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The Decline of Christianity in Twentieth-Century Britain*

  • Thomas William Heyck

Extract

The history of religion in Britain—as distinct from church or ecclesiastical history—is making an impressive comeback in the consciousness of historians, with important implications for British cultural and social history. Not least affected is the history of Britain in the twentieth century. Fifteen years ago, the well-known social historian Alan Gilbert published his The Making of Post-Christian Britain, which soon became the standard account of the secularization of British society since the eighteenth century. Taking off from careful statistical surveys of Christian church membership and participation that he had done in two earlier books, and looking for explanation to a very broad range of cultural, economic, and social factors, Gilbert presented an argument that has seemed so powerful as to be an almost irresistible account of the apparent fact of the secularization of Britain. More recently, however, both religious historians and sociologists of religion have begun to question not only Gilbert's premises and argument, but also the very concept of secularization. The result of this questioning, exemplified by the books here reviewed, is a major controversy concerning the recent history of religion in Britain.

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*

The books under review in this essay are: Grace Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994). Pp. xiii. 226. John Wolffe, God and Greater Britain: Religion and National Life in Britain and Ireland, 1843-1945 (New York: Routledge, 1994). Pp. xii, 324. Sheridan Gilley and W. J. Sheils, eds., A History of Religion in Britain: Practice and Belief from Pre-Roman Times to the Present (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), Pp. xiv, 590.

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1 Gilbert, Alan D., The Making of Post-Christian Britain: A History of the Secularization of Modern Society (London and New York, 1980).

2 See Gilbert, Alan, Religion and Society in Industrial England: Church, Chapel and Social Change, 1740-1914 (London, 1976); and Gilbert, Alan, Currie, Robert, and Horsley, Lee, Churches and Churchgoers: Patterns of Church Growth in the British Isles since 1700 (Oxford, 1978). He draws also on the sociology of Wilson, Bryan: Religion in Secular Society (London, 1966).

3 See Weber, Max, The Sociology of Religion (Boston, 1963); and From Weber, Max: Essays in Sociology, trans, and ed., with an introduction by Gerth, H. H. and Mills, C. Wright (New York, 1964).

4 See Martin, David, A Sociology of English Religion (New York, 1967); and A General Theory of Secularization (Oxford, 1978). Jeffrey Cox persuasively argued the same point in regard to the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in his The English Churches in a Secular Society, Lambeth, 1870-1930 (Oxford, 1982).

5 See Tillich, Paul, The Encounter of Religions and Quasi-Religions, ed. Thomas, Terence (Lewiston, N.Y., 1989). See also Tillich, Paul, The Essential Tillich (New York, 1987).

6 See Obelkevich, James, Religion and Rural Society: South Lindsey, 1825-1875 (Oxford, 1976).

7 See Duffy, Eamon, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, c. 1400-c. 1580 (New Haven, 1992).

8 See also Badham, Paul, ed., Religion, State, and Society in Modern Britain (Lampeter, 1989).

* The books under review in this essay are: Grace Davie, Religion in Britain since 1945: Believing without Belonging (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994). Pp. xiii. 226. John Wolffe, God and Greater Britain: Religion and National Life in Britain and Ireland, 1843-1945 (New York: Routledge, 1994). Pp. xii, 324. Sheridan Gilley and W. J. Sheils, eds., A History of Religion in Britain: Practice and Belief from Pre-Roman Times to the Present (Oxford: Blackwell, 1994), Pp. xiv, 590.

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