The pandemic and the idea of a national church

Has the Church of England had a good crisis? Well, it rather depends on what you think the CofE is for.

Image: Flickr (vinylspider), CC BY-SA 2.0

Just as was the case in the wake of the death of Princess Diana, the salience of parish churches in local communities has made them a focus for many without a habit of churchgoing, or who would not even profess any very particular faith themselves. I don’t doubt that the feeling is real. But it has led to criticism of the decision not to open the churches for private prayer (although the vast majority of urban and suburban churches would not have been open in normal circumstances, and have not been for many years). And this particular focus on the building has led columnists and pundits to lament ‘the absence of the Church of England’ in the pandemic response (the phrase is that of Will Self).

The pandemic has, perhaps not surprisingly, brought out some of the cliches that make discussion of the role of the established church rather difficult. One is the sense (rather fanciful, I would suggest) that the nation, still Anglican at its heart, cries out as one from Bradford to Basingstoke, from Camden to Combe Magna, for the archbishop of Canterbury to take the lead. The bishops may also reflect with a rueful smile that they are accused of being a mere mouthpiece of government public health propaganda, yet are too ‘political’ when it comes to the Prime Minister’s chief adviser and his conduct during the lockdown. And the rhetorical setting of a stout, honest laity against a perfidious clergy is a trope that runs through many disputes of the last century, to the Prayer Book crisis of 1927-8 and beyond.

Not a few have responded with details of all the things that those fixated on the building have missed: a revolution in online activity, as well as volunteering at food banks, debt counselling centres and all manner of other vital social relief work. To close the churches and help stem the spread of the virus to persons unknown may be as pure an expression of loving one’s neighbour as is to be found. Few of the critics have been able to explain why the church should have put its volunteer members – many of them elderly – at risk in order to staff churches for private prayer, police the wearing of masks or the washing of hands, and carry out all the additional cleaning.

There will in time be some reflection into the Church’s reaction to the crisis, and there will no doubt be lessons to learn. But in play here are quite fundamentally opposed ideas of what it means to be a national church. That the crisis has caused many people to ask the kinds of questions which had hitherto not forced themselves upon the mind is certainly true, as the remarkable levels of engagement with online worship suggest. And many, if not most, within the Church of England would still recognise a vocation to serve everyone living in the parish, to at least some extent. (One might want to question the idea that the non-Anglican churches are indifferent to the needs of their communities, but I set that aside for now.)

But the language of vocation is important, and precise. I return to Will Self, in a column in the New European (June 11th-17th), because as a novelist and as one brought up as an Anglican, his choice of words cannot be accidental. In criticising the Church, and Archbishop Welby in particular, he writes: ‘the fact remains that we have an established church in this country, one whose remit is to minister to the spiritual requirements of every single citizen, regardless of their beliefs or lack of them.’ Everything in this sentence is compatible with a sense of vocation, save for the word ‘remit’. The NHS has a remit for the provision of healthcare; local authorities have a remit to run schools and empty the bins. Whatever the people of England may expect from the established church, to speak of it in these terms is to make a category error.

Were the Church of England funded directly from the public purse, with statutory duties set and maintained by government under Parliament, then this might be a meaningful way to speak. The current entanglement of the Church with the law in no way amounts to the same. Critics often refer to the ‘privilege’ the Church enjoys, of having some of the bishops sit in the House of Lords. That’s a debate I shall not go into here, but I’m not sure that the presence of the bishops in the Lords constitutes one side of a quasi-contractual relationship, in return for which the Church writes a blank cheque to every pundit who occasionally enjoys a spot of archbishop-bashing. Whatever the Church offers is (or should be) a gift freely given; to frame it as an entitlement of citizenship, or (worse) a service purchased by the nation from the Church, is to misunderstand it fundamentally. Whatever it means to have a national church, I’m not sure this is it.

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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.

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A. S. Byatt’s church in Sixties London

[The latest post in my series on clergy and churches in twentieth century English fiction. Here, in the third of four posts, I look at the third novel in the ‘Frederica Quartet’ by A.S. Byatt].

