“SHOULD a Christian take up arms against an oppressive regime?”
This thorny question could as well be addressed to Jesus in AD 29 as to a bishop during a diocesan visit in 2019.
Today, we call it Q&A. Fewer mics were roving in churches in 1952, the year of the Queen’s accession — but lively exchanges appeared in print, on the pages of Moral Problems, published by Mowbrays, with the subtitle Questions on Christianity with answers by prominent churchmen (Books, 24 October 1952).
Among the respondents was Enid Blyton, who took a break from Noddy and Big Ears to answer the question: “I want my child to be properly brought up — but is religious teaching necessary? Can’t it choose for itself later on?”
The book, intended for a C of E mission to the RAF, offered good value for money: no fewer than 29 other ethical dilemmas were investigated all for five shillings.
In his introduction, the Bishop of Croydon, Cuthbert Bardsley, acknowledges that servicemen may not be curious about the doctrines of incarnation, the atonement, or transubstantiation (an earlier collection, Difficulties, had addressed “theological problems”). But might they not take an interest in the morality of marrying a brother’s wife, or playing cards on a Sunday?
(The questions were not, in fact, asked in their written form, but based on what missioners imagined “ordinary people” would feel most impelled to ask.)
THERE is a striking no-nonsense tone in the responses which many today would regard as judgemental.
In her answer, Blyton, by far the most popular children’s author of the post-war period, has in her sights the “juvenile delinquent”: “Look at him! Listen to his sullen answers. Everyone in court knows this boy doesn’t begin to understand the difference between right and wrong. Why should he — with parents obstinate and unco-operative, never checking his early pilfering and lying? He’s ‘agin everybody’ and there can be no appeal to his ‘better nature’ or moral sense.”
She despairs of young girls, too — so fragile, drifting towards adulthood unrestrained by conscience or “proper” mothering. A trifle contentiously, she confesses to making mental notes during book-signing sessions about uncherished, untutored, unparented readers.
Thankfully, religious education fills the void, and gives youngsters integrity and “backbone”. Blyton expects each parent to lead by example as well as instruction, and admires Boy Scouts, Sunday schools, St John Ambulance, and the Dumb Friends’ League — all on hand to assist mothers in shaping good, kind, and courageous offspring: today’s Baby Boomers.
Meanwhile, Rosamond Fisher, then wife of the Archbishop of Canterbury — the only other female contributor — found herself grappling with the question, “If two people are unhappily married, with no children, why does the Church oppose their divorce?”
For Mrs Fisher, the presence or otherwise of children was irrelevant to the answer: marriage was an institution entered into for life. One day, she feared, the words “husband” or “wife” would lose all their meaning and dignity. Separation? Yes. Divorce? No.
IN 1952, an estimated eight million people attended a place of worship on most Sundays: a figure that has halved as we approach the sunset of the Queen’s reign.
Already, Bishop Bardsley feared a tide of materialism and the triumph of secularism. He argued convincingly, however, that such a landscape in no way negated people’s search for answers to the myriad quandaries of their everyday living. Debt was always frightening; vagrancy was for ever comfortless — whether someone was facing the altar or turning the other way.
To John Betjeman came the question: “As a married man in a job, what is the good of my becoming a Christian when I can’t possibly live up to Christ’s ideal standard?”
The poet believed that “men go on being attractive to women longer than most women remain attractive to men” — hence the latter’s lapse into adultery. Earnest intent, not perfection, was the goal. “When married, a man is not alone. His wife’s love helps him. Even if — at times — [her] love seems to have disappeared, this is different from the love [expressed by] man. Her love often goes on for longer — and can sustain a marriage that seems to be broken.”
The Cold War was the backdrop to political questions. Long before he was enthroned as Bishop of Southwark, Mervyn Stockwood was asked to consider whether Communism was merely “advanced Socialism”.
“Christians know that perfection springing from the abolition of capitalism is nonsense,” he wrote. “A new ruling class might be not better than the old. Christians are opposed to faked trials, shootings, deportations, concentration camps, and secret police; [these are] not tools to build a wholesome society.”
Instead, he wanted docks, coalmines, transport, heavy industry, and shipping to belong to and serve the whole nation, on a not-for-profit basis.
