Review: Archbishop Randall Davidson

Michael Hughes
Archbishop Randall Davidson
Abingdon, Routledge, 2017
978-1-4724-1866-1
vii + 230

[This review appeared a few weeks ago in Reviews in History.]

The series of volumes on the archbishops of Canterbury, which began life with Ashgate and has now passed to Routledge, reaches its eighth volume with that under review from Michael Hughes, which does not disappoint. Randall Davidson is the third of the twentieth century archbishops to be so treated (the 2015 volume on Michael Ramsey was the work of this reviewer), and the book adopts a similar approach to the others. The bulk of the book is taken up with a consideration of Davidson’s tenure as archbishop of Canterbury, which ran from 1903 until his retirement in 1928 at the age of 80. The final section of the book consists of selected primary sources, arranged and annotated to illustrate the themes of the first part of the book.

The volume makes no claim to be a biography of Davidson in the formal sense. George Bell, later bishop of Chichester, was chaplain to Davidson as Davidson himself was to A.C. Tait, and all students of Davidson labour under the shadow of Bell’s massive biography, which went through three editions between 1935 and 1952. Hughes wisely makes no attempt to replicate in 140 pages that which Bell detailed in 1,000 pages, but rightly observes (2-3) that Bell’s work is difficult to use by dint of its length; it is notably discreet about matters that are now usefully laid bare, and the Davidson that emerges from Bell’s account is coloured both by Bell’s closeness to the events described, and the part he himself played in some of them. By and large, as Hughes notes, Davidson has slipped from memory, including that of the Church of England itself (171), his reputation eclipsed by other figures such as William Temple or Michael Ramsey who appeared to make a more spectacular impact. The time is right for a fresh and concise assessment of Davidson as archbishop, which Hughes provides abundantly. Although Davidson seemed to have solved few problems and to have left few permanent monuments to himself in institutional form, Hughes shows that Davidson’s achievement in steering his church through turbulent times is one to be reckoned with. The book will be a useful starting point for studies of Davidson himself, and of the religious history of the period in general, and should be read by established scholars as well.

The introduction outlines Davidson’s progression to Lambeth Palace as a means of explicating his approach to the role. Like many bishops of the Church of England, he was first chaplain to the archbishop (in this case, A.C. Tait, between 1876 and 1883), a role something like a private secretary or executive assistant in other contexts, in which a young clergyman of promise could learn the inner workings of the bureaucracy. Next came six years as dean of Windsor, in which role Davidson became a close confidante of Queen Victoria. This was to continue as first he became bishop of Rochester, and then of Winchester (1895), in which diocese lay the royal residence of Osborne House on the Isle of Wight. These connections – with the Queen, with successive archbishops, and with the political class as they met in Parliament and in the gentlemen’s clubs of London – meant that when archbishop Frederick Temple died in office at the end of 1902, Davidson was the obvious choice to receive the nomination of Prime Minister Balfour. The word ‘courtier’ was used of him as the appointment was announced, and not kindly (p.29), but although the term captured something important of the circles in which he moved, it implied a subservience that Hughes shows was not characteristic of Davidson as archbishop.

In his 1971 survey of the archbishops of Canterbury, Edward Carpenter, dean of Westminster, described Davidson as ‘the last of the Victorians’. Hughes takes up this theme, which permeates the book: of Davidson as a Victorian figure confronted with great changes both within the Church of England and in the nation at large. Within the Church, Davidson had to deal with tensions between the Anglo-Catholic and Evangelical wings of the Church and the challenge of maintaining discipline, using the device of a Royal Commission to dampen down the heat generated by the issue of irregularity in public worship. Davidson was reluctant to create what became the 1922 Commission on Christian doctrine to investigate the issues raised by ‘Modernism’ in theology; he doubted that it could be constituted in a way that could command trust across the whole spectrum of opinion, and feared that the most likely result was greater discord rather than less. Hughes shows that although he could identify the issues that were at stake, Davidson was temperamentally incapable of grasping the depth of feeling that such questions provoked in others. Few accused Davidson of partisanship; rather more, indeed, wished for greater firmness and a clearer conviction. But there was a conviction in Davidson, despite what some thought: that most issues of controversy could be dealt with by calm, patient reasonable men if they were only able and prepared to set aside their own self-interest; there were few things worth fighting over. It was a remarkable achievement to have steered the revised Book of Common Prayer through the decision-making processes of the Church, given that (as Davidson himself noted) there were those ‘who have given their thoughts to the structure of a service which to many of them means more than anything else on earth.’ (158) However, Davidson’s shock when Parliament rejected the revised Book as a threat to Protestant England showed that, even if he could conceive intellectually that such feelings might exist, they were beyond him fully to understand.

