Radical roots and broad shoulders

2014-04-11_16.19.33.jpgI’ve an admission to make. I’m not at work this afternoon. I was, but I’m not now. Andy has gone down to Spring Harvest and I’m supposed to be manning the office, keeping the ship on an even keel and all that.

But I’m not there.

Oh, I forwarded the phone and email to my mobile. So I’m virtually there. But in reality, I’m sat in the pub. It’s a lovely old-fashioned pub with photographs of music hall performers on the walls, a working polyphon in the corner and even a photo of the Queen mum pulling a pint behind that very bar. I would bet that, barring the odd flat screen tv, the place has changed very little in 50 or 60 years.

Upstairs, there’s a dining room with a few tables in there, probably enough seats for 20 or so people. It’s called the ‘Empire2014-04-11_16.19.52.jpg Theatre Bar’ which is very evocative but somewhat confusing as we’re nowhere near a theatre. There may once have been one over the road, but now all I can see is the side of one of the world’s most famous hospitals. Maybe they mean surgical theatres. Again, it feels like it’s changed little since the 50s. Maybe a coat of paint or lick of varnish, but otherwise it’s easy to picture people having sat here decades ago doing much the same as me. Ok, I’m doing it on an ipad which would blow their minds, but still the principle is much the same. There’s continuity there. And that’s what I came looking for.

There’s something that’s been niggling at me for a few months now. Our launch as Christians on the Left since 5th November last year has been very successful. Our website, phones, and staff are busier than ever. Doors that we couldn’t even see have now opened to us, Narnia-style. Our reputation – always positive – continues to grow exponentially. In short, we’re doing pretty well. Stephen Timms, our chair, and Andy Flannagan, our director, can stand tall at the front of packed events -in Stephen’s case, very tall.

But my niggle is that there will be some people who think we’ve just burst onto the scene with a lot of energy and really nice logo on Guy Fawkes’ night.  I love the compliments, the feedback, the general mood about where we are and what we’re doing . It’s all great.  But – and I think this is the curse of a history degree – I wonder how many people are loving what we do without realising where we’ve come from.

The roots of Christians on the Left are both deep and broad. No matter what our name is changed to, those roots are strong and going nowhere.

It might surprise you to know they go back, not to last November, but hundreds of years...

Of course, we can and do take our roots back to 1st century Palestine and the teachings of Jesus.

Mark 1: 14-15 says ‘Jesus came into Galilee preaching the Gospel of God and saying “the time is fulfilled and the Kingdom of God is at hand.”

The phrase ‘the Kingdom of God’ sums up the social hope of the Old Testament for an actual corporate society upon earth in which all men should be judged of equal value, in which there should be no exploitation or oppression but complete justice between all people, a Kingdom in which the will of God was perfectly fulfilled.

Before the birth of Jesus, came the Magnificat where Mary said that Jesus would cast down the mighty from their seats, to send the rich empty away and to fill the hungry with good things. When Jesus was presented in the Temple, Simeon sang that Jesus would be the glory of his people Israel and a light to lighten all the nations of the world.  These two songs indicate that the Kingdom was to be established on behalf of the poor and humble and that it was not to be national but international.

Basic to the whole teaching of Jesus is the idea that you cannot serve God and Mammon. The beatitudes (Matthew 5) show something of the character workers for the Kingdom must assume and especially interesting are the remarks that the Kingdom is to be inherited by the poor and that the meek (those prepared to share with their brothers and sisters and keep their place as one of a community) shall inherit not the sky but the earth.

The early Church, of course, shared their goods in common and did so for many decades. There are some who said that this model of living and Church failed quickly. The Jerusalem Church did indeed flee to Pella in AD68, however the basing of society on sharing for the common good in other parts of the Roman Empire, including the capital itself continued despite the difficulties and early Christian writers were clear that this was how Church should live. Irenaeus in the 2nd century said ‘instead of the law enjoining the giving of tithes, He told us to share all our possessions with the poor’. 

Cyril of Jerusalem in his Catechical Lectures (AD 362) looked back on the early church and said:

‘So great also was the grace of the Holy Spirit which wrought by means of the twelve apostles in them who believed, that they were of one heart and one soul and the enjoyment of their goods was common, the possessors piously offering the prices of their possessions and no one among them wanting aught.

‘That is a lovely saying, “Grace was upon them all.” The cause of this grace was, there was none that lacked. This means that the zeal of the giver was so great that none lacked … if this were done now our lives would be altogether happier, be we rich or poor. It would bring as much happiness to the rich as to the poor. If this were clear now, we should live more pleasant lives, both rich and poor … should we not make heaven on earth?’

So we know this model of living and of being Church was still thought of as the norm well into the fourth century and the time of Augustine. 

The Church in the mediaeval world of Augustine and Ambrose concentrated on controlling the excesses of a social order based on fundamental injustices. From that arose the doctrine of the just price which laid down that it was unlawful to sell a thing for more than it was worth or to buy it for less and that prices must be fixed by the cost of production. Usury was absolutely forbidden to Christians as money existed only for exchange and was not fecund.

That the common good was the only proper measure of human society was again laid down by Thomas Aquinas in discussing tyrannical government when he insisted:

“A tyrannical government is not just because it is directed, not to the common good, but to the private good of the ruler … Therefore there is no sedition in disturbing a government of this kind, unless indeed, the tyrants’ rule be disturbed so inordinately, that his subjects suffer great harm from the consequent disturbance than from the tyrant’s government. Indeed it is the tyrant that is guilty of sedition.”

