Tuesday 26 May 2015

England used to be a more Christian country – true or false?

(Note: This blog is a summary of Matthew Grimley’s brilliant journal article ‘The Religion of Englishness: Puritanism, Providentialism, and “National Character,” 1918-1945’. With a few asides from me.)

Ever heard this said? “Forget it, when was this supposed golden age? It’s a total myth. Britain isn’t a Christian country now and it never was anyway.”

Get ready for the surprising truth. Get ready for some facts. And when you hear them, I think you will conclude that there really was a more Christian England, and it wasn’t very long ago. Even non-Christians agreed: Englishness had a lot to do with the church. And the church had a lot to do with Englishness. Despite what some would have you think, this English Christianity was not a jingoistic England of imperialist religious institutions. This was the gentle humane Christian-styled culture of the ‘ordinary’ English people. When was this? Broadly, this essay reflects the changing world of 1900 to 1960. Growing up in the 60s and 70s, I could see that world still existed in part, but that’s another story.

As recent as the Second World War, “The Miracle of St Paul’s” gave the English people hope. What was this, you may ask? In the blitz of falling German bombs, with London burning, St Paul’s Cathedral was intact. It stood proud. This was God’s providence, people said. It was a symbol that God would deliver the nation from the terror of Hitler’s forces, and the nation drew hope from it. Don’t just put this down to the war.  This was possible because people were used to seeing pictures of churches as part of the beautiful English land, as a symbol of the English people, and not just in books. Day-trippers in the 1930s visited churches. Novels featured churches as a positive symbol. The wartime images were riding a popular wave that had already been flowing before the war.

What kind of Christianity was this? It was distinctly English, with deep roots in English history. It was Protestant , it was tolerant, it wasn’t very demonstrative. For the first half of the twentieth century, that was how the national character of England was thought of. You may have thought that the 20th century church was always in decline – not so! Church attendance for one thing yo-yoed up and down. Protestant churches gained numbers in the 1920s. That goes for the Church of England and for other Protestant churches, such as Congregationalists, Baptists and Methodists. Then in the 1930s they all declined, although the Church of England managed to keep people on its electoral rolls by and large – it seems people still felt more attached to the Church of England. Indeed after the ravages of war, the Church of England’s numbers by 1960 were back to pre-war levels. But the other denominations were shrinking.

But here’s the thing. Don’t just look at numbers. That’s the sort of mistake that lazy newspaper editors make. The church had something much more powerful, what some people call ‘soft power’. Whereas church membership would be ‘hard power’, this soft influence was seen in the Christian aspects of British culture, politics and ethics. Our older generations can remember how it was just taken for granted that there would be regular Christian broadcasts on the BBC, or that there would be Christian remembrances of the war dead. These things were started then, but are being challenged now. They were more acceptable to society then because it was felt that England’s “national culture and identity were inexorably tied up with Protestantism.” (Matthew Grimley’s words).

This idea of English ‘national character’ applied to the broad mass of English people around the nation, not just their politicians and leaders. This character wasn’t really about jingoistic colonial patriotism, even if some would have you think that. Actually, writers across the political spectrum thought of English national character as celebrating gentle virtues: “tolerance, modesty, eccentricity, and individualism.” (Grimley) It was something about the English. Scottish writers said so too – they saw the English as having a different character from the Scots. Of course, we have these things from a small pool of writers from those times, but there was a national audience that lapped it up – the evidence is there in the records of talks on the radio, popular history books, newspapers. This was not merely the stuff of old institutions, as some would have you think. It was of the people too. The spiritual dimension of Englishness – if there was one – was a thing fused from England’s memories, its religion, its language, its education and law. Another nation could have a story to tell of its own character, and the English had a character of their own.

This was not about the English people as a ‘race’. It was an idea of the English as a ”people”. The racial part of English national character was less significant compared to the bigger factors of the environment of England and English culture, including its religion. To make the point that it was not just about an English “race.” even between the wars, there were writers making a virtue of the diverse ancestry of the English – for example the benefit brought to the country by Christian-heritage refugees from France – the Protestant French Huguenots.

To make the point that this was not just about institutions,  take the fact that England’s most influential religious teachers were laymen in church terms, from lay preacher Wycliffe’s English Bible translation, through the poet George Herbert, John Bunyan, or the ordinary people as Puritans. The English people love a layman, and were - still are - a bit suspicious of professional experts. (Perhaps the influence of amateur political thinker Russell Brand on young people – a huge irritant to many including myself - is actually quite a traditional English phenomenon, dressed up in modern fashions. He’s a nod to the English eccentric too.) The English always saw practical experience and tradition as the best teacher in life. Some have thought that this was the reason that ideologies, especially ones that demand obedience – for example, communism – never really captured the public imagination enough to break the English way of life.

Now you may know that Wycliffe, Bunyan and others were persecuted for their faith. True enough. But in the tolerant Christian England of the early 20th century, it was safe to rehabilitate the memory of long-dead Christians who had been mistreated by the so-called Christian State.

