Project Canterbury

Was Father Field a Christian Socialist?
by the Revd Robert Rea


Christian Socialism originated with Frederick Denison Maurice, along with his friends J M Ludlow and Charles Kingsley, in the 1840s.  Its theological foundations begin with Maurice's work in The Kingdom of Christ, published in 1837.  In this work he claimed that the common ground of human existence is the Catholic Church, which is the Kingdom of Christ on earth.  We do not have to labor to build a common ground; it is already given in the Kingdom, and we need but recognize and accept it. (2) Christian Socialism as such was inspired by a letter from Ludlow, who was in Paris at the time of the 1848 rising, to Maurice suggesting that Socialism be Christianized lest Christianity be destroyed.  Soon after this, Maurice and his two friends moved into the radical politics of their day.  They began to see that in the Gospel, Jesus had provided all that was needed for the kingdom and that no other utopia or new society need be constructed.  Humankind's task was to live out the Gospel.  This, of course, had its conservative side.  "Christian Socialism," says Maurice, "is the assertion of God's order," and not "an attempt to create a new constitution of society.  What we want is that the old constitution should exhibit its true functions."(3)

This Christian Socialism grew also out of the struggle of the Chartists, who believed that they had been betrayed by the middle class in the Reform Act of 1832.  They demanded universal male suffrage, equal electoral districts, vote by ballot, annual parliaments, the abolition of property qualifications for parliament, and the abolition of payment of members of Parliament.  Maurice and his friends were in sympathy with these views and set out to work for their eventual fulfillment after the failure of the Chartist movement.  Consequently they sought to minister to the working class.  They founded the Society for Promoting Workingmen's Associations, a number of cooperative associations and the beginnings of a trades union movement.  Maurice later went on to found the Workingmen's College.  He believed that the working men of his day were too ill-educated to bring about the advancement of their own interest, and so set out to provide the means for their own self-advancement.

Maurice's theology was founded primarily on the idea of the Kingdom.  This, if allowed to surface, would embrace all people and put an end to distinctions and divisions between rich and poor, oppressor and oppressed.  He believed that mankind, created in the image of God, who was a Trinity, a community of different but equal Persons, was created to live in community.  Thus those who promote individualism and justify out of it social barriers and inequalities are really atheists.  He attributed the hindrance to the Kingdom to individual selfishness, and the way to the Kingdom was conversion to Christ.

The movement of Christian Socialism sunk more or less into abeyance after Maurice founded the Workingmen's College, primarily because his efforts went into educational rather than reforming schemes.  It is worth noting, though, that most of the ideas of the Chartists which he supported were eventually accomplished in later Reform Acts.

The subsequent phase of Christian Socialism was the Guild of St Matthew, organized and led by Stewart Duckworth Headlam. He attended Cambridge, where he heard the lectures of F D Maurice, and had his fear of hell fire removed thereby, and took a more positive religious attitude. (4) Headlam was almost an exact contemporary of Fr Field.  In the year in which Fr Field went to his first parish, Headlam plunged into work in London working class parishes.  From there he moved through a large number of parishes, never being allowed to settle for long, or long hold a job, due to his radicalism, both political and religious.  He seems to have been a flamboyant character, both as an AngloCatholic, and as a man who liked the company of theatrical and Music Hall types and organized and defended them.  In both respects, he dishonored his class and church position.  Eventually he discredited his own movement by going bail for Oscar Wilde, which he viewed it as his duty to do, since no one else would, and when Wilde came out of prison, taking him into his own home until Wilde could go to France, since no one else in England would receive him.(5)

Headlam plunged into socialism with the advocacy of Henry George's single tax, and his membership and intense participation in the Fabian Society.  (Headlam is the author of one of the Fabian Essays.)  He organized the Guild of St Matthew in his parish, and then extended it into a national political and religious movement whose aims were:

(a) to restore to the people the value which they give to the land;
(b) to bring about a better distribution of the wealth created by labor;
(c) to give the whole body of the people a voice in their own government;
(d) to abolish false standards of worth and dignity. (6)

The objects of the Guild itself were:

1. To get rid, by every possible means, of the existing prejudices, especially on the part of secularists, against the Church, her Sacraments and doctrines, and to endeavor to justify God to the people.
2. To promote frequent and reverent worship in the Holy Communion and a better observance of the teaching of the Church of England, as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer.
3. To promote the study of social and political questions in the light of the Incarnation.(7)

As can be seen, this was a very sectarian movement.  Headlam has this in common with Maurice, that they both believed that the Church of England was the Church Catholic and all must eventually be brought into her in order for God's plan to be fulfilled.

