They used to say that the Church of England was “the Tory Party at prayer”, and the Free Churches the “Liberal Party at prayer”.
Now both the Liberals and the Free Churches are a shadow of their former Victorian glory (though nowhere near the total extinction some predicted), but what about the Tories and the Church of England? Didn’t some of the fiercest opposition to Margaret Thatcher come from their “Faith in the City” report of 1985? Didn’t that provoke the accusation in some quarters that the Church of England was being led by “a load of communist clerics”? What is going on? It’s perhaps worth examining those old clichés and asking if they are hopelessly outdated today.
In the early nineteenth century the Tories could be said to stand broadly for traditional agricultural society, governed as it was by local landowners and squires. There was a strong element of what we would today call “paternalism” in that- the rich and powerful had an obligation to care for their workers and for the poor. Of course that had its limits- the workers must be deferential, obedient and respectful of their betters, and the poor grateful for the charity they were shown. Rebellious radicals should expect nothing but the harshest repression. In many parts of the country there was a strong distinction between “closed” and “open” villages, so-called: “closed” where a single landlord, or at the most two or three, owned almost all the land and controlled the life of the community. In those villages lived the regular, loyal labourers, sometimes provided with good housing by the landlord, who worked all the year round on his farms. In the “open” villages land was dispersed among many small-holders, with little central control. Casual labourers lived there, who might be employed in the “closed” villages at times in the agricultural cycle which demanded extra labour: especially harvest-time. But at other times in the year they would have to live by their wits, or, if they were lucky, by some of the new home-based industries that were springing up.
The Church of England, with its parish system, was strongly identified with this traditional pattern of society. Indeed, as the profits of agriculture grew, its hold grew stronger: it was able to maintain full-time clergy in most villages, housed in increasingly fine Rectories and Vicarages, something that had never been known before in history. Nonconformists, by contrast, were to a very large extent excluded. At the beginning of the nineteenth century their numbers were tiny, limited mainly to towns, where they had real strength among shopkeepers, craftsmen and traders. They had not yet fully recovered from their defeat in the aftermath of the English Civil War, and it was to be the growth of Methodism that made them once more a numerical force to be reckoned with. But early Methodism, at least in its original “Wesleyan” form until the middle of the nineteenth century, was as Tory as the Church of England, if not more so. John Wesley had said that it would be better if “Republicans” went somewhere else, rather than disturb the political unity and peace of his societies, and Jabez Bunting, for many years the General Secretary of the Wesleyan Conference, supported the transportation of the Tolpuddle Martyrs and is reputed to have said “Methodism hates democracy as it hates sin.”
The older Dissenters (Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers and Unitarians) saw things differently. Smarting from past persecution and the social rejection they still endured, and with economic interests at variance from the traditional landowning classes, they saw “liberty” as their ideal. This could mean anything from greater political freedom for themselves to a more open, “free market” form of trading, liberated from the shackles of agricultural restrictions, such as the Corn Laws passed in 1815 to protect British landowners from cheap foreign imports.
In the eighteenth century the main political and parliamentary opposition to the Tories had been the “Whigs”, representing wealthy merchants and aristocrats, mainly based in London, who saw their future in the global expansion of British trade and commerce. At that time their rationalist and secular attitudes were as far distant from the beliefs of the Dissenters as were the Tory Anglicans and Wesleyans. But as the nineteenth century progressed, the abolition within the British Empire of the Slave Trade in 1807 and of slavery itself in 1833 (achieved by an alliance of some nonconformists with Tory Anglicans like Wilberforce) removed a major obstacle to the coming together of great Whig merchants and Nonconformist small traders and emerging industrialists. And as Methodism took root in the growing industrial towns of the north of England it also began to lose its Tory mentality. At first this came about mainly through schisms, in which more liberal-minded chapels and preachers broke away from the Wesleyan Conference. But in the later nineteenth century even the Wesleyans themselves shifted towards Liberalism.
