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 (https://www.flickr.com/photos/nreijmersdal/), 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.

Parliament and the law of the Church of England, 1943-74

[A much-abbreviated version of my forthcoming chapter in Thomas Rodger, Philip Williamson and Matthew Grimley (eds.), The Church of England and British politics in the twentieth century (Boydell and Brewer).
UPDATE: this is now published, but not Open Access. In the meantime, I should be happy to share the draft privately.]

In almost all its aspects – liturgical, pastoral, doctrinal – the post-war Church of England was imbricated with the law. A vast body of statute law, built up over centuries, touched the Church, symbolized by the fact that the 1662 Book of Common Prayer had formed an annexe to the Act of Uniformity of the same year, with the effect that its text had statutory authority. This body of law related to strictly ecclesiastical matters and also to many other less spectacular issues involving finance, property and a multitude of other things.

In recent years historians have been interested in the Church of England and the law, but largely in one particular aspect: that of the law on public morality and its piecemeal liberalisation during the late 1950s and the 1960s. The significance of this emptying of the ‘moral law’ of its Christian content has been understood largely in its relation to secularization, whether as cause, consequence or both. (On this, see Michael Ramsey and the Sexual Offences Act 1967).

However, these three decades saw a profound shift in the legal status of the established Church, obscured by the apparently unchanging appearance of the relationship of Church and state. During this period there was no material change in the relationship between the Church and the monarchy; in the place of the bishops in parliament, or the appointment of those bishops in the first place; in crown appointments, of bishops and other church dignitaries.

However, even though the facade of the relationship between Crown, parliament and Church remained unaltered, a host of changes both large and small between 1943 and 1974 combined to hollow out the structure behind that facade. By means of a long sequence of legislation presented to parliament, the state ceded to the Church greater control of its worship and doctrine, the discipline and deployment of its clergy, its organizational structure of parishes, and of its buildings and other property. Taken together, these changes constitute a profound shift in the nature of the Church-state relationship in England.

The House of Commons.
UK Parliament, CC BY 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/3.0), via Wikimedia Commons.

However, despite the coherent shape the changes take when viewed in retrospect, there was no controlling strategic direction behind them from the leaders of the Church. This is not to say that there was no body of opinion within the Church that desired greater independence; this there certainly was, but it did not hold sway. The period is best understood as one in which several different processes unfolded, according to their own logic and on differing timetables. Each strand of reform implicated each of the others, however, and so the process was iterative and piecemeal, with the effect of one change in the law often being found to demand another.

Three contexts

The immediate context that served to force the Church of England to consider its internal organization with fresh impetus was the effects of the Second World War. Church buildings up and down the land had been damaged or destroyed by enemy bombing; populations had been dispersed from the cities to new areas, which required fresh provision of buildings and clergy; in the countryside, increased mobility, agricultural change, and the closure of village schools all lessened the self-contained nature of the parish. As well as all this, the Church faced an acute financial crisis. The clergy were often in the wrong places, in unsuitable homes, and were paid unequally and often very poorly. There was a need to put the house in order, and this could not but involve the law and parliament.

As the historian Paul Welsby observed, it seems extraordinary that given the immensity of the challenges it faced, the post-war Church of England should also have embroiled itself in the overhaul of its canon law: a process that occupied many hands for two decades, but so it did. A third context was ecumenical contact between the churches, in which the relationship of the Church of England and the law became a complication – if not indeed an obstacle – in moves towards reunion. How could a united church settle its doctrine if the doctrine of one partner was subject to parliamentary approval? How could local schemes of co-operation and sharing of buildings proceed if such re-use of Anglican churches was restricted by the law? At every turn the Church of England was less free to move than the churches with which it was in dialogue.

Church and parliament

At the Church’s request, parliament had in 1919 passed the so-called Enabling Act. The Act provided for the formation of the body that became known as the Church Assembly, in which the Church could decide what it wished to change in the law, and draft ‘measures’ to effect the change, a new kind of legislation by which statute law could be amended or repealed. Yet, it was still for parliament to accept or reject such measures as were presented to it.

Parliament was accustomed to dealing with bills, which passed through several stages and which could be amended before becoming acts. Although the line between the two was not always clear, there was a different procedure for measures. The Ecclesiastical Committee of parliament was made up of fifteen members from each House. In consultation with its counterpart, the Legislative Committee of the Church Assembly, it was to consider each measure brought forward and report on its ‘expediency … especially with relation to the constitutional rights of all His Majesty’s subjects’. Once the report from the Committee was in hand, both houses had the opportunity to accept or reject the measure, but not (crucially, and in contrast to the procedure for bills) to amend it.

