Updated: Mar 5
The Reverend Charles “Chaz” Howard is the longtime chaplain at his alma mater, the University of Pennsylvania, and a scholar and teacher of Black liberation theology. He is also a socialist, a position he feels called to take by the second chapter of the Acts of the Apostles. “I remember reading the passage about the members of the early church sharing everything in common, and it just struck me as such a deeply loving act, making sure everyone in the community had what they needed,” he says. “It felt like a critical refutation of this very selfish, hyperbolic capitalist society here in America.”
Howard was raised in traditional Black churches and was originally ordained nearly 20 years ago as a non-denominational minister. But, ever since his days in seminary, he kept finding himself worshiping in Episcopal churches. “I was of course attracted to the beautiful liturgy—the smells and bells and all that—but also to the openness that some other denominations did not have on a range of things, from LGBTQ issues to remarriage after divorce to who can be ordained as clergy,” he says. “There is definitely a range of political viewpoints within the Episcopal pews, but in just about every Episcopal congregation I have worshiped in, there were people there who moved to the denomination in a quest to be in a more progressive space.”
In 2019, Howard was ordained as an Episcopal priest, a personal step that in many ways characterizes the modern version of the denomination. Seven in 10 current Episcopalians come from different faith backgrounds, a phenomenon so pervasive that The Episcopal Handbook self-identifies the denomination as a “church of refugees.”
Some of those refugees agree with Howard’s economic and political views. “To me, the centrality of communion and the open table invitation in the Episcopal church today reflects the spirituality of socialism, even though there are clearly other words people could use to describe it.”
True enough, but socialism is exactly the word that many Anglicans and Episcopalians before Howard would have used. They too pointed to the Acts of the Apostles’ descriptions of the first Christian communities as being both profoundly socialist, and a fresh response to Jesus’ teaching that we must love our neighbors as ourselves and see Christ embodied in the poor and the sick. The early Christians were also deeply familiar with the Hebrew Bible’s many mandates to redistribute wealth. Consider Deuteronomy 24:19-22’s call to leave a portion of harvests available for the sojourner, the fatherless, and the widow, and Isaiah 10:1-2’s emphasis that the poor are not to be pitied and given alms—they have rights to be honored.
The scripture was not just aspirational: it reflected the law of the Hebrew communities, carried out in the Sabbath and Jubilee years of debt forgiveness and free access to harvests (Leviticus 25:10 and Deuteronomy 15:2). And it lines up with the consistent obligation tzedakah imposes for Jews of means to give their surplus to the poor—which many Jewish scholars say is more akin to a tax than to charity.
Not only did Christians of the Acts era live communally, their eucharistic celebrations centered around a ritual of those with abundance sharing food with those in need. The communal sharing legacy of the early Church endured for many centuries, and with it a growing engagement with the political and economic structures that dictate whether people go hungry or are homeless. As the 20th century Anglican priest and socialist Maurice Rickett said, “If you had told any typical Christian thinker in any century from the 12th to the 16th that religion had nothing to do with economics, he would either have trembled for your faith or feared for your reason. He would have regarded you, in short, as either a heretic or a lunatic.”
The modern use of the term socialism dates to early 19th century efforts led by Francois Marie Charles Fourier in France and Robert Owen in England, who separately but nearly simultaneously aimed to create a society built on cooperation and shared resources, not competition. (Owen has a U.S. connection, too, founding in 1825 a short-lived utopian socialist society in New Harmony, Indiana.) This mission resonated with Christian socialists, particularly in France, Germany, and England.
Then and now, definitions of socialism vary. To the extent they were familiar with Karl Marx’s work—much of the early Christian socialism predates him--most Christian socialists agreed with Marx’s ground-breaking analysis of the devastating impact capitalism wreaks on working people. But they parted ways when it came to Marxist antipathy to religion, and they rejected exhortations to revolution by any means. Religious socialists across Christian and other traditions more often prefer nonviolent activism and the ballot box as their chosen instruments of reform.
