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The Church of England and British Politics since 1900, edited by Tom Rodger et al

13 November 2020

Richard Harries reflects on the C of E’s part in 20th-century politics

HISTORIANS of Britain after 1914 wrote about politics without reference to religion and about religion without reference to politics. Although this demarcation has been breached in recent decades, the rationale of this volume is that it needs to be broken down much further.

By politics, however, the authors do not just mean the State, but political culture, and by the Church of England, not just official pronouncements by dignitaries, but the work of parishes and the part played by laypeople. They believe that recent studies show that “the Church of England’s influence on politics was deeper, more various and longer lasting than many historians of modern Britain have allowed.” The authors of the 14 studies are all well qualified for this task, including a good number of professors of history; and the chapters are all extensively referenced.

They delineate four main stages in the relationship. In the first, up to 1914, the main issue was the privileged status of the Church of England, to which the different political parties took different attitudes. In the second, from 1914 to 1939, the spiritual crisis facing the nation brought the Churches closer together, and the disestablishment of the Church in Wales, together with the rejection of the 1927 and 1928 Prayer Books by a Protestant Parliament resulted in the Church of England’s becoming more representative of a broad spectrum of Christian opinion in Britain and the chief purveyor of civil religion to the life of the nation.

The third phase, from the Second World War to the late 1970s, saw the Church of England go from being a main support for morale during the conflict to being very much part of the welfare-state settlement after it. Furthermore, owing to its expert advice, it had a significant influence on changes in the law on subjects such as homosexuality, abortion, and divorce. The fourth phase saw an increased tension between church pronouncements and successive governments.

Tom Rodger shows how Archbishop Davidson changed from simply defending the short-term interests of the Church of England to thinking more widely of the national good, which at the same time left the Church better positioned for influence in the future. This re-positioning of the Church is a major theme of chapters by Philip Williamson, Tom Rodger, and Daniel Loss, so that it came first to bring other Christian Churches into relationship with the official life of the nation and the monarchy, and then other faiths, as memorably put by the Queen in 2012 when she said that it was a duty of her Church “not to defend Anglicanism to the exclusion of other religions” but “to protect the free practice of all faiths in this country”.

Church TimesHensley Henson, Bishop of Durham, in Auckland Castle in 1920. His view of establishment changed after Parliament rejected the 1928 Prayer Book

Julia Stapleton and S. J. D. Green consider two Conservative thinkers, the politician Lord Hugh Cecil and Hensley Henson, the Bishop of Durham, who provide an interesting contrast on establishment. Cecil, in favour, was far-seeing in arguing that what was essential was the monarch’s being crowned by the Archbishop, and much else could go, such as bishops in the Lords. If bishops remained, then the President of the Methodist Conference could be there ex officio as well.

Henson was once a fierce defender of establishment, but dramatically turned against it after the defeat of the Prayer Book Measure by Parliament. He wanted the nation to be a Christian nation, but, Parliament having failed to exercise its proper Christian role, he thought that a kind of Pan-Protestantism outside the establishment was a better way of the Churches’ serving the nation.

Matthew Grimley looks at Stafford Cripps, Chancellor in the Attlee Government, a serious Christian who wanted a spiritual dimension in our national life, not just an increase in material prosperity. He was friends with radical clergy such as Mervyn Stockwood, who tried to make their parishes dynamos of social change.

Hannah Elias goes wider than the parish to discuss radical movements for change, especially the remarkable part played by John Collins in the struggle against apartheid, and the work of bodies such as Christian Action. Arthur Burns writes about someone no less extraordinary: the polymath and historian of Chinese science Joseph Needham, who, contrary to received opinion, remained a faithful Anglican acting as a lay reader in the Marxist-orientated parish of Thaxted.

At the highest level, the influence of Geoffrey Fisher on the Suez crisis and in relationship to decolonialism are discussed by Andrew Connell and Sarah Stockwell. There is a remarkable correspondence between Fisher and Lord Hailsham, of icy politeness and culminating in a letter of 11 pages of single-spaced type by Fisher, in which he reveals himself to be not just an excellent administrator, but a serious thinker about the relation of an archbishop to the State.

Peter Webster considers Parliament and the law from 1943 to 1974, and Stephen G. Parker and Rob Freathy show how the Church of England’s involvement in education in the 20th century went from being highly acrimonious to succeeding, through state support and deft adaptation, in “defending and rationalising its own interests politically and educationally”.

Laura Ramsey argues that the work of various Church of England agencies on marriage and moral welfare from 1918 to 1945, emphasising sex as a gift and the mutuality of the marriage relationship, prepared the way for much-needed later legislation. The chapters are sharply focused and scholarly, and different people will be interested in different areas, but, overall, the authors succeed in showing that the influence of the Church of England over the past 100 years in our political culture has been more pervasive than is usually recognised.


The Rt Revd Lord Harries of Pentregarth is a former Bishop of Oxford, and an Hon. Professor of Theology at King’s College, London. His latest book is Seeing God in Art (SPCK, 2020).


The Church of England and British Politics since 1900
Tom Rodger, Philip Williamson and Matthew Grimley, editors
Boydell Press £70
Church Times Bookshop £63

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