What did you do in the war, vicar?

Bob Holman, Guardian 7 May 2005

This week is important not just for the general election but because tomorrow marks the 60th anniversary of the end of the second world war in Europe. Celebrations will focus on the armed forces. Some attention will be given to the home front, where Britain suffered massive bombing. I doubt, however, if much will be said about the clergy. Eric Hobsbawm, in his acclaimed book, Age Of Extremes 1914-1991, does not give them a mention. Yet contemporary records reveal that they provided vital services.

During the blitz, the clergy were busy burying the dead and comforting the bereaved. It was often the churches that opened centres with food and blankets for people made homeless by the bombing; Father Wilson, in east London, created such an enjoyable atmosphere - with games and music - that some people refused to leave.

The most radical priest was John Groser who, in 1938, had cooperated with a communist-led rent strike. During the war, when homeless people had no food, he smashed open a food depot.

The bombs sparked off huge evacuations of children to the countryside. With hardly any social workers around, it fell to ministers of all denominations to send newsletters, Christmas presents and, where possible, arrange visits for anxious parents.

The evacuees went to reception zones, where volunteers marched them to halls to be welcomed by church members with snacks and orange squash. Householders then arrived to select their foster children. It often fell to the clergy to find billets for those left behind. One vicar transported a boy who had never been in a car before. He mistook the diagram on the gear stick for a swastika and reported the sight of the Nazi insignia to the police, who took the matter seriously enough to interrogate the bewildered vicar.

Numerous evacuees arrived in villages with few leisure facilities. Again, churches proved useful. The Commission of the Churches, an ecumenical body with a concern for evacuees, reported: "There was almost universal opening up of services and Sunday schools to evacuees."

In rural areas, with few shops, mothers who had accompanied their young children, often felt lonely. Some, like my mum, turned to the pub (and were criticised by local wives). The commission estimated that two-thirds of church halls were opened as centres for mothers to meet, rest and eat. One vicar and his wife turned their vicarage into a nursery school and a canteen, which fed a hundred children a day.

The war led some people to reject God, especially after their relatives were killed. Others felt a greater need for prayer and meaning. In a series of articles in the New Statesman, about the place of religion in wartime, John Groser took issue with those who claimed that the slaughter was evidence of the non-existence of God. He argued that God was bringing forth good from evil, as evidenced by the breakdown of class barriers during war. He wrote that the conflict has "miraculously set us free ... a mystery which I believe is only explicable in terms of a living God active in history".

The clergy came face to face with the poverty of evacuees. The commission wrote: "The country was undoubtedly electrified to discover the dirt, poverty and ignorance that still exists in large towns."

Anglican, Catholic and nonconformist leaders responded with a letter to the Times proposing that "extreme inequality in wealth and possessions should be abolished". When William Temple was appointed archbishop of Canterbury in 1942, he became, on Christian grounds, a leading advocate of the welfare state, addressing huge meetings across the country.

Of course, the churches (and not all of them) were just one voice. But they were important in persuading many church-going, middle-class voters to support Labour, which, after its 1945 election victory, masterminded the welfare state.

Bob Holman is a retired neighbourhood worker in Glasgow

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