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Level 6

6AAT3351 Varieties of Religious Experience: Christianity in Britain 1850-1970


The modules run in each academic year are subject to change in line with staff availability and student demand so there is no guarantee this module will run. Module descriptions and information may vary depending between years.

Credit value: 15
Module tutor: Dr Michael Ledger-Lomas
Assessment: One 2,500-word essay (40%) and one two-hour examination (60%)

Students are reassessed in the failed elements of assessment and by the same methods as the first attempt.

Teaching pattern: Two-hour weekly classes over ten weeks.
Pre-requisites: none

This module explores a world in which Christianity gradually lost its social and intellectual hegemony, taking its place as just one of many forms of religion and irreligion in Britain. From the early twentieth century, the Christian churches experienced first relative and then absolute decline. Numbers of worshippers and members stalled or fell and by the second half of the twentieth century many of the countless churches and chapels erected by the Victorians were closed or turned over to other uses. A range of developments posed a radical challenge to the social and moral teaching of the churches: from the creation of the welfare state to the development of commercialised leisure and the spread of affluence and permissiveness. This module traces the slow eclipse of Christianity as a dominant force in British society and culture back to the later nineteenth century. It introduces students to theories of secularisation and the problems of periodisation and explanation that result from their application to the history of modern Britain. It begins by explaining the ways in which developments in religion, society and culture in nineteenth-century Britain prepared the way the loss of Christian hegemony in the twentieth. These ranged from the political activism of Protestant dissenters, who brought about the partial secularisation of the British state and as a result of British politics, to the decoupling of the universities from clerical control and the intellectual ascendancy of scientists. The module also emphasises the development of new spaces which were or appeared to be impervious to Christian influences, ranging from the inner city to the golf course.

As well as insisting upon these challenges however, the module invites students to reflect on responses to them, which variously slowed, temporarily reversed or perhaps just exacerbated the pace of dechristianization. It examines the clerical championship of the welfare state, the Christian embrace of the modern media and the rise of the ‘broadcast minds’: a new breed of lay apologists for religion. It looks at both conservative evangelicals and Roman Catholics, who in their different ways broke with mainstream Protestants by isolating their faith from prevailing developments in national culture and by acting as part of transatlantic and global faith communities. It ends by considering the ‘religious crisis of the 1960s’ and asking whether the collapse in Christianity’s hegemony during that decade represented a sudden change or rather the culmination of trends explored throughout the course. 

The module draws on a wide range of primary sources, from statistical evidence to poems, architecture and film. Most  sessions  will  be  divided  roughly  equally  between  a  lecture  and  a  period  of  discussion. Students will be encouraged to come to the classes prepared to participate in the discussion. The  reading  list  will  provide  sufficient  background  for  full  participation  in  the  classes  and  for  the  writing  of  essays  on  related  topics.  Some  of  the  sessions  will  require  a  familiarity  with  primary  sources, extracts from which will be provided in advance.

Past syllabus

Please find syllabus document available here for academic year 2015-16. Please be aware that the content of the syllabus will differ each academic year. 

Preliminary / suggested reading

  • Brown, Callum, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularization 1800-2000 (2001) [Maughan Library, Chancery Lane BR759 BRO]; 2nd edition (2009) [Maughan Library, Chancery Lane, Classmark BR759 BRO]
  • Green, S.J.D., The Passing of Protestant England: Secularisation and Social Change, c.1920-1960 (2010) [Maughan Library, Chancery Lane, Classmark BR759 GRE]
  • Hastings, Adrian, A History of English Christianity 1920-2000 (2001) ** [Maughan Library, Chancery Lane BR759 HAS]
  • Robbins, Keith, England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales: The Christian Church 1900-2000(2008) [Maughan Library, Chancery Lane BR759 ROB plus electronic version]

Further information

Module aims
  • To facilitate an understanding of the key features of religious change in twentieth-century Britain
  • To enable students to engage critically with primary and secondary sources related to the period and area
  • To combine empirical, historical knowledge with sociological and philosophical perspectives
Learning outcomes

Generic skills

  • The capacity to assess the validity of leading historical texts, and to appraise their methodology
  • An ability to engage creatively with primary sources

Module specific skills

  • An ability to identify the critical developments in the history of Christianity in twentieth-century Britain
  • The capacity to assess the merits of sociological and historical approaches to religion in modern Britain
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