One of the downsides of an MDiv program allowing a surfeit of electives is that it indicates a school doesn’t have a very clear idea of what kind of intellectual and spiritual formation it desires to produce. But the upside is that I have been able to organize some independent studies for myself on topics of my own choosing. This last semester I managed to find an instructor who was willing to supervise me for a study in Anglican socialism. So I went about constructing a schedule of reading.
I’ll never forget something the Pentecostal scholar Gordon Fee once wrote about how he approached commentary writing. He spent all of his time in the first months focused exclusively on primary sources. Even cautioning that the BDAG (the preeminent New Testament Greek lexicon) is a secondary source. When you’re familiar with primary sources you’ll be better able to engage critically with the secondary ones.
This is the approach I have taken to my own studies ever since and it guided how I structured this class. It was to be a reading-intensive class. Rather than produce a paper I would create an annotated bibliography, on which I could draw for future study. Additionally it would give me the bones necessary to construct a syllabus for teaching. Later I could fill in the historical gaps with the literature, better prepared to contest their readings where necessary - historians so often being plagued by a tin ear for theology.
Little by little I amassed a gigantic reading list. I was going to devour every important work by every major actor in the genre from F. D. Maurice to Kenneth Leech. And little by little my supervisors, friends, and enemies suggested I whittle down the list to something more manageable. With deep regret I complied, and decided to cut bishop Westcott, reformist socialists, and anything after William Temple. This was just before a global pandemic shut down my access to the school library. With almost no warning we were forbidden to enter, and several of the books I had intended to read sat untouched in my carrel. My personal chapel of knowledge being consigned to dust collection for the foreseeable future, I applied myself to such works as I could gather over the internet. Unfortunately late-Victorian Anglican socialism is not a lively field of study and I was forced to supplement my digital archive with some works I had on hand at home. So a dash of Charles Gore was back on the menu, and I added an essay by Gerrard Winstanley to the mix as well (and how fortunate that I did!).
For the most part all I really wanted was an eagle’s eye view of the field, but there was one little question that kept nagging at me: Why was it that, when it came specifically to Christian socialism, the majority of players were anglo-catholics? Does it not suggest some kind of connection? Broadly speaking Anglicans were not labor leaders. Secularists, methodists, and other non-conformists played a role in organizing as well. But mine wasn’t a study, strictly speaking, in English socialism. If it were I would’ve included William Morris, the architect of arts and crafts communism. I had to constrict myself to smaller questions. In order to answer this question I began the class with a study on relevant Tracts for the Times, hoping to discover something within their digital pages (It is outrageous there is not a proper edition of the Tracts in print).
The Tracts did not surprise me with anything. I had read most of them before anyway. But I saw their protest in a new light. The Tracts are not anti-institutional in any way. Several lament the loss of prestige and favor the Church of England had suffered in recent years. The key, as I see it, lies in their polemical furor over the encroaching reach of an increasingly non-Anglican state. Why should a non-believer, or worse - a presbyterian - have any say in how dioceses are organized? The church’s authority is not derived from the political realm but directly from the apostles, they said. So while disestablishment would have been viewed as a catastrophe, their adamance about the priority and independence of episcopal authority set the Church of England against the government of England. This is a tactic that would be used by those who came after.
I chose not to do much with the slum ritualists. But in my defense few wrote any significant works, and few were quite the social advocates we remember them to be. Most of the ritualists were not in east London but in middle class suburbs, and those who were, while they did of course do social work in neighborhoods long neglected by the C of E, were not particularly radical in politics. But for my study their significance lies in the fact that they continued the anglo-catholic penchant for protest; only in this case they protested their own bishops. In the ritualist controversy we see anglo-catholicism expand its willingness to question not only its political, but its ecclesial authority - Ironic though it may be! To be anglo-catholic came to be seen as being unmanly, and unenglish. The anglo-catholic socialists, then, were quite used to being a beleaguered minority voice in their society and even in their own church. Without this antagonistic identity, it seems to me we cannot make full sense of the connection between their politics and their religion.
