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Response to Review no. 6

It is difficult to comment on a set of observations as unerringly shrewd and self-evidently fair-minded as those offered by Dr Burns without capitulating either to defensiveness or to blandness, which is not, I imagine, what Reviews in History was designed to accomplish. But I do count it a privilege to have one’s work subjected to honest criticism and to be afforded the unimaginable luxury of a reply.

For the sake of clarity it is best to start with a precise statement of what it was I was trying to achieve in the 1993 Cadbury lectures which resulted in the published work now under discussion. There were four main objectives. The first was to try to demonstrate that there was more at stake in the writing of British Isles’ history than the mere extension of English historiographical preoccupations to the Celtic fringes, or, less commonly, the export of Irish, Welsh and Scottish obsessions for metropolitan consideration. The former can seem condescending, the latter shrill, and neither is in reality much of an improvement on what was being written several decades ago. What struck me with peculiar force in preparing this book is that with far fewer advantages in terms of access to information many religious figures of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, both elite and popular, had a better appreciation of the religious geography of the British Isles (and of the issues shaping it) than we professional historians. My chief aim, therefore, was to bring the religious historians of the British Isles into closer conversation with one another at a more sophisticated level than my crude syntheses could alone achieve. There is a great deal more historical talent channelled into the writing of religious history now than when I set out as a research student over twenty years ago, but it is disappointing how little creative interaction there is, especially across national frontiers. It is no disrespect to Dr Burns, for example, to state that his most acute criticisms of my book are predominantly Anglocentric and that I must gird myself for very different kinds of criticism from those working within other national traditions.

My second objective was to show that in penetrating to the heart of religious cultures and identities neither the older denominational historians nor their social history successors seemed able to offer convincing explanations of the paradoxes and ambiguities thrown up by the fate of religious traditions in different parts of the British Isles. The former relied too often on the idea that religious thought and ecclesiastical structures remained more or less constant regardless of social contexts, the latter on explanations based narrowly on class and notions of social control. Dr Burns both pays tribute to my ability to tease out the ‘proteanism’ of religious cultures and mildly criticises my inability to offer more persuasive conceptual frameworks to replace those I have challenged. This is fair comment. My only response is that it is neither slavish empiricism nor postmodernist despair which accounts for my frailties here, but rather a long-standing conviction that no single master narrative or dominant analytical category will do the trick. Thus, in this book, based as it is on lectures for the general public, I have told a simpler story than I feel comfortable with and a more complicated tale than some will want to read. Here is a dilemma which I imagine many historians are having to encounter as ever more detailed research along with the virtual collapse of some old intellectual frameworks leaves us feeling that we know both too much and not nearly enough to deal with the past on anything like its own terms.

My third objective, well understood by the reviewer, was to show that in the modern history of religion, at least in the North Atlantic world, the age of revolutions at the end of the eighteenth century is of peculiar importance, for it altered forever the terms on which established churches were required to function. One of the most interesting intellectual puzzles of my book, and a subject which now requires a full-scale monograph, is the charting of the very different fortunes of the four established churches in the British Isles and the rise of a quasi Roman Catholic religious establishment in Ireland which in the long run fared better than each of the rest. In the working out of that puzzle Dr Burns suggests that I underestimated the strength of elite and government commitment to the principle of establishment in England, Scotland and Ireland in the decade after 1815. On one level he is perfectly correct. The two decades before the constitutional revolution of 1828-33 witnessed unprecedented levels of investment in national religious establishments, but in truth the vital issue was not so much what the state was prepared to do to prop up established churches but rather what actions it was prepared to take to stifle competition from their enemies. The record here is not so impressive as the failure of Sidmouth’s Bill against itinerant preachers in 1811 made abundantly clear. Moreover the very social and political forces which made it impossible for the state to restrict religious toleration soon made it impracticable for it to fund the expansion of established churches. The contrast between Lord Liverpool’s willingness to grant one million pounds to build new churches in 1818 and Peel’s flat refusal under pressure to do something similar in 1842 could hardly be more striking. Peel’s political nous had told him that taxpayers would no longer willingly contribute to a national church and that any attempt to coerce them would simply rebound on the established churches themselves.

My fourth, and by far the most difficult, objective was to try to penetrate to the heart of religious and political cultures at somewhere near their zenith in different parts of the British Isles over some three centuries. With comprehensive coverage impossible, the problem from the author’s point of view was to prevent the whole enterprise from slipping into some kind of ‘greatest religious hits’ compilation volume with all the strengths and weaknesses of that particular ‘art’ form. In that respect Dr Burns is right to chide me gently for curtailing my discussion of Anglicanism around 1830, part of the problem being, as he correctly suggests, the lack of decent published work on the Victorian Church since Owen Chadwick’s magnum opus. But there was more to it than that. What I tried to do in a variety of case studies, from popular Anglicanism in the eighteenth century and Welsh Nonconformity in the nineteenth, and from the mentality of Ulster Protestants to that of urban non churchgoers, was to look at the bone marrow of popular religious cultures at the height of their popularity. If I may say so there was more to this enterprise than the mere work of synthesis which Dr Burns implies, for the truth of the matter is that this kind of history has not been well done since the early 1970s (with the exceptions I acknowledge in my footnotes) when James Obelkevich produced his influential book on rural religion and Reg Ward did something similar for northern English Nonconformity. For all the technical competence and important advances made by research students and their supervisors over the past twenty years or so, one cannot help wishing either for the white heat of some genuine intellectual passion (as in the work of Edward Thompson) or for a more imaginative interest in the religious beliefs and practices of the ordinary people in the recent writing of British religious history.

