1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Revolution versus Evolution
  4. Internal versus External Crisis
  5. The Influence of Conservative Christianity
  6. Conclusion

The crisis of the 1960s is now central to debates about religious change and secularisation in the twentieth century. However, the nature of the crisis is contested. Using Hugh McLeod's The Religious Crisis of the 1960s (2007) as a starting point, this article explores the issues that divide scholars — the origin and length of the crisis (was it revolution or evolution?); was it generated more by developments within the Christian churches or by developments without them; and what was the relative importance of liberal Christianity versus conservative Christianity in the development and legacy of the crisis? It argues that secularisation of the period should be regarded as mostly a sudden and shocking event, based on external threats, and reflected in the churches dividing between liberals and conservatives in ways that were to become ever more militant as the century wore on.

The modern collapse of Christian culture and practice in Europe is surely one of the greatest of historical changes. At its heart lay a crisis in the 1960s, one that is attracting increasing attention for its role in originating the trends in contemporary religion.1 Yet, though there is considerable agreement on the significance and even the severity of the impact upon Christianity in that decade, there is considerable disagreement on the precise nature of what actually happened.

In his book The Religious Crisis of the 1960s, Hugh McLeod provides by far the most detailed, comparative and in many respects nuanced account of what happened to Christianity in Europe, North America and Australasia. He characterises the “long sixties” from 1958 to 1975 as “the final crisis of Christendom.”“In the religious history of the west,” he writes, “these years may come to be seen as marking a rupture as profound as that brought about by the Reformation.”2 Though he draws very detailed images of the country-by-country (and sometimes region-by-region) nature of the events of the period, his account has three important characteristics. First, he seeks to locate the “crisis” of the sixties in trends to reform, liberalism, and radical political and theological thought within the Christian churches which, though relating to some similar trends in “secular” society, nonetheless constituted the effervescence of a benevolent humanistic Christianity. Concomitantly, though he considers external challenges to Christianity's position in these countries, he overall downplays them; this he does especially in relation to the impact of the sexual revolution and women's liberation. Second, there is a tension in McLeod's account between the element of suddenness — the “rupture” character he draws on his first page, and to which he returns repeatedly — and the long-term gradualist vision of secularisation which underlies the narrative at various points and of which he has been the most consistent promoter in the history community for thirty-five years.3 And insofar as he detects a rupture, he locates it within the “long sixties” to two years, 1967 and 1968, rather than earlier in the period. Third and last, he downgrades the influence of conservative Christianity in the period. This is most clearly seen in his dismissal of the significance of the legendary English campaigner for “clean” television, Mary Whitehouse, whom he describes as “far from being representative.”4 Though he acknowledges that the outcome of the crisis was “the end of Christendom,” in which the “common language” of religion was breaking down in these countries, the result was the journey from Christian country to civilised country — a journey of which McLeod seems to approve.

It is vitally important to engage with McLeod's sophisticated and cogently-argued portrayal of the crisis of the sixties. In many respects it is highly persuasive. In some respects, it may be flawed.

Revolution versus Evolution

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Revolution versus Evolution
  4. Internal versus External Crisis
  5. The Influence of Conservative Christianity
  6. Conclusion

The sense of sudden change to the position of religion in society, culture and politics in the 1960s is attested by much of the research literature. David Hilliard, among the first to investigate the “religious crisis,” found that the sense of religious decline in Australia was heightened by it following a period of strong religious growth in the fifties. In the state of Victoria, for instance, the proportion of the population who were members of the leading Protestant churches rose from 11.9 per cent in 1947 to 12.5 per cent in 1961, but then fell to 10.7 per cent in 1971 and to 8.9 per cent in 1976.5 In Canada, Stuart Macdonald has shown that three of the large Protestant denominations followed a British-like pattern of a sudden shift from fifties growth to sixties permanent decline.6 Peter van Rooden noted that in the early 1960s, the Dutch were the most churchgoing of European peoples, with 80 per cent claiming to belong to a church and almost three-quarters claiming to attend at least one Sunday service a month; the proportion of Dutch claiming to belong to no church jumped from just under 25 per cent in 1971 to almost 50 per cent in 1986, a trend whose origins he attributes to the cultural revolution of the 1960s, leading to the Dutch being, he felt, the most secularised European nation by the early 1990s.7 McLeod presents a ream of data showing declines across Europe: Catholic mass attendees down from 43 to 33 per cent in Belgium between 1967 and 1976, down from 23 to 17 per cent in France between 1966 and 1972, English Anglican Easter communicants down 24 per cent, and Church of Scotland communicants down 11 per cent.8 There were some exceptions to the picture of sudden change starting in the long sixties — notably in Catholicism which, despite declining recruitment of priests and nuns, generally started ten years later,9 and in the USA, where there was a religious resurgence from the mid-1970s onwards which diverged from the European experience.10 Also, many indices for European countries show longer-term decline in religiosity; not only is that decline very much slower than in the 1960s, the majority of total decline in church membership, baptisms and religious marriages after 1850 occurs after 1960. Patrick Pasture is surely right in his description of the 1960s' impact on Europe: “What really happened is mainly a fundamental break with history.”11

