Re-readings: Secularisation and Moral Change (MacIntyre)

First in a new series of re-readings is Secularization and Moral Change, by the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, first published in 1967. They were in fact the Riddell Memorial Lectures, given in the young University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1964; the 36th such set of lectures in a series that had included (amongst others) C.S. Lewis, W.R. Inge (the ‘gloomy Dean’ of St Paul’s) and the historian Herbert Butterfield. Macintyre was at the time a professor of social philosophy working within a sociology department (at the University of Essex, an even younger institution that had only weeks before welcomed its first students). It is this meeting of sociology, philosophy and religious history that gives the lectures their particular interest.

‘Sociology’ was enjoying something of a vogue in and around the Church of England; ‘sociology’ in inverted commas since the word carried rather different meanings. Much talk of ‘Christian sociology’ referred in fact to the doing of theology informed by a concern for politics, economics and the ordering of society, rather than an endeavour that began with an empirical examination of social fact. When the Church needed insight into the recruitment, training and deployment of the clergy in the early Sixties, it did not turn to one of the university departments of sociology, but to one of its own, an Anglican writer and theologian, Leslie Paul. His work of ‘lay sociology’ turned out to be gravely mistaken in its assumptions, whilst being ‘too sociological’ for others (that is, that it based its conclusions too much on social reality and ignored the spiritual). The level of engagement between church and academic sociology was in fact rather limited.

As Sam Brewitt-Taylor has shown, the notion of secularization had rather suddenly appeared in the thinking of the English churches in the early Sixties, and so MacIntyre’s intervention came at a key moment. V.A. Demant, Anglican priest and leading figure in the kind of Christian sociology I have already described, thought it of the utmost importance: ‘it throws light on certain questions which have never, in my estimate, been convincingly raised or answered in common Christian apologetic or in common anti-Christian zealotry.’ (1)

The debate about the secularisation of nineteenth century England has of course moved far since 1964, and little of MacIntyre’s little book will surprise the modern reader in matters of fact. Striking also is the confidence with which MacIntyre was able to talk about social class in Marxist terms; the quaint note it now strikes is an indication how complete has been the disintegration of Marxism as an intellectual framework in recent years. But its central insight would have been startling, particularly to churchmen given to reflection on the society around them.

It was commonly supposed that Englishmen and women ceased to believe in God as a result of the assaults of ‘modern scholarship’, and so ceased to behave in accordance with Christian morality. MacIntyre inverted the causal relationship entirely. Far from the established church being a social glue as a national church as Anglicans liked to suppose, English religious history was a misnomer: in fact, each of the major social classes, upper, middle and working class had their own religious histories, which were interconnected rather less than might be supposed. The Church of England had not lost the urban working classes to ‘secularism’; it had never had them in the first place. Industrialisation and the migration of the population to the cities, had meant that it was no longer plausible to suppose that the kind of social norms that had pertained in stable rural societies were in fact of cosmic significance, given by God. Any attempt for one class to posit its own moral norms as universal was too obviously a reflection of the economic interest of that class for the attempt to be successful. So, Christian moral standards declined because they became impossible to reconcile with social reality, rather than because people doubted the existence of God or the truthfulness of the Bible.

Such was the stuff of classic secularisation theory as in the works of Max Weber and others, although it was yet relatively unusual to see it from an English writer. What also strikes one re-reading MacIntyre is the sensitivity to language, that has become a key tool of analysis more recently thanks in particular to the work of Callum Brown. MacIntyre was in fact trying to ask a rather different question: why had England, and in particular the working class, not been more secularised? Seemingly paradoxically, the same conditions that made it impossible for universalising moral norms to persist also made the development of a thoroughgoing secularism difficult, if not impossible; the same terms of art were necessary for the moral reasoning required in each case. As each class was unable to answer the questions of personhood and ultimate purpose in a way that commanded wider attention, Englishness came to be composed in part of what MacIntyre called ‘secondary virtues’: fairness, tolerance, co-operation. It became impossible to discuss the purposes of life and the right ends to which one might direct oneself; one could only agree on the ways in which one might act.