This was not merely obtuseness or a failure of empathy on Davidson’s part, however. If it is legitimate to speak of Davidson as Victorian in his theology, it was in his faith that human understanding of Christian truth was progressive, unitary, and the product of consensus and goodwill. Generations of younger men than Davidson thought there were more fundamental issues at stake that needed to be named and pursued to a conclusion: for these, division was sometimes a necessary price to pay for truth. Davidson’s commitment to the comprehensiveness of the Church of England was a Realist one, in that he doubted that strong views on the definiteness of this or that issue were much more than hubris; the wise person knew that their own sense of truth was likely to be partial and fallible, and that they should act accordingly. (169)

What of the Church and the society and nation around it? Successive archbishops have intervened in national affairs to a greater or lesser extent, and Hughes’ account reveals Davidson as rather more reticent to appear ‘political’ than his successor William Temple (already bishop of Manchester from 1921), or Michael Ramsey rather later. He was most comfortable when intervening in matters that might be termed strictly ‘moral’, such as the broadening of the grounds for divorce in the Matrimonial Causes Bill of 1920 (139), or the use of poison gas or reprisals against civilian targets during the 1914-18 war. He was rather less prepared to commit himself publicly on other issues, such as women’s suffrage or foreign affairs. This was in part due to a reluctance to speak on issues of which he did not have a detailed knowledge, and the Church of England did not yet have staff whose role it was to formulate a position on this or that issue of the day (that structure was to be erected later). It was also partly because Davidson thought that to appear too ‘political’ was likely to damage the position of the Church; the Church’s influence was greatest in private, and the channels through which it might be exerted might well close to him should his public voice be too definite. Davidson thus tried to mediate in relation to Irish Home Rule, and offered to do the same during the coal strike of 1921. His fears were confirmed when he called for simultaneous concessions from both sides in the General Strike of 1926 and was vilified for his pains. More fundamentally, Davidson’s cast of mind was not systematic, not given to abstract analysis of social forces: if there were social problems, he tended to see them in terms of the failings of individuals which could be amended by persuasion and renewed personal effort. He was largely impervious to the more systematic analysis of social and economic systems that fired Temple and others exercised by the ‘social gospel’.

This pragmatic, concrete tendency in Davidson’s thought is most visible in his understanding of the relationship between church and state, which was thrown in such confusion during the Prayer Book Crisis. It would be too easy to dismiss Davidson as subservient, a mere member of the ‘Conservative party at prayer’ (to use the phrase of Maude Royden). In private, Davidson was often ready to press politicians on a moral course of action, and also to defend the interests of the Church itself against the state. As in the case of his support for the restraint of the House of Lords in the Parliament Act of 1911, he was wise enough to realise that it was not possible to hold out against all efforts at change. But his whole career was conditioned by an attachment to the place of the Church within the constitution. For Davidson, there was a givenness to the Establishment of the Church, based on his reading of the evolutionary character of English history; he thought it also of positive benefit to both church and state that they should be so related. But in 1927-8 the state, in the shape of the House of Commons, exercised what were undoubtedly its powers in law to override what was taken to be a tacit agreement that the Church should be in fact be independent in the matter of its worship. Davidson’s whole career had been spent in the quiet maintenance of a fine balance between the church and the state, based on tacit understandings developed over centuries. As Hughes notes, ‘such unwritten rules only had authority as long as they were acknowledged by those to whom they supposedly applied’ (163). Davidson was the ecclesiastical consensus politician par excellence. By the time he retired, such consensus was in short supply in British public life. Within weeks he had resigned.