Notwithstanding these variations, the sixties was an undoubted shock to Protestantism and Catholicism in both Europe and North America. But McLeod's narrative of Christian crisis contains a tension between sudden fracture and gradualism. Though speaking of “the end of Christendom” and of “rupture” in religious history in relation to the sixties, McLeod has argued that the present author and Patrick Pasture have each exaggerated what happened by “overstating the dominance of Christianity” in the nineteenth and in the first half of the twentieth centuries. By contrast, McLeod emphasises “the antecedent history of alienation from the church of significance sections of the population, which had begun in the eighteenth century.”12 The narrative that McLeod employs is a combination of the two approaches. He writes, “I have argued that the religious upheavals of the 1960s have to be seen in the context of much longer term developments in Western societies, including notably the growth of religious toleration since the seventeenth century, intellectual critiques of Christianity going back to the eighteenth century, movements of political emancipation since 1789, and changes in thinking about ethics and sexual ethics especially since about 1890.” In addition, he sees the liberal legislative revolution on abortion, divorce, gay rights and contraception as dating to the interwar period.13 In this tracing back to earlier periods, McLeod emphasises the place of ideas circulating among some liberal intellectual groups both within and outwith the churches, who campaigned for change to church and state. Though I tend to agree with his general conception of secularisation,14 his privileging within it of an elite-led intellectual phenomenon will tend to erode the revolutionary aspects, and the historical agency of “ordinary” people, from the historical narrative. McLeod's book weighs up but ultimately relegates the power of the popular in religious change, shifting causation from social forces to formulated intellectual revolutions. Indeed, in McLeod's narrative there is an underlying sense of a liberal conspiring over decades to formulate a new Christian society. Perhaps that conspiring happened, but was it the cause of the outcome?

If one shifts the perspective from ideas-based secularisation to popular-based cultural change, then we move in most countries that experienced the “religious crisis” from thinking of evolution towards revolution. The secular change in popular culture looks far more sudden than does the evolution of liberal theology.

Sure, some aspects of change were long term. The decline in churchgoing starts in Britain, Germany and Scandinavia from the late nineteenth century, to be slowed or even reversed in the 1940s and 1950s, but in other countries including the Netherlands and most Catholic countries, any decline in churchgoing is from the 1960s or 1970s. Clive Field argues that opinion poll evidence of church attendance in London from 1947 to 1994 shows virtually no change in the proportion claiming weekly attendance (at around 12–16 per cent) and in the proportion claiming to never or practically never go to church (at around 46–60 per cent).15 Yet it must be said that the sense of crisis was so strong that churchmen were utterly convinced attendance was collapsing in the sixties; a special Church of England conference in Oxford in 1964 to consider innovation was told that only “handfuls” were left in the pews.16 Some research findings illustrate other aspects of Christian decline since 1945, but they do not necessarily identify the 1960s directly.17

