Book Review – God and War: The Church of England and Armed Conflict in the Twentieth Century

Stephen Parker and Tom Lawson (eds.) God and War: The Church of England and Armed Conflict in the Twentieth Century. Farnham: Ashgate, 2012. Bibliography. Index. 250pp.

God and War examines important questions about the changing relationships and tensions between the Anglican Church, state and people in twentieth century Britain, seen through the lens of the interaction of the church with military conflict in that century. One of its central tenets is that voices raised for and against war by the church during these conflicts had a significant impact on the influence of the church in an increasingly secular society.

The introduction by the editors, Parker and Lawson, highlights the apparent contradictions and complexities of the relationship of the church with military conflict and pursues the relationship over the century from the Boer War to the interventions of Britain in Iraq and Kosovo. The editors refer to an historiographical gap in the study of the Church of England‘s relationship with British military action, and claims that this book of essays which focuses on this topic will also help answer wider questions about the role and relevance of the established church in modern Britain.

The first essay, by Mark Allen, looks at the clergy of the Diocese of Winchester in the Boer War. Allen has described the standard view of the Church of England’s role in the conflict as being characterised by ‘a hangover from the previous century.’ In that, the church is labelled as a jingoistic supporter of the state. He challenges this view and is of the opinion that an examination of the attitudes to the Boer War in the Diocese of Winchester, especially the views of the Dean, William Stephens, and the Bishop, Randall Davidson, show that the view that the church was wholeheartedly in support of the war must be questioned. Interestingly, Allen points to the fact that the clergy of Winchester were more critical in their private than their public pronouncements, illustrating the pressures on senior clergymen and the political nature of their public response to war, a theme that reappears throughout the essays.

Stuart Bell’s essay on the Church of England in the First World War sweeps across the war years considering the church and society at the beginning of the war and examining the responses of church leaders and clergy as the conflict continued. The church’s attitude to such issues as reprisals, conscription, the work of the National Mission, and theological conflict is examined and the conclusion reached that the church as a whole had a muted and somewhat uncritical response to the war. Bell relates this to the unity of the judgment that the war was just, and the relationship between the leaders of the church forged by class, education and family ties with the leaders of the establishment and government. The developments in theological thought, for the example the emergence of the comparison of the sacrifice of soldiers with Christ’s sacrifice on the cross and the growth of prayers for the dead, are considered, and leads Bell to the conclusion that the war started an emerging tide of passibilist theology and writing. However, in general he does not think that the war had a major impact on the church, and that the Church of England did not influence the way in which the war was waged.

Stephen Parker’s essay examines the way in which the firmer relationship forged by the church with political and educational powers in the Second World War, and the identification of the Church of England as the national church, bore fruit in the success of the church in succeeding in the placing of Christian knowledge as compulsory in schools in the 1944 Education Act. This resulted from the growing conviction that education was needed to reverse the decline of faith among adults and the poor level of religious knowledge in the young. Dispute about an agreed syllabus were swept away by a common desire to spread Christian values in the next generation. However, Parker is of the opinion that in the long run the compulsory teaching of religious knowledge did the understanding of Christianity a disservice in establishing a ‘lowest common denominator’ for the curriculum. Parker, however, disputes that the discourse which had continued since the war which places national identity as ‘profoundly Christian in basis’, and sees it as perhaps untenable in modern society.

Andrea Harris’s examination of the problems of venereal disease and the church’s solutions to it approaches the relationships between church and nation from a more down to earth and people orientated way. The Public Morality Council was a source of information and advice to religious groups during the war and exemplified the desire of the church to treat VD as a moral as well as a medical problem. Church leaders appealed to the individual’s sense of responsibility and duty to serve their country. Harris links the way in which the church coped with the issue of the spread of VD with the general question of the moral authority of the church over the population. It is unclear as to what extent the church’s determination to defend a moral solution to the problem of VD had an impact on society. However, Harris concludes that the legacy of its attitude during the Second World War can be found in the fact that sex education did not become part of the 1944 Education Act and was neglected in schools until the last quarter of the century. She sees this as bearing witness to the enduring influence of the Christian relationship with wartime VD campaigns.

For a third angle on the church in the Second World War, Coupland discusses the Church’s flirtation with fascism and the links between English Christianity and English Fascism, considering the Christendom Group and its ideas of an ‘English Utopia’. He describes this relationship as having a valency with Fascism, but concludes that the secular powers and mainstream Anglicanism marginalised the movement, and that the Christendom Movement had ‘retained integrity, the price of impotence.’