The English were – and are - a bit inward-looking, a bit restrained, so the tendency of their religion to be one of private piety (with occasional flourishes) is not surprising. Let’s qualify that a bit. On the one hand, the Church of England is traditionally celebrated for being moderate, able to compromise between its different traditions, and able to live with Non-conformists next door. On the other hand, the Non-conformist churches are traditionally celebrated for volunteering themselves to bring needed change to society – from the temperance movement to the Salvation Army’s social work among the cast-offs of society. In the 20th century, these two wings were no longer really seen as rivals for the soul of England, but as historic shapers of English Protestant character.

Between the wars, Englishness had more or less stopped being anti-Catholic too, because Ireland seemed less of a national threat after it achieved its independence in 1922. Catholics weren’t really seen as English but Englishness was no longer seen as a movement away from Catholicism. In fact, Englishness was freed a bit from broader Britishness too by other events – such as when the Welsh Anglican church was disestablished (in 1919) as well as the Irish church. Welsh and Scottish churches were asserting different cultural traditions, so the English were free to be English in a distinct way. And Nonconformists, with more freedom in the nations, were more comfortable with the Church of England being part of national life and being an emblem of national character and more representative of the nation’s Christianity. It wasn’t all like this of course. The Oxford Group (heard of them?) was paving a path to more charismatic Christian spirituality, while the likes of Brethren churches as ever liked to keep themselves to themselves. But the Church of England and the Non-conformists in general were the big influence. (The steadfastness of Nonconformist churches over the generations was, in the 20th century, recognised as a healthy influence on English character.)

Meanwhile, the English (King James Version) Bible – along with the Book of Common Prayer - was seen as a healthy and vibrant influence on the English language. I remember an old Brethren elder very attached to his King James Version, resisting the growing influence of the New International Version Bible in my church. This, I think, was an example of this English attachment to the literary English brilliance of the KJV. I wasn’t appreciative of it then, but now I realise that it was part and parcel of Christian England. It was the translation loved by both by the Church of England and the Non-conformist Christians. It is the Bible people had in their homes and their churches. I don’t use it – language has moved on – but it is beautiful English and it was a source of the language of the ordinary people. Even non-Christians like George Orwell loved it, and regretted that others did not know it as well as they should by the mid-20th century. Even in the early 70s, in school assemblies we infants were praying to our Father 'which art' in heaven. Not just because this was fossilised religion, but because this was the religion a people long held.

Come to that, in those same school assemblies, a parable usually called The Unforgiving Servant was expounded and it has stayed with me ever since, just as a few old hymns do: There Is A Green Hill, We Plough The Fields, He Who Would Valiant Be. This was the stuff of Christian England.

That brings me back to the ‘ordinary’ people.  I was surprised to discover that before 1960, common English people would be proud to be called ‘Puritan’. Why was I surprised? Simply, because in my lifetime the word has been used as an insult to suggest religious people are killjoys, sexually repressed ‘Puritanical’ types, a negative influence on life. This has how things have been spun. I feel I’ve been sold short. Because now I know that Puritanism was – to the ordinary English people – the beating heart of the English. The Puritan tradition had shaped our national character. Once the provenance of the Non-conformists, the term ‘Puritan’ had become a common term of approval. It embodied tolerance – the Nonconformists strove to be tolerated by the establishment in past centuries and showed tolerance in return. Puritanism also embodied the virtues of following one’s conscience, independence, hard working, taking life seriously, even “manly vigour” (Grimley). Writers on England’s national character wrote positively of the Puritan tradition in national life.

How on earth did such a positive word as ‘Puritan’ come to mean sexual repression and negativity? Because like so often in the confusion of the modern world, lies and spin have buried England’s Christian past in a grave of untruth. Barely glimpses remain in our language today, but you see its legacy here and there. The veteran Labour MP, Dennis Skinner, not a name on the lips of many Christians, was once noted for his ‘puritan and temperance brand of socialism’. In a recent interview for the Morning Star (a socialist newspaper), Skinner said this on drinking alcohol in Parliament:

“Coming from a mining background , if anybody had been in the Miner’s Welfare [a bar] before they went in the shaft, if the onesetter knew that someone had been going in the pub they’d not go on shift. So I decided I wouldn’t go in the bars [in Parliament]. It’s not because I’m puritanical. People said I was eccentric and it wouldn’t last, but it has. And I don’t feel any the worse for it after 44 years [as an MP].”

Funnily enough, although Skinner uses the word ‘puritanical‘ in a negative tone, he is speaking up exactly for the traditional attitudes of the English Puritan – temperance, integrity, independence, hard work – and here too is that hint of English eccentricity. Here, in this Englishman of a working class mining town, is the old Puritan Christian England, but without Christian faith. He is precisely an Englishman of the 20th century, an elegy for a world disappearing around him. The hints are everywhere when you start to see them. Even D.H. Lawrence whose heavily sexualised novels have played a part in the de-Christianisation of sexual ethics in England, saw Non-conformist hymns as “the clue to the ordinary Englishman.”