What of the present (that is, the Sixties?) MacIntyre’s second chapter established the point that English people had lost the sense of the existence of objective moral authority, such that those like the bishops of the Church of England, still given to making pronouncements on moral issues, were now simply speaking in terms that were no longer comprehensible; whether or not the hearer might agree with a moral proposition, they could no longer see why they should accept it to be right because of who it was that said it. If bishops continued to make such statements, it was in part because they were of a generation and class that was still accustomed to make them (pp.54-6). In the context of the Church of the Sixties, this would be have been chewy stuff indeed; a fundamental challenge to the whole basis on which many thought they were to act within society as a whole. If few churchmen seized on MacIntyre’s little book as Demant did, this may have been the reason. But some efforts were being made to ‘do something’ by theologians such as John Robinson, bishop of Woolwich, in books like Honest to God (1963), for which MacIntyre also had some choice words

MacIntyre had form in relation to Honest to God having reviewed the book the previous year for Encounter. (‘What is striking about Dr Robinson’s book’ he wrote ‘is first and foremost that he is an atheist.'(2) Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on whose work Robinson drew, had attempted to recast Christian morality in terms that (it was hoped) Promethean ‘Modern Man’, come of age and confident, could accept. The attempt was a recognition that ‘traditional Christian ethics is no longer applicable in an entirely changed social and institutional situation’. But the attempt was now to build a morality of intention based on a generalised idea of love for the other, and ‘moralities of intention divorced from the prescription of particular types of action are notoriously difficult to formulate in a way that gives them any content.’ (p.71) Not only was there a crisis for the churches, but the horse they seemed to be backing was bound to fall.

Was there any hope? MacIntyre was at this point in what Rowan Williams has called a ‘post-Christian’ point in his intellectual journey, but his answer, alluded to only briefly, anticipates his later reception into the Roman Catholic church. The conservative turn of the English disciples of Barth and Kierkegaard, and the parallel revival in Catholic orthodoxy together seemed to be having the better of the argument (p.68). To insist on revelation and the persistence of traditional moral norms might, in MacIntyre’s view, be simply a wilful ignoring of social reality: ‘such a version of orthodoxy will be immune to any suggestion of refutation by or modification as a result of sociology or social history.'(p.67) However, it at least maintained the inner coherence and distinctiveness of the system from which those norms were derived, where Tillich rendered them indistinguishable from the world they were supposed to be transforming. Read again at a distance of fifty years, that passing remark anticipates the swing towards conservative theologies in the years that were to follow, and trends in the relation of theology and the academy to boot.

(1) Demant reviewed the book in the Journal of Theological Studies, 19:1 (1968), 423-5.
(2) ‘God and the theologians’, reprinted in Robinson and David L. Edwards (eds), The Honest to God Debate (London:SCM), pp.215-28.
See also Rowan Williams’ discussion of Honest to God and MacIntyre in his Anglican Identities (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 2004), pp.103-6.

Religion, law and national identity in the archived Web: new article

I’m delighted to say that an article of mine has appeared this week in a new collection of essays, edited by Niels Brügger and Ralph Schroeder: The Web as History (London: UCL Press, 2017, ISBN: 9781911307563).

My article is ‘Religious discourse in the archived web: Rowan Williams, Archbishop of Canterbury, and the sharia law controversy of 2008’ (pp. 190-203). It examines the controversy over a public lecture given by the archbishop on the interaction of civil and religious law, but from a new angle: the imprint the controversy left in the archive of the UK web. It makes particular use of British Library data documenting the link structure of the .uk country code top level domain for the period 1996-2010.

The whole thing is available as an Open Access PDF, but here’s my conclusion.

