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The Catholic Historical Review 88.2 (2002) 376-377
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Churches and Social Issues in Twentieth-Century Britain
Churches and Social Issues in Twentieth-Century Britain. By G. I. T. Machin. (New York: Clarendon Press, Oxford University Press. 1998. Pp. xii, 269. $65.00.)
G. I. T. Machin's previous distinguished work on politics and the churches in nineteenth-century Britain is an invaluable resource for scholars. In this new book he turns his attention to the twentieth century, while shifting his focus from politics, in which the impact of the churches was increasingly marginal, to social issues, on which their role arguably remained more substantial. Machin gives particular attention to sexual morality (including abortion, artificial contraception, and divorce), and to attitudes to drink, gambling, the cinema, and Sunday observance. The organization of the book is chronological, with initial and concluding chapters on, respectively, the periods before 1918 and after 1970, framing a somewhat more detailed examination of the intervening half-century. The overall impression given is that the churches tended to reflect wider social mores far more than they shaped them, although there were significant divisions within as much as between denominations on the extent to which traditional Christian teaching should be adapted to a changing society. As the period went on, the churches, despite some brief and partial recoveries of influence, appeared increasingly embattled and marginal.
The book ranges widely across the denominations, and draws primarily on sources such as the papers of Anglican archbishops, the minutes of denominational bodies, and religious newspapers and periodicals. It is therefore a valuable guide to the perspectives of denominational leaderships. There is extensive coverage of Scotland, although Wales receives relatively little attention. Discussion of the Catholic Church is largely limited to matters of sexual morality, but is helpfully set in the context of Christian opinion as a whole. The effect is to show that although Catholic views tended to the conservative end of the spectrum, they were paralleled in other churches, including the most staunchly Protestant denominations.
The strength of Machin's account lies in his material on moral issues, whereas central social issues of class and labor relations are not given much coverage, except in relation to the 1918-1939 period. Gender roles and race relations merit more attention than they receive here. There is also a need for more substantive treatment of education, surely a crucial interface between the churches and society. Further research is needed to complement Machin's work with analysis of attitudes and activities at the local grass roots. More attention could also be given to the roles of individual committed members of churches outside their immediate denominational networks. Such a wider field of view would have revealed other and diverse forms of creative engagement between the churches and society. Hence overall this book probably somewhat underestimates the social impact of twentieth-century British Christianity.
Nevertheless, Machin has done much to map out a territory and to provide a perspective that spans both the century and the wide variety of British church life. It provides valuable contextualization of more short-term developments [End Page 376] such as the impact of Archbishop William Temple in the interwar years, or responses to the 'sexual revolution' of the 1960's. This is a welcome, accessible, and scholarly exploratory study of a field that merits further detailed research.
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