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Faith in the Nation? The Church of England in the 20th Century

Lively laity, turbulent priests - Andrew Chandler on how the Anglican establishment has adapted to change in society and the body politic since 1900.

On the night of May 10th, 1941, the German air force mounted a powerful assault on the heart of London. As the bombs rained down upon Westminster a little group of men chased around the precincts of Westminster Abbey, searching for new fires to extinguish, frantically defending the very existence of a church that they saw to be the symbol of the national soul. The residential houses that lay beside the abbey in Little Cloister, and the neighbouring school, were soon ablaze. The central tower of the abbey itself caught light and therefore became, for all their efforts, too strong to suppress. It was hard to find water to fight the flames; many water mains had been destroyed early in the raid. At 3 am one of the canons, F.R. Barry, desperately telephoned 10 Downing Street.

Barry believed that now only an order from the prime minister himself could save the whole church. He got what he wanted; a fire brigade quickly arrived. By the early morning it could be seen that the abbey had been preserved for the nation. The story of Canon Barry's telephone call, and the response it immediately secured, show how a set of values, religious, historic, political and patriotic - hard to define, perhaps, and certainly difficult to separate - might converge dramatically at a time of crisis. It is this complex culture of identity which is invoked when people talk of the 'establishment' of the Church of England today.

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