[A review for the journal British Catholic History.]
Aidan Nichols, OP, Alban and Sergius. The Story of a Journal. Leominster: Gracewing, 2019, pp.xii + 514, £25, ISBN: 978-0-85244-937-0
Rare in the scholarly literature are what one might call ‘biographies’ of periodicals, but Sobornost, the subject of this useful and important study, is no ordinary academic journal. Founded in 1928 as the Journal of the Fellowship of St Alban and St Sergius, it provided a channel through which Orthodox writers and (usually, but not only) Catholic thinkers in the Church of England could interpret themselves to each other. The author, the theologian Aidan Nichols, a Dominican of Blackfriars in Cambridge, has himself written extensively on two of the towering figures of Russian Orthodox theology – Vladimir Lossky and Sergei Bulgakov – and this book will surely establish itself as indispensable to those interested in the theological history of England in the twentieth century, and of the ecumenical movement in particular.
The narrative arc that Nichols traces is easily summarised, and is given briefly in the introduction, and then at slightly greater length in the first chapters of each of the book’s two parts. Those two parts cover two periods: the first from the beginnings until the end of the 1960s, and the second, the period from that point to the present. Between the wars, exiled Russians and Catholic Anglicans found things of benefit in each other. In the Anglicans, the Russians found sympathy and a willing audience. As well as that, given the apparent strength of Anglo-Catholicism in the 1930s, the idea of organic reunion between the churches was not entirely fanciful, and any hope of such reunion (from an Orthodox point of view) was contingent on the strength of that part of the Church of England. For their part, Anglicans were in need of ecumenical partners, caught as they were between an apparently aloof Rome on the one hand, and ecumenical advances to the Free Churches on the other. In the Orthodox they found an episcopally ordered church, organised nationally, with strong traditions in spirituality and liturgy. In its attempt to balance and place in dialogue voices from both traditions, Sobornost provided what Nicholls calls ‘a spiritual and intellectual feast.’ The majority of the dominant figures in Anglican Catholic theology were either involved with the Fellowship or at least wrote for the journal. Michael Ramsey, future archbishop of Canterbury, was among them; Gregory Dix, Gabriel Hebert, Lionel Thornton, Eric Mascall all make their appearances.
From the late 1960s, however, the character of the journal changed, to one that was much more univocal, broadcasting from east to west, and which also shifted from Russian to Greek. This shift Nicholls attributes to changes on the Anglican side. The change was gradual, and to an extent masked by the official, and highly visible, Anglican-Orthodox dialogues that began in the 1970s. But the Anglo-Catholicism of the late 1960s and onwards lacked the confidence of the earlier period, having been profoundly unsettled by the Second Vatican Council. The impact of the radical liberal theology of the Sixties, added to the apparent relaxation of Anglican sexual ethics and the impending ordination of women, all combined to make ecumenical conversation with Anglicans seem less promising. Anglicans had, it seemed, taken too many wrong turnings to be reliable as ecumenical partners. Though one might want to question the accuracy of all this as a depiction of the real state of the Church of England, as a periodisation of perceptions it is certainly convincing enough.
Following the two chronological chapters at the beginning of each part there follow a sequence of thematic chapters, in which Nicholls characterises the content of the journal, pausing for moments of direct theological dialogue with its contributors, and to draw out that which he considers to be of continuing value. It is of these chapters that criticism can be made, at least from the point of view of the historian reader. What certainly emerges is a rich and detailed picture of the contents of the journal, which is very valuable. However, the account is often rather too full, as Nicholls makes extensive use of extremely long paraphrases of certain articles, of three or four pages or more at a time. For this reader, these are both wearying and arguably unnecessary, since the articles themselves are widely available in print. As it is, these chapters could well have been drastically shortened without any loss of impact.
More widely, what is often obscure in Nicholls’ account is the wider historical context. The names of authors flash by, but are too often not fully placed in their context. How accurate is the picture of their churches that these authors paint? How representative are these authors, and of which strains of thought in their churches? How do these authors come to be published, and not others? What can be known of the networks of individuals that lie beneath the public output? To be sure, it would be too much to ask that this study answered these questions exhaustively, but more was required nonetheless.
