Continued from Britain’s decline and fall (3)
The word ‘decadence’ (as with ‘decay’) implies decline from a previously held high moral standard. In the first three articles, we have seen how the high moral tone of nineteenth century Britain, set by evangelicalism, had sharply deteriorated by the middle of the twentieth century.
This trend has continued, with marital unfaithfulness, selfishness, homosexuality — and its nasty by-product, gender fluidity — deeply impacting institutions and communities.
We have also seen that a key, though by no means only, factor in this deterioration has been the influence of an elite circle called the Bloomsbury Sect, working hand-in-hand with some members of a secret society of academics called the Cambridge Apostles.
This influential circle of critics, novelists, artists and philosophers expressed to uninhibited lengths in their personal and communal lives, their belief that personal aesthetic enjoyment rather than biblical accountability should be the final arbiter of what constitutes right behaviour.
By capturing the mass media of their day, namely the radio, Bloomsbury was able to disseminate its values to millions of ordinary British people.
The legacy of all this is now very apparent — 70 years on — in the distorted moral agenda pursued by such leading institutions as the BBC, especially in the realm of sexual ethics. There was more to the Jimmy Savile debacle than the irresponsible pop world of the 1960s!
There are lessons for evangelicals in all that has happened. The first is that evangelicals cannot stop being actively concerned about all that is going on in society. While Jesus did indeed call his disciples to be ‘separate from’, and ‘not of’, the world, he also called them to be ‘in’ it, in order that they may love their neighbour as themselves.
This means we cannot turn a blind eye to decadence and moral confusion, but must speak out when destructive wickedness wrecks the lives of people. Yet one of the surprising things about the era of Bloomsbury’s dominance has been the lack of contemporary evangelical critique of what Bloomsbury stood for (see, for example, the largely non-evangelical book list below).
The Bloomsbury Sect has, over the years, come in for considerable artistic and literary criticism, for example, from F. R. Leavis and his wife Queenie, but cogent criticism of its morals has been left to the likes of Jewish professor Gertrude Himmelfarb and Roman Catholic commentators E. Michael Jones and Paul Johnson.
With what then were evangelicals preoccupied during the 1920s and 1930s? Part of the answer to that is found in the fact that most evangelical student leaders in Britain were graduates in science, engineering and medicine, but not the arts.
This is made clear in Douglas Johnson’s history of the evangelical movement in universities and colleges, Contending for the faith (IVP). The lack of evangelical arts graduates seems related to the anti-intellectual tincture of 1920s-1930s’ evangelicalism, which was also strongly influenced by ‘higher life’ Keswick teaching. Maybe this is why evangelicals steered clear of the uncomfortable intellectual and moral challenges posed by modernism?
It also must be acknowledged that the evangelicalism of this period was under fierce attack from liberal theology. Helped by American Fundamentalism in its struggle with error, it was fighting a rearguard action over the ‘fundamentals’ of the faith.
It certainly isn’t easy to fight on two fronts, but that doesn’t mean the enemy will just pack up and go away if one front is left deserted. Tragically, the cultural life of early twentieth century Britain presented a push-over victory for Bloomsbury’s hedonistic aestheticism.
Second (although it seems a century too late!), we should be deeply thankful for those groups in Britain today who do engage faithfully, positively and lovingly from Scripture with those adrift in our decadent culture.
Such organisations as the Christian Institute, Christian Concern, CARE and the Family Education Trust, if they had been there, would surely have been a great help to any Christian arts students in the 1920s-1940s. But they are vital today, even though we may not see large numbers of people turning from decadence to Christ. At least a path of escape from the mess and confusion is being laid out by these caring societies.
Third, the part played by the media in the spread of decadence is too obvious to need elaboration. But one further thing should be said: during the last generation, it became something of a mantra among evangelicals to blame television, and then rock and roll, the Beatles and ‘swinging sixties’ for the moral crisis. Yet, while there was then undoubtedly an explosion of hedonistic godlessness, it was during the previous generations (as these articles have tried to demonstrate) that the greatest damage was done!
Fourth, and fundamentally, we must face up to the fact that Britain’s decadence is too deep-seated to be cured by Christians winning a few court cases against the anti-Christian actions of others, or by prominent Christian campaigns contesting unethical legislation. Of course, we are thankful for every minor victory in this area and for those who work so hard to achieve these, but Britain’s decadence is too radical to be remedied by any moral, educational or legislative reform.
Many millions of ordinary Britons today are in the grip of spiritual and moral darkness. The patient is moribund; what he needs is not medicine, but a resurrection. Nothing else will do! Only the gospel of Jesus Christ has the power to bring the people of Great Britain into gospel liberty and holiness. Only the powerful, convicting work of the Holy Spirit can release the hearts of men, women and children from the sins that enslave and degrade.
Perhaps we will understand this point better if we recall a further incident from the life of G. M. Trevelyan, the academic who was high in the intellectual aristocracy and the subject of our first article (ET, November 2016).
Trevelyan was a friend but not a member of the Bloomsbury Group. He was also a Cambridge Apostle. He was never a homosexual, although he was influenced by the Apostles’ agnosticism.
In 1941 and 1942, the Inter-Varsity Fellowship held its Easter conferences at Trinity College, Cambridge. On both occasions, Dr Martyn Lloyd-Jones gave the presidential address at Trinity, preaching on the 1942 occasion about the raising of Jairus’ daughter.
To the surprise of the students, the Master of Trinity, G. M. Trevelyan, attended both addresses (wearing cap and gown). After Lloyd-Jones’ second message had finished, Trevelyan ‘made his way to the speaker and, removing his cap, said with considerable emotion, “Sir, it has been given to you to speak with great power”’ (Iain H. Murray, D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones — the fight of faith 1939-1981, Banner of Truth, 1990; p.68).
Iain Murray recounts that a Trinity colleague said later that if Trevelyan listened to Lloyd-Jones much more, he was going to be converted! Yes, indeed! Evangelicals are up against enormous forces of spiritual evil, but we must never forget that ‘the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds’ (2 Corinthians 10:4).
Roger Fay is a director and editor of Evangelical Times, a director of Evangelical Press Missionary Trust, and pastor of Zion Evangelical Baptist Church, Ripon.
Noel Annan, Leslie Stephen — the godless Victorian, University of Chicago Press, 1984.
Todd Avery, Radio modernism — literature, ethics and the BBC, 1922-1938, Ashgate, 2006.
Theodore Dalrymple, ‘The rage of Virginia Woolf’, City Journal, 2002 [online].
Gertrude Himmelfarb, ‘From Clapham to Bloomsbury: a genealogy of morals’, Commentary, February 1985 [online].
Paul Johnson, A history of the modern world — from 1917 to the 1980s, chapter 4, Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983.
Paul Johnson, Intellectuals, Phoenix Giant, 1988.
E. Michael Jones, Degenerate moderns — modernity as rationalized sexual misbehavior, Ignatius Press, 1993.
Paul Levy, Moore — G. E. Moore and the Cambridge Apostles, Macmillan Publishers, 1989.
Andrew Lownie, Stalin’s Englishman — the lives of Guy Burgess, Hodder & Stoughton, 2015.
Iain H. Murray, The undercover revolution — how fiction changed Britain, Banner of Truth, 2009.
Nigel Nicolson, ‘Virginia Woolf’, New York Times, 2000 [online].
S. P. Rosenbaum (Ed. James M. Haule), The Bloomsbury Group memoir club, Palgrave Macmillan, 2014.
Various articles, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, 2014-2015 edition.