the imagined exterior.

George Orwell alarmed his publisher with his habit of disguising living people in his fiction only very thinly. His biographer D.J. Taylor has identified the model for the decrepit Miss Mayfill in A Clergyman’s Daughter (1935) from Orwell’s time spent teaching in west London. St Athelstan’s, Knype Hill, in which the titular daughter Dorothy labours in unpaid and unrecognised service of her father, is not based on any one building, but is most likely a composite of the Suffolk churches Orwell knew from time spent with his parents in Southwold.

Churches, real or otherwise, and Anglican churches in particular, play several different roles in English fiction, which I would like to explore here in some of the novels from the 70 years or so from 1914.

CHRISTIANS have for a very long time produced edifying stories for their own pleasure and instruction. Valuable and entertaining though these often are, these novels tell us most about the ways in which Christians understand and address themselves and each other. As an historian, I want instead to explore those novels that made a claim for general attention among readers at large, whether Christian or not. What might they tell us about the changing position of the Church in the national imagination in a secularising age?

Some churches we enter but never see; the author asks the reader to supply whatever details they need to follow the action. The Aerodrome, Rex Warner’s much-neglected allegory of authoritarian government (1941) is set in the Village, a pure archetype of rural England, and this abstraction is vital as Warner works out his plot. Though the pivotal scene in which the Village is annexed by the Aerodrome is set in the parish church, we are told only that it contains pews, and choir stalls.

John Wyndham’s village of Midwich, afflicted by a strange and horrifying inversion of nature (The Midwich Cuckoos, 1957), is another archetype, and of its church we learn only that it is “mostly perp. and dec., but with a Norman west doorway and font”, in the manner of a Pevsner guide. Others we see from outside but never enter, as they form part of a landscape. One of the parish churches in Winifred Holtby’s South Riding (1936) is “a legacy of twelfth-century devotion, its delicate grey stone melting into the pale quivering summer sky of nineteen thirty three”. Surrounded by fields of corn ripe for harvest and the buildings of the town, the tableau is complete: “corn, brick and stone, food, housing, worship composed themselves into a gentle landscape of English rural life.” Though the English countryside was hardly so unchanging as this suggests, the parish church often did duty as a symbol of stability and continuity.

One of the effects of the Second World War was to supply the English imagination with a new symbol: the ruin, and not the picturesque ruin of Fountains Abbey, but of homes,factories, churches, blackened and strewn with the debris of their former lives. More than one novelist made symbolic play with ruined churches, as the Church first struggled to secure the sites and make them safe, and then to decide whether to rebuild them, demolish those which were redundant, or leave some as memorials of the war and as spaces for the public. One of Barbara Pym’s Excellent Women (1952) attends a lunchtime Eucharist in a bombed Belgravia church, of which only one aisle can still be used. In austerity London the congregation carries on nonetheless, singing to a harmonium while surrounded by small neat heaps of wall tablets and cherub heads; a lady serves coffee from a Primus stove.

Some ruins are made to carry much greater symbolic weight. Iris Murdoch’s 1966 novel The Time of the Angels features the fictional Wren church of St Eustace Watergate in the London Docklands. With only its tower left standing after the war, St Eustace and its rectory are the only surviving buildings in the midst of a vast building site. But there is no building on this building site, stymied by the withdrawal of planning permission. St Eustace is both symbol and backdrop against which Murdoch develops her theme of the loss of faith and the directionless search for something with which to replace it. Isolated on the peninsula of the Isle of Dogs, St Eustace is shrouded by the London fog that makes day night; all is becalmed, frozen in the half-light of the fog and carpeted in snow. Stranded amidst the debris of an old order, it is an empty shell which looms in the gloom, the only thing yet to be cleared before rebuilding may begin.

EVEN when a church is still intact, there is in the fiction of the mid-century a persistent whiff of decay and decline. Few indeed are the novels set in the new churches in the New Housing Areas built after 1945, or in warm and well-lit buildings with every chair full. Through the mist on Knype Hill the spire of St Athelstan’s “loomed dimly, like a leaden sphinx, its single bell tolling funereally boom! boom! boom!”. Inside, Orwell’s church is “very cold, with a scent of candle-wax and ancient dust”; the pews stretch barely halfway down the nave, leaving “great wastes of bare stone floor”. The money that should have been spent on repairing the belfry floor has been squandered on a new organ, and now the bells, which there is no money to rehang, threaten to crash down through the splintering floor onto the handful of worshippers below.

Llandinorwic church in Deiniolen. Image by Hefin Owen via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.

