Evangelicals, culture and the arts

[This is an edited extract from a forthcoming essay in the Routledge Research Companion to Evangelicalism, edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones. It should be published in 2018.]

One evening in the early 1960s Michael Saward, curate of a thriving evangelical Anglican parish in north London, went to the Royal Festival Hall to hear the aged Otto Klemperer conduct Beethoven. As the Polish violinist Henryk Szeryng played the Violin Concerto, Saward unexpectedly found himself

‘sitting (or so it seemed) a yard above my seat and experiencing what I can only describe as perhaps twenty minutes of orgasmic ecstasy. . . . Heaven had touched earth in the Royal Festival Hall. . [It was]  . .  a taste of [God’s] work as creator of all that is beautiful, dynamic and worthy of praise . . . speaking of his majesty in the universe which he has made, goes on sustaining, and fills with his life force, the Holy Spirit, who draws out of humanity an infinite range of talent, skill and glorious creativity in artistic works.’

Saward’s words were part of a memoir and not a work of theology, but they challenge many received views of the relationship between evangelicals and the arts. Here was a graduate of the conservative theological college Tyndale Hall, Bristol, sitting in a concert hall, listening to a German Jew conduct a Polish Jew in a piece of wordless secular music, and yet attaching such significance to the experience. Even though music was the art form most likely to be appreciated within the evangelical constituency, rarely does the historian find such a positive evaluation of the arts, their effects, and their place in the theology of creation and of the work of the Holy Spirit.

Evangelical theologies of culture have at root been theologies of the Fall. Anglican Catholics in England in the twentieth century began to recover a much older incarnational sense, thought to have been lost since the Reformation, of human activity as a subordinate participation in the work of creation. Not only could the maker of a work of art communicate something to the viewer about the aspect of creation that he or she was representing; the act of making could also in some sense be co-operating with God. In contrast, the evangelical view of human capability has tended to be more pessimistic. At its strongest, this view was that sin so defaced the divine image in human beings and so clouded their perception that their unaided attempts at understanding God and creation would be at best partial and incomplete, if not indeed corrupted and thus useless. Any attainment of virtue would be accidental, the product of external influence rather than any effort on the part of the individual. To attempt to create anything of beauty would be futile, and all participation in secular activity prone to the corruption of pride and self-interest.

At base, this is the centre of theological gravity in what remains, even after thirty years, the most sustained historical treatment of the question of evangelicalism and culture in Britain, Evangelicals and Culture by Doreen Rosman (1984). In the early nineteenth century, Rosman found many individual evangelicals who were able to engage in the arts in positive ways, and indeed to delight in their performance. However, evangelical theology was never able to develop its instinctive rhetorical claim on the whole of human life into a framework that could comfortably encompass the arts. Unable to sanctify the senses, it was often forced instead to seek to subjugate them. Evangelicals ‘were never confident to assimilate such worldly activities within the framework of their world-denying theology.’

This chapter examines evangelical encounters with the arts in several modes: as both consumer and performer in the apparently ‘neutral’ sphere of the home; as users of the arts in the context of public worship; as users of the arts as tools for evangelism; and as moralist and reformer of the artistic pursuits of others. It concerns itself mainly with music, literature, the visual arts and drama, and its examples are drawn chiefly from Britain and the USA, and from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. That said, its overall analysis makes a claim to be applicable to the evangelical movement as a whole.

In certain cases there were evangelical principles that went to the very basis of the art form concerned, such as the stress on the intelligibility of words sung to music, which as a result were both widespread and persistent. At the same time, there were other evangelical concerns, such as the taboo on attendance at the theatre, which were not so much issues with the medium itself, but a particular social context in which it was produced. As a result such prohibitions could be, and were relaxed at other times and in other places. Evangelicals at times enthusiastically embraced certain art forms and individual works; at others they rejected them on principle; in other circumstances the story was one of resistance, adaptation, and the replacement of secular versions with safe and edifying substitutes.

