Harlow, Pearson Education, 2006, ISBN: 9780582472891; 360pp.; Price: £19.99
Date accessed: 6 August, 2021
This study by Callum Brown, Professor of Religious and Cultural History at the University of Dundee, forms part of a larger series of general survey volumes entitled ‘Religion, Politics and Society in Britain’ under the general editorship of Keith Robbins. As such its brief is wide, and, as the preface lays out, it aims to provide the ‘first comprehensive narrative of religion in British society and culture throughout the twentieth century’ (p. xvi).
There have of course been general survey volumes before, perhaps most notably Adrian Hastings’ A History of English Christianity, 1920–1985 (1). Brown’s study ranges a great deal more broadly than this, and it is indeed a most significant and welcome aspect of the book that it considers areas of the subject that have been comparatively neglected: it pays particular attention to non-English, and in particular Scottish material, and to the trajectories taken by faiths other than Christianity. It is also wholly un-ecclesiastical in character, and indeed the reader requiring a summary of the subject matter of traditional church history of this period—liturgical change, bishops, and synods—will probably need to look elsewhere. The subject of this study is the people, and not the churches.
Brown rightly chooses to situate his account in the context of three major world trends: firstly, the secularization, or perhaps de-Christianization of greater Europe; secondly, a worldwide growth of militancy in various forms in many of the religious traditions; and thirdly, the rise of the ‘new age’ or ‘spiritual revolution’, the de-centring of religious experience and the move away from structures, membership, and codification of doctrine, particularly in the Christian west. The pattern of much of Brown’s narrative will be familiar to those acquainted with his earlier study The Death of Christian Britain (2), with the disintegration of Christian culture happening very suddenly and catastrophically in the 1960s, rather than being part of a century-long gradual decline. Bringing the narrative of Christian Britain up to the turn of the millennium, Brown rightly focuses on the experience of non-Christian minorities in the UK, the progressive adaptation to and accommodation with change happening within the Christian churches, and on a rise in religious militancy in the last two decades (of which more below).
In short, Brown has written an important study which is wide-ranging and stimulating in its selection of source material, ranging from printed periodicals to oral testimony and autobiography, and from statistics on church attendance to naming practices. The writing is often evocative, and particularly so on the ferment of the 1960s, the most colourful of decades, and his eye for a vivid detail is acute: the story of the notorious Rector of Stiffkey finds a place, along with the jostling of Billy Graham by a Soho crowd in 1966, and the silence of Evan Roberts.
It may be considered invidious to criticize a general study such as this for omissions and weight of emphases, given the diversity of British religion during the period. However, as noted above, the study does lay some claim to comprehensiveness, and I should like to raise a series of points at which different emphases might have produced a different account.
The first concerns Brown’s treatment of the motors of religious change. Whilst the book notes the principal historiographical frames through which the question may and has been viewed (pp. 8–15), the body of the text, whilst masterly in its description of the progress of religious change and its effects, seems less concerned as to its causes. It is perhaps in the realm of religious ideas that the lack of focus on causation is most acute. For instance, Brown rightly groups together the sweeping legislative change in the later sixties (the Sexual Offences Act and Abortion Act of 1967, and the earlier Lady Chatterley trial) but touches only lightly on the tangled cluster of debates relating to the nature of the state, sexuality, human nature, and the person that were both implicit and explicit in the debates surrounding them. The 1950s and 1960s were a period of remarkable intellectual change, and the study would have profited from giving those changes greater weight.
Whilst the decline of religious behaviour, as measured by the traditional indicators of church attendance, baptisms, and so on, was indeed dramatic in the middle and latter part of the century, one feels from Brown’s account that such changes can be taken as read—that they were simply an inevitable result of the victory of right-thinking people and the shrugging-off of prurience and conservative cowardice. Brown on occasion allows his authorial objectivity to slip, which needlessly obscures his argument. The churches in 1900 were ‘past-masters in producing good spin on their own performance’ (p. 76). The 36,431 Londoners responding during the Billy Graham meetings of 1954–5 are described as a ‘minute’ total (p. 195), but the 350 initiates of Hare Krishna between 1976–83 were ‘immensely influential … shattering narrow conceptions of religion’ (pp. 263–4). There are also explicit value judgements on some of the issues under examination, with the authorial ‘we’ occasionally allowed to presume to speak on behalf of the reader. The ‘new world’ envisioned by Archbishop Randall Davidson at the close of the First World War is ‘a chimera to us’ (p. 99) Before 9-11 ‘we comprehended our world as a glide from religion to reason, from talking redemptive states to talking welfare states’ (p. xv). The arguments advanced against the ordination of women may well have been ‘sexist, absurd, illogical and hypocritical’ (p. 253), but in the context of this study, their correctness is beside the point.
