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November 08, 2004

The Church of England and the Collapse of Christian Charity

Posted by Frank Prochaska

In the aftermath of World War II the Church of England was in general a strong advocate for the growth of state welfare. William Temple, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1942 to his death in 1944, stated that "The state is a servant and instrument of God for the preservation of Justice and for the promotion of human welfare". Frank Prochaska, Lecturer in History at Yale University and leading historian of British philanthropy, argues that this embrace has played a major role in the decline of the Church of England. Before the war, the Church of England had a huge welfare function. By abandoning this role to the state, the Church of England permitted itself to be marginalised from the lives of many and to seem increasingly irrelevant.

The Second World War dramatically accelerated the decline of Christian charity. The effect of aerial bombardment, which damaged or destroyed 15,000 ecclesiastical buildings in Britain, dealt a serious blow to religious observance and charitable practice. All the denominations suffered, though the Methodists, with strongholds in the targeted industrial cities, suffered more than most. [For more information on bomb damage to church and charitable property see my recent article The Luftwaffe and the Collapse of British Charity]. In the Church of England, over 1,000 places of worship had been destroyed or badly damaged by 1942, a number that rose with the onset of flying bombs in 1944. Such devastation fragmented parish life, which was already undergoing massive disruption as a generation of men left for the front and women took their place in agriculture and industry. Many a cleric, having lost both his church and congregation through air raids, "found his life's work brought to a calamitous end" [G. Stephen Spinks, Religion in Britain since 1900 (London, 1952), p. 224].

In the Church of England, there were fewer clergymen available to perform services and oversee parish charities during the war, as many of them died or had commitments elsewhere. In the industrial cities, the supply of ordinands and curates dried up. In Birmingham, for example, the number of curates fell from 178 in 1939 to 38 in 1948 [Angus Calder, The People's War: Britain 1939-1945 (New York, 1965), p. 479]. Even in the south of England, the number of curates after the war was only 60 per cent of pre-war levels. In 1914 there had been 20,000 Anglican clergy at work in England and Wales. In the late 1940s, there were only 15,000, which meant only one parish priest for every 5,000 in the population of London, Liverpool and Manchester [Cyril Garbett, Church and State in England (London, 1950), pp. 278-9, 286]. Staff shortages, financial difficulties, and cultural change contributed to the decline in the commitment to Christian voluntary work, which the widespread damage to ecclesiastical property exacerbated. In short, the war created a crisis in the system of parochial administration, which triggered a reassessment of Church policy.

Against the background of rubble and distress, many churchmen, who had been deeply concerned at the high levels of poverty and unemployment in the 1930s, welcomed the expanding government controls and services that had been introduced during the war. They concluded that taxation was likely to prove a more effective way of promoting social justice than the tradition of voluntary contributions. State spending on the social services now dwarfed the funds available to charities. Arguably, greater government spending was all the more necessary because of the erosion of charitable tithes and contributions. As Christian funds and enthusiasm declined, the individualist argument against state intervention largely disappeared from public view. The evangelical conscience, which had been the engine of so much social change in the past, was largely exhausted. Where it still flourished, it had, as often as not, been transformed into Christian Socialism, which proved more conducive to socialism than to Christianity.

Churchmen generally warmed to the prospect of universal state benefits, which had been promised by wartime planning. In 1941, William Temple, who was appointed Archbishop of Canterbury the following year, argued that the "welfare state", a term then coming into favour, was an expression of national benevolence. He declared [William Temple, Citizen and Churchman (London, 1941), pp. 35-6]:

The state is a servant and instrument of God for the preservation of Justice and for the promotion of human welfare.
A Report presented to the Lambeth Conference in 1948 titled The Church and the Modern World neatly summarized the Anglican hierarchy's view of the government takeover of responsibility for education and welfare, a transformation that Archbishop Temple had called "epoch-making in its consequences" [Temple, 1941, p. 31].

For this development the quickening of the social conscience, modern techniques, and the changing economic pattern are almost equally responsible. Certainly the motive, as Christians should gladly acknowledge, has been social justice and humanity as well as nationalism and industrial efficiency. The process has been accelerated as governments become sensitive to the views and needs of great industrial populations. Wars instead of delaying the process have hastened it by accustoming peoples to the mobilization of a nation's resources and manpower. . . . The process is inevitable; it is not likely to be reversed. None the less, it is presenting voluntary and free associations with new problems, and in particular is altering the boundaries of the respective spheres of Church and State.
[The Lambeth Conference 1948: The Encyclical Letter from the Bishops; together with Resolutions and Reports (London, 1948), part II, p. 17].