Sometimes that called-for reform has been the nationalization of key industries. But it just as often has been a demand for smaller-scale worker ownership of enterprises, coupled with state guarantees of universal healthcare, education, and housing. These life-and-death matters are too important to leave to secular institutions alone, Christians socialists insist. “The Church should be the primary social structure through which Christians seek to effect transformation—revolution—elsewhere in society,” Anglican priest and socialist Kenneth Leech said.
Speaking to the Society of Catholic Priests in 2019 in an address reprinted in The Hour, Berkeley Divinity School dean and Anglican priest Andrew McGowan said that fulfilling this mandate calls for venturing far beyond the narrow bandwidth of current electoral politics, particularly in the U.S. “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,” he said. “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.”
Much of the world breathes a sigh of relief at the departure of Donald Trump from the U.S. White House. But that means McGowan’s warning against Christian complacency is all the more timely, particularly when Trump’s replacement also comes from an avowedly neoliberal perspective. “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,” he said. “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.”
The Episcopal priest, socialist, and venerable historian of religion Gary Dorrien agrees, linking the legacy of Christian socialism to its agenda going forward. “Christian socialism was liberationist a century before liberation theology had a name,” he writes in the Anglican Theological Review. “It has a future as a form of liberation theology that includes everyone within the realms of grace, rights, and the beloved community.”
“The Weekly Meeting of a Society of Rebels”
Christian socialism has manifested itself across many traditions, notably in the Black Baptist, African Methodist Episcopal, and Quaker communities in the U.S., the Roman Catholic Church in France and the U.S., and Methodism in England. But the consensus among historians like Dorrien is that its most robust version can be found in the British Anglican tradition and the broader Anglican Communion in places like the U.S. and South Africa.
At first glance, this fact is surprising, given the Anglican church’s official status in England and the fact that its membership has long been concentrated among members of the upper and upper-middle classes. In the U.S., too, the Episcopal church has been characterized as “the Republican Party at prayer.” From such a foundation of privilege, how did a socialist tradition grow, often accompanied in England by equally scandalous Anglican anti-imperialism and demands to dismantle the Church of England?
Part of the answer is that most of the Anglican Communion socialist energy has come from within its Anglo-Catholic wing, which from its beginnings in the mid-19th century Oxford Movement was a departure from the Church’s dominant culture. A distinguishing characteristic of Anglo-Catholicism is its embrace of the Church’s pre-division roots and liturgical practices, including the centrality of Eucharistic worship. The rejection of Anglican orthodoxy led to even more separation: Anglo-Catholics marginalized from the more established precincts of Anglicanism planted churches in places where the Anglican tradition had been largely absent, especially impoverished urban neighborhoods. The locale-liturgy combination earned some Anglo-Catholic clergy the label of “slum priest ritualists.”
Most leaned into it, committing themselves to addressing the here-and-now needs of their new communities. “The glories of Anglo-Catholicism,” says Anglican priest and theologian Angus Ritchie, “Is its full-blooded engagement with the material world and actual (rather than idealised) communities and institutions as the place where God’s word takes flesh.”
That physical presence in poor communities helped create a sense of solidarity with the poor, often enabling Anglo-Catholics to bypass the common Christian trap of preferencing a charity-based response to class struggle, says Caleb Roberts, co-editor of The Hour. (Roberts and his co-editor Tony Hunt were interviewed by the author before there was any intention of this article being published in The Hour.) “Rather than being born out of a paternalistic desire to go and serve the poor, the political activism seemed to grow up alongside the lived experience of being in a place like the East End of London,” Roberts says. “At the same time, Anglo-Catholics’ estrangement from mainline Anglicanism disconnected them from the whole ‘chaplain to the state’ Church of England model.” Indeed, Father James Adderley, an Anglo-Catholic priest serving a poor community in London in the early 20th century, called the Eucharist “the weekly meeting of a society of rebels against a mammon-worshipping world order.”