If we know nothing else about the religious life of the early Sixties, we know it to have been a time of experiment. It is possible to overstress the uniqueness of the time, to misremember nostalgically, or (on the other hand) to trace all our current ills back to it. But though the roots of the intellectual turmoil went deep into the past, there was clearly a sense that many things in doctrine, morality and church life that had been thought immutable were in flux all at once; a general sense of unsettlement. One reaction to this imagined crisis was to experiment: with new forms of ministry outside the traditional parish; with new secular ideas; with new ways of communicating. A.S. Byatt’s 1996 novel Babel Tower, which begins in London in the autumn of 1964, dwells on all of these.

In the crypt of the church of St Simeon, not far from King’s Cross, there is an experiment in new ministry. Like so many of London’s churches, St Simeon’s was damaged by German bombing during the Blitz. Some of these churches were rebuilt, others demolished, a few left in ruins as memorials. Some, though intact, were no longer needed as the populations they used to serve had left the city, and became homes for alternative ministries. The originally vast space of St Simeon’s was rebuilt on a rather smaller scale within its original walls. Its surviving Victorian glass is not so much reconstructed as remixed, ‘abstract, yet suggestive’, with storks and doves, giraffes and leopards, in ‘rivers of grass-green and blood-red, and hummocks of burned amber’; planks of the Ark; Christ’s hand breaking bread at Emmaus (chapter 1). The simple gaudy piety of the old glass is transformed, a bricolage now of the blackened shards deposited in the aisles; the symbolism is hard to avoid. (It is one of several ruined churches in English fiction, some of which I wrote about before.)

Image: Flickr (, CC BY 2.0

No longer a parish church, St Simeon’s is home to the Listeners, the model for which is clearly the Samaritans, set up in the crypt of St Stephen’s Walbrook (in the City of London) in 1953. In a plywood booth the Listeners take phone calls from the desperate and the vexatious. One of them is Daniel Orton, no longer a parish priest in Yorkshire after suffering a breakdown following the death of his wife (in Still Life, the second of the quartet). Daniel (who shall have his own post in this series) simply listens, and coaxes his callers to talk; there is suggestion, but little direction. In the ruins of the old, a newer, humbler church listens and does not pontificate.

One of the other Listeners – their director, in fact – is Adelbert Holly, canon of St Paul’s, writer on theology and psychology, counsellor and ‘sexual therapist’, described by his publisher as ‘a daring and a subtle theologian’. His first book, Within God Without God has made his publisher a good deal of money, arguing in its ‘riddling and witty way’ that Christians must abandon their idea of God as the ‘Old Man Up There’. Instead, God may be found in every cell of the body, ‘the inherent Intelligence in the first protozoa clinging together in the primal broth.’ Canon Holly has much in common with the bishop of Woolwich and his Honest to God (1963) and has appeared on the television supporting it, and him. Daniel is not sure what separates such ideas from pantheism, and wonders whether the ‘Canon would shrivel if he were obliged to follow his own reasoning, his own metaphors, outside the walls, so to speak, of the Church, the singing, the ritual, the imposed duties.’ (chapter 1)

But Holly’s panentheism (which is perhaps what it is closest to, or perhaps the thought of Teilhard de Chardin) is not abstract, but very immediate to him, bodily and sensual, a matter of sex and of death. He is a founder member of a group called Psychoanalysts in Christ, and author of another, even more controversial book, Our Passions Christ’s Passion. One of the Listeners suggests that the ‘modern Church’ gives the impression that the subject of sex is what bothers it most. (The Church of England did indeed spend a good deal of time in the Sixties thinking, and disagreeing, about sex, heterosexual and homosexual. It was also a period of Christian flirtation with psychology, and the two movements were connected, although historians have not yet explored the connection all that much) ‘The Church has always been about sex, dear’ Holly replies, gleefully: ‘that’s what the problem is.’ In denying the sexual impulse and trying to eradicate it, people become obsessed with it, he thinks. ‘That’s why current moves to be more accepting and celebratory about our sexuality are so exciting’.

