The Pathos of the Christian Social Order

To say that we live in challenging times is merely to state the obvious. They are challenging for the Church, as secularization takes form more quickly in North America than most of us can grasp, but more challenging still for populations here and globally that are dealing with the effects of late capitalism out of control, via climate change in the environment on the one hand, and gross income and wealth disparity even within the wealthiest societies.

While numerous Church groups are outspoken on a variety of these issues, few of these seem to be wholly aware that their political practice is based on premises that no longer hold; despite the much vaunted separation of Church and state in the US constitution, ecclesial statements about policy and social issues here often have the ring of Christendom about them.

This is a challenge for all of us, including those of us in the Catholic tradition of Anglicanism who inherit a rich social tradition, yet one based partly (not wholly) on assumptions that no longer hold, about the idea of a “Christian” society or social order. We do not yet know how to be Christians in a post-Christian society; we cling to influence that has already gone; we need to find both old ways and new to answer God’s call for a just, participatory, and sustainable society.

Christian Socialism, not Social Gospel

While it is important to work with other citizens of all faiths and none and to find common cause where we can, based on how the Gospel tells us to view our humanity and theirs, it is important to distinguish between how we build alliances and how we form our own identity and social witness. It is a time to re-discover what Christians, and here specifically Christians of catholic commitment and formation, bring to the reality of a society groaning under the burdens of our time.

Baptism is of course as fundamental to us as shared humanity itself; it is more important than shared opinion. We are more inextricably bound to baptized Trumpians than we are to the unbaptized, even those whom we like and agree with. Yet we are also more different from some other Christians than we seem to realize. We need to work this out, not so as to separate ourselves, but so as to be effective allies in the broad coalitions needed for the present moment.

For this purpose, I want to distinguish Christian Socialism from the “Social Gospel,” not to divide us further, but to engage critically on what unites us, and to make a claim about how Christian belief and social action might be linked from within the Catholic tradition.

While people sometimes use the term “Social Gospel” fuzzily to refer to any engagement between Christianity and social action or policy, its historically-formed meaning involves deep connection with 19th and early 20th century liberalism. The “Social Gospel” more strictly is the movement associated with Walter Rauschenbusch, whose theology, like that of many of those good folk since, includes a modernizing rejection or de-emphasis of aspects of traditional doctrine such as personal sin or the need for atonement. Whether the idea of a “Social Gospel” is useful really stands or falls on whether the meaning of that term implies a missing part of the Gospel, or (as more often) a re-working of the Gospel, to produce a salvation primarily focused on the arrival of the Kingdom of God on earth via a utopian society. In this latter and prevailing sense, I contend the Social Gospel is not either as Christian, or (more shockingly) nearly as radical, as it imagines.

Christian Socialism has a quite different intellectual pedigree, even if it overlaps with that of the Social Gospel movement at some points. This is partly a continental difference, admittedly; the Christian Social Union in the UK, from which the movement takes its name, was led and inspired by people like F. D. Maurice, who was himself not of the Catholic party in the Church of England, but was soon joined by such as Charles Gore and Percy Dearmer who were more clearly so. A Catholic form of Christian Socialism was thus a second-generation outgrowth of the Oxford Movement, just as ritualism was. While not all Christian Socialists were Anglo-Catholics this movement, in contrast with the Social Gospel, tended to be orthodox in its assumptions, and to see the lack of effective social witness and teaching as reflecting not so much a failure of traditional doctrine as a failure to understand and uphold traditional doctrine. There is the big difference, at least theologically.

If you balk at the use of “Socialism,” let me point out that many of the Anglicans who have identified with Christian Socialism were hesitant, or varied in their opinions, about “state ownership” or other specific forms of socialist organization, and that this not what socialism meant or means. As the origins of Christian Socialism in a “Christian Social Union” suggest, “socialism” simply means a view of society that emphasizes for the needs of the whole. Socialism here need not refer to nationalization of industry etc., but to a variety of policies and remedies intended to share the benefits of production equitably, to ensure full employment, minimum income, universal health care and education, and so forth. These are not outrageous ideas assuming authoritarian rule, but parts of what was mainstream policy under FDR, when it comes to specifics. Socialists will differ in the means they believe it necessary to use to further these aims, but socialism should be understood not just as an identity marker for self-proclaimed radicals, but as a way of thinking about the need for a robust civil society in which the needs of all, and especially of the most vulnerable, are met.

