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Cometh the hour, cometh the group

31 May 2019

John Carter Wood explores how Christian thinkers responded to the ‘power of darkness’ 80 years ago


Students from St Paul’s, London, in the country at Easthampstead, England, to which they had been evacuated, at work in the school’s vegetable patch, in 1939

Students from St Paul’s, London, in the country at Easthampstead, England, to which they had been evacuated, at work in the school’s veget...

ON 31 AUGUST 1939, a leading British ecumenist, Joseph H. Oldham, wrote to the Archbishop of Canterbury, Cosmo Lang, about the darkening political situation in Europe. Should war break out, he argued, the Churches would face not only the immediate problem of adapting to wartime conditions, but also, as he put it, in his inimitable if somewhat wordy style, “the more fundamental and long-range task of clarifying men’s minds regarding the relation of Christianity to what we are fighting for and deepening their hold on the Christian verities not only as a personal support and consolation for the individual but as supplying the principles which alone can make possible a tolerable order of society for the future”.

For two years, Oldham had been setting up projects for exploring faith and the social order, and this work, he insisted, would remain vital.

Church resources were stretched, but Lang agreed. In late September, Britain now at war, the Archbishop called an “emergency meeting”, which was attended by Oldham and several of his associates. This was the overture to a series of efforts that continued throughout the conflict to consider how Christianity might support Britain in war and encourage social renewal.


The Oldham group

WCCJ H OldhamHOW useful could Christian thought be amid the war's unfathomable destruction? And what contemporary relevance can the ideas that emerged then have, when Britain and Europe seem to face fundamentally different challenges and conflicts? These questions require a closer look at one of the few aspects of the Second World War which, as we approach the 80th anniversary of its outbreak, remain unknown to a wider audience: the responses by Christian thinkers and clergy to totalitarianism, war, and post-war reconstruction.

Oldham was far from the only prominent Christian involved in such efforts, but his remarkable energy and organisational effectiveness — he was, in modern parlance, a great networker — drove some of the most creative Christian attempts to grapple with the war's meaning. Operating in close co-operation with the leadership of the Church of England, he was at the centre of a much wider story.

In 1939, Oldham (at this point in his mid-sixties) was something of an elder statesman in international Christian activism. He had co-organised a missionary conference in Edinburgh in 1910, from which had grown the ecumenical movement, which sought to unite Christians worldwide (Features, 9 March 2018).

In 1937, Oldham and William Temple — then Archbishop of York and soon to be enthroned at Canterbury — organised an international conference in Oxford on “Church, Community and State”: one of two conferences that authorised the founding of the World Council of Churches (which, delayed by the war, was inaugurated in 1948). “Oxford 1937” remained a touchstone of Christian social thought in subsequent decades.


AFTER Oxford, Oldham sought to develop the conference's ideas through an organisation supported by the Anglican and larger Free Churches, and also a private discussion group called “the Moot”. (The Roman Catholic Church did not then participate in ecumenical activities, but individual Catholics were involved.)

Oldham also founded and edited a weekly — later bi-weekly — publication, The Christian News-Letter (CNL). These efforts can collectively and retrospectively be referred to as “the Oldham group”. Oldham's importance lay less in his own brilliance — though he was a gifted synthesiser of ideas and had a talent for memorable turns of phrase — and more in his ability to bring creative people together and to guide the resulting intellectual ferment. He also had a keen eye for trends in Christian thought.

The CNL resulted from the emergency meetings after the outbreak of war, and lasted for a decade. It published editorials from Oldham as well as essays by many of the leading Christian thinkers of the period, quickly gaining thousands of subscribers. Along with the many individual articles, books, and radio broadcasts of the group's members — who were remarkably prolific — the News-Letter was the main outlet for their thoughts on faith and the social order.

The Moot’s meetings took place a few times a year in or near London. A private gathering, it allowed the widest possible exploration of ideas. Its members included writers such as T. S. Eliot, John Middleton Murry, and Christopher Dawson, as well as philosophers, theologians, and clergymen such as H. A. Hodges, John Baillie, and Alec Vidler (then editor of the journal Theology). Prominent educators took part (such as Sir Walter Moberly and Sir Fred Clarke), as did ecumenical activists such as Eric Fenn and Kathleen Bliss. Fenn was assistant director of religious broadcasting at the BBC; Bliss took over the editorship of the CNL from Oldham in 1945.