But is religion not really about God, and the prospect of death, he is asked? Yes indeed, Holly continues: ‘the germ cell is immortal but the sexually divided individual is doomed, it is sex that brought death into the world.’ And suffering too – to inflict and to bear it – is at the heart of Holly’s gospel, of a cruel God who tortured His Son and of a suffering Christ, battered body and blood spilt, pain and degradation. It is on these lines that Holly speaks for the defence in the obscenity trial that forms the centrepiece of the novel. But the subtlety that his publisher values is a liability in the court room. ‘You have lost me, Canon, I fear’, says the judge; ‘I can understand your individual sentences, but your general drift I find hard to follow.’ Holly’s flights into obscurity try the patience of both judge and jury (chapter 20).

For all the attention that has been paid to the religious ideas of the 1960s, historians have neglected the means by which those ideas spread – the history of religious publishing. And there was certainly a market for economical editions of religious writing in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Letters and Papers from Prison, through which most English readers first encountered the martyred Dietrich Bonhoeffer, appeared in the Fontanta paperback series in 1959, and went through an impression a year for some years; John Robinson’s Honest to God was in the similar series from the SCM Press. In chapter 4, we see the office of Rupert Parrott, Canon Holly’s editor, and his books are on display, with Op Art covers, spirals, in black and white or blood-red and orange; they are ‘elegant, and evidence of energy’. (And self-consciously modern, as I’ve observed elsewhere). The firm of Bowers and Eden is run by an ‘old-style socialist’ who thinks religion nonsensical, unworthy of attention. But Parrott – and Honest to God – has persuaded him that there is a market in the ferment: ‘much more extreme stuff than [Honest to God], much sexier, literally, sex and religion’, the new youth cultures, studies of ‘charisma’, the death of God. The conventional ways in which people were prepared to live even without believing are no longer available, Parrott observes. ‘We’re moving into a period of moral ferment, moral realignment, fruitful chaos, people want to know what’s going on.’

Part of that moral realignment was in the relationship of creativity and the law; the 1959 Obscene Publications Act, the ‘trial’ of Lady Chatterley, and the ending of theatre censorship in 1968. The established Church played important parts in all these developments, since it was on Christian foundations that the whole justification of censorship had rested. Holly is present at the meeting of solicitors and barristers to plan the defence of Bowers and Eden and of Babbletower. John Robinson had appeared at the Chatterley trial in 1960 for the defence, making him ‘a stumbling-block and a cause of offence’ in the eyes of the archbishop of Canterbury, Geoffrey Fisher. ‘There was a bishop in the Chatterley case’ says the silk representing Bowers and Eden; ‘Got rather mangled. Said the book promulgated marriage. Got himself reprimanded by the Archbish, I hear… … Not a good precedent on balance.’ Holly thinks he can find a better bishop for the job, ‘a radio Bishop with a large following’, but it is decided against (chapter 18).

But at least one bishop does appear in the trial of Babbletower, but for the prosecution. Though the episode is not often noted (overshadowed at it is by Robinson and Chatterley), David Sheppard, later bishop of Liverpool, but at the time a priest-cum-social worker in east London, appeared as a witness in the 1967 trial of Last Exit to Brooklyn by Hubert Selby Jr. And it is words very much like Sheppard’s that Byatt gives to the bishop Humphrey Swan, ‘thin and sad and bespectacled and insubstantial’, suffragan of a ‘difficult’ part of Birmingham. Had the bishop been depraved and corrupted by Babbletower, (the test in the law)? ‘I must answer yes. I am a worse man, a sicker soul, for having read that book. I shall take time, I shall need effort, to recover from the experience.’

As with the earlier novels in the series (see earlier posts on The Virgin in the Garden, and Still Life), Babel Tower teems with religious themes and with clergy through which they are examined. All of them are faced with the challenge of the new: intellectually, pastorally, aesthetically. In Holly and Swan, Byatt shows us some of the paths out of the predicament.

