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The Christian Left: going or gone?

20 June 2014

As political parties fight for the support of the 'squeezed middle', what has happened to Christian Socialism? Catherine Lafferty reports

Lord Soper at an anti-nucear rally

Lord Soper at an anti-nucear rally

THERE was once a civilisation peopled by Christians radicals. The Bible, with its rich, sonorous passages foretelling a New Jerusalem, was their manifesto and their inspiration. This culture, Christian Socialism, has largely vanished, though look carefully and a few traces can still be found.

Its origins stretch back to 1848 with the founding of the first Christian Socialist Group by F. D. Maurice, Charles Kingsley, and John Ludlow.

In that same year, Karl Marx published the Communist Manifesto in which he derided Christian Socialism as "but the holy water with which the priest consecrates the heart-burnings of the aristocrat", though, in truth, Christian Socialism has always had a complex relationship with its revolutionary relative.

The fortunes of Christian Socialism tracked those of parliamentary socialism, reaching its zenith in the 1960s, with the launch of the Christian Socialist Movement (CSM) in 1960. The CSM grew out of an informal network of left-wing clergymen who had been in the habit of meeting in the Lamb pub in Bloomsbury.

Its founding document, Papers from The Lamb, comprised six essays covering topics that ranged across the spiritual and the temporal. Common ownership was addressed, as was human and racial equality, as well as the obligations of prayer and thought.

An impressive array of clerics and politicians, including the fine-living liberal Anglo-Catholic bishop Mervyn Stockwood and the Anglo-Catholic Labour MP Tom Driberg, put their names to the document; but the CSM's driving force, and originator, was the Methodist minister Lord Soper, who served first as the organisation's chairman, and later as its president.

FROM today's vantage point, Papers from The Lamb is a strikingly bold read, condemning, for example, "an anti-social relationship in which one group is thought 'superior' to another", which it says is "inevitably" occasioned when the majority part of production, distribution, and exchange is in private hands.

Its politics and its theology - the two are closely intertwined - are clearly conditioned by the radical post-war landscape in which it was written. Thus, it denounced colonialism as "intrinsically evil", and called instead for the preaching of the gospel of Jesus the Liberator.

Similarly, ecumenism and co-operation among Christians were emphasised, and doctrinal differences played down. It is noteworthy, too, that the paper "The Obligations of Prayer and Thought" referred pointedly to the apostolic Church: this was the era in which Christians of many stripes harked back to the Early Church, which seemed not only simpler but also unscarred by painful schisms.

The death of Tony Benn in March was a reminder of that earlier civilisation, though Benn was apt to describe himself as a socialist who was a Christian rather than as a Christian Socialist.

This distinction is an important one to Rob Carr, the communications manager of Christians on the Left (COTL), as the newly rebranded CSM is now called. "Christian Socialism is something specific, a philosophy and school of thought: it's not as simple as being just Christianity plus Socialism," he says.

The organisation is chaired by Stephen Timms, MP for East Ham and the Shadow Employment Minister. Mr Carr and I are talking ina Labour Party office in Victoria - a picture of the modern Mandelsonian Labour machine in action,a platoon of clean-cut youngparty activists quietly working, only the occasional thrum of a photocopier punctuating the noiseless industry.

ON THE table in front of us isa collection of archive material through which one can sketch the evolution of the CSM, from the pocket-sized pamphlets of the 1960s, written for the builders of the New Jerusalem, to the campaigning literature of the 1980s, aflame with passion for the anti-apartheid movement.

The CSM's recent rebranding has been much to do with the shift in the centre of gravity in British Christianity towards the black-majority Churches and Eastern European immigrants, Mr Carr says. He notes that, for the latter constituency, the term "Christian Socialism" could be especially off-putting. "We've suffered from a bit of an image problem. Younger people have been struggling with the idea of what Christian Socialism actually meant."

How, I want to know, does COTL's idealist vision fit into the contemporary Labour movement.? Mr Carr refers to contentious issues, such as the recent gay marriage debate. He points out that many Christian MPs who voted for the legislation were recipients of less than pleasant letters from their co-religionists. He acknowledges that such topics arouse strong feelings on all sides, and describes COTL's work as "providing a safe space where it can be debated".

It is a worthy approach, but with all the conciliatory language of reasonableness and safety, the overall impression COTL gives is of being a somewhat tamer creature than its CSM parent. Typical entries on its website extol the virtues of the less controversial Labour policies such as free childcare. The fervour of the CSM of old, its bold confidence in a future without war, racism, and poverty, seems an increasingly distant memory.

None the less, Mr Carr insists that the organisation is not just a historical curio. He points out that it still has about 1500 members, who are increasingly tilted towards Evangelical Anglicanism - historically, the CSM had a broad Anglican membership - and that they remain committed to social justice.