But churchgoing is only one index of Christian practice; seemingly all other indices of British-organised Christianity are indicative of sharper change, mostly in the 1960s. During 1963–1969, Anglican confirmations per head dropped 32 per cent and ordinations by 25 per cent, while Methodist membership fell 24 per cent during 1960–1975. This was a shock to the churches, as Adrian Hastings remarked, because falls in church statistics in the interwar period were “reassuringly” reversed in the 1950s.18 Religious baptism in the Church of England reached its peak in 1927 and remained very high until the post-war years; even in 1950, it was higher (at 632 per 1,000 live births) than in most years during the first quarter of the century.19 Church membership data show much stronger performance in the 1940s and 1950s. The percentage of population who were Church of England Easter Day Communicants showed the biggest drop in the century occurred in the years 1962–1964. The proportion of marriages religiously solemnised, though showing slow gradual change from the start of the century, experienced the first significant post-war drop in the period in England and Wales in 1962–1967, while in Scotland it came in 1961–1962. While the Church of England's Sunday school enrolment per head of children was declining marginally throughout the late forties and fifties, the proportion in dissent grew until 1951 and only started steep decline in 1956; scholars in Scottish Presbyterian schools grew as a proportion of children until 1956, when it started to decline, entering a steep decline in the early 1970s. These and other data attest to the pretty comprehensive nature of the collapse of Christian culture in the 1960s.

Within the sixties, “favoured” dates of significance have been offered. In the British case, alternatives abound. For cultural commentators, the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960, or what Bernard Levin called “the holy rage” over a naked woman at an Edinburgh literary conference in 1963, feature prominently.20 Other commentators have opted for 1963 as a cultural turning point — some inspired by the opening line of British poet Philip Larkin's poem “Annus Mirabilis” about sexual intercourse not beginning until 1963, some inspired by the Profumo scandal in which the British foreign secretary was forced to resign for lying to Parliament about having an affair with a woman associated with the military attaché to the Soviet embassy, and some like Robert Hewison feeling the sixties did not even start until 1963.21 The present author offered 1963 as when Christian culture, as a hegemonic feature of British society, died and instigated sharpened gradients of decline in virtually all statistical indicators of religiosity and social conservatism.22 By contrast, Hugh McLeod has said that “if one year is to be selected as marking the turning-point it should be 1967,” though he also offers an entire chapter entitled “1968” in which he fosters the fondness of “sixty-eighters” for their legacies of that campaigning year, notably based on les evénéments of Paris.23 This shifting of the turning point is important. The later it is identified, the more it seems to imply priority to ideas, radical elites and legislative change that, building up, led to a cumulative challenge to religious and political conservativism by the late 1960s. But the case must be put that ideas were being led by popular actions. The earlier the point is identified, the more it turns on the popular origins of the sixties' significance — on the actions of ordinary people in developing a new secular culture of social freedom, popular music and sexual and gender rights.

Though the character of the sixties revolt varies from nation to nation, the case for early sixties change is surely strong. From being conservative, change became, in the words of historian Adrian Hastings, a “more shapeless radical one”— what he describes as “anti-elitist, easy going, even ecstatic, self satisfied, libertarian”: “ ‘permissive’ was the word — in regard to sex, art, the whole world of social and intellectual life.” This he attributed partly to Marxism, to rising cynicism, and the anti-Church and “anti-structured world of class” views of the Beatles.24 In that change, he seems to partly blame Marxism, but he also acknowledged “a movement of basic secularization — a decline in any sort of Church commitment by ordinary people.”25 That role of ordinary people is surely what makes the sixties a revolution rather than mere evolution.

Internal versus External Crisis

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Revolution versus Evolution
  4. Internal versus External Crisis
  5. The Influence of Conservative Christianity
  6. Conclusion

Much of the historical writing about the religious crisis adopts a fairly strong “church gaze”. The perspective is of crisis affecting the Christian churches. In David Hilliard's pioneering article analysing the religious crisis of the 1960s in Australia, much of it places a stress on reforming theology, on the Catholic Church's debates on the pill, the decline of church attendance, and attendance at Billy Graham's crusade meetings. In a similar way, Hugh McLeod highlights ecclesiastical reform, adding to the sense of the crisis being in large measure a fomenting from the interior of Christianity. This is a quite widespread phenomenon of writing about religious change, perhaps not totally unreasonably. But in this narrative, the church becomes the primary agent of its own decline — an effect accentuated even more when the outcomes of the religious crisis are determined to be “not necessarily bad” or, even more, actually “good things.”