All this is expertly described with concision, and no little elegance, and Hughes’ judgments are measured yet telling. It is no pleasure, however, to report that the transition of the series from Ashgate to Routledge has coincided with a marked reduction in the quality of the book as an object. The print quality is frankly poor and the increased amount of text on each page gives the whole a cramped feeling. Footnotes are placed at the end of each chapter, surely the least usable referencing method of the many available. All serious libraries for history and theology will wish to have a copy, which is just as well since the astonishing price of £105 surely puts the volume out of the reach of practically all individual readers, while others in the series have a paperback edition at a quarter of the price. This is a shame, since Michael Hughes’ fresh and convincing rendering of an important figure deserves a wide readership.

What is Anglicanism? A review essay

[This is an extended version of a review that appeared in Reading Religion, the review journal of the American Academy of Religion.]

Mark D. Chapman, Sathianathan Clarke, Martyn Percy (eds)
The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies
Oxford, OUP, 2016
ISBN:978-0-19-921856-1
Hardback, xiv + 657 pp

As the editors of The Oxford Handbook of Anglican Studies point out, the Anglican churches can draw on none of the kinds of criteria by which other Christian churches define themselves. In the case of Roman Catholicism, the model is juridical, the product of the authority of an institution; for Lutherans, it is confessional, the adoption of certain key statements of doctrine; for Baptists, it is sacramental practice. As a result, many studies such as those by Wolf, Booty and Thomas (1982), or Sykes and Booty (1988) have circled around the issue of how else Anglicanism may be defined.

The discipline of Anglican Studies has only been named in the last two decades, however, and at a time when the tensions within the Anglican Communion have reached a particular pitch. Launching the new Journal of Anglican Studies in 2003, Bruce Kaye (also a contributor here) wrote of ‘the challenge of construing the connecting profile of Anglicanism in its global form’, as parts of the Communion looked for solutions in global organizations within the existing structure predicated on particular convictions about theology and practice. These divisions came to a head at (or perhaps alongside) the Lambeth Conference of 2008, when a body of bishops absented themselves to meet separately in Jerusalem; so significant were the tensions, in fact, that the editors questioned the very viability of the Handbook (15). It is a cause for celebration that they persisted. Taken together, the 44 essays presented here are a rich and suggestive meditation on the past, present and likely futures of Anglicanism, and will be read with profit by scholar and non-specialist reader alike.

One of the signal virtues of the volume is its global scope. In 1988, all but one of the contributors to Sykes and Booty’s The Study of Anglicanism were from the British Isles or North America (the last being based in Switzerland); here, while the balance is still tipped in that direction, there is weighty representation from Africa, Australasia and Asia. Almost every contribution is at some level concerned with the legacy of establishment in England or the complex renegotiation required elsewhere in a post-colonial context. There are some omissions, however, most strikingly of the Anglican experience in Scotland, Ireland and Wales, two of which were churches that were first established and then disestablished: a perspective which it would have been valuable to hear.

Editors of volumes such as this are often hard put to create a structure that neatly compartmentalises the issues at hand, and this is no exception. Whilst the seven sections (on historiographies, methods and styles, contextualisation, identities, controversies, practices, and futures) provide some orientation, readers seeking the Anglican view of (say) the interpretation of the Bible will find work of interest in each of the sections and not simply the chapters by Gerald O. West and A. Katharine Grieb, the titles of which address the issue directly. A small but significant group of authors have not helped the editors in the task of achieving coherence by writing chapters that are not so much synoptic surveys of a particular topic as new work on a particular aspect of it: fine work in some cases, but an uncomfortable fit with the purposes of the volume. Others allow their focus on Anglicanism to waver, and needed a firmer editorial hand. Few readers will wish to read the volume from beginning to end (as this reviewer did), an experience which induces a sense of a continual and at times slightly fretful circling around the same two issues: past and present identity, and the prospects for unity.

