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.]

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At home in the King’s Cottage

In a spacious part of west London, tucked into one of the bends of the Thames, is the open space of Kew Green. Along the south side is a row of handsome eighteenth and early nineteenth century town houses. One of them, Cambridge Cottage – a residence of the Duke of Cambridge – is now a wedding venue, where guests can delight in the sight of the Royal Botanic Gardens, onto which it looks at the rear. (The name cottage is singularly misapplied). Further along, facing the parish church of St Anne, is the King’s Cottage, which in the 1940s was the last home of Cosmo Gordon Lang, retired archbishop of Canterbury.

Cosmo Lang, by Philip de Laszlo. (Image: public domain, via Wikimedia)

Lang arrived at the King’s Cottage in the spring of 1942. First acquired by King George III, it was placed at Lang’s disposal by George VI, a natural consequence of the closeness to the royal family that he had enjoyed. The house had a private entrance into the Gardens, in which Lang walked alone or with friends ‘almost in an ecstasy of delight’. Lang was largely content to be alone in such a place, having converted one of the many rooms into a private chapel, furnished with an altar and wall hangings. And he was not idle, busying himself at the parish church, and as a preacher elsewhere, and with the business of the House of Lords. There were moments of regret at no longer being at the centre of things, and shock at the sudden death of his successor William Temple. And busy to the last, it was while hurrying to the train and to Parliament that he collapsed, and died on his way to hospital. His body rested in his own chapel before it was moved to Canterbury for cremation and the interment of his ashes.

Such is the account of Lang’s first biographer, J. G. Lockhart, written shortly after Lang’s death in 1945, based on the recollections of several who knew and spent time with him at Kew. As historians, we generally know little of the lives of our subjects after they leave public life, at which point the trail of paper evidence tends to dwindle and disappear. And so it might have remained with Lang’s last years, were it not for a chance discovery.

The catalogue of the auction of Lang’s effects, February 1946. Visible at the top are my relative’s reckoning of her spending. Image: Peter Webster

Also living in Kew in the winter of 1945/6 were my great-grandparents, in a rather more modest but nonetheless comfortable house in Leybourne Park. Among their effects that my grandmother kept is a tatty copy of A catalogue of the contents of King’s Cottage, Kew Green, to be sold at auction on the 19th and 20th of February, on behalf of Lang’s executors. What motivated my great-grandmother (it was most likely her) to take the short walk to the King’s Cottage is now lost: curiosity, perhaps, at how one of the Lords Spiritual lived, or a more practical desire to see what might be bought. But make the journey she did, as in the margins of the catalogue are marked in pencil the prices achieved for the various lots. At a cost of £59 5s she seems to have acquired a Persian rug (8 feet by 4 feet 6 inches), five afternoon tea cloths, and a set of engraved tumblers, one of which my grandmother kept. (She also spent £6 on an unidentified fourth item, which remains obscure.)

Such inventories are a rich source of information for historians of the way people have lived, and I am not one of those historians. Some later biographer of Lang may wish to trace from where Lang acquired these things. Who it was that bought them may be a puzzle that could be pieced together from the archives of the auctioneer, Messrs Knight, Frank and Rutley, still trading today as Knight Frank. The catalogue is laid out by the rooms in which the items were found, allowing a reconstruction of the interior in remarkable detail. But two things stand out for me from the catalogue as a whole.

The first is the sheer scale of Lang’s possessions. There were some 658 lots, from five main rooms, eight bedrooms, and the staff quarters in the basement. There were more than a hundred towels; four complete tea services; seventeen brandy glasses and twenty champagne flutes; nearly fifty carpets and rugs: Persian, Turkish, Indian, Wilton, Axminster. There were thirty lots of silver and a further 35 of plate, enough for a dinner for dozens of guests. For a man of Lang’s background and generation, accustomed to the company of the aristocracy, none of this would have seemed extravagant. It is an indication of how far things have changed that his more recent successors as archbishop could hardly have imagined retiring in the same style.