This last point is demonstrable primarily through three features of “religious crisis” narratives: first, the priority given to liberal theology (notably John Robinson's Honest to God of 1963 and the radical Catholic ideas fostering Vatican II of 1962–1965) as presaging and, by implication, triggering the crisis; second, the significance of liberal Christians in leading assaults on major “evils” of the period (especially in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament (CND), opposition to the Vietnam and Biafran wars, and the anti-apartheid movement); and third, the erosion of constraints upon civil liberties (such as censorship, criminal laws against abortion, homosexuality and gambling, and removal of sabbatarian and compulsory church attendance laws) through the marginalisation of conservative Christian political influence. These narrative features come in several variations to fit denominational and thematic stories; for instance, elsewhere McLeod uses long-term liberal theological change to account for the abolition of capital punishment in the sixties.26

A starting point for the narrative of internal crisis is often the Lady Chatterley trial of 1960. This event is pictured by McLeod as one in which liberal and conservative churchmen clashed — almost an in-house Anglican spat.27 But this sidesteps the more powerful sense that hegemonic Christian culture was on trial. Mark Roodhouse has recently shown how the trial precipitated differences in Anglican moral theology, polarising the Church of England for more than a decade, and “undermining the Church's moral authority and hastening the collapse of what Ross McKibbin identified as ‘ritual codes’ based loosely on Christian teaching.”28 The issue of censorship lay at the heart of enforced Christian culture in Britain. The trials of books in the 1940s and 1950s were frequent and common; in 1950–1960, seventeen different courts issued destruction orders against editions of Lady Chatterley alone (and another nine cases were not granted on technical grounds).29 Even books by medical authors were brought to trial. In 1941, a Scots-born psychiatrist Eustace Chesser published Love Without Fear, a widely-read volume designed to improve marital life through removing ignorance of sex; it was prosecuted the following year for obscenity, but found not guilty by jury trial.30 At the root of censorship were three things — sex, religion, and social stability. Virtually all the prosecutions were brought on grounds of sexual content and the basis of argument was that obscenity contravened the religious code of a Christian country. The motivation for trial was seen to be that of defending the good social order of the state; as the Lady Chatterley prosecution counsel Mervyn Griffith-Jones asked of the jury, “Is it a book you would wish your wife or servants to read?” Religious culture upheld the status quo. In this way, no matter that liberal Christians like John Robinson gave evidence for Penguin and others on the grounds “of literary merit,” the key significance of Chatterley was as a challenge to the Christian establishment.31

This sense of external challenge to Christian hegemonic culture spread like wildfire in the sixties. Establishments were under threat in many places. One particular form in the Netherlands was the collapse of the religious “pillars” which boundaried Calvinist and Catholic “worlds,” by which virtually all aspects of Dutch society, politics and leisure had been constructed since the late nineteenth century. Peter van Rooden writes that “The popular endorsement of such sharp demarcations was undermined by the international cultural revolution of the 1960s, which rejected patriarchal forms of authority, traditional gender roles, and a strict sexual morality. The neo-Calvinist and Catholic movements did not succeed in integrating the new youth culture. . . .”32 Internal and external pressures for reform in the 1960s, evident in the Netherlands, also encouraged a process of disintegration of the Catholic, socialist and liberal pillars in Belgium, while in Austria, Germany, Italy and Switzerland, Catholic pillars which had emerged mostly in the nineteenth century in order to defend the faith in a Protestant environment also started to disintegrate from the 1960s.33

Back in Britain, Chatterley in 1960 heralded the wider challenge to “the establishment”— the integrated network of state, judiciary, church, landed classes and others that was seen as stifling liberty and change. It was this establishment that was earmarked by radicals as in need of overturning as part-and-parcel of the challenge to organised Christianity. It was the identification of “being religious” as part of establishment belonging that gave the religious crisis its sense of external threat. Religion was being targeted by various forces because it was seen as part of the establishment. Behind it lay an even more powerful and widespread social phenomenon — the religious apathy of the young who were the customers for the anti-religious jibing of the comedy and popular music of the decade in satire shows including That Was the Week That Was and Monty Python's Flying Circus, and rock albums like Jethro Tull's Aqualung. But the lampooning of organised Christianity signalled less a growth of organised anti-religious secularism as a rejection of church and parental controls. As Hilliard concluded of Australia: “Alienated from the religion of their parents, almost an entire generation of teenagers and young adults seems to have dropped out of the Protestant churches. The socialization process by which religious affiliation was transmitted from parents to the next generation broke down.”34

