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Response to Review no. 236

Sheridan Gilley is generous to a fault in reviewing a book, which many Christians find contentious. At the same time, I have been nervous of historians’ reactions to my proposal to change the ways in which we should “see” religion in the recent past. I am gratified beyond measure that he sees what I think he is describing as the humanity in it, as so much postmodern history is being treated by the historical establishment as amoral relativism. I tried to show that good postmodern history should pivot representation around experience – the oral and autobiographical material lying at the book’s heart. I am so glad he found it “moving”.

But he is also mostly right on a number of criticisms. First, I really should have made mention of the contraceptive pill. There were two paragraphs on this in my penultimate draft which got unaccountably cut from the final version when I was reworking order and cutting words. That was a big mistake.

Second, it is probably fair game to criticise me “in that Catholics are treated simply as a species of conversionist Protestants”, and he is not the first Catholic-responsive reviewer to have a go on these grounds. However, in my defence I call firstly upon Mary Heimann’s well-received Catholic Devotion in Victorian England (1995) that has emphasised the parallels rather than the contrasts between Catholic and Protestant (and which I suspect can be taken further), and secondly upon the experience recounted by oral respondents and autobiographers between the 1880s and 1940s (some quoted in the book) that shows they attended services of both Catholic and Protestant churches with regularity and “without discrimination” (the words of one woman from Glasgow). This was something perhaps lost in the 1950s and 1960s. I believe profoundly that “official” history over-emphasises ecclesiastical separation, whilst the people’s history posits a common Christian experience underlying the period of Christian cultural dominance from 1800 to 1950. There is a different narrative of religious history still to be written down. Sarah William’s work on folk religion in mid-twentieth century London is one element of that, whilst Elizabeth Robert’s extensive interview work on women’s churching rituals is another. Such things crossed church boundaries. I tried also to contribute to this “other” narrative.

And thirdly, Sheridan is right to criticise highfalutin language. But this is a real corker of a problem that postmodernist history has still to crack. A discourse is a discourse, and there is really no substitute word for it. However, we probably forget how the same criticisms were levelled at left-wing social historians a couple of generations ago. Theirs is the language we all still use now, and the one we are trying to become reflexive about. Perhaps a discourse will not be highfalutin for much longer. Just give it time and it’ll trip off the tongue and be a baby’s first words.

Where I disagree with Sheridan is in his criticism that I should have considered wider breakdown of stable communities, the Blitz, decline of heavy industry and so on in relation to secularisation. My reason for disagreement is that these are the items of the traditional narrative of religious social history, and I tried to show in the book (as Sheridan explains) that this narrative is the product of secularisation theory and is essentially useless for explaining the timing or causes of secularisation (just as gender historians have shown that this narrative of events does not explain fundamental change in gender history). I seek to place the category of gender at the forefront of understanding religious change in the last 200 years (and very probably for the last millennium). Certainly I think that for over 50 years the category of social class (and the physical environment which strongly underlies much conceptualising of it) has been a red herring in historical analysis of religious change in Britain (and probably Europe and the USA). My book is an attempt, whether successful or not, to fundamentally move the social history of religion into a postmodernist framework of understanding and a postmodernist system of analysis. In this, gender is not just an interesting add-on, but the root for understanding both long- and short-term change to Christian religion. The fact that “the unconverted” may find the book has stimulation and a ring of authenticity is highly satisfying. However, I will continue to strive harder.