Might that unity be found by means to a recourse to a shared history? The editors rightly place a fine essay by Alec Ryrie at the very beginning, in which many of the misreadings of the sixteenth century history of the Church of England are neatly dissected. The formation of ‘Anglicanism’, as a distinctive set of attitudes and theological methods, dates from a hundred years after the foundation of the Church of England, in which process figures such as Richard Hooker – marginal in his day – were moved to the centre, and figures such as William Perkins or Thomas Cartwright were marginalised despite being highly influential at the time. (That some readers may need to look these two figures up is an indication of how occluded they have become; neither appears anywhere else in this volume, and Perkins is re-christened Thomas in the index). Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics have disagreed profoundly over the early years of the Church of England, which makes the appeal to a normative past a problematic one to make.

Take for instance the issue of episcopacy. Ryrie again shows that although the Church of England was founded as an episcopal church, views differed widely as to the precise importance of the fact. Was episcopacy of the essence of the church, without which it could not exist (the position which several Anglo-Catholics have taken)? It was this principle that derailed the single most significant ecumenical scheme of the twentieth century in England, to reunify Anglicans and Methodists. Or, was episcopacy merely a convenient model of organisation, symbolically useful even, but something without which under different circumstances the Church might live? Chapters from Mark Chapman on missionary bishops, Kevin Ward on mission and Robert Bruce Mullin on the church in colonial America all show that, as a matter of historical fact, Anglicans have at times managed quite well without a fully fledged episcopal system. But other chapters make what is a common rhetorical slide from the historical to the normative, in this as in other matters. To paraphrase: ‘many Anglicans in the past have done some particular thing, and I (for reasons of theology) think that was right; these others who now do not do this are therefore not fully Anglican.’

Anglicans, then, have needed to look elsewhere for means of defining themselves, which have tended to cluster around elements of practice and habits of mind. The editors list a few of them: ‘hymns, poetry, prose, theology and spirituality’ (9-10), a ‘distinctive ethos’ which matches the many older attempts to find the ‘spirit’ of Anglicanism. Three chapters address these directly: Ann Loades on spirituality, Phyllis Tickle on prayer and the late Kenneth Stevenson (former bishop of Portsmouth) on aesthetics. Loades is detailed where Stevenson is allusive, but this reader emerges with a sense that Anglicans at certain times and places have indeed produced distinctive spiritual theology, hymnody and liturgy, but that these are weak markers of identity and of little use as instruments of unity. It is hard to avoid the impression that the search for identity in these places risks merely reifying the tastes and habits of mind of educated western Anglophones.

Anglicans have of course for a long time focussed on the ‘holy trinity’ of scripture, reason and tradition: a kind of self-definition by method. Formed of urgent necessity during the Reformation as a way of carving out space between the overweening pretensions of Rome and the bracing scripturalism of Geneva, in times of lesser pressure it became a rather more comforting formulation. Socially and economically secure as the established church of an imperial nation, it was relatively easy to rest on the idea of the Anglican via media, the essential moderateness of the English religious temperament. But the existential challenges to the very existence of the Communion in the last decade have caused this focus on theological approach to take on a rather darker tone. The question might be put: whose reason? Whose tradition? Whose reading of Scripture? As these questions have become harder to answer in a global context, the distinctive Anglican way of doing church has taken on a less confident and rather more provisional aspect.