Most interesting to me, however, is Lang’s library, which is itemised (at least in part), and contained more than a thousand volumes. Lang is not known as a scholar in the way Temple was, and that impression is reinforced here. His enthusiasm for the novels of Walter Scott is well-known, and the catalogue lists 43 volumes of the Waverley stories. There are also novels by Thackeray and Trollope, the ‘Forsyte Saga’ by John Galsworthy, Robert Louis Stevenson, Joseph Conrad. There are a handful of the Greek and Roman classics, but Lang’s taste in verse is more recent: George Herbert, Tennyson, Wordsworth and (for Lang the Scotsman), Robert Burns. There is writing on travel and on the antiquities of the cathedral cities; lives of the cardinals Newman and Manning, of Wellington, Disraeli, Gladstone; the letters of Queen Victoria, the war memoirs of Lloyd George. Among the historians there is Gibbon (of course), histories of England by Gardiner and Froude, and an unidentified history of the English church (there were several of these).

What is striking, though, is the thinness of Lang’s reading on theology, or indeed on any of the matters of church life and thought that had occupied the presses for decades. For whatever reason, the cataloguers concealed several books behind entries such as ‘sundry books, 38 volumes’. So it may be that these lots contained the kind of odd single volumes that seemed obscure and hard to classify: the 56 volumes on ‘religious matters’ is particularly tantalising. But as it is, we see only eight ‘Bibles and prayer books’ and two unnamed volumes by his predecessor Frederick Temple. It may be that Lang had already disposed of some books that were most obviously of their time. But when this thinness is set against a hundred bound volumes of Country Life and the satirical magazine Punch, Lang’s preoccupations in retirement are clear. His reading in solitude at the King’s Cottage was much like that of most educated Christian men of his age and class.

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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.

Conversations in print: Anglican theology and the edited collection

[This is an adapted extract from my new book, The Edited Collection: Pasts, Present and Futures, published this month by Cambridge University Press.]

Anglican theology has had a long tradition of groups of scholars coming together to publish collections of essays on a particular topic. Every edited volume has its own story, of a discipline at a point in time and of a group of scholars, each with their particular perspectives. Some of these volumes are motivated purely by the logic of a particular line of enquiry. Others are more consciously intended as interventions to shape, or even disrupt, the nature of the discipline itself; to force an acknowledgement of new methods, theoretical frameworks or subjects that had hitherto been marginal. Others still have an overtly political purpose (in the broadest sense of the term), to bring expert insight to a larger issue of public concern, or to push the Church to address that issue.

But I want in particular to draw out the fundamentally conversational nature of the edited collection. Born themselves often from ongoing interactions among groups of scholars, edited collections often display those conversations, with all the elements of consonance and dissonance that entails. In their turn, these volumes often become points of reference in the continuing conversations within the discipline. Theology is a particular case in that it has has an ongoing relationship with those outside the academy – namely, the churches – on the practices of which they dwell and to which they aspire to speak. But even in areas of the humanities with less obvious external readers, the edited collection still facilitates conversations among scholars in a unique way.
The cover of the first edition of Soundings, from 1962.
In the late 1950s, Alec Vidler was fellow and dean of King’s College, Cambridge, and held one of the commanding heights of the discipline in England, the editorship of the journal Theology. Vidler had been asked by younger colleagues in the divinity faculty to convene a group to address a dissatisfaction with the general state of Anglican theology. His memoirs record regular meetings of a dozen scholars at which papers were read and discussed. After a long weekend conference, the group was convinced that there were fundamental issues in theology that needed to be faced; the result was Soundings: Essays Concerning Christian Understanding, published in 1962 by Cambridge University Press. Its effect in the universities was far-reaching. In 1965, a Cambridge graduate seminar was established in Christology to work through some of the issues that had been raised. Although the two volumes had only one contributor in common, the resulting collection of essays – Christ, Faith and History: Cambridge Studies in Christology (1972) – acknowledged its debt to Soundings.