These cavils aside, Aidan Nicholls has provided a valuable study which will form part of the infrastructure for future research on ecumenical relationships in England and beyond. The absence of an index is a grave defect in a work so full of individuals, but the book is generously produced and reasonably priced. It deserves a wide readership.
Peter Catterall Labour and the Free Churches, 1919-1939. Radicalism, righteousness and religion
London, Bloomsbury, 2016; paperback edition 2018
[A forthcoming review for the Journal of Beliefs and Values.]
As Peter Catterall notes in the introduction to this important book, the existence of an intimate relationship between the Labour party and the Free Churches was once axiomatic: in the immediate post-war period it was commonplace in the general understanding of the party’s history that, as one secretary of the party noted, Labour owed more to Methodism than Marx. The connection was also articulated by Alan Bullock in 1960, but has become occluded in subsequent historical writing. Catterall’s aim is to examine the relationship afresh, in which he succeeds splendidly. The book will be required reading for anyone interested in the relationship of faith and politics between the wars.
As a distinguished scholar of both British political history and of the Free Churches, Catterall is well placed to examine the relationship between the two, having already made important contributions to the parallel story in the Conservative party. Here his case is unfolded carefully and in detail, resisting the lure of easy simplification, and though difficult to summarise adequately in the small space available here, it richly repays a patient and attentive reading. It is a relatively uncommon form of historical writing: the comparitive history of two institutions, quite distinct from each other but both with claims to make in the national conversation about the common good and the means of achieving it. As such it blends intellectual, political, social and economic history, and successfully at that.
Chapters 4 and 5 concentrate in particular on the sociology of Labour and the Nonconformists, as voters, in local government, in the trade unions, and in Parliament. A complex electoral picture emerges, as Labour gained some Nonconformist votes that previously went to the Liberal party almost as of right, whilst Stanley Baldwin’s Conservatives captured the support of others. However, Nonconformists were disproportionately represented in local government, as union officials and as Parliamentary candidates. Catterall convincingly attributes this to the unique opportunities that the chapels provided for the working man: to debate ethics, to organise and to preach. A generation of men emerged that were recognised for their drive, their skills as speakers and as organisers, and for their honesty. Even though by 1939 the numbers had fallen, the effect was still significant.
Perhaps of particular interest to readers of this journal is Catterall’s interpretation of the theological and moral trajectories taken by both the churches and the party. Catterall shows that the ‘Nonconformist conscience’ took a complex and interesting turn in the interwar years (chapters 2 and 6). At least some Nonconformists remained exercised by the traditional causes of temperance, gambling and the Sabbath, and individual voices within Labour continued to promote them. But the tone was tempered by a growing realisation that these were not simply individual moral failings but part of a complex interaction of economics and politics, and the effects of war. Issues such as unemployment were no longer seen as the product of individual sinfulness and vested interest, but the imperfect workings of a impersonal system. Within Labour, whilst those individual voices were present and largely took over a role played before by Liberal MPs, the legacy of the Nonconformist conscience was not at the level of specific policy but in a certainty and a righteous of tone: the rhetorical deployment of an ethic of the New Testament without its soteriology (chapter 6). Labour MP George Thomas referred to a ‘feeling of crusade’ amongst some of the MPs of the Attlee government (p.154).
Chapters 1 and 8 demonstrate the subtle but remarkable shift in Nonconformist opinion in its attitude to the state. From being an instrument of oppression and religious discrimination, the apparatus of the state became the means by which Christian ethical ends might be achieved, even if in the long run there was disappointment in the effects the welfare state had in practice. At the same time, the disestablishment of the Church of England became an old man’s cause as the relationship of that church with Parliament shifted with the Enabling Act of 1919, and as ecumenical contact between the churches grew. The last major instance of organised anti-Anglican Erastianism was the campaign against the 1902 Education Act.
If there is any criticism to made, it is at a structural level, as the thematic organisation of the book tends to obscure the chronological interaction of those themes, and there is some occasional repetitiveness. Many names also come and go; this reader, at least, would have welcomed a more detailed placing of these (mostly) men in their particular context, and to be reintroduced to them as they appear again. That said, Catterall’s book is a landmark in the history of the British churches in the interwar period, and will most likely remain a key starting point for scholars for some considerable time.