Though the personnel changed over time, there was usually a small number of peers and MPs, often themselves members of the Church Assembly or the Ecclesiastical Committee, who spoke on debates on Church measures. In most cases the debates were not long, and the numbers of parliamentarians who voted on them were small, if indeed the houses divided at all. A good share of the measures brought to parliament passed without debate, due not least to the habit of those in charge of parliamentary scheduling of placing these debates late at night, at the very end of the day’s business.

As well as pressure on parliamentary time, there were other reasons why parliament sat loosely to the Church business with which it was asked to deal. One was a reluctance on the part of parliamentarians, both from other Christian churches and from none, to be dealing with what they regarded as essentially private matters of the Church of England. Members affiliated to the other churches in England often expressed their sympathy that Anglicans should have the internal workings of their Church subject to such scrutiny. Chuter Ede, Labour home secretary (but speaking personally, as a Unitarian) thought it ‘an anachronism that still these intimate domestic details of a spiritual entity should be subject to the approval of this House, in which sit Nonconformists, agnostics, atheists, Jews, and persons of the most diverse religious persuasions’. It would, he thought, ‘be to the advantage of the Church herself, and more in keeping with modern views on these matters, if the Church were disestablished’.

MPs from time to time wondered aloud whether it was in fact a rule, or at least a convention, that Anglicans alone ought to speak and vote in such debates. On occasion, there was a similar reticence from Welsh and Scottish MPs, representing constituencies where the Anglican church was not established. As a result, members from outside England spoke relatively infrequently.

Amongst parliamentarians of all parties and of all varieties of churchmanship, there was a constant undertone of discontent with the process that the Enabling Act had put in place. There was frequent disagreement over whether there were any circumstances in which parliament should reject the settled wishes of the Church. Had the spirit of the 1919 Act been that the parliamentary stage should be a final debating stage, akin to the report stage for a bill? Or, was it a mere formality, the application of a rubber stamp (arguably the effect of the words of the Act)? If the latter was the case, and parliament ought never to reject a measure if the Ecclesiastical Committee commended it, why should it spend time debating them? Since parliament was, in effect, presented with nothing concrete to decide, debates were often circuitous and vague, and wandered far from the specific matters at hand.

There was also some discomfort with being asked to approve sometimes lengthy and miscellaneous measures while having no power to amend them: the Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure of 1963 ran to some 89 sections. ‘It has been truly said’ argued one Conservative MP in 1944, ‘that Parliament can do anything except turn a man into woman. There is one other thing which it cannot do, and that is amend a Measure brought down from the Church Assembly’. Though parliament had powers to divide measures into shorter ones to be considered individually, they were seldom used. So, objections and concerns were often raised about particular matters, but divisions were not forced, due to a reluctance to send a whole measure back to the Church for the sake of a single section or clause. In an increasing range of cases, parliament was content to rely on assurances given in debate, where once it would have exercised control.

While there was never any significant move to have the Act amended, or even repealed, the discontent with its operation was a constant from the 1920s until well into the 1970s. Though discontent was regularly voiced about the substance of particular measures, there was insufficient pressure in parliament either to reform the process by amending the Act, or to repeal it, or to move in the opposite direction towards a more wholesale freeing of the Church from parliamentary oversight. The effect of this discontent was instead to militate towards greater and greater autonomy by omission. Seeing in the Act a job half-done, parliament (in a fit of absence of mind) completed the job of giving the Church autonomy by a series of small steps.

The sequence of individual measures and bills examined here (passed between 1943 and 1974), more than three dozen in total, when taken as a whole amounted to a highly significant loosening of parliamentary control over the Church. Almost none of them tightened that control; it was a long series of small steps, miscellaneous in themselves, but all in the same direction. Perhaps most well known was the granting of independence in liturgical revision and the settling of doctrine by the Worship and Doctrine Measure of 1974 (which is dealt with in the full version of this article, along with clergy discipline). Here I want to focus on just two out of several aspects of the changes: parishes and people, and money and buildings.

Parishes and people

The physical destruction of the war, and the population shifts to which the bombing gave rise, brought into relief the stability of the parish and the rights of clergy in relation to their bishop, patron, and parishioners. The clergy were not to be regarded as employees, who could be moved from post to post by their managers the bishops; the relative autonomy that their freehold provided was an important component of the parochial system, which was in turn a key part for some of the ordering of English society. A sequence of measures during and immediately after the war seemed to undermine that freehold, and shift the balance of power from the clergyman to his bishop. Some in parliament regarded this as an instance in which constitutional rights – of the clergy themselves – needed to be protected.