While both movements may support some of what I have called socialism, Christian Socialism and the Social Gospel are not the same thing. It makes all the difference in the world whether we think social improvement is somehow the real message of Christianity, or whether we think that the Gospel, and the relation into which it brings us with the triune God in the Church and through the sacraments, depicts and demands life lived according to the pattern of Christ and its fulfillment in all aspects of human life.

This means, among other things, that Christian Socialism is not a form of liberalism, even if it makes common cause with liberalism at various points. The difference between Christian Socialism, which I take to be the natural and historic partner of the Catholic movement in the Church, and the Social Gospel movement is two-fold and both those parts have to do with liberalism and its weaknesses. “Liberalism” as a term is used in different ways in different English-speaking Christian traditions, admittedly; but here I mean the set of optimistic and progressive forces that span both theological and political movements in this country.

One of the struggles facing an American Christian Left, in broad terms, is that there was no moment such as that which Europe experienced in the Great War, when the accommodationist theologies of Ritschl and Harnack, the greatest minds of German liberal theology, were enrolled to defend German imperialism. Out of this catastrophe came Barth, and an end to the idea that a progressive Christianity could function by taking its bearings from social trends primarily from the wider world.

Of course should not expect American Christian socialists to adopt Continental or British theological pedigrees in order to make their theology or witness effective; to point to this difference of intellectual and historical pedigree is to warn of the potential consequences of the missing equivalent a self-critical moment in the American theological and social tradition. In fact American theology, like American socialism, does its own traditions on which to draw, but the place of liberalism and its accommodationist and optimistic tendencies must be criticized in that process. That process must also go on with a critical awareness, that is hardly much in evidence now, that the place of the USA in the global reality of the 21st century is itself hegemonic and oppressive, and that no view of a just society can possibly take its bearings from a US-centered perspective alone, even one that speaks from the point of view of the oppressed in this country. With that statement however I have moved to the next part of my topic.

Divesting from America

I think all of us need to function as responsible citizens of our countries, and to participate appropriately in their institutions. I think however that it would be timely for the Church - or let me say the Christian Left, to which not all of you necessarily feel you belong - to reexamine its coziness with the American political project. I am on eggshells here as a foreigner of course - and I do not mean to suggest that my own or any other country has some sort of exemption from parallel or comparable challenges - but I do feel that the curious and late arrival of secularism in the US has left many gasping and unprepared for a world in which the wider society does not care what we think.

The Social Gospel is in fact inevitably, essentially, caught up in the American project; hence its primary outlet is in seeking to pressure the legislative and executive branches to be better, always to do better. Such advocacy is not a bad thing in itself, but it is a weakness not just in its unreflective optimism (and stultifying moralism), but insofar as it assumes that the relationship between Church and society ought to be cozy, and hence “protests” when it does not have its way. This may have been true of aspects of Christian Socialism within the established Church in the past too, by the way, but the differences are also significant.

The Social Gospel movement will in fact have little left to say, if the American project is taken away from it. Its optimistic and Pelagian aim is the American utopia, and while it has adjusted itself to the multi-faith aspect of that utopia, it has not really let go of the assumption that US Government and society should be and can be what the Social Gospel says they should be. This is why the Social Gospel’s current advocates experience such dissonance at the Trump ascendancy.

The problem lies in that the society of which the USA is the hegemonic center is not, at heart, just a utopia in the making, but a dystopia whose real character is increasingly being revealed. Late capitalism is not merely a system in need of tweaking, so that if we got (e.g.) gun violence, or racism, and a few other things sorted, all would be well. Late capitalism is essentially the rule of the bourgeoisie, or of capital itself, and while its ideology always pretends to offer equal opportunity it never will, let alone real equality in which it has no interest. Meritocracy is the veil it draws across a system that tends to inequality, and more and more so. Identity politics are merely a new version of the same, drawing veneer of fake collectivism across quests for personal fulfilment that stymie real collective action more often than they support it. Beauty contest presidential elections are farces during whose performance the population is told that it has power that it does not, and directs their energies towards these rather than to the roots of injustice, whose origins and solutions both lie elsewhere. This does not mean elections are meaningless - but they do not mean what people are told they mean.