The Devil’s Music. How Christians inspired, condemned, and embraced rock ‘n’ roll
Randall J. Stephens
Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 2018, ISBN: 9780674980846
When viewed in a long perspective, the modern history of popular music has very often been one in which new styles are adopted by the young in spite of (and indeed because of) the incomprehension and disapproval of their elders, only to enter the mainstream as those young people age. At the same time, Christians, when confronted with the arts of the societies in which they find themselves, have variously ignored, embraced, adapted and tried to replace or eradicate those arts both in worship and in public. It is in these two ongoing stories (in their American variant) that Randall J. Stephens makes a timely and important intervention. It will be required reading for students of modern American cultural history, but specialists in the religious history of other countries will also find much of value in it, as will the growing number of theologians and musicians concerned with the relationship between the churches and the arts. No serious academic library will want to be without it, and since it is generously produced and sensibly priced, it should find a wide readership outside the academy amongst Christians and ageing rock fans alike.
Stephens’ argument is relatively easily summarised, although the introduction to the book does not do so adequately. Chapter one shows the close linking between the early development of rock and roll and the music of the Pentecostal churches, such that (although some Christian critics did not care to admit it), the stylistic differences between music inside and outside some churches were small, even if the lyrics were very different indeed. Striking here is the relationship between the Pentecostal televangelist Jimmy Lee Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis, his cousin, but similar debts of influence were owed by James Brown, Little Richard, Johnny Cash and indeed Elvis himself. Stephens’ exploration of the agonies of conscience that some suffered as a result of the disapproval of their own churches is vivid and convincing.
Chapter two describes a short but intense period of concern, not to say panic, over the dangers of rock and roll in the years before 1958, followed by a period of relative calm as several of the stars either died or were kept out of trouble in the armed forces. Stephens evokes the cluster of interrelated concerns in play: of the impact of ‘savage’ music (the possession of a subjugated culture) on white America; a more general anxiety about the young in an increasingly affluent and consumerist context, and their apparent slipping out of the control of their elders; there are overtones too of the fear of Communist infiltration. This is all deftly done, but it would have been useful to examine more closely the degree to which these concerns were distinctively religious (or, the prerogative of religious people), as opposed to those of a particular race, class and generation. After this period of calm, chapter three then shows the remarkable storm of dispute with which the Beatles were met after John Lennon’s famous comment to the London Evening Standard in 1966 that the Beatles were ‘more popular than Jesus now’. Though Stephens is not quite right in saying that the comments made little impression among British Christians, the protests were of a quite different order in the USA: radio stations ceased playing their records, death threats were made, and effigies of the band burned in Dixie.
Chapter four and five, taken together, deal with the central paradox of the story: from the late 1960s onwards, how did part of the evangelical constituency come to see that these forms of popular music were not passing phenomena and as such were to be reckoned with, and perhaps used, rather than simply rejected? Stephens is vivid on the interconnection between the new ‘Jesus rock’ and an ongoing Christian negotiation with the wider counter-culture of the period, as Billy Graham, previously an opponent, grasped the need for a different approach to the extent that for a time he wore his hair long. For proponents of Christian rock then and since, it was possible to adopt an artistic form while changing its content; medium and message were separable. At this point Stephens’ book intersects with other recent work on the subject, notably that of David W. Stowe, and it appears at almost the same time as a new biography of the Christian musician Larry Norman, by Gregory Alan Thornbury.
Chapter five documents the backlash amongst other Christians, which Stephens calls the ‘fundamentalist reaction’. For these preachers and moralists, the proponents of Christian rock were variously too effeminate, too emotional, their stage acts too sexualised, and too closely associated with the charismatic movement. More often, though, the issue at stake was one of genre: rock, because of the associations it carried, could never be turned to a positive use and had to be shunned. Nonetheless, as Stephens’ story ends in the years after the millennium, Christian rock had become ubiquitous in American churches of an evangelical kind, with the remaining redoubts against it becoming fewer, and crossover artists had achieved mainstream recording and touring success.
All of this is wholly convincing as a characterisation of the period and as a chronology. This reviewer would wish, however, to make some criticisms on grounds of method and analysis, not so much to contradict the argument as to draw out and make explicit some things that are latent in it but which Stephens does not spell out.
