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Muddled, sophisticated, ‘Funk and despair’

04 November 2016

The National Mission of 1916 gained a mixed initial reception. Robert Beaken explains how it progressed

Co-ordinator: the Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, who led the National Mission of Repentance and Hope

Co-ordinator: the Bishop of London, Arthur Winnington-Ingram, who led the National Mission of Repentance and Hope

IN THE autumn of 1916 — as the effects of conscription were starting to be felt in communities across Britain, and as the Battle of the Somme was drawing towards its bloody conclusion in France — the Church of England held a simultaneous mission across every parish in England: something it had never attempted before.

The mission had various causes. In the autumn of 1914 there was a patchy but noticeable increase in church attendance across England. It was widely believed that this was the beginning of a religious revival.

That year, in the first shocked weeks of the war in 1914, as preachers and religious leaders cast around to try to understand the calamity that had befallen Europe, the idea arose that, although the war was in the first instance the result of German militarism, it might also be understood in some sense to be the result of corporate and individual sin, to which the appropriate response was repentance and increased Christian devotion.

Finally, the population was experiencing unparalleled levels of stress because of the war, and the Church of England felt that it ought to do something.

A committee appointed by the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, recommended holding a national mission. Initially, the plan was to hold it after the war, but, as the conflict dragged on, a decision was made to go for autumn 1916.

Missions had been introduced to the Church of England by the second generation of Anglo-Catholics from the 1850s and ’60s, and were taken up by the rest of the Church of England. They combined elements from American revivalist missions popularised by Dwight L. Moody and Ira D. Sankey with aspects of the missions held in the French Roman Catholic Church to reclaim their country for Christianity after the fall of Napoleon in 1815. By the start of the 20th century, missions were very popular in the Church of England: the Community of the Resurrection, for example, had ten members who were predominantly engaged in missions by 1906.


ON 4 FEBRUARY 1916, the Archbishops of Canterbury and York announced that a National Mission of Repentance and Hope would be held in the autumn. Bishop Watts-Ditchfield, of Chelmsford, admitted that the title was cumbersome, but said that it was the best the Bishops could think of.

The National Mission was to be co-ordinated by a central council of 70 members, chaired by Bishop Winnington-Ingram of London, with William Temple (at that time the Rector of St James’s, Picadilly) as the secretary. Dioceses were left to make their own separate programmes.

There was no single understanding or uniform interpretation of the national mission, even among the members of the central committee. Many Evangelicals, for example, emphasised individual repentance, while Christian Socialists tended to emphasise corporate repentance. The result was that the National Mission managed to be both muddled and also sophisticated.

The summer months of 1916 were spent preparing the clergy and laity of England’s parishes for the National Mission with a series of retreats, meetings, and what we would today call “workshops”. Special prayers and other materials were prepared. Some people grumbled about the mission — the Vicar of Thaxted, Conrad Noel, called it the “Mission of Funk and Despair” — but it would seem that a level of interest grew, as summer turned into autumn.


THE first stage of the mission came in September, when Randall Davidson sent Archbishop’s Messengers — priests who were supposed to be anonymous — to preach in all the cities and towns of England. Earlier in the year, Archbishop Davidson had been impressed during a visit to the Western Front when he encountered small groups of French girls’ being taught to pray in Roman Catholic churches by Frenchwomen. He decided that he would also send Archbishop’s Lady Messengers.

A storm in a tea cup ensued in August, when this was announced, but Davidson dealt with it by announcing that his Lady Messengers would not speak from pulpits, and, on the whole, his Lady Messengers, who were all immensely respectable, not to say quite grand, appear to have been a success.


THE first stage of the National Mission came in September, when the Archbishop’s Messengers and Lady Messengers arrived in their allocated towns, and stayed for about a week. There seem to have been daily celebrations of holy communion in different churches, and the Messengers addressed special services and groups such as the Church of England Men’s Society, and the Mothers’ Union.

The mission continued in October at a diocesan level. Opening services were held in cathedrals and large churches, after which every parish received a visit from a Bishop’s Messenger, who usually stayed for a week. Many churches delivered letters about the mission to every house in the parish. Special prayers and liturgical resources were used.

Besides preaching in church, some Bishop’s Messengers preached at open-air services, and several enterprising ones conducted services beside street shrines which had begun to appear in commemoration of parishioners killed in the war.

The departure of the Archbishop’s Messengers coincided with the run-up to Christmas, and the National Mission seemed to fizzle out. There is often a sense of anti-climax when a mission comes to an end. It has been preceded by months of prayer, preparation, expense, and hard work. People have found themselves stirred and challenged. Now the time comes to pack up, pay the bills, and return to the humdrum experiences of daily life.

Such feelings were widespread in the Church of England by the end of 1916. Subsequent generations of historians have seldom tried very hard to understand the National Mission, and frequently have been dismissive of it.


THE National Mission sought, in part, to convert people from scratch to Christianity; but it sought more to encourage and deepen the faith of existing churchgoers, and to inspire them to play their part in the Church of England’s wartime work and witness.

Missions are in the business of planting seeds; the harvest comes later, and not always in the form expected. One unlooked-for spin-off was that the National Mission helped to pave the way for the creation of the Church Assembly after the war.

Looking back over the course of a century, there is something rather noble about the National Mission, despite its muddles and inconsistencies. During the unprecedented conditions of a world war, the Church of England sought to reach the nation as a whole with the challenge and comfort of the gospel. Nothing of this sort had been seen before; nor has the Church of England had the courage or confidence to attempt it since 1916.


The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is Priest-in-Charge of Great and Little Bardfield, in the diocese of Chelmsford, and the author of The Church of England and the Home Front 1914-18 (Boydel & Brewer, 2015).

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