A second issue, which is closely connected to the first, relates to Brown’s treatment of the religious ‘establishment’. Brown is often careful to note the divisions within the churches into liberal and conservative positions. The stir caused by Honest to God, by John Robinson, Bishop of Woolwich, is skilfully evoked, and Robinson was indeed to appear for the defence in the Lady Chatterley trial. This care over detail is, however, frequently undermined by a rhetorical tendency to speak of an undifferentiated ‘establishment’, a stubborn obstacle to change. Thus the ‘forces of puritanism‘ rose up against the sexual revolution, represented by Mary Whitehouse, ‘an artless parody of anti-intellectualism’, but the same ‘forces of church reaction’ finally fall silent in the face of the legislative changes of the late 1960s (pp. 248–9, 267).
This rhetorical tendency to adopt too straightforward a progressive-reactionary typology (which, it must be stressed, is belied by much of Brown’s detail) tends to obscure the intricacy of the negotiation between continuity and change going on within the ‘establishment’ and the constitution of that establishment itself. The ‘establishment’ was a remarkably amorphous and mobile construct, capacious enough to embrace the usual corporate bodies of church, law, and politics, but to a large degree populated by the looser groupings of civil society. The establishment was also able eventually to embrace an outsider figure such as Benjamin, eventually Baron Britten, and it was W. H. Auden who expressed equivocatory gratitude that his homosexuality had ‘saved me from becoming a pillar of the Establishment, and it might not even have done that if I hadn’t bolted to America’ (my italics) (3). A great deal of work remains to be done to trace the shifting and overlapping subsets of the several establishments in British society, and the varying trajectories of resistance and adaptation to, and adoption of, changing ideas, and such a bi-polar picture of progress and reaction as Brown seems to present tends to obscure them.
It was also the case that change within the churches was sometimes driven by the clergy, with little enthusiasm, and often opposition, from the laity. Brown rightly notes the efforts to introduce ‘pop’ church music (pp. 264–5), but implies that it was primarily a reactive movement, driven by changes in popular culture. The present author has argued at length elsewhere that the introduction of pop into church provoked several varying trajectories of reaction, with clergy, church musicians, and the laity lined up on each side of the arguments for and against its adoption (4). The same might also be argued in relation to the introduction of modern art into Anglican churches, with the experiments of Walter Hussey, Vicar of St Matthew’s, Northampton and Dean of Chichester being often supported by a minority of clergy, vigorously supported by art-critical voices (notably Sir Kenneth Clark, an establishment figure par excellence), but often vehemently opposed by laity, both active members of the church and not (5). The reactions prompted from outside the churches to the advent of revised liturgies in the Church of England in the 1970s show that lay religious conservatism could remain as vigorous outside the churches as within them, if not indeed more so.
The final area with which I should like to engage, which is related to the question of the conservative nature of the establishment, is that of the labelling of conservative religion. This is by way of an elaboration on themes left implicit in Brown’s study, and arguably unavoidably so, given the constraints of a chronological narrative. Several terms denoting conservatism appear throughout, including ‘fundamentalism’, ‘puritanism’, ‘militancy’, ‘evangelicalism’, and ‘revivalism’. ‘Puritanism’, when conceived of as a daily, lived concern with personal behaviour, is perhaps reasonably stable as a term, although its historic and pejorative overtones cannot be reckoned without. Fundamentalism, a much more problematic term, does not receive a clear definition at any point. Christian fundamentalism, in its US incarnation, is characterized by high levels of adherence, increased political activism, and the adoption of Creationism or ‘intelligent design’ (p. 12). In the UK, where (as Brown rightly points out) Christian fundamentalism has not been as strong, it has tended to be characterized by a strict adherence to the literal sense of Biblical injunction (pp. 117–19). When defined solely in these terms of attitudes of sacred texts, there are (as Malise Ruthven has suggested) reasonable grounds for labelling the vast majority of Muslims as ‘fundamentalist’, when defined very narrowly on the basis of the orthodox view of the authorship of the Koran (6). Given the present state of our public discourse, particular care is needed to distinguish between forms of militancy, and to delineate more precisely what is meant by ‘fundamentalism’.
An urgent task, and one which Brown begins to undertake but is restrained from completing by the dictates of the shape of the book, is to begin to examine the different causes of religious activism. Such activism can be motivated by the simple desire to preserve a societal status quo (which may often be evident among those of only the loosest relationship to any established church). It may be motivated by a desire, when under perceived pressure, to carve out space, be it legislative or physical, in which one might continue to practice one’s faith in private and unmolested. In its highest key, such militancy may be motivated by a more thorough-going intent to re-convert secular society to the true path, whether by door-to-door evangelism or by lethal force. When Ian Paisley, Mgr Bruce Kent, Peter Tatchell, or the London bombers of 7 July 2005 might all reasonably be described as ‘militant’, more precise terms of art are needed for the task of understanding religious activism in late-twentieth-century Britain.
