The Church of England's place in British politics has rarely in recent times commanded such popular attention and consideration. The politics of economic austerity have attracted sustained criticism from senior Anglican clergy of government policies of a kind unseen since the mid-1980s. Debates over the ordination of women, the appointment of women as bishops and legislation on same-sex marriage have re-emphasized and re-politicized the privileges of the religious establishment. The advance of political devolution and the approach of a new coronation have also raised questions about the relevance of the ‘traditional’ Church establishment in a modern multicultural society.
Not without cause, then, academic interest in the established Church’s influence in British politics during the twentieth century has been growing. There have been studies of, among others, the enduring influence of Christian political thought, the archbishop of Canterbury's institutional political functions, the Church's practical role in decolonization and – most prolifically – its influence on the various ‘permissive’ initiatives of the 1960s.
As this list suggests, the historical literature on the Church, the state and politics during the century has so far been characterized largely by tightly focused studies of particular themes and incidents. More work of this nature is certainly needed, but there is now also a need to draw the literature together, developing understanding of the connections between the more specific studies.
This volume originated in a day conference in 2015 on ‘The Church of England and British politics since 1900’, which I organized at Hatfield College, Durham University. Its purpose was to gather diverse perspectives on the Church's political role and consider the scope of the developing field of enquiry. The papers and the discussions at the conference suggested the potential for a collection of essays, and I am grateful that so many colleagues have shared these aims and been keen to contribute. The result is a volume that indicates the different ways in which the Church of England influenced ‘British politics’ in the broadest sense and how it retained and renewed its significance in British public life despite the growth of a more secularized, multi-faith and individualized society.
The editors thank the Faculty of Arts and Humanities and the Department of History at Durham University, which funded and supported the 2015 conference and have assisted the publication of this volume.