Sacred and secular martyrdom: a review

Sacred and secular martyrdom in Britain and Ireland since 1914
John Wolffe
London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2020, viii + 197pp., £85 (hardback), ISBN 978-1-35001927-0.
[A review forthcoming in the Journal of Beliefs and Values.]

After the terrorist attacks in the USA in 2001, and in London four years later, the idea of martyrdom gained a new salience. This important study by John Wolffe is the product of a RCUK Global Uncertainties Leadership Fellowship: an attempt to build an informed religious literacy on the subject to aid the making of public policy. The book fills a gap that, after having read it, seems obvious, and indeed glaring, but which was not so before (to this reviewer, at least): a measure of how significant and new a perspective on the period it presents.

Wolffe expressly adopts no a priori definition of martyrdom, opting instead to trace its shifting meanings. The churches, both Protestant and Catholic, had their sixteenth century martyrs, and the nineteenth century had seen their ranks added to from the mission field. While the Christian martyr tended to be passive, the historic shape of Muslim martyrdom was more activist, a life lost in struggle. Wolffe’s achievement is to show how far the idea could be extended into more secular contexts, concluding that no easy line may be drawn between sacred and secular varieties. Martyrs could be made in defence of a nation (particularly during the First World War), even if they were conscript soldiers, or of a different faith to the national one, or indeed of no faith at all. In Ireland in the 1920s there were competing martyrologies, nationalist and unionist. The former focussed on the Easter Rising of 1916 or the hunger strikers of the 1980s; the latter (though less explicitly articulated) centred on the Battle of the Somme. Whole nations could be cast as martyrs in a collective sense for rhetorical purposes, or individual towns. And it was not even entirely necessary to lose one’s life for it to be glossed in this way; such was the case of Martin McGuinness, a former IRA member who died of natural causes at the age of 66 after serving as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

Wolffe’s reading of the language of martyrdom is deft and subtle, showing the complex uses of religious texts and their overtones in the wider commentary, and the interplay of this specific language with the more ambiguous concept of sacrifice. The extent to which martyrs were made and remade according to the needs of the present is a persistent theme. But the range of sources is wider than this, taking in dozens of interviews, as well as fine readings of the architecture of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in France and Belgium, and of myriad local war memorials at home.

Wolffe’s chronology is too complex to be easily summarised, but the period began with an unusually tight interweaving of national and religious stories. This was exemplified by the bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, who in 1914 described the war dead as ‘martyrs as really as St Stephen … covered with imperishable glory they pass to deathless life.’ Even then this connection was contested. Wolffe shows just how contingent on events and personalities the shape and symbolism of the commemoration of the war was. But by the centenary years of 2014-18, the process of secularisation had left the imagined community (on which such an idea depended) much less Christian, and (in the context of Scottish and Welsh nationalism) without another glue with which to bind itself together. Though the centenary events were in a sense a renaissance of remembrance, it was without a stable consensus on its meaning. By the end of the century, the language of martyrdom or sacrifice for the nation was being replaced by that of victimhood, a motif both more inclusive and more reflective of the ambiguity with which death in the trenches has come to be viewed.

All this will be of absorbing interest to scholars of national identity, but there is a parallel story concerning the churches. The view of William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury between 1942 and 1944, was subtly but substantially different to that of Winnington-Ingram. Even though the Nazi regime was a more unambiguously anti-Christian opponent, Temple could mark the sacrifice of those who had died without speculating on their salvation. By the time of the Falklands conflict, it was clear to many that too close an association with national remembrance compromised the churches’ attempts to present a Christian view of conflict focussed on reconciliation. The churches in both Britain and Ireland had also come to view Catholic and Protestant martyrs of the sixteenth century not as opponents, but as common witnesses to a larger truth, to whose number had been added others from other countries: Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King and the German, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These and others were commemorated in 1998 above the west door of Westminster Abbey, just inside which is the tomb of the unknown soldier: old and new (or perhaps rediscovered) understandings of Christian martyrdom in a symbolically crucial building. Wolffe’s telling of these stories will be required reading for all students of British and Irish religion and politics of the last century; no serious historical library will want to be without it.