Just as Anglo-Catholicism’s involuntary geographic concentration amongst the poor spurred engagement on a pastoral level, its separation from the Anglican church’s power base enabled more adventurous political advocacy. “Since Anglican Catholics started on the margins as a minority within the church, already facing resistance and sometimes outright persecution, they were in a position where they were less afraid to take on political critique, too,” says Tony Hunt.
That legacy of political critique helped attract left-leaning Americans like Hunt and Roberts to the Episcopal church. Hunt is the son of a Pentecostal minister, who himself tried to plant an Assemblies of God church before becoming an Episcopalian and enrolling in divinity student in St. Paul, Minnesota. Roberts is a fifth-generation Oklahoman who grew up in a Church of the Nazarene congregation and now is the rector of Grace Episcopal church in Ponca City, Oklahoma. The two met on Twitter, bonding over a shared desire to lift up the Anglican pastoral and socialist traditions they had come to embrace.
The result is The Hour, which features articles and analyses by current theologians and activists, alongside occasional reprints of works from legendary Anglican socialists like the British author R.H. Tawney and U.S. Episcopalian socialists like Vida Dutton Scudder. Scudder’s 1917 book, The Church and the Hour, is the inspiration for the magazine’s name. “Sometimes in the current era it seems that there is no way to get beyond capitalism,” Hunt says. “So we think there is value in lifting up this internal church tradition that is both coherent and compelling, and points to the fact that Christianity can exist without capitalism because it has existed without capitalism.”
Jesus as “A First-Rate Political Economist”
England’s Christian socialist movement started in the mid-19th century, when Anglican lawyer John Ludlow and Anglican priest and theologian Frederick Denison Maurice felt called to respond to unprecedented urban poverty triggered by the rise of industrial capitalism. Inspired by witnessing first-hand both the French Revolution of 1848 and the British Chartist movement for universal male suffrage, the deeply religious Ludlow recruited Maurice to the socialist cause. They were aided by the Anglican priest and celebrated novelist Charles Kingsley.
Ludlow supplied the fire to their team, sparing no mercy when indicting the ravages capitalism was inflicting on his country:
If it be necessary in English society that from 13,000 to 14,000 females should in London be engaged in slop-work, earning on an average two-pence-half-penny a day, of whom one-fourth, being those who have no husband or parent to support them, have no choice but between starvation and prostitution—if this be necessary, I say, in English society, then English society is the devil’s own work, and to hell with it as soon as
In both tone and agenda, Maurice was more moderate than Ludlow. For example, Maurice was not interested in giving uneducated working people the vote. But he was fully devoted to ensuring that society guarantee them adequate income, housing, and food.
To Maurice, a government devoted to that end was necessary to fulfill the Biblical mandate to create the Kingdom of God on earth. “I seriously believe that Christianity is the only foundation of Socialism, and that a true Socialism is the necessary result of a sound Christianity," he wrote in 1850. Maurice’s writings had a significant influence on turn-of-the-century Social Gospel leaders in the U.S., in particular Baptist minister Walter Rauschenbusch. Rauschenbusch in turn made a deep impact on Martin Luther King, Jr., who made particular use of Rauschenbusch’s description of the hoped-for Kingdom of God on earth as “the beloved community.”
The earliest Anglican socialism was a departure from the French movement that inspired Ludlow, since the French version was not as closely tied to religion. Anglican socialism also predated any significant Marxist influence in Britain. But it was radical enough to dramatically clash with the priorities of Maurice’s fellow upper-class Britons, who were quite happy to benefit from the unequal rewards of capitalism. The more pious among them touted as justification for their riches the supposedly beneficial “invisible hand” of capitalism that Adam Smith had recently espoused in The Wealth of Nations. A typical response labeled Maurice’s and Ludlow’s work as “ravings of blasphemy . . . mischievous provocations clothed in oily phrases of peace and charity.”
