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Grit in the oyster  

14 January 2022

Rod Garner celebrates the legacy of Stewart Headlam, born 175 years ago this week


The Revd Stewart Headlam (1827-1924)

The Revd Stewart Headlam (1827-1924)

AFTER more than 50 years of priestly ministry, Stewart Headlam achieved the rare distinction of having been dismissed from all the parishes in which he had served. In the process, he antagonised and frustrated bishops and incumbents, offended Victorian Christians, forged alliances with atheists and trade-union leaders, and defended women’s rights.

He believed that the eucharist was not only a revelation of God’s beauty, but also a reminder that the divine Kingdom would be established on earth, and that “it would be as joyful as it would be just.”

As a bohemian and aesthete, and a conscientious pastor, Headlam provoked anger and admiration in equal measure. He defended music-hall dancers and ballerinas against the narrow sensibilities of religious bigots, for whom exposed female flesh could only ever be an invitation to lascivious desires; and he enjoyed evenings in the company of poets in the Crown pub on the Charing Cross Road. He provided bail for drunks, and, notoriously, gave financial support to Oscar Wilde pending his trial and imprisonment.

In the East End of London, Headlam cared for the poor and uneducated. He nurtured hopes and aspirations, even as the clergy preached that life was a preparation for death, and that an alarming proportion of humanity would suffer the everlasting torments of hell. Headlam rejected such bleak doctrines, insisting that all human beings were children of God, created for noble and beautiful things.

Music-hall dance, he argued, could provide intimations of the divine rather than lust; so, too, could Shakespeare, Tennyson, history, and visits to the theatre. Such treasures were in keeping with the teaching of Jesus to live life more abundantly (John 10.10). Headlam shared these treasures with his parishioners.


THE roots of this revolutionary creed were traceable to the pious Evangelical home in the village of Wavertree, near Liverpool, where Headlam was born on 12 January 1847. His father, Thomas, loved to argue with others concerning the religious controversies of the day, and hoped that his son might come to share his opinions. Ever the contrarian, Headlam resisted. At Eton College, and subsequently at Cambridge University, he encountered the Christian Socialism of Frederick Denison Maurice.

A professor of moral philosophy, Maurice repudiated the doctrine of everlasting punishment, disliked intensely the uncritical worship of the Bible as if it were a divinely dictated text, and demanded that the Church should offer more than charity and the hope of a blessed hereafter. He suggested that its task was to teach that all were incorporated into the divine family, and that co-operation rather than competition was the basis of their common life. Christ was to be found everywhere: “in the shop and the marriage feast, wherever we go, whatever we are about”.

Maurice’s teaching, combined with the influential writings of the American political economist Henry George, proved an inspiration to Headlam and shaped his ministry. They also exposed him to accusations of heresy. Unrepentant, he resolved to preach Christianity as a liberating gospel that was humane, radical, open to questioning, and predicated on a trusting faith in “the self-sacrificing deliverer”, Jesus Christ. In 1877, he founded the Guild of St Matthew, with the aim of studying social and political questions in order to bring about fundamental change in society. Socialists of every kind would be potential allies.

Despite its growing membership, the Guild’s heady, if somewhat unfocused, political ambitions made little practical headway in the Established Church. Headlam was losing the trust of his bishop, and also, therefore, the prospect of future paid employment. He had also secretly separated from his wife on discovering that she was a lesbian (the marriage was eventually dissolved).

Critics spoke of him as “somewhat deranged”, an opinion shared by worshippers at a Maundy Thursday service in Westminster Abbey in 1881, in which Headlam preached on “the Christian Communism of the Church of the Carpenter”. A few months later, he was dismissed without compensation. He would survive on the private means inherited from his father, and the financial support of many well-wishers.

In the years that followed, Headlam continued to immerse himself in the work of educational and social reforms. He proved a dependable advocate for working-class children and their teachers. He reminded the Church of its obligations to care for the poor, and never lost his conviction that — for all its imperfections — it remained a “great institution” in need of renewal. Sadly for him, the labouring masses he had reached out to felt no need to join the Church he loved, or help to improve it.


HEADLAM retained his passion for the ballet and the arts until his death on 18 November 1924. Prominent Christian Socialists attended his funeral, as did actors and actresses, Members of Parliament, county councillors, educationists, and dancers.

Shortly before his death, he had received a letter from the Archbishop of Canterbury, Randall Davidson, which concluded: “You at least, whatever may be said about the rest of us, have been consistent in your devotion to the cause or causes for which you care. God keep and bless you.” In considerable pain, Headlam wrote a brief reply expressing his pleasure that “the old work has borne some fruit.”

He was a fallible prophet: inflexible, sometimes belligerent or myopic when wisdom or the readiness to concede another point of view was required, and worryingly vague about how, precisely, the revolution would come about. But he was also principled, indefatigable, delightful company, and a friend to many, especially the forgotten. He saw more clearly than his bishops and opponents that the Christian gospel was, by its very nature, revolutionary in its social implications. To this day, the new “incarnational” movement that he helped to establish continues to inspire Anglicans who “seek the welfare of the city” (Jeremiah 29.7).

Canon Rod Garner is an Anglican priest, writer, and theologian.

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