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The Strange Death of Protestant Britain

Ian Bradley - The Tablet - Thu, Dec 28th 2017


13 December 2017 | by Ian Bradley


In St Andrews, my home town, the Presbyterian church built to commemorate the four Protestants burned to death here during the Reformation was recently turned into a university research library. Next door there was for many years a Salvation Army Citadel, a testament to the virtues of teetotalism and evangelical assurance championed by General William Booth. It is now a “Beer Kitchen”.

A similar fate has befallen much of the rest of the Protestant landscape of Britain. In the South Wales Valleys Nonconformist chapels have all but disappeared, languishing, rotting and deserted where they have not been turned into second-hand furniture depositories. In 1901 the city of Hull, long known as “pure and Protestant Hull”, had one of the highest churchgoing populations in the country and 115 places of Christian worship, most of them Nonconformist chapels. Now just 11 remain in use and Hull has the lowest level of churchgoing of any British local authority.

It is those denominations that have been the bedrock of British Protestant identity that have declined most spectacularly in the last 60 years. The two national denominations, the Church of England and the Church of Scotland, have each lost 75 per cent of their membership over this period. Other historic traditional Protestant Churches that formed the backbone of the hugely important Nonconformist conscience – Methodists, Presbyterians and Congregationalists – have declined even more catastrophically.

By contrast, newer independent, evangelical and charismatic churches, post- denominational in outlook, twentieth century in origin and not tracing their roots from the Reformation, are enjoying spectacular growth. Catholicism has also proved resilient; there are almost certainly more Catholics than Anglicans in England, and more Catholics than Presbyterians in Scotland, attending church on a Sunday morning.

Protestantism has become an anachronistic if not a dirty word. Archbishop Justin Welby, a figure on the Evangelical wing of the Church of England, has said that he would prefer not to describe himself as a “Protestant”.

How different it all was in times gone by. For around 400 years, from the mid sixteenth until the mid twentieth century, Protestantism largely defined British identity, culture and self-awareness. In fact, “Britishness” was essentially a Protestant construct, as is the United Kingdom of Great Britain – England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – with these disparate nations having been forged together, as Linda Colley and others have shown, by a shared anti-Catholic sentiment.

The monarchy is an avowedly Protestant institution and it is no coincidence that the first act required of a new British sovereign is solemnly to profess his or her own Protestant faith and resolve to secure the Protestant succession to the throne. Alongside its fundamental constitutional importance, Protestantism has, of course, long been a dominant influence in British culture, politics and collective consciousness: the main party of the Left was born out of Methodism rather than Marxism, and such national characteristics as the stiff upper lip and a natural reserve have a Protestant quality.

There used to be few better places to get a sense of the celebration of Protestant British identity than in Kensington Palace, designed by Christopher Wren for the Protestant dual monarchs William and Mary on their assumption of the throne after the deposition of the Catholic James II. Before reorganisation of the public rooms three years ago, visitors could examine 44 wooden boxes each containing a cut-out figure of the various European royals who were passed over in the search to find a Protestant heir to the throne to succeed Queen Anne after she died without surviving issue. All had a stronger claim to the throne than George, Elector of Hanover, who succeeded as George I in 1714, but all were rejected because of their Catholic faith.

A poignant display at the palace, projected on to the ceiling, imagined the dreams of Anne’s 11-year-old son and heir, Prince William, as he lay tossing and turning in a fatal fever. It was his death that precipitated the scramble to find a Protestant successor to the throne. Significantly, perhaps, both the wooden boxes and the projection have been removed in the latest rearrangement of the palace and the theme of the importance of the Protestant succession played down.

Today another Prince William lives in Kensington Palace. Not cast in the rather sombre Protestant mould of his Hanoverian and Windsor predecessors, he is the last heir to the throne whose choice of spouse was restricted by the abiding anti-Catholicism that has been such a feature of the British constitution. In 2011 the clause in the 1701 Act of Settlement that bars the heir to the throne from marrying a Catholic was repealed.