This sentiment is common in recent historical writing, but is curiously under-analysed. While new theology and internal rancour over abortion and the pill are discussed in detail, the actual driver of change in Western youth is rarely subjected to intense scrutiny. This is strange for a number of reasons. First, in most discussions of the religious crisis there is a key place secured for the external contributors to crisis. Affluence and a “revolt” of young people are cited in most debates (including in some detail in McLeod's book), but are often introduced as “the context” or the implied outcomes of internal church crisis. What is missing is investigative historical analysis of external religious apathy, alienation, and hostility. And the mechanism by which affluence might have eroded Christian culture with such inconsistency — in the seventies and eighties in Europe, but not in the USA, and not equally across the century anywhere — is left unexplored.

If external causation of the religious crisis is to be taken seriously, there is a need to examine in detail the evidence collected by church and social inquiries at the time, many of which took the externality of the crisis as their starting point. For instance, a series of five extensive inquiries were undertaken by Geoffrey Gorer, Eustace Chesser and Martin Schofield between 1951 and 1972, which took the sexual revolution as a major cause of religious decline in England.35 Bernice Martin in the early 1980s posited in a speculative sociological analysis that “the expressive revolution” incorporating young people's art and music, as well as new religious movements, was critical to redrawing the religious map of the 1960s: “At the heart of the counter-culture was a single-minded, often fanatical onslaught on boundaries and structures, a crusade to release Ariel, the infinite, express chaos of the everyday world.”36 This deserves proper historical investigation — through discourse analysis (a device much used in social and cultural history, but still rather strikingly under-used in relation to religious history of the late modern period), and through oral history (including reflexive analysis of discourse change). Some studies have been done, including by McLeod, but his use of generalised interviews by other scholars with little interest in religion, some dating from the 1960s and 1970s, would be no replacement for new focused research on how secularisation happened for the great mass of young people. Lastly, the statistics of religious decline are much cited but, notwithstanding the advanced statistical methods used by Voas,37 there has been negligible intense historical scrutiny of timings and correlations. In relation to timings, with year-by-year data for church membership, baptisms, confirmations, and even in some cases for church or mass attendance, it becomes possible to identity the timing and gradients of change very precisely. The relations between religious and “secular” or demographic trends can be statistically explored, but rarely have been.38

Those who have looked at the cultural revolution of the 1960s often haven't addressed religion and the church in any great detail.39 This is all the more unfortunate given that the churches were the victims of some of the specific changes looked at in such studies. For example, Willmott and Young identified urban out migration as a cause of breakdown of church connection in London, pinpointing the strength of the mother–daughter bond in a number of realms, one of them being in relation to passing on religion.40 Demography is an underdeveloped area for historians examining dechristianisation in the 1950–1975 period. The greatest products of the religious crisis were indeed demographic in nature — the decline in marriage, religious marriage, baptism, and Sunday observance, and the flowering of sexual freedom, new sexualities, gender change, and women's rights. These need to be acknowledged as part of the narrative. For a cultural historian, secularisation does not stand apart from these trends, but was part and parcel of them. For the religious historian, it seems to diminish the decline of Christendom not to hunt down these causative relationships.

The Influence of Conservative Christianity

  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Revolution versus Evolution
  4. Internal versus External Crisis
  5. The Influence of Conservative Christianity
  6. Conclusion

One of the strongest features of McLeod's narrative of the sixties is its marginalisation of the significance of conservative Christianity. Within his detailed, wide-ranging and uniquely comparative study, McLeod posits as his central distinguishing hypothesis that the crisis was one arising not, mainly, because of external threats to Christianity, but because of internal impulses to reform. Against a background of changes to mentality and patterns of home life and neighbourhood, it was the work of those he called liberals and “pragmatic Christians” who, challenging within the Protestant and Roman Catholic churches, triggered theological innovation and church modernisation, political movements and new ideals, which, he wrote, “can be summed up in the word ‘1968.’ ” The vision he has of the crisis is very much one of internal revolt, liberalisation and (with some exceptions) the triumph of reform: “Developments within the churches played a major role in precipitating the crisis.” His story is one of liberalising Christianity.

