Re-readings: Secularisation and Moral Change (MacIntyre)

First in a new series of re-readings is Secularization and Moral Change, by the moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre, first published in 1967. They were in fact the Riddell Memorial Lectures, given in the young University of Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1964; the 36th such set of lectures in a series that had included (amongst others) C.S. Lewis, W.R. Inge (the ‘gloomy Dean’ of St Paul’s) and the historian Herbert Butterfield. Macintyre was at the time a professor of social philosophy working within a sociology department (at the University of Essex, an even younger institution that had only weeks before welcomed its first students). It is this meeting of sociology, philosophy and religious history that gives the lectures their particular interest.

‘Sociology’ was enjoying something of a vogue in and around the Church of England; ‘sociology’ in inverted commas since the word carried rather different meanings. Much talk of ‘Christian sociology’ referred in fact to the doing of theology informed by a concern for politics, economics and the ordering of society, rather than an endeavour that began with an empirical examination of social fact. When the Church needed insight into the recruitment, training and deployment of the clergy in the early Sixties, it did not turn to one of the university departments of sociology, but to one of its own, an Anglican writer and theologian, Leslie Paul. His work of ‘lay sociology’ turned out to be gravely mistaken in its assumptions, whilst being ‘too sociological’ for others (that is, that it based its conclusions too much on social reality and ignored the spiritual). The level of engagement between church and academic sociology was in fact rather limited.

As Sam Brewitt-Taylor has shown, the notion of secularization had rather suddenly appeared in the thinking of the English churches in the early Sixties, and so MacIntyre’s intervention came at a key moment. V.A. Demant, Anglican priest and leading figure in the kind of Christian sociology I have already described, thought it of the utmost importance: ‘it throws light on certain questions which have never, in my estimate, been convincingly raised or answered in common Christian apologetic or in common anti-Christian zealotry.’ (1)

The debate about the secularisation of nineteenth century England has of course moved far since 1964, and little of MacIntyre’s little book will surprise the modern reader in matters of fact. Striking also is the confidence with which MacIntyre was able to talk about social class in Marxist terms; the quaint note it now strikes is an indication how complete has been the disintegration of Marxism as an intellectual framework in recent years. But its central insight would have been startling, particularly to churchmen given to reflection on the society around them.

It was commonly supposed that Englishmen and women ceased to believe in God as a result of the assaults of ‘modern scholarship’, and so ceased to behave in accordance with Christian morality. MacIntyre inverted the causal relationship entirely. Far from the established church being a social glue as a national church as Anglicans liked to suppose, English religious history was a misnomer: in fact, each of the major social classes, upper, middle and working class had their own religious histories, which were interconnected rather less than might be supposed. The Church of England had not lost the urban working classes to ‘secularism’; it had never had them in the first place. Industrialisation and the migration of the population to the cities, had meant that it was no longer plausible to suppose that the kind of social norms that had pertained in stable rural societies were in fact of cosmic significance, given by God. Any attempt for one class to posit its own moral norms as universal was too obviously a reflection of the economic interest of that class for the attempt to be successful. So, Christian moral standards declined because they became impossible to reconcile with social reality, rather than because people doubted the existence of God or the truthfulness of the Bible.

Such was the stuff of classic secularisation theory as in the works of Max Weber and others, although it was yet relatively unusual to see it from an English writer. What also strikes one re-reading MacIntyre is the sensitivity to language, that has become a key tool of analysis more recently thanks in particular to the work of Callum Brown. MacIntyre was in fact trying to ask a rather different question: why had England, and in particular the working class, not been more secularised? Seemingly paradoxically, the same conditions that made it impossible for universalising moral norms to persist also made the development of a thoroughgoing secularism difficult, if not impossible; the same terms of art were necessary for the moral reasoning required in each case. As each class was unable to answer the questions of personhood and ultimate purpose in a way that commanded wider attention, Englishness came to be composed in part of what MacIntyre called ‘secondary virtues’: fairness, tolerance, co-operation. It became impossible to discuss the purposes of life and the right ends to which one might direct oneself; one could only agree on the ways in which one might act.

