Believing in Britain: Disruptive Narratives of Spiritual Modernity

Session Abstract : Although few historians nowadays would use the sociological monolith ‘secularization’, the theory’s central tenets still form the presumed context around which narratives of modern Britain are built. The under-theorized view that modern life is coherently rational and uniformly secular has constrained the historical imagination, often resulting in the dismissal of modern religious and spiritual beliefs as marginal or indulgent.

This panel relocates religious perspectives as vital tools with which to interrogate Modern British Studies. The three papers take seriously the lives of individuals for whom faith was central to their understanding of the world and their place in it. Their stories unlock broader histories of modern Britain in which religion and spirituality entwined with political activism, social engagement and law reform in the networked and global lives of believers. The case studies, located at various key-moments in histories of secularization (the inter-war years, the 1960s and later), reveal that religious motivations were inextricably tied-up with, and reflective of, the modern worlds in which they were produced – existing as products of modernity, not in spite of modernity.

The panel also seeks to advance a methodological intervention into Modern British Studies. Not only do the papers grant visibility to marginalized subjects, they follow Joan Scott in using individual life-stories to challenge “the orthodox categories of current historiography: surprising them, throwing them off their guard.” Listening to the lives of our subjects, prior to and during our narration of them, throws up so much contradictory, surprising material as to act as sticking points in current categories and master-narratives about modern Britain. It forces us to turn back to our starting points and ask who gets excluded when our histories predict a continuously secularizing future.

Session Chair: Lucy Delap, University of Cambridge

Paper 1 Abstract : DS Bailey, Secularisation and Modern Theologies of Sexuality

Tim Jones, La Trobe University

Derrick Sherwin Bailey is most well known for his support for gay law reform in the 1950s. In a remarkable feat of scholarship and politics, Bailey managed to author the Church of England’s submissions to the Wolfenden Committee, a groundbreaking historical and theological revisionist monograph on the theology of sexuality, and position the Church to support gay law reform. But at the same time he was the secretary of the Eugenics Society, and did a lot of work to position the Church to promote birth control in this period. Bailey was theologically modernist, but also fundamentally orthodox; he was at once deeply prescient, timely and effective, but also unfashionable. This paper explores some of the tensions and uncomfortable juxtapositions in his modern theologies of sexuality.

Paper 2 Abstract : Great Goddess Rising: Spiritual Feminism and Religious Change in Post-1960s Britain

Ruth Lindley, University of Birmingham

“People who say Goddess is nothing to do with feminism, well I don’t know where they’ve been for the last fifty years but not on the same planet as me.” These are the words of Geraldine Charles, who had been a member of the Goddess movement since its emergence in Britain during the mid-1970s. In the interview I conducted with her in February 2016, Geraldine explained how the Goddess intersected with key-moments in the development of second-wave feminist thought, including the emergence of radical feminism and the creative protest methods employed at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp.

Despite the extent to which female defined spirituality both generated and fed into second-wave feminist philosophy and activity, historical accounts of the women’s liberation movement largely dismiss Goddess spirituality. Historians take up the perspectives of contemporary secular-minded feminists for whom the Goddess was, at best, an apolitical ‘cop out’ or, at worst, a dangerous endorsement of biological essentialism. In this paper, I use Geraldine’s analysis as a starting point with which to write a bracing and entwined history of Goddess spirituality and feminist politics and, in the process, re-imagine the history of modern spiritual movements in terms of political activism and engagement.

Not only does this approach force us to think differently about the nature of women’s liberation and second-wave feminism, it also challenges assumptions that underpin current narratives about modern Britain. By revealing the complex and enriching ways in which spiritual practices were used by women at a time when rapid secularization is already supposed to have taken place, I challenge existing conceptualizations of modernity that emphasize uniform secularism and coherent rationality.

Paper 3 Abstract: The Seeker: rethinking belief, belonging and spirituality in the interwar years

Jane Shaw, Stanford University

This paper will explore how the figure of the seeker challenges many of the standard accounts of twentieth-century secularization, and will propose a new and rather more complex relationship between spirituality, belief and institutional ‘belonging.’

Beatrice Irwin was one typical such seeker. Born to British parents in 1877 in India, where her father was an Anglican priest, through her long life (she died in 1956) her religious allegiance shifted from Anglicanism to the Order of the Golden Dawn to an exploration of the spirituality of colour to Baha’i, and was matched by her geographical mobility, as she moved from India to Glasgow to London to Los Angeles and finally to San Diego where she became a missionary for the Baha’i, having embraced – along the way – a career as actress, performance poet, writer, and manufacturer of stage and household lighting.

This paper will argue that the figure of the seeker emerged in the early twentieth century and flourished in the interwar years (over and against sociologists who identify this figure’s emergence with the 1960s). For the first time, significant numbers of people no longer remained in a particular religious tradition because it was that of their parents; disillusioned by institutional religion, especially after World War I, they no longer regarded it as authentic or trustworthy. Churchgoing in England leveled out after World War I and thereafter started to decline, but many people still wanted ‘the spiritual’, and the development of the seeker, as a character who repeatedly moved from one church or spiritual movement to another, or accumulated multiple concurrent spiritual affiliations, is a hallmark of this time. Religious mobility often went alongside increased geographical mobility – enabled by train, ship, plane and motor car – as people explored new lives and spiritual identities in multiple places, and participated in the transnational spiritual networks of new religious movements.