McLeod himself spends considerable time discussing some conservative Christians, especially Mary Whitehouse, who led the Christian-based campaign against sex and nudity on British television. But at various points in his book he seeks specifically to marginalise her and other conservatives from the spirit of the times. At one point he writes, “there is no reason why the conservative positions of those like Whitehouse or Pope Paul VI should be seen as more ‘authentic’ than the positions adopted by their liberal or ‘pragmatic’ Christian contemporaries.” Elsewhere, he writes, “Whitehouse represented the conservative end of the spectrum of Christian opinion at the time, and was far from being representative.” So, on the one hand, he acknowledges that Whitehouse was representative of Conservative Christian opinion, but, because of that, she was not representative of the Christian times in general. These were, for McLeod, above all par excellence liberal Christian times. In this way, his story of Christian crisis turns substantially into a paean in praise of liberal Christian radicals in CND and anti-apartheid, and of “pragmatic” Christians like Michael Ramsey who negotiated to minimise disturbance to Christian unity. Liberal Christians had been battling, he argues, since the 1920s for major change to Christian theology and structures; the sixties was their “victory,” a journey he sums up as from Christian country to civilised country.41

This line of argument deserves to be critiqued. Quite legitimately, McLeod is describing the way in which, until the 1960s, Christianity — in both Protestant and Catholic traditions — was dominated by conservatism, and how this was being challenged both from within by liberals and from without by a popular-driven frustration with the post-war imposition of heavy-handed Christian cultural oppression. But while liberal Christians sought reform, it is important to put the case that the liberal challenge to conservative Christian pillarisation and to puritanical Christian culture would not have succeeded but for the external popular challenge. There is a strong argument that the simple essence of the structure of the sixties religious crisis is that it was an outside assault on Christianity as a whole for the wrongs perpetrated by its conservative wing upon the personal liberty of the people — an assault against what was seen as its unacceptable control of personal behaviour and the institutional organs of pillarised everyday life. There was a sense that the liberal state and the people, driven mad by the stultification of freedom and liberty imposed by conservative Christianity with new vigour from 1945 to 1960, were determined to break free from their bonds. The case needs to be stressed that underlying the ecclesiastical calamity was an external or, if you will, “secular” religious crisis driven by the haemorrhage of people from organised Christianity; the majority were not trying to reform their churches, they were leaving them.

Much more can be said about the composition of the external forces and the modus operandi of the engagement with Christian culture. But the young and women were two leading groups, and sexual freedom was top of the agenda for many of them. The sexual revolt against Christianity in the sixties was a front line with conservative Christians like Whitehouse and many others who did battle with promiscuity, permissiveness and gay liberation from the mid-1960s to the mid-1970s. For the vast majority of young people, the revolt was a spontaneous, unorganised rejection of church authority. Liberal Christians joined it; Bishop John Robinson said in 1969: “I regard the backlash against the permissive society as far more dangerous than manifestations of it.”42 The revolt did not necessarily lead to rejection of Christian belief, nor to atheism, but it did constitute the dissolution of Christendom — of dominant Christian culture. Conservative Christians realised this quickly enough, and reacted accordingly. Whitehouse, Malcolm Muggeridge and Lord Longford rose to the defence of the status quo in campaigns against sex, pornography, and contraception for students. These individuals loom small in many accounts of the sixties, and undeservedly so. Lampooned, pilloried and jostled by the young, the tabloid press and liberal commentators, they represented the very powers of Christian oppression that the expressive revolution of the sixties was about. Moreover, as organised Christianity has contracted in scale since the 1960s, so the relative significance of conservatives within it has risen — in the forms of Pentecostalism, fundamentalism, Charismatic Renewal, and campaigning groups opposing abortion, homosexuality, and other supposedly “liberal” outcomes of the sixties. In 1969, self-reporting Evangelicals accounted for 31 per cent of all ordinands in the Church of England, but this rose to 45 per cent in 1977 and 52 per cent by 1986, after which the proportions stabilised and even fell slightly, partly as a result of female ordination.43 The historian needs to put Christian conservatives back onto centre stage to better appreciate what the cultural revolution of the sixties was about and how religious history has evolved since then.


