Robert Beaken on 1916 as a year of change for the Catholic Movement


As Europe slid into war in the summer of 1914, monarchs, governments, and generals – with perhaps the exception of Lord Kitchener – had no idea what they were unleashing. They seem to have expected a sort of souped-up version of the Franco-Prussian war or the Balkan wars – a war of movement. It remained a war of movement in the east; but on the Western Front – its principal theatre – it settled down into trench warfare from the Swiss frontier to the North Sea: a sort of modern siege-warfare.

Throughout 1914 and 1915, the British Army was made up of volunteers. The young men who enrolled out of a sense of duty were much brighter and fitter than the pre-war regular troops, and were frequently practising Christians: ordinands, Sunday-School teachers, choirmen, and so on. It has been said that the British army that went to France in 1915 was the most Christian army to leave these shores since the Crusades. The loss of life in France, however, meant that a voluntary army was never going to be enough; and so from 2 March 1916 Great Britain introduced conscription of all fit men of military age, with a limited provision for exemption. This meant that most families came to have someone – however distant – in the army. By the time of the Armistice, some eight million British men had donned khaki.

1916 saw the Germans determined to wear down the French army by inflicting terrible casualties upon them at Verdun. In order to relieve the pressure on the French, General Sir Douglas Haig was ordered by his government to fight a battle over terrain he did not choose, and at a time he did not choose. The result was the Battle of the Somme, which began on 1 July. The Somme should have worked – it very nearly did work – but it didn’t. On the first day British casualties were 57,470. By the end of the battle, British casualties totalled 419,654.

It is sometimes said that every family lost someone in the war. That is an exaggeration – it was about one family in twelve or fourteen – but the figure is still pretty high. British society was confronted with bereavement on a scale unknown since the Black Death, and all social classes were affected. For every soldier killed, two were wounded. Some recovered; others were maimed in body or mind for the rest of their lives. Today, we would talk about being ‘stressed out’; but people then spoke about ‘anxiety’ – and in 1916, levels of anxiety were very high. As well as concern about menfolk on the Western Front, life at home continued to be affected by German air raids; food started to become scarce, though not as much as it would become in 1917; and industry and the economy became geared to supporting the war effort, of which one feature was the growing employment of women as the men went off to the front. 1916 was a year which saw much change on many levels.

I remember, when I was at Cuddesdon, hearing about an Anglo-Catholic chaplain on the Western Front who had ‘liberated’ various ecclesiastical items from bombed Belgian and French churches, and recycled them in his Army chapel. One day Bishop John Taylor Smith, then Chaplain-General, arrived on a visit. As he looked around he saw a baroque high altar with a tabernacle, crucifix, and six big candlesticks; statues of the Blessed Virgin and various other saints with pricket stands; and velvet draperies. Taylor Smith, an evangelical of the old school, nearly had a fit. ‘Get into my car,’ he barked at the padre. ‘I’ll show you what a proper Army chapel is supposed to look like.’ They drove about twenty miles along dusty French roads, and eventually arrived outside a plain wooden hut. ‘This way’, said the Bishop. ‘Now, what do you make of that?’ It was just a plain hut with rows of chairs, a harmonium, and quotations from the Bible stencilled on every surface. The chaplain spent about ten minutes going round in silence, reading all the quotations. At last he went up to the Bishop. ‘Very interesting, Chaplain-General’, he said, ‘but there’s one important text from the Bible that is missing.’ ‘What’s that?’ snapped the Bishop. With a straight face, the chaplain replied ‘Behold, how terrible is this place.’

Here we see an Anglo-Catholic spike cocking a snook at authority, getting away with it, and probably exercising an important liturgical and sacramental ministry – at least by his own lights – to some of the troops on the Western Front. 1916 saw the introduction of conscription, which meant compulsory military service for all fit men of military age unless they were exempted by a tribunal – and not many were. From the point of view of the Church of England, the war generally – and conscription in particular – had an unexpectedly positive spin-off. The Army took very seriously its spiritual responsibility towards its troops: they might, after all, have to lay down their lives. The Army Chaplains’ Department underwent a rapid expansion, and Church parades were compulsory. This meant that all troops – whether they had been regular worshippers in peace time, or had lapsed soon after leaving Sunday School, or had never been to church – now found themselves regularly attending worship. Officers and NCOs are known to have led prayers or Bible-study groups in the absence of a padre. One of the things that surprised me in my study of Colchester – an important garrison town – during the Great War was just how many troops also voluntarily went to Evensong on Sundays. Others helped with choirs and Sunday Schools, or joined the Church of England Men’s Society, and so on. Anglo-Catholics sometimes grumbled that they were discriminated against; but the evidence is that if a priest was suitable, he would be commissioned as a chaplain, irrespective of his churchmanship. Quite a few Anglo-Catholic priests and monks served as chaplains.

