[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.
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.
[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.
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.
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.
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.
Peter Catterall Labour and the Free Churches, 1919-1939. Radicalism, righteousness and religion
London, Bloomsbury, 2016; paperback edition 2018
[A forthcoming review for the Journal of Beliefs and Values.]
As Peter Catterall notes in the introduction to this important book, the existence of an intimate relationship between the Labour party and the Free Churches was once axiomatic: in the immediate post-war period it was commonplace in the general understanding of the party’s history that, as one secretary of the party noted, Labour owed more to Methodism than Marx. The connection was also articulated by Alan Bullock in 1960, but has become occluded in subsequent historical writing. Catterall’s aim is to examine the relationship afresh, in which he succeeds splendidly. The book will be required reading for anyone interested in the relationship of faith and politics between the wars.
As a distinguished scholar of both British political history and of the Free Churches, Catterall is well placed to examine the relationship between the two, having already made important contributions to the parallel story in the Conservative party. Here his case is unfolded carefully and in detail, resisting the lure of easy simplification, and though difficult to summarise adequately in the small space available here, it richly repays a patient and attentive reading. It is a relatively uncommon form of historical writing: the comparitive history of two institutions, quite distinct from each other but both with claims to make in the national conversation about the common good and the means of achieving it. As such it blends intellectual, political, social and economic history, and successfully at that.
Chapters 4 and 5 concentrate in particular on the sociology of Labour and the Nonconformists, as voters, in local government, in the trade unions, and in Parliament. A complex electoral picture emerges, as Labour gained some Nonconformist votes that previously went to the Liberal party almost as of right, whilst Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives captured the support of others. However, Nonconformists were disproportionately represented in local government, as union officials and as Parliamentary candidates. Catterall convincingly attributes this to the unique opportunities that the chapels provided for the working man: to debate ethics, to organise and to preach. A generation of men emerged that were recognised for their drive, their skills as speakers and as organisers, and for their honesty. Even though by 1939 the numbers had fallen, the effect was still significant.
Perhaps of particular interest to readers of this journal is Catterall’s interpretation of the theological and moral trajectories taken by both the churches and the party. Catterall shows that the ‘Nonconformist conscience’ took a complex and interesting turn in the interwar years (chapters 2 and 6). At least some Nonconformists remained exercised by the traditional causes of temperance, gambling and the Sabbath, and individual voices within Labour continued to promote them. But the tone was tempered by a growing realisation that these were not simply individual moral failings but part of a complex interaction of economics and politics, and the effects of war. Issues such as unemployment were no longer seen as the product of individual sinfulness and vested interest, but the imperfect workings of a impersonal system. Within Labour, whilst those individual voices were present and largely took over a role played before by Liberal MPs, the legacy of the Nonconformist conscience was not at the level of specific policy but in a certainty and a righteous of tone: the rhetorical deployment of an ethic of the New Testament without its soteriology (chapter 6). Labour MP George Thomas referred to a ‘feeling of crusade’ amongst some of the MPs of the Attlee government (p.154).
Chapters 1 and 8 demonstrate the subtle but remarkable shift in Nonconformist opinion in its attitude to the state. From being an instrument of oppression and religious discrimination, the apparatus of the state became the means by which Christian ethical ends might be achieved, even if in the long run there was disappointment in the effects the welfare state had in practice. At the same time, the disestablishment of the Church of England became an old man’s cause as the relationship of that church with Parliament shifted with the Enabling Act of 1919, and as ecumenical contact between the churches grew. The last major instance of organised anti-Anglican Erastianism was the campaign against the 1902 Education Act.
If there is any criticism to made, it is at a structural level, as the thematic organisation of the book tends to obscure the chronological interaction of those themes, and there is some occasional repetitiveness. Many names also come and go; this reader, at least, would have welcomed a more detailed placing of these (mostly) men in their particular context, and to be reintroduced to them as they appear again. That said, Catterall’s book is a landmark in the history of the British churches in the interwar period, and will most likely remain a key starting point for scholars for some considerable time.
