Robert Beaken. The Church of England and the Home Front, 1914-1918: Civilians, Soldiers and Religion in Wartime Colchester. Woodbridge: Boydell Press, 2015. xvi + 272 pp. $50.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-78327-051-4.
Reviewed by Martha Hanna (University of Colorado Boulder)
Published on H-War (January, 2017)
Commissioned by Margaret Sankey
As is true of many scholarly books, the subtitle of Robert Beaken’s The Church of England and the Home Front, 1914-1918 reveals the real focus of his study: this is a close, sympathetic--and sometimes overly narrow--account of how the Anglican clergy and laity of Colchester experienced and responded to the tragedy of the Great War. Insofar as Beaken situates his study within the revisionist scholarship of the war, he asks whether one of the most entrenched (and caustic) myths ascribed to the Church of England--that it had a “bad war” because it was characterized by clerical bellicosity on the home front and cowardice near the line of fire--is justified. An ordained clergyman, he is considerate in his judgment of the men who preceded him in the parishes of Colchester a hundred years ago. But he seeks to balance his inclination to empathy with his critical acumen, concluding that “the picture that emerges from Colchester is of the Church of England having neither a good, nor a bad First World War, but a mixed war” (p. 245).
In 1914 Colchester was a small city of approximately 40,000 citizens, 60 percent of whom identified as Anglican. It was an English town like many others, with one important exception. It was home to an army garrison of regular soldiers, who accounted for almost 10 percent of the peacetime population. This meant that the war and its attendant disruptions, unprecedented losses, and spiritual challenges touched Colchester early and hard: regular troops and reservists were rushed to France many months before Kitchener’s volunteers were ready to serve. And as home to a military hospital, Colchester and its citizens soon witnessed the damage of war. Trains carrying the wounded arrived regularly and clergy and laity conscientiously volunteered their time and energy to offer succor to the wounded.
Historians of religion during wartime are intrigued by one question above all others: did war contribute to a religious revival, whether among men in uniform or their families at home? The answer, to paraphrase Adrian Gregory, might be a decisive “It depends.” There are certainly instances of religious ardor prompted by the war, as Raymond Jonas’s account of the dramatic (and ultimately tragic) story of Claire Ferchaud in France makes evident. Colchester, it would seem, was immune to such unseemly religious enthusiasms. Its priests conducted services, including national days of prayer; clergy and laity alike participated in the “National Mission of Repentance and Hope” in 1916; and the laity attended services, prayed for the safekeeping of their loved ones, and engaged in substantial acts of public charity. Those who had attended church in the past continued to do so; those who hadn’t, probably did not. Beaken observes: “At the start of the First World War some parishes in England experienced an increase in church attendance.... In Colchester, the opposite occurred: church attendance diminished slightly in the autumn of 1914 ... [subsequently] parishioners returned to church, and attendance in Colchester remained high through the First World War” (p. 141). Yet the data he provides show that there were fewer Easter communicants in 1915 (3,434) than in either 1912 (3474) or 1913 (3556), slightly more in 1916 (3690) and fewer again in 1917 (3,458) and 1918 (3,471) (table 3, p. 142). Anglican observance seemed to be holding its own in wartime Colchester, but we need more evidence before we can conclude that religious practice among the town’s Anglican faithful was unusually high or directly (and positively) influenced by the anguish of war and unprecedented loss.
It almost goes without saying that one of the principal responsibilities of clergy in wartime is to console the bereaved. It is unfortunate that no sources survive to illustrate precisely how the clergymen of Colchester fulfilled this most doleful charge. That they visited the families of men killed in action is clear, but what they said and whether their words of spiritual comfort fell on receptive ears or brought consolation to the afflicted remains shrouded in mystery. What we do know, based on Beaken’s careful mining of diocesan records, is that pre-existing liturgical and theological divisions within the Church of England strongly influenced how (or if) the clergy could respond to the spiritual needs of the laity. Three distinct forms of “churchmanship” coexisted (not always comfortably) within Colchester: the Anglo-Catholics whose rituals and liturgical practices bore (what was for some) an uncomfortable resemblance to those of the Roman Catholic Church; the evangelicals who were especially unsettled by what they feared were very un-Protestant practices; and the centrists who sought some middle ground. These divisions within the Church of England were not unique to Colchester, but their disruptive effects were perhaps more evident there than elsewhere. The bishop of the diocese, John Edwin Watts-Ditchfield, situated himself firmly in the “evangelical” wing of the Church of England and was so hostile to and suspicious of the Anglo-Catholics in his diocese that he refused to visit any parish church where the vicar wore vestments (p. 18). Cultural or military historians of the war might find these distinctions more than a little arcane--and the attention Beaken devotes to them somewhat excessive--but they directly influenced how the clergy offered spiritual consolation to their bereaved parishioners.