But, to these earliest Anglican socialists, the sacrilege was coming from the other direction. On capitalism’s core philosophy, Maurice was blunt. “I do not see my way farther than this: Competition is put forth as the law of the universe, and that is a lie.”
Maurice’s conclusion would reverberate across the Anglican landscape for decades. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, there were more than a dozen Christian socialist organizations in England. Many of the Anglican socialists of the era not only preached their beliefs, they applied them by creating settlement communities that provided housing, education, vocational training, and child care.
Two of the most influential English Christian socialist organizations were the Anglo-Catholic Guild of St. Matthew, led by Anglican priest Stewart Headlam, and the Christian Social Union (CSU), founded by Anglo-Catholics Henry Scott Holland and Charles Gore. Headlam was also a member of the mostly secular socialist Fabian Society, which counted among its membership the Irish playwright and Nobel laureate George Bernard Shaw. Shaw expressed vacillating views on religion, but that did not prevent him from finding socialism in the Gospel. “Decidedly, whether you think Jesus was God or not, you must admit he was a first-rate political economist,” Shaw wrote in his preface to Androcles and the Lion.
Holland would go on to become a divinity professor at Oxford and Gore an Anglican bishop. The CSU had as many as 6,000 members, including a sizeable fraction of the Anglican bishops of the late 19th and early centuries. In 1888, 145 Anglican bishops signed an encyclical that condemned “excessive inequality in the distribution of the world’s goods,” calling for clergy to recognize “how much of what is good and true in socialism is to be found in the precepts of Christ.”
One CSU member was Charles Freer Andrews, an Anglican priest who is best known for his support for Indian independence and close friendship with Mahatma Gandhi. (Gandhi insisted Andrews’ initials really stood for “Christ’s Faithful Apostle.”) But Andrews was also an avowed Christian socialist. “How to change human society from within, so that capitalism, with its money-greed, becomes a hateful thing to a Christian, just as usury was in the Middle Ages, and slavery was in the nineteenth century, and war is becoming to-day!” he said in 1937. “This is perhaps the greatest of all questions that the Christian who follows Christ has to face and answer in our own age."
Both the CSU and the Guild of St. Matthew adopted platforms that promoted aggressive redistribution of wealth and universal democracy. But the Guild of St. Matthew was more radical than the CSU, which one critic from the left, Anglican priest Conrad Noel, dismissed as being more talk than action: “Here’s a pressing social problem: let’s read a paper about it.” Noel could not be accused of such hesitation. After the Russian Revolution of 1918, Noel founded the Catholic Crusade, a precursor of the liberation theology movements later in the century. The Crusade’s official aim was “to encourage the rising of the people in the might of the Risen Christ and the Saints, mingling Heaven and earth that we may shatter this greedy world to bits.”
“The Bible is a Socialist Book”
By the late 19th century, the socialism of the Anglican Communion had reached across to the United States. Episcopalian and Johns Hopkins professor Richard Ely set out to reconcile the economic theories of Marxism with Christian socialism. Like most religious socialists, Ely agreed with Marxist views on the ills of capitalism but refused to support violent revolution or subscribe to an inevitable dictatorship of the proletariat. A founder of the American Economic Association, Ely was a star economist of the day, so his case for public ownership of monopolies and cooperative ownership of private enterprises resonated widely. In his most influential work, the 1889 book Social Aspects of Christianity, Ely concluded that the lesson of the Gospels was that it is impossible to justify individual wealth while our sisters and brothers struggle for the necessities of life:
If I love my neighbor as myself, my necessities are as important as his. True, but my comforts are not as important as his necessities, nor are my luxuries and superfluities as important as my neighbor’s comforts. Luxury can never be indulged in by a Christian so long as he can minister to the real well-being of others.
