Was Father Field a Christian Socialist?
by the Revd Robert Rea
THE BENSONIAN THEOLOGY
The shape of Fr Benson's theology reflects his industrial times. Fr Benson would have seen the urban poor on mission in the East End of London and in other industrial centers, but he did not himself work among them.(40) He is responding to what had happened to England. Over the century before Fr Benson wrote, a major change had come over England, namely the growth of industrial towns, and the social changes concomitant with that growth. In the process of these changes the workers were separated from their former rural society with its extended family bonds and the complex web of obligations and respect that had provided security and orientation in the past and relocated in cities where their ties were to factories in the roles of "hands."
These folk were also largely unchurched, if for no other reason than that there were no churches in their vicinity to go to. So there were no parsons to look after their welfare or salvation either. E B Pusey, Fr Benson's teacher at Oxford and his mentor throughout his life, was a man who did take an interest in these folk. He used his own funds to build and staff churches in the industrial cities. (41) There he had the services set at the times when working folk could attend. Then he and his fellow clergy set out to draw the working folk into their churches.
It is interesting to see in this a movement to restore community in a world where community had been shattered by industrialization and secularization. One can see the connection clearly in Pusey's effort to build churches and draw industrial workers into them. (42) I think one can also see this in Pusey's pupil, R M Benson. I think that Fr Benson's theology reflects the world of his times and that he is responding to the breakdown of the ancien regime in England. We can see this in his vision of a reunion of humankind, all humankind and not just England.
The SSJE was founded in the parish of Cowley St John and its primary work was the work of the parish. Men would go out from thee to America, India and South Africa, but they were men trained in a community whose work was this parish, and whose leader and mentors were the men doing this work. What was this parish like and what was the social attitude of the community and its founder? A reading of the parish magazine for the early years when Fr Benson was active and in control may indicate some of this, and will also supply Fr Benson's own attitude since he was clearly the main, perhaps the only, force in the shaping of the magazine.
The magazine shows the work Fr Benson and his followers were doing. They ran a whole series of schools for the children of the district. The magazine shows the prizes awarded at fetes and shows Fr Benson or one of the others sharing and blessing these occasions. There were guilds and associations, and Horticultural Exhibitions to open and bless. They founded a Church of England Temperance Society and then a Junior Temperance Society for boys six to sixteen. There were suppers for laboring men. On 15 October 1873, Fr Benson and two others of the Society, along with six parishioners, met to organize adult education classes for the district in geography, mathematics, acoustics and geology. Fr Benson and the others, along with the All Saints Sisters, organized St John's Home for Incurables, and raised the money to build it.(43) The magazine for May 1874 shows Fr Benson speaking at a meeting at St James's, Picadilly, on April 28 which was held to raise funds. In addition to all this, there was, as well, all the liturgical and sacramental work to carry on. The March 1873 issue shows that in Lent, there were to be in a given week, three Eucharists, Matins, Evensong and Catechism with Litany on Sundays, and on the weekdays daily Matins and Evensong and a Eucharist, plus a second Eucharist on Tuesdays and Thursdays, two courses of sermons in the week and a Tuesday afternoon meditation by Fr Benson. We may assume that Fr Benson was the engine driving this, from all the accounts in Woodgate of his incredible and literally sleepless activity.
Fr Benson was clearly aware of and outraged by the social conditions of his day, of the poverty of London and the industrial towns. He was, after all, involved in the urban Missions from their inception. It may well be that Fr Benson's attitude toward poverty and the problems of industrial society were formed in the process of these missions. It is certainly typified in them. In these missions the poor were exhorted to turn from their lives of sin toward Jesus and to live upright and moral lives. Fr Benson cannot get away entirely from his Evangelical roots and the idea of individual salvation.
It is clear, however, that he saw and deplored the social conditions he saw as repulsive. He speaks of "the extravagances of modern luxury," and of the "aristocracy and ruling classes," he names the "effeminating refinements" of some and the "brutal self indulgence' of others. But his only solution is to exhort and to pray that they be delivered, "be brought to simpler modes of life, that the extravagances of modern luxury may be abated."(44) These are phrases Fr Benson wrote about the London Mission in the week of Sexagesima in 1874. In a further article about the Mission in the next issue, he speaks of the Mission as like the visit of the angels to Sodom, calling out from her midst those whom God would save. So he does recognize that something must be done. He speaks of "the wickedness of the starving poor, less disguised than that of the refined classes," of multitudes "whose very business in life is sin." He calls for a solution. "Society must help them, by organizing some new combination of power." But what does he have in mind? "Political Economy" will not help; it only produces new forms of sin. Love, he says, is the solution: "What society wants is love--true Charity--Divine Charity...It perfects Society." So we are called to pray the Holy Spirit to pour out a gift of charity "for the healing of those many wounds by which Society is now as it were bleeding to death in the terrible sores of our pauper classes." (45)
Fr Benson clearly rejects a purely political or economic solution. Indeed he specifically rejects socialism in practice if not in theory. In Spiritual Readings: Advent, published five years after the mission, he says
That community of goods which is the idle dream of the socialist--idle because it is impossible under the conditions of earthly existence--is the glorious end to which earthly discipline is leading us:
Here again it is the Holy Ghost who will be the solution, for he continues,
glorious because it shall be truly achieved in the fullness of spiritual power, the undivided life of the Holy Ghost.(46)
He did not change his views, for in a later work he says:
This organism of human society was smothered up in the accidents of human corruption. No human effort of reformation could, or ever can, set it free. The old worldly corruption remains inherent in all socialistic efforts, however well intended, and however much impregnated with Christian principles. A new life is necessary in order to remove the corruption, but that new life does not start with tabulae novae, a fresh organization. It is a spiritual power regenerating that social order which makes the antagonistic kingdoms of the world to belong to God and his Christ.(47)
If there is any Christian Socialism for Fr Benson, it is this. Fr Benson pins all his ultimate hopes on the Second Coming. As will be seen, this fits with his mature theology of the Kingdom. It is also clear that if he is to be described as any sort of socialist unbeknownst to himself, it would be as a Maurician Christian Socialist.
