The Church of England and the First World War

Wilkinson

A review of Alan Wilkinson’s The Church of England and the First World War.

It will not have escaped anyone’s notice that 2014 marked the 100th anniversary of the start of the optimistically named “war to end all wars”, which we now know as The First World War. The history, the politics, the culture, the societal impact, and the personal tragedies are being dramatised and serialised in quite a number of TV and radio specials, and in countless commemorative books.

This book by the former Principal of Chichester Theological College is a reprint of a work which was first published in the 60th anniversary year of the end of the Great War, and subsequently in a second revised edition in 1996. This new issue is not a further revision or update, though there is a helpful page listing seven books on the subject which have appeared since the second edition, and a short new preface. Rather, it is a timely re-publication of an important work on a subject of topical relevance for the next few years, as we enter a quinquennium of remembrance.

Wilkinson examines the role of the national church during the terrible conflict of World War One by means of biographies, newspaper articles, magazines, letters, poetry and other sources which are lavishly referenced throughout. It was disappointing, however, to discover that he has not made use of Churchman, which (the archives reveal) continued to publish fascinating material monthly throughout the war, including topical articles on “The German Anti-Christ”, “Patriotism and Piety”, “The Spiritual Problems of the Great War”, “War and the Other World”, “Will the War Result in a Revival of Sacerdotalism?”, “Lessons from Chaplaincy Work,” and “What the Jews expect from this war.”

On the other hand, he makes great use of more liberal and Anglo-Catholic periodicals. Nevertheless, Wilkinson’s was the first full-length study of the Church’s role in relation to the hostilities to appear in England, and although there have since been some in-depth explorations of the role of military chaplains in particular, this remains the leading work in the field perennially referenced by all the others.

Wilkinson’s study is predicated on the basic tenet that the church is a tragically compromised institution, so often powerless and ineffective. Clergy had presented previous wars as a solemn national duty or a well-deserved divine punishment, as righteous crusades or as human folly through which God could work to rouse us from selfishness and complacency. But, Wilkinson says, “The Christian tradition of interpreting specific events as revelations of divine providence received a fatal battering during the two world wars, and the Churches are now notably reluctant to venture in this field.” Bereavement drove many people to despair or to spiritualism or at the least to prayers for the dead, and Anglican chaplains and clergy were largely ineffective in sharing the gospel and leading people to real hope in Christ.

He presents evangelicals at this period as apprehensive. The great Bishop Moule, he says, criticised some popular sentiment about war memorials and the fate of the dead — “But then his patriotism and tender heart came into conflict with his Evangelicalism”, and he preached that God cares for the brave sacrifice of our sons and is attentive to every tear. Other evangelicals are dismissed as naïve, lacking in theological insight or sophistication, and with a faith that “tripped too easily off the tongue to make much contact with men facing deep and agonizing perplexities.”

There is an Anglo-Catholic feel to the book itself. There is a stained glass image of a dying soldier touching the feet of Christ on the cover (featuring a text from Isaiah 53). And on the first page there is a picture of a priest celebrating a requiem mass for a throng of soldiers, and others going back even to the crusaders, pictured hovering above the altar (“The Place of Meeting” by T. Noyes Lewis). Roman Catholic theology of “last rites”, the reserved sacrament, and prayers for the dead did well out of the war, of course, and there were not enough “Woodbine Willies” to hold out the more solid truths of the gospel.

The pseudo-poetic final paragraph which ends in an actual poem by Eliot is ultimately deeply unsatisfying: “It is the greatness of Christianity at its best that it affords no easy answers,” he assures us. The war aroused such hate and malice that it was exceedingly hard to penetrate the anger and fog with the gospel’s message of love and peace. Yet without the great (easy?) certainties of our faith — human depravity, the gracious mercy of God in Christ, and the final judgment for all — it is impossible to make sense of the world at all, including its wars. It is the great tragedy of the last century that despite limitless proof of the first of these three simple truths (human depravity), so many failed to turn to God for the second (salvation in Christ).

Are we fated then to further rounds of conflagration before the third and ultimate truth hits home? The current geopolitical instability is profoundly unsettling, so this study of how the Church of England met (and did not meet) the challenges of the First World War has within it a provocative summons for us to ponder our own readiness for battle in the coming centenary years.

This review first appeared in Churchman 128/3 (2014).

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