Sacred and secular martyrdom: a review

Sacred and secular martyrdom in Britain and Ireland since 1914
John Wolffe
London, Bloomsbury Academic, 2020, viii + 197pp., £85 (hardback), ISBN 978-1-35001927-0.
[A review forthcoming in the Journal of Beliefs and Values.]

After the terrorist attacks in the USA in 2001, and in London four years later, the idea of martyrdom gained a new salience. This important study by John Wolffe is the product of a RCUK Global Uncertainties Leadership Fellowship: an attempt to build an informed religious literacy on the subject to aid the making of public policy. The book fills a gap that, after having read it, seems obvious, and indeed glaring, but which was not so before (to this reviewer, at least): a measure of how significant and new a perspective on the period it presents.

Wolffe expressly adopts no a priori definition of martyrdom, opting instead to trace its shifting meanings. The churches, both Protestant and Catholic, had their sixteenth century martyrs, and the nineteenth century had seen their ranks added to from the mission field. While the Christian martyr tended to be passive, the historic shape of Muslim martyrdom was more activist, a life lost in struggle. Wolffe’s achievement is to show how far the idea could be extended into more secular contexts, concluding that no easy line may be drawn between sacred and secular varieties. Martyrs could be made in defence of a nation (particularly during the First World War), even if they were conscript soldiers, or of a different faith to the national one, or indeed of no faith at all. In Ireland in the 1920s there were competing martyrologies, nationalist and unionist. The former focussed on the Easter Rising of 1916 or the hunger strikers of the 1980s; the latter (though less explicitly articulated) centred on the Battle of the Somme. Whole nations could be cast as martyrs in a collective sense for rhetorical purposes, or individual towns. And it was not even entirely necessary to lose one’s life for it to be glossed in this way; such was the case of Martin McGuinness, a former IRA member who died of natural causes at the age of 66 after serving as deputy first minister of Northern Ireland.

Wolffe’s reading of the language of martyrdom is deft and subtle, showing the complex uses of religious texts and their overtones in the wider commentary, and the interplay of this specific language with the more ambiguous concept of sacrifice. The extent to which martyrs were made and remade according to the needs of the present is a persistent theme. But the range of sources is wider than this, taking in dozens of interviews, as well as fine readings of the architecture of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries in France and Belgium, and of myriad local war memorials at home.

Wolffe’s chronology is too complex to be easily summarised, but the period began with an unusually tight interweaving of national and religious stories. This was exemplified by the bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, who in 1914 described the war dead as ‘martyrs as really as St Stephen … covered with imperishable glory they pass to deathless life.’ Even then this connection was contested. Wolffe shows just how contingent on events and personalities the shape and symbolism of the commemoration of the war was. But by the centenary years of 2014-18, the process of secularisation had left the imagined community (on which such an idea depended) much less Christian, and (in the context of Scottish and Welsh nationalism) without another glue with which to bind itself together. Though the centenary events were in a sense a renaissance of remembrance, it was without a stable consensus on its meaning. By the end of the century, the language of martyrdom or sacrifice for the nation was being replaced by that of victimhood, a motif both more inclusive and more reflective of the ambiguity with which death in the trenches has come to be viewed.

All this will be of absorbing interest to scholars of national identity, but there is a parallel story concerning the churches. The view of William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury between 1942 and 1944, was subtly but substantially different to that of Winnington-Ingram. Even though the Nazi regime was a more unambiguously anti-Christian opponent, Temple could mark the sacrifice of those who had died without speculating on their salvation. By the time of the Falklands conflict, it was clear to many that too close an association with national remembrance compromised the churches’ attempts to present a Christian view of conflict focussed on reconciliation. The churches in both Britain and Ireland had also come to view Catholic and Protestant martyrs of the sixteenth century not as opponents, but as common witnesses to a larger truth, to whose number had been added others from other countries: Oscar Romero, Martin Luther King and the German, Dietrich Bonhoeffer. These and others were commemorated in 1998 above the west door of Westminster Abbey, just inside which is the tomb of the unknown soldier: old and new (or perhaps rediscovered) understandings of Christian martyrdom in a symbolically crucial building. Wolffe’s telling of these stories will be required reading for all students of British and Irish religion and politics of the last century; no serious historical library will want to be without it.