Today, we still refer back to Aquinas’s teaching as Anna Rowlands did in the 2014 Tawney dialogue.

As we move forward through the history of the Church, we come to the reformation where almsgiving was substituted for sharing and Christian stewardship. Many sects arose to the left of Calvin and Luther demanding the sharing of goods and greater fairness and equality. The tradition which associated Christians with sharing never completely died away in Britain and it was a feature of the peasants’ revolts of the middle ages.  In 1646, the Levellers came forward. In their famous pamphlet The Light Shining in Buckinghamshire, they demanded a commonwealth ‘after the pattern of the Bible in which the land would be the property of all’ following on from the theme of Thomas More in Utopia.

The two centuries that followed the restoration are somewhat bereft of Christian Socialism, it having been cast out with Dissent. William Blake wrote:

“To defend the Bible in this year 1798 would cost a man his life.”

By the end of the peninsula wars, a spirit of fairness was seeping through the Church again with George Bull able to write of ‘The oppressors of the Poor and the Poor their own oppressors’, damning the oppressors in the language of the Old Testament. Bishop Barrington of Durham wrote in the 1820s of co-operatives; William King started co-operatives in Brighton and published the co-operator; George Loveless, leader of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, was a Methodist local preacher; the vicar of Warwick was chief among the supporters of the Martyrs; the supporters of Owen included many Christians including John Rabine who used the phrase ‘Christian Socialists’ in 1837; there was even a Chartist church in Birmingham. The tide was turning again.

The modern history of our movement begins mostly obviously in 1848 when the Chartist demonstration on Kennington Common let to a meeting between Frederick Denison Maurice, Charles Kingsley, and John Ludlow which started the movement and launched Politics for the People. They were joined by Thomas Hughes, Edward Vansittart Neale, and others. Maurice was the undoubted leader of the movement and a leading theologian of the day. Kingsley became the man who interpreted the language of Maurice and made him more widely accessible, and Ludlow was the politician of the movement.

It was a movement, and not an organisation, based on the idea that co-operation and not competition is natural to humans under the creation of God. Its leaders supported the political aspirations of working class organisations and founded a number of ‘Working Men’s Associations’ for co-operative products. Neale was the founder of the Co-operative Wholesale Assocation.

Maurice and Kingsley played a large part in forming the Working Men’s College and in promoting women’s education. It was the aim of the movement to ‘Christianise Socialism and to socialise Christianity’.

In the coming decades there were founded a number of organisations side-by-side including the Guild of St Matthew, the Christian Social Union, the Church Socialist League, the Catholic Crusade, the League of the Kingdom of God, the Society of Socialist Christians, the Socialist Quaker Society, the Free Church Socialist League with varying degrees of success. In 1930, a group of MPs led a Christian Socialist Crusade which merged with the Society of Socialist Christians to form the Socialist Christian League which then included George Lansbury, Lewis Donaldson, Dr Salter, and RH Tawney among it’s members.

These societies either died away or merged with one another over the years until the Socialist Christian League and the Society of Socialist Clergy and Ministers were the two leading groups. At the Malvern conference of 1941, chaired by William Temple, passed a resolution saying:

“in our present situation, we believe that the maintenance of that part of the structure of our society by which the ultimate ownership of the principal resources of the community can be vested in the hands of private owners may be a stumbling block making it harder for men to live Christian lives.”

It was this conference which is regarded as the start of a movement that persuaded many traditional members of the Church of England to press for a welfare state. A proud achievement for any group one would think.

After the Attlee government of 1952, these Christian societies began discussions which culminated in the Socialist Christian League and the Society of Socialist Clergy, along with many like-minded individuals coming together over a period of two years in the upstairs room of a Bloomsbury pub and hammering out six policy documents in a publication called Papers from 2014-04-11_16.16.58.jpgthe Lamb.

They also in that room in 1960 came together to form the Christian Socialist Movement whose first chair was Donald Soper.

And so, here I sit, in the upper room of the Lamb on a sunny April day 55 years after our founder members first sat splitting into sub-committees and discussion groups to talk about common ownership, equality, international peace, Christian unity, Christians in Soviet Russia, and the obligations of prayer and of thought. I sit here and can feel the history of a whole movement in this small room. And I’m struck by the fact that those six topics chosen by our founder members are still prevalent today. We’re still discussing equality, peace, unity, and the common good. Even the actions of Moscow are still in our news. 

After a couple of hours drifting through the history of our movement, I’m brought back to the 21st century by a familiar noise. As the kitchen sends food down to the bar, they’re ringing a bell. It’s the Westminster Quarters and I’m struck by the fact we’ve come from meeting in a bar to meeting and working in the houses of parliament where those chimes ring out every 15 minutes.  In the clock room in Parliament, is inscribed the prayer ‘All through this hour/Lord, be my guide/And by Thy power/No foot shall slide. A great prayer to keep you on the right path, and one that is sent up every 15 minutes from Parliament. And apparently, from this pub whenever a meal is ready for a hungry tourist.

I hope that next time you’re at a Christians on the Left event and you see Andy, Stephen, or even myself stood tall at the front, that you remember that we stand there proudly as Christians on the Left looking to the future, but we do so standing on the shoulders of giants.

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commented 2014-04-18 12:06:37 +0100 · Flag
I think you missed out Joseph Arch of Barford, founder of the National Agricultural Labourers Union and Methodist lay-preacher. Also, shouldn’t William Booth and the Salvation Army get a mention?