Muscular Christians scored an own goal

by
09 June 2010

Blame the 1870s, not the 1960s, suggests Michael Wheeler

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The Problem of Pleasure: Sport, recreation and the crisis of Victorian religion
Dominic Erdozain

Boydell Press £60
(978-1-8438-3528-8)
Church Times Bookshop £54

BOYDELL’s Studies in Modern British Religious History series aims to broaden the agenda, relating church history to the contours of social and cultural history, and tackling theological, political, and institutional themes. This latest contribution (Volume 22) fits the bill admirably, and deserves at­tention not only from historians, but also from a wider readership. (Alas, the book is priced for the academic library market.)

Dominic Erdozain is Lecturer in the History of Christianity at King’s College, London. His theme is soteriology. The Evangelicalism that shaped mid-Victorian culture had a problem with secular pleasure, which it regarded as the enemy of vital religion.

By the end of the century, how­ever, radical changes had occurred in Evangelical attitudes towards pleasure and sport, and in thinking about what we would now call “body, mind, and spirit”. A “prac­tical, this-worldly theology of salvation-by-recreation”, Erdozain writes, “quietly occluded the classical and explicit soteriology of the parent institutions”.

The later chapters of The Problem of Pleasure are based on wide reading in the primary and second­ary sources, which include docu­mentary materials such as the records of the YMCA and its many branches throughout Britain. Social historians, as well as traditional church historians, will want to follow the close argument of these chapters, which measure the impact of new currents of thought about the body as a temple, the privileging of the affections, and what the author describes as the “ecumenism of toil and emulation”. These cur­rents originated in Romantic philo­sophy — Coleridge was influential here — and, indeed, sport could be defined as “Romanticism with boots on”.

By the late Victorian period a “Gospel of Amusement” was so pervasive among the Churches that the inevitable reaction set in, as more conservative figures reminded the perspiring curates and enthu­siastic cricketing ministers of the dangers of worldliness. Spurgeon left the Baptist Union because he felt that the Church had put Christ in the shade by going into the “amusement business”.

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So far so useful for the academic historians. For the general reader there is more, as The Problem of Pleasure has important implications for today’s Churches, in my view. Those practising Christians who are dismayed by the diminishing part played by organised religion in British society tend to blame “them” out there, the secularisers — not the intellectual atheist minority, but the silent majority, including well-meaning middle England, which really doesn’t care at all about reli­gion. So why do the vast majority of people, turned off the Churches, prefer bread and circuses, or, as they are now known, shopping and football? Perhaps, Erdozain sug­gests, the problem lies inside rather than outside the Church, which has lost its way by confusing religion with ethics, or by remembering Christ’s second commandment and forgetting the first.

His point is that there was a sea-change, not in the trendy 1960s, when clerics turned into social workers, but in the 1870s, when a once vibrant Evangelical movement put social action first and embraced the idea that pleasure was OK. Long sermons on the atone­ment gave way to shorter addresses, and afternoon worship to tea and enter­tainment, or “pleasant Sunday afternoons”. Concerts replaced prayer meetings. Everyone, even young ladies, took to their bicycles: indeed, special Nonconform­ist services were offered for cyclists.

The YMCA, founded as a “divine cure for an urban ‘fall’”, eventually lost its C. In what Erdozain des­cribes as the “general stampede for relevance and ‘contact’”, there developed “a kind of soteriology of sport”. Ah, so that’s why, more than a century later, there is so much sport on television!

Professor Wheeler is the author of Heaven, Hell and the Victorians (Cambridge University Press, 1994).

Professor Wheeler is the author of Heaven, Hell and the Victorians (Cambridge University Press, 1994).

GOOD leadership needs a clear focus, argues Mark Tanner in How to Develop Vision in the Local Church (Grove Renewal Series, No. 36: Grove, £3.95 (£3.55); 978-1-85174-719-1). He offers ideas for how to find a vision, and draw people in, using examples based on his church in Ripon.

These books are available from the Church Times Bookshop.

GOOD leadership needs a clear focus, argues Mark Tanner in How to Develop Vision in the Local Church (Grove Renewal Series, No. 36: Grove, £3.95 (£3.55); 978-1-85174-719-1). He offers ideas for how to find a vision, and draw people in, using examples based on his church in Ripon.

These books are available from the Church Times Bookshop.

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