Elsewhere, with the Second World War a recent memory, the Revd Charles Smyth struggled with conscientious objection: “It is always wrong to force any man to do anything against his conscience: [when he] is obliged to break the law, the State has a legal right — and possibly a moral duty — to punish him, not for obeying his conscience but simply for breaking the law!”
AT FIRST glance, Moral Problems looks a bit like skittles placed upright in order to be knocked down.
“Are football pools an evil?” it is asked. Yes.
“Does the Church condemn Sunday amusements?” A qualified No.
“Should the bachelor father of a child born outside marriage marry the mother?” No.
“Is euthanasia ever right?” A considered No.
“Is suicide always wrong?” Yes (the 1961 Suicide Act was yet to come).
Many writers were clearly ahead of their decade; but others, notably Walter Carey, a former Bishop of Bloemfontein, were not. Asked “What is the attitude of the Church to the colour problem?”, he provided an answer that sounds blinkered, obtuse, condemnatory, and Edwardian: “[We] are making strenuous efforts to convince fellow Africans [to enter] partnerships of body, mind, and soul. Pagan marriages are not beautiful. The men are very idle in the mass. In spirit they are warriors. Women dig, plant, reap, cook, and carry crushing burdens of firewood while men look on.”
Dr Roger Pilkington, of the Royal Institute of Public Health, wrestled with his given question: “Is not compulsory sterilisation justified to prevent the reproduction of degenerate types?”
Over the most pages given to any contributor, he could not pronounce with certainty: “‘Better never to have been born’ is the vital idea at the back of . . . sterilisation . . . [but] few people would seriously consider physical deformity makes it impossible for a human to live a ‘full life’. It is with mental defects we must concern ourselves. A few types of mental degeneracy are inherited directly from parent to child — and these could in theory be prevented by sterilisation [pre-birth] which would not entirely eliminate . . . feeble-mindedness [perpetuated by] mutation and irresponsible sex.”
TWO-THIRDS of contributors to Moral Problems are senior clergy and scholars. Could not a greater number of questions have been answered more competently by the laity? Perhaps. But it is instructive to witness 30 committed Christians — each eminent in his or her field — grappling with issues intractable but ever present. Monday to Friday is more urgent than the sabbath.
In the years that followed its publication, other volumes continued to feature such wrestling, from Godfrey Robinson’s and Stephen Winward’s The Christian’s Conduct (Scripture Union, 1960), to Dr William Barclay’s Plain Man’s Guide to Ethics (Fontana, 1973), and to Gerald Priestland’s Right and Wrong (1983). It is possible to trace liberalising — liberating — leaps forward in religious attitudes to behaviour.
Christian voices do still matter as we approach 2020 and the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee. There is evidence for this in the commuters who pack Wren churches for evening debates, listening intently to maverick clergy such as Canon Giles Fraser and the late Colin Morris; and who welcome Nicky Campbell and The Big Questions into their sitting rooms.
A recent theological review of the Crown Nominations Commission noted that “social questions with strong moral overtones” constantly troubled society, and asked whether our bishops had “the depth of understanding to make a public contribution that will carry significant weight, and not sound to the world like a knee-jerk reaction or the echo of a slogan”.
Recent front pages demonstrate that, when the Archbishop of Canterbury speaks out on economic matters, people pay attention — regardless of whether they agree with him. Clear-speaking clerics are not widely laughed out of court. Part of the Church’s listening mission is to pronounce on issues such as fixed-odds betting before catastrophic consequences.
Whether or not the Church still enjoys moral authority is another question. Polling suggests that the C of E’s official position on sexuality is out of step with the British public, and even with those who identify as Anglican. Research conducted for the Westminster Faith Debates by Professor Linda Woodhead found that the most popular response to the question whether the C of E was a positive or negative force in society was “Don’t know.”
As for readers with smartphones and instant technology — now, I position my cursor on Amazon UK, and, in seconds, 22 extra studies of Christian ethics pop up. So, Mowbrays, do not rush to reprint Moral Problems just yet.
Godfrey Holmes is a writer and historian who worships in the diocese of York.