If you’ve enjoyed this post, why not support the blog on Patreon? For only £2 a month, get advance access to new writing, and unlimited access to the archive.

The churches and the future of theological research

Much discussion on Church of England Twitter recently about the theological qualifications of the current bench of bishops in the Church of England, following on from this post by Peter Anthony.

Others (in the comments to that post) have dealt with the specific question of whether the current bench really is less qualified than in previous years, and indeed whether the possession of higher degrees is either a stable or a reliable measure by which to judge. For my part, I have no insight into whether being ‘academic’ is a help or a hindrance in a ministerial career, and the deliberations of those who decide are not open to scrutiny.

Thinking that this might be the wrong question to ask, I responded to the discussion on Twitter, and I reproduce my thread here, slightly amended and expanded.

I’m less concerned about the demand for academically-trained theologians among people who appoint bishops, but more with the supply. The question is: who (that is, which organisations) should support the training of people to do theological research?

Two names are often mentioned as examples of the kind of academic bishop required: Rowan Williams & N. T. Wright. But both were the product of the largely unique Oxbridge world of interlocking chaplaincy and teaching, of endowed chairs and close links with bodies such as Christ Church (in the Oxford case) and of the late 1970s. [The third name that Peter Anthony mentioned, Geoffrey Rowell, emerged from the same milieu a few years earlier.] What about now?

Broadly, there are two kinds of theology. One is that which directly nourishes the life of the churches, that speaks of truth claims about the Christian God: doctrine, liturgy, pastoral practice, biblical exegesis. The other is the broader study of religion: of the way in which religious people think and behave, the business of being religious in a wider society. (This maps to an extent onto the division between Theology & Religious Studies in some academic departments). The two are not perfectly distinct, but the distinction is meaningful. Both are necessary.

We might still expect a secular state in what remains a religious world (if it understands its own needs correctly) to want to support – that is, to fund – research and doctoral training in the study of religion.

However, the question that needs to be faced is: why should the state fund the former kind of work that only Christians would recognise as being of any value? How is it any different to research into the inner workings of any organisation, of a limited and private usefulness, which should be funded by that organisation?

It seems to me that the answer to this particular question is likely to become more and more firmly negative as time goes on. One straw in the wind is the recent British Academy report on the discipline, which showed a calamitous decline in undergraduate numbers in the last decade.

So: if any of the bishops appointed in 2040 or 2050 are to be trained theologians (that is, with a record of original research), who will support their training if the funding councils, or the universities (from their own funds) will not?

It seems likely that the churches will need to do some or all of three things. The first is to begin providing bursaries for full-time graduate study in universities, both fees and maintenance; a significant undertaking, of tens of thousands of pounds for each student.

Alternatively, they could do more to support able scholars – lay and ordained – later in life, with time and money, to study part-time. A good many clergy already take this route, but much depends on the understanding, goodwill and capacity of their churches, and their own ability to meet the cost of tuition fees. We know little about who currently follows this route, but without centralised provision, the current situation must necessarily favour those in more affluent churches.

The third option is to massively increase research support for academic staff in theological colleges. In time, it may also require the appointment of a greater proportion of research-active staff to teaching posts as they become vacant, or even the creation of new posts.

But before all this, the churches (by which I mean all Christian people together, rather than just administrative bodies) need to decide how much value they place on the theological enterprise, and whether they will support it.

Perhaps the churches can get along well enough with the work of those who carve out time in evenings and weekends, or have access to private means. (Surely no theologian since perhaps John Stott could survive on book royalties alone.) Perhaps not. But it is a question that will need to be faced.

To discuss the present bench of bishops is to hear the echoes, as if from deep space, of the educational situation of thirty years ago. The need is to look forward.