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This is your hour. Christian intellectuals in Britain and the crisis of Europe, 1937-49

[A review forthcoming in the Journal of Beliefs and Values ]

John Carter Wood
This is your hour. Christian intellectuals in Britain and the crisis of Europe, 1937-49
Manchester: Manchester University Press
978 1 52613253 6 (hardback)

The period immediately before and during the Second World War was a moment in which the whole political and social life of Europe seemed to be in flux, and indeed in mortal danger. In the ‘low, dishonest decade’ of the 1930s, the liberal capitalist settlement in the UK, inherited from the Victorian age, was widely thought to have failed, even before the outbreak of war. The search for new directions was given additional impetus by the war and subsequently by the need to reconstruct. Christian and non-Christian thinkers alike broke in every direction: for the kind of strength and stability that authoritarian nationalism seemed to offer; for a communist alternative; and for all manner of paths between. One of the most concentrated attempts to find such a middle way was by the group gathered around J. H. Oldham, which manifested itself in the informal ‘Moot’ discussion group, the Council on the Christian Faith and the Common Life, the later Christian Frontier Council, and the weekly (and later bi-weekly) Christian News-Letter.

The ‘Oldham group’ was active only for a short time, from the 1937 conference in Oxford on community, church and state until 1949, by which time the coming of peace and the creation of the institutions of the welfare state seemed to have removed the earlier urgency, though the questions the group had been asking remained. It has attracted significant historiographical attention before, not least for the eminence of some of those associated with it: Alec Vidler, prominent Anglican theologian and cleric and editor of the journal Theology; the sociologist Karl Mannheim; the literary critic John Middleton Murry; academic theologians and philosophers such as John Baillie and H.A. Hodges, and (most strikingly) T. S. Eliot. Although the group tended to set itself apart from, or at least in a critical relationship to, established organisations including the Church of England, its members were very well connected, not least to William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury. But this attention from historians has been paid only to parts of the group’s activity (notably the Moot) and to individuals. John Carter Wood’s fine new book is the first study of the group as a whole, and in its fullest context, and seems set to be definitive.

Unsurprisingly, given the intellectual ferment both within and outside it, the group produced no manifesto, and Wood is assiduous in tracing these tensions, and the group’s achievement of a kind of unstable consensus that evolved over time. The approach is thematic, with early chapters on the relationship of religion, society and the secular in general, and on the particular effect of the war and the ‘crisis of civilisation’ that it appeared to signify. The book then deals with the group’s envisioning of a Christianised political economy that was neither Marxist nor a value-free pursuit of Mammon, and to of a patriotism that was nonetheless committed to the international order and the acknowledgment of national failings. Wood then moves on to the group’s attempt to frame a relationship between the person and the state that preserved an appropriate freedom without an atomised individualism free of obligation to God or neighbour. The final chapter deals with the balance between an egalitarian impulse to economic redistribution and the idea of a reformed intellectual elite, formed not by birth but by expertise, that might help shape and then direct the new society thus created.

The picture that emerges is of a group that, though it teemed with ideas and dissent, had nonetheless a sense of common purpose, and a unity in its way of thinking. Ecumenical, though largely Protestant, British and from a particular social class, the group was nonetheless ever in between poles of thought, committed both to finding a middle way, and to the idea of the ‘middle axiom’, a Christianised principle of politics, economics or social life that was concrete yet stopped short of detailed policy.

All this Wood documents with deftness and precision. All students of British intellectual history of the period will want to read this book, and no serious historical library should be without it. Clearly written and generously produced, it merits a paperback edition to reach the wide audience that it deserves.

The Church of England and learning disability after 1945: a first sketch

This is the unrevised text of a paper delivered at the conference of the Ecclesiastical History Society in Exeter in 2017.
Although the effect is now jarring, I retain contemporary language in quotations (and paraphrases of quotations), including terms of reference to people with disabilities which we would not now use.
Alternatively, there is an audio recording of the paper.

In January 1981 Robert Runcie, archbishop of Canterbury, stood up in the House of Lords to support the International Year of Disabled People, called by the United Nations. The needs of the disabled in the UK were great, he argued, and insufficiently provided for, but before the churches started ‘preaching to others’ it was necessary that ‘we will have a look at our own attitudes, facilities, use of buildings and resources’. To this end he had already issued a challenge to the Church of England, circulated among the bishops and distributed to the parishes. The disabled, he told the Lords, are ‘a special care of the churches, because Christians cannot regard them as on the edge of society or objects of pity but as those who are at the centre of the discovery of depth in trust, love and sharing. …. The care of the handicapped always draws out unsuspected qualities from those engaged in it, and when you minister to others they minister to you.’

