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
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
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
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
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
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
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
"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
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.