Yet it is clear that he is not above recommending as Christian behavior, something that to us looks suspiciously socialist. In a sermon preached at All Saints Church, Margaret Street, in London, he goes so far as to say:
God ordained society, but God did not ordain luxury. God ordained society, but God did not ordain idleness, or that any amount of accumulated wealth should free any from the obligation to work and use all of their powers for the benefit of society. God ordained society, but God did not ordain that any place in society should minister to the diabolical pride of the upper class. If you belong to what is called the upper class, it is your duty to see that you level upwards--that you hold anything you have beyond your daily bread in fellowship with any member of Christ's body who is in need; that you share freely any benefit you possess, lifting up your brethren to any higher enjoyment you may possess beyond them. If you do not, God will not suffer such neglect to remain unavenged; if you will not level upwards, Satan will soon have his way and level downwards.
Think not that poverty is the great eye-sore of our city; if we were all poor together we might have God's blessing on our penury. The great eye-sore of London is your accumulated wealth. If a man can have no crime imputed to him save this, that he has accumulated riches in the bank, that alone is sin enough to send him to hell. (48)
This was sufficiently socialist for Bliss to print with approval in The Dawn at any rate.
On the whole, for a view of what Fr Benson saw as a lived solution to the social problem, we will have to look to what he actually did, which was to found a community, and to look to the theological principles on which he founded it. Indeed, the spiritual instructions which he gave his community in 1874 show Fr Benson teaching his brothers to be aware of the present age and its conditions. The religious, he says, must be, a man--not simply of the day, but a man of the moment, a man precisely up to the mark of the times....The religious therefore reviews calmly, dispassionately, dutifully, all the phenomena of the age in which he lives. He does not review them as things to deplore, but as things to rejoice in, and as things to be acted upon. (49)
But how does Fr Benson's theology respond to the new age in which he and his brothers found themselves, and the problems it proposes? First of all, Fr Benson has a scheme of cosmic regeneration. In a series of articles in an American periodical in the nineties, he outlines the regeneration of all things in Christ. He begins with human fallenness. This is a fall from an original unity, and he explains this in terms of nations rather than individuals.
Each national development is the loss of some general power, the shrinking up of the nation within the limits of an imperfect manhood, by means of which some idiosyncracy is brought into prominence which would have been held in check by a more complete development of the human character."(50)
This brokenness was not the intent of the creator.
Had it not been for the wound of original sin whereby the unifying life of God was lost, mankind would have remained in absolute unity. We may conceive that the developments of nations and individuals would have multiplied and specialized the common consciousness of joyful power, for whatever was the gain of any would have been the delight and possession of all.(51)
After the fall it was required that Jesus Christ reunite humankind. This was only possible because nothing was finally lost in the fall, but the original unity was broken apart, disarticulated, so to speak. Thus, in his Incarnation, Christ is reintegrating, rearticulating broken humanity:
As each nationality is formed by the loss of some element essential to the perfect nature of the individual man; so each nationality contains some element essential to the perfect nature of man, and therefore essential to the perfect exhibition of the mystical Christ....The most savage and degraded nations have some element of human nature which makes them what they are. They are not only capable of being restored in Christ, but their restoration is essential to the integrity of Christ's glorified humanity....The dwarfs of equatorial forests and the cannibals in islands of the sea have their individualizing inheritance,--drops of Adam's blood,--and the Blood of Christ cannot assert the fullness of its redeeming power until it has made manifest in them that speciality of redeeming grace, whereby they may claim their part in the inheritance of the Saints, as members of Himself the Second Adam. (52)
This is a grand vision but it is clear now why Fr Benson could never embrace or endorse any socialism. Socialism proposes the wrong sort of consummation, one which is this-worldly. Fr Benson looks forward to the ultimate rejoining of all things in Christ in glory. Nothing short of that will do.