CHURCH TIMESAn advertisement in the Church Times, on 17 July 1942

Perhaps surprisingly, émigré scholars with Jewish backgrounds, such as the sociologists Karl Mannheim and Adolf Löwe (later “Adolphe Lowe”), and the scientist Michael Polanyi (who had converted to Roman Catholicism), played a leading part in the Moot. What attracted agnostics such as Mannheim and Löwe to such an avowedly Christian group was their conviction that a rejuvenated Christianity might offer liberal democracy what they thought it lacked: a solid structure of values to sustain it against totalitarianism.

Oldham’s Christian think tank was far from alone: its members were active in other, similar circles (such as the Anglo-Catholic “Christendom Group”), and in organisations such as the Student Christian Movement. They exchanged ideas with the leading Christian commentators of the day, from theologians and philosophers such as Reinhold Niebuhr and Jacques Maritain to popular writers such as Dorothy L. Sayers and C. S. Lewis. There were many broader efforts aimed at the public, such as the “Religion and Life Weeks”, organised by the Protestant Churches, and the Roman Catholic-led “Sword of the Spirit” movement.


‘This is your hour’: facing down totalitarianism

BY THE outbreak of war in 1939, Oldham and his companions had spent years considering the rise of “totalitarianism”: a topic that continued to obsess them in the coming years.

The label “totalitarian” linked Communism, Fascism, and National Socialism as systems that sought omnipresent State control of all aspects of social life, in accordance with sacralised political principles. Christians helped to popularise this term in the 1930s, not least since totalitarian regimes seemed to pose the greatest threat not only to democracy but also to Christianity itself, by eliminating freedom of conscience and elevating secular ideals to sacred status, whether nation, race, class, or party.

KEYSTONE PICTURESUSA/ZUMAPRESS//ALAMAYStoring torpedoes in an Admiralty factory ready for testing, London, 1939. Each torpedo contained more than 6000 parts. and took several months to complete

Attacks on such political “religions” were a standard part of Christian social commentary in the 1930s; indeed, many argued that it had been precisely the decline of genuine religious belief which had opened the door to the new ideological faiths. The political crisis was thus seen to be of a deeply “spiritual” nature.

Despite this anti-totalitarian stance, some of Oldham’s group were drawn to Marxism. (And there were, of course, several pro-Fascist Christians in this era.) After the Soviet Union entered the war on Britain’s side in 1941, issues of CNL and Moot discussions were peppered with heated debates about the possibilities for coexistence or even co-operation between Communism and Christianity — which reflected wider discussions among the faithful.


THE Christian position was also complicated by the scepticism with which many viewed the existing alternative to totalitarianism. Liberal-capitalist societies — “a congeries of banks, insurance companies, and industries”, in Eliot's memorable phrase — were seen from this perspective as incapable of defeating the totalitarian menace, having been culturally eviscerated by a relativist amorality and chaotic individualism. (Not only Christians thought this way: in the Moot in 1942, Mannheim complained that “today, people changed their sex habits as they changed their clothes”.)

Moreover, “totalitarian” tendencies seemed to be advancing within democracy: the growing power of large institutions — whether the State or industrial and commercial enterprises — seemed to undermine genuine freedom and encourage totalitarian ideas. Some Christians emphasised the need for Britain to “repent” of its own national sins; others, including Lewis, warned that a surfeit of national guilt risked the loss of crucial moral distinctions. (In May 1941, the Christian World described much of the talk of “common guilt” among European nations as “sheer morbid nonsense”.)

Indeed, this self-critical perspective occasionally led to the drawing of questionable equivalences between totalitarianism and democracy, as well as the expression of doubts about whether British society in its current state was worth defending. There were few out-and-out pacifists in the group, although Murry notoriously downplayed the Fascist threat when he wrote of his doubts in Peace News in August 1940 that “a Hitlerian Europe would be quite so terrible as most people believe it would be”. (He later repented of this view and discarded pacifism for a vehement anti-Communism.)