Not that all anglo-catholics were socialists. Indeed few were. The Church of England was willing to talk a big game at times for “social reforms,” but by and large the establishment was quite happy to keep the establishment afloat. It moralized the poor and drew distinctions between “deserving” and “undeserving” members of the lower class. It judged working class entertainment. It weaponized the catechism against labor "overreach," believing everyone in society had a “place.” One should not fight against one’s betters. Social hierarchy is God-ordained, and so it is nearly a sin to battle against it.
Secularists exploited this to great effect. The state’s religion clearly wanted to keep people oppressed. Anyone who allied with the Anglicans allied with drawing room bishops and capitalists. Anglican socialists therefore often found themselves on the side of the atheists, which only further discredited them in the eyes of their ecclesiastical leaders. Stewart Headlam, for example, was denied a license by a series of London bishops and was never able to hold down a parish position for his association with the irreligious, and with ballerinas.
Figures like Headlam, Percy Dearmer, and Conrad Noel often wrote apologies to both sides. To the secularists they said, Christianity is with you; the catholic faith, properly understood, demands christians become socialists. This was a position they had to make to their own church as well. If you’re a christian, they said, you needed to be a socialist. Jesus, the apostles, and church history confirmed it.
They inherited this conviction from F. D. Maurice, a controversial figure from earlier in the 19th century. Maurice’s Kingdom of Christ attempted to synthesize the primitive insights, as he saw them, of all the major reformed schools into a vision of a universal, spiritual kingdom. The Lutherans, the Calvinists; even Zwingli, the Quakers, and Unitarians were all really on the same page, but bad religion had crept in to dull the power of their initial revelations. Maurice argued in the book that bishops, liturgy, and the sacraments were necessary elements of this kingdom, but did not equate this “catholicism” with the Roman Catholic Church. Though in the early years of the Oxford Movement Maurice was a supporter, in time he came to hate their dogmatism, and the way some reveled in damnation and otherworldliness. Several of the anglo-catholic socialists got their understanding of “catholicism” as much from Maurice as from the Tractarians.
Maurice was a high-Tory paternalist whose christian socialism was just fine with inherited position and social hierarchy. He was influenced particularly by the utopian socialists and prized “co-operation” over “competition.” I saw this framing run right through most of the people I read. As marxist socialism became more influential in England, some maurician disciples quietly adopted more radical politics but rarely repudiated their master. What socialism meant was hotly contested and fluid at the time, and our figures often alternated from preaching co-operatives, to georgian land tax, to industry nationalisation.
I am trying to avoid giving a mere history lesson here. There are several books and essays that make for more complete reading than what I can offer, and I will list some of them below. But I feel like what I’ve said helpfully contextualizes the bibliography I will be sharing. I’ve mentioned the Oxford Movement connection, the ritualist antagonism toward the bishops, the influence of Maurice, and the relationship of our socialists to the secularists and to the state church.
I make no claims to comprehension. It was with regret that I didn’t even make it to William Temple, let alone the mid-century resistance to South African apartheid and the emergence in Britain of the Jubilee Group. The pre-19th C English radical tradition is absolutely worth exploring more. The history of Wat Tyler and John Ball could be added to political tracts by Tyndale, the Levelers, and Winstanley. I am keenly aware of the fact that Vida Scudder is the only woman to appear on the list. It’s not because women weren’t important in Anglican socialist work, only that I focused this course on what we might call “theorists.” A broader course would need to include more of those who labored on the lines, which included a great number of women's religious orders.
Scudder is more often taught in American history courses than in seminaries, which is a shame because her socialist writing is perceptive and lovely. Another American, the eccentric Frederic Hastings Smyth, manages to lucidly and creatively synthesize marxism and thomism in unexpected ways. His great Manhood Into God is rather difficult to find, and it was long enough and late enough that I didn’t have time to read it for this class. Over the summer I’ve spent more time with it and absolutely consider it worth reading. I managed to digitize a shorter book of his before the library shut down, but it would be nice to have even a pdf of Manhood Into God. Frances Perkins, labor secretary for FDR, was at least for a short while a socialist, and belongs to this American story as well.