The means to this end that he proposes is conversion. One might suppose that the primary conversion intended is that of the heathen, so that all might be brought in and humanity reunited. But that is not the case, that is not the primary conversion Fr Benson had in mind in founding the SSJE. George Congreve, an early member of the community, learned this early on, as he shows in a letter to Fr Benson late in both their lives:
One Sunday soon after I came, you invited me to walk with you to Old Cowley, where you had promised to take the Evening Service and to preach to the College Boys. Here was my opportunity of gaining from you a clearer idea of the essential meaning of the religious life; so, as we walked, my inquiries began: "I suppose, Father," I said, "that your object in founding the Society of St John the Evangelist was to train the clergymen who join you for the work of missions at home, and to the heathen abroad?" Your answer gave me my first lesson in the alphabet of the Dedicated Life. "No," you replied, "I do not think that the object of our association in a Religious Community is to equip us to go out as missionaries. We do not come into our Community primarily in order to convert others, but rather with the desire first of all, to be converted ourselves. Then if by God's grace we are converted to Him, He may use us in missionary work, or in any other way that He pleases.(53)
Fr Benson makes his intent clear in the first chapter of the Rule, entitled "Of the Objects of the Society:"
It is the object of the Society of St John the Evangelist, in adoration of this Divine Mystery, to seek that sanctification to which God in His mercy calls us, and in so doing to seek, as far as God may permit, to be instrumental in bringing others to be partakers of the same sanctification; bearing always in mind that above all things it is necessary for those who would carry out the work of missions to abide in Christ, apart from whom we can do nothing, and that if we abide in Him the life which we have must show itself in acts of love to all mankind.(54)
Thus it is clear that for Fr Benson the conversion of the world begins with our own conversion. That the conversion did spill out is manifest when we see that very early in the life of his Society, men went out to India, South Africa and North America.
The key to how this conversion is to happen, and to how this conversion is to achieve the reunification and salvation of the fallen world is the work of the Holy Spirit, the only power that is capable of acting thus. This Holy Ghost comes to us as the gift of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ, when at his Resurrection and at Pentecost, the Holy Ghost is bestowed upon us.
In a retreat given to the Sisters of St Margaret in 1877, Fr Benson develops his theology of the Holy Ghost. The Holy Ghost is the only source of energy and power to consecrate us to God. The humanity of Christ in each person is powerless to act unless the Holy Ghost indwelling that humanity causes it to germinate by communicating the power of the life of Christ. Only then can we please God, and it is only this Holy Ghost that can produce any fruit in us. Without it we are given over to dead works. It would seem likely then that Fr Benson viewed socialism, at least as a system with its own new world aimed at, to be one of the "dead works," though he may well have approved certain of the actions of socialists.
This work of the Holy Ghost not only unites an individual to God, but unites individuals to one another, articulating their efforts into an organic scheme, in the Body of Christ, and that not only in the present but in a real unity with the Church of all races and ages:
Each of us in the Church has our own work to do, but it is not a mere stray work; as it is done by the power of the Holy Ghost, it is a part toward the completeness of God's design. What each does is not for our individual gratification in accomplishing something we set our mind to do, but we are taking part in the mighty work He is carrying out in the universal Church of all times and all ages.(55)
In this same meditation he adds that the ages of the past were ages in which a certain portion of building up that unity was accomplished, and the unity awaits us to complete it. In a later meditation of the same retreat, Fr Benson says that the purpose of God's sending the Holy Ghost was to build up this temple in which He might dwell, the Body of Christ, and that this was the original purpose of creation, that "all creation was formed to culminate in this one great glory." (56)
In the final meditation of this retreat, entitled "The Holy Ghost Glorifying to all Eternity the Body of Christ," Fr Benson speaks at length of the final consummation, the city of new Jerusalem come down from heaven. He speaks in terms remarkably similar to those of his articles on the virgin birth of some twenty years later. In the seventies he spoke of the Church, and in the nineties of all creation. Both times he speaks of individualities and the collective unity:
As the City is built together in unity, so we shall gaze on the City without any distraction. We shall see all its parts and in each part we shall read a history of the whole. As by examining one part of a body the physiologist is able to determine the character of the organism to which it belongs; so as we gaze on each saintly stone we not only learn what is that individual experience, but also the collective law in which it is built up in the unity of the whole. So we must gaze upon every stone of this glorious City. There is the individual character of each, and the collective unity to which it is subordinated, but there is perfect agreement in the whole: we shall behold, and find it our delight to behold, Jesus in one and all, by the working of the Holy Ghost.(57)
Thus we have come full circle, back round to the vision of a unified and unifying, perfected and perfecting humanity. For Fr Benson it is apocalyptic and supernatural, for socialists it was much more natural and historical. Christian Socialists tried to make the best of both, and succeeded to some degree in integrating them. But I daresay none exceeded the reach and grandeur of Fr Benson's vision.
The implementation of this vision was the SSJE, as a body and in the individual members of it. Father Field was one such. My assertion is that if he had a theology for his life and work it would have been the Bensonian, since he was trained under Fr Benson at Cowley, at the time of the Aberdeen retreat, and later served with him in America, at the time when the articles on the Virgin Birth were written. It is from this perspective that we will have to approach how to carry out anew the work of Father Field in our present day.
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