Stephens’ method is documentary rather than narrowly analytical, which has both advantages and disadvantages. Having unearthed a vast, teeming field of Christian voices arguing about rock and roll, Stephens’ evocation of this cacophony is brilliant; his ear for the cadences of the preacher and the moralist is acute, and his ventriloquising of their concerns rings true throughout. Just occasionally the style becomes overripe, however; preachers ‘thunder’ and ‘howl’ in ‘raging fires’ of controversy but rarely just speak; guitars blast and drums thump but rarely do musicians just play or sing. In short bursts, the heightened register that Stephens adopts is vivid and evocative; over the length of a whole book it becomes somewhat wearing. It is also the case that quite often the argumentative thread is lost amongst the clamour of voices, and there is a tendency to repetition, as the same themes recur again and again; we hear about the length of Billy Graham’s hair at least four times.
Some of the impression of repetition could have been avoided had Stephens included a more precise analytical framework in which to work, into which his narrative could have fitted well. The first such structure that is missing is a musicological one. The music here is ‘driving’, ‘revved-up’, ‘blasting’ or (in the case of the Christian metal band Stryper) ‘schlocky’, but to really apprehend what is at stake this reader at least needed a clearer sense of genre, instrumentation, performance practice, melodic and harmonic structure and so on. To borrow a quotation often attributed to Elvis Costello amongst others, writing about music is like dancing about architecture: exceptionally difficult to do well, but here the reader needed more nonetheless. As it is, readers without Stephens’ prodigious knowledge of this music are left with a great deal of work to do.
The second area in which the book would have benefitted from a clearer analytical framework is in the definition of different strands of Christian opinion. There are here pentecostal voices, Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics: denominational divisions that are reasonably robust as analytical categories. But Stephens never quite defines the differences between those who are ‘evangelical’, ‘fundamentalist’ and merely ‘conservative’. The term ‘fundamentalist’ is particularly difficult to define, and Stephens only meets the task head on in chapter six. ‘Fundamentalism’ has often been defined in strictly doctrinal terms, particularly concerning the authority of the Bible; the virgin birth, nature and eventual return of Christ; and the doctrine of the atonement. Defined in this way, several of those within the Christian rock movement appeared very ‘fundamentalist’ in their views of the Bible and on the issues that tended to trouble those with a conservative view of Biblical authority, such as gender, sexuality, and creationism. Stephens instead defines fundamentalism in terms of a determination to separate the faithful from the culture around them. This is clearly what is happening amongst some Christians during the period, but even if such cultural separatism was a marker of those Christians who were ‘fundamentalist’ in doctrine, it is not at all clear that they were the only Christians who took such a view of culture. On its own, cultural separatism seems insufficient as a definition of the term.
And it is the theologies of culture in play here, the guiding principles that underlie the rhetoric, that are often submerged in Stephens’ account and that most needed to be named and analysed. From time to time they briefly break the surface only for the reader to be swept downstream in the chronological and rhetorical flow. Christians have historically taken the arts seriously for two main reasons. The incarnational sense that all human creative endeavour was a sharing in the creative work of God was the key element in the Catholic recovery of the modern arts in the 20th century. Stephens notes in several places the pervasive sense amongst secular critics that Christian rock was more often than not mediocre, a poorly executed example of an art form. This ( at least in the British context) was also the objection raised by Christian critics of ‘church pop’ in the 1950s and 1960s; if there were Christian voices in the USA making the same point, it would have added to the narrative to hear more of them.
However, this incarnational understanding of the arts has historically been a minor theme at best in evangelical thought, with many being prepared to embrace bad taste in the service of the gospel. Evangelicals have been more interested in how the arts can be made to communicate a message, and (correspondingly) most exercised by the particular dangers posed if the arts were made to carry the wrong kind of message. The phenomenon of Jesus rock, far from being an anomaly, is part of a long tradition of evangelical efforts to adopt an artistic style for use in worship and/or evangelism while rendering it safe by supplying appropriate words, performed by those whose personal lives met the required moral standard. The insistence that a certain style of music – a certain arrangement of sounds in time, produced by a certain combination of instruments – could never be sanctified; that an element in God’s creation could never be redeemed for His use, is only one of the several theological options available to evangelical Christians, and has been the option least often chosen in evangelical history at large. All this is implied in Stephens’ account but only comes into focus in chapter six; it would perhaps have added to the impact had it been placed front and centre, earlier in the book.
