God and War: a review

God and War. The Church of England and armed conflict in the twentieth century
Ed. Stephen G. Parker and Tom Lawson
Farnham, Ashgate, 2012, ISBN:9780754666929

I recently reviewed this timely and important collection, for the Journal of Beliefs and Values, which I thought ‘required reading for students of British Christianity’. The review should appear at some point in 2014, just in time for the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. It begins:PARKER JKT(240x159)

‘As public perceptions of the First World War have petrified around images of futile slaughter in the mud as the clergy led the cheering, so an image has been reinforced of the Church of England as merely an arm of government public relations; part of the Establishment deployed to defend the indefensible. Yet this theme is dissonant with trendy vicars marching against the war in Vietnam or to ban the Bomb, and Robert Runcie’s conspicuous failure to celebrate victory in the Falklands with sufficient enthusiasm to please Prime Minister Thatcher. And so there is a job of historical work to do, to understand the relationship between the established church in England, successive governments and the armed conflicts into which the British have been drawn.

‘The idea of an established church, or of a national church, held always within it a tension between aspects of the role. It was a bolster of morale, and part of a united public face against an external enemy, but also a critic of armed interventions that were harder to justify, and referee of the debate that decided which wars were just and which were not. And the balance of these forces within the church also shifted over time, as the centre of ideological gravity within the church shifted leftwards, particularly after 1945.

The collection goes a long way towards a fresh consideration of the issues, and neatly illustrates the tensions between these two aspects of the Church’s role.

‘For Dianne Kirby, the predominant note in the relationship of the church and the government during the Cold War is one of subservience. Governments expected practical co-operation in the positioning and re-positioning of the UK in relation to powers of east and west, and by and large that co-operation was forthcoming, even if it came with misgivings. In contrast, in perhaps the outstanding contribution, Matthew Grimley adroitly delineates the significance of Anglican opposition to nuclear weapons, bringing out the constant negotiation within the Church of England between its established and prophetic selves.

Also of great interest were Philip Coupland’s important relocation of the Christendom group in the ‘conventional left-right mapping of British politics.’ Stephen G. Parker argues that the ‘Church’s promotion of compulsory religious education, as embodied in the Education Act of 1944, contained within it the seeds of a later dilution of Anglican distinctiveness in schools.’

Some of the other essays are less successful, being ‘muddily written, poorly structured and based on a thin layer of source material, and would have benefited from a firmer editorial hand.’ In some cases, I had the sense that some contributors had ‘only a limited acquaintance with the Church of England itself. The view is often that from outside, which leads to an over-reliance on voices in the press.’ Lawson and Parker as editors were also badly let down by their copy-editors, with typographical and factual errors in several places. I have remarked on this apparent slipping in copy-editing standards in reviews here and here, and it seems to be becoming a trend.

Despite these gripes, as a whole the volume is essential reading; and I’ve already had cause to cite several essays while revising my text on Michael Ramsey.

Cosmo Lang. Archbishop in war and crisis – a review

I recently reviewed Robert Beaken’s study of Cosmo Gordon Lang, archbishop of Canterbury, published by I.B. Tauris in 2012. The full review in Reviews in History shows that I think it an ‘important reassessment’ which ‘goes a long way towards superseding [the work of J.G.] Lockhart and presenting Lang afresh’. Robert very effectively rescues Lang from his reputation as ‘a figure caught in the headlights, reactive rather than in the lead, a puritan and a snob.’

The book has three primary concerns: with Lang’s relationship with the monarchy; with the disputed process of liturgical reform within the Church of England; and with the Second World War. Chapter 7 deals with the war; Chapter 6 with the stalemate in relation to liturgical revision that Lang inherited after the Prayer Book Crisis of 1927-8. Chapters 4 and 5 deal with Lang’s relationship with the monarchy in general, and the abdication crisis in particular, and are very clearly the centrepiece of the book.

