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Ronald A. Wells

Whatever Happened to Religion in Britain?

Studies of region, class, and gender explain just who is no longer going to church.

Religious thought and practice in Britain is of perennial interest to Americans. Many of us have been influenced by the Anglo-American evangelical movement with its roots in the transatlantic activity of George Whitefield and the Wesleys. Some of us go down the Canterbury trail, and with the expatriate American T. S. Eliot, we sense we have come home—and know the place for the first time—when we go to England. Other Americans are struck by the undiluted charm of an English parish church; we who hail from places with mundane names (Park Street Church, Twelfth Reformed, Central Avenue Baptist, First Methodist) can be swept away with delight and nostalgia by, say, the parish church of Saint Catherine, Chiselhampton, Oxfordshire, as the poet John Betjeman once was:

Across the wet November night
The church is bright with candlelight
And waiting Evensong.
A single bell with plaintive strokes
Pleads louder than the stirring oaks
The leafless lanes along.

Other Americans, with theological and historical interests, wonder about the state of religion in the mother country. One often hears that the churches are empty and that religion in the land of Wesley and Knox, of Cardinal Newman and Archbishop Temple, of Martyn Lloyd-Jones and John Stott, is in parlous condition. And if we actually visit a British church, we may wonder, with poet Philip Larkin,

When churches fall completely out of
use, what
we shall turn them into, if we shall keep
a few
cathedrals chronically on show, their
place and pyx in locked cases, and let
the rest
rent-free to rain and sheep, shall we
avoid them
as unlucky places?

The books under review here help us to sort out several important questions: If Britain is more "secular" than America, what would that amount to? If there is a religious crisis in Britain, can we detect the antecedents of that crisis? And if there is a diminishment of religion, what in the cultural history of the islands can explain it?

David Hempton is professor of modern history at Queens University, Belfast. His prior work on Methodism and revivalism may be known to some readers of Books & Culture. Religion and Political Culture in Britain and Ireland sets the tone for our consideration in this essay in two respects: it avoids the mistake of assuming that Britain is England writ large in that Hempton unapologetically spends a great deal of time with Ireland, Scotland, and Wales (the "Celtic fringe"); and it avoids sealing off religion into some entity called "historical theology," in that Hempton contextualizes religion by asking the questions we expect from scholars in social history and the sociology of religion.

Hempton's historical tour uses the various regions of the British Isles to emphasize the intersection of religion and national identity. In England, the established church was to be universal and unitary; it was meant to be everywhere and unchallenged. The church was to be not only "the religious arm of the state, but a framework of loyalty and allegiance within which other activities had their meaning." It was a powerful social vision, but one that could not tolerate pluralism or religious loyalties based on class and region. In the four or five decades following the French Revolutionary era, this Anglican consensus was destabilized by the rise of Methodism, which challenged established religion in the name of religion.

Wales and Scotland are contrasting cases. The Welsh reply to the English conjunction of Conservative party and Anglican church was a Welsh identity based on the Liberal party and Nonconformist religion. In Scotland, on the other hand, a non-Anglican communion enjoyed established status. But the Scottish ideal of a "godly commonwealth" could not be realized, despite the considerable efforts of the Scots, most notably the redoubtable preacher, theologian, and savant Thomas Chalmers. In 1843, Chalmers led dissident Presbyterians out of the Established Kirk to form the Free Church of Scotland—an action that led in time to a much-altered financial situation for the established church. For these reasons and more, the Scots had even greater cause to value their own "national identity" and to resent their forced association with England.

Ireland is the region of the United Kingdom furthest from the center of Britain, but the recurring nineteenth-century political crises over Ireland were to have far-reaching consequences for religion in Britain. Catholicism's politicization under Daniel O'Connell drove Irish Catholics away from Britain. However, in Ulster—later to become Northern Ireland—evangelical Protestantism pushed northern Protestants ever closer to England (whereas in Wales, evangelical religion weakened connections with England). Moreover, the later political crises in Ireland—from the Home Rule debate of the 1880s to the founding of the Irish Free State in 1918—provoked a religious crisis in the rest of Britain: If the Reformation settlement did not hold for all parts of the British Isles, what did the settlement amount to? If Victoria was not to be monarch of all the peoples, in what sense could she be "defender of the faith"? Indeed, the seeds of toleration and pluralism had long since been sown. The Home Rule crisis was to bring a pluralist Britain to full flower.

Religion and Political Culture
in Britain and Ireland: From
the Glorious Revolution to
the Decline of Empire

by David Hempton
Cambridge Univ. Press
191 pp.; $49.95, hardback; $16.95, paper

Hempton's suggestions about religious decline in Britain are remarkable in both insight and scope. He highlights some cultural themes that had supported, even inspired, British religion and shows how their transformation signaled religious decline. Anti-Catholicism had been a pivotal feature of British Protestantism, and its decline by 1900 removed the most important single element in forging British national identity, leaving Ulster sullenly and rebelliously alone in keeping up the anti-Catholic drumbeat. Empire had brought with it a consciousness of British responsibility to the world, and the decline of the imperial idea—first in Ireland, later elsewhere—caused a decline in evangelical responsibility. Social policy, or the influence of religion in constructing social policy, declined proportionately to the rise of state power. Evangelicals in the free churches could not break out of the dilemma of a personalized religion in the impersonal world of market economies. Anglicans, especially William Temple, did construct a comprehensive vision for social policy, but they failed precisely because the church was the Church of England, whereas the nation was the United Kingdom.

