Sermon X. The Church and the "Labour Church." By the Rev. F. Lewis Donaldson, M.A., Vicar of S. Mark's, Leicester.
THE divorce between the Church and the great Labour movements of the nineteenth century is, of all social phenomena, the most startling, because d priori it seems to be incredible that the Church should be disowned by those classes to whom pre-eminently she is sent, those classes which form the mass of the population, and who, by their poverty and the hardships to which they are exposed, are the very classes, men would suppose, which would be pre-disposed to listen to the Church's "Glad Tidings," and to receive her consolations; and because, by the life of her Lord and by His spoken word, it is plain that He, though excepting no class from His ministry, yet sought out specially those who were poor, diseased, forsaken, and despised. Is it not recorded that "the common people heard Him gladly?"
Yet the fact of this divorce is incontestible, and is now, thank God, being recognised. For the recognition of the fact is the first step towards remedy. Until we have diagnosed a disease, what hope is there of a cure? But it may be well to remind you of the fact. "Christianity," said a recent Bishop of Rochester, "is not in possession of South London.'' Mr. Charles Booth, in his monumental work on this subject, writing of the whole metropolis, corroborates the Bishop. Mr. Rowntree, of York, bears the same testimony regarding that city. Mr. Keir Hardie, leader of the new Labour Party, affirms it of the whole country, so far as the direction of the Labour movement is concerned. Hundreds of representative leaders have reaffirmed it. Every parish priest in our great cities, and most of those in country districts, know of it and deplore it. Social workers record it as one of the most potent and stubborn facts with which they have to deal. All church congresses have discussed it and lamented it. This divorce between the Labour movement and the Church, as an institution, stands out as the most glaring anomaly and scandal of our day and generation.
But I must not labour this point. It is more important to essay the task of suggesting causes. First, then, the causes lie not in any "natural" irreligion of the labouring classes, nor in any antipathy to the Christian Faith as such. On the contrary, the poor are always "religious" even to superstition. No one who works amongst them can doubt it. There is little agnosticism, still less deliberate atheism amongst them. The secular movement of fifty years ago never touched their imagination nor their hearts; it was certainly never "in possession" of the labouring poor. And that movement is now dead, if not buried. Mr. Blatchford's recent attempt at a resuscitation of "determinism "has utterly failed to provoke any genuine response amongst the poor, and, if he persists in his propaganda, will probably contract rather than extend his undoubted influence among the working classes; an influence which he has attained, not by his propaganda of "determinism," but by his zeal as a social reformer, and as the advocate of the poor and oppressed.
Nor is there certainly any antipathy to the Christian Faith as such. On the contrary, "at the Name of Jesus" every knee amongst these mighty millions bow, in the real sense that they venerate His Name, and much which that name represents. It is against the "Churches," not against Jesus Christ, that the minds of the labouring poor are set. "Most of the workmen and workwomen of our country do believe in Christ," says Mr. Will Crooks, M.P. "Some time ago, on Tower Hill, a crowd of men flung up their" caps when the name of Jesus Christ was mentioned, and shouted 'Hurrah!'" says another witness. "Christianity," says Mr. George Haw, "is not assailed, but Christians," and "nowhere is a word breathed against Christ."
It is not the lack of religious feeling in the working classes, nor is it the lack of reverence for Jesus Christ our Lord which has estranged the working people of this country, but the apostasy of the Church herself. "The name of God," wrote S. Paul the Apostle, "is blasphemed among the nations through you," i.e., through the apostasy of the Church. We have not yet reached that awful result, as I have shown, for the name of God and of Christ is venerated still. But we are at the danger point.
The apostasy of the Church from its original character as a fellowship, or brotherhood, the guardian of justice, and the protector of the oppressed--this is the cause of the alienation of the poor. "The workers have left the Church," says a writer, "because the Church first left them." "Labour feels," says Mr. Haw, "that whatever social emancipation it has won, has been won not only without the churches, but often enough in spite of the churches." And again, "The Church is to them the enemy of labour."
No one who has worked seriously among the working classes can doubt that herein is the true cause of that estrangement of the people which church congresses, bishops, and clergy universally deplore. For a whole century the labouring poor have, in cycles of travail and suffering, been struggling towards a better human life. And what is the record of the "Official Church "towards this travail of humanity? What but a steady uniform want of sympathy, a relentless opposition, and in the hour of labour's victory a grudging, or, what is worse, a patronising recognition? [I do not forget the many noble, self-sacrificing exceptions; but we have here to do with the general attitude of the official church, and not with the self-sacrifice of some individuals, priests and laity.]