So ended a remarkable aspect of Protestant Britain that has long baffled foreigners and outraged human rights campaigners: the monarch could marry a Muslim, a Moonie or a militant atheist, but not a Roman Catholic. It is now surely only a matter of time before the 1701 Act as a whole is repealed and future British heirs to the throne may themselves be Catholics. Future monarchs may well not even have to swear to uphold and maintain the Protestant religion.

Kensington Palace also pays eloquent tribute to a member of the royal family who in both life and death perhaps did more than anyone else to epitomise the death of Protestant Britain. Diana, Princess of Wales, is remembered at the palace, where she lived from the time of her marriage to Prince Charles in 1981 until her death in 1997, in an exhibition that focuses on her as a glamorous style icon.

Diana broke the mould of British royalty, replacing the Protestant restraint and reserve of the Windsors with a touchy-feely warmth and telegenic charisma. The massive piles of flowers and other tributes that were piled against the gates of the palace in the week following her death, which resembled nothing more than medieval shrines, together with the emotional expressions of grief and mourning, were hailed by many commentators as marking both the feminisation and the Catholicisation of Britain, and the softening of the stiff upper lip.

In fact, the lip had been slackening for several decades before Diana’s death 20 years ago. The start of the strange death of Protestant Britain can be dated to the late 1950s. The peak year of membership for both the Church of Scotland and the Church of England was as late as 1955. It was also the year when commercial television started, breaking the monopoly of the BBC, the great cultural embodiment of Protestant British identity created by that craggy Presbyterian, John Reith, with its high-minded mission to inform, educate and entertain, its fierce loyalty to the Crown, strict sabbatarianism and firm commitment to public service.

If the late 1950s saw the beginning of the turning of the Protestant tide, the 1960s and subsequent decades saw it in clear retreat. The phrases used to describe Britain and British attitudes in this period – the Swinging Sixties, the New Morality, the “never never” – encapsulated an approach that could hardly have been more different from the classic Protestant values. A nation known for thrift, reserve and temperance acquired a reputation for mounting personal debt and binge drinking.

Without the glue of Protestantism to hold it together, the United Kingdom showed increasing signs of breaking up. The word-centred, rational, restrained culture that was so largely a Protestant legacy found itself challenged and swamped by a prevailing emphasis on image and instant gratification, a retreat from rationalism into New Age mumbo-jumbo or creationist fundamentalism and obscurantism.

Among the most enduring monuments to the hold of Protestantism on the British collective consciousness, that holy trinity of the Book of Common Prayer (BCP), the authorised version of the Bible and Hymns Ancient & Modern, has all but disappeared. The BCP now seems a historic relic, lovingly championed by the Prayer Book Society in the way that wildlife charities seek to preserve near-extinct species. The authorised version has been overtaken by a host of new largely American-inspired Bible translations. And the latest edition of Hymns Ancient & Modern has removed the word “Hymns” from its title, to reflect the seemingly unstoppable march of worship songs and choruses.

There are gains as well as losses. Largely gone is that awful visceral anti-Catholicism – expressed by Lord Grantham’s remark in Downton Abbey that “there always seems to be something of Johnny Foreigner about the Catholics” – although I am haunted by the feeling that Brexit may be a ghastly final expression of that xenophobic, foreigner-hating, anti-Catholic British Protestant mentality.

The country is less censorious, po-faced, judgmental and hypocritical. There is more room for spirituality, the mystical and the visual, more joy, more eclecticism and more diversity. Yet something has gone with the demise of restraint, reserve, seriousness, thrift, temperance and rationalism. We are less tolerant, less committed to free speech and serious debate – and could the rise of false news and the post-truth era be consequences of the death of the Protestant mindset?

Ian Bradley is professor of cultural and spiritual history and principal of St Mary’s College, St Andrews University. He is a minister in the Church of Scotland.

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