Alana Harris, Faith in the Family: A Lived Religious History of English Catholicism, 1945-82, Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2013. ISBN: 978 0 7190 8574 1 hardback £65
Reviewed by Susan O’Brien Cambridge, October 2014.
Faith in the Family is a major contribution to the scholarship on modern British religion on several counts. Most obviously it is a substantive history of Catholicism in England in the Twentieth Century, encompassing the post-war era, the all-important Second Vatican Council, and first papal visit of 1982. Given the paucity of historical literature on Catholicism in this period Faith in the Family not only fills a gap but maps and opens out the territory for further research. On another, methodological, level the book is a post-war intergenerational study that gives voice to ordinary Catholics by deploying a ‘lived religion’ approach with great sensitivity. A further significant contribution is the way this study problematises British historiography, above all, the still powerful ‘secularisation thesis’, from the novel ground of Catholic religious history. Alana Harris has shown that it is possible for a study of Roman Catholicism in twentieth-century England to have something important to say about British culture and society in general. It helps the cause of historical integration greatly that she says it with such brilliance.
Faith in the Familyhas multiple purposes but above all it seeks to assess, in the context of England, one of the big questions of modern Catholic history. What impact did the Second Vatican Council have on ordinary believers, members of the ‘household of faith’ (p. ix)? The practice of popular religiosity – meaning the sacraments and devotions – and the beliefs they embody are what Harris selects as a barometer of both change and continuity between 1945 and 1982. These she identifies as the ‘lived religious landscape’ (p. 262). Each of three chapters that together form the substance of Faith in the Familyis an extended exploration of the shifting reception, practice and meaning of a key feature in this landscape: Christology expressed in the Eucharist and the Mass; Mariology as practised through saying the rosary and devotion to the Holy Family; and the cult of the saints exemplified through the English Martyrs, St Thérèse of Lisieux and St Bernadette. At the same time Harris is clear that the central questions about change and the Council can only be answered if Catholic experience is contextualised within the larger social, cultural and gender shifts taking place in post-war Britain. Hence to study changes and continuities in the meaning of the religious landscape is also to explore the shifts in married life, family structures, sexuality, and friendship. This is where ‘lived religion’ shows to advantage as an historical approach, as does the interdisciplinarity that enables Harris to braid sacramental theology with oral history and the study of material religion to tease out change and continuity over three generations.
Faith in the Familyallows us to ‘listen’ to the experiences of Catholic women and men because among the impressive array of sources it draws upon are oral life stories from nineteen Catholics from two socially contrasting parishes in the Diocese of Salford. What these Mancunians (or Salfordians) say illuminates and deepens Harris’s analysis of the Catholic press and pamphlets, sermons, pastoral letters, and the papers of organisations such as the Catholic Marriage Advisory Council. The result is a richly textured study of gender and religious identity formation before, during and after the Council that argues persuasively for a reconsideration of the framework within which twentieth-century Catholic history in England has been set. Rather than falling neatly into an era before the ‘rupture’ of the Second Vatican Council (questionably characterised as a ‘golden age’ for Catholics) and post-conciliar era when Catholics lost their sacramental and devotional compasses, Harris recasts Catholic history as it was lived and experienced into a narrative of constant adaptation and negotiation. This is not to deny the existence of change and even the transformation towards a more personal understanding of Catholic faith which Harris concludes has taken place, but rather to bring into focus those shifts in Catholic identity that preceded the Council and those that were more intimately connected to changing gender roles within the family than to Council documents. In a book that is moving as well as intellectually powerful Harris wants us to see how much more rewarding and revealing it is to eschew the tropesof ‘golden age’, ‘rupture’ and ‘decline’ and instead to listen for the subtle accommodations of change over time and the persistent exercise of an altered but none the less unquestionably Catholic spiritual imagination.
Religious sisters are not subjects in this study but anyone working on the history of nuns in the second half of the Twentieth Century will find much of value here from the methodology to the reconsideration of Catholic historiography and from the exploration of gender identity to the discussion of changes in popular religiosity. Faith in the Family is an academic monograph with the potential to reach a wider readership, particularly in the Catholic community. Taken as a whole the book will appeal most strongly to students and academics who will be stimulated by its strong conceptual and methodological approach but individual chapters, from the survey of writing about mid-twentieth century Catholic history to the study of ‘Catholic conceptions of marriage and sexuality’ at this time, will be of interest to a wider range of readers, as will the personal witness of the interviewees used throughout the book.
The hardback edition currently available is expensive but we can surely expect a paperback edition before very long.