A handful of World War I veterans were still among the senior clergy when I was ordained in 1969; from them and from veterans who were members of my congregations, I learned firsthand of that conflict’s horrors. I grew up in England under the shadow cast by two world wars, but only when I returned to work there again in 2007 did I grasp how deep and lasting was the Great War’s impact on the British soul and British attitudes, as well as the life of the churches.
In virtually every community in the United Kingdom a war memorial stands in a prominent place, Lest we forget. My hometown is no exception. In elementary school I was taught almost exclusively by older women condemned to the single life by the loss of so many men of their generation. That horrific war scarred the character, personality, and beliefs of the British people.
In 1916 C.S. Lewis, not yet old enough to enlist, watched Oxford contemporaries in their khaki uniforms marching off and becoming cannon fodder. He wrote his father,
All those who have the courage to do so and are physically sound, are going off to be shot: those who survive are the moral and physical weeds — a fact which does not promise favorably for the next generation.[i]
Prescient words for church as well as nation. Centuries-old beliefs and attitudes crumbled, and in the wake of the conflict came a paucity of leadership and a loss of nerve.
North Americans, especially Episcopalians, hold onto dated, romantic perceptions of England and the English. They tend to view Britain through a Downton Abbey lens, but that country has long since ceased to exist, its lifeblood drained out in Flanders Fields. Yes, we should admire the courage and tenacity of the 20th-century British, but let us never forget that the price of standing firm was beyond what the nation could afford.
I returned to England in 2007 after over 30 years in the United States, in order to lead development work at an Anglican seminary founded with the wealth of the Victorian heyday. I dove into the institution’s history, discovering breathtaking acts of Christian commitment and generosity that enabled its early years. Earnest prayer and sacrificial stewardship turned a dream into reality, making Ridley Hall profoundly influential in the global spread of the gospel. The entire campus was constructed before August 1914, and had the guns not started firing more would have been built.
Neither was this seminary an exception. Scan the skyline of any town and city and you will see schools, hospitals, colleges, churches, missions to the poor, and so forth, which have their roots in the visionary self-confidence of the Victorian golden age, affecting good large swaths of the population. This was the mindset of the men who marched off to war.
Those pre-World War I Brits, especially the Christians, thought both locally and globally, and no challenge seemed too big. Handley Moule, first principal of our seminary, would plead with seminarians in the 1890s to give some thought to “darkest England,” as droves headed for missionary work in Asia, Africa, China, the Pacific, Latin America. Going overseas in those days meant putting their lives on the line, but their obedience to the Great Commission helped lay the foundations of today’s Anglican Communion.
When war broke out, aristocrats and artisans marched off together certain of swift victory, the words of the church ringing in their ears that this was a sacred duty, a new Crusade. Men who fell over themselves to enlist were soon pierced by bullets and their bodies sucked into the mud. The toll by the Armistice was a million dead with nearly three million more mangled in body, mind, and soul. The life expectancy of a junior officers had been mere weeks, enlisted troops not lasting much longer.
C.S. Lewis was right: the enthusiasm that took the brightest and best off to war robbed the nation of its finest human capital.
The Great Depression followed, and with it the ominous rise of Hitler’s Germany. The years 1939-45 have been described as the second chapter of that which had been left unfinished 20 years earlier. The country hemorrhaged young leaders once again; this time a half-million fighting men died, and roughly the same number of civilians. So the pool of visionary, courageous, intelligent, and generous future leaders shrank even further. Churchill admitted to his diary when he became Prime Minister in May 1940 that the price the country would pay in both human and financial terms would be ruinous.
I grew up in this post-war Britain. The country was immensely proud of the role it had played, but was now down on its luck. As America prospered, Britain was gray, grim, and struggling. Centuries of fortitude had evaporated, courageous vision had all but disappeared, a survival mentality prevailed. We still looked up to the aging Churchill, because contemporary leaders were spiritual, intellectual, or political also-rans — the “moral and physical weeds” Lewis predicted in 1916.
As I grew to adulthood English Christian stewardship had become pitiful, and the vigor of the Victorian age had evaporated together with the unattractive arrogance that had accompanied it. Not only had those who should have been movers and shakers been lost, but for the faith it was a depressing trajectory. It was a downward spiral: spiritual energy was generally low, financial and material generosity dwindled, not helped by the negative side of an incipient socialism. There were relatively few Christian leaders with an adventurous sense of seeking God’s wider purposes.
