Was Father Field a Christian Socialist?
by the Revd Robert Rea
This last quotation reveals Fr Field as first and foremost a man whose religion came first, and out of which he acted to do all he did. He was not motivated first by a desire to improve the condition of humankind, but to seek their salvation, and the concern for their condition came after this as a fruit of reading and praying and acting on the Gospel. It was primarily as a saint that he functioned, and not as a theologian.
But I think it was as a saint of a specific theology, namely the Bensonian theology. We have before us in Fr Field the perfecting man of the Society of St John the Evangelist as Fr Benson intended him. Fr Field is precisely the converted man of Fr Benson's conversation with Fr Congreve, the man inwardly converted who carries out the mission of the Church. It was by the peculiar holiness with which that conversion imbued him that Fr Field was able to have the effect he did, to heal, to teach and guide, and to work for the betterment of poor black folk and their neighborhoods in Boston and of working men and boys in Philadelphia. And I suspect that this specific work of his was inspired by the Bensonian vision. First, Fr Field fulfilled the vision of world reintegration that Fr Benson had. As others went out to the heathen in South Africa and India, Fr Field came to America, and found not the "cannibals of the islands of the sea," but folk who were not included into the ecclesial world of their day, at least not the Episcopalian ecclesial world. So he sought to bring them into the kingdom of Christ, to add them as individual blocks to that great edifice whose completion Fr Benson so ardently awaited.
Secondly, in his work for the improvement of social conditions, of housing and prisons and the like, I believe Fr Field was hearing the call of Fr Benson implicit in his excoriations of the conditions of the London slums, of the hell of industrial society, and putting it into practice in the best way he could. In like manner, I also think that if neither Fr Benson nor Fr Field claim the name of Christian Socialist, yet they carry out, at least partially, the agenda of Christian Socialism in its attack on the social condition of the poor.
It seems clear too that Fr Field worked indefatigably in Boston just as Fr Benson had at Cowley, in the work of a very busy parish and doing the social work that was the work of the clergy before the profession of social work was invented. They both founded guilds and clubs, they both worked for temperance on the part of men and boys, and as Fr Benson founded St John's Home with the All Saints Sisters, Fr Field helped the St Margaret sisters found St Monica's Home. I also think we can see in Fr Field the person imbued with the Holy Ghost, building up the world into the unity intended by God which Fr Benson describes in the Aberdeen retreat. Fr Field may well have considered participation in the local Christian Socialism participation in dead works, and seen his own work as building up the kingdom in the specifically Churchly way which he defends in his note quoted above about the building of St Augustine's in the South End.
So it is clear now that I can say that there is no evidence that Fr Field was a Socialist. However, I cannot from the evidence I have gathered answer the question I set out to answer that lies behind that question, what Fr Field's intent and motivation in his work were. The evidence is not there. Fr Field simply does not theologize or explain. Perhaps he never had the time, or perhaps the inclination. Likewise the work of Fr Benson requires much rereading and reinterpreting in respect of his very strong sense of the opposition of the world and the Kingdom. We today do not find it so easy to separate the two in practice. Besides which, we have between Fr Benson and us a gulf fixed by the development of new ideas to be used in interpretation, Freud and his school, and Marx and his school. One wonders what Freud would make of Fr Field's reasons for ceasing to practice healing. This reinterpretation is, in fact, the theological work which lies before the present day Society of St John the Evangelist, a work which they have taken up in rewriting the Rule of Life which Fr Benson gave them.
So if the Society of St John the Evangelist today is to look to Fr Field, it will not be for theology, it will have to be as an inspiration and model for a life of ministry and prayer. Perhaps if they hold him to be a saint, and believe in the intercessions of the saints, they can pray to him. They can certainly look to him as an example of indefatigable ministry, of humility, and perhaps too much humility, if they disapprove of his turning away from the ministry of healing, and of straight talk, as well a concern for the poor, the outcast and the marginalized, and of unswerving service to them. He can inspire them again to go out and work to bring the kingdom into our midst. And he can inspire them to turn again to Fr Benson for theological inspiration, for a sweeping vision of the Kingdom as embracing all humankind.
So that is the use of this paper, to help the Society of St John the Evangelist to restore and recapture our own tradition, to reopen us to the vision of Fr Benson and the its working out in the work of Fr Field. Neither of them, however, can be carried over directly into today's world, because the way we see our world has changed or rather is in the midst of a change, and a new paradigm by which to read our own communal past has not yet appeared. So they must, in coming to their forefathers in community, come to them with that part of the Bensonian vision which calls them to be men of the moment, seeing the world clearly and looking always through it to the Kingdom which is coming through it to them, and through them to it. Fr Field reminds us, by being a man of deeds, that the working out of this new world must happen in deed as well as word, in sanctity as well as theology.
I may not have reached any very useful conclusions through this research, but the work has engendered some questions in my mind for which the research will not provide answers. First, one might investigate whether the roots of social work do not in fact go back to people like Fr Field in his relationship to Mrs Simkhovitch. But more interesting, to me at least, is the question of the relationship of the Anglo-Catholic movement to the ferment for social change that was so much a part of it, and how it was that its social fervor was lost. One of the relationships that I observed in my research was that the early AngloCatholic ritualists were very much marginalized by opposition and persecution within their church, so perhaps it is not surprising that they turned to the marginalized. Of course, a more cynical reading would be that they turned to work in the poor areas because that was the only place they could get work, and only the unprivileged would accept them. At any rate further research into the history of the Society of St John the Evangelist and other figures then Fr Field would probably show that as these men and Anglo-Catholicism in general became accepted and even fashionable, the work among the poor and the fervor for it diminished. That, however, would be another piece of research.