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British religion in the Fisher period

18 December 2015

David Martin reflects on how the 1950s fit into a longer pattern


Britain’s Last Religious Revival? Quantifying belonging, behaving and believing in the Long 1950s
Clive D. Field
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WAS the secularisation of Britain a case of early onset, accumulating over a long period beginning in the 19th century, as Robin Gill, among others, maintains? Or was it a sudden and relatively recent occurrence in the second half of the 20th century, powered by changes in female roles, as Callum Brown argued in 2009 in a much publicised book The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding secularisation 1800-1900? Was there even a religious revival in the late 1940s and early 1950s?

The questions matter, in part because they bear on wider questions of the causal nexus of secularisation. I have an interest in the issues raised, because I was the first to raise questions about the wider ideological questions embedded in some versions of the secularisation thesis, and because, in 1967, I wrote a book on religion in Britain which had some of the defects of a pioneering work, notably on the statistical side.

I was wrongly dubious about some alarming denominational statistics, though these were pretty clear about Nonconformist decline, and emphasised the remaining densities of attachment to Christianity. I became particularly aware of this with the publication in 1977 of Churches and Churchgoers, by Robert Currie, Alan Gilbert, and Lee Horsley.

Given the historical, sociological, and statistical complexities, the issue becomes, for those not intimately involved in research, one of trust. By that I mean that Clive Field is so much the master of vast ranges of different kinds of material of varying degrees of reliability that one has confidence in his conclusions. Moreover, these are broadly in line with the “gradualist school” represented by Hugh Mcleod.

Callum Brown also posits a sudden change in attitudes (a “discursive revolution”) from a broad acceptance of the cultural significance of Christianity — however amorphous, heterodox, sceptical about institutional forms, and limited as to regular practice and active piety — to indifference and dubiety. This is less easy to get at, since it appeals to qualitative evidence.

Field concludes that, in terms of self-identification and rites of passage, Britain remained a Christian society in the “long 1950s”: Anglicans fared better than Nonconformists, and Roman Catholics were bolstered by migration. As for causal factors, first the cinema and car ownership were relevant, and later television made a serious difference, plus the unwillingness of Christians to pass faith on: witness the declining Sunday schools. Crusades made little difference.

Field rejects Brown’s quantitative case. The weakness of Brown’s case is of a piece with recent upbeat assessments of church growth, especially in London, which do not bear on the overall picture. Secularisation has been generational, steady, and protracted, and women have been throughout more religious than men.


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

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