Spiritual matters of centuries

The Conversion of Britain - The Post-Reformation - Religion and Society in Twentieth-Century Britain. First Edition

February 23, 2007

The appearance of the first three volumes in the series Religion, Politics and Society in Britain, edited by Keith Robbins, testifies to the growing importance attached to religion by historians and publishers. Ecclesiastical historians, of course, have long produced excellent work, much of it highly detailed, but their subject had suffered relative neglect, similar to that experienced by constitutional, diplomatic, legal and, in the academic world, military history.

In particular, religious topics tended to be underplayed in general texts or, at best, treated as the product of socioeconomic interests and trends. Furthermore, although the position in some of the specialist literature was different, there was a particularly marked underplaying of these topics in the coverage of the past two centuries.

This was linked to a conception of social history in which the mighty theme of class had been largely replaced by the categories of gender and ethnicity while, to a certain extent, postmodernist notions led to an undermining of ideas of belief and intention.

These and related approaches rested on wider intellectual currents. The public role of religion as a source of ideology and morality was widely condemned by self-styled progressives for much of the 20th century while, as a private source of meaning, hope and faith, religion was treated in some circles as a delusion best clarified, like sexuality, by an understanding of anthropology, psychology and sociology. As such, it was subject to the scrutiny of relativism. There were also relevant social shifts, not least a widespread current of secularism and scepticism, as well as a marginalisation of the role of religion among many who considered themselves religious.

The past two decades have suggested the need for a more nuanced approach.

In particular, the strength of religion in parts of formerly communist Europe and the issues raised by Islamic fundamentalism have both challenged secularist narratives and raised the question of how best to consider religion in earlier periods. Publishers have responded, although curricula have been less receptive, and understandably so, given the sensitivity of the subject.

As far as publishers are concerned, there has been a raft of books examining Islam and Christian-Islamic relations, but the case of domestic history has been more akin to a supertanker, and it has proved difficult to introduce religious topics. I noted this in the case of the 18th century, with the decision to devote chapters to "Faith and the churches" in my Eighteenth-Century Europe (Palgrave, 1990) and Eighteenth-Century Britain (Palgrave, 2001) treated by some as inappropriate.

The appearance of this new series is most welcome, although its scope also raises problems. It makes the interplay between religion, politics and society its preoccupation, which certainly risks underplaying issues such as theology and plans to cover the period from c 600 to the present day.

Let us hope that the scope subsequently expands to cover earlier years.

All three writers have made distinguished contributions to the specialist literature and, on the basis of these books, this will prove a most promising series intellectually, as well as one that offers much to students. The books are clearly aimed at undergraduates and are suitable both for courses specifically on religion and society and for those that deal more generally with British history. As far as the latter is concerned, this series is different from existing texts, which tend to underplay the religious dimension. There is also a welcome engagement with the British sphere: these are not histories of England.

Barbara Yorke includes a helpful introduction to the nature of the sources.

She points out that the Church was a means of reintroducing Roman technologies, including reading and writing, to the parts of early medieval Britain that had lost them. The Church is also seen as a major agent encouraging the flourishing of trade and reintroduction of coinage in 7th and 8th-century England. She also looks at the closeness between rulers and the Church and considers the ways in which the latter could reinforce the distinctive cultures within early medieval Britain. By 800, Yorke points out, Christianity had become part of the personal identity of practically everyone in Britain.

John Spurr deploys the valuable idea of a Post-Reformation and uses it to describe a distinct phase of British history that coincided with the 17th century. He contrasts the 16th-century Reformation, presented as an act of state and a coherent evangelical campaign, with a Post-Reformation that was a struggle between different versions of religion. This is seen not only in terms of the eventual disappointment of the committed activists but also in the slow, uncoordinated reassertion of a less committed mindset.

As far as the outset of his period is concerned, Spurr argues that most of the English population were conforming members of the Church of England. He sees it as a fair bet that most were God-fearing folk who sought to live as good Christians in this world and hoped to enjoy eternal life in the next.

Spurr notes that the population identified with the parish, the church building, with the churchyard where their ancestors were buried and with the community whose values and rites were celebrated by the church.

Although, as he points out, this did not mean that they necessarily took any notice of what the clergy taught. In assessing public attitudes, Spurr makes some pertinent methodological points and highlights the number of different versions of belief.

Callum Brown's careful and instructive assessment of the 20th century notes a recent rise of militancy in all faiths, a process he in part attributes to the web, with at the same time a growing secularism. This is presented not in terms of growing hostility to organised religion but rather rising indifference. As a result, by the end of the century, Britain, as he points out, was one of the most secular places the world had ever known. Belief in orthodox Christian theology, especially on the nature of Jesus, and in the afterlife, the Last Judgment and the existence of Hell, lessened. Absolute and relative numbers of believers fell rapidly, especially for the Church of England, the Church of Scotland and the Methodists. The Catholic population of England and Wales fell from a peak in 1981.

In considering the earlier situation, Brown is alive to chronological shifts. For example, the Edwardian period and the late 1940s and 1950s are presented as high points of British Christian culture. They are also differentiated. Brown argues that whereas the 1900s witnessed some liberalisation of Victorian religious puritanism, the 1950s experienced an intensification of moral conservatism over and above that of the 1930s and the war years. He sees the 1950s as witnessing an increasing expectation that the citizen would act in Christian ways. In turn, the 1960s is seen in terms of a cultural revolution, shattering traditional religious conceptions of piety and ending centuries of consensus Christian culture in Britain. The post-1974 situation receives less attention, but Brown's discussion of Christian marginalisation is still instructive.

These are three first-rate contributions to what will clearly be a useful series. Particular arguments in the books will be contested, but they offer students effective introductions to important subjects.

Jeremy Black is professor of history, Exeter University.

The Conversion of Britain: Religion, Politics and Society in Britain c 600-800. First Edition

Author - Barbara Yorke
Publisher - Longman
Pages - 325
Price - £18.99
ISBN - 0 582 77292 3

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