Two aspects of this move are visible in the essays by Marion Grau and Jenny Gaffin. For Grau, Anglicanism as it has been transferred from England into colonial contexts can be thought of as a modus operandi, a rather accidental kind of pragmatism that over time became elevated to a virtue (177-8). Inculturation, the process by which theology and practice are inflected by local context, is made possible by a reliance on ‘a prevenient grace [and] an anthropology and ecclesiology that trusts in the residing of Spirit and Divinity within human existence’ (181). God has given His people sufficient resources with which to chart their path, and the action of God and his Spirit will not in the last instance allow the church to founder. Balancing this optimism is a line of thought that connects Gaffin to some of the recent work of Rowan Williams and (further back) to the Michael Ramsey of The Gospel and the Catholic Church (quoted by the editors in their introduction). The witness of Anglicanism is in pointing away from itself towards the larger church of which it is but a fragment: in Ramsey’s words ‘its credentials are its incompleteness, with the tension and travail of its soul. It is clumsy and untidy, it baffles neatness and logic.’ Its very brokenness is its witness.(14) In an age which values competence and ‘message discipline’, and seizes on weakness and holds it up to ridicule, the state of the Anglican Communion is both an affront and a challenge. Perhaps in the final instance the Communion is held together by a sense of a shared past, and an act of the will – a choice that must constantly be made anew – to continue together. The editors and contributors of this stimulating and fascinating handbook have given us a resource to help in the task of studying Anglicanism as its adherents have made and continue to make that choice. Though the price may stretch the budgets of private readers, no serious library for theology or history should be without it.

The archbishop, crime and sin: the Sexual Offences Act at 50

In July it will be fifty years since the passing of the Sexual Offences Act, which partly decriminalised sex between consenting adult men in private, in England and Wales. Various articles have started to appear, reflecting on the Act and the time since: some celebratory, some rather less so such as Gregory Woods in the TLS on the partial nature of the Act, a ‘discriminatory insult’.

Woods mentions Michael Ramsey in particular, and there is a place for assessing the legacy of the Act and how far it did (and did not) go. But reflecting on the limitations of the Act risks obscuring how significant a move it was in its context, and how difficult to achieve. This extract from my 2015 book on Ramsey takes up the story. In contrast to the more recent history of the Church of England and sexuality, it shows that the Church was not always behind public opinion, and was indeed sometimes ahead of it.

Hugh McLeod has made the salutary point that, despite their chronological closeness, the several amendments of the moral law in the 1960s ought not to be seen as the result of a concerted campaign, but rather as a series of related but distinct movements. At large, if the public were broadly in favour of liberalisation in the cases of divorce and abortion law, this was less the case when it came to homosexuality. The law criminalised sexual activity between men of any age in public or private, and a significant section of public opinion wished it to remain that way. As with capital punishment, the support of the institution of the Church of England for reform put it at odds with considerable sections of the public, both affiliated with the Church and not.

It was during Geoffrey Fisher’s time at Lambeth that the issue had pressed itself into public consciousness with the publication of the Wolfenden Report in 1957. If Fisher was mostly supportive of reform, but with some ambivalence, Ramsey had made his support for a change in the law clear; change that was to come in 1967, with the passing of the Sexual Offences Act. The Homosexual Law Reform Society numbered several of the bishops amongst its members, including Ramsey, who had joined before coming to Lambeth.

The law on homosexuality is a paradigm case of the proper relation between crime and sin in a post-Christian society. The Christian churches were united in regarding homosexual practice as sinful, and this had been in alignment for centuries with the general moral sense of the public. But there were many things which the Church thought were sins but which were not crimes, including adultery; and there were other matters which were both sins and crimes but which the public regarded as neither. Ramsey knew that the connection between crime and sin that many of the public felt very keenly, and which they expected the Church to preserve, was not sustainable.

It is worth pausing over what it was that Anglican campaigners for reform in the law were arguing, and its limits. Almost all the churches were united in regarding the condition of homosexuality as intrinsically disordered, a state at odds with nature, and homosexual intercourse as the sinful outworking of that state. Some thought that as a condition it might be cured; others were less sure. But most knew that there was no possibility of help for unfortunate and unhappy men while their condition was the object of the criminal law. There were also the first signs of a reassessment of homosexual relationships as having a positive, indeed even equivalent moral status as heterosexual ones, particularly among the Quakers, but it was in no way the mainstream of Christian thought.

In this, Ramsey’s own thought was in line with the more advanced in his and the other churches in relation to the law; but not with regard to the moral status of the act. As he told the House of Lords, ‘homosexual acts are always wrong in the sense that they use in a wrong way human organs for which the right use is intercourse between men and women within marriage.’ As such, despite talk of the ‘new morality’ there could be no wavering in the Church’s own discipline: as he told the wife of the peer Lord Brocket, ‘As to the wrongness of the sins in question and all other serious sins, we have to be perfectly plain in our teaching.’