To reiterate, none of these criticisms is fundamental to Stephens’ argument, and to adopt a more analytical structure and style may have lessened the significant media attention which the book is attracting at the time of writing, which it deserves. That said, although The Devil’s Music is a timely and important book, it leaves the reader with some work to do.
Theological Radicalism and Tradition: ‘The Limits of Radicalism’ with Appendices. By Howard E. Root.
Edited by Christopher R. Brewer. Pp. xii + 165. Illustrated. Abingdon: Routledge, 2018.
[An extended version of a review for the Journal of Theological Studies.]
The prominence of Howard E. Root (1926-2007) during his career is not matched by his obscurity in subsequent years. Born in the USA, he moved to the UK in 1949 after a time teaching in Egypt, and studied and taught theology and philosophy at the universities of Cambridge and Oxford before taking the chair of theology at the University of Southampton in 1966. As Christopher R. Brewer shows in his helpful introduction to this welcome volume, Root was thought to have great potential from early on in Oxford, and this repute soon spread around the Church of England. Root was appointed one of the Anglican observers at the Second Vatican Council when not yet 40, and he was subsequently called upon to serve the church of which he was a priest on successive commissions, not least that on marriage and divorce which reported in 1971, and the Anglican-Roman Catholic International Commission. But Root published relatively little, even for a time before the hyperactive publishing culture of the modern university, and as a result he figures hardly at all in the current literature on the period.
If his writing has been noted at all, it was for his essay that opened the 1962 volume of ‘essays concerning human understanding’ edited by Alec Vidler with the title Soundings. Root’s essay, entitled ‘Beginning all over again’, surveyed the current state and future prospects for natural theology, and was robustly dealt with in E.L.Mascall’s book-length response to Soundings, published as Up and Down in Adria (1963). While Brewer suggests (rightly) that Mascall somewhat missed the point that Root was making, his accusation that Root was proposing a wholesale abandonment of Christian tradition has to a certain extent stuck, and Soundings as a whole has been read as the catalyst to much of the ‘radical’ theology of the next decade. But, as Brewer points out, ‘Mascall did not, and should not, have the last word on Root.’ (p.14) This edition of Root’s hitherto unpublished Bampton Lectures for 1972 should go a long way to recovering the range and intentions of Root’s thought. It will be read with interest both by theologians and by historians of theology and of the religious climate of the sixties and seventies; no serious library for theology or religious history should be without it.
The eight lectures of ‘The Limits of Radicalism’, though brief in compass, are rich and suggestive, with scarcely a dull sentence. The subject is nothing less than the proper purpose of theology as a discipline, and the degree to which it, and natural theology in particular, could hope to survive in the peculiar intellectual conditions of the time. Though no theologian himself, this reviewer would imagine that Root will now find new conversation partners amongst contemporary theologians. Brewer shows in particular the synergies and continuities between Root and the work of David Brown, under whose supervision Brewer completed his graduate study at St Andrews University. Brown is, Brewer suggests, ‘in more ways than one… Root’s theological heir’ (p.20). But it is the significance of Root’s lectures in their historical context that I wish to explore in particular here.
Root was invited to give the Bampton lectures in early 1970, during what in retrospect can be seen as a hiatus between phases in the theological confrontation between radical and conservative. The initial excitement caused by Soundings and then Honest to God (1963), and Harvey Cox’s The Secular City (1965) had to an extent died down, and the controversies over the report Christian Believing and the work of John Hick (The Myth of God Incarnate, 1977), Maurice Wiles and Dennis Nineham were yet to come. And so there was some space for a stocktaking, such as in Michael Ramsey’s God, Christ and the World (1969), of which Root’s lectures were arguably a part. At the remove of a few short years, Root’s criticisms of the radical project of the preceding decade were acute. Born of a failure of nerve – a loss of confidence in the tools for theological study – the movement to ‘translate’ the message into new terms had risked the disintegration of the discipline into a set of sub-departments of history, literary criticism and other disciplines. But this left theology with nothing distinctive to do, no peculiar concerns to call its own, and for Root it was metaphysics that had been left out; in the final analysis, theology without metaphysics was largely redundant (Lectures 1 and 2).
