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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The fame of C.S. Lewis: a review

Stephanie L. Derrick
The fame of C.S. Lewis. A controversialist’s reception in Britain and America
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2018

[A review to be published in Reading Religion.]

Readers might be forgiven for asking how much more there is to be known about C.S. Lewis. The biographical materials for Lewis’ life are relatively small in bulk, and well known, and the published writings are also easily accessible. And scholars have come at the canon itself – the apologetics and the fiction in particular – from every conceivable angle. (There were more than 160 books published on Lewis in the decade after 2000). Alister McGrath, in the final chapter of his 2013 biography (reviewed here), briefly indicated a new direction of travel for Lewis studies, that paid attention not so much to the man and to the works, but to their reception. Stephanie L. Derrick has now given us the first extended essay in the subject, which will shape work on Lewis for perhaps a generation. Her scope is the UK and the United States as two analytic units treated as whole, and the works of Lewis in question are the Narnia stories and the most well-known apologetic works (Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, and others).

The first chapter outlines Lewis’ conscious fashioning of his literary self as a kind of ‘Ulster contrarian’, a ‘Christian dinosaur’ with a vocation to reach popular audiences with his rejection of modernism in both literature and (in a wider sense) theology and society. Chapter 2 sets out Lewis’ reputation with his peers in the UK, and in particularly in Oxford. These two chapters will not surprise specialist readers in matters of detail to any great extent, but they frame the main burden of the book: that there were radically different trajectories in Lewis’ reception in the USA and in the UK, which are to be explained both by specific religious and cultural conditions, but also by the degree to which Lewis was known as an individual alongside his writings. In the UK, academic readers and others in the literary and journalistic fields knew, or thought they knew, a Lewis who was tricksy, unreliable, an invented literary persona; it was unclear where the posture ended and the man began. (Significantly, reference was often made to his Irishness, which meant different things to an English audience than it did in the USA).

Readers in the USA, by contrast, reacted rather more to what Derrick calls a ‘Platonic Lewis’, found in the writings alone, detached from the very specific literary and cultural context into which he intended to speak. Free to shape an idea of Lewis to their own purposes, American readers’ engagement with Lewis had a ubiquity and intensity that far outstripped that in the UK, where there remained a persistent unease with Lewis both as an apologist and as a writer of fiction. Derrick’s exposition of these contrasting national reactions is acute and convincing, although there of course remains room for further refinement within each story, both chronologically and sociologically.

In all this, Derrick’s reading of Lewis’ fame against the religious context in which he was read is fresh and invigorating. The most innovative aspect of the study, however, is in chapter 4, where Derrick examines Lewis and the ‘mechanisms of mass culture’. Religious historians of the twentieth century have not always paid sufficient attention to the means by which religious ideas are communicated. Derrick’s achievement is to direct attention not just away from the man to the reader, but also to the sheer contingency of his fame. Lewis’ reputation was shaped not so much by the intrinsic appeal of the work as the fact that it coincided with particular moments in technological history. Radio broadcasting in the UK during the 1940s; the peculiar liveliness of learned periodical culture after the war; the development of a market for paperback children’s fiction (and marketing devices such as the Puffin Club); patterns in library acquisition; the decisions of the Lewis estate; the control of his works as it passed from publisher to publisher; the internal dynamics of media conglomerates with interests in film as well as print: Lewis’ fame is inexplicable without considering the interactions of all these parts of the broad ecosystem of ideas.

Given this sensitivity to technological and economic context, one curious – and explicit – omission is the impact of Lewis online, especially as Derrick draws attention in her conclusion to the dependence of British evangelicals on American resources, which is surely in part a function of the Internet. This leaves open a significant gap to be filled by other scholars, as there is also for a history of Lewis’ books as designed objects, and of their illustrations in particular.

These cavils aside, Dr Derrick has given us a striking and important study. It should find a wide readership among historians of Christianity and of twentieth century literature, as well as those interested in the history of the media. Well written, generously produced and reasonably priced, it deserves an audience outside the academy.

This is your hour. Christian intellectuals in Britain and the crisis of Europe, 1937-49

[A review forthcoming in the Journal of Beliefs and Values ]

John Carter Wood
This is your hour. Christian intellectuals in Britain and the crisis of Europe, 1937-49
Manchester: Manchester University Press
978 1 52613253 6 (hardback)

The period immediately before and during the Second World War was a moment in which the whole political and social life of Europe seemed to be in flux, and indeed in mortal danger. In the ‘low, dishonest decade’ of the 1930s, the liberal capitalist settlement in the UK, inherited from the Victorian age, was widely thought to have failed, even before the outbreak of war. The search for new directions was given additional impetus by the war and subsequently by the need to reconstruct. Christian and non-Christian thinkers alike broke in every direction: for the kind of strength and stability that authoritarian nationalism seemed to offer; for a communist alternative; and for all manner of paths between. One of the most concentrated attempts to find such a middle way was by the group gathered around J. H. Oldham, which manifested itself in the informal ‘Moot’ discussion group, the Council on the Christian Faith and the Common Life, the later Christian Frontier Council, and the weekly (and later bi-weekly) Christian News-Letter.

The ‘Oldham group’ was active only for a short time, from the 1937 conference in Oxford on community, church and state until 1949, by which time the coming of peace and the creation of the institutions of the welfare state seemed to have removed the earlier urgency, though the questions the group had been asking remained. It has attracted significant historiographical attention before, not least for the eminence of some of those associated with it: Alec Vidler, prominent Anglican theologian and cleric and editor of the journal Theology; the sociologist Karl Mannheim; the literary critic John Middleton Murry; academic theologians and philosophers such as John Baillie and H.A. Hodges, and (most strikingly) T. S. Eliot. Although the group tended to set itself apart from, or at least in a critical relationship to, established organisations including the Church of England, its members were very well connected, not least to William Temple, archbishop of Canterbury. But this attention from historians has been paid only to parts of the group’s activity (notably the Moot) and to individuals. John Carter Wood’s fine new book is the first study of the group as a whole, and in its fullest context, and seems set to be definitive.

Unsurprisingly, given the intellectual ferment both within and outside it, the group produced no manifesto, and Wood is assiduous in tracing these tensions, and the group’s achievement of a kind of unstable consensus that evolved over time. The approach is thematic, with early chapters on the relationship of religion, society and the secular in general, and on the particular effect of the war and the ‘crisis of civilisation’ that it appeared to signify. The book then deals with the group’s envisioning of a Christianised political economy that was neither Marxist nor a value-free pursuit of Mammon, and to of a patriotism that was nonetheless committed to the international order and the acknowledgment of national failings. Wood then moves on to the group’s attempt to frame a relationship between the person and the state that preserved an appropriate freedom without an atomised individualism free of obligation to God or neighbour. The final chapter deals with the balance between an egalitarian impulse to economic redistribution and the idea of a reformed intellectual elite, formed not by birth but by expertise, that might help shape and then direct the new society thus created.

The picture that emerges is of a group that, though it teemed with ideas and dissent, had nonetheless a sense of common purpose, and a unity in its way of thinking. Ecumenical, though largely Protestant, British and from a particular social class, the group was nonetheless ever in between poles of thought, committed both to finding a middle way, and to the idea of the ‘middle axiom’, a Christianised principle of politics, economics or social life that was concrete yet stopped short of detailed policy.

All this Wood documents with deftness and precision. All students of British intellectual history of the period will want to read this book, and no serious historical library should be without it. Clearly written and generously produced, it merits a paperback edition to reach the wide audience that it deserves.

Sobornost: the story of a journal

[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.

Labour and the Free Churches, 1918-39: a review

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.