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Perfectibility and grace in the New Town

The novel next in line in my series on fictional clergy, and the churches they work in, is a relative rarity. ‘Few indeed are the novels set in the new churches … built after 1945, or in warm and well-lit buildings with every chair full.’ My words, from a piece for the Church Times a couple of years ago, and these fictional churches are few indeed, but there are at least some. One such church appears in Angus Wilson’s 1964 novel Late Call.

Wilson’s novel is one of the tension between old and new, ‘progressive’ and traditional, dramatised through the mutual incomprehension of three generations of the same family. And the setting is important: Carshall, a fictional post-war New Town somewhere in England. The two churches in the novel, and the two clergymen found in them, are not at all central to the plot. But the two pairings, of oldness and newness in their different ways, are part of the framing of the novel’s central theme.

Take the two churches, one in the New Town centre, and the other in the historic old town. The church in Old Carshall sits serenely by the village green and the stone cross, the timbered houses and the preserved ducking stool. The only concession to the twentieth century is a window, showing the tommies and nurses of the First World War. It is in these village churches that one of the characters finds ‘such a real sense of order and tradition’ in their worship (chapter 5). Wilson tells us little more of it, and does not need to.

With time on her hands, the novel’s main character Sylvia shops and wanders in the New Town, taking in the self-conscious gestures of its architecture (chapter 4). The public library is well set out, clean, lit by large glass windows. And the church of St Saviour too, like the library and the bowling alley too, is light and simple inside, lit with a ‘lovely sky-blue light’ by its windows of thin slotted glass. In fact, apart from the long thin silver crucifix ‘you’d hardly know it for a church’ so much as a lecture hall, with wooden chairs with tie-on cushions in a jade green cloth. In the atrium there are racks of pamphlets with clever, eye-catching photographs on their covers.

Bush Fair shopping centre in Harlow. From the J. R. James Archive (Flickr), CC BY-NC 2.0

Outside in the town centure the gestures are more explicit. There is a fountain with mechanical metal arms; a twisted bronze sculpture called the ‘Watcher’, ‘difficult and modern’; a mural in pink and lilac, of the naked young in bucolic freedom, by some ‘name’ artist the Corporation had sought out. And St Saviour’s is quite a famous ‘modern’ church, she understands, with its ‘odd metal steeple more like a piece of children’s Meccano and the funny slots in the side of the building’; it is its strangeness that draws her inside into its simplicity and quiet.

We never meet the Reverend Mr Marchant, rector of St Saviour’s, though he is the kind of man that the pragmatic and progressive folk of the New Town appreciate (chapter 5). He is controversial, we are to understand, a preacher from whom one never hears ‘any of this dry-as-dust theological stuff’. His piety is much more this-worldly, upsetting the grammar school people with his sermon on the eleven-plus. And to the church on Easter Sunday come ‘women in smart hats and men in their best lounge suits… everyone was dressed up to the nines’; it looks even more like a meeting room than when empty.

But Mr Marchant has slipped a disc, and the parish must accept whoever the archdeacon can supply to preach at short notice. And the substitute, Mr Carpenter, is far from what the neat and ostentatious congregation expect. Very old, with a long red nose and a dirty-looking beard, he seems like ‘some bedraggled, mangy old goat’. And his voice is one that reduces the flighty young to fits of stifled giggles: first strange, trembling and drawn out, then ‘the refined squeak of an Edinburgh Judy in a Punch and Judy show’. But grotesque though he appears, it is his words that provoke consternation; no gospel of good works from this holy fool. To be a ‘bustling, hustling busybody – that’s not life, or no more life than the frugal ant or the hoppitty flea…. Good works’ll not save your soul alive… This Grace, Lord, impart!’

But this is no Calvinistic straitjacket; there is much one can do to meet God. ‘Go out to mind who you are. Go out, not into the busy clamour of getting and spending, not even into the soothing clamour of good works. No, go out into the dreadful silence, the dark nothingness… then indeed may the Lord send the light of his face to shine upon you, then indeed may you be visited by that Grace which will save your soul alive.’