The report noted the "delicate problem" presented by the "omnicompetent" State to the Christian community. It warned of "the natural bias of the State towards totalitarianism" and the need to promote local government and voluntary associations as a safeguard. "Democracy", it declared, "cannot work without the Christian qualities of self-restraint and discipline, and the training provided by Christian fellowship". But the bishops, anxious to catch up with social realities, passed a Resolution at the Lambeth Conference in 1948 that echoed Archbishop Temple's wartime views [The Lambeth Conference 1948, part 1, p. 32]:

We believe that the State is under the moral law of God, and is intended by Him to be an instrument for human welfare. We therefore welcome the growing concern and care of the modern State for its citizens, and call upon Church members to accept their own political responsibility and to cooperate with the State and its officers in their work.
In keeping with official opinion in the Church of England, the Archbishop of York, Cyril Garbett, declared that the welfare state embodied "the law of Christ" [Stuart Mews, 'Religious Life between the Wars, 1920-1940', A History of Religion in Britain: Practice & Belief from Pre-Roman Times to the Present, eds., Sheridan Gilley & W. J. Sheils (Blackwells, 1994), p. 471]. Such views, unexceptional at the time, were, to use Temple's phrase, "epoch-making" in the history of the Church. The Anglican hierarchy had turned Jesus into a socialist.

The shift of opinion in the Church hierarchy was understandable given the level of social deprivation and a charitable sector demoralized by the war. But the Lambeth Conference's Resolution in favour of government welfare was unlikely to foster a rebirth of religion, for the state was materialist, not spiritual, in outlook. It struck a body blow at parish charity, which had been crucial to spiritual life and neighbourliness in the past. For reasons of doctrine and resources, the Church of England consciously "abandoned" regular parochial visiting, which in 1939 had occupied 60,000 volunteers, mostly women [Brian Heeney, The Women's Movement in the Church of England 1850-1930 (Oxford, 1988), p. 27]. The loss to the community did not go unnoticed. Archbishop Garbett witnessed the process [Garbett, 1950, p. 279]:

It is almost impossible to exaggerate the greatness of the loss when there is no regular pastoral visitation.

The Church's post-war enthusiasm for the welfare state played a more significant role in the decline of religious observance than might be imagined. The decision to bow to government was fashionable, perhaps irresistible, at the time; but it was to have unintended consequences. Parish societies connected the citizenry to their churches and expanded opportunities to proselytise. This was particularly true for women, who provided the backbone of church membership and voluntary work. When visiting societies and mothers' meetings, Sunday schools and bible classes disappeared which they did in vast numbers during and after the war the life of the Church suffered. After all, it was the welfare role of the churches that made them relevant to society beyond the ranks of the devout. As long as they retained a social purpose, the churches appealed to piety and civic responsibility [Jeffrey Cox, The English Churches in a Secular Society: Lambeth, 1870-1930 (Oxford, 1982), p. 275].

Once religious leaders began to see government intervention as a solution to the crisis of urban poverty, the effect on Christian charity was predictable. Swept up in the tide of nationalization, churchmen discarded the parochial idealism that had motivated their Victorian forbears. They consoled themselves with the argument that the state had a "moral and spiritual function" and was essentially Christian [Temple, 1941, p. 36]. They did not make an issue of the connection between the rise of state social provision and the decline of Christian observance, if only because they continued to believe that the state was acting on Christian principles. Unable to think of themselves as less than Christian, they did not foresee the consequences of government expansion into a field once dominated by religion. But as government took over primary responsibility for social welfare, the Church was "in practice disestablished", to quote the leading Church historian Edward Norman [Edward Norman, 'Church and State since 1800', A History of Religion in Britain: Practice and Belief from Pre-Roman Times to the Present, p. 286].

In the belief that the state was fulfilling "the law of Christ", religious leaders failed to appreciate fully just how much the growth of government welfare would devitalize Christian charity, and, by implication, Christianity itself. Rendering unto Caesar the things that traditionally were beyond Caesar's domain bonded Anglicans to Whitehall, not to Lambeth Palace. One is reminded of Tocqueville, who wrote that if state religions were [Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, (Modern Library edition, New York, 1981), p. 440]:

sometimes of momentary service to the interests of political power, they always sooner or later become fatal to the church.
The great currents of the twentieth century were largely beyond the control of the Church. The collapse of parish charities, those points of light into the twilight zone of ignorance and squalor, was perhaps unavoidable. But rarely has a British institution so willingly participated in its own undoing. The bishops blew out the candles to see better in the dark.

Contemporaries noted a falling off in church attendance at the end of the war. It was "indisputable", observed a report on religion in England issued by the Church in 1945, that [quoted in Spinks, 1952, p. 225]:

only a small percentage of the nation to-day joins regularly in public worship of any kind.
In the early 1950s, a desire to return to traditional values encouraged a rise in church membership and Sunday school enrolment, but the trend was short-lived [Callum G. Brown, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding secularization 1800-2000 (London and New York, 2001), pp. 170-73]. Given the reduced status of charity, a return to "practical Christianity" was an uphill struggle. Given the cultural revolution of the 1960s, a return to Christian piety could not be sustained. Children fled their Sunday schools, once the nursery of denominational life, and reshaped their lives in secular recreations. Women, once so crucial to parochial service, reshaped their lives "within work, sexual relations and new recreational opportunities" [Brown, 2001, pp. 170-73].

If we are to believe various sociologists of religion, Christianity is on its deathbed. At the end of the twentieth century, less than 8 per cent of Britons attended church regularly [Steve Bruce, 'The Demise of Christianity in Britain', Predicting Religion: Christian, Secular and Alternative Futures, eds. Grace Davie, Paul Heelas and Linda Woodhead (Aldershot, 2003), p. 54; Alan D. Gilbert, 'Secularization and the Future', A History of Religion in Britain: Practice and Belief from Pre-Roman Times to the Present, p. 512; Brown, 2001, p. 3]. Today, avowedly Christian charity, though far from exhausted, remains a pale shadow of its former self. Religious concerns motivate only a fraction of charitable volunteers. A study by the Voluntary Centre in London in 1981 put the figure at 10 per cent. A more recent MORI Survey suggests that even those who belong to churches and other religious institutions are volunteering less and less [Justin Davis Smith, 'What we know about Volunteering: Information from the Surveys', Volunteering & Society: Principles and Practice, eds. Rodney Hedley and Justin Davis Smith ((London, 1992), p. 83]. As the Bishop of Wakefield, Eric Treacy, said in 1974 [C. of E. Newspaper, 29 March 1974, quoted in Alan D. Gilbert, The Making of Post-Christian Britain: A history of the secularization of modern society (London and New York, 1980), p. ix]:
We are still living on our capital of Christian inheritance. Today, there remain in our national attitudes, traditions and standards which are part of our Christian inheritance, but the capital is running out. The next generation will inherit less than we did in the way of Christian values.
The price paid for the further decline of Christian values since the 1970s is difficult to assess, especially in an era of charitable revival; but we may ask, like one historian of religion [Cox, 1982, p. 275]: "How many drunkards have the Darwinians reclaimed?"

In a secular culture, the denominations, weakened by declining memberships, have lost their traditional clarity and sense of direction. Sectarian rivalry, crucial to charitable expansion in the past, has given way to ecumenicalism, which to most Victorian Christians would seem like no religion at all. Once a mainspring of charity and public spirit, the churches have become distracted and self-absorbed. In the media, the hubbub over gay rights and women priests drowns out reports of the social work that is still carried out by religiously motivated volunteers. Such distractions, which gained momentum as Christians abandoned their charitable societies, seem likely to multiply as long as the faithful set aside the parable of the Good Samaritan and look to government to address the cares of the world. On visiting a parish church today, we may, like Philip Larkin ['Church Going', Collected Poems, ed. Anthony Thwaite (London, 1988), p. 98]:

wonder who will be the last, the very last, to seek this place for what it was.

Dr Frank Prochaska is Lecturer in History, Yale University. Dr Prochaska's other essays on philanthropy for the Social Affairs Unit can be found here.

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Frank Prochaska is right: the churches have given up traditional charity work which was done in the name of God and under divine prompting and settled instead for amteur political meddling in fashionable causes - banning the arms trade, international devolopment and so on. They really think that such things ARE the faith - and this, of course, is because they don't believe in God any longer (except as a metphor for "social concern").

Posted by: Rev'd Dr Peter Mullen at November 10, 2004 12:28 PM
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