The words "in the light of the Incarnation' bring us to the heart of Headlam's theology.  He himself describes them as "the raison d'etre of all our Christian Socialism." (8) It was only in and through the Sacraments, themselves a contfieldNotes.htmlinuation of the one Incarnation, that any could be saved.  And these Sacraments were the ground and institutionalization of Socialism.  Baptism founds an absolute egalitarianism, since all are eligible and invited, and the Mass is that supreme feast to which all are admitted simply on the grounds of their humanity.  Headlam says:

It becomes impossible for a priest, who knows what the Lord's Supper means, not to take a part to the best of his power in every work of political and social emancipation:  impossible for an earnest communicant not to be an earnest politician.

and he describes the one who comes to us in the Sacrament:

In the worship of Jesus really present in the Sacrament of the Altar before you, all human hearts can join, and especially secularists, for when you worship Him you are worshipping the Saviour, the social and political Emancipator, the greatest of all secular workers, the founder of the great socialistic society for the promotion of righteousness, the preacher of a revolution, the denouncer of kings, the gentle, tender sympathizer with the rough and the outcast, who could utter scathing, burning words against the rich, the respectable, the religious.(9)

The successor to this stage was the Christian Social Union.  This was a more strictly theological and academic effort than the work of Headlam.  This is not to say that its members were not active in social causes; they were.  But they were more likely to be found in the higher rungs of the Church, to be intellectuals and teachers and writers, to become canons of cathedrals and deans and even Bishops, than to be found directly working with the poor.  In fact, several of them did become Bishops.  The older of them had come out of the ranks of the earlier movements.  They were clearly devoted to changing the social structure, but they were more devoted to studying it to see how best it could be changed, than to hitting the streets in a Eucharistic procession to militate for the rights and needs of the poor as Headlam and his set did.  One has the feeling that they scorned that set as somehow less respectable than they were.  At any rate, Fr Field would not have known these men and this movement as he was out of England by their time.

He would, however, have known the American branch of this movement, which was centered in Boston.  The principal figure in this movement in Boston was the Rev W D P Bliss, a Congregational minister turned Episcopal priest.  Bliss lived and worked in Boston as a contemporary of Fr Field, and they would have known each other's work well.  Bliss was early active in the Knights of Labor.  He founded several Christian Socialist organizations, first the Society of Christian Socialists, and then the American Branch of the Christian Social Union, which altered its name in 1891 to the Church Social Union, to make it clear that it was an Episcopalian organization.  Bliss's work was the Mission of the Carpenter, of which he was founder and Rector, organized under the aegis of Trinity Church, Copley Square.  This group spun off several organizations for workers, the Guild of the Carpenter and the Brotherhood of the Carpenter, which seem to have been the same group under different names at different periods.  The Senior Warden of the parish was George E McNeill, one of the organizers of the Boston Eight Hours League and a founder of the American Federation of Labor.  Thus we see that the interests of Bliss centered on the working man and on the Labor Movement.  Bliss also founded The Dawn, an organ of opinion for his movement.  The tr I find no mention of Bliss or his work in any of Fr Field's material, nor any mention of Fr Field in Bliss's.  However, there is clear contact with other persons from the Society of St John the Evangelist.  Fr Hall is seen in The Dawn to be addressing meetings of workingmen under the aegis of the Church Social Union, and Fr Brent wrote a history of the Christian Socialist Movement in England for The Dawn.  This was, however, after he had left the Society of St John the Evangelist.

Bliss's theology seems to have been the standard brand; he seemed not to add to the theological traditIon.  He held that the objects of Christian Socialism are:

1. to show that the aim of Socialism is embraced in the aim of Christianity.
2. To awaken members of Christian churches to the fact that the teachings of Jesus Christ lead directly to some specific form or forms of Socialism; that, therefore, the church has a definite duty upon this matter, and must, in simple obedience to Christ, apply itself to the realization of the social principles of Christianity. (10)

If one may compare this American Christian Socialism to the English, one finds it less sacramental, less theological, and considerably more action-oriented than the English CSU.

Such then is the theology of Christian Socialism which we are to listen for in the career of Fr Field.  Let us go on then to look at Fr Field, his life and deeds.


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