The review did make some substantive criticisms, which I reproduce at length here. The first is of one of interpretation:

Beaken rightly emphasises that in the period between the wars the office of archbishop still mattered in English public life. The opinion of Canterbury was sought and listened to on matters of moment; and the archbishop’s correspondence clearly shows that many of the general public expected something of ‘their archbishop’, even if those expectations were inchoately expressed and neither compatible nor realistic. All this is right, and worth emphasising; but it is difficult to recognise the ‘simple narrative of secularisation’ against which Beaken sets himself as one now held by very many historians. The work variously of Callum Brown, Grace Davie, Hugh McLeod and many others have all deepened and complicated our understandings of what secularisation is and how it occurs; and so Beaken is pushing at, if not an open door, one which has been unlocked and left ajar.

Also on matters of interpretation:

For Beaken, Lang’s radio broadcast of December 1936 […] was ‘an unusually unwise and unreflective action’, in that Lang allowed himself to reflect unfavourably on the mores of the social circle around the former king. However, the receipt of many letters and a ‘torrent of abuse’ in the popular press does not necessarily prove that an archbishop is not doing his job, but only that he has expressed an unpopular but arguably necessary view. Despite Lang’s evident enjoyment of the quiet entwining of archbishop and establishment, he was able to see where lines should be drawn.

The other criticisms were about the shape of the book, and its style:

At the broadest scale, the book is strangely shaped, such that it appears not as a rounded study of an archbishop at a time of crisis, but as three substantial studies of particular issues, hedged around with some rather desultory supporting materials. The three themes of the royal connection, the war and the Prayer Book crisis between them occupy two-thirds of the book, with the royal material alone forming nearly a third. This leads Beaken to neglect other issues that merited greater treatment. Lang’s path from bishop of Stepney (1901) to his arrival at Canterbury in 1928 are dealt with in five breathless pages; a time that included the controversy over Lang’s public comments on the First World War, which cried out for a fuller treatment. Similarly, Beaken’s account of a pivotal time in ecumenical relations at home and abroad is perfunctory. Lang’s time in office saw acute economic hardship and the Jarrow March, as well as the rise of home-grown Fascism and pitched violence on the streets to counter it. None of these receive the slightest treatment, in a study entitled ‘Archbishop in War and Crisis.’ […]

By contrast, significant space is instead given over to a discussion of Lang’s sexuality. Beaken is largely successful in showing that Lang was probably not a repressed homosexual, but a lonely figure who found it difficult to form close personal relationships of any kind. To this reviewer, however, it is not clear that those making the case for Lang’s homosexuality ever established why the matter should be all that important, and neither is Beaken convincing as to why it is important that Lang was not.

Robert’s response is at the foot of the review.

Alister Chapman on John Stott: a review

It was a great pleasure to see my review of Alister Chapman’s study of John Stott appear in Reviews in History (for which, incidentally, I am apparently the single most prolific reviewer; answers on a postcard as to whether this is a Good or Bad Thing.) I digest some of my main points below, but as some of them are criticisms, let me say to begin that overall I thought it  ‘a model of engaged, sympathetic yet critical scholarship which is sure to find a wide readership.’

I began by reflecting a little on the recent controversy concerning Andrew Atherstone and David Ceri Jones’ splendid collection of essay on Martyn Lloyd-Jones, on which I blogged here, and which tells us important things about Christian biography as a scholarly exercise:

‘Historians who would assess the careers of contemporary religious leaders are on a hiding to nothing. [Atherstone and Ceri Jones’ book] has been excoriated both for slighting the memory of a revered figure and for asking the wrong questions. In the first case, some reviewers have shown, [in the words of Carl Trueman], an ‘apparent absolute commitment to maintaining a fundamentally uncritical, defensive and hagiographical approach [to Lloyd-Jones and his reputation that] does the church no favours’.  For Iain Murray, one of Lloyd-Jones’ biographers, there is little point [to historical reflection on The Doctor] without attempting to assess whether Lloyd-Jones was right in his theology. [History] that avoids the truth claims of its subject fails the basic test of utility for the Christian reader.
‘That religious biography has been made to carry greater weight than other such writing is of course not new. […] For many, Christian lives are to be exemplary, and as such the biographer is faced with a peculiar set of expectations among potential readers.[…] it may be that Chapman has navigated through the obstacles as well as could possibly be hoped. Chapman’s title is Godly Ambition, and the leitmotiv throughout is the tension between Stott’s natural assumption of his capacity for leadership, and the self-effacement customary in the exemplary Christian life. [..] Stott was ambitious that God’s kingdom on earth be fostered, but within that framework, ambition for one’s own personal success was legitimate, and indeed desirable, ad maiorem Dei gloriam. At the same time, Stott’s very human struggle with his pride in his own achievements is sympathetically and expertly handled, and Chapman is clear-sighted and frank about the tactical mistakes and intellectual diversions inevitable in a long career in the public eye.

