“Church Going” is an excellent poem for examining the psyche of a nonbeliever, but it’s also a perfect stating off point for thinking about the secularization of Britain, the social context which underlies the poem. The speaker depicts a land where churches were becoming “A shape less recognisable each week,/ A purpose more obscure.” Exactly was happening when Larkin was writing? And why was it happening?
According to Callum Brown, “The dissolution of the religious in British culture represents one of the greatest cultural changes of all time….Never had something close to a secular society existed before the late 20th century” (2014:6). In 1900, there was almost universal certainty in British government and major institutions that Christianity was the only legitimate religion, superior to others, and that morals and society would decay without it. By 2000, those certainties had evaporated. In its place was a drastic increase in people for whom religion diminished as an important role in their life, as well as increased religious diversity due mostly to the rise of immigrant Muslim, Hindu, and Sikh populations.
What does this demographic shift mean practically? In 1900, 85% of all marriages in England and Wales and 94% in Scotland were religious weddings. By 1997, those rates were 39% and 55%. Baptism fell in the Church of England from 61% of all births in 1900 to 19.8% in 2000. Rates of church going as well as recruitment of the baptized into the full church membership also fell (2009:6-7). According to one 2004 survey, more people attend services weekly in mosques than attend weekly services with the Church of England. Another way to conceptualize this change: the 20th century was the first in the United Kingdom’s history where Christian behavior was no longer enforced by law, as regulations surrounding homosexuality, abortion, divorce, suicide, blasphemy, censorship, and Sunday trading and entertainment were all repealed.
There is a wealth of academic literature on this topic, and the historiography of secularization in Britain is itself actually a pretty interesting topic, a subject whose assumptions have shifted dramatically in the last few decades. For much of the 20th century, the prevailing thesis was that British secularization was rooted in modernization, industrialization, and urbanization. It was seen as a natural consequence of people leaving traditional lifestyles for the more atomized lifestyle found in urban settings. Modernization and secularization were portrayed as linked and inevitable. According to this view, the change was a gradual one that began in the 19th century. A well-respected example of this view is Alan Gilbert’s 1981 book The Making of Post-Christian Britain. In it, he asserts that “To analyze the gradual disintegration of Christianity’s historically favorable social environment in Britain is to examine changes in patterns of community, politics, and conventions of respectability in modern society” (1981:80). He contextualizes this change within class politics of the era, writing that “because the Anglican and Presbyterian Establishments were deeply implicated in the politics of deference and dependency – historically, organizationally, and through the social backgrounds values and alliances of their clergy – their influence and their relevance suffered as class structure and class consciousness gradually assumed predominance in Britain” (1981:6). Proponents of this view cite the gradual decline in church membership and attendance beginning in the late 19th century as evidence.
However, starting in the 1980s and gaining steam in the 1990s, historians revised this thesis, dating the change to the 20th century. Callum Brown has written extensively on this topic in The Death of Christian Britain and Religion and Society in 20th Century Britain. Brown admits that church attendance might have declined, but to prove that British society retained it religious character into the mid 20th century, he looks at other metrics of religious behavior in the 19th century like the rise of voluntary religious organizations, open air preaching, the growth in the printing of religious tracts, and the increased popularity of religious music in Victorian and Edwardian culture.
Brown argues that notion of religious decline which blame modernization are rooted in a distrust of the city. "Traditionally in Britain, secularization has been understood in terms of dichotomies between city and countryside, and between proletarian and bourgeois. These dichotomies were drawn from the evangelical-Enlightenment bipolarities by which so much of 19th and 20th century British society was understood. Social science inherited from evangelicalism the ways of perceiving religion and society, and it has thereby constricted the study of the subject within those early 19th century parameters" (200:193). Brown explains that 19th century writings and speeches decrying moral decay purposefully overstated the problem, as interested parties, like social reformers and church officials, exaggerated the decline to further their own agendas.
So, how does Brown explain Britain’s de-Christianization? To understand it he says we must look at how British Christianity was changed by evangelical puritanism in the 19th with its "considerable attention on how piety was conceived [making it] an overwhelmingly feminine trait which challenged masculinity and left men demonised and constantly anxious. It was modern evangelicalism that raised the piety of woman...As a result, women, rather than cities or social class, emerge as the principal source of explanation for the patterns of religiosity that were observeable in the 19th and 20th centuries" (2009:9). From the 16th to the 18th centuries, a wife's femininity was perceived as a threat to piety and household, and a husband established his moral stature by controlling her. “From 1800 to 1950, by contrast, it was a husband's susceptibility to masculine temptations that was perceived as a threat to piety and household, and the wife established a family's respectability by curbing him.....the route to family harmony no longer lay in the taming of the Elizabethan shrew but in the bridling of the Victorian rake, drunkard, gambler, and abuser" (2009:88).
His work shows that "the single largest occupation group amongst women - domestic servants - were crucial to determining variations in morning churchgoing between communities. It shows that churchgoing was closely related to the nature of the household economy, with the presence of servants releasing large numbers of middle-class women to attend church who, in their turn, allowed and cajoled their female servants to attend church later in the day" (2009:160). While it’s true that patterns of church attendance declined, “this was counterbalanced down to the mid-20th century by the popularity of female-centered rites of passage (marriage, baptism, and churching), by children's continued and almost obligatory Sunday school enrollment, and by the affirmation of a Christian identity conferred by church membership” (2009:169).