It is a brave historian who attempts to interpret the very recent past, as opposed to merely documenting it. As with most aspects of very recent history, the full significance of Rowan Williams’ lecture about sharia law will only become clear as the passage of time grants the historian a sufficiently long perspective from which to view it. An exhaustive qualitative examination of both the published record, and memoirs and private papers that are as yet inaccessible (not least the papers of the archbishop himself, not due to be released until 2038) will be needed to place the episode in its fullest context. Without these, we cannot yet know how changes in patterns of communication that are observable in the archived web were motivated, or how opinions expressed online related to broader patterns of social and intellectual change. However, even if it is difficult to explain changing patterns of religious discourse on the web, we may nonetheless document those changes.

First, the sharia law episode prompted a step-change in the levels of attention paid to the domain of the archbishop of Canterbury, as evidenced by the incidence of inbound links, and also a broadening of the types of hosts that contained those links. Second, a comparison of the inbound links to the Canterbury domain to that of the archbishop of York suggests that the historic privilege given to the views of Canterbury over those of York was extended onto the web. Regardless of their actual status in relation to each other within the Church of England, the media and the public at large seemed only to pay attention to Canterbury. Finally, a qualitative examination of the site of the British National Party shows that at least one organization, with a very particular concern with the place of Islam in British life, certainly took new account of the person of the archbishop as a result of the 2008 controversy.

This chapter has also sought to use the episode as a means of demonstrating both the potential for historians to utilize the archived web to address older questions in a new way, and some of the particular issues of method that web archives present. At one level, the methodological complications presented here – understanding the meaning of a link from one resource to another, say – are peculiar to the archived web and must be understood anew. As with all other born- digital sources, there is work to be done amongst historians in understanding these issues of method, and in acquiring the skills needed to handle data at scale. At the same time, it is part of the historian’s stock- in- trade to assess the provenance of a body of sources, its completeness and the contexts in which those sources were transmitted and received. The task at hand is in fact the application of older critical methods to a new kind of source: a challenge which historians have confronted and overcome before.

This chapter has also tried to show some of the potential available to historians, should they accept the challenge. In the study of public controversy, the archived web allows the detection of changing communication patterns at scale that would be impossible using a traditional qualitative method. It also enables the detection of attention being paid online in places where a scholar would not think to look. More generally, the chapter has attempted to outline an approach that combines quantitative readings of the links in web archives with qualitative examination of particular subsets of resources. When dealing with a new superabundance of historical sources, a combination of distant and close reading will be required to understand the archived web.

The Church, law, and politics, 1958–1974

I’m delighted to be able to say that an article of mine is to be part of a volume now under contract with Boydell and Brewer. Edited by Thomas Rodger and Philip Williamson, it has the title Church and State. The Church of England and British politics in the twentieth century, and should be published in 2019.

Abstract

The ‘Long Sixties’ (1958-74) saw a series of changes in the relationship between the Church of England and the law: some spectacular, others rather less so. Most prominent was the series of reforms in the ‘moral law’, such as in relation to divorce, abortion, capital punishment and male homosexuality. Valuable work has been done on these episodes as they implicated the Church of England, such as that by Matthew Grimley on the Sexual Offences Act 1967. However, the focus of this scholarship on particular issues and episodes has tended to obscure a longer-term and more fundamental shift in the relationship between the established Church and the law at large, of which these spectacular moments were but component parts.

This paper surveys these changes in the moral law, but also the longer-range renegotiation of the relationship between the Church, Parliament and the law that was instigated shortly after the Second World War by archbishop Fisher in pursuit of a reformed code of canon law. This process culminated in the Worship and Doctrine Measure of 1974, under which the Church gained the power to settle its own doctrine and practice of worship without recourse to Parliament, thus removing one of the key causes of tension in earlier periods. This raft of reforms, small and large, touched upon almost every aspect of the Church’s life, internal and external – the relationship with Parliament, the representation of the voice of the laity, the ordering of worship, the settlement of doctrine, the discipline of clergy, the organisation of parishes and the finances of the Church as a whole.