Hempton ends with a modest conclusion about the patchwork quilt of British cultures and religious patterns, noting that they rarely overlap in a coherent way. But he insists—rightly, in my view—that religion and culture are inherently intertwined: a perspective that does not diminish the explanatory cultural power of religion, but emphasizes it.

Hugh McLeod's Religion and Society in England, 1850-1914 is as particular in scope as Hempton's book is broad. McLeod takes a fairly small slice of British socioreligious life and subjects it to a minute analysis. By focusing on the mid-Victorian to Edwardian periods, McLeod is able to ask specific questions about the undisputed Protestant consensus that prevailed in England in 1850 and about why it had diminished so markedly, without entirely breaking down, by 1914.

An attractive feature of McLeod's presentation is his reversal of the typical historical method. That is, he showcases his sources rather than burying them in the endnotes. His work is broadly informed by relevant secondary literature, but he draws particularly on three oral history projects. This is "history from the bottom up" done in a convincing way because the author is historiographically sophisticated.

McLeod takes us through the national religious census held on March 30, 1851. Fifty-nine attendees for every 100 people in the population were reported. We learn some very interesting things about who belonged where and why on census day and the years thereafter. In his assessment of patterns of religious belonging, McLeod cannot say normatively who believed what, but he can see why people behaved the way they did in terms of class, region, and gender.

Social class was a major determinant of who was in what church on census day and throughout the whole Victorian period. The vicar of the parish was most often the social better of those in his parochial charge, and this disparity increasingly rubbed the working classes the wrong way.

A factory worker from Preston reported never having seen the vicar on the streets of his section of town. The Salvation Army would visit, but the vicar would call on the better areas of Preston, "Like Westcliffe, for instance, where it wouldn't be beer, it would be wine and the rest of it." Such sentiments, if widely shared, could account for defections to Nonconformist chapels.

Religion and Society
in England, 1850-1914

by Hugh McLeod
London: Macmillan
267 pp.; £37.50, hardback; £11.99, paper

Region was also a significant index of where people belonged. In 1851, some 44 percent of those in church on census day were not in "church" (i.e., the Church of England) but in "chapel" (i.e., Nonconformist services). The majority of worshipers in large towns and cities were at Nonconformist chapels by 1900. This can be seen very clearly in a regional sense. The church dominated most of southern England, except Cornwall, and in the south and west midlands and in Cumbria. Chapel was ascendant in a belt running from Bedfordshire to Norfolk, in the north midlands, Yorkshire, and the northeast.

Gender, as a category of analysis, intersects with and punctuates McLeod's analysis of class and region. While attendance by the Victorian-era working classes was less than other classes, it was far from negligible (e.g., in London, 22 percent of mothers, 18 percent of fathers; in Lancashire, 40 percent of mothers, 32 percent of fathers). Still more fascinating, at least to this reviewer, was the apparent relationship of religious participation by men and women to the nature of the economy in a particular area. McLeod observes that in textile towns, where gender roles are less defined by work, the sexes participated more equally and frequently than in towns dominated by engineering, where women were limited to home-based jobs. In short, the greater relative equality of work roles apparently allowed for, and possibly enabled, greater equality of religious participation.

The most challenging part of Religion and Society in England is McLeod's discussion of the religious crisis that emerged at the turn of the twentieth century. There is no real doubt that secularization occurred. What McLeod does well is to give social location to that process. If we recall one of the author's central theses—that "decline" can be best understood in relation to the competitive and costly "boom" of church-building in the early Victorian era—we can see that the boom paralleled the expansion of the middle classes. Not only was religion found more among the middle classes than the working classes, but also the boom of religion was part of the expanding confidence among the earnest folk of the middle classes. Thus, if secularization undoubtedly followed the boom time, and if it continues throughout the twentieth century, it is useful to recall the social location of the decline. As McLeod writes, "Certainly the declining participation by this most powerful group had fateful consequences for the social role of religion."

McLeod, in conclusion, realizes that his periodization may be questioned. While still believing that the religious crisis should be dated 1890-1914, he admits that other historians, such as David Hempton, see a longer-term process. McLeod's analysis is unsatisfactory to the extent that he seeks the answer to a crisis mentality in English religion exlusively within England. Had he looked to Britain more generally he might have found another clue. As Hempton makes clear,1 the Home Rule crisis in Ireland was a profound shock throughout all Britain. In short, if English nationality and religion are not coincident with the British state, then thinking about both religious and national identities is due for revision. I accept that McLeod's intention was to discuss and decode the crisis of religion in England, 1850-1914. All the factors for decline offered by McLeod are apposite; placed in a British context they would be more persuasive and powerful still.