Of the two liturgical controversies which roiled the Anglican Church during the Great War--whether the Eucharistic sacrament could be “reserved” in church, and whether it was appropriate to offer prayers for the dead--the latter most directly informed how clergy and their parishioners responded to the trauma of national bereavement. Evangelical Anglicans contended that to say prayers for the dead was unnecessary--if God’s grace had saved the soul of the recently departed, there was no need to pray for their salvation--and “contrary to the doctrine of justification by faith alone” (p. 148). As a consequence the three evangelical parishes in Colchester resolutely resisted the practice recently revived in other Anglican parishes of offering prayers for the dead: “however much they mourned their relatives and friends killed in the war, most evangelicals simply would not have thought to pray for them” (p. 153). One wonders if this theological rigor served the evangelicals well, or did their parishes witness an erosion in church attendance? Did the bereaved, who might have found spiritual consolation in offering prayers for the dead, gravitate to some parishes, at the expense of others? Or, as some Anglican prelates feared, did they seek solace in less orthodox practices entirely? Spiritualism certainly found many new adherents in wartime Britain, as Jay Winter has persuasively demonstrated, and some Anglican theologians at the time feared that it did so precisely because the Church of England proved resistant, in the main, to the “‘noxious’ Catholic practice of praying for the dead.” Yet spiritualism makes no appearance in Beaken’s study of Colchester, and nor does the question of how the Church of England responded to the wartime reality that bereaved families could rarely participate in burial ceremonies for their dead.
In 1916 the Church of England organized a National Mission of Repentance and Hope, which culminated in the last months of the year in a series of church-inspired outreach events to parishes across England. As the name itself suggests, however, the Mission was beset by confusion as to its most basic purpose: was it to encourage the faithful to recognize that the war was God’s chastisement of an unfaithful people, who were thus called to repentance, or was it to cultivate a spirit of hope in the ultimate outcome of the war which, in late 1916, looked grim indeed? Sermons seemed to place greater emphasis on the need for repentance, perhaps undermining thereby the Mission’s popular appeal. The Mission was also beset by a controversy about the proper role of women in the church. The prospect that some women might actually preach in churches was a step too far for many of the clergy, including those who were otherwise supportive of women’s suffrage. In the short term the Mission seemed to change little, although Beaken holds out the possibility that it in the longer term it planted seeds of spiritual renewal, evident in the 1920s.
In 1919 the Anglican hierarchy published a stark self-assessment of the church’s influence in contemporary Britain, lamenting in particular the failure of the church to reach into the English working classes. The leading prelates of the day concluded that “the Church of England was out of touch with the bulk of the population” (p. 187). Beaken, however, offers a more sanguine assessment of the positive influence and reach of the Church of England in wartime Colchester. Observing that none of the men who sought a religious exemption from the draft identified themselves as Anglican, he concludes, for example, that “the war received widespread support amongst Anglican laity in Colchester” (p. 198). But is this proof that Anglicans universally supported conscription or honored their call-up notices without complaint? Approximately two thousand Colchester men sought an exemption from the draft on “economic or domestic grounds” and in a town where 60 percent of the population were, nominally at least, Anglican, presumably a fair proportion of these two thousand men were Anglican. When pleading their case before the tribunals, they probably found it more persuasive to make an economic argument than to suggest that their church found it morally objectionable to wage war. The Colchester laity did evince a very Christian spirit, however, in their refusal to embrace military reprisals against German civilians, a proposal supported in some circles in the aftermath of especially horrific German bombing raids on the south of England. Beaken suggests that the civilian population of Colchester refused to engage in excessive, jingoistic expressions against the enemy because the garrison had a beneficent influence on local opinion and sentiment: “British troops did not usually regard their German adversaries as demons and sometimes found it difficult to believe the tales of German atrocities--if anything, their attitude was ‘poor old Fritz’--and this view probably communicated itself to the townsfolk of Colchester” (p. 209). Without doubt, British front-line soldiers respected the tenacity and discipline of the men on the other side of No Man’s Land, but as Alexander Watson has pointed out, they also believed German troops capable of inflicting atrocities on innocent civilians and when British soldiers died in combat, their comrades-in-arms were inspired to seek vengeance for their deaths. British troops were by no means angels of internationalist tolerance.
Eager to offset the persistent belief that the Anglican Church had a “bad” war, because it was incapable of responding adequately to the spiritual needs of British soldiers or civilians, Beaken ultimately overstates his case. His clerics were, no doubt, hard-working, honorable men, but was their concern with ritual and liturgy--a concern replicated in Beaken’s repeated emphasis on churchmanship--the most effective response to the spiritual needs of a nation at war? And does the rich revisionist scholarship of Britain and the Great War, which is not sufficiently deployed in this study, substantiate the claims made here of a spiritually vibrant church whose clergy, whether at home or in the front lines, successfully contributed to an “increase in civilian church attendance in England and [a] religious revival in the army” (p. 163)? Edward Madigan’s recent study of Anglican chaplains in France modulates the harshest criticism leveled against Anglican clergy but nonetheless calls into question Beaken’s optimistic conclusions: “With time, many Anglican chaplains came to be not only well liked by fellow officers and ranking soldiers but also genuinely respected. These padres often learned to their dismay, however, that it was difficult to convert this popularity and respect into a loyalty to the church they represented, let alone a genuine interest in it.” And the evidence from Colchester, where church attendance remained modest and the effects of the National Mission unimpressive, suggests that the Anglican Church made few gains in the troubled years of the Great War.
. Raymond Jonas, The Tragic Tale of Claire Ferchaud and the Great War (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2005).
. Jay Winter, Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning: The Great War in European Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 63.
. Alexander Watson, Enduring the Great War: Combat, Morale and Collapse in the German and British Armies, 1914–1918 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 79-80.
. Edward Madigan, Faith under Fire: Anglican Army Chaplains and the Great War (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), 242-243.
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Martha Hanna. Review of Beaken, Robert, The Church of England and the Home Front, 1914-1918: Civilians, Soldiers and Religion in Wartime Colchester.
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