From the December 1967 issue of the Socialist Standard
The last decade has seen the rise of a new phenomenon— Christian Unity. Salvation Army bands play in Anglican cathedrals; Baptists, Methodists and Congregationalists co-operate in “Free Church Councils" and, most startling of all, priests of the Roman Catholic Church, that most unbending of bodies, preach in the churches of other denominations.
A glance at the strife-torn history of Christianity will show just how novel such a situation is. Britain, like the United States, has always been particularly rich in religious denominations. Each denomination, with its particular theories held as essential truths, was in conflict with others. These conflicts were bitter, often bloody. What has happened to draw the members of this much divided society together?
The early development of Capitalism in Britain, and comparative freedom from autocracy, produced an unusual degree of religious freedom. Controversy could rage and it became both the right and duty of dissenting minorities to form their own circle, and to proclaim the truth as they saw it. This was unlike Catholic or Lutheran countries, where a strong tradition of conformity prevailed. There, when disagreements occurred, new groups were formed, but within the framework of the main body. A united front was thus presented, that was often deceptive; war to the knife, as between Jesuits and Dominicans, could be fought within the folds of the Church.
One of the results of the religious freedom in Great Britain has been the virtual absence of politico-religious parties. Catholics and Protestants, Atheists and Jews, are found in any and every political party, according to individual conviction, and there are no anti-clerical parties. Only in Ireland, with its tragic and violent recent history, does religion wear a political garb.
Towards the end of the last century a fundamental change began. Scientific discoveries, and the works of biologists like Darwin, ceased to be the prerogative of the educated few and began to be accepted as commonplace by the many. The great retreat had begun. The dogmas upon which each denomination stood began to become obsolete. When you are struggling to prove the very existence of a God, such questions as whether the bread and wine used at the Mass actually turn into the blood and flesh of Christ, or whether they are just symbolic, become academic.
But there was nothing academic about it 400 years ago. Then men were prepared to kill and be killed for it Many people went to the stake for denying the dogma of Transubstantiation, as it was called, while as many more died for upholding it. Faced with this dilemma not only theology, but large chunks of the Bible itself, have been jettisoned in an effort to make Christianity fit in with modern knowledge. It is difficult at times to know just what Christians do still believe. Fundamentalists have become a minority.
There are many denominations, large and small, in Britain, each one a product of a particular stage in history. First, there are the three Churches, the direct descendants of the Medieval Churches of England and Scotland: Anglican, Roman Catholic and Presbyterian. In Medieval Western Europe only one religious authority existed—the Catholic Church with ultimate authority in Rome. Any attempt to deviate was ruthlessly crushed. The English Church had always been rather more independent. Britain’s geographical position, plus its excellent army, made Papal intervention difficult and its early emergence as a centralised State produced an extreme chauvinism.
Saintly kings, like Henry III and Henry VI, had always been regarded with suspicion, as being too open to foreign influence, and the suppression of foreign based monasteries was always a popular move. When the Church of England withdrew its allegiance to Rome, it still remained the Church of England. The monarch became its head instead of the Pope, but it remained in all other respects a Catholic Church. Its doctrine, its organisation, its ceremony and vestments, remain to this day basically Catholic. It is Episcopalian, which means the government of the church by Bishops, and it is still the official church. This makes it unique among religious bodies. It is not, contrary to popular misconception, financed and run by the State, but in keeping with the British practice of forgetting out of date legislation, rather than repealing it, the Church possesses vast powers in theory that it has long since lost in practice.
In this it resembles the Monarchy and the Nobility, to whom it is tied. Bishops sit in the House of Lords, the Royal Family must be members of the Church of England and Parliament decides major Church policy. It conducts all State religious ceremonies like Coronations. It is still a very large landowner, and finds itself the custodian of a vast number of historic buildings and works of art. It has always been very liberal in allowing a diversity of ideas within its ranks, even down to a “communist’’ Dean and a near-atheist Bishop. Because it is the official Church, the semi-religious turn to it for marriages, burials, and christenings, as well as somewhere to scamper in times of trouble.
The old joke about people with no fixed views being C. of E., is based on fact. This makes it difficult to gauge the Church’s true strength. The figures for 1964 gave the number of people in England baptised in the C. of E. as 27,005,000, the number confirmed as 9,748,000, but the number on the “Electoral Rolls of the Parishes’’, as only 2,739,023. This is nearer to its true strength. In spite of its landowning, and other special assistance, it ultimately rests, like all other groups, on its hard core of members.
