One of the great benefits of conducting research at the British Library is that days off provide the opportunity to soak up some of London’s first-class cultural amusements. Like Paris, Rome, and Washington D.C., England’s capital is a museum city, brimming with galleries and monuments. The city itself is a reminder of traditions jostling—often uneasily—with the seemingly ineluctable pressure of changing values and mores.
I try to keep business and pleasure separate, of course, but while taking in the portraits at the National Portrait Gallery I was struck by the way in which this cultural history constructs a certain trajectory of secularization. As a portrait gallery, the museum doesn’t exhibit religious or allegorical artwork—the neighboring National Gallery offers plenty of that. But that doesn’t mean that the shift from medieval sacramentalism to postmodern cynicism (via Protestant austerity, Baroque reaction, Romanticism, etc.) isn’t legible in the depictions of Britain’s latest and greatest. From the ornate Tudor rooms to the sublimity of Regency Romanticism, from the earnest Victorians to ironic photorealism downstairs, the tour can be read as both a journey through modernization as well as a narrative of the disappearance of God.
Except this is not, in fact, the case.
I realized this while meandering through the first floor of the gallery, especially in those rooms dedicated to the English Civil War, the later Stuarts, and the Hanoverian succession. There, hanging on the walls, is a visual representation of the tense struggles over the extent to which England would be considered a Protestant nation. “How much do we reform?” is one fundamental subtextual question here. By 1650, the high-church minded Charles I would lose his head to an army of religious radicals and Presbyterians led by Oliver Cromwell. Provoked by the “Popish inventions” of Laudian Anglicanism and what they saw as absolutist rule, these Protestants wanted to collapse the separation between worshippers and their God—they wanted to relegate the mediating cleric a redundancy in favor of a direct experience of God’s grace (one senses the Evangelical strain already present in these debates). Priest and ritual needlessly drew a dividing line between deity and parishioner. Britain’s bloody seventeenth century is in may ways a protracted argument over the relative merits of the country’s Catholic past and the still young Reformation.
According to historian Linda Colley, by the early-nineteenth century Protestantism had arisen–at least as close to as can be determined— as a categorical sine qua non for British identity. Colley’s influential Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 argues that what emerged out of the testy maneuvering of the period preceding the Act of Union (1707), and took hold in the century after it, is the solidification of a national Protestantism: an imagined community hovering somewhere between Anglican communion and British state. Thus, positioned against the threat of a decadent Catholic France, to be British was synonymous with being Protestant. Accordingly, the Catholic James II would be replaced in favor of the Protestants William and Mary, and later George and the Hanoverians in a providential coup d’etat. Tracts like Joseph Wilcocks’ The Providence of God, the Preservation of Kingdoms (1728, the year of George II’s accession), for example, imagine this shift in strikingly nationalist theological terms. Eventually, as the nation state took hold and Enlightenment trickled down from Scotland, the sense of united Anglican Protestantism receded—a bygone ideology of a more sacramental era. The story of modern Britain for Colley is essentially a narrative of reformation, followed by a narrative of contested, but ultimately triumphant, Protestant nationalism.
But hasn’t Grace Davie shown us that, ultimately, Catholicism eventually wins? If we take seriously her challenge to the secular mythos do we not get a very different picture? I’m not trying to be cheeky here, but there’s an irony to the Protestant triumph in that—insofar as it enabled a certain immanentization of church-as-nation that led to secular nationalism (that is, insofar as it found an episcopal middle-way)—it preserved that mediating layer between the average believer and a God “out there.” Vicariousness is alive and well, Davie’s research argues. Indeed, the thesis suggests that what the English Reformation ultimately succeeds in (on this account at least) is a preservation of a certain “vicarious” religiosity read as the secular; Protesantism mutates back into a fuzzy Catholicism.
Still, I’m not claiming that this is dogmatically Catholic. What’s at stake here is not the content of Catholic theology (much of which, we can safely agree with Colley, was indeed proscribed by the conflicts of the long eighteenth century), but rather a residual form of cultural and ritual practice. So much bloodshed. So many wars. The circle eventually closes.
Or, might the lesson reveal—despite a convulsive Protestant hiccup—that the compass never went very far ’round to begin with?