Brown believes that the turn towards a secular society began in the 1950s and accelerated rapidly in the 1960s, arguing that the 60s saw the simultaneous de-pietization of femininity and de-feminization of piety. This decade saw a shift in the assumptions that underlay public discourse with a decline in self-evident truths. "There was a cultural revolution among young people, women and people of colour that targeted the churches, the older generation and government. In this maelstrom, traditional religious conceptions of piety were to be suddenly shattered, ending centuries of consensus Christian culture in Britain. In its place, there came liberalisation, diversity, and freedom of individual choice in moral behavior. In every sphere of life, religion was in crisis” (2014:15). Central to this change is the Sexual Revolution and changes in gender norms. Brown relies less on demographic data and more on cultural artifacts, centering his analysis on the public discourse around religious issues. Therefore, he points for evidence of social change to the rise in the 1960s of rock and magazines for girls that were about dating but not about saving virtue. He writes that “In no period of history did the relationship of Christianity to issues of sex, sexual orientation and sexual equality become of such importance as in the 1960s. Churchmen worried endlessly that the permissive sixties lay at the root of the turn against organized religion, the decline of faith and the crisis of the church in British society" (2014:214).
Brown focuses on a few specific years, including 1963 which saw the publication of John Robinson's Honest to God (a controversial book of theology), the Beatles hitting #1, and a decline for the first time in membership in The Boy’s Brigade, a group that aimed to encourage working class boys to faith. As a Larkin lover, I was delighted to see Brown specifically mention 1963, for that’s the year Larkin uses in his poem about the Sexual Revolution, “Annus Mirabilis,” a poem which memorably begins with the lines “Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three/(which was rather late for me) -/Between the end of the Chatterley ban/And the Beatles' first LP.”
These two accounts, one which sees secularization as a gradual affair and one which sees it as a rapid event, disagree on a central question: is modernity inherently secularizing? From the perspective of 2014, the answer seems a clear “no.” A glance around the world shows religion still playing a primary role in politics and culture for many modernized societies. Hell, since Ronald Reagan, every address from an American president ends with “God bless the United States of America.” However, a more nuanced version of the modernization thesis might claim that modernization has shifted the content and form of religion for many religious people. Arguably, religion no longer creates their frame of reference for behavior but it instead has become a personalized affiliation that people construe in ways they best see fit. Think of mega-churches that cater to every conceivable sub-group and successful pastors like Joel Ostreen whose religious messages are frequently critiqued as lacking theological substance, the type of Christianity that Larkin satirizes in the poem “Faith Healing”.
Someone people have staked a middle ground between these two extremes. Steve Bruce and Tony Glendinning in their 2010 article "When was secularization? Dating the decline of the British churches and locating its cause.” They praise Brown for reframing the debate but point out flaws in his argument. They argue that when Brown shows clergymen in the 19th century turning their concern towards women, he is also implicitly admitting men were dropping out of religious practice, a phenomenon which is a refutation of his argument. “As his [Brown’s] own data on Anglican confirmations shows, in 1956 – the start of his period of abrupt decline – men were already vastly under-represented: in that year there were 40.8 women confirmed for every 1,000 head of population aged 12–20 but only 28.1 men” (2010:112-113). They also add that Brown points to the stability of church membership in the early 20th century yet “that assertion of stability loses force when we shift from gross numbers to size relative to the population” (2010: 113). Ultimately, these authors conclude that the change was not as abrupt as Brown claims and that we should look to World War Two as the beginning of the decline, very tentatively hypothesizing that perhaps it resulted from the large number of women conscripted into industrial production and civil defense organizations during the war. As a result of joining these groups, they encountered new people and patters of thought. “Our case is not that lots of people gave up religion during the war. It is that the previous social networks that linked families, neighbourhoods, churches and schools in a manner that facilitated the inheritance of faith were sufficiently disrupted that only those with a strong faith would have restored such networks to their former effectiveness (and in particular ensured that their spouse shared their religious identity)” (2010: 123).
Returning to Larkin’s poem, what’s clear is that Christianity declined in importance for much of the Western world during the 20th century, losing its supremacy as the default explanatory model for people trying to imbue their lives with meaning. For many people, they no longer house the important events of their lives within churches. Other ideologies and practices have taken Christianity’s place. Larkin doesn’t argue that belief in the supernatural or higher powers fades away. Quite the opposite. “Power of some sort will go on/In games, in riddles, seemingly at random.” The interesting question is what does that power shift to. For some, it shifts to new forms of religion, such as New Age religions. But it manifests itself in other ways too, such as the rise in authority of the medical establishment and doctors, professionals who have in many ways taken the mantle from religious authorities as moral arbiters and the people who we turn to in times of crisis. But that’s another topic for future poems……
Brown, Callum, Religion and Society in 20th Century Britain. New York: Longman, 2009.
Brown, Callum, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800-2000. 2nd edition, London: Routledge, 2014
Bruce, Steve, and Anthony Glendinning, “When Was Secularization? Dating the Decline of the British Churches and Locating Its Cause,” The British Journal of Sociology, 61(1), 107–126, 2010.
Gilbert, Alan D, Making of Post Christian Britain, Longman Group United Kingdom, 1981.