Andreas Whittam Smith: How the welfare state killed the churches

The reform of the voting system may be seen as an underlying cause of Christian decline
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In thinking about why Christianity has retreated so far in Britain since the middle of the 19th century, Frank Prochaska, in a new book, Christianity and Social Service in Modern Britain, makes an important contribution. For this American historian of philanthropy argues that it was no coincidence that the expansion of government and the contraction of religion happened over the same period. The reform of the voting system for Parliamentary elections that prompted welfare legislation may be seen, he writes, as an underlying cause of Christian decline.

In other words, to use Matthew Arnold's felicitous phrases, the "melancholy, long, withdrawing roar" of the "Sea of Faith" is not solely accounted for by the growth of scientific rationalism, of which Darwin's Origin of Species, published in 1859, was such a conspicuous example. Something else was gong on.

Indeed mid-19th century Britain was an extraordinary place. Rapid industrial growth, rising population, substantial movements of people from the countryside to town was also the very moment when the state played a smaller role in citizens' lives than it ever had done before or would again. All tariffs and taxes except those required to raise a minimum amount of revenue had been abolished. Politicians of the time believed it was both useless and immoral for governments to try to rescue economic victims - or their children - whether they were bankrupt capitalists or unemployed hand weavers.

This glaring absence of state welfare provision during an industrial revolution was made good, as far as it possibly could be, by the churches. Admittedly Victorian Christians tended to think that the source of distress was to be found in personal misfortune or moral weakness rather than in the structure of society. As a result, Evangelical Christianity, with its focus on self-help, found ample opportunity for charitable endeavour.

The churches nearly filled the gap. Mr Prochaska describes how they set up voluntary hospitals, asylums, visiting societies, homes and orphanages, penny banks, provident societies, Sunday schools, ragged schools. They were innovative. The first body of paid social workers was a Christian initiative of the 1860s; these were women who had been trained for three months in Poor Law, hygiene and scripture.

All this activity undoubtedly helped to fill the pews whether in the old, familiar parish churches and long-established nonconformist chapels or in the new places of worship quickly established in areas of growing population. For if you want to get people into church, you must first meet them outside. In this respect, church-led charitable activity, in its sheer scale and scope, was also an incredible machinery of recruitment.

Then in 1867 the franchise was widened for the first time since the Reform Act of 1832 and governments began to undertake welfare provision. For Church charitable activity hadn't in fact provided all that was needed and so people came to think that overarching solutions were required. Reformers turned their attention away from the poor themselves, with their individual stories, and focussed instead on poverty in general and its causes. And, as Mr Prochaska demonstrates, with the expansion of the welfare state came church and chapel decline.

The evangelical tradition, too, with its emphasis on the authority of scripture, proved more vulnerable than other branches of Christianity to the new scholarship which queried the literal truth of the Bible stories. At the same time, the Church of England itself experienced the resurgence of a Catholic sensibility which stressed the importance of sacraments such as communion.

Towards the end of the 19th century and on into the Edwardian period, it saw an increase in confirmations and attendance at communion services. Withdrawing into itself, it still felt safe. If numbers were falling, then sacramental commitment had increased. From the beginning of the 20th century, too, all the denominations looked for ways to work with each other. Divisions were now seen as a source of weakness. The modern ecumenical movement had begun.

Great, though, has been the decline. The 1851 religious census, the only one of its kind, conducted on the 30 March of that year, showed that 10 million people had been at churches or chapels on that day. I should think the number yesterday was less than one fifth of that while the country's population has risen from 18 million to 60 million over the same period. Yet in so far as individual churches still follow the Victorian way of growing - meet people where they are and respond to their needs - churches continue to succeed. You won't have to go far to find an example.