There were riots. Shouting, hissing, whistling, songs bellowed to drown out the speaker. American college campus? Nah. It was London, 1858, and the target was an Anglican church service deemed too Catholic. At the end of the liturgy, cushions, books and hassocks were thrown at the altar. The protestors were evangelical Oxford students. A few admitted later that too much beer, rather than theology, might have been at the root of the troubles.
I was reading “One Hot Summer: Dickens, Darwin, Disraeli and the Great Stink of 1858,” by Rosemary Ashton (Yale University Press, $30) when I stumbled across the story of the St. Barnabas riots. Ashton’s book is microhistory — looking at a couple of months to see what stories are told. She found Dickens’ marriage collapsing during his affair with an actress, Disraeli — Queen Victoria’s great prime minster — in the early days of his career, and Darwin rushing to finish “The Origin of Species,” outlining his theory of evolution and natural selection.
The book is also about a brutally hot London summer and the suffocating stink arising from the Thames River, overrun with raw sewage from 2.5 million inhabitants. But good luck trying to read any book dealing with any era in England’s post-Reformation history without bumping into an episode of anti-Catholic hysteria like the St. Barnabas riots. It’s something the Brits seem to need to do every decade or so, the last outburst being the papal visit of Benedict XVI in 2010. There were cries that his visit “whitewashed the Reformation out of history,” and 200,000 rallied to declare the pope a crypto-Nazi and an “enemy of humanity.”
The St. Barnabas riots were part of the ongoing battle among the evangelical heirs to the Puritans who wanted an expression of faith “cleansed of Romanism,” the mainstream Anglican community under the royals, and those Anglican-Catholics who identified closely with Catholic belief, tradition and liturgy, but would not go so far as Blessed John Henry Newman, who converted to the Church in 1845.
A group of Anglo-Catholic priests had taken on a number of poor churches in London in the 1850s, including St. Barnabas. When it was discovered that they were hearing private confessions — particularly of women — at St. Barnabas, the anti-Romanist hysteria descended on them from both sides. The evangelicals rioted while the official leadership of the Anglican Church moved to suppress them.
The priests eventually survived within the larger Anglican community as the Society of the Holy Cross. They remain an active congregation today.
Divisions within the Church of England between the evangelical wing and the Anglo-Catholic wing persist to a degree in Britain. But the real threat today is not the Catholic Church. There is a more insidious enemy making vast inroads in British culture.
According to Catholic News Service, a recent survey from Great Britain reports that while the Thames River does not stink any longer, 53 percent of Brits say they no longer belong to any religion at all, the highest level ever. Seventy-one percent of people ages 18-24 said they had no religion.
The decline in religious affiliation has been primarily among those who had belonged to the Church of England. The survey found that 15 percent of people in Britain consider themselves to be Anglican, compared to about 30 percent in 2000. The proportion of people who say they are Catholic has remained at about 10 percent for the past three decades. For years, most of those attending church services on Sunday in England have been Catholic. And no one is throwing stuff after Mass.
Robert P. Lockwood writes from Indiana. Follow him on Twitter @BobPLockwood.