Published online by Cambridge University Press: 31 March 2022
This essay looks at the Christian context in which Britten lived and its impact on his work. When in 1940 he wrote that he was a member of a Christian nation, he could not have meant that Britain was a churchgoing nation, for most people were not active churchgoers. In fact, it would be necessary to go back to the seventeenth century to find a time when nearly everyone went to church. Britain was a Christian nation in the sense that its political, legal, ethical, and cultural life had been shaped by Protestant Christianity. By the 1920s this was a specifically English, rather than British, identity, for the disestablishment of the Welsh (1920) and Scottish (1921) churches, and the secession of the Irish Free State (1922) meant all three were intent on establishing their own distinctive identities and cultures. In mid-twentieth-century England, the Established Anglican Church, historically regarded as a ruling-class institution, remained closely associated with the monarchy and the state; thus, Anglican ritual governed public occasions and it was still regarded as part of an elitist and conservative Establishment.