[My review of Hugh McLeod’s 2007 study The Religious Crisis of the 1960s (Oxford University Press), first published in Reviews in History. Ten years on, it remains a highly important piece of work, and I note that (ten years on from the 2008 celebrations of the Paris events of 1968, the legacy of the 1960s remains as contested as ever. Some of the themes of this review were picked up in the conclusion to my own book on Michael Ramsey.]
The 1960s, it seems, are always with us. The media weakness for anniversaries and the broadcast time afforded by digital television issued last year in a series of programmes on BBC4 concerning the double anniversary of the Wolfenden Report (1957) and the consequent Sexual Offences Act (1967). Similarly, at the time of writing there are the first stirrings of what promises to be an extended media retrospective on les événements of 1968. This media interest is not purely historical, since, Austin Powers-style nostalgia aside, the 1960s are still widely made to carry significant symbolic weight in contemporary social and political argument. Veteran soixante-huitard Tariq Ali has reflected on the lost vision and idealism among those on the political left, in an article in The Guardian entitled: ‘Where has all the rage gone ?’ In the same paper, another columnist confessed that he had not been born to see 1968, ‘but I yearn for its dizzying spirit’. (1)
Among religious commentators, the assessment of the legacy of the 1960s has tended to be more downbeat. Events of the period, both within and outside the churches, are often central to narratives of how the churches came to be in their present (supposedly) denuded state. The path forward now often involves the reversal of much that was done and said then. In Roman Catholic debate, the central event is the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) which (as Hugh McLeod outlines) is often regarded either as a brave and prophetic attempt at reforms that were both inevitable and right, or the precipitant of calamitous decline in church attendances and vocations to the priesthood (pp. 11-12). For the contributors to the 1980 collection Ritual Murder, the process (as they saw it) of the wholesale abandonment by the Church of England of the poetic riches of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version was begun in earnest in the 1960s; ‘a course redolent of the botched idealism and class paternalism of that lost decade’. (2) Differently again, British conservative evangelical critics of the moral decline of the nation have tended, both at the time and since, to see the cluster of reforming legislation of the late 1960s as the insertion of the thin end of the wedge into the nation’s moral fibre. (3) Common to all these strands of criticism is the sense of trahison de clercs; that the line against change might well have held had it not been for the collusion of muddle-headed reformers within the churches.
It is into this far from neutral field that Hugh McLeod’s new study comes. While professing a qualified sympathy for the reforming ideas of the period (p. 12), McLeod scrupulously eschews both cheerleading and lament. In patiently sifting out what may actually be known, rather than merely supposed or half-remembered, it gives some qualified support to most of the variants of present polemic while capitulating to none. It is perhaps invidious to attempt to summarise what is in itself a summary treatment of a period of very great diversity, and so this review will be confined to some aspects of scope and method.
Even if the causation and significance of the crisis is disputed, common to almost all writing on the religious history of the 1960s is a sense that something very important did happen. In the 1950s, the majority of the population were, at least nominally, affiliated to one of the Christian denominations; the numbers of those professing other religions, or none at all, was relatively small; the churches remained highly influential institutions in national and social life; and the majority would still have articulated the identity of the nation in Christian terms. By the end of the period, the kaleidoscope had been vigorously shaken: the range of practically available alternative systems of belief had widened; the churches faced severe difficulties in the recruitment and retention of clergy, and a sometimes catastrophic fall in the traditional statistical indicators of religious affiliation; a significant linguistic shift had occurred in the articulation of national identity, from the ‘Christian country’ to ‘civilised society’; and the concept of Christendom had been wounded, perhaps fatally. As McLeod suggests, it may not be putting it too strongly to suggest that the period may eventually be regarded as seeing a ‘rupture as profound as that brought about by the Reformation’ (p. 1).
There has been an upsurge in professional historical work on the period in recent years, as the 1960s move far enough away from the present to come into clearer focus, and McLeod provides a review of the field (pp 6-15) which may well find its way onto reading lists in its own right. McLeod notes the disparity between very long-term explanations of religious change (such as that associated with Alan Gilbert, p. 8) and the emphasis on the importance of very sudden changes (Callum Brown and Peter van Rooden, p. 9). He argues, with Leo Laeyendecker (p. 10) for an analysis which combines the long-term secularisation narrative with medium-term processes, such as growing affluence or intellectual change, and with the immediate impact of events, such as the Second Vatican Council and the Vietnam war. The whole study is characterised by a scrupulous and highly successful weaving of these threads into a comprehensive narrative of the period.