Examining all these changes in aggregate, and the various debates within and outside the Church that they provoked, the chapter will argue that when taken together they constitute a significant widening of the gap between established church and state. The process also coincided (and interacted) with a profound reconsideration among some within the Church of its right relation with the other Christian churches and with the nation as a whole. Some, notably Michael Ramsey, saw an opportunity for the Church to take a more detached and prophetic role as the distance between Church and State widened. That the opportunity was not taken in later years is the subject for a different study.

Further reviews of Archbishop Ramsey: the shape of the Church

The reviews of my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey are now appearing thick and fast in the journals, following the usual gap after the initial notices in the press. Mark Dorsett in Modern Believing thought it a ‘fair-minded and judicious book’, while Peter Waddell in Reviews in Religion and Theology thought its central point was ‘developed carefully and persuasively throughout the book, and in the end it is difficult to dissent sharply from’. My thanks are due to both of them. Ramsey - cover

Waddell ends his review by saying:

This is an excellent resource for anyone interested in the history of the Church of England in the second half of the twentieth century, and in Michael Ramsey especially. It reminds us what a tremendous figure he was.

Waddell also makes what I accept as a fair point, in that while discussing the 1967 reform of the law on abortion, I suggest that no-one foresaw the later rapid rise in the number of terminations in the UK.

A few pages earlier, he notes the Church’s pre-legislation working group acknowledging the concern of ‘traditional moralists’ that the slippery slope towards abortion on demand loomed, before breezily dismissing it with confidence that safeguards would be devised. Had they been heeded, the Church of England’s approach towards the initial 1967 legislation and the subsequent abortion tsunami might have been very different. Might this illumine a wider issue, wherein Ramsey appears a little too ready to accept wider cultural assumptions, especially those shared by the liberal elite which Webster shows was in many ways his natural hinterland? […] Webster is excellent at showing the constraints on an Archbishop of Canterbury, but perhaps we need more theological and ethical reflection on whether the acceptance of those restraints have cost too much.

I draw this out because it raises once again, as several of the other reviews have, the proper role of historical writing. I would certainly want there to be more ethical and theological reflection on the legacy of the long Sixties, but doubt my own capability to produce it – or at least, to produce it as well as a theologian or ethicist would.  There are moments in the book where I allowed myself to flirt with just this kind of editorialising, which were pointed out by one of the historian reviewers. The issue was the subject of this post, on Who is religious history for?

Michael Ramsey, immigration and obligation in the Sixties

As Britain’s place in the world and its relations with its neighbours are in question after the EU referendum, I publish this extract from my 2015 book on Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury. Although it was largely written in 2014, I leave readers to decide whether there are any parallels to be drawn.]

Michael Ramsey was certain that the obligations of the UK to its former subject peoples had not ended with their independence. This legacy of affinities, familial ties, obligation and guilt touched daily life in Britain directly in the form of immigration from the Commonwealth. That immigration began, symbolically at least, with the arrival of the SS Windrush at Tilbury in 1948, but the temperature of debate about its effects and its limits reached a new height in Ramsey’s time at Canterbury. The Sixties saw two related series of legislation, one of which dismayed liberal opinion, and a second that pleased it. Beginning with the Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962, Parliament limited for the first time the total number of immigrants to Britain, and subsequently introduced what amounted to a racial qualification for that entry. In parallel, mounting tension in local areas, from west London to the west Midlands, prompted legislation to protect the immigrant population from discrimination once they had reached and settled in the UK.
Ramsey - cover
In the midst of this, Prime Minister Wilson asked Ramsey to chair the new National Committee for Commonwealth Immigrants, set up by the government to monitor the situation of immigrants in the UK. It was highly politicised work, which saw police protection officers shadowing Ramsey in 1968 after threats were made to his life, and National Front hecklers at a public meeting. The NCCI was for some an unwarranted interference in the rights of Englishmen to discriminate against the outsider as they pleased; while for others including Ramsey it was not half as powerful as it needed to be.

