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Religion in Secular Society 50 Years On

A reissue which misses the opportunity to build on the points raised in the original 

Religion in Secular SocietyReligion in Secular Society 50 Years On
By Bryan R Wilson (edited by Steve Bruce)
Oxford University Press
ISBN: 9780198788379
First published 1966, reprinted 2016
Reviewed by Alec Gilmore

Fifty years may not be long in the history of Society or the Church but the last 50 have been particularly tumultuous for both. Western Society has seen the sexual revolution, the end of the Cold War, the rise of China and the Arab Spring, and now Europe under threat, all with deep and widespread consequences.

The Church has seen the rise and fall of the Ecumenical Movement from Vatican 2 to Nottingham 1980, the demise of the British Council of Churches, the breakdown of the parish system, the current perils of the Anglican Communion, the decline of traditional nonconformity and the proliferation of sects, not to mention the increasing proximity of other faiths and cultures.

Anyone who went to sleep in the 60s and woke up today to find battles fought but neither lost nor won and a raft of fresh issues with unintended consequences on the agenda could be forgiven for wanting to go back to sleep again, so inevitably one has to ask whether Wilson's unchanged 1966 text can have anything to offe for today, other than a useful backcloth for newcomers to appreciate how we got where we are.

Steve Bruce and OUP obviously believe it has. To a limited extent they are right, and it is to Wilson's credit that despite the detritus of half a century many of the basic issues are little changed, not least the need to clarify the difference between secularisation and secularism, still widely misunderstood. But if the issues are 'little changed' today is a very different 'secular society'. 

What I find disappointing, therefore, is that editor and publisher, having put their hand to the plough, show little evidence of ploughing. Not even an updated bibliography or some comparable statisics since 1965 to serve as a minimum, while a brief Introduction (xix pages) and a couple of Appendixes (28 pages) barely amounts to getting the plough out of the shed for a minor checkup to ensure it is still fit for purpose, when what we are looking for is how the crops have changed and called for adaptation in the skills of ploughing.

Good therefore as far as it goes, but a missed opportunity to build on it, even if only by the addition of one chapter. For example, the impact of secularisation on church leadership, or the impact on secularisation of the many new independent churches not even there in the 60s; the impact of secularisation on Christian festivals, now mainly occasions to get away and running alongside the festivals of other religions; and, compared to the 60s, to what extent do today's churches enhance leadership and imbue society and culture with Christian values, or are they still playing catch-up?

Overall, a useful plough for farmers interested in history or up for a challenge.

Alec Gilmore is a Baptist minister 

Baptist Times, 11/05/2017
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