[My thanks to Andrew Connell, Stuart Jones and Gareth Atkins for their responses to the original thread, the influence of which they will be able to detect.]

If you’ve enjoyed this post, why not support the blog on Patreon? For only £2 a month, get advance access to new writing, and unlimited access to the archive.

Hypocrisy, class and faith in Britten’s Borough

Whether or not one enjoys Benjamin Britten’s opera Peter Grimes, its significance is hard to dispute. Premiered in London just a month after the declaration of victory in Europe in 1945, on June 7th, it represented a rebirth. The opening night, thought the Picture Post, ‘may well be remembered as the date of the reinstatement of opera in the musical life of this country’, and to Britten and his collaborators it confirmed both the need and the appetite for contemporary English opera. Some slept on the pavement outside the Sadlers Wells theatre to be sure of their place in the auditorium on the opening night; others came back for all eight of the first performances.

Sadlers Well Opera Books, No.3 (1945), issued for the London premiere. It contains essays by Britten, Montagu Slater, Edward Sackville-West and E. M. Forster.

But its importance was not merely musical. In less than a month the British people would reject Winston Churchill, despite his record as war leader, and elect a Labour government on the promise of a different kind of rebirth: a new society; a rejection of the memory of the inter-war years and of the Conservative governments that dominated them. For a moment, which in fact continued for several years, the social and moral settlement of the 1930s was at a discount, and newness, progress at a premium.

Though the opera is ostensibly set around 1830, the invitation to read it in contemporary terms is irresistible. Most readings have centered on the person of Peter Grimes, as an individual driven to self-destruction by the Borough, the society in which he was trapped, unable to realise himself. Britten and Pears themselves in later life tried to connect the sensitive, conflicted Grimes to their own status as creative artists, and as conscientious objectors to the war; later critics have come to focus more on a queer Grimes as a reflection of Britten’s own status as a gay man in a society which criminalised homosexuality. However configured, though, this opposition of individual and society in readings of the opera has obscured some of the complexity within the Borough itself.

Had the opera developed differently, this might not have been so. The libretto, by the socialist poet and activist Montagu Slater, was derived from verse by the eighteenth century clergyman poet George Crabbe. Both Crabbe and Slater were rather less concerned with Grimes’ interior life than the completed opera is, and more with the social conflict within the Borough. Here I want to look at two of the characters in Slater’s Borough, to reveal some of the religious and social complexities in play in the opera: nuances of class and faith that have become obscure to modern listeners. If the reception of Grimes was indeed part of an appetite for a new society, what, in fact, was to be discarded? The two characters are the Methodist lay preacher Bob Boles, and the Rector, Mr Horace Adams

Bob Boles, written by Britten as a volatile, frenetic tenor, is one of Slater’s fishermen, the ordinary working men oppressed by the bourgeoisie of the Borough. And his voice is a moralistic, censorious one, a stereotype of a certain kind of English nonconformity. Slater here was surely influenced by his own background in Cumbria, where his father was a Methodist lay preacher. (Slater’s wife Enid remembered her father-in-law as ‘one of those awful Methodists – on Sunday he pulled all the blinds downs [and] you weren’t allowed to read anything but the Bible.’ It was ‘ghastly’, and Slater left it for Oxford ‘very thankfully’, she thought.) Boles denounces Auntie, the landlady of the Boar, the local pub, whose ‘vats flow with poisoned gin’; the Boar is also a house of ill repute, as Auntie’s ‘nieces’ comfort the Borough’s menfolk: ‘God’s storm will drown your hot desires!’, Boles warns. And Boles is central to the hostility to Grimes that eventually boils over in Act III, as he goes with the mob to hunt Grimes down: ‘This lost soul of a fisherman must be shunned by respectable society!’ Grimes has sold his soul, and fears the flaming sword of judgment.

Later, in Act 2 scene 1 inside the Boar, we are invited to see Boles as a hypocrite, as he fails to hold his drink and drunkenly demands the ministrations of the nieces for himself. But Boles is also conscious of his class and of social ill, in ways that must have resonated in post-war London. The doctor, Crabbe, we never hear speak, but Boles tells us the regard in which he is held: ‘he drinks “Good health” to all diseases!’. (The inequality of access to healthcare was vital in securing support for the National Health Service in 1948.) At the heart of the opera is the brutality of the conditions in which men and apprentices had to work, and the absence of the kind of social safety net that the reforming Labour government was to create. At the prospect of workhouse boys being bought and sold, Boles exclaims ‘Is this a Christian country? Are pauper children so enslaved, their bodies go for cash?’ He will speak his mind, as the system concerns everyone: ‘this prentice system’s uncivilised and unchristian!’ The coming storm is the judgement of God on an iniquitous society: ‘God has his ways which are not ours: His high tide swallows up the shores. Repent!’ Few in the Borough accepts Boles’ understanding of providence, but they recognise the injustice; we are to read him as the voice of a genuine class interest, alive and well in Slater’s conception of contemporary England.

Slater’s libretto, then, captures the tone of a certain kind of popular Christian moral conscience, which had waned considerably by 1945. But it also pinpoints an antagonism between ‘Methody’ Boles and the established religion that the Reverend Horace Adams represents. It is an antagonism that is borne both of class resentment and specifically religious feeling; powerful enough to influence elections a century ago, it is hard now to spot with an untrained eye. On Sunday morning, the Methodist Boles is not at prayer in the parish church, but watching as Grimes and his love Ellen Orford realise that their bid for respectability has failed. As the whispers against Grimes grow (in the video excerpt below), Boles calls bitterly for the parson: ‘where’s the pastor of this flock? Where’s the guardian shepherd’s hook?’ While the parson and his flock ‘worshipped idols there / The Devil had his Sabbath here’. It is clear where Boles thinks the moral centre of the Borough lies, and it is not with those in the ‘church parade’ after prayers end. The rector is far too ready to ‘ignore, growing at your door, evils, like your fancy flowers.’ (The image of the country parson in delicate repose in his garden was a common one indeed, and comes direct from Crabbe.)

As the mood sours and the chorus cry out for the parson, fired by Boles, Adams asks ‘is it my business?’ Hitherto we have seen little of him, save for a cheery greeting in the opening scene. Now he is forced to hold an impromptu inquest into Grimes’ supposed mistreatment of his apprentice, interrogating Ellen as the crowd continues its hostile commentary. ‘You planned to be worldly-wise’ he tells Ellen as she speaks of her hope of redemption with Grimes, ‘but your souls were dark’. Reluctantly Adams leads a party of inquiry to Grimes’ hut (followed by the crowd), which they find empty yet ‘reasonably kept / Here’s order. Here’s skill’. Another of the well-to-do draws the moral: ‘Here we come pell-mell / Expecting to find out – we know not what. / But all we find is a neat and empty hut / Gentlemen, take this to your wives / Less interference in our private lives.’ Nothing to be done, Adams supposes; it would not do to egg people on too much.

Britten was first alerted to Crabbe by an essay by his friend E.M. Forster, published in The Listener in 1941, which Britten thought sufficiently important to have it reprinted in the booklet accompanying the premiere (illustrated above). It is not often remarked, given the relatively minor place given by Britten and Slater to the character of the rector, that he looms rather large in Forster’s essay. That said, Forster and Slater are agreed on his fault, which is weakness. He is a man ‘whose constant care was no man to offend’ (the line is Crabbe’s); who ‘valued friendship, but was not prepared to risk anything for it’. Crabbe’s epitaph for him is damning: ‘They who knew him best, proclaim his life t’have been entirely rest.’ At play in his garden, ‘no trifles failed his yielding mind to please’.