    It is also worth bearing in mind that many Britons went abroad for the first time in their lives during the Great War and found themselves in France, a Roman Catholic country. Here, they encountered cassocked curés, nuns in habits, and the occasional monk or friar. They visited French Roman Catholic churches – Amiens Cathedral was a favourite – and sometimes attended mass. They were especially struck by statues and wayside Calvaries; and for many, to take a concrete example, it was the first time they had seen statues of the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Golden Madonna of Albert, knocked horizontal by a German shell, became almost a talisman. It is not too hard to imagine all this having a cumulative effect: it reinforced the message of Anglo-Catholic churches back home, and suggested that this was a natural, indeed normal way of being a Christian.

I think that it was after the Somme that British patterns of mourning, which had their origins in the Reformation, finally broke down for many people. For evangelical Anglicans, not praying for the dead was an article of faith: they associated it with late medieval abuses, and to them it appeared unnecessary. Before 1914 many other non-evangelical Anglicans also did not pray for the dead. A few Anglicans did, and that included Anglo-Catholics who prayed for the dead in church services and specifically celebrated requiem masses. Anglo-Catholics understood prayer for the dead not as some sort of bribe to persuade God to squeeze someone into Heaven who would otherwise have gone to Hell; but as a loving and prayerful way of supporting a departed brother or sister who was undergoing purification and healing after death before attaining the Beatific Vision. They might have retorted to evangelical critics that just because something has been badly misunderstood or horribly abused doesn’t mean that it is wrong.

As the casualties mounted, for non-evangelical Anglicans the practice of not praying for the dead was felt to be inadequate. Street shrines began to be erected, bearing the names of those who had died. It was known that Anglo-Catholics prayed for the dead, and such prayers began to spread outside Anglo-Catholic parishes. The average middle-of-the-road parish would not have referred to a service as a requiem mass, but the dead began to be prayed for at Holy Communion, and also at Mattins and Evensong.

Another significant change from about this period concerned the Eucharist. Soldiers in France began to derive great comfort from Holy Communion, and they brought this insight home with them after the War. It led some to move in an Anglo-Catholic direction, while others carried on attending 8 o’clock Holy Communion, before Mattins at 11am; but the difference was that Holy Communion now meant much more to them than it did before. Something similar happened at home: we know that reservation of the Blessed Sacrament took off in this period. The bishops had issued very cagey regulations for Reservation in 1911: the Sacrament was to be reserved only for Communion and in parts of churches difficult for laypeople to access; but the War saw the Sacrament reserved in more churches, so that Holy Communion might be administered in a hurry to the sick and dying. Significantly, more and more laypeople – suffering from unprecedented levels of stress – found solace and comfort in the peace and stillness that arises wherever the Sacrament is reserved. The Sacrament came to be used and appreciated as an aid to prayer and devotion.

The Tractarians never really wanted to create another party within the Church of England. Rather, they sought to recall the whole Church of England – including evangelicals and liberals – to the fullness of Catholic Faith: they were convinced that the Church of England, despite its chequered history, was the historic Catholic Church of the land; and not some strange Protestant body that happened to have retained bishops. The Catholic Faith led them to a new and exciting vision of God, and the enriching difference He could make to people’s lives. They lovingly sought to share this insight with people who knew nothing about Christianity, and to share it with Anglicans of other traditions.

Nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Anglo-Catholics mostly pursued a policy of gradualism, and more importantly of permeation to demonstrate that Catholic faith and practice are true, and work: that they change lives, make people holy, and bear the fruits of the Spirit. In this way the Catholic Faith would permeate the Church of England: Anglo-Catholic ink spreading into Church of England blotting paper.

If we look at the history of the Church of England in the twentieth century, we see that there were some bits of the blotting paper which the ink didn’t reach; but it nonetheless reached quite a lot. The heyday of Anglo-Catholicism in the Church of England began after the Armistice in 1918, and lasted for about the next fifty years. Things came unstuck – as they did for all Churches and groups within them – with the societal and cultural changes of the 1960s; but I would be reluctant to conclude that Anglo-Catholicism has had its day. The theological and spiritual insights of Anglo-Catholicism are, after all, God-given and true; and the Catholic Faith has a strange way of popping up at times and in guises one least expects.

   The permeation of Anglo-Catholic principles would undoubtedly have happened anyway, even had there been no First World War. The difference the Great War made was that it provided an environment and a set of circumstances in which it happened more quickly. Old Anglican ways were challenged or overturned during the Great War, and much of the empty space came to be creatively filled by Anglo-Catholicism. 1916 stands out as the year during the First World War in which all these changes began to happen.


The Revd Dr Robert Beaken is Priest-in-Charge of Great and Little Bardfield, in the Diocese of Chelmsford.. This is an edited extract from a lecture delivered at All Saints’, Margaret Street, on 9 April 2016, as part of the commemorations for the centenary of the death of Friederica Frances Swinburne, foundress of the Cleaver Ordination Candidates Fund.