The Episcopal Missionary Bishop of Utah Frederick Spencer Spalding agreed with Ely, and in 1914 in the periodical Christian Socialist delivered a call for the church to embrace socialism:
The Christian Church exists for the sole purpose of saving the human race. So far, she has failed, but I think that Socialism shows her how she may succeed. It insists that men cannot be made right until the material conditions be made right. Although man cannot live by bread alone, he must have bread. Therefore, the Church must destroy a system of society which inevitably creates and perpetuates unequal and unfair conditions of life.
But socialism was never as widely accepted in the U.S. as in England, and some Episcopalian socialists paid a price for their views. Spalding’s successor in Utah, Paul Jones, in 1918 lost his appointment over his socialism and resistance to World War I, at the same time socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs went to prison for speaking out against the war. Jones would go on to help launch the pacifist Fellowship of Reconciliation and run for Governor of Ohio as a socialist.
Vida Dutton Scudder more successfully navigated the Episcopal landscape of the time. After becoming a professor of English literature at Wellesley College, Scudder helped lead the U.S. settlement house movement and joined the Episcopal women’s lay organization Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. Historian Gary Scott Smith concluded that Scudder was the principal female leader of the Episcopal church during her lifetime. She is included in the Episcopal Church U.S.A. Book of Saints and is honored with a feast day on the church’s liturgical calendar.
Scudder saw the struggle of the poor first-hand in urban centers like Boston, where she grew up, and in London, during her studies at Oxford. She also read Leo Tolstoy, Frederick Denison Maurice, and John Ruskin, who she heard lecture at Oxford. Her studies convinced her that the suffering she saw around her did not have to happen. Scudder invoked the Gospel of Matthew to call for a community of social equality and cooperation that would be “a city set on a hill.”
Scudder used her position within the church to push clergy and congregations alike to make personal commitments to ensure the well-being of all people. Her view of the Gospel message was characteristically unequivocal: “Woe is proclaimed to rich people. Possessions are described as subject to theft and corruption . . . We are distinctly bidden not to seek or accumulate them and are told it is all but impossible for a rich man to enter that social utopia, the Kingdom of heaven.”
Fulfilling Jesus’ mandate could not be achieved by mere charity, Scudder insisted. Philanthropy is “a sedative to the public conscience.” Fundraising efforts only “squeezed a little more reluctant money from comfortable classes, who groaned and gave but changed not one iota.”
Instead, she concluded, a full restructuring of society around socialist principles was called for. So, Scudder was active in the Socialist Party of America and supported striking textile workers. Following in the footsteps of 19th-century Anglican women’s rights and anti-trafficking advocate Josephine Butler, she pushed hard for women’s suffrage. Scudder said that women stood to gain the most from a cooperative society. They would leave behind the exploitation they experienced in their homes and in the workplace. And they would play a leading role in the new socialist Kingdom on earth, given their lifetime experience of building families and communities around a “cooperative method and spirit.”
One of the ways Scudder worked to build the kingdom of God on earth was helping priest William Dwight Porter Bliss found the socialist Episcopal Church of the Carpenter in Boston in 1890. Bliss also organized the Society of Christian Socialists, flatly stating, “The Bible is a socialistic book.” According to Bliss, a large majority of Episcopal clergy of his time also supported Christian socialism.
One of them was Bliss’ fellow Episcopal priest, Irwin St. John Tucker, who opposed U.S. involvement in World War I and served as managing editor of the Christian Socialist. Tucker too explained his Socialist Party membership in Gospel terms. “A man is not a Christian who does not relieve his brother’s physical distress . . . I can find nothing whatever about ‘spirituality’ in the teachings of Christ that is not intimately connected with helping others.” That made for an inextricable connection between socialism and his faith. "Socialism without Christianity is a corpse and Christianity without Socialism is little better than a ghost,” Tucker said.