And it is in his pusillanimity, his readiness to hope that the emotions stirred in the Borough will simply regulate themselves, that we’re invited to see Adams in the worst light.

In Act III, a few days later, he, Crabbe and the group of burgesses excuse themselves from the dance at the Moot Hall, though the whispers have returned, not least from Mrs Sedley, one of his own flock. ‘I looked in a moment’ he sings, and ‘the company’s gay / With pretty young women and youths on the spree.’ Whether oblivious to or afraid of what the night holds, he retires to his house, to light, trivial music (a hornpipe, in fact) that jars, and is meant to; it is grotesquely carefree when framed by the rest of the score. Good night, he bids them all, ‘don’t let the ladies keep company too late! / My love to the maidens, wish luck to the men! I’ll water my roses and leave you the wine.’

Now without any of the better sort to moderate the atmosphere as it darkens, a mob soon assembles to hunt Grimes down, among which is Boles. Adams has refused the chance to try to restrain the mob, to act as peacemaker to the whole parish. And in the morning he walks to church for morning prayer (according to the directions in the published libretto), as on any other day, while the waters close over Grimes’ boat in the distance. What is that in the distance, people ask, a sinking boat? ‘Nothing I can see’ says Boles; Grimes is gone.

Where Boles’ religion is hot, vital (if hysterical), Adams’ is formal, complacent, and in the last instance unable to act. In the religious life of the Borough, the Rector is the Ego to Boles’ Id. In the end, it is the Id that is overwhelming, but both are complicit in Grimes’s destruction. As Peter Garvie observed in 1972, the Christianity in the opera is ‘uninfluential for good’. Neither provides a path to peace for the community or to repentance and redemption for Grimes. In 1945, on the cusp of a new start, neither variety of English religion seems to merit its place in the new Jerusalem.

[The essays by Peter Garvie and E. M. Forster are both reprinted in the Cambridge Opera Handbook to Peter Grimes. The production shown above is a 1969 television film, with Pears in the title role, Gregory Dempsey as Boles, and Robert Tear as Horace Adams.]

If you’ve enjoyed this post, why not support the blog on Patreon? For only £2 a month, get advance access to new writing like this, and unlimited access to the archive.

At home in the King’s Cottage

The majority of the posts on this site are free to read, but this one is available only to my wonderful Patreon supporters. To help me keep creating new writing, and to keep most of it free, become a Supporter over on Patreon. Get access to everything on this site, and advance access to new posts, hot off the press, all for only £2 a month, and you can cancel any time you like. Thanks!
To view this content, you must be a member of Peter's Patreon at £2 or more
Already a qualifying Patreon member? Refresh to access this content.

In praise of the edited collection

[A post first published at On History, the blog of the Institute of Historical Research.]

As a publishing format, the edited collection of essays has had a bad press. Collections are widely supposed to contain lesser work than scholarly journals; to be incoherent as volumes, no more than the sum of their parts; and to be less visible to potential readers once published. It’s often claimed that those who make decisions in relation to hiring, promotion, tenure and funding also share this opinion. To publish in or edit an essay collection is thought to risk being penalised for the format, before even a word is read.

But is this a fair assessment?

In my new book, The Edited Collection: pasts, present and futures (Cambridge University Press, £9.99), I attempt a defence of the format. I explore the modern history of the edited collection and the particular roles it has played. I then examine each component part of the critique, showing either that they’re largely unfounded or (if they are of real substance) that they may be resolved.

Though suspicion of the edited collection is found across the disciplines, it’s most trenchantly expressed from within the hard sciences in which both book chapters and indeed monographs figure little. (In 2014, 99.5% of submissions to REF Main Panel A — for medicine and biological sciences — were journal articles, leaving almost no space for alternative formats such as essays or monographs.)

In the arts and humanities, however, the picture is quite different. Here freestanding edited collections remain a far more significant publishing format, and one — moreover — that’s holding its own in relation to the alternatives.

