Middleton Murry on the Timidity of the Church

Writing around 1938, with the world on the brink of global war, Murry saw the Christian church as the real saviour of humankind: “No institution in the world is so committed by its own profession as the Christian Church directly to combat the world-sickness”.

The trouble was that the Church lacked courage to meet that commitment. Murry spoke of “the fearful dumbness” of the churches of the time. He thought that it was “the deep and inarticulate desire” of people for a brave church, braver then they themselves:

“The common man shrinks from the doctrine of losing his life to save it… But to the Christian Church it should be easy, or if not easy, a doctrine for which it has always been prepared. ‘He that will lose his life for my sake and the Gospel’s the same shall save it’… Now that the condition of the world really does demand the simple Christian heroism to which each Christian dedicates themselves anew when they partake in Christian worship. to which each Christian priest is dedicated by profession, the Church fades away. Of the Fatherhood of God, and the brotherhood of Man, it knows nothing when it comes to the pinch”.

[The Pledge of Peace, 1938, pp.75-76].

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3 thoughts on “Middleton Murry on the Timidity of the Church

  1. A fair charge, although it would carry more weight if Murry himself were a professing Christian. I think you wrote earlier that he was sympathetic, but at arms’ length – yes? Or is that really fair? I mean only that it is less costly to say “those people over there ought to have the courage to risk death” than to say “we ought to have the courage to risk death”.

    Having said that, both the church and its members ought indeed to have such courage, but I wonder what form it could have taken in 1938 that it did not, in fact, take? All churches in the Anglosphere had been largely sidelined by that date as able to have political influence, and the established church, by virtue of being established, had lost four centuries earlier its ability to effectively oppose its sponsoring state. The Lutheran churches in Germany were in a similar position of having been long since reduced to extensions of the state.

    The only church with genuine international credentials was the church of Rome, but even they had to tread very carefully – consider the Nazi response to the encyclical “Mit Brennede Sorge” in 1937, and then again (more fatally) to the protests of the Dutch bishops in 1942.

    Does Murry elaborate on what he thinks the churches ought to have done to combat the world-sickness?

    • Thanks Andrew. Actually Murry was a communicant of the Church of England (and later in his life even elected a member of the parish church council where he lived). He was a great friend of the leading Anglican historian Alec Vidler, who wrote a revealing introduction to Murry’s collection of “Lay Sermons” (given to a community farming group that Murry had set up along Christian lines) called Not As The Scribes (1959). Murry discusses his actions against Nazism, and much else, in his autobiography Between Two Worlds (1935). During the 1930s he was active in socialist and pacifist causes. To be fair, many within the Anglican, and other churches in Britain, spoke out and worked against the loathsome Nazi ideology, including bishops. Their work included giving refuge, and obtaining work, for the many Jewish and other exiles from the Third Reich, including academics and scholars who were found posts in British universities and colleges. However it is true that Murry was a bit of a maverick (the Anglicans were quite tolerant of mavericks and eccentrics) and his theology unorthodox to say the least. Like many others at the time he thought that religion was in decline and he sheeted much of the blame for this on the churches themselves for not engaging enough in contemporary issues, international and social problems. They were not idealistic or visionary enough for him. They didn’t do enough, he complained, to put Christianity into real practice. Vidler was deeply moved by Murry’s “profound sensitivity and sincerity and integrity”.

      • (With apologies for delayed response…)

        Fair enough. As you know I have not read Murry, but had the impression from your earlier remarks that he was more peripheral than that to the church. I still think he was expecting too much. It is quite true that the Christian church has always looked out for the poor, and during the Middle Ages (which might be defined as “that period of history during which the Christian church had substantial influence over public policy”) insisted that arrangements were made to accomodate them although this remark is more relevant to an earlier post). Likewise, during the same period, the church achieved great things in social change where it had influence (abolition of slavery, emancipation of women, establishing an institutional basis for the life of the intellect). It was also able to harness the energy of Christian nations to resist military expansionism by hostile powers bent on world domination and universal re-enslavement. The anniversary of Lepanto fell in this last week – the similarities between the Ottoman Caliphate and the Third Reich are considerable, despite the lack of death-camps in the former.

        Since the sixteenth century, though, the concordats so France and Spain and the wholesale takeovers of church by state further north, made it progressively (no pun intended!) mor difficult for the church to shape society, until by the middle of the twentieth century protests by the church against any evil were as likely to provoke reprisals as remorse – consider the reactions of the Nazis to the issue of “Mit Brennende Sorge” in 1937, or the open letter of the Dutch bishops in ’42. The first of these, at least, was not in Murry’s future at the time, although I don’t know how aware the Anglosphere was of the details that early.

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