Reviving the Label, “Christian Socialism”
Joshua Davis is the executive director of the Institute for Christian Socialism, which publishes The Bias magazine and hosts events highlighting activism and scholarship on religion, politics, and public policy. He also teaches Anglican theology and ethics courses at Drew School of Theology and also teaches in the Stevenson School for Ministry in the Episcopal Central Diocese of Pennsylvania. Davis became an Episcopalian after college, then went on to earn a doctorate in theology. But he decided not to pursue ordination, choosing instead to follow in the activist footsteps of socialist Anglicans before him. “I see our work at ICS as helping to revive this label of ‘Christian Socialism’ that started with F.D. Maurice and invoking the radical tradition that represents the legacy of Conrad Noel, Vida Scudder, and Stewart Headlam,” he says.
As Davis’ use of the word “revival” suggests, he does not see that tradition being widely represented these days. “My experience is that the U.S. Episcopal church is really dominated now by a managerial class perspective, which is a real contrast with the approach of Vida Scudder and others from prior eras,” he says.
While there is not a deep recent Episcopal socialist tradition, a notable exception is Pauli Murray, who had a remarkably varied and deep career of activism and service. Many of the leaders of the U.S. civil rights movement were Christian socialists, including well-known names like A. Phillip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King, Jr., whose socialist beliefs were largely shielded from public view. Murray worked alongside Randolph in his organizing campaigns, helped devise the constitutional argument to overturn the doctrine of “separate but equal.” She became the first African American woman to be ordained an Episcopal priest and co-founded the National Organization of Women (NOW). Thurgood Marshall called Murray’s 1951 book, State’s Laws on Race and Color, the Bible for civil rights lawyers. In 2012, Murray was elevated to the pantheon of Saints of the Episcopal Church.
More recently, Gary Dorrien, an Episcopal priest and Reinhold Niebuhr Professor of Social Ethics at Union Theological Seminary, has provided a far-reaching voice of Anglican socialism. Dorrien has written 20 books and 300-plus articles, many of them engaging with progressive theology and religious activism, including religious socialism. His award-winning volumes include Breaking White Supremacy: Martin Luther King Jr. and the Black Social Gospel; The New Abolition: W. E. B. Du Bois and the Black Social Gospel; and Social Democracy in the Making: Political and Religious Roots of European Socialism. The latter includes rich descriptions of the work of Anglican socialists like Maurice, Ludlow, Headlam, et al. Dorrien is currently completing a book on the history of American democratic socialism. Cornel West calls Dorrien “the preeminent social ethicist in North America today,” and philosopher Robert Neville says Dorrien is “the most rigorous theological historian of our time.”
Dorrien is a longtime participant in the Religion and Socialism Working Group of the Democratic Socialists of America and serves on the advisory board of the Institute for Christian Socialism. He has written in favor of combining cooperative worker ownership of industry with government ownership of some large-scale enterprises.
But Davis can attest that worker leadership is not necessarily embraced at the highest levels of the church. In 2014, he was on the faculty of the General Theological Seminary in New York, the Episcopal Church’s oldest seminary, when most of its full-time faculty members went on strike in protest of statements by its dean and president. All of the faculty who went on strike, including Davis, were subsequently replaced.
“That experience was formative in my political evolution, but I had already accepted the criticisms of capitalism: how enslaving capitalism is, the way it constrains our actions and is destructive of our environment and human vitality,” he says. “Knowing all that, I had to ask myself, ‘What does it look like to be a part of this church?’ And this work with the Institute for Christian Socialism is the way I concluded was the best way for me to serve the church.”
Anglican Socialists Creating the Welfare State
Davis and other Episcopalian socialists take heart in the impact that their counterparts in England had, particularly during the 20th century. R. H. Tawney and William Temple, classmates and friends at Balliol College, Oxford, went on to shape not just British Christian socialism but the nation’s political economy. Tawney’s 1920 book The Acquisitive Society was widely read and so impactful that it is credited with helping bring the Labour Party, in which Tawney had long been active, to power. The capitalist society the book’s title calls out corrupts everyone subject to its warped, un-Christian priorities. “It makes the individual the centre of his own universe, and dissolves moral principles into a choice of expediences,” Tawney wrote. The remedy, he said, is an abolition of inherited wealth and income to be earned only by services, not by rents or interest on money lent.