The world wars winnowed the country’s pool of leadership, Christian and otherwise, also removing those who would have fathered new generations. Women who would have become wives, mothers, and leaders in their own fields were destined for childlessness, tearing a multigenerational hole in the fabric of society that has yet to be fully repaired. One can only guess what England and its church might have been like if the men who went off to war in 1914-18 and 1939-45 had come marching home again.
The Great War ravaged the British soul, while the absence of so many strong men accelerated the “feminization” of the church. Bishops, archbishops, and prominent church leaders at the outset enthusiastically endorsed war, encouraging combatants to think of themselves as soldiers of the cross, yet all this dissipated in the squalor of the trenches. Alongside this came the corrosive impact of 19th-century theological “liberalism,” which infected prevailing approaches to believing to such an extent that the church, already facing the spiritual, intellectual, social, and philosophical consequences of war, was further weakened.
My father was born two years before the outbreak of World War I, then fought in World War II. Throughout his life he yearned to believe, but because he was disappointed by the church and scarred by the battlefield, the notion of a good and loving God was a bridge too far. The parish church on whose fringes our family hovered sounded an uncertain message. It became an appropriate setting for civic occasions, weddings, and funerals, but its vague Anglo-Catholicism seemed more interested in ritual than the transforming message of God’s grace. Our rector, a kindly man, had been spiritually crippled by the injuries he sustained in body and soul on the Western Front.
Thus the trajectory for the Christian faith in 20th-century Britain was set. Only by returning to live there and by immersing myself once more in British culture and the life of the church was I finally able to grasp the long-term impact of both world wars, especially the First, upon the life and mindset of nation, families, and the church. The British people’s response seems to have been a wholesale turning of their backs on the past, even that which was good and positive. Living there felt a bit like witnessing the demolition of a wonderful historic building, followed by its replacement with a cheap but barely functional prefab.
In many respects the Church of England seems to share this mentality, and often seems confused about its identity, its history, and the nature of its mission in a culture rapidly mutating from being predominantly Anglo-Saxon and Celtic into something that is multiracial, multireligious, and multicultural. While eager to reach out with the gospel, many Anglican evangelicals, the largest loose-knit alliance within the church, have set aside many facets of their birthright in their yearning to communicate Christ to a post-Christian, postmodern people — and I write these words as a committed Anglican Evangelical.[ii]
There are sweet spots in the life of the established church, especially the steady but significant growth of congregations in the great cathedrals. As in many American dioceses, there are odd parishes here and there that are doing well, but so many more barely limp along, often served by inadequately trained non-stipendiary clergy and lay leaders. A seminary contemporary of mine who was an archdeacon worried that the church is basing its hopes on this cadre of part-timers for increasing degrees of leadership.
My assessment coming back to what is now home in the United States is that the English church, like the rest of the nation, is still wrestling with the consequences of a terrible demographic, psychic, spiritual, cultural, and philosophical catastrophe. While the wounds are less raw a century on, disfiguring scars remain. Perhaps that is as it always is after any holocaust. My reading of history suggests it took at least two centuries for Britain and Europe to emerge from the Black Death.
I write these things conscious of the words of Philip Jenkins:
Not only did the First World War show how calamity can transform the world, but it also suggested just how long it takes for the results to become apparent. Observing a revolution is quite different from comprehending it. Only now, after a century, are we beginning to understand just how utterly that war destroyed one religious world and created another.[iii]
[i] Quoted from Lewis’s Collected Letters by Joseph Loconte in A Hobbit, a Wardrobe, and a Great War (Thomas Nelson, 2015), Kindle location 657.
[ii] Zachary Guiliano, “The Church of England’s Trinitarian schizophrenia“: “What is perhaps surprising is that amid a vigorous working out of a particular ecclesial Trinitarianism in ecumenical and inter-Anglican discussions, a second stream emerged with almost entirely different consequences, resulting in the emphasis on Fresh Expressions in the past decade, a devaluing of traditional structures, and a general sense that older or more traditional ways of being the church are a hindrance to mission.”
[iii] Philip Jenkins, The Great and Holy War (Harper Collins, 2015), Kindle location 5357.