WCCKathleen Bliss

Early meetings of the Moot had even explored — although with little enthusiasm — whether a "Christian totalitarianism" might be the least-worst option available. Such speculations ended when the group took on Mannheim’s idea of “planning for freedom” as part of its consensus: Mannheim argued that state power would inevitably grow, but theorised that large sectors of society could remain unplanned and open to 'spontaneous” creativity.

Mannheim presented this version of “planning” (one of the great buzzwords of these decades) as an alternative either to totalitarian systems or to laissez-faire liberalism: in short, and in his own words, a “third way”. (Later in the war, some members — whether communitarian leftists or anti-statist conservatives — became so opposed to Mannheim's concept that they withdrew to some extent from the group.)


DESPITE the group’s ambivalence, the military crises of 1940 — the Dunkirk evacuation, the threat of invasion, and the opening of the Battle of Britain — meant that it swung determinedly behind the war effort. It drew sharper distinctions between totalitarianism and democracy, even postulating that Britain had a unique national mission not only to defeat totalitarianism but also to build a new society that could stand as a model to heal a damaged world.

This commitment sparked Oldham's evocation in CNL of Jesus's statement to those who apprehended him in Gethsemane — “this is your hour and the power of darkness” — as an analogy for the perilous European situation in May 1940. The forces of evil, he suggested, seemed victorious, but, if Christians could maintain their faith and turn belief into action, they might achieve a “resurrection of Christendom” (the title of a 1940 book by Oldham).

Despite such rhetorical flights, however, few believed that a thoroughly Christianised society could return. Sobering reports from military chaplains about the extent of unbelief in Britain's armed forces were regularly aired in the CNL. Still, it was thought that a fight had to be waged for at least a “more Christian” society. This would require finding allies among the leading secular forces of the day and expressing their aims in ways that non-Christians could accept.


Middle ways

ACROSS various topics, Oldham's associates sought middle ways through an age of extremes. In faith, they tried to avoid either liberal immanentism or the sharp division between the heavenly and the earthly, which was common to the new strands of what was often lumped together as "Continental Protestantism".

In confronting secularity, they urged Christians to live on what Oldham called “the frontier”, i.e. the boundary between faith and the “common life” that was shared with non-Christians. With regard to the state and the economy, they favoured “planning for freedom”.

They upheld a love of local attachments, and even “patriotism”, while rejecting the aggressive “nationalism” common to right-wing movements. They contrasted what they saw as a chaotic, “atomistic” individualism with a more holistic, community-minded “personalism”.

ALAMYSchoolchildren at St Michael’s Church School, Buckingham Palace Road, London, rehearse for a possible evacuation, in 1939

Finally, while seeking a more egalitarian society, group members foresaw a need for a Christian elite in guiding cultural development (a “clerisy”) and hoped to maintain the elite forms of education that most of them had themselves enjoyed (even while hoping to expand access to them). Clearly, some of these efforts to square the conflictual circles of their age were riddled with unsatisfying compromises and apparent contradictions, although perhaps no more so than other ideas of the time.

The members of Oldham’s various projects and circles also shared assumptions about the strategies for gaining new footholds for Christian influence. Most believed — guided by “planning for freedom” — that growing state power held not only risks but also opportunities for Christians.

Through what Mannheim reluctantly referred to as a “revolution from above” (a phrase tainted by totalitarian connotations), it was thought that an elite Christian network working behind the scenes could influence those who held the new levers of power of the “planned” society, whether in education, business, media, or the civil service.

At the same time, a more decentralised effort of knitting together Christian “cells” throughout the country (through projects such as the CNL) was envisioned, allowing faith to act as a cultural “leaven” from below. Although the group was clearly more about thinking than doing, it undertook some efforts in both of these directions.



GIVEN the extreme crises that brought this group together, however, what relevance can it still have in our very different age? It was, after all, specifically the rise of totalitarianism and the seeming helplessness of the democratic response to it which drove what was arguably the most intense Christian exploration of the fundamentals of the social order in the 20th century.