Root was particularly alive to the significance of terminology – to the power of particular discourses, as we might now say – and there are subtle and stimulating asides, such as on the curious process by which ‘radical’ – in its etymology a restorative, backward-looking term – had become exclusively focussed on the future (Lecture 3). Similarly telling is a brief note on the idea of the need for the church to offload its ‘baggage’, a widely used and largely unexamined metaphor in the period. Root was also a prolific maker of fertile images, most particularly in his discussion of the nature of tradition (Lecture 4), which may be the part of the lectures that has the most enduring significance. It was not necessary for the church to choose between two mutually incompatible notions of tradition: on the one hand, a petrified set of texts, doctrines and symbols that could only be preserved and passed on unchanged, and on the other, tradition as a deadweight from under which the church needed to pull itself (the attitude which Mascall thought he detected in Root in 1962).
For Root, tradition is in a continuous process of being received, as Christians select those elements that are of most pressing usefulness, and in the process modify and renew them in readiness for a transmission in turn to the next generation. But this process of transmission was not linear; to look for genealogies of tradition was to misconceive its nature. Root proposes the image of multiple constellations of theological effort, an image ‘that preserves a sense of order, but at the same time not only permits diversity, but finds diversity an element in its order’ (p.67). While there may be disagreement over particular points of doctrine (individual stars in the constellation), the constellations are so interconnected such as to constitute an identifiable whole, a recognisably Christian theological universe. The suppleness of this notion of tradition was rare indeed in the theology of 1972; one wonders what Mascall would have made of it. One also wonders how the subsequent development of Anglican theology might have been different had this ‘third way’ been available.
A second major theme is connected to that of tradition: the responsibility of the Christian theologian to that tradition and to the church that receives it. The controversy over John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God had brought into sharp relief the tension between freedom of enquiry and the responsibility of the theologian to his or her church, as had the leaving of the Roman Catholic church in 1966 by Charles Davis; an episode that Root addresses directly. Root’s notion of tradition led him to conclude that Davis, by renouncing any claim that his church might make on his work, could no longer meaningfully be called a Christian theologian, though a theologian he remained. Root adopted an analogy from the arts, from the process by which a work of art comes into being. As a painter is commissioned to fill a certain space with a work on a certain subject, so the theologian is commissioned by his church, with the constraints that that entails; the choice of materials, and the use he makes of those materials remains his prerogative, as does the opportunity to convey something of his own individual, unique sense of the message itself. At a time when the Church of England was reorganising (and reducing) its provision of theological education, and the nature of the discipline was changing in the universities, Root’s comments were timely. The church could have only limited use for the ‘freelance men’ in the universities who responded to no commission in particular.
Finally, Root’s set of lectures is remarkable for the use he makes of the arts, both as a source of the analogy explored above, and as a remedy for the ‘imaginative impoverishment’ of theology that he had identified in Soundings. The Church of England had begun in the previous two decades begun to rediscover a tradition of artistic patronage, led in large part by Walter Hussey, but this was not yet accompanied by the kind of theological engagement with the arts that characterises the work of David Brown and others in more recent years. Root, a great lover of music, makes great use of artistic metaphor as a means of understanding theology, drawing on T.S. Eliot, W.H. Auden and Pierre Boulez. But he also wants to prompt theologians to look to the arts as generators of new images that reflect the experience of life in the early 1970s. Not all these images would be immediately useful to all – they were, after all, only individual stars in one of Root’s constellations – but over time these images would cluster together, be found in theological dialogue with each other, and either become part of the tradition, or (although Root does not spell the point out) be found to be useless and fall away. In this, in the context of the theology of the time, Root was advanced indeed, and foreshadows much of the more recent work on theology with and through the arts.
Readers of this volume will have reason to be grateful to Brewer for his scrupulous annotations to the text, few of which Root himself had supplied. Some of them are perhaps over-long, such as the long lists of reviews of volumes to which Root had contributed (p.29), but this reader (at least) would rather this inclusive policy than its opposite. The appendices – other essays from Root that were either obscurely published or not at all – do much to complement the main text, though the selection of correspondence relating to the non-publication of the lectures adds little and could have made way for something more substantial in what is a slim and expensive volume. These cavils aside, Christopher Brewer is to be commended for this valuable edition, which will go a long way towards the recovery of Root for which it is intended.
[There is as yet no biography of Root, but there were a handful of obituaries after his death in 2007: in the Daily Telegraph and the Church Times.]
