After the Sea of Faith Withdraws

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.  

Like so many mid-Victorian observers before him, Rowntree asked was about what impact the dying-out of Christianity would have on the character of England, and their collective concern was to ensure that Christian morality would survive without Christian dogma. For a century, thanks to T. H. Green and his idealist disciples, their wish was granted. A century later, Rowntree recorded that the activity had become bankrupt.

Where does this disintegration of Christianity leave us as a nation? Here is the importance of this tome for today’s debate, as our nation tries to make sense of what life is and what it should and can be about. We are forced to do so against an elite which has fought ruthlessly to ensure that the sticky fog of relativism is smeared over the country’s debate and where anyone’s moral compass is considered as good as anyone else’s. Yet Rowntree went to the heart of the matter: “In some future century, men may become so highly civilised” as to be able to “regulate their lives according to an ethical system shorn of all supernatural religion with which to give it authority”. Rowntree concluded: “That time is not yet.” 

I, like Rowntree, accept that the clocks cannot be turned back. So how do we react to living in a world where there are no supernatural religions available with a universal appeal to underpin our society’s moral rules, and where we are not yet so civilised that the basic rules come naturally? Isn’t the one option we have open to us to agree the ground rules on citizenship and for such rules to be systematically taught? T. H. Green’s brilliance was in converting Christianity into public ideology. Labour, for all sorts of reasons, failed to recognise and address his achievement, although David Blunkett tried to row against the tide. In picking up Blunkett’s mantle, the current Prime Minister might gain an over-arching theme which would knit together his government’s domestic programme.

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