Implicit in much of the chapter is a wider question: how far was evangelical engagement with the arts conditioned by the cultural power that they were able to exercise in general, and the extent to which their cultural presuppositions were shared with their neighbours? At the height of influence of British evangelicalism in the mid-nineteenth century, evangelicals shared many of the same presumptions as their neighbours about the moral purpose of the arts, and about the conditions that should surround their production and reception. As Elisabeth Jay has shown, this cultural closeness was mirrored in the degree to which evangelical life itself was the subject of the Victorian novel; an interest which waned as did evangelical influence in society, reaching a terminal point in Samuel Butler.

In contrast, evangelicals in late-twentieth-century Britain and America found themselves marooned by the processes of secularisation in societies in which any consensus about the purpose of art had fractured, and in which middle-class consensus on morality (the consensus that mattered) had disintegrated. It is no coincidence that this period saw a spate of evangelical writing on the supposed death of Christian culture in the west as reflected in the arts, by figures such as Francis Schaeffer and H.R. Rookmaaker. In this context of perceived cultural and moral crisis, the paradox was that evangelicals were in confrontation with secular artistic production for its godlessness, whilst domesticating its forms for their own purposes – in popular church music, or in religious drama – to a greater extent than ever.

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The arts in evangelical history

I’m very pleased to be able to say that I have agreed to contribute a chapter to a forthcoming Ashgate Research Companion to the History of Evangelicalism. This is to be one of the first volumes in a new series, Ashgate Studies in Evangelicalism, edited by Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones.

Some of my publications in the past have touched on evangelicals and the arts in twentieth century Britain, most directly in relation to worship music, but also in relation to the theatre and the visual arts. This project will require a much wider perspective, taking in the whole of evangelical history from the early eighteenth century onwards, and across the world.

I’d thus be very pleased to hear of particular issues that readers think I should be addressing, and secondary literature I should be reading, within these broad themes:

(i) evangelical use (or disuse) of the various arts in public, private and domestic worship;

(ii) the use of the arts as means of evangelism;

(iii) evangelical theologies of the created work of art itself, and its right performance, realisation and reception;

(iv) evangelical involvement in the creation, performance and consumption of the arts in situations not associated with worship or evangelism, such as the secular theatre;

(v) evangelical challenge to works of art and/or their performance, on grounds of either their content (subject matter), or their style, or on grounds of their likely effects on performer and/or viewer or listener.

(vi) more generally, all of these matters are intimately connected with evangelical theologies of culture, and the relationship of the church, the individual Christian and “the world”, however defined.

I’m particularly keen to hear of particular matters of note before c.1850, or from outside Europe and North America at any point between about 1730 and the almost-present.

Walter Hussey, patron of art

[I first starting investigating the career of Walter Hussey some nine years ago. He has appeared in several of my articles so far, but the book I always intended has been put back. Now, though, a proposal for that book has been accepted is currently under consideration by a publisher. Here’s what it is about.]

Walter Hussey is known for an extraordinary sequence of commissions of contemporary art and music, for the church of St Matthew Northampton from 1943 and, from 1955 to 1977, for Chichester Cathedral. The names read as a roll-call of post-war artistic and musical life: Henry Moore, Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Marc Chagall in the visual arts; Leonard Bernstein, Benjamin Britten, Gerald Finzi, Michael Tippett, William Walton in music.

Hussey became something of a grandee: an Honorary Fellow of the Royal Institute of British Architects, an honorary Doctor of Letters of the young University of Sussex. Kenneth Lord Clark, critic, broadcaster, and sometime director of the National Gallery, described Hussey as ‘aesthete, impressario and indomitable persuader’. As interest in the relations between theology and the arts has grown, so has Hussey’s reputation as the most significant patron of art for the English church of the twentieth century. Countless recording sleeve notes and exhibition catalogues record Hussey’s role in glowing terms, and the art historical literature has accorded him a corner niche in the pantheon of the great individual patrons. For one commentator, Hussey single-handedly ‘turned the tide against Anglican neglect of modern art’.

Missing in all this is any extended critical study of Hussey’s life and work as a whole. The musicological and art-historical literature confines him to a walk-on part, while church historians have paid greater attention to the other major figure in Anglican artistic patronage, George Bell, bishop of Chichester.