These cavils aside, Brown is to be applauded for his attempt to encompass a period of often bewildering religious diversity. The study will doubtless find a wide readership amongst scholars, students, and general readers and, like The Death of Christian Britain before it, provoke and shape debate on religion and society in modern Britain.
- First published in 1986, and subsequently revised twice, to extend to the year 2000. The fourth edition appeared in 2001, published by SCM Press. Back to (1)
- The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800–2000 (London, 2000). It was reviewed by Sheridan Gilley for Reviews in History ( see http://www.history.ac.uk/reviews/paper/gilleys.html ). Back to (2)
- Auden to Christopher Isherwood, quoted in N. Jenkins, ‘Historical as Munich. Auden at 100: Who is he now ?’, TLS 9/2/2007, 12–15, at 12. Back to (3)
- (co-authored with Ian Jones, University of Manchester), 'Anglican "Establishment" Reactions to "Pop" Church Music in England, c.1956–1991' in Elite and Popular Religion, ed. K. Cooper and J. Gregory, Studies in Church History, 42 (2006), pp.429–41. Back to (4)
- Some sense of the reactions to Hussey’s commissions may be found in his Patron of Art (London, 1985), pp. 67–73. Back to (5)
- M. Ruthven, Fundamentalism. The Search for Meaning (Oxford, 2004), p. 60. On Christian fundamentalism, see the classic study by James Barr, Fundamentalism (London, 1977; second edition 1981). Back to (6)
I want to thank Peter Webster for a very thoughtful and engaged review of my book, and his extremely kind remarks about it. Trying to write a book with a broad sweep to a whole century, when there is no agreed form as yet to that sweep amongst scholars, is both challenging and by the very nature of the exercise likely to spark contradictory critiques. To gain for my attempts the generous comments he gives is all the more pleasing.
Peter raises a number of most interesting issues.
First, he raises historical causation of religious change. The thorniness of this is, of course, to be widely acknowledged. Causation of religious change is the almost unanswerable question of all religious history. It raises issues that are often deeply informed by faith or ideology, and frequently wholly irreconcilable. Scholarship in religious history and sociology of religion is thus conducted in a kind of chaotic dance where the participants are on the same dance floor, seemingly entranced by each other’s moves, performing Paul Jones switches that take them around a variety partners, but often ending up bumping into each other (very politely) because their footwork is responding, not to the music of a single band, but to different tunes heard on personal iPods. This is the nature of the business of religious scholarship; there is no agreement on the nature of what ‘it’ is, what ‘causes’ it to exist, or what tends to incur growth or decline (however those might be measured). That position of disagreement in the academy is not going to change.
Consequently, the way that the decline of Christian faith, for instance, is perceived varies enormously amongst faith-based historians, and is usually very different from the perceptions of non-faith-based historians such as myself. Yet again, the intellectual change (‘the tangled cluster of debates’) discussed by the elites in a society, which Peter thinks is important as a driver of religious change in the 1950s and 1960s, is to me less significant (by a long way) than the fundamental demographic and cultural changes experienced by the many. Sometimes we may be talking about the same things―sexuality, gender, freedom of the individual―but whether these are being changed by high debate or by people’s pressure depends on where the historian is coming from. For my part, I come strongly from ‘below’, looking at the experiential conditions that underpin the place of religiosity in popular culture. In this regard, contrary to his suggestion, I am very concerned with causes of religious change. It is just that I don’t entirely agree with what he thinks are the ‘causes’ of such change. Even when the causes are ‘the same’, I suspect we think differently in how they did this. For instance, we both seem to rate sexuality as important to change in the place of religion in the sixties; but Peter sees this as evidence of ‘remarkable intellectual change’, whilst I see it as a powerful groundswell of popular (mostly youthful) opinion that subverted ecclesiastical authority. In this way, my book is about religion and society, and for this reason it is devoted to the cultural, social, and economic context which framed religious change in Britain during the century, and I offer extensive commentary about causation of that change (notably in chapter 1). Intellectual change is for another scholar to review and, more importantly, to demonstrate how exactly it might have instigated secularization of British society, the rise of multiculturalism, the growth of religious militancy, and the blossoming of the New Age.
