Levelling with odd bedfellows

by
21 May 2008

THE beautiful Cotswold village of Burford seems so unlikely a venue for such a congregation of lefties. But down the High Street we paraded: Commies, trade unionists, Christians, anarchists, pacifists, and morris dancers. Someone called it a gathering of the great lost causes of England.

The march ended outside Burford Church. I said a few words by way of a sermon. We stood for a minute’s silence, wreaths were laid, and I said a short prayer. Then we all sang “The Internationale” (rather controversially, the Billy Bragg revision: “Stand up, all victims of oppression, For the tyrants fear your might!”). Some raised their fists in salute.

It was all a bit like church really, except with Tony Benn presiding over the whole thing as some kindly bishop.

This was Levellers’ Day. On 17 May 1649, Oliver Cromwell rounded up 300 Levellers and imprisoned them in Burford Church. Then he dragged out the ringleaders and had them shot in the churchyard. Their crime was to argue for the establishment of a democratic state that would extend the vote to even the lowliest person.

It was a dream that was first voiced in Putney Parish Church back in 1647. “The poorest he that is in England has a life to lead as the greatest he” is how one of the Leveller leaders put it. Two years later, Cromwell violently snuffed out the whole democratic movement.

It was just too radical — as it was, it ought to be said, for the founders of the Soviet Union, who so shockingly betrayed ordinary people by also denying them the vote. Leon Trotsky explained that “Communism needs democracy like the human body needs oxygen.” Which is why he got an ice-pick through the back of his head.

The funny thing is, despite the fact that the Church has also found all sorts of false reasons to excuse itself from democracy’s obligations, and from the full implementation of democracy within its own life, it is the story of God that has given the democratic movement its greatest drive.

Too often we think of the Levellers as though they were secular social democrats in prototype, struggling for a modern secular state. They weren’t. They were pious Christians inspired by a vision of the Kingdom of God in which all are treated as equal — all made in the image and likeness of God.

This simple idea is the basis of so much political radicalism. And I will march with anyone who finds their inspiration here, however secularised their vision has become.

The Revd Dr Giles Fraser is Team Rector of Putney.

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