My main criticisms concerned the place given to the rest of the Church of England, the non-evangelical majority:

‘Consider the phrase on p. 90: Chapman argues that, despite Stott’s definitive turn towards engagement with the Church of England, […] he nonetheless never became the kind of “theologically fuzzy ecclesiastical pole-climber” which (we are to understand) was common elsewhere in the Anglican church. It was, and is, a regular rhetorical device to set evangelical ‘clarity’ and ‘certainty’ in theology against liberal vagueness and doubt; but an author more attuned to the breadth of discourse in the Church of England would have hesitated over such a phrase.

On the failure of the Church of England to make Stott a bishop, despite the growing numerical strength of evangelicals within the Church of England:

‘Chapman, like [Timothy] Dudley-Smith, puts Stott’s exclusion down to Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, and his reputed antipathy towards evangelicals. But to regard the episcopate in these quasi-parliamentary terms – as a representative body chosen according to the weight of party numbers in the wider church – is to miss the point. (That role was, in theory, fulfilled by the Church Assembly and its successor the General Synod, for election to which bodies Stott refused to stand.) In a theologically mixed church, with territorial governance by parish and diocese, the test for a bishop was not his particular churchmanship, but his ability to gain the confidence of all the parties represented on his patch. And for all Stott’s success in shifting the centre ground within the evangelical constituency, when viewed from outside he still appeared to be a party man. […]

More generally:

‘It is a besetting sin of evangelical historiography to talk only to itself, an isolation that sometimes results in a lack of proportion. […] Largely absent are voices from outside the evangelical constituency, in connection with Stott in particular and evangelicals in general, and the book would have been enriched by a greater sense of them.’

All this said, when judged on its own terms the book could hardly be bettered. And it is also encouraging that OUP could be persuaded to publish it, and that we have in place another key plank in our growing understanding of a pivotal time in evangelical history.

Anglican identities

This review first appeared in Reformation and Renaissance Review 7;1 (2005), 131-2. Whilst reading through it again, I was struck by how topical it remains, and indeed how far sharpened have been some of the questions of Anglican unity and identity the two books raise. They appear here with minor modifications.


Rowan Williams, Anglican Identities (London; Darton, Longman and Todd, 2004)
Edward Norman, Anglican Difficulties (London; Continuum, 2004)

Much work concerning Anglican identity has tended towards two centres of gravity. For many years, analysis of late Tudor and early Stuart religion accepted a straight-forward divide between consensual, moderate, ‘English’ Anglicans and doctrinaire, inflexible, disruptive Puritans. For a new generation of scholars from the 1980s, a new force of anti-Calvinists or Arminians became the grit in an otherwise harmonious Calvinist oyster. Alongside  this replacement of one bi-polar paradigm with another, scholars such as Peter White, and most recently Judith Maltby have sought to carve out a distinctive middle way for nascent Anglicanism, and one less dependent on rival theologies of grace. Anglican identity is to be found in attachment to the Book of Common Prayer and to the rituals and rites of passage of the now genuinely national church.

At the same time, a more present-minded historical approach has been somehow to attempt to capture the spirit or ‘genius’ of Anglicanism; to divine what the Church of England’s secret is that allows it to hold seemingly wildly divergent groups together in the late twentieth century. Bishops and historians, Stephen Sykes, Stephen Neill and John Booty among them have tried to explain how a church, hybrid in its formation and almost pathologically reticent in defining itself, has managed to survive.