When scholars and politicians then and now wring their hands over economic equality, they have their focus backwards, Tawney said. “What thoughtful rich people call the problem of poverty, thoughtful poor people with equal justice call the problem of riches.” Later, in Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, Tawney chastised the church for allowing individual greed to govern society, thus “convert(ing) a natural frailty into a resounding virtue.”
His friend Temple agreed. “Socialism is the economic realization of the Christian Gospel,” he said. “The alternative stands before us—Socialism or Heresy; we are involved in one or the other.” By 1942, Temple would come to occupy the highest role in the Anglican Communion, Archbishop of Canterbury. Along the way, he wrote Christianity and Social Order, invoking Thomas Aquinas’ call for economic energies to be devoted first to common needs, not individual gains. That meant England must prioritize universal access to healthcare, education, and good housing, said Temple, who is widely credited for coining the term “welfare state.”
Like Tawney, Temple’s pen and voice helped create the political atmosphere for his goals to be partly achieved. It was a level of direct impact that Christian socialists have rarely enjoyed in the U.S. or other nations, Gary Dorrien writes. “The British Christian socialists played a valuable role in establishing a social democratic standard of social decency in Britain. They did it by sticking close to the ground, featuring their ethical convictions, being unapologetically political, and speaking theologically in public.” Shortly after Temple’s sudden death in 1944, the Labour Party he supported took control. It quickly adopted many of the socialist policies he called for, including the National Health Service, a progressive income tax, and a boost in housing support.
Shortly after Tawney’s death, the Anglican priest, activist, and self-described community theologian Kenneth Leech began his ministry. “I became a Christian and a socialist at the same time,” Leech said. “And, in my innocence, for a while as a teenager, assumed that all Christians were bound to be socialists!” As a young priest living in an impoverished area of London, Leech decided that both his Christian and socialist identities demanded a tangible response to the human struggles all around him. In 1969, he co-founded in central London a homeless charity and shelter called Centrepoint, which continues to be a vibrant force for access to housing. “At the end of the day, the churches’ authenticity and faithfulness to the gospel can only be judged in action,” Leech said, citing Matthew 7:16. “It is by our fruits, not our words, that we will be judged.”
Beyond the fruits created by direct service, Leech said the church’s action must also call out the societal structures that cause people to be homeless and hungry in the first place. In fact, the name Centrepoint deliberately mimicked the name of an expensive high-rise that stood vacant in the neighborhood, shamefully looming over Londoners sleeping in the streets below. Capitalism is based on the moral sin of avarice, Leech said. “Today we are in conflict with a Mammon-worshipping world order which pays lip service to the residue of a Christian vocabulary, while denying its meaning and significance at every important point.”
In an effort to flip that script, Leech and other Christian socialists founded the Jubilee Group. Among its members was Rowan Williams, who would follow in William Temple’s footsteps to become an avowedly socialist Archbishop of Canterbury. This was the network that Leech and others leaned on as they spoke out against militarism and inequality in broader society, while also confronting discrimination on the basis of race, gender, and sexual orientation inside and outside the Anglican Communion.
Leech, like most of the Jubilee Group, was an Anglo-Catholic, and he was proud of its deep connections to the lived reality of real people. “Anglo-Catholic social vision has always been worked out in the back streets, in specific neighborhoods, in and through involvement with very concrete struggles,” he said. But, characteristically, Leech did not hesitate to call out the sexist, nationalist, homophobic and hierarchical elements in its roots. And he decried what he saw as the erosion of the radical social and political character of the movement. In a 1994 article unsubtly entitled “Anglican Catholicism in Decay: The Trivializing of a Great Tradition,” Leech expressed sadness at what he saw as a “ghetto subculture” replacing a shared commitment to justice:
When George Orwell described Anglo-Catholicism as the ecclesiastic equivalent of Trotskyism, he was identifying something more profound than he realised. For in both traditions one sees the captivity to the past, meticulous devotion to the sacred text, the fetishism of correctness in all things, the utter conviction of one’s own doctrinal purity, and the sectarian temptation to cultivate a world within a world.