One of the many and great virtues of the book is its breadth of geographic scope. While it is admittedly most detailed in its treatment of Britain, its scope is very much wider, taking in much of northern and western Europe, Australasia and North America. This has two effects. The first is to free the account from the constraints of either too narrow a national or denominational focus – tendencies which have in the past severely limited much religious history writing. It also allows the study seriously to engage with the international aspects of the crisis, such as the effect of the mushrooming of diverse religious ideas which may be grouped under the label of the ‘counter-culture’ (chapter six) and the effect of the political ferment of 1968 and the churches’ engagement with Marxism (chapter seven).
A second most welcome aspect of McLeod’s study is a refined chronology of the period. Taking Arthur Marwick’s ‘long’ 1960s (1958-74) as the outermost frame, McLeod sees the period as falling into three broad stages. The early part of the period, to 1963, was characterised by a cautious questioning of the status quo within the churches, but without fully developed programmes having yet emerged. There followed a period of ‘aggiornamento’; the high-water mark of reforming activity, attended by a sense of optimism among the reformers about what might be achieved. This period up until 1966 is splendidly evoked in chapter four, with the prophets of the New Reformation, John A.T. Robinson and Harvey Cox, publishing their most significant work simultaneously with the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council. The later part of the period saw a reaction against much of the reforming activity, from figures such as Mary Whitehouse, along with a marked loss of nerve among the reformers in the face of continued decline in the churches’ vital statistics. While counter-examples might be advanced over the ‘borders’ between them, these three stages seem to this reviewer on the whole convincing and useful.
Finally, McLeod is able impressively to balance the analysis of motivation, with every heroic, conscious act of rebellion against the churches balanced with an act of omission born of forgetfulness or mundane inconvenience. There are vivid examples of the former here. In 1971 the feminist theologian Mary Daly descended from the pulpit to lead a procession of sisters out from the university chapel at Harvard in a highly symbolic act of renunciation: ‘our Exodus from sexist religion’ (p. 178). At the same time, chapter five lays out very effectively the processes by which rising affluence led to a good deal of simple forgetting to go to church. McLeod gives a most careful examination to the disputed effect of the ‘sexual revolution’ on women’s engagement with the churches. However, the study also draws out the gradual effects of home ownership, television sets in the home, Sunday sport for children, and an increased emphasis on companionate marriage, all of which provided reasons for the previously loosely committed to stay at home (pp. 169-75). Similarly, McLeod explores the several factors behind the crisis in ordinations to the Roman Catholic priesthood (pp. 189-97). Simple loss of faith, and principled objection to the reassertion of clerical celibacy and the renewed ban on artificial contraception are given due weight. However, evidence from the west of France suggests that the decline was in part due to the expansion of secondary education, meaning that a seminary education was no longer the most attractive option to young men of limited means. It is one of the great strengths of McLeod’s book that this interplay of the conscious and demonstrative with the inarticulate and accidental is kept in view throughout. To a significant degree, the west lost its religion in a fit of absence of mind.
In a summary account of complex and fast-developing change, readers may doubtless find one point or other which might have merited greater or lesser attention. For instance, this reviewer should have been most interested to read more about the parallels between the elevation of the arts to quasi-religious status in 19th-century Germany and the attention paid to ‘prophets’ such as Bob Dylan; a connection tantalisingly made, but not pursued, on p. 25. However, such minor points are merely testament to the range of this splendid study and its success in opening up new lines of enquiry. It is lucidly written, admirably concise and includes a daunting bibliography containing works in several languages and the most recent unpublished theses and seminar papers. Professor McLeod has produced a work that is likely to remain the starting point for new research into the period for many years, perhaps for a generation.
(1) The Guardian, 22 March 2008.
(2) Ritual Murder: Essays on Liturgical Reform, ed. B. Morris (Manchester, 1980).
(3) See, for instance, D. Holloway, A Nation Under God (Eastbourne, 1987)