  1. Top of page
  2. Abstract
  3. Revolution versus Evolution
  4. Internal versus External Crisis
  5. The Influence of Conservative Christianity
  6. Conclusion

Adrian Hastings saw the crisis that Christianity endured in the sixties as not separate from the world: “it was not even a specifically religious crisis, it was rather one of the total culture,” affecting many secular institutions in a way comparable to its effect on the churches. It was transformed from, he says, a conservative modernisation after the Second World War, “an attempt to recreate a fairly traditional world,” to something more radical. Hastings noted that the “prosperity, optimism, and sense of release of the fifties was mostly of a pretty conservative and controlled type” producing a “placid contentment” that was followed by a “secular hopefulness of the early sixties.” And he concludes, “The crisis of 1960s religion was a crisis of ‘secularization.’ ”44

The Hastings model is one to which we should pay more heed. The outcome of the religious crisis of the 1960s was threefold. First, the growing alienation of the people, predominantly the young, plunged organised Christianity into a sustained rapid decline in adherence, practice and identity which seems eventually, at various moments in the following five decades, to have consumed every indicator of religiosity — including most recently Christian-led funerals. Second, this diminution in church numbers increasingly separated church and popular culture; despite the importance of popular culture within the churches, the influence the other way around has diminished with every decade since the 1960s. Third, there was a surge of the remnant and increasingly isolated Christian culture towards evangelicalism, conservatism and fundamentalism from which the majority in Britain and many European countries have been more and more alienated; in 1997, one survey estimate was that while 35 per cent of the US population could be counted as “evangelical,” the equivalent figure for the UK was 7 per cent.45 None of these trends was observable in the 1940s and 1950s. They arose as the legacy of the popular challenge in the 1960s to Christian hegemony in the culture of many Western countries.

  • 1

    See, for example, G. Lynch, New Spirituality: An Introduction to Belief Beyond Religion (London: IB Tauris, 2007), 17–8.

  • 2

    H. McLeod, The Religious Crisis of the 1960s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007), 1, 265.

  • 3

    See the description of his thought in C.G. Brown and M. Snape, “Introduction: Conceptualising Secularisation 1974–2010: The Influence of Hugh McLeod”, in Secularisation in the Christian World, edited by C.G. Brown and M. Snape (Farnham: Ashgate, 2010), 1–12.

  • 4

    McLeod, Religious Crisis, 89.

  • 5

    Figures calculated from data in D. Hilliard, “The Religious Crisis of the 1960s: The Experience of the Australian Churches,” Journal of Religious History 21 (1997): 20927; see p. 226, Table 1.

  • 6

    S. Macdonald, “Death of Christian Canada? Do Canadian Church Statistics Support Callum Brown's Timing of Church Decline? Historical Papers: Canadian Society of Church History, 2006: 13556.

  • 7

    P. van Rooden, “Secularization, Dechristianization and Rechristianization in the Netherlands,” in Dechristinisierung, Rechristianisierung im Neuzeitlichen Europe, edited by H. Lehmann (Gottingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 1997), 131–53; see pp. 131–2, 151–2. Also available online at

  • 8

    H. McLeod, Religion and the People of Western Europe, 2nd ed. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 138.

  • 9

    McLeod, Religion and the People, 139.

  • 10

    McLeod, Religious Crisis, 246; Grace Davie, Europe: The Exceptional Case (London: Darton, Longman and Todd, 2002).

  • 11

    P. Pasture, “Christendom and the Legacy of the Sixties: Between the Secular City and the Age of Aquarius,” Review D'Histoire Ecclesiastique 99 (2004): 82117; see p. 113.

  • 12

    H. McLeod, “The Crisis of Christianity in the West,” in The Cambridge History of Christianity Volume 9: World Christianities c.1914–c.2000, edited by H. McLeod (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), 328–9.

  • 13

    McLeod, Religious Crisis, 257.

  • 14

    McLeod, Religious Crisis, 16–8.

  • 15

    C.D. Field, “Faith in the Metropolis: Opinion Polls and Christianity in Post-war London,” London Journal 24 (1999): 6884; see p. 73.

  • 16

    Henry Stanhope, “Permissive Society a Step Towards Maturity, Bishop Says,”The Times, 22 September 1969, 8, columns A to F.

  • 17

    See, for example, C.D. Field, “The Observance of Easter in Post-war Britain”, Theology 101 (1998): 82–90.

  • 18

    A. Hastings, A History of English Christianity 1920–1985 (London: Collins, 1986), 551–2.

  • 19

    C.G. Brown, Religion and Society in Twentieth-century Britain (Harlow: Pearson, 2006), 33.

