How faith fared in the four nations

by
10 February 2009

David L. Edwards on a century of decline, not without honour

England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales: The Christian Church 1900-2000
Keith Robbins
OUP £75
(978-0-19-826371-5)
Church Times Bookshop £67.50

THIS new volume in the Oxford History of the Christian Church deserves prolonged applause and eventually good sales — and not only because it dares to cover all four of the nations in its title.

Inevitably, it has limitations. The price of this first edition will mean that few individuals will buy it, and even librarians will hesitate and perhaps refrain. But other volumes in the series are now paperbacks, and there must be hope. Also, the concentration on institutions rather than ideas should mean that the History of English Christianity 1920-1990 by Adrian Hastings (a liberal Roman Catholic who wrote extensively and sympathetically about Anglicans) is not forgotten.

Nevertheless, the briskness necessary if this story was to be told in some 500 pages is humanised by many gentle touches of donnish wit.

On nearly every page, the text is supported by at least one footnote listing recent books or scholarly articles; and the author does not seem to have used a “research assistant” to deputise for him in studying this mass of material. He has provided a unique bibliography.

The author already had many studies of British politics and social life to his credit when he felt drawn to the world of the Churches — a world ignored by many other historians, for example A. J. P. Taylor in the Oxford History of England.

After education and research in Oxford, Dr Robbins was called north to York and Glasgow as a professor of modern history, branching off into biography and sociology. Then he managed to fit his labours on this magnum opus into 11 years of many duties of the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Wales. It would be a very great error to treat this layman as an amateur.

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A very brief summary of his conclusions, not in his own words, is that during the 20th century almost all these Churches declined, both in their statistics and in their influence on the societies around them. That is a familiar thesis, but here it is documented unanswerably.

Yet almost all survived, and when some disappeared, it was because they joined other groups more or less in their own tradition, as when the Church of Scotland was reunited, as was Methodism in Britain. Remarkably, public opinion about them was not hostile: in the 2001 census, almost three-quarters of the British population identified itself as “Christian”. Again, this is not a new thesis, but here it is stated with authority.

The decline was a major development, because in their years of prosperity the Churches had exercised a power now difficult to believe. The public reacted to the First World War with a patriotism using religion, and that was repeated in 1939 and after.

The world thought that Britain was an important centre in Christendom, and the world was right. Ireland seemed to be another Poland when Roman Catholicism had animated the rebellion against British colonialism, and Protestantism inspired the threat of a rebellion in Ulster to avoid control by Dublin.

We are given many instructive glimpses of that era. We meet the Earl of Chichester who, as the Vicar of Yarmouth, led a crusade against golf on Sundays; and we hear from the eloquent bishops and deans who commanded audiences, having been welcomed, if not born, into the English Establishment, which had an imperial dimension.

We are also enabled to hear from the Church of Scotland when it was the voice of a nation here described as “stateless”, and from Welsh Nonconformity when it won its battle against the Anglicanism that even in that self-conscious nation could call itself the Church of England. And we are told about the English Nonconformity that was beginning to talk about being a “Free Church”. Congregations numbering a thousand or more could listen like fans to princes of the pulpit. All over the country, chapels were loved and used by the laity.

When a cardinal from Rome visited Ireland in 1932, he was treated as royalty, and it could be said that Ireland’s own archbishops were its real government. That is why a great change came when it was revealed that bishops had fathered children and that priests had abused altar-boys. It has been claimed that the “death of Christian Britain” can be dated to the 1960s, but that transition was minor in comparison with the end of clerical prestige and power across the Irish Sea.

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Now the downsized churches are beset by problems about clerical and lay recruitment and about finance — and by deep disagreements about which road to take into the future. This author offers no predictions, but he does point to some trends. On the one hand, dreams about One Church for Britain and One Faith for the world have been abandoned. Yet the ecumenical movement has not been a total failure: Churches are far more polite about each other, and far more realistic about challenges that have come to them all, so that local co-operation has grown.

And within the still divided Churches some pluralism has been largely accepted, in practice if not in theory: some Christians are respected as conservatives and some as liberals, some as enthusiasts and some as the quiet. Some Churches are mostly white, and some are not.

Their honesty about themselves in difficult days may, this author says or implies, commend the Churches. The last words in this masterpiece of justice are: “It was a specious piece of secularist fundamentalism to suppose that only those without religious belief were capable of being objective, fair and balanced.”

Those words are as near as he gets to declaring his own faith, but they do seem to be an invitation to the unchurched to learn, taking account of the facts.

The Very Revd Dr Edwards is a former Provost of Southwark Cathedral.

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