Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Modern Spiritualism and the Church of England, 1850-1939

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Modern Spiritualism and the Church of England, 1850-1939

Article excerpt

Modern Spiritualism and the Church of England, 1850-1939. By Georgina Byrne. Studies in Modern British Religious History, vol. 25. (Woodbridge, England: The Boydell Press, 2010, Pp. xi, 255. $95.00.)

Historians of British religion, according to Georgina Byrne, have overlooked the role of Spiritualism in the Church of England and wider society. Such neglect is undeserved because from the time Spiritualism arrived from America in 1852 until World War II, many Anglican laypeople and some clergy attended séances. Ecclesiastics of the day gave Spiritualism serious scientific study - whether through the Cambridge Ghost Club (founded in 1851 by a future bishop of Durham and a future archbishop of Canterbury) or the Society for Psychical Research (founded in 1882 and including among its members the Bishop of Ripon, archdeacons, canons and other clergy) or the 1939 Report of the Archbishop of Canterbury's Committee on Spiritualism (which the bishops suppressed when the majority of the committee said their findings supported a hypothesis of communication from "discarnate spirits"). Moreover, Anglican theology concerning the afterlife "negotiated" with the theology of Spiritualism.

Chapter 1 argues that such negotiation provides evidence against the secularization thesis that Britain's transformation into an industrial society over the long nineteenth century brought with it the decline of Christian beliefs and practices. Byrne joins Sarah Williams and Callum Brown, among other historians, in refuting this thesis by attending not to statistics of church attendance but to the voices of individuals in the "common culture." Byrne uses this latter phrase to avoid a term that might suggest class boundaries, thus distancing herself from Williams and Brown, both of whom she notes are too focused on class differences. Byrne wants to move her study away from class to wider culture, a culture in which the Church of England played its part and in which "religious belief . . . did not 'decline' [but] adapted and changed" (9).

Chapters 2 through 4 give a fascinating account of Spiritualism in Britain, including the first attempt to consider Spiritualism's theological system. Certainly Byrne reveals a coherent theology that entered religious discourse at all levels of British society. …

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