Throughout the 16th century there raged within the Church a three cornered battle for control between the Episcopalians, the Catholics and the Puritans. Fortunes fluctuated; under the regency of Edward VI extreme Protestants got the upperhand. Later under Mary I England returned to Roman Catholicism. Parliament supported this move, but on the very important condition that they hung on to the lands plundered from the monasteries. Neither Catholic nor Protestant had the slightest intention of handing these back. The main body of Puritans favoured the Presbyterian system, a more democratic form of church government with no Bishops, and with government by presbyters or elders who are elected. They are Calvinistic. Once again there was no question of freedom, the Puritans wished to control the church, and were just as keen on coercion as the rest. Presbyterianism reached its peak in England during the Civil War, but lost out after the Restoration. In Scotland however Presbyterianism was adopted by the Church, and replaced Episcopalianism. In modern times Presbyterian Churches have been established in England, but Scotland and Northern Ireland are its main strongholds. Its membership in Scotland is 1,400,000 but in England only 71,000.
The third body, the Roman Catholics, lost out both in England and Scotland, and were forced underground for over two centuries. In 1829 the Catholic Emancipation Act removed most of the restrictions on them, and they began to build up anew. They are perhaps the largest, and certainly the best organised, religious body in the world, with about 487 million members. They are not very large in Britain—only about 3 million—but they are still the largest single denomination here. The most important factor is a constant influx of members from Ireland. If the Roman Catholics had to rely solely on converts in Britain, they would be much smaller.
The Catholic Church is the most authoritarian and keeps a tough grip on its members. Its organisation is such that it can retain the waverers that others would lose. The Roman Catholic Church is retreating, but it is an orderly retreat. The recent irony, when the Catholic Herald stated that the arch-enemy Luther was really a good Roman Catholic, will take some swallowing by the faithful but they will manage it. They’ve swallowed worse than that. The Hierarchy are masters at the game, and will certainly dig their heels in when they have to.
The Puritanism of the 16th century had another side—the Independents, and in them one can see the beginnings of modern thought. The mass of the people still tended to think in Medieval terms, and still visualised a State Church, but one dominated by their own particular ideas. The Independents, or Congregationalists, as the names imply believed that churches should be self governing bodies composed of believers only. Each church should be autonomous and the congregation itself should be the ultimate authority. In other words direct democracy. This was extremely revolutionary in the 16th century, and for long after, and brought down the inevitable persecution. The independents were sometimes called Brownists, after one of their founders. The Pilgrim Fathers were mainly composed of Brownists. They covered a wide range of ideas, and from the Independents arose the Congregationalists, the Baptists, and the Quakers.
They were strong in the manufacturing and trading areas, such as London, East Anglia, Bristol and Hull. They had their main following among the skilled artisans and the merchant class. Their great breeding ground was the New Model Army of Cromwell, and they found political expression in such movements as the Levellers and Fifth Monarchy Men. In the 18th century they slipped into obscurity and stagnation, to emerge again at the beginning of the 19th Century. The Congregationalists and Baptists each have a membership of about 300,000 in Britain but they have a very wide following throughout the world.
The Baptists are the largest religious body in the United States, with a considerable following in such unlikely places as Spain and Russia. The Society of Friends, or Quakers, have never been very large but their influence has always been much greater than their numbers. They have always carried Puritan simplicity and democracy to its ultimate. Their most outstanding feature has been opposition to war. One effect of this has been that Quaker industrialists have tended to avoid not only armaments but heavy industry, and concentrated on light industry. Their membership is about twenty thousand.
The early stages of the Industrial Revolution gave rise to extensive movements of reform within the Church of England. The most important offshoot was the Methodist movement founded by John Wesley, an Anglican priest, which eventually broke away as an independent Church. Unlike the old non-conformist bodies, the Methodist Church was authoritarian. Its greatest importance lay in its educational efforts among an often illiterate membership. Wesley was an extreme reactionary, although an outspoken opponent of slavery, but ironically in later years the movement became a breeding ground for Radicals. Many leading Chartists were Methodists. The Methodist Church has a membership of about a million in Britain but nearer to 20 millions throughout the world.
A typical product of the late 19th Century was the Salvation Army. Founded by William Booth in the 1870’s, it was proletarian in origin. Its unique feature was its quasi-military form of organisation, and it concentrated extensively on social welfare work. It was completely authoritarian in its organisation. It added nothing very new to religious ideas, its theories being uncomplicated and nothing more than basic Protestant dogma. Alone amongst large Protestant bodies it has not really changed its ideas, although it has ceased its extreme isolation and is prepared to co-operate.
The picture of the main religious bodies is one of retreat before the growth of scientific ideas and a steady but slow decline of membership. Their dilemma is that as they weaken their case, far from increasing membership, they decline. Too much should not be read into this; there are still something like ten million members of Christian Churches in Britain, although this would include a large number of very lukewarm members. Christianity is tough, it has had massive drifts away before, and could very well make a comeback. But at the moment the retreat is on.