Why, then, study Walter Hussey ? Most obviously, the Hussey Papers are a rich source for studying the commissioning of the contemporary arts, giving a vivid picture of the relationship between one exceptional clergyman and his commissionees. Almost none of this material has ever been integrated into the existing literature.

Within the contemporary Church of England with its cathedrals now crammed with contemporary art, Hussey has been seen as a voice in the wilderness, preparing the way for a rediscovery of a contemporary language for the Church’s message. This story of dogged effort in the face of philistinism and ignorance is the nearest we have to a meta-narrative of the churches and the arts. But it is a story established by dint of omission, since the integration of the religious arts into the study of recent British religious history is in its infancy. To document Hussey’s patronage is to provide key signposts in this terra incognita.

Hussey is also a case-study in the unspoken assumptions of catholic Anglicans about the arts, the church, and the place of creativity in national life.  The social and economic crises of the 1930s, 1940s and 1960s prompted intense debate over the nature of ‘national religion’, and its connection with the mainstream in national culture. The church could not hope to regain the attention of ‘Modern Man’ without speaking through the art in which he was already expressing himself. Hussey stands as one of the most active and well self-documented case studies of this theological current in action.

Hussey’s career saw revolutionary change between the churches and the people. Church attendance and affiliation collapsed dramatically, as did the church’s confidence in its own ability to communicate and minister effectively. Part of the crisis was of religious language, and its ability to communicate in a manner meaningful to Modern Man.  Some sought new means of mission, and the contemporary arts were seized upon as a means to that end. If words were no longer securely meaningful, then perhaps the arts provided an alternative language. If the 1960s saw the discursive death of Christian Britain, as Callum Brown has suggested, then Hussey made an attempt at resuscitation.

The means by which taste was shaped and determined also changed in the ‘long 1960s’. The vision of a beneficent establishment raising the horizons of the people through the BBC and other channels was overturned by a quite new emphasis on the entitlement to ‘do one’s own thing’. Hussey’s mode of patronage depended on a discerning patron, authoritative critic and notable artist working in tandem, disseminating new art downwards to a grateful if uncomprehending public. This way of working, successful in the 1940s, was by the 1970s no longer fit for purpose.

The period was also one of general cultural fracture, during which the classical in all the arts was shifted further and further from the centre of artistic life; a movement which posed difficulties for those in the churches and outside who wished to place Anglican patronage in the centre of the mainstream of national cultural life. By the end of Hussey’s career it was less than clear where that centre might be.

The career of Walter Hussey thus affords the historian a unique opportunity to examine one sphere in which the church met, resisted, negotiated with or capitulated to forces of change in the society in which it was located.

The Church of England and theatre censorship

I was delighted yesterday to find on my doormat Studies in Church History 48 (2012), in which there is my own article on the archbishops of Canterbury and theatre censorship between 1909-49. It is available direct from Boydell and Brewer or from the Ecclesiastical History Society, or at an academic library near you. Here is an edited extract which gives a flavour of the whole, or read the whole thing here.

[from the Introduction]

“The position of the archbishop of Canterbury at the heart of the Establishment engendered requests to be patron, advocate or opponent of almost every conceivable development in national life. One such entanglement was his role as unofficial advisor to the Lord Chamberlain in the matter of the licensing of stage plays.  According to the report of the 1909 Joint Select Committee on the system, the Lord Chamberlain was able to refuse to a licence to any play that was likely ‘to do violence to the sentiment of religious reverence’, to be indecent, or ‘to be calculated to conduce to crime or vice’. It was on matters such as these that from time to time the Lord Chamberlain’s office would consult the archbishop.

“Despite the apparent oddity of a senior churchman being asked to adjudicate on artistic matters such as this, the matter has hitherto received little attention from religious historians to match that given to the censorship of the cinema and to the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960. It receives scant attention also from successive archiepiscopal biographers, due perhaps to its apparently epiphenomenal nature. The role of the archbishops is treated in passing in general accounts of the censorship, but by its very nature this scholarship has not treated the theme directly.