Data from the Bibliography of British and Irish History shows that, as the scale of history publishing has grown, the relative proportions of monographs, journal articles and book chapters remained all but unchanged between 1996 and 2015. In the 2014 REF, for History, one book chapter was submitted for every 1.7 journal articles. As well as individual chapters, editors also submitted whole edited volumes for assessment as a unit; in the same REF one in five of the books submitted to Main Panel D was an edited volume.

But for historians, as for many across the humanities and social sciences, it’s not just a question of numbers.

In my book I adopt a case study approach to demonstrate the creative potential of the edited collection. The studies I explore show a rich interplay in such volumes, as scholars are brought together to add to—and to assess the state of—an issue, or indeed the current state and purpose of a discipline. On occasions this conversation has been confined within the academy; at other times it’s engaged other professionals outside with particular stakes in the matter under investigation. It has proved a natural vehicle for interdisciplinary enquiry. Such collections may either be the natural outgrowth of an existing group of scholars or the creation by an editor or publisher, sometimes bringing together those with opposing views. What emerges overall, however, is a profoundly communal and conversational endeavour.

One of my case studies is of a form of edited collection that is peculiar to history: the institutional history, and within this the histories of cathedrals in particular.

Several of the English cathedral churches date their foundation, or at least the building of their current structures, to the Anglo-Norman period. Consequently, as the end of the twentieth century approached, there was a series of cathedral histories, some of them tied to nine-hundredth or other anniversary commemorations. First off the mark was York Minster, with a volume of essays published in 1977 by the Clarendon Press. The initiative had come from the dean and chapter (the governing body of the minster), against a background of growing interest in its archaeology and its monuments.

An initial editorial committee included Owen Chadwick, regius professor of modern history at Cambridge (and also a priest and person of some influence within the Church of England), who also contributed a chapter. But the volume was also a local affair—edited by Gerald Aylmer, the first professor of history in the still young University of York, and Reginald Cant, canon chancellor of the minster. Most of the other contributors were university-based scholars connected either with Cambridge or York, but the early architecture was covered by Eric A. Gee of the Royal Commission on Historical Monuments, which was based in the city; the chapter on the minster library was by C. B. L. Barr, of the university library, in the custody of which the minster library was kept.

Since then, there has been a crop of similar volumes as the other ancient cathedrals have followed suit. Most of these volumes had some sort of connection with a local university, and involvement from writers associated with the cathedral itself. They have tended to encompass several disciplinary perspectives: national and local history, musicology, archaeology, bibliography and the history of art and architecture.

Chichester cathedral from the west. Image: Peter Webster.

The combination of these perspectives has varied, however, as has the relative weight of contributions from the city in question and from the wider university sector. Oxford University Press published the volume for Canterbury Cathedral, the principal church in England, in 1995. More than a decade in the planning, the impetus had come both from the Press and from Donald Coggan, archbishop of Canterbury until 1980. All three editors were connected with Canterbury, including Patrick Collinson, regius professor in Cambridge but formerly professor at the University of Kent. However, the team of contributors was overwhelmingly academic and drawn from the universities.

By contrast, the 1994 volume for Chichester was composed of work from a more diverse and locally focused group. It was edited by the cathedral archivist, Mary Hobbs, with the assistance of a historian at the West Sussex Institute of Higher Education (now the University of Chichester), Andrew Foster. The deputy county archivist (in whose care much of the historic archive rests) dealt with the cathedral’s archives and its antiquaries, and Hobbs herself with the library. The chapters on the medieval and early modern cathedral were from specialists, as were those on the architecture and on the cathedral’s art. The twentieth-century chapters, in contrast, were by clergy with a connection with the cathedral.

The cathedral history, then, has been a meeting point of institutional and local history with religious history more broadly, and the concerns of historians of architecture, music, art and of the book. The edited volume has been found to be a useful — indeed, probably the only — means of brokering that interchange.