The Social Gospel movement often devolves into being a religious wing for one side of US politics, granted that is also the side I would choose, if I were voting. I know that Churches are usually careful about endorsing candidates at least for tax exemption reasons, but this is a sort of sleight of hand. I am not convinced that the Social Gospel movement has an understanding of itself and of Christian faith that goes much deeper than the varied politics of American liberalism. Many of us are rightly appalled by the way some evangelicals like Robert Jeffords, Franklin Graham, and Jerry Falwell Jr have become sycophantic theological apologists for the crypto-fascism of Trump. Yet when Barack Obama was inaugurated in 2009, the then presiding bishop offered a prayer which was an explicit mashup of Lincoln’s Second Inaugural address along with elements of Obama’s campaign rhetoric, and no-one batted an eyelid. That is not so much outrageous as pathetic, in truth.

You may object that there is a great difference between Obama and Trump, and there is. But inequality in this country bounded ahead under Obama; detention and deportation bounded ahead under Obama. Obama was and is a person of almost infinitely greater appeal and deeper character than Trump - but this is not the point. The system over which they preside is the same.

Both men need prayer as presidents, but the exhortation of the First Letter to Timothy to pray for those in authority can and must be understood at least in part as a version of Jesus’ command to love enemies, and pray for those who persecute you. The advantage of a Trump is that his corruption and venality are transparent - he is the true face of late capitalism. The Obama inauguration prayer of course is actually a form of civil religion, not of Christianity. One of the mixed blessings of secularization is that we become freer to acknowledge this, but we do so slowly. 

The same case also entails a dubious but rarely examined assumption, that the primary role of the Church in social change is that of collective advocacy as Church, as a lobby group in effect; and as a more pluralistic understanding of faith communities and traditions has appeared, or forced itself upon us, we simply move from being the religious conscience of the State to being the Episcopal branch of progressive civil religion. When our default mode of responding to issues of the day is either to pass a resolution, or to put stoles on and go to the march, we are betraying a latent dependence on our relationship to civil religion. I do not mean to say we should never do those things; perhaps sometimes tactically speaking it is worth squeezing the last drop of juice from this old lemon. But an old and passing mode of witness it is.

William Temple who as Archbishop of Canterbury was an avowed socialist, said in his influential Christianity and Social Order:

At the end of this book I shall offer, in my capacity as a Christian citizen, certain proposals for definite action which would, in my private judgement, conduce to a more Christian ordering of society; but if any member of the Convocation of York should be so ill-advised as to table a resolution that these proposals be adopted as a political programme for the Church, I should in my capacity as Archbishop resist that proposal with all my force, and should probably, as President of the Convocation, rule it out of order.

Of course, this context was different; but it is striking how even in the established reality of the Church of England, Temple is considering not just the public witness of the Church as an institution, but the fact that the Church supports its members as citizens in the political realm. All this is worth considering, from someone who was also vigorously championing the needs of the poorest in public. Does it really make as much sense as people assume, to pass synodical resolutions as though this were the clearest form of ecclesial engagement with the issues of the day? And if it ever did, what now?

I suggest that while we do need to witness effectively, both that the conventional alliance that works via “public witness” is more damaging to Christian faith and identity than is being recognized, and that the assumption about Church as collective agent in the American project is flawed in other ways too.

The Church needs to remember, or discover, that being Church is actually much more radical than being a religiously-inspired faction of the Democratic Party. And surprisingly to many, while local organization and other forms of actual political praxis should play a role, an unflinchingly religious mission may really be the most important thing the Church can offers its members whose vocations and actions in the secular realm can and must include political action.

A Genuine Baptismal Ecclesiology

In recent decades “Baptismal Ecclesiology” has become a sort of weasel word, associated not so much with either baptism or ecclesiology, but with the polity of TEC. I assume, by the way, that while thinking about the polity of TEC should be informed by our ecclesiology, that it is not the same thing at all - your theory of your denominational structure is not “ecclesiology.” 

Baptismal Ecclesiology has largely been related to the proper recognition that the laity have a fundamental place in TEC polity, as in any aspect of Church life. However, the associated problems of this agenda are manifold, and some of them well beyond the scope of this talk. In brief, I think we have often messed this up, along with the bold claim that the laity are an “order” of ministry, by imagining this is fundamentally to do with ecclesiastical roles and concerns, rather than with the world of which lay and clergy and Church are all a part. I routinely hear “laity” now used as a short hand for “lay leaders” or “lay volunteers,” rather than meaning “the baptized” – so we have made this whole thing very introspective, and have been implying that the depth of a lay person’s vocation is typically to be correlated with their involvement in certain Church activities rather than in actions as citizens in workplace, home, and civic life. The “fourth order” part has also contributed to this mess, because of its implication that the other “orders” provided the model on which the fourth would be understood, rather than the proper understanding that the clergy need to be understood relative to the laos.