Soundings was in the planning as the centenary approached of another controversial volume of English theological essays, Essays and Reviews (1860), a bid by a group of scholars, mostly clergy, for the freedom to engage with the revolutionary new findings of biblical criticism. For the Soundings group, the issues were more philosophical, but Vidler, in his preface, explicitly set Soundings in a line of succession from Essays and Reviews, at least in character. In turn there appeared New Soundings: Essays on Developing Tradition (1997), a conscious echo of Vidler’s book. It too was the work of a group of scholars who had taken time and ‘stepped back from the ongoing life of the Church, viewed its preoccupations … this has, perhaps, become something of a tradition in itself.’

Also in Vidler’s line of succession was Lux Mundi (1889), officially censured by the Church just as was Essays and Reviews. The twelve authors, all of them Anglicans and all of them clergy, had been together in Oxford between 1875 and 1885, a number of them meeting each year as a ‘Holy Party’ for several days of study and discussion. They wrote as Christian ministers, accepting the Christian faith as still sufficient as a means of interpreting human existence. But in a time of intellectual and social transformation, there were required ‘great changes in the outlying departments of theology, where it is linked on to other sciences, and … some general restatement of its claim and meaning.’

Lux Mundi has come to be regarded as a milestone in theological history. It also served as a model. On its own centenary in 1989 it attracted not one but two further edited collections, both reflecting on its legacy and the current state of the debate over the issues it raised. Both volumes set themselves the task of the kind of overarching assessment of the field that Lux Mundi had essayed, and adopted a similar structure. Both emerged after several years’ deliberation, in one case a whole decade. As with Lux Mundi, the authors of The Religion of the Incarnation had all been connected with the University of Oxford, and all but three remained so. The contributors to Keeping the Faith in contrast were not all Anglicans, and not all from the UK, and as such had less opportunity to interact in person save for a week-long conference, although debate and mutual refinement continued by correspondence. They saw themselves as in ‘theological fellowship’ with the Lux Mundi men, an explicitly Christian articulation of a sense of community that is latent more widely.

At several times in the last century, then, groups of Anglican theologians came together to address the discipline as a whole, in volumes that have themselves become models to emulate, and landmarks against which scholars could triangulate in changed conditions. But it was also the case that Anglican theology in England, intentionally or not, was part of broader conversations with readers outside the universities, with other disciplines, and with the nation at large.
The cover of the first edition of The Myth of God Incarnate
Possibly the single most controversial work of English theology of the seventies was The Myth of God Incarnate (1977), edited by John Hick, then professor of theology in the University of Birmingham. Its seven contributors were theologians from universities and Anglican theological colleges in Oxford, Cambridge and Birmingham. Two of them were, or had been, holders of the regius chairs of divinity in Oxford and Cambridge. (Two had contributed to Christ, Faith and History.) The authors were motivated by what they perceived to be the need for a fundamental reorientation in Christology. Like Soundings, the book had emerged through a sequence of meetings, five over three years. Even more so than Soundings (over which the public controversy was considerable), it reached far beyond the universities, and the dispute it generated was a significant moment in recent theological history. The book sold some thirty thousand copies in its first eight months.
The cover of The Truth of God Incarnate
The far-reaching implications of the argument both inside and outside the academy prompted a rapid response, including several further sets of essays of varying characters. One, a form of rebuttal, was from a group including both bishops and academics including the Lady Margaret Professor of Divinity at Oxford, John Macquarrie; The Truth of God Incarnate was published in an inexpensive edition by a religious trade press (Hodder) within weeks, and has the character of a set of review articles. The following year, Hick and his fellow essayist Michael Goulder of the University of Birmingham brought together the group with some of their critics. Macquarrie, who had been so incensed by the book that it had ended up in his wastepaper basket, apparently declined an invitation to take part, but another of the Truth group, Brian Hebblethwaite, fellow and dean of Queen’s College, Cambridge, did not. This expanded group met in a sequence of ten meetings over two days; some of them private, some of them debates attended by a hundred or more members of the public. The result was Incarnation and Myth: The Debate Continued (1979), an arrangement of the participants’ original papers and responses to them. Meanwhile another group of scholars in Oxford had begun to meet to discuss the issues raised by Myth, and to find a way of expressing its thrust more positively, the result being the essays in God Incarnate: Story and Belief (1981).

