Religion and Subjectivity in Modern Britain

Speakers: Harry Cocks, Sam Brewitt-Taylor, Laura Ramsay

Chair: James Vernon

Twentieth century Britain used to be thought of as a mainly secular society in which religion was of very little importance.  Religion, if it was considered at all, was usually seen as part of class – window dressing for essentially ideological or political positions.  Since that time, we have had a generation of scholarship that has tried to restore the importance of religion in Britain not least to cultural and political debates, as well as to questions of morality, sexuality and family.  Whereas an earlier generation of historians saw religious belief as incompatible with modernity, recent work has undermined this simple equation, and suggested that it was only in the 1960s that there was a decisive turn away from religious belief and observance.  This panel examines some of these arguments and ideas about the place of religion in British culture and in its relationship to subjectivity and identity.  The first paper (Sam Brewitt-Taylor, Plymouth) considers how the idea of the sacred survived the political changes of post-war Britain, and considers how certain ideas assumed the inviolable status of sacredness.  The second paper (Laura Ramsay, Nottingham U) examines the way in which the Church of England – which is usually seen as an implacable opponent of modern morals – in fact tried to respond positively to changing notions of sexuality and identity in 20th-century Britain.  In particular, Ramsay aims to show the ways in which voices within the Church aimed to assemble a Christian subject fit for participation in contemporary Britain.  Finally, Harry Cocks (Nottingham U), examines the uncertain relationship between law and morality after Wolfenden, principally through the Hart-Devlin debates and how they played out in practical terms in arguments over the law of conspiracy to corrupt public morals, which many liberals viewed as a threat to the potential Wolfenden settlement.

Paper 1 Abstract: The self and the sacred: reflections on modern British selfhood from a religious-history perspective.

Sam Brewitt-Taylor, Plymouth University

Birmingham’s Working Paper calls for closer attention to historical constructions of the self and ‘hierarchies of value’. Taking a Durkheimian perspective, this paper argues that these concerns can greatly be furthered by histories of the sacred: histories which focus on the myths, rituals, and symbols which allow individuals to construct themselves as part of a cohesive community. ‘The sacred’ can be defined as anything which is socially constructed as non-negotiable: that which a community places at the very top of its ‘hierarchy of values’. ‘The sacred’ is thus wider than traditional religion. In the last fifteen years, for example, attention to ‘the sacralisation of politics’ has transformed interwar European historiography, allowing fascism and communism to be understood as ‘political religions’.

In particular, this paper argues that a focus on ‘the sacred’ as an organizing theme has three major implications for ‘modern British studies’.

First, recent work on the religious crisis of the 1960s suggests that ‘the Sixties’ marked a profound turning-point in constructions of the social self in Great Britain. Beforehand, hegemonic cultural forms derived from Christianity governed rites of passage, codes of respectability and civil discipline, sexual mores, gender relations, and both British and Irish national identities. After the 1960s, following the eclipse of these forms, all these areas of Great British (not Northern Irish) life were decisively problematized.

Second, a focus on the sacred might sharpen reflection on the shifting relations between society and the individual. In societies where social forms of the sacred are strong, communal obligations rule many parts of life. In societies which hold individual self-expression to be sacred, this will not be the case. Thus the shifting visions of the sacred might help us think about the rise of postmodern forms of individualism, especially since the 1980s.

Third, my own work on the imagined revolutions of the Sixties suggests that the idea of transformation has acquired sacred significance since the 1960s. New Social Movements wanted to transform modern society; Blair and Cameron face-lifted their parties; even Thatcher tried to use economics to ‘change the soul’. Social shifts are now routinely described as ‘transformations’. Personal transformation is an emerging theme in postmodern identity.

In all these cases, the self can be understood not simply in terms of what controls it, but also in terms of what it most earnestly desires.

Paper 2 Abstract: Christianity and modern sexuality: assembling an Anglican view of autonomous sexual selfhood

Laura Ramsay (Nottingham University)

Until very recently, histories of sexuality and modern religion remained separate and discreet. Since then, historians have begun to trace the development of progressive Christian positions on issues of sexuality in the twentieth century, demonstrating the symbiotic rather than oppositional relationships between religion and sexual modernity. In this paper, I want to argue for a continuation, but also a broadening out, of that project. By opening up and extending this dialogue, historians of modern Britain can profitably explore shifts and continuities in the regulation of sexuality, the fluidity of models of understanding sex and desire, and the broader social, cultural and political change involved in that process. In particular, I want to focus on the extent to which Christian discourses engaged with, and contributed to, debates about new forms of autonomous sexual selfhood. I outline a long (and complicated) trend in Anglican moral welfare work, towards positive, constructive, and rationally-based statements about sex, and attempts to assemble a Christian view of responsible, self-regulating sexual citizenship, that became integral to the ways in which Anglican moral welfare organisations sought to promote specifically Christian ways of thinking about sex, marriage and the family, through their educational work and participation in public discussions, from the mid-1920s onwards. Increasingly, Anglican moral welfare organisations began to shift away from older, prohibitive moral frameworks, towards a Christian approach based on individual social adjustment and responsibility. The moral welfare organisations not only became the official bodies of the Church for thought and action in issues of sexual morality, thereby occupying a central position in mainstream Church policy-making, but they also exercised a broader influence in British society through their participation in major public debates, and their interactions with other social agencies, public health and educational authorities, and government departments. We need to recognise and further interrogate these religious contributions to wider contemporary discussions on social policy and the needs and obligations of British sexual citizenship.

Paper 3 Abstract: Law, Religion and Morality after Wolfenden: the Case of Conspiracies Against Public Morals

Harry Cocks (Nottingham University)

In 1960 a laboratory assistant named Frederick Shaw was prosecuted for a conspiracy to corrupt public morals.  His crime was to have published the Ladies’ Directory, a short booklet giving a list of prostitutes and their services.  Although Shaw appealed, claiming that there was no such offence, his conviction was upheld and thereafter became the basis of several more prosecutions up to the early 1970s, the most famous being that of the underground paper International Times (IT) in 1969.  There is reason to think of Shaw’s case as more than a legal footnote.  In particular, it loomed large in debates over the question of whether morality derived from Britain’s Christian heritage was central to the workings of the criminal law.  In that sense, Shaw’s case was central to the famous debate over permissiveness and the law between the legal philosopher H. L. A. Hart and his judicial opponent Patrick Devlin.  For critics of the decision such as Hart, Shaw’s case seemed to threaten not only the liberties of low-rent types like Shaw, but in a much broader sense to attack the principle behind the Wolfenden Report, namely that there were areas of private life that were no longer the law’s business.  Devlin’s response to Hart was to base a large part of his argument on the Shaw decision.  He argued that morality would always be part of the criminal law, and that the best way of deciding what that morality should be was through the views of the “reasonable man” represented by the English jury.  This, he suggested, was what had happened in the Ladies’ Directory case.  Attacks on the decision in Shaw suggested that privileging the jury in this way would give authority to any contemporary prejudice, and that the offence of conspiracy to corrupt public morals was drawn far too widely.  These fears seemed to have been borne out with the use of conspiracy not only against blue films and small-time gay brothels, but also in the attack on IT.  In that case, the publication of gay contact ads in the paper was taken to be a similar conspiracy against public morals, and again seemed to threaten what was now, after the decriminilisation of homosexuality between men in 1967, the settled principle of Wolfenden.  In short, the development of the law of conspiracy in the 1960s and early 70s appeared to be a definite counter-strike against the Wolfenden settlement.

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