Religious Opinion in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries.

The most important Christian bodies in England in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries were the Church of England and the Methodists. The large
majority of Anglican clergy were thoroughly imbued with the eighteenth-century
temper, in the light of which 'enthusiasm' of any kind was to be avoided, and
religion was reduced to a code .of rules of good, kind and enlightened behaviour.
Moreover, in outlook, the bishops and a large proportion of the parish clergy
were one with the landed class from which they had sprung, and which they
considered divinely appointed to rule the earth and enjoy its blessings. This
intention of Providence they were fully prepared to assist by drawing income
from as many benefices as possible, while delegating the actual work to poorly
paid curates. At the end of the eighteenth century more than a half of Church
livings were without a resident clergyman. Some of the clergy were hard-working
and genuinely concerned for their parishioners, but many were quite without
learning and some set a poor example in their daily lives - the 'squarsons', for
whom religion came a bad third to farming and fox-hunting.
It was against these shortcomings of the Established Church that John Wesley's
Methodists had protested, by going out among the common people and acting
on the Christian doctrine that every man has a soul to save. Their activity was
greatest in the new factory towns and the mining districts, where often there were
no churches and no parsons; and they did not scorn converts from the dregs of
the population. Moreover, the poor man, who in the parish church was reminded
only to keep his lowly station and to count its blessings, found that he could share
actively in the life of the Methodist Chapel, helping to choose the minister and
manage the congregation's affairs. There he could find refuge from the injustice,
tragedy and hopelessness of the hard world in which he lived; and there he learnt
that the greater his patience and courage in enduring suffering in this world, the
greater his reward in the life to come. The effect of Methodism on the poor was
thus not only to stress the importance of saving their souls, but also to divert
them from the pursuit of worldly betterment. In spite of their practical training in
democracy, Methodists seldom made reformers. The Radicals counted them as
enemies, and it may be true that in critical times Methodism helped to save
Britain from revolution by its steadying and soothing influence on many of the
natural leaders of the working class.

The other Nonconformist sects of this period were older than Methodism but had less influence. From the Puritans of the seventeenth century were descended the Presbyterians, the Baptists, the Congregationalists and the Unitarians, while throughout Britain were small groups of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Nearly all these had been free to worship in their own ways since the Toleration Act of 1689, and free in practice to exercise their political rights, for every year since 1727 an Act had been passed excusing them from any penalties
they had incurred by taking office or sitting on borough corporations in contra-
vention of the Test and Corporation Acts (repealed in 1828, ).
Less fortunate were the Roman Catholics. Liable to persecution till 1791
for the mere practice of their faith, they did not gain political equality with Pro-
testants until the Catholic Relief Act of 1820. Only then were Catholics
at last permitted to sit in Parliament and to hold office under the Crown.
Not all the followers of John Wesley had left the Church of England. Those
who carried on his tradition within the Church were called Evangelicals. Like
the Methodists the Evangelicals had an intensely personal faith, expressed in
strict standards of conduct and overflowing good works. The movement had
many followers among the rich, and inspired the two great social reformers
Wilberforce and Shaftesbury

The Whig governments of the 1830s directed some of their reforming enthusiasm to the removal of abuses in the Church of England. Clergy were
forbidden to hold more than two livings at once, and the incomes of the richest
bishoprics were cut down in order to provide more money for poor parishes.
These changes were for the good of the Church, but they showed up the Church's
subjection to the State. This was made even clearer in 1833 when some Irish
bishoprics were supressed. against the wishes of the whole bench of bishops.