Each of these volumes, then, was an attempt of a group of theologians to speak to sections of the discipline but also to the contemporary Church, while a significant lay readership, without access to university libraries and thus journals, were able to listen in. There has also been a related and equally durable genre of edited volume, in which scholars and religious leaders speak, as it were, to the nation directly, on social and economic issues. Borne of a sense of political and social turbulence was Christianity and the Crisis (1933), its thirty-two contributors drawn together by the Anglican priest and Christian socialist, Percy Dearmer. It proceeded from the theology of human existence and the nature of a Christian society – for the assumption was that this was the natural state of English life – to practical matters of international relations, education, economics, the family, work and leisure. The authors included economists, political theorists, a university vice-chancellor, philosophers and others from outside both the Church and the academy.

Among the contributors to Christianity and the Crisis were both archbishops of the Church of England, one of whom – William Temple, of York – later convened the so-called ‘Malvern Conference’ of 1941, the papers of which were published. Looking forward to the end of the war, the conference brought figures such as T. S. Eliot and Dorothy L. Sayers together with members of Parliament, clergy and theologians to work out ‘what are the fundamental facts of the new society, and how Christian thought can be shaped to play a leading part in the reconstruction.’ The degree to which this model retained a valency is evident in On Rock or Sand? Firm Foundations for Britain’s Future (2015), edited by Temple’s successor at York, John Sentamu. Based on a series of private colloquia at Sentamu’s official residence which began shortly after the financial crisis of 2008, it included clergy and theologians, politicians, economists and senior figures from local government and the voluntary sector. Although squarely aimed at a general readership, it directly references Temple’s Malvern conference as its inspiration.

One particular strand of interventions has been on the relationship between the established Church and the nation, as that relationship came under increased scrutiny. Church and Politics Today: The Role of the the Church of England in Contemporary Politics appeared in 1985, in a climate of increased tension between Church and state which was both symbolised and heightened by the dispute between Archbishop Robert Runcie and Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher over the memory of the Falklands War. Edited by the political scientist George Moyser, it brought together clergy, university-based theologians and others actively involved in politics, including one MP. That the particular question of the establishment of the Church of England remains unsettled was evident in The Established Church: Past, Present and Future (2011), edited by three historians in the University of Oxford, and drawing together historians, theologians and political scientists, most (although not all) of whom were also from Oxford.

The edited collection, then, has been a means of brokering conversations of all kinds in Anglican theology. Some were among professional theologians; scholars have been brought together to add to and to assess the state of an issue, or the current state – indeed, the whole purpose – of a discipline. As well as assessing the present, they have also looked to the future. These volumes have also been conversations between those within the academy and those outside who were more directly involved in the contemporary life of the Church of England; others again were between theologians and scholars from other disciplines and professionals in other spheres, as theology and ethics met with economics and politics. Sometimes these volumes have been the natural outgrowth of a common intuition among a group of scholars, as with Soundings; at other times, they have been assembled by an editor or a publisher, sometimes specifically to include scholars with opposing views. What emerges overall, however, is the profoundly communal and conversational nature of the theological task.

The Edited Collection: Pasts, Present and Futures is published by Cambridge University Press at £9.99 in paperback.
Read the conclusion.

Michael Ramsey and national days of prayer

The idea of national prayer has been at a discount for decades in the UK. As the leaders of the churches call for a National Day of Prayer and Action on March 22nd in response to the coronavirus crisis, I take a look back.
This extract from my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey looks at his handling of the crisis of the early 1970s and the idea of the national day of prayer.  Who exactly was being called to prayer, and what was it intended to achieve? What was the archbishop for in a time of crisis?