[My review of Hugh McLeod’s 2007 study The Religious Crisis of the 1960s (Oxford University Press), first published in Reviews in History. Ten years on, it remains a highly important piece of work, and I note that (ten years on from the 2008 celebrations of the Paris events of 1968, the legacy of the 1960s remains as contested as ever. Some of the themes of this review were picked up in the conclusion to my own book on Michael Ramsey.]
The 1960s, it seems, are always with us. The media weakness for anniversaries and the broadcast time afforded by digital television issued last year in a series of programmes on BBC4 concerning the double anniversary of the Wolfenden Report (1957) and the consequent Sexual Offences Act (1967). Similarly, at the time of writing there are the first stirrings of what promises to be an extended media retrospective on les événements of 1968. This media interest is not purely historical, since, Austin Powers-style nostalgia aside, the 1960s are still widely made to carry significant symbolic weight in contemporary social and political argument. Veteran soixante-huitard Tariq Ali has reflected on the lost vision and idealism among those on the political left, in an article in The Guardian entitled: ‘Where has all the rage gone ?’ In the same paper, another columnist confessed that he had not been born to see 1968, ‘but I yearn for its dizzying spirit’. (1)
Among religious commentators, the assessment of the legacy of the 1960s has tended to be more downbeat. Events of the period, both within and outside the churches, are often central to narratives of how the churches came to be in their present (supposedly) denuded state. The path forward now often involves the reversal of much that was done and said then. In Roman Catholic debate, the central event is the Second Vatican Council (1962-5) which (as Hugh McLeod outlines) is often regarded either as a brave and prophetic attempt at reforms that were both inevitable and right, or the precipitant of calamitous decline in church attendances and vocations to the priesthood (pp. 11-12). For the contributors to the 1980 collection Ritual Murder, the process (as they saw it) of the wholesale abandonment by the Church of England of the poetic riches of the Book of Common Prayer and the Authorised Version was begun in earnest in the 1960s; ‘a course redolent of the botched idealism and class paternalism of that lost decade’. (2) Differently again, British conservative evangelical critics of the moral decline of the nation have tended, both at the time and since, to see the cluster of reforming legislation of the late 1960s as the insertion of the thin end of the wedge into the nation’s moral fibre. (3) Common to all these strands of criticism is the sense of trahison de clercs; that the line against change might well have held had it not been for the collusion of muddle-headed reformers within the churches.
It is into this far from neutral field that Hugh McLeod’s new study comes. While professing a qualified sympathy for the reforming ideas of the period (p. 12), McLeod scrupulously eschews both cheerleading and lament. In patiently sifting out what may actually be known, rather than merely supposed or half-remembered, it gives some qualified support to most of the variants of present polemic while capitulating to none. It is perhaps invidious to attempt to summarise what is in itself a summary treatment of a period of very great diversity, and so this review will be confined to some aspects of scope and method.
Even if the causation and significance of the crisis is disputed, common to almost all writing on the religious history of the 1960s is a sense that something very important did happen. In the 1950s, the majority of the population were, at least nominally, affiliated to one of the Christian denominations; the numbers of those professing other religions, or none at all, was relatively small; the churches remained highly influential institutions in national and social life; and the majority would still have articulated the identity of the nation in Christian terms. By the end of the period, the kaleidoscope had been vigorously shaken: the range of practically available alternative systems of belief had widened; the churches faced severe difficulties in the recruitment and retention of clergy, and a sometimes catastrophic fall in the traditional statistical indicators of religious affiliation; a significant linguistic shift had occurred in the articulation of national identity, from the ‘Christian country’ to ‘civilised society’; and the concept of Christendom had been wounded, perhaps fatally. As McLeod suggests, it may not be putting it too strongly to suggest that the period may eventually be regarded as seeing a ‘rupture as profound as that brought about by the Reformation’ (p. 1).
There has been an upsurge in professional historical work on the period in recent years, as the 1960s move far enough away from the present to come into clearer focus, and McLeod provides a review of the field (pp 6-15) which may well find its way onto reading lists in its own right. McLeod notes the disparity between very long-term explanations of religious change (such as that associated with Alan Gilbert, p. 8) and the emphasis on the importance of very sudden changes (Callum Brown and Peter van Rooden, p. 9). He argues, with Leo Laeyendecker (p. 10) for an analysis which combines the long-term secularisation narrative with medium-term processes, such as growing affluence or intellectual change, and with the immediate impact of events, such as the Second Vatican Council and the Vietnam war. The whole study is characterised by a scrupulous and highly successful weaving of these threads into a comprehensive narrative of the period.
