The churches in modern Britain

The latest update to the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, published online on 27 September 2012, explores the role of the churches in twentieth-century Britain. The ODNB’s new edition adds 60 biographies of church leaders, many of whom were active in shaping post-war debates on social conduct and values.

New additions include the Scottish presbyterian Arthur Gray (1868-1937) and the Methodist minister David Mace (1907-90) whose writings on sex in marriage led them to establish the Marriage Guidance Council (now Relate) in 1942. In the following decade Derrick Bailey (1910-84) initiated a debate on homosexuality in the Church of England, subsequently taken up by the Wolfenden Committee and by political reformers in the 1960s. Changing popular attitudes at parish level proved more difficult, as is evident in the controversial ministry of Peter Elers (1930-86)—the first president of the Gay Christian Movement. Conservatives include Raymond Johnston (1927-85) whose National Festival of Light became a prominent campaign body opposed to what members saw as Britain’s growing ‘moral pollution’ in the early 1970s. Together these, and other, lives indicate the churches’ contribution to changing social practices in a period typically regarded as secular.

Others now added to the ODNB include Constance Penswick-Smith (1878-1938) who campaigned against an American-influenced ‘national mothers’ day’ and in favour of the restoration of Mothering Sunday as part of the church calendar; by 1938 it was claimed that Mothering Sunday was celebrated in every parish in Britain and in every country in the empire. Mabel Barltrop (1866-1934) founded the Panacea Society and was declared by followers worldwide to be the ‘daughter of God’, capable of healing through blessed tap water.

Full details of the new biographies are available at, along with an introduction to the new edition.

The modern churches project was overseen by Dr Matthew Grimley, Merton College, Oxford. Contributors of new biographies include the Revd Dr Andrew Atherstone (Oxford), Professor Richard Finley (Strathclyde), Dr Alana Harris (Oxford), Dr Hannah Hunt (Leeds Trinity), and the Revd Dr Jane Shaw.

Published on: 
1 Oct 2012