While the busy headmaster is apoplectic at such ‘vicious nonsense’ – this ‘barbaric doctrine’ of grace – and resolves to inform the church authorities, it is his mother Sylvia who alone troubles to thank the old man: ‘I shan’t forget what you said.’ ‘Ah’ he replies; ‘it’s all old stuff, I’m afraid.’ Into the sleek project of human perfectibility that the New Town represents, Wilson intrudes an older, more troublesome, more exacting faith.

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Walter Hussey, the liturgy and the Eucharist

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Two priests in the wilderness

Unusually in this series on fictional clergy in twentieth century English fiction, I feature here both an Anglican in England and a Catholic priest in France. They both appear in Rose Macaulay’s The World My Wilderness, first published in 1950. Set in the period immediately after the end of the Second World War, it features three locations, two of which are counterparts in ruin. One, central London, is literally in ruins, as the young girl Barbary runs wild and free in the rubble of the City. (I’ve written elsewhere on the ruined church in fiction and Macaulay’s engagement with ruins.) The other, a fishing village on the Mediterranean coast of Provence, appears outwardly unchanged, but the Abbé Dinant sees societal ruin in prospect, and does what he can, in his compromised way, to avert it.

The abbé is compromised, as many were, by the recent history of Vichy government and German occupation. Faced with a choice between resistance and acquiescence, he chose the latter, as did his bishop; the two both rebuked the local curé for advocating resistance. Like other local notables, the abbé accommodated himself to the brute fact of German occupation, seeking to make the best of the situation while betraying no-one. A restraint on the violence of the Resistance during the war, he has saved many collaborators from vengeance since its end. ‘A man of good sense’ he is, according to a sympathetic, similarly compromised neighbour after 1945: ‘in these days, as before, his chief foe is Communism; he sees it as the devil, and as France’s first enemy, and he is right.’ (ch. 21) Though the Nazis were ‘barbarians and interlopers and the enemies of France, they were at least fighting the worst enemies of religion, civilisation and the true France, those impossible Bolsheviks.’ (ch. 2)

Part of the Communist threat the abbé thinks he sees is to the family, indeed to all the cultural markers of a Catholic France. The national vitality which had helped France recover before was now misdirected. ‘Work, country, family – those great ideals held before us by the old Marshal during the black years – are discredited by his disgrace, and held of little account now that those who always hated him are dominant. [But] they are great ideals, and always when we have turned our backs on them we have deserted our true role.’ Though he rarely expounds them as such, these values are religious ones; the true France – a Catholic France – is in graver danger in 1950 than ever it was in 1940. So, though he restrains himself from talking in explicitly religious terms to his worldly, unbelieving friends, the abbé tries (though without always succeeding) to preserve the outward face of a kind of consensual public morality, to keep all within the house of faith, however loose their attachment to it. ‘To sin in our Father’s house, that, though sacrilege, has its own blessedness. To stray in the wilderness outside, that is to be lost indeed.’ (ch. 20)

St Dunstan in the East.
Image: Peter Webster

While the abbé seeks to keep the roof on the house of faith, in London there is little left of it at all. Barbary and her friend have found in the ruins of a City church a place of play, of inversion and a kind of idle sacrilege; a transistor radio plays jazz, they decorate the walls, and sing distractedly from a torn hymn book (ch. 23). In their ritual they are joined by a thin and grey clergyman, with a ‘lost look in his deep-set eyes, and his mouth was set in lines of pain.’ He proceeds to celebrate communion and, standing where the pulpit once stood, proceeds to preach. But here was no message of reconstructive hope in the ruins, of Christian persistence in a time of trial. ‘We are in hell now’, his oration begins, and it spirals downward in despair and recrimination. ‘Fire creeps on me from all sides; I am trapped in the prison of my sins’. At last he sinks to his knees, shuddering, face in hands. ‘It was true, then’, thinks Barbary in tears, ‘about hell; there was no deliverance.’

Presently Father Roger is fetched by the young priest with whom he lives in a clergy house. We learn that the older man wanders the ruined churches of the city trying to find his own, in the burning rubble of which he was trapped for two days. ‘We all love him, but we can’t always save him from his nightmares.’ Between Father Roger’s derangement and his young brother’s charity, there is yet some small Christian life in the ruins of London and of Christian civilisation.

The politics of memory, local and national: the Battle of Bosham Clock

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