But my real point here is that if baptism really is the basis of ecclesiology - and it is - then your Vestry or parish program are not its main grounding point or locus, and the General Convention certainly is not. The world is its locus, and the ministry of all the baptized takes place wherever they are. A real baptismal ecclesiology would entail understanding how the members of the Church - not the institution, but the members - function as part of human society, and as participants in the wider creation.

So what about in Church? I note one of the common misuses of the Baptismal Ecclesiology language is its odd place relative to the movement towards so-called “open communion.” For while the terms are often used by the same people, the movement to remove baptism as a necessary path to communion of course undermines the “baptismal” part of ecclesiology rather radically.

What this really involves, I suspect, is at least in part a characteristically bourgeois objection to any structure or condition that inhibits inherent privilege operating freely. The Church actually declares that baptism is radical inclusion, of the infant, the aged, the tentative, the fierce and faithful, all alike; it declares that God’s apparently arbitrary choice is more powerful than your spiritual biography. Those who are supposedly excluded from communion by the existing canon are not, of course, typically the marginalized or the poor, but (like many of the rest of us) the bourgeois. They - or rather they, as imagined by their sponsors - are the educated nibblers at the spirituality banquet, who feel a hunger for on some given occasion without sitting down in community - without the wedding garment, as Jesus puts it.

This is important beyond that issue of open communion, because it goes to the heart of what baptism is and what Church is. Baptism is the means by which the Church declares Jesus' utopia as transcending social location - it is not dependent on agreement or inclination, but on divine call. This is the only form of equality and inclusion that does more than hide privilege but abolishes it; “open communion” on the other hand is the claim of the religious bourgeoisie clamoring against traditional power structures that frustrate its veiled privilege, when the Church is actually called to work out how it can be with and feed the materially poor. All this also breezes past the fact that baptism binds us irrevocably to others, regardless of opinion or confession, in catholic perspective at least, instead of privileging opinion and experience and other factors constructed by social location.

The Eucharist and the Kingdom

This of course leads us to the Eucharist, which is at the heart of Christian social witness. One of the problems with some efforts at liturgical renewal at present is the assumption that liturgy is a sort of neutral vehicle, whose words need to be adapted to make clear the propositions held in mind by the revisers. I don’t think we can or should exclude revision, and I think it is possible for the language of the liturgy (or forms of the liturgy) to evolve and come to reflect in more focused and contemporary ways the doctrines of the Church that are the basis of political engagement - the fact of Creation, Incarnation, Redemption. However in this audience I hope I don’t have to work too hard to say that such efforts to solve liturgical conundrums by changing the words are in danger of missing the real point.

Every Eucharist is an act of subversion. This does not depend on how well understood that fact is, nor on whether the words used to frame the liturgy are the sharpest expression of that fact. For the Eucharist does not work primarily by words, even though words are essential to it. The Eucharist is a participation in the worship of the true God in the heavenly realm, as in the vision of Isaiah 6 or the Revelation to John. We are caught up into that realm, but it is also the irruption into human life of the divine order. This is the case, whether we do it well or badly; we celebrate solemn high mass with awe, because we are explicitly indicating that this is like handling high explosives; the power of the living God is not a trifle. Yet we can also celebrate with warmth and quiet conviviality, because the divine order is one of life and love and peace.

What the Eucharist is not, is a neutral vehicle for the carriage of other agendas. The Eucharist is an agenda. Or rather its agenda is the reign of God, the God of Jesus Christ. Its agenda is not that worship is nice, or that ritual is meaningful, or that the transcendent is a thing, or that we are spiritual beings, or that community is valuable; its agenda is that casting down of the mighty from their thrones and exaltation of the lowly, the filling of the hungry with good things equally. In its symbolic meal and its equal proportions, given freely, it conveys the equal participation of all those called to the heavenly banquet. Its equality is a foretaste of the world in which all are fed.

The Eucharist will be those things, each time we celebrate, whether we manage to capture that fact in words or ritual, whether we manage to take its reality with us in our embodied selves adequately or not. It just is. That fact, not a different ritual, is the essence of a catholic doctrine of the Eucharist - that it is what it claims to be.

Eucharist and Service of the Poor

It may be objected - outside this room by liberal friends, if not here in it - that this Eucharistic radicalism is not obvious enough and hence needs to be made so, in words. We can keep working on the words, but I would rather say, after pointing out that obviousness is not the first issue, that the character of the Eucharist could be made even clearer in action.