It was at this point that certain young men of Oxford began to put forward new ideas about the Church and its position in the nation's life. The three leaders,
John Keble, John Henry Newman and Edward Pusey, were all fellows of Oriel
College. Shocked by the lack of holiness in the Church and piety in the nation,
they determined to proclaim the supreme importance of the Church as a body
ordained and inspired by God. They demanded complete freedom for the Church
and unquestioning obedience to its teachings, while to make the Church worthy of their claims they showed an intense earnestness about its sacraments, creeds and ritual. They published their ideas in a series of Tracts for the Times, which
struck clergy and laymen alike with a force unknown since the seventeenth century.
The nineteenth-century Briton was usually quick to detect anything that
resembled 'Popery', and it was soon remarked that the teaching of the 'Tractarians'
savoured of the Church of Rome rather than the Church of England. This sug-
gestion Newman and his friends were anxious to rebut, and in Tract No. go
Newman argued that the Thirty-nine Articles which summarise the doctrine of
the Church of England could be interpreted in a Catholic way. In other words,
the Church of England had remained, in spite of the Reformation, a part of the
living universal Catholic Church, and therefore one could be a Catholic without
being a member of the Roman Church. Tract go aroused a storm of angry condem-
nation which obliged Newman to give up his position as Vicar of St Mary's,
Oxford, and his fellowship of Oriel. Four years later he entered the Roman Catholic Church, whither he was followed by many whom his earlier teaching had inspired.
Not all the Tractarians went over to Rome, and the example of these young
men, who fasted, confessed, and did penance spread throughout the Church of
England. Their followers, called 'High Churchmen' or later 'Anglo-Catholics',
claimed a high place for the Church in the national life, and insisted on dignified
observance of its rites. They went far to transform the Church of England by
their devoutness, of which their hymns remind us. On the other hand, emphasis
upon ritual caused many protests and even riots against 'Romish' practices, and
the gap between High and Low Churchmen was widened.
During the nineteenth century the Nonconformist bodies more than held their
own with the Church of England, while in Scotland, of course, the Presbyterians
predominated. The Presbyterian Church of Scotland, by law established, was
not without its troubles. A large body of ministers, led by Thomas Chalmers,
broke away in 1843 to form the Free Church of Scotland. The two Churches were reunited at length in 1929, by which time the Church of Scotland had severed
its connection with the State. The Anglican Church in Wales had not to wait so
long for this change, being disestablished by an Act of Parliament in 1914. Only a small minority in the Church of England would have had it follow these examples, and the Church continued to enjoy the advantages, in status and
finance, of its established position.
The remaining legal handicaps of the Nonconformists were removed by their
Liberal champions, as for example when Gladstone caused compulsory Church
Rates to be abolished in 1868, and when all positions in the universities of Oxford
and Cambridge were opened to them in 1871. The influence of the great number
of Nonconformist voters, mostly of the middle class, provided the Liberal Party
with its most sure and solid support; while no statesman on either side could
afford to ignore the famous 'Nonconformist conscience'.
The one religious enterprise of the nineteenth century comparable with George
Fox's founding of the Quakers in the seventeenth, and Wesley's launching of
Methodism in the eighteenth, was the creation of the Salvation Army by William
Booth. Having already toiled for thirteen years in the East End of London,
Booth set out to win souls for Christ in a new way. Avoiding intellectual refine-
ments, he resorted to any methods that would appeal to the people among whom
he worked - fiery preaching at street corners, uniforms, brass bands, and hymns
set to popular melodies. 'Why', he asked, 'should the Devil have all the best tunes ?'
In 1890, impressed by the crying need for social work in the slums and for the
homeless. Booth wrote In Darkest England, and the Way Out, and set himself to
raise {,7.00,000 for his work. He succeeded, and the Army's missionary activity
was later extended to all parts of the world.
Victorian Britain has been described as, 'among highly civilised communities,
one of the most religious the world has known'. The evidence for this may be
seen in the careers of men like Shaftesbury, Gladstone, Gordon and Livingstone,
in the tone of the public schools after Arnold, and in the social customs of the
period. Notable among these was the strictness of Sunday observance, which
obtained in all classes except the poorest. Places of business and entertainment were closed, all unnecessary household tasks were avoided, games and light reading were taboo, and serious doubts would be entertained about travel or even
the purchase of a newspaper on the Sabbath. Attendance at church was regular
for all who claimed to be respectable citizens. Low Churchmen and Noncon-
formists frowned upon many public pleasures and some looked upon the theatre
as the house of Satan. All this resulted in a good deal of hypocrisy, but many
were led by their religion into a decent way of living and a constant effort to put
duty before pleasure.
There was one danger to religion that none of the Churches was prepared to
meet - the development of liberal and rationalist thought, tremendously rein-
forced after the middle of the nineteenth century by the discoveries of science
and by critical examination of the Bible. The generally accepted beliefs were
attacked from all sides and as a result the faith of many was shaken, first among
the learned, but in time among numbers of the lesser folk, who began to query
stories and incidents in the Bible in a way they would never previously have
dreamed of doing.

Other changes too were loosening the hold of the Church, so that after 1870 Decline of religion the pews began to empty, the observance of Sunday became less strict, the custom of family prayers declined, and the number of young men preparing themselves for the Church diminished. The chief cause of the decline was probably the increase of comfort, with the later advent of the cinema and broadcasting and the extensive spread of outdoor sports, which gave people other things to think about on the weekly day of rest. Improved facilities for travel, especially the motor-car, affected churchgoing most of all. Moreover the spectacle of evil and bloodshed on so enormous a scale in the two World Wars shook the faith of many erstwhile believers. By 1979 it was calculated that one-fifth of the adults in England belonged to a church, and that half of these attended regularly.

The Roman Catholic Church apparently had about half of all church members - reliable statistics of some sects are difficult to discover - but as with the Protestant churches its numbers were declining. In general, the people of Britain now, while still imbued with many notions of Christian origin, are only vaguely Christian in belief and can no longer be described as a religious people. The advent of 'the permissive society' is an indication of this. It was still possible, however, for the New English Bible to be the best seller of 1961, and for the opening of the rebuilt Coventry Cathedral, designed and adorned by the foremost artists of the time, to be a major national event of 1962.
And under the pressure of forces hostile to religion the Christian Churches
showed further signs of drawing together. Two of the Nonconformist bodies in
England, the Presbyterians and Congregationalists, joined in 1972 to form the
United Reformed Church. There were conversations aimed at the reunion of the
Methodists with the Church of England, but these ran into difficulties, mainly
because some Anglicans preferred to lean in the other direction - towards Rome -
and these could not accept Methodist ministers as properly ordained. Between
the Anglicans and Roman Catholics there continued to be friendly contacts
and collaboration in various good causes, but these stopped short of intercom-
munion, and most Anglicans found it impossible to accept a number of Roman
Catholic dogmas, including of course the infallibility of the Pope in deciding
matters of doctrine.

From 'Modern Britain 1783 - 1980' by Richards and Hunt