Some wondered, though, whether that moral teaching could remain plain if a change in the law opened the door to openly homosexual clergy. The Conservative Lord Chancellor Viscount Dilhorne, famously abrasive and one of Ramsey’s chief antagonists in the Lords, considered tabling an amendment to the Bill excluding clergy (of the established Church) from its provisions. ‘I can imagine nothing more damaging to the prestige of our Church’, Dilhorne argued, ‘than for it to be thought that parsons and other clergy of the Church of England will be free to engage in homosexual activities.’ Did the public support from the bishops for the Bill not foster such an impression? In this case, Ramsey was able to reassure his noble colleague, since the recent Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction Measure (1963) contained powers with statutory force to discipline clergy for moral offences that were not criminal.

Insofar as it is possible to recover Ramsey’s own feelings, they would seem to have been mixed. In private he was able to describe homosexual sex as ‘disgusting’, but this, when coupled to his concern with the law, issued in a desire to help; to provide for the rescue of the homosexual from his wretched state, and to set him on the right path. As to the causes of the homosexual state, he was agnostic. He wondered in the Lords whether it was possible in some cases ‘to change the direction of the sexual impulses from the homosexual to the normal’. In other cases, there was the need, as there was for all Christians in one regard or another, for ‘greater conscience or self-control’; this was important for ‘those who believe seriously in the means of Divine Grace’.

What was certain was that neither this help, nor the open and unhindered medical and psychological investigation that Ramsey thought necessary, were possible under the law as it stood. Those laws ‘do not help morality, and give a good deal of hindrance to the promotion of what is right.’, and fostered nothing more than a ‘sense of injustice and bitterness.’ The case for change was on grounds of ‘reason and justice, and on considerations of the good of the community.’ Ramsey spoke and voted in 1965 in favour of the Bill introduced by Lord Arran, and again in 1966 for the later Bill that was later to issue in the Act of 1967.

The letters that Ramsey received were often expressive of strong feelings, whether it be on abortion, or on relations with Rome, or about race relations in England, but those which he received about homosexuality were in no few cases indicative of visceral feeling: of homophobia in its literal sense. One thought it a ‘filthy business’ and Ramsey ‘a damned disgrace’; another asked ‘Is there no longer such a thing as sin?’

For many, the fact of the changes in the law was less shocking than the apparent abdication of responsibility by the established Church in failing to oppose them. As Hera Cook has argued, that a previously uniform standard of sexual behaviour was openly debated amongst the elite was itself instrumental in promoting change. In the eyes of some observers the Church, however carefully it tried to distinguish between the law and its own discipline, was culpable. Lady Brocket, the daughter of a clergyman, declared herself and her husband ‘truly and genuinely shattered by your support of the Bill, as are our many friends in every walk of life.’ For her and for ‘many good Church people’ it simply passed understanding that Ramsey should collaborate in the passing of laws that both contradicted Christian morality, and threatened to undermine some of the basic building blocks of a stable society.

But there was an opening up of a gap between crime and sin, which Ramsey knew was both inevitable and right, even if many his correspondents could not begin to tolerate or even understand it. For Ramsey, Wolfenden had been right to argue that ‘not all sins are properly given the status of crimes … to say this is not to condone the wrongness of the acts, but to put them in the realm of private moral responsibility.’ To address that was the task of the Church on its own account, and not of the law. Ramsey knew that the relationship between the established Church and the British people was changing. There were great tasks of re-evangelising the nation; of pastoral ministry to all, including men forced to work out their sexuality in fear. These were no longer aided, and indeed were hindered, by the law as it stood.

Archbishop Ramsey: the shape of the Church is published by Routledge, priced at £25.

The Church of England and learning disability, 1945-1990

My paper for this year’s Ecclesiastical History Society conference.

The Church of England and learning disability, 1945 – 1990

The full text of the paper, as read, is available here.

Re-readings: Secularisation and Moral Change (MacIntyre)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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