By Neil Dhingra
“We need to get rid of the slovenly, vicious, idle wasters of the community.” Despite some rather stiff competition, this is perhaps the most shocking statement made by a 20th-century Anglican bishop. The prelate in question, E.W. Barnes, was consecrated as Bishop of Birmingham in 1924. Alarmed in 1950 by the size of Great Britain’s population, he suggested a shocking program of change.
Claiming that at the very least “90 per cent of feeble-mindedness is inherited,” Barnes argued that “sterilization of the unfit” was essential. While Barnes did not explicitly endorse “medically controlled euthanasia for defective infants,” he suggestively noted that he had met “mothers of such children who have been thankful when death has brought release.” World War II, we should remember, had ended only five years before.
The bishop’s concern with defining better and worse “stocks” also led him to racist categorizations, even if he recognized that “colour prejudice … tends to distort judgment.” For instance, in a 1949 Galton Lecture before the Eugenics Society, Barnes spoke positively of the “‘new’ Negro” in the United States. He recalled speaking to white American bishops at the 1948 Lambeth Conference: “outstanding” men. Even though they “naturally” valued their “white blood,” Barnes said, “I was interested to find that almost invariably in private conversation they spoke well of the way in which the Negroes (‘new’ Negroes, of course) were developing.” The newness for Barnes seemed based on the “admixture of white blood.”
How could Bishop Barnes, a learned man who had formerly been a Cambridge mathematician, have gone so badly wrong?
A very interesting recent book by Patrick T. Merricks, Religion and Racial Progress in Twentieth-Century Britain (Palgrave, 2017), provides some necessary context for a diagnosis. Barnes was an Anglican modernist — a “liberal Evangelical,” he would say — who believed “upward progress” in nature showed “design in the mind of God,” a design in which the human soul was “the glory of the whole.” His “rational faith,” however, was hardly a form of complacent optimism.
Barnes thought that Great Britain, especially in the interwar years, needed spiritual revival amid the decay of skepticism and superstition. Besides unity, this revival would require more individuals of superior intellect, spiritual understanding, and “sound stock,” and fewer who were otherwise. Accordingly, Barnes attempted to persuade the 1930 Lambeth Conference to make “a pronouncement with regard to mental defect.” Although he claimed to have “much sympathy from individuals” at Lambeth, no such pronouncement was forthcoming.
Barnes, convinced by Mendelian research that “mental defects” had an inalterable genetic basis, would argue that the predictable transmission of defects by “feeble-minded” families was a “hindrance to the civilized progress of humanity,” and “measures to improve the quality of the race” were no less than “service to God.” For instance, Barnes would argue for divorce reform in the 1930s on eugenic grounds: imagine, he told the House of Lords in 1937, that a man returns from five years in a “mental home.” His wife could not possibly “be expected to bear children to a man whom she knows to have this taint.” Later that year, he advised his clergy, “If freedom had been obtained from a lunatic partner, that partner ought not be remarried in church: they could not as Christians bless a union which would probably produce lunatics.” Barnes now more openly supported voluntary sterilization.
We might think that World War II and the sinister example of the Nazis would have moderated his positions. It did not. After the war, the bishop spoke with ever more urgency. In February 1945, he wrote privately to the Archbishop of Canterbury, “I have been converted to a belief in euthanasia and to acceptance of the principle of sterilization of those carrying unwholesome belief genes,” and he publicly called for sterilization and euthanasia only a month after the war’s end. As Merricks notes, Bishop Barnes’s rhetoric “relied on destruction and decline from which society could be reborn,” and he imagined Britain emerging anew from warfare with eugenics incorporated into the welfare state as a “complement” to limit the “scrub” population.
The reason for the bishop’s eugenics seems to be that, as Merricks notes, “Christian eugenicists believed that intellect was intrinsically linked to religious understanding.” In a 1924 essay, “The Rise and Growth of Man’s Spiritual Consciousness,” Barnes claimed that the “distinctive evolution” of humanity came through the acquisition of speech that “led to the development of the higher brain-centres,” and was subsequently enhanced by the “beginning of writing.” Speech “first made religion possible,” and “writing has been the main factor in its purification and development,” so that, without speech and writing, “man, in fact, would not be man but an anthropoid.” Through “divinely planned design,” our conscience has become more enlightened, and, simultaneously, “Man’s control over the force of Nature and over lower forms of life has steadily increased.” In other words, those lacking speaking and writing skills are barely human (if that).
Barnes also opposed Anglo-Catholic sacramentalism as a hindrance to spiritual and intellectual progress. For Barnes, we become “converted” to God’s design as those “instinctive tendencies which are out of harmony with the needs of social life” become sublimated to contribute to the “higher ideals of society.” He argued that if we instead repress instinctive tendencies, they may resurface in the “harmfulness of barren asceticism.” Barnes will speak of the “bastard sister” of religion as “magic,” including its reemergence as “non-ethical sacramentalism.”
Sacramentalism challenged his vision of the world as a design marked by scientifically intelligible progress. Barnes denigrated transubstantiation as opposed to experimental psychology: because, he said, “no man by his spiritual capacity can distinguish consecrated from unconsecrated bread, we can assume that the consecration of material objects causes no spiritual change in them.”
Curiously, the historian Peter Bowler reports that Barnes’s papers include correspondence from at least two people who claimed that they could perceive the difference between consecrated and unconsecrated bread. (I have no comment.) In any case, an adequate response to Barnes must take on his claim that we, influenced by Jesus Christ, take part in a civilizational, intellectual, and eugenic process that, though continuously opposed by instinctual sin, becomes complete in eternal life with God. To be sure, his science and grossly overgeneralized categorizations of civilizations are outdated.
But there is more we must address. For example, the theologian Frances Young, whose son Arthur has severe learning disabilities, has written about a wisdom that is inaccessible to us when we focus on scientific success and our capacity to repair and control. At L’Arche, she writes, the acceptance of “incurably damaged bodies” in ordinary life and such rituals as the washing of feet “reveal our common essential vulnerability as human creatures.” If we set aside our anxieties and feelings of guilt at this difficult revelation, we can finally grasp that God loves us for our own sakes and not because of our accomplishments. This realization frees us to return God’s love in sheer gratitude, and then to love others simply because they too have been created in God’s image, not because of their capacities. Young praises the monastic wisdom in apatheia, passionlessness, which she describes as the detachment that is essential to love others with an attentiveness not distorted by self-concern.
While the bishop’s thought is deeply concerned with morality, his ethics is bound up with intellectual and “civilizational” progress to the extent that we seemingly can love one another only insofar as we see one another as capable partners in a divinely mandated project. That love would seem to be forever conditional and limited, only distantly related to the unconditional and boundless love of God that we are called to reflect. That love, I must add, is what we encounter in the Eucharist, where God’s presence is just there, whatever our genetics.
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