But, Runcie stressed, there was more to be done by the state on its own account. In these early years of the Thatcher administration the economy was in a severe recession and deep cuts had been imposed in public spending as part of a dramatic restriction in the scope of the action of the state. It should, Runcie believed, ‘be a principle of government that available resources should go first to the weakest and the most vulnerable. … even in a time of stringency we must try to ensure that those who begin life with mental or physical handicaps do not suffer further because of what we fail to do.’ Those in government needed to remember ‘that while they struggle to solve our economic problems, there is also a moral imperative without which we shall never achieve the re-creation of a real community life for our people.’

Here, then, was the leader of the Church of England using his privileged position to call both his own church to action and the state to attend to its conscience. To some extent, this was a continuation of a role that successive archbishops had exercised to a greater or lesser degree according to both circumstance and inclination. In 1913 Randall Davidson had lent significant support in private to ensure the safe passing of the Mental Deficiency Act, the most important piece of law of the early century, which was apparently at risk of being shelved by a government with one eye on an impending general election.

However, this apparent continuity masks a rather more circuitous history. This paper is (I believe) a first attempt at setting out a broad chronological and analytic framework into which to place research on the official relationship between the Church of England and issues relating to learning disability since 1945.

It is the first attempt, since the independent growth of several separate bodies of scholarship have left an unexplored space in between them. This conference shows the depth and variety of recent work on religious education in general; the work of Stanley Hauerwas, Nancy Eiesland and others in the last three decades has pointed towards a specific theology of disability for the contemporary churches to use; social historians, historians of medicine and historians of disability have in their different ways recovered the experience of disabled people and the changing ways in which disability was understood by medical professionals, and the frameworks of social policy in and through which the state and voluntary sectors addressed them.

As yet unexplored, however, are the specific issues that disability raised for religious education both in schools and in churches, the experience of disabled people in local congregations, and the ways in which Christians theologised about disability before the advent of ‘disability theology’ proper.

I focus particularly on learning disability, since the issues in relation to physical disability, whilst in many ways similar, were quite distinct. If membership of the Body of Christ was in part contingent on the ability to declare assent to certain key propositions, what was to be done with those who were unable to make any such declaration? If membership was instead conceived in terms of participation in the sacraments and (more broadly) in participation in the social existence of the local church, what was the place of a person with autism, for whom difficulties with social interaction were cardinal?

I focus particularly on the Church of England, for reasons of time, although I would suggest that all the denominations faced the same issues to a greater or lesser extent and are similarly underinvestigated. The unique position of the Church of England gives the investigation an additional angle, since it was often the conduit of contact between secular professionals, government and the other churches, both in Parliament and more generally. This paper focusses in particular on those official relationships, between successive archbishops of Canterbury, the central policy development bodies of the church and those parts of the state and voluntary sector concerned with the issues.

This paper begins with the immediate post-war period, but only as a convenient break point in what are in fact multiple parallel chronologies: related but distinct threads that develop according to their own logic, in the histories of education, health, psychiatry, social policy, and ecclesiastical history proper. Three shifts did however occur in these years that together make the post-war period a useful beginning in a tripartite chronology that I shall propose. The 1944 Education Act and the 1945 regulations that put it into effect in relation to ‘handicapped pupils’ provided for compulsory state education for all children who were able to benefit. This transferred responsibility for all but those thought to be entirely ineducable from the mental deficiency hospitals to a new kind of segregated special school, in which the churches had no part to play.

The 1948 National Assistance Act further cemented the taking by the state of responsibility for the maintenance of the disabled from the voluntary sector. This annexation of responsibility by the state was a loss of influence for the churches in one sense, but a gain in others, since the Church of England had both the means to influence the formation of law and public policy, and was by many expected to do so. In addition, the 1944 Act had the effect of making a clearer distinction between mental illness (which remained the responsibility of what was shortly to become the National Health Service) and learning disability. That said, the common confusion in the public mind between the two was to remain, and not only amongst the public but also amongst the governing class (and throughout the period.)