So was forged the great Liberal-Nonconformist alliance that dominated British politics by the beginning of the twentieth century, putting the old Anglican-Tory consensus under such pressure that there was even talk of the disestablishment of the Church of England. Liberalism allied to the “nonconformist conscience” seemed the guarantor of unstoppable progress to a thriving, healthy and prosperous society, not only for Britain, but for the world, as those ideals were spread through the agencies of the British Empire and the world-wide missionary movement. But even as Liberalism appeared to be achieving its final triumph, already serious weaknesses had appeared. The “free market” was evidently capable of creating great wealth for many, and of spreading it more widely in society then had ever been known before, but there were stubborn pockets of poverty which it seemed unable to eradicate, especially in the big cities. Even those workers who had steady jobs were in constant fear of unemployment as the cycles of “boom and bust” became regular features of the market economy. And if illness or injury broke the strength of the wage-earner the threat of the workhouse could hang over any family. Some said that the problem of poverty was caused solely by alcohol, and great campaigns were mounted to persuade people to sign the “Pledge” and become total abstainers. But others, even within the Nonconformist churches, recognised that poverty was more deeply rooted than that, and was perhaps an inevitable consequence of the way the market economy worked.
Karl Marx had argued that, far from solving poverty, capitalism would create new and deeper inequalities. It would concentrate power and wealth in fewer and fewer hands, turning all others into “wage slaves”, until the growing sense of impoverishment would cause revolution to break out and overthrow the whole system. Most people in the churches were repelled by Marx’s atheism, but some saw that there was a lot in what he had said, even if they did not go the whole way with his analysis. And what is more, they thought that some elements of his thinking were more in tune with the teachings of Jesus than the complacency of the churches about free markets. They grew dissatisfied with the Liberals and joined groups that eventually formed the Labour Party, particularly in industrial areas which were experiencing some of the worst effects of the capitalist way. But this provoked bitter argument in many congregations, and if there is one thing that congregations fear it is the disunity brought about by any dispute. In many places the leadership of the chapels moved swiftly to impose a “no politics” ban, and young men (and others) who wanted open discussion of these topics began to feel increasingly alienated.
At the same time, the British economy was facing new challenges to its global dominance. The disruption of Continental Europe by warfare in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries had created a space for Britain to capture world markets. Global trade and commerce that had grown up under the cover of State protection (through government monopolies and the like) became strong enough to abandon State support and proclaim the virtues of unfettered competition. But as the nineteenth century progressed new industrial powers began to compete effectively with the ageing British economy. In particular Germany and the United States were emerging as rivals to British dominance. The true impact of the United States was not to be felt until the twentieth century, but tension over the growing (and state-supported) industrial power of Germany was to lead to the destructiveness of 1914-18. Within the churches during those crisis war years debate about the economy and theology’s relevance to it was put to one side.
After the war people hoped that everything would return to “normality”. But what was normal in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries no longer seemed to work. Britain had only been able to survive through the war years by a massive increase in State intervention in the economy. As this was shelved after the war, demand for traditional goods collapsed and those industries which produced them saw a rapid increase in unemployment. In the United States feverish speculation in stocks and shares appeared to promise great rewards but led to the 1929 Wall Street crash. In Germany inflation and unemployment, exacerbated by the reparations imposed by the victorious allies on the “war guilty”, brought Hitler and the Nazis to power. Many came to the conclusion that Capitalism had failed, and focussed their minds on finding viable alternatives.
The experience of the Second World War, when Britain’s survival depended on the Government harnessing the abilities of the whole population, with each person having a vital role in the country’s future, created a mood that was willing to listen to the new ideas of people like the economist John Maynard Keynes. He argued that the Government must create as near full employment as possible, injecting cash into the economy in years when the natural workings of a free market system would bring recession and unemployment, and recouping the cost of that intervention by taxation in the years of boom and prosperity. So no one would need to be unemployed for longer than the few months it would take to move from one job in a declining industry to another in a developing business. This policy of full employment should go along with a Welfare State, in which all citizens would be cared for from “cradle to grave” by the State.