Even so, both Orwell’s and Barbara Pym’s churches are inhabited by real people, to whom the buildings are places in which significant things still happen. Amid the dust and cold, Orwell’s Dorothy catches a glimpse through the open door of the sunlight and trees outside, illuminated by the sun, as if by a flash of a “jewel of unimaginable splendour”; a moment that restores to her the power to pray. Miss Mildred Lathbury attends the church of St Mary in an area of London which Pym very precisely identifies as a “shabby part of London, so very much the ‘wrong’ side of Victoria station, so definitely not Belgravia”. Mildred thinks the church “prickly, Victorian-gothic, hideous inside, I suppose, but very dear to me”.

St Mary’s has none of the marks left by centuries of devotion: “it seemed so bright and new and there were no canopied tombs of great families, no weeping cherubs, no urns, no worn inscriptions on the floor”, only brass tablets to past vicars and ugly glass in the east window. But it is to St Mary’s that she comes in search of consolation; it is this building that she helps dress for Whitsun, finding peace amid the incense and flowers. Whatever doubts these characters may harbour, however insistent their creeping sense of irrelevance to the society around them, their faith remains.

The presence of people was the last thing lost from the churches of 20th-century English fiction, as the crisis of the 1960s settled into a new pattern of decline and marginalisation. This retreat was by no means complete, as readers of Susan Howatch or James Runcie will know. The popularity of Father Brown continues. However, as the century wore on there was a gradual withdrawal of both character and narrator from the active life of these buildings, and eventually a retreat from their doors to view them only from the outside.

The narrator of Daniel Martin by John Fowles (1977) recalls his childhood before the war but as if from behind the veil of his own loss of faith: “My contemporaries were all brought up in some degree of the nineteenth century, since the twentieth did not begin until 1945. That is why we are on the rack, forced into one of the longest and most abrupt cultural stretches in the history of mankind. Already what I was before the Second World War seems far more than four decades away; much more like the same number of centuries.” The two churches in which his father ministered are now aesthetic objects, which he now views with the eyes of the connoisseur: “One church was magnificent stone prose, but the other a folk poem”; neither of them remains a place of worship.

PERHAPS the novel in which a church plays the greatest part is A Month in the Country by J.L.Carr, first published in 1980. Though the novel is set in Yorkshire, the church is unidentified (and indeed unnamed), and in a Foreword, Carr revealed that its model was in fact in Northamptonshire, with “its churchyard in Norfolk, its vicarage London”. The narrator, Birkin, is hired to spend a month uncovering a medieval mural painting, and camps out in the belfry. By the novel’s conclusion he has, through a sustained act of patience — indeed of devotion, of a sort — uncovered and restored the painting.

In the process, he achieves a kind of imaginative communion with the original artist across the distance of centuries, and confronts his own loss of faith in comparison with that of the community for which the mural was made. (This kind of retrospective imagining of the mind of the church-builders of an earlier age was not unique to Carr; two contrasting examples are William Golding’s The Spire, and (on the stage) Dorothy L. Sayers’ The Zeal of Thy house.) Yet for Carr the parishioners of Oxgodby are largely invisible as a worshipping community. Birkin is woken by the tolling of the bell that calls them to church, and he catches a glimpse of them as he peers down from the belfry. But Carr’s church is barely a place of present worship; as for John Fowles, it is solely a repository of meaning and the memory of those long dead.

The last and latest of my subjects here is City of the Mind by Penelope Lively (1991), in which the the gradual withdrawal of the novelist from the church building is complete. The novel is a meditation on the buildings of London, invested and reinvested with meaning by the successive generations of people who encounter them. It features several churches, all of them real buildings and named as such.

One character sees Wren’s St Bride’s Fleet Street on fire in December 1940, its spire “lit from within like a lantern”. In the Spitalfields of the late 1980s, all demolition and redevelopment, the spire of Hawksmoor’s Christ Church fights for the skyline with cranes and new office blocks. Round the corner is the former Huguenot church on Fournier Street, an immigrant church itself already overwhelmed by waves of later immigration: subsequently a Methodist church, next a synagogue, now a mosque.The churchyard of St Anne’s Soho is being redeveloped as a paved shopping precinct.

There is particular play with St Paul’s Cathedral, a church of the mind in a city of the mind; when Lively’s Elizabethan explorer encounters the massive ice floes of the North-West Passage, it is in the shape of St Paul’s that he sees them, a “cathedral in the ice” as “time and space collide” in the imagination. The novel’s main protagonist, Matthew Halland, stands mesmerized in a Charing Cross Road bookshop by the famous photograph, taken by Herbert Mason on the same night that St Bride’s was gutted by fire, of the dome of St Paul’s framed by black smoke but intact.

Lively’s characters encounter these and other London buildings, and project onto them whatever significance they will. What these churches never are, however, is alive: places in which real breathing Londoners meet and worship. In Lively’s London, the churches are bearers of meanings, objects for the imagination, but without present or future. This is a thoroughly secular city of the mind.