In addition, there had been a distinct intellectual change since the 1930s, which had seen energetic Christian advocacy of voluntary sterilisation for the ‘feeble minded’, based on the assumption that learning disability was inherited. As such (the argument went) it was the Christian course of action to prevent future suffering if it could be prevented and could confidently be predicted. The immediate postwar period, and specifically the revelations from within Germany of the Nazi programme of eugenic murder of the disabled, also (I suspect) had a chilling effect on some of the Christian engagement with eugenics. Although Bishop E.W. Barnes of Birmingham continued his enthusiastic advocacy of sterilisation of those who were unfit to breed and the euthanasia of those born disabled, he cut a more isolated figure after 1945.

Quite apart from the associations with Nazism, the assumption of hereditability had become increasingly discredited amongst scientists, and so as the Christian case for sterilisation was weakened, perhaps fatally, space opened up further for an acceptance of disability on its own terms rather than as a problem to be eradicated. Such a position was later put forward by Michael Ramsey, for instance, in the context of the debate over abortion law reform in the late 60s, in opposing the eugenic termination of a foetus with a physical deformity on the basis that it were better not to be born: ‘While we must strive to remove suffering’ Ramsey argued, ‘we do not foreclose the ways in which in the midst of frustrations and handicaps some of the glories of human lives may be seen.’

Phase One: 1945 – c.1959
The first of my three phases was from the end of the War until the late 1950s, during which we find the Church in a responsive mode with few signs of proactive engagement with any of the issues. The bishops in Parliament were closely engaged with the progress of the Education Act in 1944 and the regulations that followed, but not with the specific provisions in relation to special schools, since they did not concern the church schools directly. A Royal Commission was appointed to examine the law in relation to mental illness and disability in adults, reporting in 1957, the findings of which were taken into the Mental Health Act 1959. Once again, the bishops in the Lords seem not to have intervened in the debates on either the report or the Act. There was however some activity amongst the staff of the new Board of Social Responsibility, set up in 1958. The history of the BSR remains to be written, but it appears to have taken a wider view of its role than did its predecessor bodies: to advise the bishops and others in the church, provide evidence to government, and in general to be the eyes and ears of the institution in relation to everything from nuclear arms, to unemployment to medical ethics.

Prompted by the Royal Commission, the British Council of Churches held a conference in 1957 on ‘mental health and the churches’,. This was followed by a similar one on the new Act in 1959 organised by the Central Churches Group of the otherwise secular National Council for Social Service; it was chaired by a bishop, Dudley Narborough of Colchester. Both events dealt with mental health and mental disability whilst being more careful than was common to distinguish between the two. Both were exploratory but marked with a sense of impending change. Lady Norman, vice-chair of the National Association for Mental Health (that was later to become MIND) told the 1957 conference that ‘the Churches had a responsibility to promote right thinking and an enlightened attitude in this field’, but after 25 years’ experience she was heartened by the increased interest among Christians she was seeing. BSR staff attended both events, circulated resulting papers, and collected press cuttings on the general issues, but nonetheless remained in a reactive mode until the early 1960s.

Phase Two: the Sixties (roughly)
In the early 1960s two distinct currents seem to coincide: the gradual identification of learning disability as a subject distinct from that of mental health; and movements within the Church of England to develop and communicate its own view. In 1964 there was a conference on the subject of ‘the church and the backward child’, about which I have been able to discover almost nothing, but there was some contact between its delegates and the authors of Number Unknown. A guide to the needs and problems of the mentally subnormal child and his family (1965), produced by the Children’s Council of the Church of England’s Board of Education. It was followed two years later by All Children are Special, which focussed more specifically on schools, also produced by the Childrens Council.

As was common with the church’s central bodies, Number Unknown was the product of a working party composed of experts in various fields, usually chosen on the basis of being either Anglicans or at least sympathetic to the churches. It included a diocesan advisor on RE, the headmaster of a unit for children in one of the mental deficiency hospitals, two supervisors of training centres located in the community, the chaplain of a unit for mentally deficient children located in a mental hospital for adults, as well as a statistician. Aimed primarily at clergy whose training would not have prepared them for a pastoral response to disability, it was a remarkably advanced document when considered in its context. The pastoral care of parents after the first diagnosis of their child is discussed sensitively, but without pity or condescension, as is the key importance of baptism in the process of accepting a disabled child. Local congregations, it argued, would find their capacity for intercessory prayer enlarged by welcoming a family with a disabled child, and church members could find new ways to serve, not least in pastoral counselling.