Although it was the Labour Party which actually brought in this programme, its core concept was in fact closer to the old “Tory paternalism” than to nineteenth century Liberalism, and therefore to the traditions of the Church of England tradition rather than the Nonconformists. A powerful and omni-competent establishment would take full responsibility for the welfare of all its citizens, and as long as those citizens were loyal and well-behaved, their future security would be assured. So it is no surprise that some of the strongest supporters of the “new deal” were leaders of the Church of England, including figures such as William Temple, Archbishop of York from 1929 to 1942 and of Canterbury from 1942 to 1944. Nonconformists were less certain. Some feared that such a State-dominated economy would only encourage dependency and moral decline. A (very) few thought that Christian theology demanded that the ownership of material resources should be put into the hands of all the people, and that a Government-planned economy, with the nationalisation of major industries, was only a “half-way house” which would not solve the problems of modern society. But most eventually came to believe in the post-war Keynesian solution, and actively participated in Government service. Perhaps this was most marked in the Methodism which had recently (in 1932) achieved the reuniting of most of its nineteenth century splinter groups. So modern Methodism had perhaps rediscovered some of the “Tory” ideals of the early nineteenth century Wesleyans: a strong establishment, enshrining Christian ideals of public service and care for people- now democratically controlled and well organised, just like the Methodist Church itself, in contrast to the anarchic localism of other Nonconformists.
Within thirty years, however, the cracks in the Keynesian ideal were beginning to show. One major problem, in a near repetition of Britain’s experience in the nineteenth century, was that although Continental Europe had been devastated by the destruction of the Second World War, giving British exports a temporary open window, this was not to last for long. When European industry rebuilt it proved more efficient than the now ageing British equipment, which began to lose export sales. A further problem was that, as everyone knew, a policy of full employment would give greater power to workers and the Unions. The “discipline” of unemployment had always been relied on to keep workers “in line”. The post-war settlement had baulked at sharing real power with workers by giving everyone ownership of (and therefore responsibility for) businesses. Now the increased power of the Trades Unions was bitterly resented by those who had traditionally regarded firms as “their own property”, and who wished to see Unions put back “in their place”. And no doubt in some cases the Unions abused their newly acquired power.
In 1979 the pendulum swung and a new Conservative government, led by Margaret Thatcher, was elected. She repudiated the traditional “one nation” Toryism of the early nineteenth century (still and important part of the thinking of the Church of England and, now, of many Nonconformists). Instead she returned to the harsher versions of nineteenth century Nonconformist Liberalism (the fact that her father was a Methodist of the older Liberal type is no coincidence). So it is no great surprise that some of her stiffest opposition came from those in the Church of England who still espoused the “Christian” ideal that the powerful have an obligation to help the weak, in contrast to the nineteenth century Liberal principle (now reincarnated as Thatcherite Conservative) that people can and should “stand on their own feet”.
Now the old clichés of “The Tory Party at Prayer” and “The Liberal Party at Prayer” are history- if not yet ancient history then fast fading out of memory. But their passing has left a vacuum of general disillusionment with politics, now the grand hopes of the post-war era have crumbled. There is still the sense that the job of religion is to deal with personal and not political matters- that if the human heart is put right public life will come right too. But that leaves the political assumptions in today’s pews dangerously entrenched and unexamined. Some believe that a free market could still create a near perfect world given half a chance (if only, perhaps, Britain sets itself free from the constraints of European bureaucracy). Others that a strong economy can and should offer its members a welfare “safety net”, but that the numbers depending on that might become unsupportable or even unruly. A few say that allowing a tiny minority to own the overwhelming bulk of productive assets can never create a just or stable society, and this is the central problem to be solved. What must be resisted, however, is any kind of repetition of the “no politics” ban (more likely, these days, a polite but firm freezing out of debate). That would put paid to any hope that the churches might be able to speak with some relevance to the secular society of today about the kind of society the Gospel promises.