Diane King begins her examination of the Church of England in the era of the Cold War by contending that it played a notable part in Britain’s contribution to international relations in the early Cold War era. The defence of Western Civilisation and Christianity became the central tenet of anti-communism and this required the sanction of the church. Archbishops Fisher and Garbett urged defiance against the ‘ungodly Soviet’, and the Lambeth Conference of 1948 advocated an anti-communist crusade. King comments that Christianity offered the means of turning the very masses to which it most appealed against communism. The ‘Red Dean’ Hewlett Johnson became an embarrassment. King concludes that in its actions legitimising secular power in the Cold War era, that the church consequently shared in the consequences of Britain’s attitude in the Cold War, i.e. its post war decline and subordination top the U.S.A.

Mathew Grimley’s essay on the Church’s attitudes to nuclear weapons begins by describing the feeling of the post- war church that on the issue of nuclear war the traditional teaching of the church on just war was of little help. Donald Goggan admitted on television in 1964 that the church was divided on the issue. Some prominent Anglicans were members of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament but equally some such as Geoffrey Fisher and Michael Ramsay were against unilateral disarmament. Grimley sees continuities in Robert Runcie’s attitude in the 1980s with the churches attitude in the Second World War, that there was ‘something worse than war-totalitarian dictatorship’. At the same time the report, ‘The Church and the Bomb’, criticising the nuclear deterrent sparked conflict with Margaret Thatcher. Although the nuclear debate revealed the limits of Anglican radicalism, Grimley is of the opinion that the debate, along with the reports ‘The Problem of Homosexuality’ in 1954 and ‘Faith in the City’ in 1985 showed that the idea of religious decline in the post war era could be challenged.

Cliff Williamson in his essay on the Falklands conflict explains how the attitude of the Church, particularly the archbishop Robert Runcie in his sermon of thanksgiving in July 1982, resulted in the church becoming a target for the ‘popular right’ and caused a wide discussion on the role of the established church in affairs of state. He links this with a wider consideration of the relationship between the Conservative party and the church, both of which facing challenges in the 1980s. When war were broke out the Anglican Church’s response was measured with no advocacy of a rush to war. The sermon preached by Robert Runcie, giving thanks for the safe return of the troops from the Falklands but also mentioning the pain of the Argentinean families and refusing to indulge in any kind of triumphalism, resulted in a full-scale debate in the media focusing on the role of the church in the contemporary society. Williamson gives a detailed analysis of the media coverage. He concludes that the controversy over the sermon was evidence of a fissure in church state relations that already existed.

Peter Lee in the final essay in the book describes how the military engagements of the 1990s allowed the church to again take centre stage in national debates. Robert Runcie had what the author describes as, ‘a UN-centric’ approach to the Gulf war in 1991, basing his decision on just war principles. The House of Bishops concurred but there significant pacifist arguments put forward at grass-roots level in the church. The division of opinion between pacifists and just war advocates in the Gulf War was founded on moral and legal basis, but the issues became more complicated in the Kosovo conflict in 1999 by the fact that legal authorisation for military action was not granted by the UN Security Council. As the war escalated to involve bombing of Serbia, leading church figures objected, suggesting diplomatic solutions, while arranging for help for refugees from Kosovo. Lee concludes that the church’s declining role in public life slowed as church leaders spoke out, ‘Using the ancient language of peace, just war and concern for the vulnerable.’

The editors of the book point out that the relationships between church and state in the twentieth century were multi-faceted and did not show a clear progression of an anti-militarist stance taken by the church. The church for the most part avoided the out-and-out encouragement of was as religiously ordained and therefore maintained a distance from the state. The question of ‘what is the church for?’ is examined in these essays by looking at a variety of situations during the century when the church was given the opportunity to reassess its relationship with the state by giving an opinion on the nation’s involvement with war. The conclusion of the editors is that although the church is no longer at the centre of national life as it was in 1900; its voice is possibly heard more clearly as a result.

By Linda Parker, PhD Candidate, Centre for War Studies, University of Birmingham

You can download a copy of this review here.

Citation: Linda Parker, ‘Review of Stephen Parker and Tom Lawson (eds.) God and War: The Church of England and Armed Conflict in the Twentieth Century’, Birmingham “On War”, 13 January 2013

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