“Taking as its period the forty years from the Joint Select Committee report in 1909 to the unsuccessful attempt in Parliament to reform the system in 1949, this article details the curious unofficial position of the archbishops within the system of censorship. The various grounds on which Archbishops Randall Davidson (1903–28) and Cosmo Gordon Lang (1928–42) in particular offered their advice to the Lord Chamberlain are then examined. The article thus provides a case study of the singular and often anomalous position of the archbishop at the heart of the Establishment in Britain, and the extent to which the secular and ecclesiastical powers combined in the regulation of the life of the nation, both moral and aesthetic. In addition, it examines a unique nodal point in the interaction between the Church and the arts.

[from the Conclusion]

“In 1940 Colin Gordon of the Lord Chamberlain’s office solicited Lang’s opinion on the play Family Portrait by the American playwrights Lenore and William Joyce Cowen. A.C. Don, Lang’s chaplain, accepted the ‘obvious reverence and restraint’ of the script but raised some fundamental concerns. The first issue was the portrayal of the brothers and sisters of Christ, the very non-existence of whom was a matter of some importance to Roman Catholics and to some within the Church of England. The second was the downplaying of the incarnation to the extent that Christ appeared as solely an ethical teacher, although a great one. Don concluded that the play ought not to be licensed in the usual way.

“Here was the archbishop’s representative advising in accustomed fashion. When called upon, Davidson and Lang had advised on the licensing of plays on a number of different grounds: the likelihood of incitement to vice; of gratuitous offence to religious people; and, more controversially, of theological or artistic defect. They helped shape the formulation of guiding principles, and advised in cases where there was doubt.

“It is, however, an indication of the degree to which the situation had changed by 1940 that Family Portrait had in fact already been licensed the previous year, without reference to Lambeth at all; and the exchange was one of the last of its kind. After a peak in the 1920s and early 1930s, there had been a marked decline in the number of plays referred to Lambeth. Lang’s successors William Temple (1942–44) and Geoffrey Fisher were seldom consulted, although Fisher was kept informed of major changes in policy, such as the relaxation of restrictions on the portrayal of homosexuality in 1958. One of Fisher’s few interventions was to reinforce the longstanding ban on the representation of God in The Green Pastures in 1951, a decision reinforced by Michael Ramsey ten years later. So it was that the single stipulation relating to the impersonation of the persons of the Trinity was by 1949 the only remaining matter on which the archbishops advised the Lord Chamberlain.

“I hope elsewhere to continue the story beyond 1949, and to treat of the attitude of Anglicans to the final abolition of theatre censorship in 1968. Anglican support for abolition was in part fostered by the manifest anachronism of the remaining rule and its stultifying effect on religious drama within the Church. That aside, the operation of the system to 1949 is demonstrative of some governing assumptions concerning the joint operation of church and state in the regulation of morals; of understandings of the appropriate modes of representing the national faith; and of some of the tensions in the relationship between the church and the arts.

The church and censorship of the theatre

I’m delighted to be able to announce that an article of mine on this subject has been accepted for a forthcoming volume of Studies in Church History. There are some revisions to make, but it examines the private correspondence between the archbishops of Canterbury and the Lord Chamberlain over stage plays that were received for licensing between 1909 and 1949. Dealing mostly with archbishops Davidson and Lang, it examines the grounds on which the archbishops advised for or against the licensing of plays, and situates the relationship between archbishop and Lord Chamberlain in relation to the peculiar position of Cantuar at the heart of the ‘establishment’. It should appear in 2012.

[Update: see a summary of the published version]

Religion in modern drama

An intriguing flurry of related items in the Guardian last month. Firstly, Michael Billington drew a contrast between the animating force of religious themes in much drama in the Fifties and the lack of religious interest in plays written in more recent years. This was in part a response to Drew Pautz’s play Love the Sinner (reviewed, again by Billington, here).
This elicited a response from Ian Bradley, pointing out that religious themes were alive and well in the musical.
Finally, some enterprising soul in the Guardian’s research department pulled out a most intriguing archive item from 22 May 1958, on a debate in the Church of Scotland’s General Assembly over the future of the Gateway Theatre, which, improbably, was actually owned by the Church.