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Like a mighty army

06 November 2015

This study, Alexander Lucie-Smith says, is of well-organised religion

If the invader comes: an emergency evacuation card, issued by the Borough to the Bishop of Colchester in 1916, advises that the signal to leave will be given with rockets and church bells

If the invader comes: an emergency evacuation card, issued by the Borough to the Bishop of Colchester in 1916, advises that the signal to leave will b...

The Church of England and the Home Front, 1914-1918: Civilians, soldiers and religion in wartime Colchester
Robert Beaken
The Boydell Press £30
Church Times Bookshop £27


IT IS often believed that the Church of England had a bad First World War. Did Anglicans fail to make sense of the suffering of the soldiers, and did this lead to a parting of the ways between Church and people?

To see the war as destroying the credibility of religion may be an attractive thesis, but Robert Beaken’s excellent book shows that it simply is not true. As all good historians should, he concerns himself with minutiae rather than makes vague generalisations. He concentrates on the diocese of Chelmsford, and the city of Colchester in particular, which, being a garrison town, makes a fertile field for his researches.

What emerges is a picture of a diocese and a local church that was robust, organised, and pastorally and liturgically effective, one that was quite up to the challenges presented by war, and by no means bereft of a response to the terrible times in which it lived.

As with all good history books, this one is packed full of great characters. The Bishop of Chelmsford (he was the first bishop of a newly created diocese) was Edwin Watts-Ditchfield, a somewhat authoritarian and remote Evangelical, fond of the phrase “I cannot permit . . .”.

Although the Bishop must have been hard to get on with — one group of contemplative nuns moved out of the diocese rather than give up having the reserved sacrament in their house, as he insisted — Beaken’s portrait of the Bishop is sympathetic. He was deeply religious, and a devoted pastor; and the same goes for the suffragan at Colchester, who was altogether more easy going, Henry Whitcomb.

There were 16 clergy serving the town of Colchester in the war, many of whom, as was the case of their flock, lost sons. Parish records and magazines indicate that they were fully engaged with their parishioners at this time. On page 77, too long to quote here, there is a beautiful passage in which one vicar speaks of the loss of his son on the Western Front, and, crucially, relates this to the suffering of Christ himself, and the sufferings of his parishioners. This is not evidence of a clergy that had lost touch with its people. Far from it.

Of course, the Church is more than the clergy. Step forward, at this point, the superb Mrs Ethel Coats Hutton and the Hon. Mrs Mary Maxse, two ladies who took charge of so much of the war effort on the Home Front in Colchester, and who were active in providing for the comfort of the troops at home, particularly the wounded. They, and so many like them, were superb Christians, and it is good that they are brought to our attention.

But the author, in describing lay involvement, makes one thing clear. Upper-class ladies organised, middle-class ones sat on committees, and lower-class ones did the actual work. Colchester was a stratified and class-bound society, and the Church of England reflected this. Here, surely was the Church’s Achilles’ heel; the war brought about social change, and this change to societal structures must have left the Church out of step with society. But that is the story of what happened next. The war years show a Church that was highly effective and successful in its mission to the nation.

This is, of course, an academic book, and the author has spent hours in libraries and archives, and has the footnotes and bibliography to show for it. As such, he is to be congratulated for blowing away a myth about the Church and the war that has had far too much currency. More than that, he has produced a book that is highly readable, and which opens up a window into the past which fills the reader with admiration and respect for our gallant forebears, both on the Home Front and in the church pews.

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