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The late sixties saw a spate of national and international events which were experienced by many as a more general crisis for the UK at large. Internationally there was continuing war in Vietnam. At home, between August 1971 and March 1972 Ulster saw the introduction of internment, the Bloody Sunday massacre in Derry, and the imposition of direct rule from Westminster. The period also saw inflation, deteriorating balance of payments figures, increasing budget deficits and strike action by the National Union of Mineworkers from January 1972; December 1973 brought another strike, the imposition of the three day week and soon afterwards the collapse of the government of Edward Heath.

What could the churches do ? In a time of crisis, these were things which significant sections of the public still expected the archbishop to address, even if the means by which to Do Something were obscure both to him and to those doing the asking.

The early decades of the twentieth century had seen the emergence of a new form of national worship in the United Kingdom: the ‘national day of prayer’, which had reached a peak during the Second World War. By Ramsey’s time, however, there was a lack of appetite within government or the wider establishment for occasions of national worship, and a similar reluctance amongst the bishops to call such occasions on their own initiative.

Nonetheless, just as Randall Davidson had been inundated with requests for days of prayer on ‘the Japanese War, or Macedonia, or Armenia, or Chinese Labour, or Welsh Education, or the Revival Movement’, the requests to Lambeth Palace to call such days continued to arrive in a steady trickle. As John Wolffe has noted, the felt need for national intercession was most acute in times of war and national emergency; and the trickle became a steady stream in Ramsey’s last years.

Ramsey’s personal view had long been that calls for prayers for specific ends ‘lend themselves to a rather mechanical view of what prayer means.’ It was better instead to call for constant personal prayer as a profitable habit among the body of lay Christians. There was greater benefit to be gained through ‘constantly teaching Christian people about the meaning of prayer so that we are all the time building up in the world a community of praying people.’

Quite apart from the problematic theology of prayer that national days implied, there were practical difficulties as well. There was a reluctance to arrange days of prayer on everything from the 1966 earthquake in Turkey to British entry into the Common Market, since by doing so serious in-roads would be made into the liturgical year. In addition, Ramsey’s staff found it by no means straightforward to secure the media coverage necessary to effect the call.

Even more pertinently, the issues around which public pressure for days of prayer crystallised in the early 1970s, such as the Troubles in Ulster or the miners’ strike, were not ones that commanded any sort of national unanimity. The standard reply template being used by Ramsey’s staff in December 1973 argued that the judgement to be made by Ramsey was a fine one since ‘it might be that a call to the nation of this kind would not have the same result in the country as in the days of the War, when we were all pretty solidly united.’

So there were several reasons why Ramsey and his episcopal colleagues were reluctant to call days of prayer, and there were as a result only four such occasions during Ramsey’s time at Canterbury. The first was in relation to Northern Ireland in September 1971, and a second on St Patrick’s Day in the following March. The call on St Patrick’s Day was repeated the following year, and the fourth was the final Sunday of 1973, called in relation to the economic situation. In December 1973 the call was released to a ‘day of prayer for the nation and its leaders that God may guide us in facing the present crisis with wisdom, justice and self-sacrifice’. Even then, special care was taken that it was not described as a ‘National Day of Prayer’, since to do so would be ‘totally misjudged and could be severely criticised in the present climate of divisiveness and agnosticism.’

In this Ramsey was responding to a clear and growing sense of crisis both within the church and in the nation at large, and to the expectations of at least some of the public that he ought to do so. Ramsey and his colleagues were however neither silent nor inactive in face of the perception of national crisis. At various times Ramsey used speeches to the Church Assembly and the Convocation of Canterbury to address issues of concern. Ramsey spoke about Ireland in a BBC radio broadcast of ‘Lift up Your Hearts’ in September 1971, and on two separate occasions in the House of Lords. Despite all this, the day of prayer was, for some, a weapon in the armoury which it was perverse not to employ. An examination of the reasons advanced sheds valuable light on the role of the archbishop and the providential history of the nation that were current among at least some sections of the British laity at this time.

