How new were the challenges to, and innovations by, Christian churches in twentieth century London?


The twentieth century saw huge changes to London. Its religious, political, social, economic and cultural life were all revolutionised. In this essay I will take a chronological approach to charting these significant changes. I want to catalogue the challenges to the Christian churches and outline their innovative responses. I want to concentrate on the famous personalities involved and their books. I will begin with the influential Toynbee Hall in the late Victorian and Edwardian eras, continue with the two world wars, separated by the roaring twenties, look at the period of post-war austerity, before charting the swinging sixties. I will end with the relative economic prosperity, but personal greed of the Thatcher years.

Toynbee Hall

In 1884 Toynbee Hall was established as a charity by the social Christian movement in the deprived East End of London. It was part of the world-wide Settlement Movement which sought to establish settlement houses in poor neighbourhoods to help alleviate poverty. Other later settlement houses included Browning Hall in Walworth, South London and Mansfield House also in the East End. They were characterised by their use of middle class professionals performing pro bono publico volunteer work, for instance as the Poor Man’s Lawyer service.

In 1903 Toynbee Hall hosted the founding of the Workers Educational Association (WEA). In 1965 it helped start the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG). Its workers have included R.H. Tawney, William Beveridge, Clement Attlee and John Profumo. The former was a Christian socialist historian who published “Religion and the Rise of Capitalism” in 1926 which documented the Protestant work ethic and the growth in materialism (Tawney, 1926). He married William Beveridge’s sister Jeanette.

Sir William, later Baron, Beveridge was a Liberal politician who published his famous report entitled “Social Insurance and Allied Services” in wartime 1942. Clement, later Earl, Attlee was the deputy prime minister in the wartime coalition under Winston Churchill, whom he beat in the 1945 post-war general election. As prime minister he was then able to implement Beveridge’s report as the National Health Service and thus founded the welfare state as we know it today.

John Profumo was the War Secretary in Harold Macmillan’s government who had to resign in 1963 when his notorious affair with Christine Keeler was revealed. When he left public life, he threw himself into the voluntary work of Toynbee Hall, becoming chair of the trustees in 1982 and CBE in 1975.

Late Victorian & Edwardian Developments

In 1887 the Women’s University Settlement was established by female students from the Oxbridge and London ladies colleges. Amongst them were Octavia Hill, one of the founders of the National Trust and a housing reformer and Helen Gladstone, the daughter of the Liberal Prime Minister. Originally located in Southwark, it then moved to Blackfriars and changed its name accordingly in 1961.

In 1894 the first of the Docklands Settlements was established in East London by Malvern College public school. One of their scholars was the playwright Reginald Kennedy-Cox who became Warden and then set up other settlements across the East End. He was knighted in 1930 for his work.

Similarly, Magdalen Mission was set up in North London by graduates of the eponymous Oxford college. Their most famous worker was the Anglican priest Basil Jellicoe who campaigned and raised funds for better housing, setting up the ecumenical St. Pancras House Improvement Society in 1924.

In 1908 the 19th International Eucharistic Congress of the Roman Catholic Church was held, for the first time in an English-speaking country, in London. Unfortunately the Protestant establishment forced Asquith’s Liberal government to ban the closing procession. This was a blow against England’s growing religious tolerance, which was later repeated (Horwood, 2000).

In 1928 proposed revisions to the Book of Common Prayer, which needed to be passed by the Houses of Parliament, caused a great controversy (Maiden, 2009). The changes were an attempt to broaden the reach of the Church of England towards both the right-wing Anglo-Catholics on one side and the left-wing, more sceptical, liberals on the other side. Unfortunately the innovative changes were unacceptable to the evangelical, more fundamentalist, wing of the church. In the end, Parliament rejected the revisions.

Mid Twentieth Century Innovations

During both world wars National Days of Prayer were held, culminating in a service in St. Paul’s cathedral in 1947 attended by the King, the Queen and prime minister Clement Attlee (Williamson, 2013). During the Second World War, at 9 p.m. every night, a Big Ben silent minute was observed (Dakers, 2012) to allow for mass praying to take place.

Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, was in post during the second world war and published his most famous book “Christianity and the Social Order” in 1942. This presented his view of what would be a just society after the war had ended. Unlike the war time Pope, he spoke out against the Holocaust taking place in Nazi Germany. Unfortunately he died in post in 1944, before seeing the peace and socialism he craved that would arrive the following year (Field, 2008).

Post-War Developments

Mass Observation (1947) carried out 500 interviews with citizens of a suburban London borough just after the war. They concluded that the majority of people were puzzled about religion, were embracing materialism and rejecting traditional churches.

The swinging sixties were a time of innovation with the evangelism of Billy Graham, the growth in the charismatic movement and the ‘new theology’ & ‘new morality’ of Bishop Robinson. Charismatic leaders of the decade included Martin Luther King in America and Pope John XIII in the Vatican.

Billy Graham was a born-again charismatic protestant fundamentalist evangelist who organised ‘crusades’ – huge gatherings in stadia and arenas, for instance at Wembley in North West London. Despite coming from a conservative Ulster Presbyterian background and becoming a Southern Baptist minister, he courageously spoke out against racial segregation in the U.S.A. during the 1950s. His most important book is “How to be born again” published in 1977. He was a pioneer of both radio and television preaching, heralding the rise in televangelism (Harris & Spence, 2007).

Mervyn Stockwood was the vicar of an inner London parish for 19 years before becoming Bishop of Southwark on the south bank from 1959 to 1980. He wrote three books including “The Cross and the Sickle” in 1958, which argues for Christian Marxism. He was a flamboyant high churchman accused of being both a champagne socialist and a closet homosexual. He appointed both John Robinson and David Sheppard as Bishops of Woolwich (Chapman, 2007).

John Robinson was a liberal theologian who became Bishop of Woolwich in South East London in the 1960s. His most important book is “Honest to God” published in 1963, in which he argued for an apparently paradoxical secular theology. It advocated moving away from a fundamentalist, literal interpretation of the bible in favour of a more mythical/mystical appreciation of it and of God himself. This led to a great controversy in the Church of England (McLeod, 2007).

David Sheppard was a Test cricketer Bishop of Woolwich in succession to John Robinson in the 1970s, before becoming Bishop of Liverpool. He wrote “Built as a City: God and the Urban World Today” in 1974, but is best known for the controversial anti-Thatcherite “Faith in the City” report (Various Authors, 1985). One of its key recommendations was for the establishment of a Church Urban Fund which came about in 1988. The report was dismissed by conservative politicians as being Marxist propaganda without reference to self-help, enterprise and the Protestant work ethic (Filby, 2015).


Gill et alia (1998) spell out the three possible interpretations of what has happened to the Christian churches in the twentieth century: firstly contraction under secularisation and scepticism; secondly persistence of numbers of attendees through innovation; or thirdly growth through fragmentation, pluralism and sectarianism. Of course the Protestant churches have suffered from the latter right from the time of Martin Luther’s reformation, whereas the Roman Catholic church has generally avoided fragmentation, pluralism and sectarianism by an authoritarian response to dissention in the ranks (e.g. the Spanish Inquisition and the Counter Reformation). A notable exception to the continuing sectarianism of the Protestant churches is the coming together of the Presbyterian and Congregationalist churches to form the United Reformed Church (URC) in England (but not Scotland) in 1972.

Gill et alia (1998) conclude by saying; “Overall, the results show an increase in general scepticism about the existence of God, the related erosion of dominant, traditional Christian beliefs, and the persistence of non-traditional beliefs.” However twentieth century developments and innovations catalogued above have helped stem the tide of secularisation and scepticism, whilst greatly improving life for the poor of deprived Inner London. Growth has mainly come in the proliferation of fundamentalist, mainly American, evangelical Protestant sects, which have proved increasingly attractive to an increasingly racially diverse city.