One of the many and great virtues of the book is its breadth of geographic scope. While it is admittedly most detailed in its treatment of Britain, its scope is very much wider, taking in much of northern and western Europe, Australasia and North America. This has two effects. The first is to free the account from the constraints of either too narrow a national or denominational focus – tendencies which have in the past severely limited much religious history writing. It also allows the study seriously to engage with the international aspects of the crisis, such as the effect of the mushrooming of diverse religious ideas which may be grouped under the label of the ‘counter-culture’ (chapter six) and the effect of the political ferment of 1968 and the churches’ engagement with Marxism (chapter seven).
A second most welcome aspect of McLeod’s study is a refined chronology of the period. Taking Arthur Marwick’s ‘long’ 1960s (1958-74) as the outermost frame, McLeod sees the period as falling into three broad stages. The early part of the period, to 1963, was characterised by a cautious questioning of the status quo within the churches, but without fully developed programmes having yet emerged. There followed a period of ‘aggiornamento’; the high-water mark of reforming activity, attended by a sense of optimism among the reformers about what might be achieved. This period up until 1966 is splendidly evoked in chapter four, with the prophets of the New Reformation, John A.T. Robinson and Harvey Cox, publishing their most significant work simultaneously with the deliberations of the Second Vatican Council. The later part of the period saw a reaction against much of the reforming activity, from figures such as Mary Whitehouse, along with a marked loss of nerve among the reformers in the face of continued decline in the churches’ vital statistics. While counter-examples might be advanced over the ‘borders’ between them, these three stages seem to this reviewer on the whole convincing and useful.
Finally, McLeod is able impressively to balance the analysis of motivation, with every heroic, conscious act of rebellion against the churches balanced with an act of omission born of forgetfulness or mundane inconvenience. There are vivid examples of the former here. In 1971 the feminist theologian Mary Daly descended from the pulpit to lead a procession of sisters out from the university chapel at Harvard in a highly symbolic act of renunciation: ‘our Exodus from sexist religion’ (p. 178). At the same time, chapter five lays out very effectively the processes by which rising affluence led to a good deal of simple forgetting to go to church. McLeod gives a most careful examination to the disputed effect of the ‘sexual revolution’ on women’s engagement with the churches. However, the study also draws out the gradual effects of home ownership, television sets in the home, Sunday sport for children, and an increased emphasis on companionate marriage, all of which provided reasons for the previously loosely committed to stay at home (pp. 169-75). Similarly, McLeod explores the several factors behind the crisis in ordinations to the Roman Catholic priesthood (pp. 189-97). Simple loss of faith, and principled objection to the reassertion of clerical celibacy and the renewed ban on artificial contraception are given due weight. However, evidence from the west of France suggests that the decline was in part due to the expansion of secondary education, meaning that a seminary education was no longer the most attractive option to young men of limited means. It is one of the great strengths of McLeod’s book that this interplay of the conscious and demonstrative with the inarticulate and accidental is kept in view throughout. To a significant degree, the west lost its religion in a fit of absence of mind.
In a summary account of complex and fast-developing change, readers may doubtless find one point or other which might have merited greater or lesser attention. For instance, this reviewer should have been most interested to read more about the parallels between the elevation of the arts to quasi-religious status in 19th-century Germany and the attention paid to ‘prophets’ such as Bob Dylan; a connection tantalisingly made, but not pursued, on p. 25. However, such minor points are merely testament to the range of this splendid study and its success in opening up new lines of enquiry. It is lucidly written, admirably concise and includes a daunting bibliography containing works in several languages and the most recent unpublished theses and seminar papers. Professor McLeod has produced a work that is likely to remain the starting point for new research into the period for many years, perhaps for a generation.
(1) The Guardian, 22 March 2008.
(2) Ritual Murder: Essays on Liturgical Reform, ed. B. Morris (Manchester, 1980).
(3) See, for instance, D. Holloway, A Nation Under God (Eastbourne, 1987)