Ramsey spoke out frequently on immigration and community relations, from the beginning of his time at Canterbury until the end. Two principles guided his speaking. As with Rhodesia, Britain had obligations to the peoples of the Commonwealth: promises it had made about the British citizenship they could expect to enjoy. Ramsey had been in India as news of the 1962 Bill had spread, and it had ‘been a great shock and in future years, very likely, history will note it as one of the shocks in the story of our country and Commonwealth.’ Ramsey spoke of ‘this lamentable Bill, this Bill introduced with repugnance, this Bill which is indeed deplorable’: strong words in the context of his dealings with the House of Lords.

The nation also had obligations to those who needed to flee their own country. March 1968 saw the rapid introduction of legislation to restrict the flow of Kenyans of Asian extraction, many of whom had retained British passports, who had been forced out of Kenya by the government of Jomo Kenyatta. Ramsey stayed up late into the night to speak and vote against the Kenyan Asians Bill. The Act left Kenyan Asians with a paper citizenship, without substance when it really mattered, and thus ‘virtually involves this country in breaking its word.’ The nation had during its colonial history ‘by its total action, involved itself in a certain obligation, and … this Bill abrogates that obligation.’

Enoch Powell made what was an almost certainly conscious reference to Ramsey in what has become known as the ‘rivers of blood’ speech of 1968. Powell attacked ‘Archbishops who live in palaces, faring delicately, with the bedclothes pulled right up over their heads’: they had the matter ‘exactly and diametrically wrong.’ Even if Powell thought restricting the flow of migrants was a humane policy, in the best interests of the immigrant himself, Ramsey was sure it failed on pragmatic grounds. To pull up the drawbridge and to leave a rump of isolated people who felt unwelcome was to create a ‘dangerous ghetto situation’. There was already real tension in local communities, and discrimination in housing, employment and other matters, both overt and covert. Ramsey knew that the new Community Relations Commission, set up in 1968, needed more staff and more money than the NCCI had had, and that the Race Relations Board needed more teeth in enforcement of the law.

There was a second and stronger ground on which to resist the direction of Powell’s thinking, and work towards better relations between communities. There was a small but durable strand of thought amongst some Christians that connected national identity with racial purity, however defined. Ramsey would have none of this; the questions turned on ‘basic Christian beliefs in the equality of man’.  Although it did not contain a racial qualification, Ramsey knew that the 1962 Bill would nonetheless be viewed that way: ‘The news, put very crudely, has travelled about in the form, “Great Britain will admit Irish people without restriction but will restrict immigrants from the West Indies.” The Kenyan Asians Bill contained what had become known as the ‘grandfather clause’, which although technically about geography, was for Ramsey bound to act as a racial distinction, such as white Kenyans would by and large not be restricted but Kenyan Asians would. The clause ‘virtually distinguishes United Kingdom citizens on the score of race’.

Despite the threats made on his own life, Ramsey was still able to take a characteristically long view in the House of Lords: ‘Centuries hence our successors may be astonished at this phase in human history, that there was so much trouble and discussion about the colour of human skin.’ Ramsey was not naïve about the part which questions of race played. As well as the ‘frank colour prejudice which certainly exists’, trouble arose ‘when colour becomes a symbol for things more complex than itself. That, I believe, is part of our contemporary tragedy in this country.’  But there was work to be done, and delicate balances to be struck between competing interests.

There was a further aspect to race relations at home, which Ramsey as traveller and confidant of Anglicans worldwide, saw more clearly than politicians in the UK. There was a worldwide crisis in race relations; it hung in the balance ‘whether in the world as a whole there is to be racial conflict or racial harmony.’ Not least in the Commonwealth, and in southern Africa, populations of different origins thrown together by force of colonial circumstance were faced with the task of working out new ways of living. The Race Relations Bill, through ‘the help which this Bill gives to the building up of good community relations in this country will be a contribution which our country can make to racial harmony in the world at large.’ Ramsey had not lost faith in the role that the British could play on a world stage.