What of the present (that is, the Sixties?) MacIntyre’s second chapter established the point that English people had lost the sense of the existence of objective moral authority, such that those like the bishops of the Church of England, still given to making pronouncements on moral issues, were now simply speaking in terms that were no longer comprehensible; whether or not the hearer might agree with a moral proposition, they could no longer see why they should accept it to be right because of who it was that said it. If bishops continued to make such statements, it was in part because they were of a generation and class that was still accustomed to make them (pp.54-6). In the context of the Church of the Sixties, this would be have been chewy stuff indeed; a fundamental challenge to the whole basis on which many thought they were to act within society as a whole. If few churchmen seized on MacIntyre’s little book as Demant did, this may have been the reason. But some efforts were being made to ‘do something’ by theologians such as John Robinson, bishop of Woolwich, in books like Honest to God (1963), for which MacIntyre also had some choice words

MacIntyre had form in relation to Honest to God having reviewed the book the previous year for Encounter. (‘What is striking about Dr Robinson’s book’ he wrote ‘is first and foremost that he is an atheist.'(2) Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, on whose work Robinson drew, had attempted to recast Christian morality in terms that (it was hoped) Promethean ‘Modern Man’, come of age and confident, could accept. The attempt was a recognition that ‘traditional Christian ethics is no longer applicable in an entirely changed social and institutional situation’. But the attempt was now to build a morality of intention based on a generalised idea of love for the other, and ‘moralities of intention divorced from the prescription of particular types of action are notoriously difficult to formulate in a way that gives them any content.’ (p.71) Not only was there a crisis for the churches, but the horse they seemed to be backing was bound to fall.

Was there any hope? MacIntyre was at this point in what Rowan Williams has called a ‘post-Christian’ point in his intellectual journey, but his answer, alluded to only briefly, anticipates his later reception into the Roman Catholic church. The conservative turn of the English disciples of Barth and Kierkegaard, and the parallel revival in Catholic orthodoxy together seemed to be having the better of the argument (p.68). To insist on revelation and the persistence of traditional moral norms might, in MacIntyre’s view, be simply a wilful ignoring of social reality: ‘such a version of orthodoxy will be immune to any suggestion of refutation by or modification as a result of sociology or social history.'(p.67) However, it at least maintained the inner coherence and distinctiveness of the system from which those norms were derived, where Tillich rendered them indistinguishable from the world they were supposed to be transforming. Read again at a distance of fifty years, that passing remark anticipates the swing towards conservative theologies in the years that were to follow, and trends in the relation of theology and the academy to boot.

(1) Demant reviewed the book in the Journal of Theological Studies, 19:1 (1968), 423-5.
(2) ‘God and the theologians’, reprinted in Robinson and David L. Edwards (eds), The Honest to God Debate (London:SCM), pp.215-28.
See also Rowan Williams’ discussion of Honest to God and MacIntyre in his Anglican Identities (London: Darton Longman and Todd, 2004), pp.103-6.

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Iris Murdoch and the death of God

Iris Murdoch’s The Time of the Angels (1966) features not one but two clerical characters, both of the Church of England, and amongst the principal characters to boot. A little while ago I introduced the physical setting in which Murdoch’s drama is played out: the vicarage of a ruined church in a London wasteland, blanketed in snow and shrouded in the twilight of a London fog. It is against this backdrop of isolation and purposelessness that Murdoch is able to dramatise the impact of the ‘Death of God’ theology of the 1960s.

The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden. Image: Peter Webster

The blitzed church of St Dunstan in the East, now a public garden.
Image: Peter Webster

There are two Fisher brothers: Marcus, and his elder brother Carel, the rector of St Eustace Watergate. Marcus has become concerned about his brother, living as a recluse in the rectory and refusing all callers, including Marcus. He is concerned not only for Carel, but also for Carel’s daughter Muriel, and for Elizabeth, to whom Marcus and Carel are guardians. He is also concerned on his own account. Marcus, a schoolteacher, is writing a book, Morality in a World without God (chapter 7), which will ‘rescue the idea of an Absolute in morals by showing it to be implied in the most unavoidable human activity of moral evaluation’. Thus armed, no longer would either theological metaphor or crude existentialism be necessary in order to society to function. But somehow he is distracted by the thought of his brother.