What I do accept as fair criticism is Dr Burns’ sharp observation that my handling of concepts such as identity, political culture and social class is not as clear and imaginative as it might have been. Indeed this brings back memories of my early discussions with the editors of Cambridge University Press about what the title of the book should be – religion and political culture, or religion and identity. Part of the problem here, yet paradoxically also the main reason why the reviewer considers the book to be a success, is that my approach to these questions is as much intuitive and literary as it is based on clear-cut economic, cultural, linguistic or ideological foundations. This may in part be due to the fortunate misfortune of growing up in working-class Ulster where the street theatre of Orange parades – led in my childhood by unionist politicians, Protestant clergy and representatives of the Protestant bourgeoisie who were sent on their way by variegated traditions of rough music and mythical/historical banner emblems – injected religion, power, politics, identity, social class and an historical narrative into the bloodstream all in one shot. Such an inheritance makes it easier for me to grasp Patrick Joyce’s notion of ‘a family of populisms’ as applied to working people in nineteenth-century England, and Dr Burns is quite right to suggest that my own treatment of religion and identity would have benefited from a closer acquaintance with the creative work of Joyce and the other historians he mentions. It is nevertheless comforting to know that recent attempts to understand the complexity of social identities in industrialising Britain have transcended the old crude simplicities of class analysis which the social historians of religion of my generation had to fight so strongly against. Suffice to say that those of us who have argued for years that social constructions of identity in nineteenth-century Britain must be discussed on a much wider basis than those determined by social structure and economic function can only admire those who now seek to expand our limited vistas with more serious investigations of language, memory, theatre, art, ritual and religion. There are encouraging signs also that those who still see social class as an important reality in nineteenth-century Britain now wish to defend it not as an economistic concept, but as ‘a question of identity’ (James Thompson, ‘Historiographical review’, Historical Journal, 39 no. 3 [1996], p.793). What makes me uneasy, however, is that a gap seems to have opened up between these new approaches to constructions of social meaning and identity, which often deal inadequately with religion (Joyce is an honourable exception) and recent books on nineteenth- century religion by Michael Watts (on the Dissenters), Frances Knight (on the Anglicans) and others, which, impressive though they are within their own terms of reference, seem to be pursuing a different kind of agenda altogether. It is by no means clear how these two approaches are going to influence one another. In that respect I entirely endorse the sentiments contained in Dr Burns’ concluding paragraph about where we might go from here.

It is probably as well to admit at this point that some of the criticisms of my book by the reviewer, notably the relative absence of a serious treatment of gender and identity and a rather compressed treatment of religion and social class, have a disturbingly simple explanation, which is that I committed the cardinal error of trying to finish two rather different kinds of book at the same time. My preliminary observations on both these matters appear therefore in a book published at the same time entitled The Religion of the People (Routledge, 1996). In dealing with gender, religion and identity in Ireland, for example, my aim was to break through conventional conceptual paradigms to look at the way in which gender issues intersected with notions of domestic piety, national and cultural identities, sectarian conflict and imperial power. In the fullness of time, it would be instructive to compare this analysis with similar treatments of women and religion in England, Scotland and Wales. Small differences, I suspect, will turn out to be just as revealing as shared experiences.

Dr Burns encouragingly sees the final chapter of my book as the most ambitious, for that was the part which was most difficult to construct and was consequently reformulated many times. The problem was that the themes selected for comparative treatment are big ones (anti-Catholicism, evangelicalism, empire and social policy) and the last two now require full-scale monographs in their own right. I could do little more in the space available than identify what seemed to me to be the most important questions and to cast a sceptical look at the way they have been handled or mishandled by historians. In particular, the relationship between religion and the construction of social policy, from the limited official toleration of 1689 to the relative marginalisation of the churches by the mid twentieth century in Britain but not in Ireland, is a subject in search of an author. Not only did the Toleration Act effectively subvert the legal basis for the enforcement of religious uniformity and moral discipline, but the eighteenth century witnessed an inexorable decline in the powers of church courts along with the beginnings of a serious parliamentary interest in social policy (primarily poor relief). The issue in a nutshell was how religion could continue to supply the central dynamic of state social policy once established churches, in large measure, lost their coercive and persuasive powers. No convincing answer was supplied in Britain (though it was not for the want of trying), but the Irish Roman Catholic Church found a more successful route by harnessing ecclesiastical self-interest to the political aspirations and social needs of the great mass of the population.

What then of the balance sheet? Dr Burns frankly concedes that most of his criticisms relate more to what was left out of my story than with what was left in. My defence can only be that I am mightily relieved that a hopelessly ambitious venture has been criticised for not being adventurous enough and that his evident enthusiasm for some of the trappings of the postmodernist influence on the writing of history has not led, in his case at least, to the revenge of the particular. As to the question of identity, I find it both exhilarating and frightening that so many pages have been written in recent times on the relationship between class and identity among the English people in the nineteenth century and can only wonder at the historical skills required to weave gender and religion into these debates before going on to compare the different parts of the British Isles. History is nothing if not a challenge.

If I were to conclude with a gentle criticism of my reviewer’s criticisms it would be that there is little comment, either positive or negative, on some of the comparative dimensions of the book which lie at the heart of its argument. It was this aspect of the project which finally convinced me that the religious history of the British Isles could no longer be adequately reconstructed within traditionally accepted, and often hermetically sealed, denominational and national boundaries. Such is the complexity of this task and the amount of knowledge required to carry it off with anything approaching conviction that most of what now passes for new British history is in reality merely a conceptual extension of old English history. My own book, in truth, is no more than a series of provocative raids across the traditional frontiers of denominational and national histories; it remains for others to chart the territory and map out its features with much greater precision than I have been able to do on this occasion.