Was Father Field a Christian Socialist?
by the Revd Robert Rea
This paper is an attempt to look into the work of Fr Charles Neale Field, an early member of the Society of St John the Evangelist. Fr Field worked with working men and boys in Philadelphia, and when he came to Boston, he worked among black folk on Beacon Hill and in the South End. I had heard this and a number of engaging stories about him, so when it came time to write a thesis, I thought that Fr Field would be an interesting figure to write about. I actually heard the first story about him long before I joined the Society of St John the Evangelist. It is set into the history of Anglicanism recovering its Catholic heritage, of which Fr Field was a leading light in America, and all that he does will appear in this paper in the setting of this often bitter and divisive partisan strife within Anglicanism. Fr Field came to St John's Church in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, to preach a mission. The Rector of the Parish had gotten so far as to wear Eucharistic vestments at weekday celebrations but had not yet introduced them in the Sunday celebrations. When it came time on Sunday morning for the early celebration, which Fr Field was to celebrate, he asked for the vestments and Fr Shero told him that they were not used on Sundays. "Nonsense," said Fr Field, "get out the vestments." He then put on the vestments, entered the sanctuary, turned to the congregation, and said, "These are the clothes which our Lord wore, only decorated because our Lord is the King of Heaven, From now on your Rector will be wearing them on Sundays as well as weekdays."(1) Other stories will appear in the course of the paper and these stories and my discovery of who Fr Field was are sufficient reward for my work, though it doesn't turn out to be of much theological use.
I had some preliminary questions which I brought. I knew that there was a Christian Socialist movement in England, from whence Fr Field had come out to America as a missionary, and I wondered if there were any connection between this movement and Fr Field. I also wanted to know what it was that had moved this Englishman to do this particular work. And I thought that if I were to find in Fr Field any kind of theology for this work, I might then be able to specify from it a currently-useful theology for similar work by the Society of St John the Evangelist in America today.
There turned out to be next to no theology in Fr Field, nor was there a connection to Christian Socialism, even though, as I discovered, there was an active Christian Socialist movement in the Boston of Fr Field's day. Consequently, I will be unable to specify a theology for our work today. On the other hand, Fr Field turned out to be a fascinating figure, and one who can be instructive to us in other ways than the strictly theological. He turns out to be a saint, and thus a model and exemplar for us even today. For it is the function of a saint, though some are also theologians, by living an instructive life, to bridge two ages in a concrete human life lived in the earlier in such a way as to be intelligible, instructive and even inspiring in the later.
In order to do this I will have to make a long journey through various subjects. I will look in an abbreviated form at the Christian Socialism with which Fr Field was not connected. Then I will look at Fr Field's life and work in some detail. Then I will have to look at his community, the Society of St John the Evangelist. Then it will be necessary to understand what has gone before to look in some detail at the theology of Fr Richard Meux Benson, the founder of the Society of St John the Evangelist. From this standpoint it will become possible to look further at Fr Field's work and get an admittedly small picture of what he intended in what he was up to.
The intended audience for this paper is, then, contemporary members of the Society of St John the Evangelist. But since I hope it will be relevant as well to others, especially those with an interest in spirituality and work for social change, I shall attempt to explain things that Society of St John the Evangelist members and others familiar with Episcopalianism will likely know, so sometimes I will seem to be taking the long way round and at other times I will skip right through what really needs to be explained, taking it for granted. I beg the reader's pardon for this.