The Passing of Protestant England: Secularisation and Social Change c.1920—1960 S.J.D. Green

CUP, pp.333, 60

His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Fisher, keen to counter the dreadful spectre of the atomic bomb in the 1950s, observed that

the very worst it could do would be to sweep a vast number of people at one moment from this world into the other, more vital world, into which anyhow they must all pass at one time.

His Grace the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr Fisher, keen to counter the dreadful spectre of the atomic bomb in the 1950s, observed that

the very worst it could do would be to sweep a vast number of people at one moment from this world into the other, more vital world, into which anyhow they must all pass at one time.

Simon Green notes that such an opinion had already become unacceptable by that time, even though it was not, and still is not, unorthodox theology. Most people had by then ceased to hope for eternal felicity and had replaced it with a new belief in a right to this-worldly happiness.

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The patient whose condition Green examines between the years 1920 and 1960 is the English national character, and his book deserves a much wider readership than it will receive, given its cost and its misleadingly academic title. Our national character is very unwell; indeed it is mortally ill. What once distinguished it — its Protestantism — has all but vanished, and curiously has not been replaced. We have become a nation without a national character.

By Protestant, Green means puritanical, accepting of austerity, honest, modest, strong on common sense and the rejection of fanaticism and, in a sense, progressive. Continental observers recognised and were impressed by England’s capacity for efficient self-control. This dedication to discipline galvanised an economy but restricted an imagination. The particular form of Christianity that informed the national will was moralistic and curiously inhumane.

What then had become of this Protestant character by 1960? Green inspects the various theories propounded by the social scientists of secularisation. Some put religious decline down to changes in society, others to an internal dynamic within the national religion itself. Yet others stress not decline, exactly, but a shift from institutional membership to believing without belonging, or to a new paganism.

Green’s method is to apply these theories to the extraordinary array of facts we have about the Protestant religion during the 40 years in question, and about the roles of men and women, and changes in leisure, knowledge and education.

The diagnosis? Decline. The decline is not smooth but bumpy. There are short, weak resurgences, slightly longer stabilities, but whether measured by church-attendance figures, Sunday schools, revival missions, media coverage or attitude surveys, the decline is certain. And it occurs during the years in question, reflected in the changing attitudes and behaviour of the English in a vast number of ways both within and outside religion.

The analysis is impressive, and also highly evocative: this is about us, our own memories and those we have of our parents’ world. We know this dying patient, and it is a very sad story.

I have only one reservation. There is a feature of Protestantism which is not sufficiently stressed: religion as a matter of personal judgment — ‘I know what I believe.’ For a long time scripture kept the wayward potential of this aspect in check. Yet some argue that there are strong resemblances between the Protestant doctrines of the Reformation and the irreligious ideologies of 1789. Certainly there were ideas within English Protestantism which threatened its very self, and which existed, even if inactive, long before 1920. When our national religion eventually declined, the culprits appeared to include rather close family.

One of the best secularisation theorists, Bryan Wilson, talks of religion as having ‘lost its influence’. But religious decline is not imposed by some impersonal force. It happens through ‘choice’ (the word is Green’s). The English have rejected their religion — in what both Catholic and Protestant theologians refer to as apostasy. Green enlarges on this, and with characteristic charm, writes: ‘Some time between 1920 and 1960, the English changed their minds.’

We are suffering the results of this change of mind here today. And will do so also in Fisher’s more vital world.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated

Tags: Book reviews, History, Non-fiction, Protestant, Religion, Social change