One reason commonly advanced for such days of prayer was the symbolic effect of joint action between the denominations. Cyril Black, prominent Baptist layman and Conservative MP, advocated a joint call from Canterbury, Westminster and the Free Churches for prayer for Ulster, to demonstrate ‘the united determination of Christians to seek increasingly a way to restore peace and goodwill, and to pray to Almighty God to direct, guide and bless all such efforts.’

For others, these were side-effects, since the primary purpose of such petitionary prayer was its direct and identifiable effect on events. In such times of crisis, it was for the nation as a whole to turn to prayer, and not simply those in the church: ‘it is the people of the Land as a whole who must seek God together for deliverance in a time of extreme National Crisis (2 Chron: 7.14.)’

For many, the time was one with marked parallels with recent British history. Occasional parallels were drawn with events during the First World War, not least the National Mission of Repentance and Hope in 1917. However, for the majority the only benchmark against which the times could be measured was the most prominent historic crisis still in living memory; that of the Second World War.

Of particular symbolic power for some was the great national delivery at Dunkirk in response to just such a day of prayer. One elderly woman with decades of missionary service remembered the day of prayer and ‘and the marvellous answer’ at Dunkirk; another recalled it as ‘a modern miracle performed because the whole country was praying together’ and that in 1973 another was needed ‘to save us from ourselves.’

These calls reveal a good deal about the role Ramsey was thought to play in the religious life of the nation. His correspondents included members of several other denominations, all quite sure that he held a position of peculiar importance amongst religious leaders. One member of the United Reformed Church wrote in February 1974 to assure him that her own congregation had that morning prayed for him, and called on him to take a lead, as the ‘national religious leader.’

However, at the same time petitions for days of prayer could function negatively; as implicit or explicit criticism of the direction of travel in the nation’s moral and religious life, and of perceived neglect on the part of the Archbishop. One Lincolnshire rector attacked the recent deputation of bishops to the Prime Minister to petition against the supply of arms to South Africa. ‘Would it not have been far better,’ he continued, if the bishops had paid more attention to the situation at home, and instead asked the Prime Minister ‘to call the people of our own country to a national day of prayer?’ ‘This country has been sliding from crisis to crisis’ thought one group of correspondents ‘and […] the moral trends have been ever more permissive and ever less Christian.’ Why had Ramsey had ‘not felt the desire, and indeed the necessity, to call the Church of England and all devout Christians to a special day or week of prayer.’ For this correspondent at least, there was indeed a general crisis, in morality as in economics and politics; and it was clear what the nation expected of its archbishop.

By the early 1970s it had long been the case that the calling of such occasions of concerted prayer was co-ordinated between the various denominations. The octave of prayer for Ulster of September 1971 was arranged jointly with Cardinal Heenan and the moderator of the Free Church Federal Council, and care was taken to circulate the announcement in advance to all the churches in Ulster, and to the moderator of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. However, the archbishop was becoming more and more one leader amongst many churches, and less and less the religious leader of the nation that many of his correspondents supposed him to be. The role of the British Council of Churches was expanding to include the calling of joint days of prayer, as was the case for St Patrick’s Day 1973.

There was increasingly an international context in which such occasions had to be framed. In June 1973 there was a joint appeal for worldwide prayer for Northern Ireland from the World Council of Churches and the Secretariat for Promoting Christian Unity, the Vatican’s department for ecumenical endeavour. The Pope additionally instituted an annual Sunday in January dedicated to prayer for peace for Catholics, beginning in 1968, with the explicit hope that it might be taken up more widely. Ramsey to begin with chose not to endorse it publicly. However, by 1973 he was being pressed by some of the bishops to support Peace Sunday (as it had become known) more publicly; a suggestion to which he was more open by that time, having already commended it privately to the bishops.

It may well be the case that the cluster of days of prayer called by Ramsey in 1971-3 were the last such significant group. These occasions, and the public correspondence concerning them, reveal much about perceptions, both within his own church and without, of the Archbishop’s own peculiar role at the interface of the British church, state and nation. In times of national crisis, many felt they knew what an archbishop was for.

[Archbishop Ramsey: the shape of the Church is published by Routledge, and also available via Amazon and all good bookshops. ]