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The Battle for Christian Britain: Sex, humanists and secularisation, 1945-1980, by Callum G. Brown

28 February 2020

Bernice Martin finds gaps in an argument about secularisation

THE book The Battle for Christian Britain is the latest in a series in which Callum Brown deploys Foucaultian theory to explain the declining influence of the Churches in British society. He locates sexual mores as the focus of “resistance” to the Christian dominance of the “discourse” through which power is exercised by dominant elites.

His first volume, The Death of Christian Britain, presented the drive for female autonomy, articulated in the feminist movement, as the nemesis of the Victorian “feminisation of piety” which, up to the 1960s, defined women as primary carers within the family and elsewhere, and crucial conduits of Christian socialisation. Brown claimed that the rejection of all this by young women caused a precipitous decline of churchgoing in the 1960s. This has met criticism from church historians, notably Hugh MacLeod, who cites a much wider range of social and cultural changes. Brown’s jousting with MacLeod continues in this new book.

The forces of morally conservative Christianity fought to control sexual norms against the incursion of “progressive” forces that, Brown believes, were primarily secular, specifically humanist and atheist. The secular forces prevailed and created a “civilised” sexual culture. Brown is critical of accounts that ignore the interventions of the Churches, and, equally, of church historians who present the changes as the achievement of “liberal” Christianity. Brown sees “liberal” Christians as pusillanimous, while secularists made the running.

The “battlegrounds” were the policing of sexual expression in books, pamphlets, films, stage performances, and moral and sex education, as well as the licensing of premises selling alcohol or presenting entertainment.

In the 1950s, this was centrally subject to “vigilance” by the Churches through the Public Morality Council, and regionally under the system of local-authority licensing, where locally dominant denominations had significant influence. The BBC still largely followed the Reithian consensus in the 1950s, operating through the influence of CRAC (the largely clerical Central Religious Advisory Council), but increasingly challenged.

Brown’s meticulous archive research excavates details of the intersections between the forces of conservative Christianity and secular pressure groups, and reveals significant regional differences. Few readers today will be surprised by this story of secularist triumph, though some may be startled by the self-righteous tone of the author, assuming that the changes are unproblematically benevolent, when secular feminists as well as Christians have had doubts.

The gaps in the links of causation are significant. For example, Brown illustrates, but does not account for, the increasing prominence of young secularist programme-makers, especially in science and documentary programmes, in the BBC in the 1970s. Moreover, while admitting that there were, and remain, struggles within the Christian Churches between liberal and conservative elements over sexuality, Brown does not regard this as a significant “battleground”. He even notes Sam Brewitt-Taylor’s 2018 book (which shows the role of theological “radicals” in promoting secularisation in the early 1960s), but claims that it appeared too late for him to use.

Another obvious hiatus is the part played by sociology in the expanding universities of the 1960s in propagating a secular humanist perspective that fed precisely the pressure groups Brown studied. The triumph of the secularist perspective raises as many questions of causation as it answers. Watch this space!

Bernice Martin is Emeritus Reader in Sociology at Royal Holloway, University of London.

The Battle for Christian Britain: Sex, humanists and secularisation, 1945-1980
Callum G. Brown
Cambridge University Press £22.99
Church Times Bookshop £20.70

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