The two works under review here both attempt to contribute to the latter debate by means of the former, whilst coming to very different conclusions. The present Archbishop of Canterbury, in a collection of occasional papers and lectures, seeks to explore the loci of Anglican identity, whilst acknowledging the difficulty of the task by the plural of the title. The core Williams locates is not a legislative, ecclesiological one, nor an attachment to ritual. Neither is it to be found in distinctively Anglican doctrines of, say, pre-destination or the Eucharist. It is rather in an attitude to epistemology and a mode of theological engagement with the notion of truth. When faced with the task of engaging with the work of God, Anglicans have been characterised  by an attitude of ‘passionate patience’ whilst faced by ‘immensities of meaning … in the wake of a divine action which defies summary explanation. They take it for granted that the believer is always learning, moving in and out of speech and silence in a continuous wonder and a continuous turning inside-out of mind and feeling.’ Lest this might suggest a creeping relativism, Williams’ passionately engaged seekers after the truth of God would assent to the immutability of that truth, whilst  remaining reticent about definitive pronouncement about it.

Each of the essays here is lucid and judicious, making some demands on the reader but with ample reward. For specialists in the English Reformations, the pieces on William Tyndale, Richard Hooker and George Herbert are rich and suggestive. Hooker, so often appropriated as exemplary of every shade of Anglican opinion, emerges here as a ‘contemplative pragmatist’, steering a painstaking course between ecclesiastical authoritarianism and creeping scepticism. Williams’ evocation of Herbert’s perseverance in the face of his Afflictions is the clearest example of the type of ‘passionate patience’ he delineates in the Introduction.

It is in the treatment of these figures as exemplary of a distinctive Anglican approach that an objection arises, although perhaps not one that could ever have been met in a volume of occasional papers such as this. If these are indeed Anglicans avant la lettre, then it may be concluded that the Church of England was not Anglican for perhaps 150 years after its formation. It is difficult to imagine John Jewel or Edmund Grindal, William Laud or Lancelot Andrewes, George Abbot or William Perkins easily fitting this template. It would also be necessary to show a continuity in thought over the two centuries here between Herbert and the next subject, B.F. Westcott, to decide whether such passionate patience is a abiding characteristic of Anglicanism, or a product of more modern and post-modern circumstances. It would be a shame if such a subtle collection as this were unintentionally to fuel an uncritical reading-back of modern Anglican self-fashioning into earlier periods. It is however, perhaps an occasion for optimism that the occupant of the see of Canterbury has sufficient intellectual range to deal with Tyndale and John A.T. Robinson in the same volume, and all the pieces here reward repeated reading.

For Edward Norman, retiring Chancellor of York Minster, Fellow of Peterhouse and former Reith lecturer, there is rather less ambiguity in the sources of identity in the Church of England. For Norman, such musing on identity would be so much rearranging of deck-chairs on a rapidly sinking ship, as the Church of England has no core. The Roman Catholic church in England is better placed to withstand the storms of secular humanism and religious consumerism is that it has a clear sense of its own nature. The problem for Norman is one of ecclesiology, and its roots are traced directly back to the Reformation. By cutting itself off from the historic church  and ecumenical councils, the Church of England was left without any universal consensus fidelium to which to appeal, and its erastian polity made impossible the development of any alternative means of defining doctrine. These incompatibilities, submerged for a while by emphasis on the Protestant nature of the church and by universal use of the Book of Common Prayer, were exposed successively by Tractarian revival in the nineteenth century and secularisation in the twentieth. The impulse to accommodate difference, to value unity over clarity, is an Anglican hallmark for Norman as well as for many other commentators. The difference is that it is for Norman symptomatic of the incapacity of the church to formulate doctrine at all. If Norman is right, it will also prove the church’s downfall within a generation.

Readers will draw their own conclusions as to which of these visions of Anglican identity promises most, but their simultaneous appearance affords an opportunity to compare divergent uses of the Reformation past in the contemporary church, and may profitably be read by those interested in either.