The process began innocuously enough, with the New Parishes Measure of 1943, which rationalized the process of creating new parishes and the associated issues of patronage to benefices, land transactions and the like. It passed through both houses of parliament without debate or a division. Hard on its heels, however, was the Reorganisation Areas Measure of 1944. In blitzed areas, there were churches and clergy without populations to which to minister; elsewhere there were displaced people without access to the sacraments or pastoral ministry. The Church needed the powers to reorganize parishes to reflect the change. So much, so efficient; but what of the rights of the incumbent minister in a parish set to disappear? Surely (it was argued) one unwilling minister ought not to be allowed to frustrate the necessary reorganization of a whole area. The measure provided for the expropriation of the rights of incumbents to endowments of property as part of a reorganisation, for which they would be compensated. Though one MP thought it a ‘great constitutional change’, the measure nonetheless passed without a division, late at night with few MPs present.

The process continued with the Pastoral Reorganisation Measure of 1949, which took the freedoms of the 1944 Measure and applied them to the whole country (at the diocesan level), allowing the creation of team ministries in groups of parishes, the equalization of stipends and the better alignment of men with the size of the population. The Labour MP Tom Driberg thought it ‘a decisive further step in the destruction of the parochial system of England’. However, again, the House did not divide and the Measure passed. The Pastoral Measure of 1968 rationalized and extended these powers, and in 1977 the Dioceses Measure took the logical next step by the creation and dissolution of dioceses without reference to parliament.

Money, land and buildings

Among the later measures that passed through parliament were those that related to the freedom of the Church to deal with its monies, lands, and buildings. The same impetus came to bear as with parishes, concerning the ability of the Church to adapt and redirect its resources in line with changing pastoral circumstances. Of these, the issue of monies was the least difficult, and during the earlier part of the period there were a succession of small adjustments in the law, largely unremarked and undisputed, all of which gave the Church greater discretion within the law. Even such minutiae as the Parochial Church Councils (Powers) (Amendment) Measure of 1949 were part of the same process, as it widened the range of activities for the pursuance of which local churches could hold property.

However, in its local context the Church was not only the giver of pastoral care and its buildings places of worship; it was also both a neighbour, and the custodian of buildings about which many people had strong feelings. And many of these disputes had to be settled in Parliament. No-one thought the oversized church of St. Saviour, Paddington was of particular architectural merit; the proposal in 1968 to demolish and replace it was opposed on the ground that it formed part of an architectural whole with the neighbourhood. The 1968 case of St. Mary’s church in the north London suburb of Hornsey exposed the complexities of the law relating to burial grounds. The sale of a disused burial ground belonging to St. George’s, Hanover Square, as building land was opposed in 1964 by local residents as a diminution of the open space in the neighbourhood. In 1968, in the context of increasing ecumenical hopefulness, Mervyn Stockwood, bishop of Southwark, needed to come to parliament for permission to sell a redundant church to local Roman Catholics, in the face of Protestant opposition.

Despite these sensitivities, the bulk of the restrictions were swept away in three pieces of legislation in two years, all of which passed with little difficulty. The Pastoral Measure of 1968 dealt with the issue of churchyards and redundant churches, such that parliament would no longer be called upon to deal with them singly, though the state retained some powers. Despite some unease about placing more matters in the discretion of the bishop, the measure passed both houses without a division. The Redundant Churches and Other Religious Buildings Act of 1969 progressed through parliament in a similarly smooth fashion. The sharing of church buildings with other Christian denominations was enabled by the Sharing of Church Buildings Act of 1969.

Conclusion

The Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974 was by no means the last on which parliament had to adjudicate, or an end to debate about its role. Some in parliament thought that some of the changes of the previous years had been steps too far, and had been allowed to pass too easily, and that there had been a high-handedness in the Church’s exercise of its new freedoms.

Despite this, neither before 1974 nor after was there any concerted attempt from either Church or state to amend or repeal the Enabling Act, whether to streamline the process, to repatriate powers to parliament, or to alienate them entirely. Though dissatisfaction was often expressed with both principle and process, those with the power to instigate fundamental change did not do so.

Despite the semblance of continuity, during the three decades after the Second World War there was a subtle but profound hollowing-out of parliamentary control of the Church of England. The unwieldy and unsatisfactory nature of the process instituted by the Enabling Act left parliament both unsure of its role, and as time went on, increasingly reluctant to perform it. By a sequence of several dozen unco-ordinated but nonetheless related measures and bills, the Church secured greater discretion in the handling of parish organisation, the deployment and discipline of clergy, the management of financial and other assets, not least buildings, and the freedom to determine its own forms of worship and its doctrine. Whatever the term ‘establishment’ had been understood to mean, by 1974 parliament no longer believed that it entailed detailed oversight of the working of the Church.