One of the particularly British jokes in the film Monty Python’s Life of Brian, even if it is dressed up in a toga, is that about the rival groups: the People’s Front of Judea, the Judean People’s Front, the Judean Popular People’s Front – oh, and the rather lonely one-man Popular Front (“Splitter!”).
One of the groups is even clearly presented in the film as being Welsh.
Whether it’s the cold climate leading people to huddle together in small groups – or simply making them grumpy – or some native disposition to question orthodoxy, the history of Christianity in the British Isles (and forgive me for including Ireland in that geographical term) is one of disagreement.
The family tree of UK and Irish faith is riddled with bifurcations, branches, knots and twists – not to mention having a problem with squirrels.
It’s probably not feasible to say exactly how many different divisions of Christian groups there have been in these islands, but in researching this new series I’ve certainly found at least 50, and there are probably many more if one could identify every lonely hillside farmhouse where a charismatic old man with a beard has come up with a new twist on theology.
Down the years various terms have been used to describe the groups which have chosen to deviate from the main path of Anglicanism (we’ll limit ourselves to the era from the 16th century onwards), some more dismissive than others: recusants, dissenters and nonconformists are just three that have been used particularly in England.
Every term one might use is fraught with difficult connotations. Do we call them sects? That should just be a neutral term meaning a subdivision of a larger religious body – but also carries the baggage of being a ‘faction’ that is somehow awkward, unwelcome or… oddball.
Some groups have clearly made the grade to the grander term of ‘denomination’ – but they too have had their own history of ramification. In some cases, notably those of the Baptists and Methodists, old wounds have been largely healed, with General and Particular or Primitive and Wesleyan, for example, joining under one banner.
In others, small groups have split off like bacterial colonies, then dwindled without the oxygen of publicity or membership. Even today, new divisions can also open up: one thinks of Forward in Faith, for example.
In this Dictionary of Dissent, I’ll explore many different flavours of British and Irish Christianity over the last five centuries, from Adamites to Walworth Jumpers.
We’ll explore the history of religious disagreement sometimes with amused affection, but always with respect.
Perhaps that’s the one philosophy in these countries that underpins them all: an understanding that we all have a right to our opinion.
Heads have rolled in the past, but thankfully today it’s only the eyes that roll. I hope you enjoy the journey with me.