What of the disabled child? How might he (or she) be involved in worship and learning? The approach would need to be different, the report argued, not least in the matter of communion since the Book of Common Prayer laid down certain stipulations as to what a person must be able to say and do before being admitted. However, these could be fulfilled in other ways, it argued, since disabled children very often showed ‘a wonderful intuitive power of realising God’s presence and a quality of devotion which exceeds that of many ordinary young people.’ To be sure, there was a widespread idealisation of the disabled child in the churches of which this is an example, but the effort to elaborate an early theology of the matter was notable.

Could the ‘severely subnormal’ person meaningfully take part in the communion, it asked? The answer was strongly affirmative: ‘It operates on many levels and expresses a relationship between God and man … in ways deeper and broader than those of a strictly intellectual operation. Each worshipper responds according to his capacity. As the severely subnormal person offers himself to God with his own simplicity and sincerity… there is available to him that growth in holiness which comes by grace in the Christian life, and the means of grace are for him as well as for others.’ The report was debated in the Church Assembly, after the bishop of Portsmouth, himself the uncle of a disabled child, had persisted for over a year in keeping it on the agenda. After a short debate, the Assembly welcomed the report, agreeing that there was a problem to be addressed and that not enough was known about it, but not what ought to be done.

Number Unknown was no work of theology proper, and as such it is not straightforward to uncover the roots of its thinking, other than in the general resources of the Anglican approach to the sacraments. Theologians have (more recently) attended to older writers as precursory and foundational to the more recent theology of disability, notably Karl Barth and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, but although these writers enjoyed something of a vogue in the post-war years, it was not for this purpose that they were used. The period from the late 60s until the early 1980s saw a rather pragmatic Anglican approach gradually become hedged about by more substantive theological work on disability done elsewhere. In France, Jean Vanier founded the first L’Arche community in 1964, and his writings on theology and learning disability began to be published in the early 1970s, although not immediately in the UK. In the USA, Stanley Hauerwas’ two most significant works on disability – Responsibility for Devalued Persons and Suffering Presence – did not appear until 1982 and 1986 respectively.

More important in catalysing Anglican engagement with disabled people was their increased visibility. Due in part to the Mental Health Act 1959 there was a gradual move (though still not complete by the 1980s) in public policy away from institutional living towards what became known later as ‘care in the community’. The churches were gradually confronted, therefore, with greater numbers of the disabled living in their parishes, and so a practical response became more and more necessary. But the Church still also had a role to play in the formation of the law. In 1970 a private member’s bill became the Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, which imposed additional duties on local authorities to ascertain and meet the needs in their area. Briefed by the Board of Social Responsibility, the bishop of Bath and Wells, Edward Henderson, intervened in the House of Lords to ask for independent representation of the interests of those with learning disabilities who were unable to press their own case.

Period Three: the 1970s
My third period is the 1970s, during which there was a general quickening of activity within the Church of England: piecemeal, in places exploratory, and without yet significant additional theological work – but substantial nonetheless. The more public and ceremonial work that archbishops often have to do continued: Donald Coggan took over from Ramsey as president of MENCAP, and Runcie followed suit. There was experimentation with new forms of worship, notably amongst the group of chaplains in the remaining hospitals; more concretely the diocese of London was in the early 1980s beginning to discuss deploying an ordained man specifically to minister to the disabled, the first venture of its kind of which I am aware.

There was also a growing international and ecumenical context: Partners in Life, a 1979 report from the World Council of Churches had English representation in the shape of Leslie Newbigin, by then retired from the Church of South India to the UK. The International Year for Disabled People in 1981 (with which I began) had an ecumenical committee overseeing matters to do with the religious life, chaired by a Roman Catholic. By the time Robert Runcie chose to publicly support the Year, the Church of England had moved from being a watcher, a relatively passive recipient of knowledge from the secular professions, to an institution that realised the moral imperative of responding to the challenge learning disability posed, both in its own life and in calling the state to its duty. Even if much of the heavy theological lifting remained to be done, the Church was in its characteristically pragmatic way doing what it could.