In 2000, by then in his sixties, Leech mused that he had not strayed far from his teenage conclusion about both Christianity and socialism. “If I stopped being a Christian I would still be a socialist. I am not sure if I stopped being a socialist, I would, could, still be a Christian,” he wrote. He concluded the essay by invoking the words of the martyred Polish activist Rosa Luxemburg: “And, by the way, I think that ‘socialism or barbarism’ is still the issue.”
Nothing to Whisper About
The legendary Archbishop Desmond Tutu is best known for his leadership in the struggle against South African apartheid, followed by shepherding the nation through its remarkable truth and reconciliation response to its legacy of institutionalized racism. The Archbishop Emeritus of Cape Town and Nobel Peace Prize winner is also an avowed socialist. "All my experiences with capitalism, I'm afraid, have indicated that it encourages some of the worst features in people. Eat or be eaten. It is underlined by the survival of the fittest. I can't buy that. I mean, maybe it's the awful face of capitalism, but I haven't seen the other face," he said in 1986. At the same time, Tutu has consistently opposed any Marxist approach that was based in atheism. "My political position is really quite simple. My own position is one that is due not to a political ideology. My position is due to my faith, my Christian faith and anything that I believe is inconsistent with the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ I will say it is wrong and has to be condemned,” he said.
That is the necessary, prophetic role for religious persons, Tutu said: insisting that political and economic systems live up to the ideas of our respective scriptures. “All I long for is a society that would be compassionate. A society that would be sharing. A society that would be caring,” he said. “Now you can say to me, and I will admit it, that we have not seen an incarnation of that kind of society, the kind that you talk about. But we are ministers, we leave it to others to try to put flesh onto the dreams that we try to dream."
That is why Episcopal priest and campus chaplain Chaz Howard decided to join Tutu as an Anglican communion minister committed to dreaming of a better society. He, along with Tony Hunt, Caleb Roberts, Joshua Davis and others are taking their place within the wide range of political views in the modern Episcopal church. “Every Episcopalian I know would want to hammer home the existence of real diversity of political and social thought within Episcopalian pews,” Howard says. “Clearly there are Republican Episcopalians, liberal democratic Episcopalians, socialist Episcopalians. I know Episcopalians who voted for Trump, and I know some who were hardcore Bernie Sanders folks.
“And that's a part of the Episcopal churches’ goal to be this kind of middle way, big tent, which is very different from some churches’ hardcore ‘our way or the highway’ approach. Which makes the church a place that is more open to liberal, leftist choices, including being a Christian socialist.”
Howard points out that there is a lot of current momentum behind socialism in the U.S. Sanders won more presidential votes than any socialist candidate in history, and the Democratic Socialists of America enjoys record-high membership numbers. Religious socialists like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Cornel West are national leaders in politics and popular philosophy. With the Cold War fading into the rear view and aggressive government responses forming the core of the Covid responses, majorities of young Americans and Americans of color report favorable views of socialism.
But Chaz Howard cautions that there is still a lot of fear and misunderstanding of socialism in the U.S. During the 2020 election season, one of Howard’s neighbors posted a “Socialism Has No Home Here” sign. Howard noticed it, but he continued on. “The retort is that if caring for the poor and working for peace and to save the planet is socialism, then fine,” he says. “It’s not the sort of thing we need to whisper about.”
Fran Quigley is the director of the Health and Human Rights Clinic at Indiana University McKinney School of Law, and the author of Religious Socialism: Faith in Action for a Better World (Orbis Books, Fall 2021).