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Response to Review no. 960

When P. T. Forsyth first aired some of the themes discussed in this book he was credited with ‘seeing the invisible’ – which suggests either analytical virtuosity or methodological poverty! It is gratifying, therefore, that an historian as rigorous as David Bebbington recognises my account of secularisation-by-occlusion as both internally persuasive and a ‘major contribution’ to the wider debate about secularisation in Britain. I am also pleased that he echoes my emphasis on human agency in religious history. Too much writing on religion – by scholars and practitioners – betrays a kind of fatalism which decides in advance what the challenges and opportunities of the prevailing context are, and works from there. My argument is not to deny that industrialisation and urbanisation, for example, presented enormous challenges to the churches. It is to say that ‘the city’ and its moral hazards acquired a debilitating centrality in the Christian mind, leading to a reconstruction of ‘mission’ on lines increasingly shy of transcendence. While much of the scholarly and pastoral commentary was inclined to ‘blame conditions’, the sources demonstrate that the real agents of change were people in the churches responding with energy, but not always consistency, to the changing context. This was not the time-honoured evangelical prerogative of innovation and inculturation: it was nothing less than the inversion of the evangelical creed, starting with a reformulation of ‘sin’. I am delighted that Professor Bebbington identifies the centrality of sin to the argument. Sin became vice, and salvation became an activity. The fascination of the process is not that Christians had their hands forced by external pressures, but that the secularising impulse came from within, and from identifiably ‘Christian’ impulses. As Professor Bebbington has demonstrated in his own work on The Nonconformist Conscience (1), religious passions are rarely so furious as when they have a visible enemy. He is surely right that political participation would echo my thesis. I agree that temperance could have been explored in greater depth – especially since it provides a link between the spheres of church and politics.

I also agree that further study on the impact of Romanticism, and the spread of holiness teaching in particular, could enhance the thesis. It is certainly true that the ‘realised’ and world-affirming impulses of Romanticism should not be simplistically identified with the liberal end of the theological spectrum. As Professor Bebbington points out, Keswick holiness teaching was a form of Romanticised Christianity (he doesn’t use the term) which positively shunned the pastoral innovations that dominate the book. Critics of recreation as a pastoral tool were often called ‘bigots’ and ‘killjoys’ but they were by no means the uncomplicated relics of a stern, dualistic Christianity. The wider point is that pastoral tensions cannot be seen as the mere ‘working out’ of ideas latent in the historical consciousness. Romanticism did not engulf the churches in a single wave of influence. Nor, as Professor Bebbington has demonstrated, did the Enlightenment. Indeed it is here that I see the most fruitful potential for the ungainly hybrid of intellectual, cultural and religious history that I have developed in this book. If this book demonstrates how secular ideas can grow within religious cultures, I am keen to explore ways in which Christian concepts inform and sustain the ‘secular’ critique of religion. When I do so, I shall be more careful to identify the age and provenance of anyone I choose to quote. I acknowledge the errors that Professor Bebbington has identified, although I should say in partial mitigation that the notion of ‘Exclusive’ Baptists was taken from Charles Booth’s summary volume of the Life and Labour of the People in London (1903). I accept that teetotalism was hardly ‘rare’ in the 20th century. My point was that it no longer claimed anything like the shibboleth status that it acquired in the late-Victorian period and cannot be seen as an unchanged ‘test’ of religiosity between the early 19th and mid-to-late 20th centuries. Overall, I am delighted with the depth and generosity of Professor Bebbington’s review. I look forward to further conversations.

Notes

  1. D. W. Bebbington, The Nonconformist Conscience. Chapel and Politics, 1870–1914 (London, 1982).Back to (1)