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This Is Your Hour, by John Carter Wood

27 September 2019

Jeremy Morris reviews a study of J. H. Oldham and his associates

TIME lends a selective heroic aura to the causes of the past, and it is the job of historians often to point out the complicating factors, the twists and turns of people caught up in perplexing events, and the inconvenient truths quickly forgotten once a crisis is past.

If the Second World War was a great crusade against Nazi barbarism, a host of misleading generalisations and misconceptions none the less cling to that perception — not least the idea that the nation was misled by a feeble coterie of appeasers, the “Guilty Men” of Michael Foot’s famous polemic. The great merit of John Carter Wood’s book (Features, 31 May) is that it is yet another plumb line dropped down to sound the depths of the complex religious and political world of the late 1930s.

Its subject is the cluster of Christian intellectuals who were gathered together in various fora by the great ecumenist and missionary thinker Joseph Oldham. Including people such as Karl Mannheim, T. S. Eliot, John Middleton Murry, Kathleen Bliss, Alec Vidler, and John Baillie, the “Oldham group”, as Carter Wood calls them, shared convictions about the decline of Western civilisation and its roots in the onset of secularism, the social relevance of Christianity, and the corrupting effects of capitalism which would sit uncomfortably with conventional ideas of the origins of the European crisis today. Many of them pacifists reluctantly forced to accept the necessity of war, they were also convinced internationalists who grasped the evil of the Nazi regime at first with equal reluctance.

Carter Wood provides, in effect, a group biography, tracing their origin in the tireless work of Oldham himself to draw people together. Central to that work was the Moot, an intellectual discussion group that ranged widely over contemporary theological and social issues; but the author pays equal attention to the Christian Frontier Council, an attempt to create a Christian body that would influence government policy, and the Christian News-Letter, which at its peak had more than 11,000 subscribers.

The group supported ecumenical initiatives, argued for the public relevance of Christian social thought, and provided an important defence of liberal, representative government. It is beyond the scope of the book seriously to analyse the impact of these ideas, although the author does point out how rapidly some of the group’s positions were overtaken in the post-war settlement.

J. H. Oldham

This is a well-written and solidly researched book, drawing on a very wide range of published sources. The author’s grasp of the intricacies of the careers of the Oldham “group” is impressive, and, without doubt, this will become a vital resource for all those seeking to understand the response of Christian theologians and intellectuals in Britain to the mid-20th-century European crisis.

If I do have a criticism, it is that the author’s method is a very synthesising one: although he acknowledges significant differences of opinion, none the less he tends to elide the views of different individuals into a common position. Oldham’s importance was great, without doubt, but the effect here is to magnify it and even exaggerate it. There was great fluidity between various groups of intellectuals. The “Christendom group”, which Carter Wood mentions in passing several times, and which included Eliot himself, V. A. Demant, and Maurice Reckitt, shared some common concerns with Oldham, but differed significantly on a wide range of issues. Yet Eliot’s membership of the Moot and his friendships with various of its regular contributors make his position in this narrative somewhat ambiguous.

At a price beyond the pocket of some Church Times readers, this is likely to be a book for serious scholars of mid-20th-century Christianity. It is a very valuable companion to the authoritative biography of Oldham by Keith Clements, and it is, above all, a thorough guide to the content and ambition of Oldham’s social, theological, and ecumenical projects.

The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris is the Master of Trinity Hall, Cambridge.

This Is Your Hour: Christian intellectuals in Britain and the crisis of Europe, 1937-49
John Carter Wood
Manchester University Press £80
Church Times Bookshop £72

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