The greater weight given to democracy in post-World War One England came from the Christian Puritan’s independent conscience and from the practices of Congregationalist assemblies. This democracy was a tradition that had grown and developed separately from the institutions of the State. It was voluntary – it was a product of the Christian people. Our political freedom and social progress owe a lot to England’s Puritan tradition. It was always distancing itself from the institutions of the State. It was people power, separate from State power, especially from any religious control which would try to overrule your conscience. It is a spirit of liberty. Some have argued that this sort of peaceful ‘anti-State’ attitude in the ordinary people is just the sort of thing that Germany was lacking in falling under the spell of dictatorship in the 1930s. In the war that followed, English radio was still speaking to the English about traditional things like “Anglican moderation, Puritanism, the English Bible” (Grimley) – and these are all things that reflect the traditional Christian English resistance to control by the State.

This wariness of the State had strengthened after the horrors of the First World War. These had led many to doubt that God worked through the State at all. God’s providence used to be understood simplistically as the hand that gives the State victory. But English Christians grew in the belief that God’s providence could hold the State back from abusing its power. (So it was even argued by some that God’s will for the British Empire was really to help the peoples of the Empire to learn how to run their own countries and empower them to independence.) All the same, come the Second World War, Churchill’s belief in God’s providence helped him and the British people to go through the war in hope of victory. And St Paul’s cathedral, standing intact in the blitz, was a symbol of that hope in God. There were National Days of Prayer: the last one was in 1947.

Then came times of new doubts. Handing over the Empire to its peoples confused many of the English. What did that mean for God’s providence over England? Also, after the war, there was large scale immigration into Britain of Commonwealth peoples of other religions, which brought the ‘What about other religions?’ question to the surface. It seemed too simplistic to make a generalisation about England being a Christian country now, or about what the national character of England is. Nowadays, talk of ‘British values’ seems confusing and meaningless to many, but this is a new problem. Before the 1950s, it really was not such a problem. This was culturally a Christian country and the national character of the English was Christian in many ways. (Other groups – Catholics especially – were on the periphery, but that’s another story.) What now? Well traditional English ideas of religious tolerance have found a place in discussions about multi-culturalism. But multi-culturalism is itself a rejection of the idea of one national character. So we are in new territory for the English.  

In this era – our era – in which the idea of one embracing national character is dead, English religious observance has declined too. The shared national sense of being a Protestant country held up better for longer than religious observance. But only for a time.

That concludes my summary of Grimley’s article. Now for my confessions. Part of me says, “That old world was Christendom, in which people were taught they were Christians but weren’t taught the gospel. Good riddance to it! Bring on the true gospel!” A friend of mine hated the Church of England because, having never heard the gospel in all his years of growing up there, he only later heard it in an evangelical church. He was anguished - why hadn’t he heard it in the Church of England? He was so bitter over it that I found it difficult to listen to, but I knew what he meant. I never heard the gospel until I went to an evangelical Christian Union at University. And when friends shared the gospel with English people, they encountered people who had no understanding of the need to respond to the gospel because they had undergone infant baptism, and they thought that was all they needed. It was frustrating. It seems simple to condemn this absence of the gospel. But there’s another side to this. The seed needs fertile ground to grow in. Perhaps our Christian surroundings had helped me and my friend to respond to the gospel when we finally heard it.

Let me put this another way. In the 1950s, Billy Graham preached the gospel in Harringay. Well over a million people heard the gospel during his mission. People who responded to the gospel numbered tens of thousands. It was an overwhelming positive response. Was that something to do with it being in some ways a Christian country still? Would he find the soil so fertile now in secular England?

The knowledge of the past helps us as we face the challenges of today and the future. New hope for Christianity in Britain has come from a number of directions, not least from church communities from Africa who are mission-orientated. But the threat from secularism is growing. Secularists say secularism is neutral when in fact it is not: it wants to ensure there is no fertile ground for the gospel such as we used to know. We must not hand ground over to secular ideologies. We must not throw away Christian England’s virtues that were ours after hundreds of years of endeavour. 

It is not all against us. The English are still suspicious of elitist professional experts. Perhaps that is why many in England highly resent the ivory tower academic ideologies of political correctness. PC dogma has the whiff of everything the ordinary English distrust. Secularism has not fully won the day, and anxious secularists know it. Secularism was a failed 20th century experiment but secular elites are still shaping our culture, according to Dave Landrum (director of advocacy at the Evangelical Alliance). In government and media, a secular worldview is the default, whereas it would have been a Christian worldview that was the default in the past. For this reason, the only way to get a Christian worldview heard in the public space is to do it ourselves and not leave it to someone else, to provide Christian leadership in public life – a voice that is not ashamed of the gospel. When there is talk of ‘English values’ or ‘British values’ it is down to us to tell the truth about how the heart of these values is the church. Without the church, British values might be running on empty. They are already being overtaken by ivory tower values that are as un-British as you can get. The State is ordering the ordinary Christian to leave his or her conscience at home and follow the dictats of secular Political Correctness – or else. Non-conformists of the world, unite!