This superbly researched and well-written treatise on the rise and fall of British Christendom sallied forth as excellent example of revisionist history. Brown argues that Christendom in Britain remained dominant until the 1960s when quite literally sex, drugs, and rock’n’roll abolished the last vestiges of the Church’s monopolistic control of the British world. In the background of his thesis, Brown paints a fascinating portrait of the surprising power and majesty of Christianity in Victorian England. The true power and beauty of Brown’s work lies just here, and often loses focus when it attempts to move beyond this world to that of modern day Britain.
Brown first focuses his lens on the surge of Evangelical Piety which he argues births the British nineteenth century. Brown follows along as men like Thomas Chalmers endeared itself to Christian society by establishing a “salvation economy,” that is an economy geared toward the revival. Using tools such as the voluntary organization and the home mission district, the good men and women of Christendom were organized into a fighting force tasked to ‘take back’ the streets and alleys of their towns for Christ and His Kingdom.
This call to arms soon came to include gender stratification within the church. Just as the forces of industrialization were working to split the spheres of home and work (thus establishing the ‘male’ world of business, and the ‘female’ world of home) the church was creating a world along these same gendered lines. In describing one commonplace Victorian novel Brown notes that “from the outset, widely appreciated evangelical codes were deployed to establish binary oppositions: empire and home, worldliness and innocence, experienced man meets young woman with ‘no bloom off the gift.’” Females, as befitting their status within the sainted home, came to be seen as the heroes of the faith just as males, as befitting their status within the corrupted workplace, were seen as the weak victims of temptation and vice. This feminized faith stood strong in Brown’s long nineteenth century, yet lost steam in the post-war years as women’s opportunities increased outside the home, while decreasing within the Church. Long the heroes of the church, women in the 1950s found themselves trapped in the home by this entrenched Victorian morality. Meanwhile, the sexual and cultural revolution of the 1960s provided these women an escape from this snare. Brown quotes Jean-Francois Lyotard who stated that, “the narrative fuction [presumably of Christianity] is losing its functors, its great hero, its great dangers, its great voyages, its great goals.”
There have been some that questioned the breadth of Brown’s work (he focuses primarily on white British evangelicals); as well as the depth of Brown’s causation (minimal focus on the sexual revolution of the swinging sixties). Yet a more fundamental question might need to asked and answered. Does Brown prove his central thesis that this death was so quickly and easily accomplished? Taken as a whole, Brown’s book could be read as a detailed account of the church’s slow slide into obscurity. By way of example, Brown paints the Beatles as both the primary cause and most visible effect. Brown writes that “the pop record [whose rise he argued was ‘signified’ by the release of ‘Love Me Do’], the pop magazine, radical fashion (including the mini-skirt), pop art and recreational drug-use combined to create an integrated cultural system which swept the young people of Britain.” However just two paragraphs later he states that “the Beatles were merely one band circulating discourse change, not creating it [italics his].” We all ‘know’ that John Lennon was more popular than Jesus in the 1960s; yet even God, himself, might not be able to both create and reflect reality. After the brilliance of his Victorian analysis, the last several chapters fail to hold serve. Brown wants to be able to state that the death of Christian Britain was a fast affair; yet even his book spends several chapters indenfying various seeds of this destruction which were planted as far back as 1800. His profound historical analysis often confounds his rather simplistic thesis.
Brown’s thesis might be better served by switching analogies. Perhaps rather than discussing the 1960s in terms of revolution, his ideas might be better suited to say a tsunami. The tidal wave may appear fierce and sudden when viewed from the beach; yet an oceanologist could tell you how the tidal wave can pass thousands of miles unnoticed, just a bump on the ocean, before unleashing its fury on the shallow shoals of an unsuspecting beachhead. Likewise changes over time created a bump which created the ‘sudden weaknesses’ of the British church.
Brown, despite some problems late, is no Chicken Little warning of dire consequences ahead; nor is he a little boy crying out a false alarm. One should not have to rehash the statistics thrown out by Brown to understand that for large segments of British population the sky has fallen on the British Church. This tale of the church’s disenfranchisement of the British male, followed by the departure of the British female, stands as an important and needed tale. It is also a tale that is quite unfinished. Brown’s title and thesis is related to the death of Christian Britain which is not necessarily the same thing as the death of the British Christian. All is not lost, yet. Brown was careful to note this fact in his introduction. Likewise, his tones of warm regard and regret in the conclusion show proper revealed Brown’s complex emotions on this score. The death in question concerned the ability of the British Church to set the table, and control the agenda for all of British society. It is much too early to say with any clarity and force just what this means for Britain and British society, much less the British Christian. These are questions for the historians of future generations; one can only hope that they look back at this moment in time with an equal clarity, dedication, and chutzpah.