"There's a big move towards liberation theology, and it's not just because of the new Pope," he says, "Foodbanks, the cost of living - these are key issues for our members."

If there was a prelate cast in the contemporary Christian Socialist mould, it was the former Archbishop of Canterbury Lord Williams. He famously described himself as a "typical hairy leftie", but spent a large part of his time as Anglican Primate having to utilise much of his formidable intellect in the pursuit of intra-Church peace.

His successor, the Most Revd Justin Welby, has Mr Carr's approval. "He is doing a superb job," Mr Carr says warmly. "He is striking the right balance between being the thoughtful leader of the Church, and being the voice of the voiceless, especially with his intervention over Wonga."

He is broadly satisfied, too,with the current direction of the Labour Party - he was a volunteer on Ed Miliband's leadership campaign.

THERE is a corner of south London where the true left-wing flame of Christian Socialism is kept alive. St Paul's, Deptford, is an imposing Baroque building, set in a gracious garden just back from the urban sprawl, where the incumbent is the Revd Paul Butler, or the "Red Rector", as he styles himself on Twitter.

The high-church religious and political tradition to which Fr Butler belongs can be traced back to radical groups that existed in the Victorian Anglican Church, notably the Guild of St Matthew, the ministry of the Revd Stewart Headlam, and the Church Socialist League. It then blossomed, in 1918, into the Catholic Crusade, whose members grouped around the publication Church Militant, under the charismatic leadership of the so-called "Red Vicar" of Thaxted, Conrad Noel.

Its influence on the UK's far Left was considerable: Reg Groves, one of Leon Trotsky's correspondents, and the leader of the first British Trotsykist association, the Balham Group, was a lifelong Anglo-Catholic, and a contributor to Church Militant.

The political awakening of Nottingham-born Fr Butler took place in his late teens, during the 1980s, as the miners were striking. He noticed that churches, that usually kept a distance from politics, became more vocal about the world.

A critical moment for him was hearing Mgr Bruce Kent speak at a Derbyshire CND meeting in 1984. His encounter with liberation theology, reading the works of anti-fascist, and anti-racist Christian Socialists, and especially the work and friendship of the Revd Kenneth Leech - a prominent figure in the Jubilee Group (to which Lord Williams also belonged) - propelled him further on the Christian Socialist path.

Fr Butler has been in and out of the Labour Party over the years. He first left over its policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament, before briefly rejoining in the 1990s, and then leaving for good over the Iraq War. Throughout it all, however, the Catholic Socialist tradition has remained a constant for him.

He and other high-church socialists find their organisational expression through the Society of Sacramental Socialists (SSS), which was founded in 2005, growing out of the Jubilee Group.

IT IS made up of people committed to the Catholic tradition of the Anglican Church, and international Socialism. The SSS exists to offer mutual support to Anglo-Catholic socialists, and affirms its intention to work with those of all faiths and backgrounds.

Members of the Society wear a red star, signifying their place inthe fellowship of international socialism and their commitment to Christ the Morning Star. They commit themselves to working together for the furtherance of Christ's Kingdom on earth "through 'prayer and righteous action' by commitment to the Catholic faith, socialist praxis, prayer and personal integrity".

The study that Fr Butler calls his cave is testament to the intricacy with which his faith is interlaced with his politics. The walls are studded with icons, the shelves crammed with books: Leonardo Boff and Antonio Gramasci jostle for space with a biography of Bartolomé de las Casas. A jaunty rainbow peace flag is perched in a corner, and a Notts County scarf is draped over a table.

"People ask me how can you link politics and religion," he says. "My answer is, 'How can you separate them?'" He quotes Dr Leech's words that, if he stopped being a Christian, he could still be a Socialist, but if he stopped being a Socialist he would have to stop being a Christian.

He rejects the notion of Christianity as being a force for social cohesion, arguing that the gospels speak of undoing rather than gluing society back together. He quotes the literary critic Terry Eagleton: "The New Testament has little or nothing to say of responsible citizenship . . . but the grossly inconvenient news that our forms of life must undergo radical dissolution if they are to be reborn as just and compassionate communities. The sign of that dissolution is a solidarity with the poor and powerless. It is here that a new configuration of faith, culture, and politics might be born."

RELIGIOUS Socialists are frequently attracted to high-church Christianity, Fr Butler feels, with its deep wells of mystical theology.He speaks of a theology that can cope with the darkness, pain and struggle of life, and a spirituality which is about solitude as well as community.

Anglo-Catholic Socialism, with its rich melding of militancy and tradition, of art, liturgy, and action, has a proud history, but it is one that people still find hard to comprehend.

Fr Butler takes it in his stride. "When I give food to the poor,they call me a saint. When I askwhy they are poor, they call me a communist," he says, quoting Dom Helder Camara with a smile, as he puts on his biretta and heads off towards his church.

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