Of great interest to a cultural historian are Peter Webster’s comments on ‘the establishment’. This was a topic that enthralled Britons in the fifties and sixties―no more so than the satirists and comedians who did much to provide young Britons with the rhetoric with which to identify and challenge reaction. There is fine work underway now to dissect the cultural reactionaries of the period, and the establishment was not, as he rightly says, monolithic. By the same token, the liberals of those decades were not uniform, distinguished by diverse ideologies, religiosities, and cultural alignments. In trying to distil these trends for a one-volume book on the whole century, I have undoubtedly tended to dichotomize these. But for the most part what I am describing is the way in which the hardening conservativism of official and civic culture in the fifties heralded the pretty uniform oppositional mindset of the establishment as it met the liberalization of popular culture and morality in the sixties. And there was a very tangible collision between two poles played out in the mid to late sixties―in many cases almost nightly―on television, the stage, concert hall, and the press. Malcolm Muggeridge and Mary Whitehouse were two of the leading public faces confronting student radicals, women’s liberation, sexual revolution, pop music, and (as many saw it) young people’s hopes in general, on behalf of a reactionary, albeit eclectic, establishment. The notion of variation to each camp does not negate the tangibility in the decade of a pretty two-sided moral combat.
Peter speaks eloquently of the complexities of ecclesiastical and lay attitudes to innovation in worship in the fifties and sixties. Yes, there was great division within the churches on this, and, yes, there were (and remain) some laity more forcefully opposed to such innovation than church people. But many will have difficulty in accepting that the attempt of worship innovators to introduce pop music, coffee bars, and discos onto church premises was anything other than ‘a reactive movement, driven by changes in popular culture’. These were trends that started in popular culture, not in the churches, whatever diversity of response there was within them, and whatever clerical pioneers fought to achieve. Whilst American gospel and Caribbean Christian traditions played a part from the mid 1960s, the happy-clappy music in British white culture of the fifties and sixties had important origins in indigenous folk and pop-music traditions―often deeply secular, at best religiously-apathetic, sometimes strongly socialist, and in many parts of the U.K. associated with ethnic identities and nationalisms. The popularity of ‘If I had a hammer’ in youth worship by the early 1960s was one sign of that.
Peter is absolutely right about the importance of using religious labels with accuracy. I try to impose a rigid order and accuracy to this task, and I appreciate his elaborations on the issue of ‘fundamentalism’. As he will have noted, I differentiate the sometimes interlocking natures of ‘conservatism’, ‘puritanism’, ‘fundamentalism’, and ‘militancy’. Fundamentalism is very much in the eye of the beholder, and the most problematic and probably least useful category for the cultural and social historian. Conservative and puritan are more active and pertinent for description across the twentieth century. But it is the rise since the late 1980s of militancy that I find the most noteworthy development of contemporary British religions, for it describes changing methods (ranging from trying to ‘convert’ gays, to issue-based media campaigns and lobbying of the parliaments, secular charities and cultural media), increasing attempts at intruding on personal freedom (such as criminalizing abortion and broadening blasphemy laws), and attempts to influence the civil state (increasingly through cross-religious coalitions, threats of referenda, and the withdrawal of church communion from ‘disobedient’ members of parliament). Militancy in highly-religious USA, India, Nigeria, or Indonesia is comprehensible―militancy in the midst of secularizing Britain is a more perplexing proposition. And despite differences over the use of violence, the trend is one to be found across all Britain’s main religions.
Finally, Peter reproves me for allowing my ‘authorial objectivity to slip’. Well, I doubt whether anybody has such a thing. Whether ‘objectivity’ is really possible in any circumstances of historical research is a question of reflexivity and conceptual orientation. (I have written at length elsewhere that, beyond the need for evidence-based argument, I think it is neither desirable nor attainable (1).) But leaving that aside, it is the very job of the historian to provide a critical commentary on the past. A history book is not a collection of random facts, but an author-researched narrative that offers judgement on the past, on historical change, and, moreover, on the ‘correctness’ of arguments proffered by people in the past. So, yes, the churches in 1900 were very good at ‘spin’ on their own performance in reports to their members and to the press; I don’t think that is either startling or damning, just to be expected of large organizations facing altering prospects. It is an historian’s judgement, and not a ‘loss’ of objectivity, to report that a small number of Hare Krishna devotees, making startling religious performance of a type never seen before on streets and concert-halls across Britain in the late 1960s, were more influential in changing perceptions of religion than the two per cent of attenders at Billy Graham’s 1954 crusade who stayed for after-meetings in private rooms. And it is necessary and responsible for the historian to inform a young reading audience of today that some Anglicans opposing women’s ordination proffered incredibly sexist reasons―including the official Anglican report of 1966 that argued that, if appointed, female clerics would seduce their male counterparts in fornicating and adulterous relationships. Are such comments ‘beside the point’? Or are they the very stuff of historical judgement?
Despite such differences over the historian’s role, Peter Webster has been very generous in his review. Research on twentieth-century religion is very much work in progress, and with every passing year our contemporary world throws up a new angle.
- C. G. Brown, Postmodernism for Historians (Harlow, 2005). Back to (1)