If the era of liberal laissez-faire — socially atomised and culturally hollow — was, in fact, doomed, what might replace it became an open and vital question, to which conflicting answers were offered.

The years in and around the Second World War were littered with Christian circles that held radically different views. Some believed an era of totalitarian darkness was inevitable, forcing a Christian return to the catacombs. Others feared that Christian principles would be corrupted if they were brought too close to state power.

ALAMYSewing sandbags in the East End of London, in 1939

Still others insisted that Christians should cultivate local alternative communities rather than accept a dehumanising industrialised modernity. Such debates were also carried on in the Moot and the CNL. But, despite their differences, group members continued to share a profound fellowship. In this, certainly, they offer a valuable lesson to our fractious and tribal times.

Moreover, for all of the Oldham group’s historical specificity, its concerns still resonate. From the Archbishop of Canterbury's recent calls for a new economy (News, 7 September) to the American writer Rod Dreher’s advocacy of the “Benedict Option” (a withdrawal from participation in a tainted modernity in order to create new, local forms of Christian community), one finds similar ideas in Christian discussions from 80 years ago.

Even much of the language of social critique is strikingly similar, from worries about secularisation, atomisation, rootlessness, and the loss of responsibility in a mechanised (now digitised) society to predictions of the end, failure, or death of liberalism.


THERE are crucial differences, however, between then and now. From a contemporary perspective, the group's willingness to think big stands out. While never optimistic about their chances of success, they believed that Christians should do more than seek out marginal social niches and should instead aim to transform society itself, whether its dominant ideas or its forms of everyday interaction. Such ambitions are now rare.

This is, no doubt, because social debates in the 1930s and ’40s took place in a different landscape of belief. Despite a vocal atheist movement, most British people saw their country as “Christian”, even if early opinion surveys showed that that could mean very different things. Christian perspectives thus had an established, mainstream public position, and leading politicians of all the main parties “did Christianity” in ways that are alien to most of their modern counterparts. This was also an era before Britain became, on a large scale, a “multi-faith” society.

The mid-20th century was also the high point of the age of the “expert” and of the belief in state-led, and at times paternalist, programmes of social progress. Although it was not universally accepted, the Oldham group’s declarations that Christian principles should guide expert “planners”, and that an elite “clerisy” would steer cultural development, was not hugely controversial. It would be unthinkable today.

Both in terms of ambition and context, religious commentators might look enviously at their predecessors: for all their lamentations about living in a “post-Christian society”, they had big ideas — and they were listened to.

Ultimately, however, their influence was limited: post-war Britain was hardly the “Christian society” for which people in the Moot, the CNL, and similar organisations had fought.

ALAMYJohn Middleton Murry

Many saw this clearly at the time. Oldham and his circle broadly welcomed the growth in “social justice” — a key part of their language — while remaining uneasy about the State’s increasing reach. By moving with broader national cultural and political shifts, however, they were able to have some impact: if nothing else, their moderate, constructive approach certainly influenced the ways in which many Christians came to understand and respond to political, social, and cultural change. Other Christians, of course, became modern-day Jeremiahs, warning of the catastrophes to come.

Historical ideas are never to be simply plucked out of the past and inserted into present debates: too much has changed, and, for all our problems, we are far from the desperate days of 1939 or 1940.

Still, the questions that the Oldham group asked — about the relationship of faith to social life, the legitimate place of national feeling, the part played by the State, or the balance between equality and excellence — remain very much alive.

Their discussions and disagreements, their successes and their failures, are thus a resource for Christians who are confronting the unsolved problems of this age. And this is so even if expert knowledge, “middle ways”, and the spirit of humble compromise seem to have gone out of fashion.

Fashions, after all, may change.


Dr John Carter Wood is a researcher at the Leibniz Institute of European History in Mainz, Germany.

This is your hour: Christian intellectuals in Britain and the crisis of Europe, 1939-40 is published by Manchester University Press at £80 (CT Bookshop £72).

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