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On a darkling plain

31 August 2010

David Martin looks at the withdrawal from Christianity in the West


Secularisation in the Christian World: Essays in honour of Hugh McLeod
Callum G. Brown and Michael Snape, editors

Ashgate £45
Church Times Bookshop £40.50

THIS collection of essays is remark­ably coherent, richly documented, and wide-ranging, as befits a celeb­ration of the magisterial work of Hugh McLeod — whose achieve­ments are surveyed by the editors in the opening chapter. Only the Two-thirds World is absent, along with Eastern Europe, China, and Russia, perhaps because these are areas where secularisation has been reversed, or perhaps because the heart of McLeod’s work has mostly been in the older heartlands of Christendom.

Grace Davie, in an eirenic and ecumenical contribution, attempts to right the balance regarding the global south; while David Hempton provides part of the historical back­drop to the changes in the global south by tracing the westward migration from Germany and Britain to North America of an in­creasingly populist and Pentecostal Christianity, which also migrated

to Africa in the persons of ex-slaves “returned” to Sierra Leone. David Hempton also notes how the ex­perience of downward trends in revivalist enthusiasm threw up its own theory of secular­isation.

The most dramatic instances of secularisation are in northern Europe, along what might be called the Prague-Geneva-Wittenberg axis, and in Australasia. It is here that several key essays provide both the long-term history and accounts of the present situation. They are introduced by two more general essays, one by Jeffrey Cox picking up the trajectory of my own initial critique of secularisation, and the other by Linda Woodhead, com­menting on McLeod’s atten­tion to class and to the dimension of religion and values, and sugges­ting how values might be supple­mented by attention to all the sources of religious power and em­powerment.

The most dramatic instances of secularisation — to which, by the way, Lucian Hoelscher provides a subtle theological gloss — are the UK, Scandinavia, and Holland. (France is not covered.) Peter van Rooden provides a notably rich account of how the Dutch gently bade farewell to their religious ghettos, in part pro­pelled by the liturgical changes of Vatican II, while Eric Sidenvall deepens our understanding of Scandinavia by showing how the rural proletariat was secularised before modernisa­tion ever took place.

On Britain, John Wolffe discusses the evolution of the monarchy from defender of Protestantism to a generalised Christianity and finally to generic faith; Callum Brown discusses what he sees as the crucial defection of women after the 1960s; and Steve Bruce trenchantly de-fends the direct relation of secular­isation to modernisation, not only in Britain, but also in the United States.

Three essays are unusual. One by Michael Snape documents the positive effects of the Second World War for religion in the British, Canadian, and American armies. The other two, on Canada (Nancy Christie and Michael Gauvreau) and Australia (David Hilliard), discuss very different trajectories before the secularisa­tions that oc­curred in both societies from the 1970s on. Australian religion lacked any notion of a godly republic, ex­perienced no frontier revivals, and was notably feminised by com­parison with Canada.

Canadian religion was guided by an enlightened clergy able to absorb evolution and actually initiate a country-wide system of welfare and education. This system collapsed, partly for internal religious reasons, and this is a theme that crops up elsewhere in these essays. The Church colluded in the anti-institutional animus of the ’60s. I remember it well.

The Revd David Martin is Emeritus Professor of Sociology at the London School of Economics.

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