The ancient Church was renowned for its care for the poor, and this has been a mark of pride for the Catholic movement in Anglicanism. In early Christianity, the care of the poor was embedded in eucharistic celebration, initially by bringing food for the sharing of what was at the earliest point a substantial meal that, unlike many banquets of the time, did not reflect social locations in portions or comestibles. Later it did so by the taking away portions of what was a still substantial meal to the housebound and imprisoned, and then later still by bringing food offerings for our familiar symbolic meal, the excess of which was distributed to the poor as substantial food. Our transformation of freewill offerings into something supporting the Church as a whole requires some correction I think, even if we do need those too. What if we said though, that a Eucharist was not valid if it did not include some effort – even if symbolic, at the actual celebration – to feed the poor? The fact that outreach is supported by our money offerings may not be clear enough; bring a food basket, bring the packed lunches going out later in the day, bring signs of the feeding program next door, make the connection between the eucharistic food and the hunger of the world.

As an aside, let me say I confess to a little unease about the juggernaut of theologizing about “abundance” I hear often; my concern or even cynicism is in response to the claim or assumption that American elites, who own most of the world’s wealth, are rapacious because of anxious about a scarcity of resources despite their actual superabundance, and thus need to be assured with noises about how much stuff there really still is for everybody. For reasons which include the lack of sustainability and moderation in our consumption, I would prefer a theology of sufficiency.

For various reasons, the engagement of the Church with the poor and hungry has become variable at best; some of the most effective feeding programs seem to have lost an ecclesial dimension in the course of being professionalized. We seem more likely now to find a non-profit hiring space in the Church to feed people, and the tenancy arrangement coming up mostly amid talk of the Church leveraging its assets, than to find the wardens serving the soup. I am sure you can offer me good exceptions, and I am not wanting to cast stones; but where this is good, we should celebrate it, and where it is not happening I suggest we need to reverse that trend and to reclaim the sacramental character of charity itself as direct action.

I am aware of the dangers that may be connected to this, but I think they are worth entertaining. And if it is not obvious enough, let me make explicit the eucharistic connection. The Mass depicts and enacts a world in which all are fed and all have enough. If we refuse to live in that world when we have communicated, we are blaspheming the Eucharist. To paraphrase Bishop Frank Weston, “You cannot claim to worship Jesus at the communion rail and refuse to serve him in the soup kitchen.”

This recognition, as well as the real answer to the “open communion dilemma,” entails understanding ourselves as just as much in need of grace and progress in holiness as those whom we serve and evangelize. This is not noblesse oblige; it is, as Sri Lankan Methodist theologian D. T Niles put it, “one beggar telling another beggar where to get food.”

Three Concluding Words: Frank, John, and Woody

These thoughts about baptism and Eucharist constitute an incomplete suggestion that I hope the Catholic wing of the Church can develop amid the ruins of civil religion. The problem with progressive Social Gospel Episcopalianism is not that it is too progressive, but rather that it is not genuinely radical enough. The Gospel makes radicals; and it is not the Church that will save our society if anything will, but God, presumably through people of all faiths and none, but including Christians whose profound understanding of the Gospel enables them to act as citizens, workers, who claim what is theirs, and the rights and needs of all.

I alluded to Frank Weston’s rallying cry at the 1923 Anglo-Catholic Congress. This kind of insight about the connection between the Eucharist and justice is an ancient one. John Chrysostom notably said, in reference to the Eucharist and to charity for the poor:

You honor this altar, because it receives Christ’s body; but the person who is the actual body of Christ you treat with contempt.... That altar you can see lying in lanes and in market places, and you can sacrifice upon it every hour; for on that too sacrifice is performed. And as the priest stands invoking the Spirit, so you invoke the Spirit, not by speech, but by deeds (Homilies on 2 Cor., 20)

So strikingly John says the Christian engaging the needs of the poor is celebrating their own Eucharist too. One corrective John and the tradition thus might offer Bishop Frank is that they did not present action for the poor as “pity,” but as worship. John suggests his well-off Christian audience needs the beggar-altar, as much as the reverse. 

So both these altars, that of the Eucharist and the bodies of the poor, are sacred places and places of social transformation. This is already the case, but we can make it plainer. Woody Guthrie’s guitar was famously emblazoned with the words “this machine kills fascists” - our chalices and monstrances and aspergilla and ciboria might all be engraved “this machine feeds the poor.”

Andrew McGowan

New Haven, CT

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