Comrades in Christ

Possible Dreams
August 16, 1996

Half the shadow cabinet are now members of the Christian Socialist Movement. At a time when Christianity is allegedly in decline in Britain, it is ironical that the influence of Christian socialism in the world of party politics has never been greater. It is an opportune moment to trace its history and assess what a socialist vision with a Christian foundation might have to offer society today. It is this which Chris Bryant gives, in a well informed and readable manner, in Possible Dreams.

After looking briefly back at "posthumous comrades", John Ball the 14th-century radical priest, the levellers and diggers of Cromwell's army and the Methodists who supported the Tolpuddle martyrs, Bryant looks at F. D. Maurice, Charles Kingsley and John Ludlow. For it was Maurice in 1850 who coined and adopted the title which gave the movement its name. As he wrote to Ludlow: "We must not beat about the bush. What right have we to address the English people? We must have something special to tell them, or we ought not to speak. 'Tracts on Christian Socialism' is, it seems to me, the only title which will define our object."

The Guild of St Matthew led by the remarkable Stewart Headlam carried on the flame. Like so much subsequent Christian socialism it pursued two aims, to argue for a sacramental Christianity and to get the issues of the day considered in the light of the Incarnation. The guild gained some notoriety because of Headlam's championing of the theatre and the arts but its politics were clear-headed enough. As Shuttleworth, a London vicar, put it: "Poverty is not a mysterious dispensation of Providence, which, for some inscrutable reason, is the stern lot of the majority of our race; but an evil, brought about by causes which can be remedied."

The guild was the first explicitly socialist organisation in Britain, beating the Fabians and others to it with its adoption of socialist principles early in 1884.

The guild started in the slums of Bethnal Green and was driven by passionate curates who found it difficult to get work in most parishes. The Christian Social Union, formed in 1889, was different in many ways. At its peak it had more than 6,000 members and claimed 16 out of 53 episcopal appointments. These included the great names of Charles Gore, Edward Talbot and Brooke Westcott. The leading light, however, was another remarkable priest, Henry Scott Holland, now best known for his words which are so often used at memorial services. It was the CSU, with its distinguished membership, which began to get the whole church to take social issues seriously. The great dock strike of 1888 was a test for this socialism and a number of congregations gave practical support. The key figure was, however, a Roman Catholic, the 81-year-old Cardinal Manning. Bryant quite rightly considers not only his role but the papal encyclicals from that time to the present. Although a number of the early encyclicals condemned socialism in uncompromising terms, in fact they supported many of the specific demands for which Christian socialists worked.

One of Bryant's concerns is to show the influence of Christianity on the political ideologies of practising politicians. This begins with Keir Hardie, who said: "The impetus which drove me first of all into the Labour movement and the inspiration which has carried me on in it, has been derived more from the teaching of Jesus of Nazareth than all the other sources combined." The story continued through a long line including George Lansbury and Stafford Cripps to the present day. Together with this Bryant traces the rise and demise of various Christian socialist organisations which sought to influence the church and country as a whole through speeches, pamphlets and books. He looks at the Christian Socialist League and the Christendom group, for example, remarkable priests such as Conrad Noel and Father Groser and influential thinkers like the political philosopher John MacMurray, to whose writings Tony Blair was introduced as an undergraduate at Oxford. The influence of this movement was probably at its height in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s through the influence of the "two boys from Rugby", William Temple and R. H. Tawney. Both were highly respected. Temple's book, Christianity and the Social Order, came out as a Penguin special and sold more than 150,000 copies. The political programme which Temple set out, and which Bryant quotes in full, has not yet been achieved but is still a worthy imperative. Bryant writes about Temple and Tawney that "Jointly they bequeathed a social ethic that informed the welfare state and formed the basis of the social consensus from the end of the second world war through to the new politics of Thatcherism."

Bryant subtitles his book "A personal history of the British Christian Socialists". It does not set out to be systematic or comprehensive, as he himself admits and it reflects his own concerns. His method is to give a brief sketch of a leading figure, with an indication of how they understood Christian socialism. In addition to familiar figures and organisations he gives space to some aspects of the movement that have not been covered before, for example the Society of Socialist Christians, which was one of the main groupings from 1923 until the formation of the present Christian Socialist Movement in 1960. He tries to draw together the different strands within the movement, Anglican, Methodist and Roman Catholic and in particular to relate them to the struggle in the political arena, the rise of the unions and the formation of the Labour party. Too often Christian socialism has been seen as an exotic growth outside Parliament and the rise of the Labour party has been discussed in purely secular terms. Bryant tries to see them together but what he has attempted does indicate that a major work is still needed by a professional historian able to devote significant time to research, if there are any left in our beleaguered universities, who can look in a systematic, detailed way at the lesser-known figures in the secular Labour movement and the influence that the Christian faith has had upon them. For the influence of Christianity has been both wider and deeper than a history of Christian socialism by itself would suggest.

There is also another area where work is very much needed and that is the influence of a Christian socialist like Reinhold Niebuhr, whose ideal was the British Labour party, on leading British politicians in the 1930s and 1940s. Denis Healey is one who has acknowledged his debt to Niebuhr. That generation needs to be interviewed before it passes.

As Bryant shows, Christian socialism is a varigated phenomenon, so what does it amount to today, particularly in relation to new Labour? First, it is inspired by a vision of the Kingdom of God, the leading theme of the teaching of Jesus. This is not to be identified with the political programme of any one party but is a vision of what life could be if transformed according to the mind and purpose of God. It functions as an absolute, beckoning us to fulfil its claims so far as we can under the conditions of finite sinful human existence and as a standard showing at any one time how far we have fallen short. It is for this reason that Bryant has sympathy with utopias, from Thomas More onwards, for they too can inspire and motivate.

Second, while Christian socialism takes into account human self-interest and seeks to channel it into socially useful ends, it believes no less in the possibility of human co-operation and the willingness, however undeveloped, of human beings to support one another. And this too needs to find definite political expression.

Third, Christian socialism is not just a paper exercise. It impels people into the realm of party politics, in order to bring about actual change. For this reason the Christian Socialist Movement is willing to affiliate to Labour. For it is only within the realities of political life, with the discipline it imposes, that actual change can be brought about.

But what policies does this lead to? Bryant expresses his liking for utopias and stories of heroic Christian socialists of old because they can inspire and motivate. He is critical of earlier Christian notions of "middle axioms", ie, specific goals between the ideal of the Kingdom of God on the one hand and detailed policies on the other. But it was these middle axioms, formulated by Christian socialists in the 1920s and 1930s which pointed directly to the great achievements of the Attlee government after the second world war. It may all seem more complex and difficult now. Nevertheless if the Christian socialist vision of the late John Smith, Tony Blair and others is to convince, sooner rather than later it will have to move beyond values to programmes. Christopher Bryant, who has resigned his orders as an Anglican priest in order to be eligible to stand as a Labour candidate in the next election, would I think agree.

The Rt Revd Richard Harries is Bishop of Oxford.

Possible Dreams: A Personal History of the British Christian Socialists

Author - Chris Bryant
ISBN - 0 340 64201 7
Publisher - Hodder and Stoughton
Price - £25.00
Pages - 351

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