Marcus’ friend Norah has her doubts about the book, and Marcus’ intentions in writing it (chapter 2). Despite his apparent wish to start afresh, Marcus’ favourite reading is still works of theology; for Norah, Marcus is ‘just a Christian fellow-traveller. It’s better not to tinker with a dying mythology.’ The sooner the West would pass through its current twilight of the gods, the better, Norah thought. Her aim, characteristic of ‘the brisk sensibleness of an old Fabian radical’ was to get all that out of the system.

Concerned about Carel’s state of mind, Norah and Marcus consult with his bishop (chapter 9). Murdoch does not name him, but the parallel is very clearly with John Robinson, bishop of Woolwich, whose 1963 book Honest to God was perhaps the last theological bestseller in British history, for which he was censured by Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury. Both Norah and Marcus press the bishop on Carel’s apparent lack of belief, while he tucks into their treacle tart, washing it down with their claret. ‘It is a time’ he says ‘when, as one might put it, mankind is growing up. … Much of the symbolism of theology … is, in this scientific age, simply a barrier to belief. Our symbolism must change.’ As for Carel, the key is not his beliefs, but ‘passion, Kierkegaard said, didn’t he, passion. That’s the necessary truth.’ For the so-called ‘South Bank Religion’, what one believed was not so important as the earnestness with which one believed it. Despite his confession of atheism, the bishop regards Carel as ‘a profoundly religious man’.

I don’t want to write too much here about Carel himself, since to do so could very easily spoil the plot for anyone who has not read the book. But his character, and his actions, are the dark counterpart to both Marcus and the bishop. Marcus is superficially sure that his project of morality without the supernatural can be achieved. The bishop seems content enough that the church can survive the kind of testing and purification that the current ‘interregnum’ (Norah’s twilight of the gods) will entail. Carel, and the suffocating darkness that seems to emanate from him and damage those around him, is the side of their argument that neither can contemplate. Murdoch shows us the abyss of meaninglessness that may be glimpsed but cannot be faced.

What did modern theology look like in the Sixties ?

What did modern theology look like ? An odd question perhaps; but I’d like to look at some of the cover designs of books of theology aimed at a popular readership between 1963 and 1970. This is no exhaustive study (being based mostly on the books on my own shelves), but it would seem that at least some of those responsible for publicising the ‘Death of God’ theology thought there was a connection between it and modern art.HonestToGod-cover-blog

Undoubtedly the most famous such book of the period was John A.T. Robinson’s Honest to God, published by the SCM Press in 1963, in its series of cheap pocket paperbacks. Its cover is a minor masterpiece of cover design, showing a young man deep in thought, wrestling perhaps with precisely the kind of radical rethinking of his religion that Robinson was proposing. Image and message seem to be in perfect interplay. Interestingly, the image is of a rather older work, and from a different context. ‘Seated Youth’ (1918) is by the German sculptor Wilhelm Lehmbruck, and Lehmbruck’s experience of working in a wartime field hospital is translated between nations and over time to become a symbol of a more spiritual crisis.Lloyd-Ferment in the Church - cover 1964 - blog

After Honest to God, ‘Seated Youth’ seems to have become iconic of Robinson’s book, such that it appears again on a follow-up book from Roger Lloyd, The Ferment in the Church, published in 1964, also by SCM. This time the sculpture is overlaid on a background of Winchester Cathedral, signifying the clash of old and new.

Ramsey - Resurrection of Christ - fourth imp 1966 - blog

I must stress again that this post captures an impression, and is not based on a systematic study. As such, there isn’t much in the way of a control group – of works of more mainstream theology published for a mass market, for which the economics of a cover design with an image added up. But there were some, such as Michael Ramsey’s The Resurrection of Christ, first published in 1945 but reissued by Collins in the Fontana imprint. The impression here is the fourth, from 1966, and whilst it too uses a work of art, Collins’ designer opted for an unidentified work in a much older style. This perhaps matched Ramsey’s work, which was by no means conservative in the broader scheme of things, but looked to be so when set against Robinson.

Newbigin - Honest Religion for Secular Man 1966 - cover - blog

There was one artist who seemed to appear often, and that was Jacob Epstein. Lesslie Newbigin’s Honest Religion for Secular Man (SCM, 1966) featured ‘Risen Christ’, a work made between 1917-19 and, like ‘Seated Youth’, an imaginative product of the First World War. A sepulchral Christ shows the viewer his wounds, against the backdrop of the type of multi-storey office building in vogue at the time, although the particular building is not identified. Modern Man needed to work out the appropriate response to the call of God in a secular, “technological” environment.

Laymans Church - 1963 - cover - blog

All three SCM titles I’ve discussed so far were in the same series; but other publishers were not slow to see the connection, and at about the same time. In the same year as Honest to God, the Lutterworth Press published Layman’s Church, a collection of essays introduced by Timothy (later Lord) Beaumont, and including essays from several of the figures associated with ‘South Bank religion’, including Robinson. Its cover features Epstein’s ‘Christ in Majesty’, made for Llandaff cathedral in 1954-5. The new Coventry cathedral has on the exterior of its porch Epstein’s ‘St Michael and the Devil’ (1956-8), featured on Stephen Verney’s Fire in Coventry (Hodder, 1963).
Verney - Fire at Coventry - 1963 - blog
So it would seem that publishers of popular theology in the early Sixties thought there was a connection between the kind of modern theology that seemed to be leading the market and the kind of modern sculpture (and it is mostly sculpture) that was finding its way into churches. Or, at the very least, those publishers thought that their likely readers would find the designs meaningful. I doubt I will have the time to pursue this idea any more systematically; but there’s a great Ph.D. subject in here for someone.

Michael Ramsey, ‘Honest to God’ and the edge of the Church of England

[Honest to God, by John A.T. Robinson, bishop of Woolwich, is fifty this year. It has been described by Rowan Williams as “the last religious book in the UK to have… a mass readership.. a most unlikely best-seller”, and has assumed iconic status in the history of the Church of England and of secularisation. In this extract from my forthcoming book on Michael Ramsey, archbishop of Canterbury, I argue that despite his regrets in later years, Ramsey had no choice as archbishop but to publicly censure one of his own bishops.]

The public furore over John Robinson’s Honest to God is perhaps the single most well-known public theological event of the 1960s, and perhaps even of the twentieth century. The book appeared in 1963, in the now iconic series of slim pocket paperbacks from the SCM Press, with on its cover a modern sculpture of a earnest young man in thought: Modern Man grappling with the challenges of ‘religionless’ Christianity in a time of crisis.HonestToGod-cover-blog

Already well known for his intervention in the Lady Chatterley trial, the bishop of Woolwich had published his exploratory work in recasting the traditional language of faith in the hope of reaching those alienated by the habits and language of the traditional church. Its arrival was announced in an article in the Observer entitled (against Robinson’s better judgment) ‘Our image of God must go.’

To focus too closely on whether Robinson was right or wrong, a prophet of a credible young church or a destroyer from within, is to miss some important wider questions. The central issue for Michael Ramsey was the limits of doctrine in the Church of England, and the means of setting them. Recent commentators have divided over the subject. For Edward Norman, the church was, and is, bound to repeat such incidents, since it is without any central means of defining doctrine and accommodating its development. For others, George Carey amongst them, such episodes rather show the elasticity of the Anglican polity, in which the very absence of a rigid central curia holds open a safe space for such theological adventure.

Feelings were running high; and Ramsey learned of an intention to have the book and its orthodoxy debated in the Convocation of Canterbury. Mervyn Stockwood, bishop of Southwark, feared a petition from within the diocese for proceedings against Robinson in Stockwood’s own court. There appeared to be a real threat of what would be widely viewed in the media as a heresy hunt, and in two forums neither of which were well constituted to do the job. This was to be avoided at all costs.

Yet Ramsey needed to do something. Try as he might, he could not see how Robinson, despite his protestations, had stayed within the field of historic orthodoxy, even allowing for the apparent cloudiness of some of Robinson’s writing. He told the bishops that the book ‘removes the conception of God known to us in the Bible and the Creed, and while some sort of doctrine about God and the Deity of Christ emerges, it is impossible to identify this doctrine with the doctrine of our Church which as Bishops we have promised to uphold.’ Conservatives were always ready to remind him of this consecration vow to ‘drive away strange and erroneous doctrine’, and so Ramsey needed to act, and quickly, using the only tool available to him: his own personal authority.

Ramsey gave a television interview, stating that Robinson had been ‘utterly wrong and misleading to denounce the imagery of God held by Christian men, women and children […] and to say that we can’t have any new thought until it is swept away.’ The statement was short, and blunt, and provoked Robinson to protest; but Ramsey was at the time also writing the pamphlet that was to be published three weeks later as Image Old and New; an attempt not at debunking so much as to show that the Church was prepared to engage with the issues whilst at the same time emphasising the necessary limits. Finally there was still the matter of an heresy hunt in the Convocation, and ‘with great reluctance’ but some success Ramsey used part of his presidential address to meet the point.HonestToGodDebate-cover-blog

To what extent could Ramsey have handled the affair differently ? He later acknowledged that there had been ‘in the background a widespread crisis of faith which cried out for another kind of spirit in meeting it.’ Perhaps Ramsey was not quite engaged with some of the theological currents with which Robinson’s mind was flowing; they were certainly not those he found most congenial. That said, Image Old and New shows a quite sufficient grasp of the main issues for the needs of an archbishop, if not indeed of a professional theologian, and neither had Ramsey come to them anew in 1963.

Ramsey certainly regretted the pastoral damage done to his relationships with both Robinson and Stockwood. The correspondence with Robinson is amongst the most painful in the Ramsey Papers, and his chaplain thought he had never seen Ramsey so upset. And it was perhaps in the church’s pastoral role that Ramsey was caught behind the pace. Ramsey was well aware of the estrangement of much of the public from a church guilty of ‘assuming too easily that the faith may be taken for granted and needs only to be stated and commended.’ But such commendation was only possible if ‘we go out and put ourselves with loving sympathy inside the doubts of the doubting, the questions of the questioners, and the loneliness of those who have lost their way.’ In the case of Honest to God, however, he was slow to grasp the depth of that estrangement. The testimonies brought together in the later The Honest to God Debate clearly show that Robinson had touched a great many people, and to the quick, and it was this that Ramsey was slow to appreciate.

Ultimately, however, Ramsey had no choice. For all the comfort and relief that the book had brought to some, it had also caused acute distress to others. A priest in Ramsey’s former diocese of Durham felt that the ground had been cut from beneath the ordinary parish clergy, facing questions from their flock which they could not answer: ‘what are we poor priests to do ?’ If there was a pastoral need to meet the doubts of the doubting, it was to be balanced with a responsibility to the existing faithful.

More fundamentally, Ramsey’s hands were tied by his responsibility to the integrity of the Church of England as a whole. There had to be something, however small, that distinguished a church from a voluntary society for the discussion of religious opinions; and that something was fixity in doctrine at its core. Just months before the storm broke, Ramsey spoke of ‘the hard adventure of blending depth of conviction with the utmost reverence for the mind and conscience of other people’. The church had a difficult double role, of ‘encouraging freedom of enquiry and adhering to a definite faith revealed in Holy Scripture and summarized in the historic creeds.’ In a phrase of Mandell Creighton, there was a need to balance ‘“the right of the individual to be free and the duty of the institution to be something.”’ Once Ramsey had been convinced that Robinson, however unwittingly and however well intentioned, had subtracted from that essential something, then there was no option than to act.