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Shellshocked Prophets

Former Anglican Chaplains in Inter-War Britain


Linda Parker


Wolverhampton Military Studies

Solihull: Helion & Company, 2015

Hardback. xi + 249 p. 978-1909982253. £25.00


Reviewed by Stuart Bell

University of Birmingham



For many years, the largely uncontested narrative of Anglican Army Chaplains in the First World War suggested that they were a group of bellicose and often cowardly men, ineffective in their ministry and urging men on into danger while remaining well behind the lines themselves. One of the primary sources for such a caricature was Robert Graves’ Goodbye to All That.(1) Written during the disillusionment of the late 1920s and 1930s with a view (as Graves admitted in a later edition) to maximising sales, it also compared unfavourably Anglican chaplains with their Roman Catholic colleagues. More general works in the 1970s – a period in which Alan Clark’s The Donkeys and the musical Oh! What a Lovely War had both shaped public perceptions of the conflict, the Vietnam War was in progress and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament and similar groups had influenced a generation of Anglican clergy – did little to correct the picture.(2) For example, Alan Wilkinson’s The Church of England and the First World War, while recognising the significance of well-known chaplains such as Geoffrey A. Studdert Kennedy (‘Woodbine Willie’) and P.B. ‘Tubby’ Clayton, was not sympathetic in its account of the engagement of the Church of England in the conflict.(3) Only in recent years, parallelling the work of revisionist historians reappraising the conflict itself, have scholars really challenged earlier certainties.(4) What has become evident is both the scale of the chaplaincy provision – around 3000 Anglicans alone – and also the bravery of very many of them, over 200 being awarded the Military Cross. Recent work has also recognised the distinctive nature of Anglican chaplains’ role, ministering not only to those with an explicit Church commitment, but also to the perhaps two-thirds of the soldiers who, like a similar proportion of the British population, rarely attended Church but subscribed to a basic belief in the existence of God and of a life after death – so-called ‘diffusive Christianity’. Certainly, some of the chaplains were not up to the job and were soon sent back to England, but many fulfilled their demanding role in arduous and life-threatening conditions, often over several years. Soldiers valued the care and sacrifice of those chaplains willing to share the same risks.

It is on the foundation of this work that Linda Parker has written her account of what happened to those chaplains after demobilisation and, in particular, how they influenced the Church of England in the inter-war years. Shellshocked Prophets offers a comprehensive analysis of its subject, addressing the part which the chaplains played in shaping both the post-war Church and wider English society.

Key areas which Parker addresses include post-war industrial relations, Toc-H (the society for ex-soldiers set up by Clayton), the future training of ordinands, internal reforms within the Church, moral issues in society, remembrance and pacifism. As she clearly shows, former chaplains played a significant role in debates on all these matters, often bringing the insights of their experiences to bear. Frequently, she helpfully integrates contemporary sources and subsequent accounts to offer a more rounded picture of a particular chaplain. For example, her narrative of Geoffrey Studdert Kennedy’s work for the Industrial Christian Fellowship [64-68] is somewhat more sympathetic than that of Gerald Studdert Kennedy.(5) While the story of the ordination ‘Test School’ at Knutsford, essentially offering a ‘foundation course’ for would-be ordinands without the academic qualifications to enter directly a theological college is well covered in the literature, the work of B.K. Cunningham at Westcott House, Cambridge, and of Christopher Chavasse at Oxford which Parker relates, is probably far less well-known [132-136]. In wider society, the attitudes of some former chaplains to questions around marriage, divorce and contraception, undoubtedly influenced by their enforced contact with the non-Church-going majority of English men, were at variance with the traditional teaching of the Church [174-179]. Her discussion of the somewhat enigmatic relationship between the very brief war service of H.R.L. ‘Dick’ Sheppard and his later pacifism [211-217] sets out very clearly the various sources and later scholars’ views. Helpful, too, are the accounts of lesser-known chaplains such as John Groser [70-73].

With regard to Parker’s consideration of Church Reunion [157-163], it may be that in her enthusiasm to stress the role of former chaplains both in individual acts challenging the rules of the Church (such as Sheppard welcoming non-Anglican communicants) and in activities to encourage the relaxing of such rules, she has rather overstated the impact of their efforts. While the standard narratives of the period – and many since – have affirmed the Appeal to All Christian People of the 1920 Lambeth Conference of Anglican bishops as a major step forward in ecumenism, it was clear within a few months of its issuing that its solution to the recurrent problem of the recognition of non-episcopally ordained ministers was not going to be accepted by the Free Churches. To her account of the role of former chaplain Guy Rogers in promoting unity and intercommunion in the 1920s and 1930s could be added his 1941 conclusion: ‘The fact is that the high-water mark of our hopes for reunion was reached at the Lambeth Conference, 1920, and that they have been receding ever since.’(6)

Shellshocked Prophets offers a valuable account of the work of prominent former Anglican chaplains during the inter-war period. Repeatedly, it illustrates how their war-time experiences made them intolerant of and exasperated by a Church which was reluctant to change and whose structures and inter-party tensions and rivalries were prejudicial to the developments which many chaplains sought. As such, this book breaks new ground.

A few typographical errors have slipped past the copy editor, and clergy should never be styled simply ‘the Rev surname’ [e.g. 59], but this is otherwise a very well-produced book, including both photographs and brief biographical summaries of the chaplains considered in the text. Furthermore, since it is published at a third of the price which seems all too common for such monographs, it must be warmly commended to scholars and students of the interface of conflict and religion and, one would hope, not destined solely for the shelves of university libraries.


(1) R. Graves, Goodbye to All That (London, 1929).

(2) A. Clark, The Donkeys (London, 1961) took its title from the description of the British soldiers as ‘lions led by donkeys’, originated by German propagandists. The 1963 stage musical Oh, What a Lovely War was adapted by Joan Littlewood from a radio play by Charles Chilton. In turn, it was developed into a 1969 musical film directed by Richard Attenborough. See M. Grimley, ‘The Church and the Bomb : Anglicans and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, c. 1958–1984’, in S.G. Parker and T. Lawson (eds.), God and War (Farnham, 2012) : 147-164.

(3) A. Wilkinson, The Church of England and the First World War (London, 1978).

(4) See, for example, M. Snape, Clergy Under Fire : The Royal Army Chaplains Department, 1976-1953 (Woodbridge, 2008); E. Madigan, Faith Under Fire : Anglican Chaplains and the Great War (Basingstoke, 2011); M. Snape, ‘Church of England Army Chaplains in the First World War : Goodbye to “Goodbye to All That”’, Journal of Ecclesiastical History 62-2 (April 2011) : 318-345; S. Bell, ‘The Church of England and the First World War’, in S.G. Parker and T. Lawson (eds.), God and War (Farnham, 2012) : 33-59; M. Snape & E. Madigan (eds.), The Clergy in Khaki: British Army Chaplains in the First World War (Farnham, 2013).

(5) Gerald Studdert Kennedy, Dog-Collar Democracy (London, 1982).

(6) T.G. Rogers, ‘Reunion : Defeat or a New Offensive’, The Modern Churchman XXX-1 (December 1941) : 361-368.



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