- The Local Church and Generational Change in Birmingham, 1945–2000 by Ian Jones
The Local Church and Generational Change is not only a good book; it is also an ambitious one. The persuasive force of the concept of secularization has led historians to underestimate the importance of Christianity in the recent history of Europe. It has been widely taken for granted that late twentieth-century Europe was “a secular age” in which Christian ideas and institutions, and Christian faith and practice, were marginal to the mainstream of history, however defined.
Thanks to the empirical and statistical work of many historians of postwar Europe, notably Brown and McLeod on Britain and Cholvy and Hilaire on France, the 1950s and 1960s have been brought into focus as a period of Christian revival.1 This revival resembles the many revivals of Christianity throughout history, for which the appropriate metaphor is a bell-shaped curve of growth and decline. As the postwar revival of the 1950s and 1960s entered a period of decline in the 1980s and 1990s, historians began to apply promiscuously the theory of secularization, mapping a short-term, historically specific decline onto the long-term downward slope of secularization stretching back to the Enlightenment.
Jones cannot make up his mind about secularization; he tries to have it both ways by referring to “religious change and secularization.” When he focuses on religious change, and resists allowing the theory of secularization to answer questions for him, he provides important insight into the workings of religion. Focusing on the institutions that most Christians regard as the fundamental to their religion, the local parish or congregation, he chooses seven congregations as “case studies” in the [End Page 412] metropolitan area of Birmingham—two parishes from the established Church of England, three from the Nonconformist denominations (Baptist, Methodist, and Presbyterian/Congregationalist), one merged ecumenical Protestant church, and a Roman Catholic parish.
Although the terms teenager and generation gap date from the mid-twentieth century, the Christian churches have regarded the religious socialization of the young as one of their fundamental tasks for many centuries. As the churches of Great Britain, including the state churches of England and Scotland, began to come to terms with the need to act as voluntary bodies rather than merely as agents of state or elite power, they began to pay more attention to new methods to recruit and socialize the young. In the Victorian Age, the great innovation was the Sunday school, which was still important in late twentieth-century Birmingham, but the churches also attempted to attract and retain young people through a variety of strategies, including youth clubs and new forms of church music that they hoped young people would find more “lively.” Nonetheless, evangelical congregations tended to retain the younger generation better than the more liberal ones did.
Jones is at his best when employing congregational and parochial records and publications to provide detailed documention about the ways in which churches attempted to negotiate a growing generation gap, especially during the 1960s and 1970s. Understanding the centrality of music in church life, he describes the passions involved in debates about changing the musical environment of the churches. Congregations risked alienating an older generation by introducing new forms that appeared to be irreverent or even secular. When discussing the Protestant introduction of popular forms of music and the “happy clappy” praise hymnals favored by charismatic and evangelical Christians, as well as the Roman Catholic reaction to the theologically charged liturgical changes in the post–Vatican II age, Jones’ key word is “compromise.” Congregations and parishes attempted to satisfy old and new generations at once, not to mention the West Indian migrants whose forms of worship were vastly different from theirs. No one has better documented and explained the grassroots religious changes in the music of public worship in Britain than Jones does in this book.
Congregations had to adapt not only to generational issues but also to broad social changes—depopulated inner cities, declining working-class neighborhoods, growing postwar housing estates, etc. The...