  • 20

    B. Levin, The Pendulum Years: Britain in the Sixties (1970; reprint, Cambridge: Icon, 2003), 21.

  • 21

    R. Hewison, Too Much: Art and Society in the Sixties 1960–75 (London: Methuen, 1986), xiii.

  • 22

    C.G. Brown, The Death of Christian Britain: Understanding Secularisation 1800–2000 (London: Routledge, 2000), 1.

  • 23

    McLeod, Religious Crisis, 141–60, 259.

  • 24

    Hastings, English Christianity, 515–6.

  • 25

    Hastings, English Christianity, 551.

  • 26

    H. McLeod, “God and the Gallows: Christianity and Capital Punishment in the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries”, in Retribution, Repentance and Reconciliation, edited by K. Cooper and J. Gregory (London: Boydell Press, 2004), 330–56.

  • 27

    McLeod, Religious Crisis, 68–9.

  • 28

    M. Roodhouse, “Lady Chatterley and the Monk: Anglican Radicals and the Lady Chatterley Trial of 1960,” Journal of Ecclesiastical History 59 (2008): 47599; see p. 477.

  • 29

    A. McLeery, “Lady Chatterley's Lover Re-covered,” Publishing History 59 (2006): 6284; see p. 62.

  • 30

    L.A. Hall, “Chesser, Eustace (1902–1973),”Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (Oxford University Press, 2004). Online 2008 edition available from URL: (accessed 17 May 2010).

  • 31

    A. McLeery, “ ‘Sophisticated Smut': The Penguin Edition of Lady Chatterley's Lover in New Zealand,” Bulletin of the Bibliographical Society of Australia & New Zealand 29 (2006): 192204. Also available online at

  • 32

    P. Van Rooden, “Secularisation in the Netherlands,” Kirchliche Zeitgeschichte 11 (1998): 3441. Also available online at

  • 33

    K. Dobbelaere, “Assessing Secularization Theory,” in New Approaches to the Study of Religion Volume 2, edited by P. Antes, A.W. Geertz, and R.R. Warne (Berlin and New York: Walter de Gruyter, 2004), 235–6.

  • 34

    Hilliard, “The Religious Crisis,” 221.

  • 35

    G. Gorer, Exploring English Character (New York: Criterion, 1955); G. Gorer, Sex and Marriage in England Today: A Study of the Views and Experience of the Under-45s (London: Nelson, 1971); E. Chesser, The Sexual, Marital and Family Relationships of the English Woman (London: Hutchinson's, 1956); M. Schofield, The Sexual Behaviour of Young People (London: Longmans, 1965); M. Schofield, The Sexual Behaviour of Young Adults: A Follow-up Study to The Sexual Behaviour of Young People (London: Allen Lane, 1973).

  • 36

    B. Martin, A Sociology of Contemporary Cultural Change (Oxford: Basil Blackwell, 1981), 15, 217–8.

  • 37

    See, for instance, D. Voas and A. Crockett, “Religion in Britain: neither believing nor belonging,” Sociology 39 (2005): 1128.

  • 38

    C.G. Brown, “Sex, Religion and the Single Woman c.1950–1975: The Importance of a ‘Short’ Sexual Revolution to the English Religious Crisis of the Sixties,” unpublished manuscript.

  • 39

    For example, John Foot's magnificent study of urban cultural change in Italy leaves out religion almost entirely from his analysis; J. Foot, Milan since the Miracle: City, Culture and Identity (Oxford and New York: Berg, 2001).

  • 40

    M. Young and P. Willmott, Family and Kinship in East London (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1962), 56–7.

  • 41

    McLeod, Religious Crisis, 1, 89, 238–9, 256, 260.

  • 42

    “Watered Down Church Pop Music a Failure,”The Times, 8 August 1964, 8, columns C to D.

  • 43

    M. Guest, Evangelical Identity and Contemporary Culture: A Congregational Study in Innovation (Paternoster: Milton Keynes, 2007), 26.

  • 44

    A. Hasting, A History of English Christianity 1920–1985 (London: Collins, 1986), 580, 585.

  • 45

    Guest, Evangelical Identity, 22. The UK figure might be considered inflated by the inclusion of Northern Ireland.