Tuesday, 5 January 2010
Some Christmas reading
Over Christmas I’ve been really enjoying Keith Robbins’ new history of Christianity in twentieth-century Britain; England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales: The Christian Church, 1900‑2000 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009). Part of the illustrious ‘Oxford History of the Christian Church’ series, at just over 500 pages its not short, and Robbins’ has a slightly prolix writing style that takes time to adjust to, but its well worth the effort. There’s been a glut of other similar books in the last decade or so, assessing and analysing the shape and decline of Christianity in Britain during the course of the last century. Adrian Hastings’, A History of English Christianity, 1920-2000 (2001) and Callum Brown’s, Religion and Society in Twentieth-Century Britain (2006) are both indispensible accounts, but in my opinion Robbins’ survey is a richer and more ambitious account. Its main virtue is its attempt to do justice to developments in each of the four constituent parts of the British Isles, England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales. Robbins’ attempts to write in a genuine four-nations way, borrowing heavily from the New British History perspective, indeed this is one of the best examples of that approach to the study of any aspect of British history that I’ve come across to date. This is no account of English Christianity, with bits and pieces on Ireland, Scotland and Wales thrown in for good measure, let alone an example of the: ‘For Wales, see England’ approach that can be so common. Yet, even here perhaps, there is a tendency to major on some areas rather than others. Was it me, or does the Irish story tend to predominate overly much at times? The standout chapters for me were chapters 3 and 5, the ones that dealt with the two world wars and their aftermath in religious terms. If there are weaknesses in the book I think I would identify two in the main. Firstly, this is a very institutionally-based, even political history. Robbins is at pains to place the religious developments in their political context, but at times the political story impinges too heavily on the religious story for my liking. The histories of the Roman Catholic Church and the Church of England also tend to predominate overly much. This is very much a top down history, while some of the other denominations do figure at appropriate points, thy do tend to be overshadowed somewhat. What about all those British Christians who worshipped outside the mainline denominations, in independent fellowships, Brethren Assemblies, or more recently in House Churches? Is the picture Robbins paints necessarily one that reflects the variety in the religious landscape of the British Isles in the twentieth century. Maybe it is, certainly the nonconformist churches seem to have suffered even more catastrophic decline than the Established Church, but on the contemporary scene its precisely those non-denominational churches that seemed to have bucked the otherwise inexorable religious decline with most obvious success. Secondly, for me the most disappointing element of the book is that there is so little on popular religiosity, what did ordinary people, the people who lived through the developments outlined here, actually think and feel? How were their religious lives moulded by these events? While getting at this kind of material can be hard for earlier generations, surely its much easier for the second half of the twentieth century at least? Its the kind of approach that Callum Brown has championed, especially in his The Death of Christian Britain (2001). There is very little in Robbins’ narrative, on balance, on twentieth-century British evangelicalism either. There are a couple of sentences on John Stott – ‘a major evangelical voice’ (p. 380) – Jim Packer doesn’t merit a mention at all, while Martyn Lloyd-Jones is dismissed as a somewhat backward looking Calvinistic Welsh nationalist (p. 370)! I’d have also have appreciated much more on the theological developments within twentieth-century British Christianity. How much did the rise of theological liberalism at the beginning of the twentieth century underlie many of the changes that took place within the churches, as vital elements of Christian belief were undermined, and even ridiculed. In his final chapter Robbins can’t resist looking forward either, bemoaning the abusive position of those intent on dismissing Christianity as a delusion, acting in a far more fundamentalist way than many religious fundamentalists as they call for the dismissal of the Christian perspective from the public square (pp. 474‑5). Robbins’ history is very warmly recommended, but might need to be read alongside the volumes by Hastings and Brown mentioned above, if one is to get a fully rounded picture, as well as some of the specific historical writing on the Christianities of England, Ireland, Scotland and Wales.