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Book reviews >

The future: a Church pushed to the margins?

John Wolff commends an excellent study by a historian of religion

Religion and Society in Twentieth-Century Britain
Callum G. Brown

Pearson Longman £18.99 (978-0-582-47289-1)
Church Times Bookshop £17.10

THIS BOOK provides a fascinating survey of British religion in the past century. It begins by highlighting the apparent paradox that, although churchgoing dramatically declined between 1900 and 2000, religion “still mattered”. Subsequent chapters are organised on a broadly chronological basis, offering in turn analyses of the pre-First World War “faith society”; of the ambivalent impact of the Great War itself; of the complex cross-currents of the interwar period and of the Second World War; of the seeming resurgence of faith in the austerity of the 1950s; of the “revolution” of the 1960s; and of the emergence of a secular and multifaith society in the final quarter of the century.

It is a great merit of the book that Brown, a Scot, writes a genuinely “British” religious history, giving due attention to Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, while the emphasis given to England is proportionate to its numerical predominance.

Another attractive feature is the inclusion of short vignettes that focus wider themes through accounts of particular individuals and subjects, including Evan Roberts, the Welsh revivalist; Harold Davidson, defrocked in 1932 for immoral conduct; the celebration of Christmas; religious films; and Esme Lancaster, a Jamaican immigrant.

Sticklers for ecclesiastical accuracy may wince at statements such as “each [sic] archbishopric was divided into thirty or more bishoprics or dioceses”, “too many clergy held comfortable rural deaneries, too few worked in urban areas”, and the promotion of Norwich to an archdiocese. It would be churlish, however, to make much of such occasional defects. Brown is a social historian of religion, not a church historian, and deficiencies in Anglican detail are richly compen-sated for by the invaluable insights that come from his deep under-standing of the wider context in which 20th-century religious institutions operated.

In many ways, this book rounds out and develops his The Death of Christian Britain (2001) by exploring crucial aspects of religious change, such as the impact of war and the growing presence of religions other than Christianity, which were not central to the particular argument of the earlier book.

His conclusions about the cur-rent situation of British Christianity have become more nuanced, albeit still pessimistic. He highlights the popular equation of religion with sexual restraint as a root cause of decline since the 1960s, an image worsened by the aura of hypocrisy consequent on a few high-profile clerical scandals.

He acknowledges that there is continuing spiritual vigour, but sees this as increasingly characterised by a divisive militancy — of liberal as well as neo-conservative varieties — that alienates the uncommitted. He sees little future for the Churches in this country other than on the margins of culture and society.

If he is to be proved wrong, there needs to be urgent thoughtful engagement with the issues that follow from this excellent book.

Dr John Wolffe is Professor of Religious History in the Open University.

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