We conclude with Religion in Modern Britain, by Steve Bruce, professor at the University of Aberdeen and one of the leading sociologists of religion in Britain and America. His previous books have tended to focus on conservative Protestantism's linkage of religion and politics, hence Bruce's interest in the Reverends Ian Paisley and Jerry Falwell. Religion in Modern Britain is written in jargon-free English and is accessible to the student and lay audience for which it is intended. It provides a context in which to connect Hempton's and McLeod's findings as well, especially on the crisis of religion and secularization.

Religion in Modern Britain
by Steve Bruce
Oxford Univ. Press
134 pp.; $35

In the twentieth century, the religious statistics are gloomy (5.4 million practicing Protestants in 1900, 3.4 million in 1990, a general decline in which the Church of England by itself dropped from 2.8 million to 1.5 million). But within the statistical pattern there is a quirky area, and it puts to question the matter raised by McLeod of just when the "religious crisis" ensued. The statistics do not tell a story of straight-line decline. In the Church of England, for example, there were actually more church members in 1950 than in 1900, and as late as 1970, almost as many as in 1900. But since 1970, the decline has been precipitous indeed. In Methodism, there was also a rise from 1900 to 1930, but then a straight-line drop of nearly 50 percent by 1990. If "the crisis" was largely in place by 1914, or even before, how do we explain the increases by 1930 for Methodists or by 1950 for Anglicans? And how do we explain the bottom falling out since 1970?

Once again, the story seems to turn on class and gender. The churches could not hold men of any class within their fellowships. While there were—and are—more middle-class than working-class men, the total number of men has declined. Whereas in 1990 the sexes are nearly balanced in the general population (51 percent women, 49 percent men), frequent attendance in church or chapel is 63 percent female, 37 percent male.

Bruce offers some incisive analysis that will interest conservative Protestants on both sides of the ocean, though they may not like it. He admonishes liberal clergy who sought relevance at the expense of orthodoxy: "Those liberal churchmen who argued that the supernatural elements should be removed from religious beliefs so as to make them more palatable to modern people made a big mistake." However, lest anyone suggest that "liberalism ruined the church," Bruce offers some facts. The resilience of some conservative parts of British Christendom is not explained by people leaving liberal churches in dissatisfaction. Detailed analyses of membership rolls reveal that people leave churches by death, not displeasure, especially if one looks at the Church of England and Church of Scotland. Those churches could neither recruit nor hold their own offspring, thus causing the decline. The relatively few conservative successes (remember that 86 percent of adults do not attend any church in Britain) did not occur by attracting disappointed long-term members of mainstream churches but by recruiting and holding their own offspring.

Finally, on the question of secularization, Bruce is both compellingly insightful and accessible. Some scholars of religion think that modern society really has not secularized, and that secularization is a bankrupt theory. Bruce begs to differ:

Although not regarded with any great hostility, our churches are unpopular, their teachings are ignored by the vast majority of the population, their leaders no longer have the ears of our rulers, their efforts to glorify God are barely noticed, and their beliefs no longer inform the presuppositions of the wider culture.

Bruce then takes us through a reprise of secularization theory that explicates the work of scholars such as Peter Berger, Bryan Wilson, and David Martin, as well as his own with the late Roy Wallis. Here secularization is seen as the natural working out of the logic of Protestantism in interaction with larger social and cultural trends—a line of argument that descends from Max Weber.

Nowadays it is often said that Weber was wrong in predicting religious disappearance; apologists today, citing the United States, proclaim that religion has not disappeared but relocated. Well and good, says Bruce (and this reviewer would agree), but a religion that has lost its social meaning and exists only in a private, "religious" sphere may not even be Christianity at all, but its echo and memory.

If it is true that the very method of the Protestant movement—the thrust toward personal autonomy and private conscience—was a major engine of secularization,2 what follows? What if "the secular," rather than being an alien force, is at the marrow of Protestant divinity? The evidence, Bruce suggests, seems clear:

What appears at first as a practical freedom—we can worship at any altar or none—has profound consequences for the way we think about that worship. Religious belief is now obviously a matter of choices. We may still choose to believe, but we cannot easily hide from ourselves the knowledge that we choose God rather than God choosing us.

We began this essay by asking, with poet Philip Larkin, "When churches fall completely out of use, what shall we turn them into … ?" Another difficult question is this: How shall we explain a church filled by people exercising their "freedom to choose"? The books under review here cause us to ask again, and with serious purpose: What happened to religion in Britain?

Ronald A. Wells is professor of history and director of the Calvin Center for Christian Scholarship at Calvin College.

1. See also James Loughlin, Ulster Unionism and British National Identity (London: Pinter, 1995).

2. For a concise statement of this argument, see Harry Stout, "Puritanism Considered As a Profane Movement," Christian Scholar's Review, Vol. 10 (1980), pp. 3-19
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