If I were doing this class over again I’d probably leave out Noel’s Life of Christ entirely and add something by the guild socialist John Neville Figgis. I’d give more attention to Henry George and T.H. Green for their influence. There would need to be a section on Marx’s reception, which was more sympathetic in America than in England for the most part. Ruskin is central to the figures of the time in a way I didn’t realize and I should’ve spent some time in Fors Clavigera.
Not unlike the way Maurice was modified strongly by his disciples without coming in for explicit critique, I noticed Ruskin peeping in from beneath the covers of, say, R. H. Tawney’s The Acquisitive Society. Yet without ever saying so, Tawney corrects him. Where Ruskin championed the captains of industry, social hierarchy, paternalism, inherited wealth & property, Tawney argues for their elimination, advocating for social equality, and self-rule for industry in a coalition of manager and laborer, with stringent limits on investment returns and brutal taxes on inheritance. Scudder too was a disciple of Ruskin, even producing an entire book on his thought, but in the end she found him moralistic, anti-democratic, and inimical to socialism. To be fair, he’d probably say the same! But as recent work by Eugene McCarraher indicates, Ruskin can still be drawn on fruitfully for socialist thinking.
I was often surprised in my reading, and encouraged. The Anglican socialists were violently anti-imperialist, and enthusiastically embraced the belief that capitalism and imperialism were fundamentally linked. Though they failed to make the connection of capitalism with slavery and race. But many called for disestablishment of the C of E, firmly believing that its official status only prevented it from taking the Gospel of liberation seriously.
Going in I had expected to encounter a great deal of naive nostalgia for the Middle Ages, but I’m convinced they are read wrongly in that respect. Figgis and Tawney broke important historical ground on the political and economic shifts of the late middle ages, and even someone as untrained as Noel looks to the period less as something to uncritically reinstate and more as proof that Christianity and capitalism are not ontologically linked, as many peers in the Anglican church supposed. Noel preached carnival and picket lines, not masculinity and Latin masses.
I didn’t create my study because I think Anglican socialism is the best socialism, or more important than the wider labor movement, or any of that. But ressourcement is one of the primary motivating factors behind this magazine. There isn’t any one position among them we have only to adopt. The point isn’t to simply regurgitate the beliefs of our progenitors indiscriminately. It’s to situate ourselves inside of an historical body to which we are accountable, and a tradition from which we can draw. We make no claims to be The Representative of The Tradition. Christian socialism goes back much further than modern socialism and still has something to say to our current situation.
If you were looking for an essay-length introduction to our topic, I happen to know that the Anglican Theological Review is going to publish an essay by Gary Dorrien on it in the Fall 2020 issue. I’ve read it and it’s great. It is too bad the Americans aren’t represented but I suppose he’ll rectify that as soon as the next volume of his history of social democracy comes out.
Peter d’A. Jones’ The Christian Socialist Revival: 1877-1914 is an excellent book length treatment. It’s incredibly well-organized and I think the way he frames the middle section around the Guild of St. Matthew, the Christian Social Union, and the Church Socialist League is fantastic. Plus his bibliography is extensive.
For an up close look at a central figure with plenty of context for the larger movement of the time, John Richard Orens’ Stewart Headlam’s Radical Anglicanism: The Mass, the Masses, and the Music Hall is short and riveting.
Without claiming to have now become an expert, I close with a list of suggestions for people wanting to make an initial foray into the primary sources.
Percy Dearmer, Patriotism
Stewart Headlam, The Socialist’s Church
F. D. Maurice, Tract (1) on Christian Socialism
Conrad Noel, Socialism in Church History
- The Battle of the Flags: A Study in Christian Politics
Vida Scudder, Socialism and Character
- Social Teachings of the Church Year
R. H. Tawney, The Acquisitive Society
- Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness