This is a mightily important book, albeit one with a misleading title. It is indeed about the passing of Protestant England, but it is also about so much more. The death of Protestant England is central, I believe, to much of our country's social discontent.
The cover, like the book itself, is there to surprise. At first sight the photograph of a collapsing church was, I assumed, depicting the handiwork of Mr A. Hitler. But, the book informs us, the photograph was taken in 1937 and, in a matter-of-fact manner, tells us that the church was being demolished because of an insufficient congregation. Here, in graphic detail, is the final chapter in the story of a Protestantism that had forged the England of most readers' childhoods.
The work is a wonderful read, but it isn't an easy one. Curiously, it is best to start with the conclusion as this summarises what the book is truly about, leaving the first chapter until last. There are two surprising heroes to illustrate the story: the "Dismal Dean", William Ralph Inge, and, perhaps even more surprising, Seebohm Rowntree, the inventor of the poverty line. Green transforms the importance of both characters as key staging posts in his history.
I had previously seen Inge as an outstandingly clever, ever so witty reactionary, who could begin a sermon, "Jesus tells us to forgive — but we cannot," and earned a tidy sum from popular journalism. Green reveals him as the most serious of prophets, warning of the catastrophe that awaited our country, once stripped of Christianity.
A similar revelation awaits the reader on Seebohm Rowntree. Best known, alongside Charles Booth, as the inventor of the English style of sociology, Rowntree is presented as the originator of that fast-growing industry which now sails under the banner of cultural studies.
Rowntree's concern was the impact on a country that, for the first time, discovered leisure: longish spells of collective idleness not enforced by unemployment. With the advent of this leisure culture, England became a nation mainly indifferent to institutional religion. Rowntree was the first to plot this disengagement of our country from organised religion, but the outcry that greeted his work is now largely forgotten.