From the time of the Chartists onwards, through the days of Shaftesbury, Joseph Arch, Henry Broadhurst, and John Burns, up to the day of Keir Hardie and Will Crooks, the record has been the same. Throughout their bitter struggles, in times of stress, want, of "strikes "and of "lock-outs," the working classes have been political pariahs to intelligent church-thought and to the mass of church-worshippers. The labouring poor have lived under a terrible industrial tyranny for generations. They have been ill-paid, ill-housed, ill-clad, and ill-nourished; they have seen their class brutalized by the factory system of the nineteenth century, their wives and little children lacking the primary necessaries of daily life; and they have lifted appealing hands to the professing church or churches of Jesus Christ, only to be rebuffed, rebuked, and, where possible, repressed. Can we wonder that with a true instinct, born of tragic knowledge of the truth, they have turned away once for all, and have left "professors of religion" to themselves. I, for one, not only cannot wonder at it, but I marvel that they have not turned against the Church with some terrific outburst of indignation, and violently taken the Kingdom of God by force. No rhetoric can express, still less exaggerate, the fearful folly of professing Christians, and their profane misapprehension of the trend of the Labour movement, or their shocking disregard even now of that appeal for justice which is the true "inwardness" of the Labour movement. The situation can only be adequately described as "The apostasy of the Church."
In what does this apostasy consist? For it is clear that the official church is still the guardian of the spoken and written word, is still the keeper of the Holy Sacraments and of the forms of worship, all of which in themselves, far from being antipathetic to types of struggling humanity, and to sorrowing causes, and to the weak, the poor, and the miserable are, on the contrary, perpetual witnesses on their behalf. Wherein then lies this apostasy of the Church?
The answer is, that the Church has neglected her duties to the poor; she has not seen that those in need and necessity have right; she has maintained the forms of faith and lost the substance; she has administered the sacraments, and ignored their witness; she has proclaimed the Holy Writings, but has denied in the sphere secular what she has affirmed in the sphere spiritual; she has preached the Gospel partially, and has thereby made even the Truth to be of none effect. She has not borne her witness against the world, the flesh, and the devil; against the world, oppressing the poor through a century of the factory system and of an unholy competitive commerce; against the flesh, as exhibited in the luxurious lusts of the rich and well-to-do; against the devil, as he walked up and down England and to and fro in it with his specious lies about the "greatest good of the greatest number;" and "measures not men;" and the "laws of political economy" which must be observed, though such observation make the commandments of God Himself to be of none effect.
Why, as thus defined, has the Church become apostate, and therefore "left" by that suffering humanity which it was meant to serve? Why has the Church thus become worldly, false, in spite of her rites and sacraments? Why, but because she has allowed herself to be exploited by the rich and powerful, until at last she has become a "class" Church; so that, in fact, the world has invaded the sphere spiritual until it has become barely distinguishable, except in rite and sacrament, from the world itself.
This explanation, of her apostasy is the only one which meets all the points of the case, the only one which explains the alienation of the masses of the poor. Slowly the rights of the poor in the Church have been taken from them, first before the Reformation, by the hierarchy, then by the nobility, later by the middle classes, until at last the Church, apostate from the mind, spirit, and intention of her Lord, has been left desolate--Sion bereaved of her children. The rich have become "patrons" of parishes, they appoint all her bishops, mostly from their own class, and through their bishops and their own patronage, nominate the parochial clergy of nearly all the parishes in the land, clergy who also are drawn mainly from the upper and middle classes. The rich class and the well-to-do class direct her affairs and order her services, and preach her sermons; they fill her offices, legal, diocesan, and parochial; they set the "tone" of "Church opinion," and even occupy the seats in her cathedrals and parish churches to the exclusion of the poor. Nay more, the class-spirit has invaded her current theological teaching, and has given it a bias alien to the travail and aspirations of the struggling masses of the labouring poor. Finally, the official church has delighted to honour men who have not been leaders of the people, but scions of their class, who have uniformly obstructed the will of the common folk when that will has sought expression in social or political reform.
The latest witness to the appalling fact that "Class" has monopolised the Church is the recent Lenten pastoral of Bishop Gore, who writes: "The prerogative position is given by Christ and His Apostles to the poor. And every Church is healthy in His sight in proportion as it is the Church of the poor. Now our Church is confessedly in town and country not this......The seating arrangements even in working-class parishes, favour this tendency. Our services are not easily intelligible to the poor. Our diocesan and often our parochial councils are representative of the rich rather than of the poor, of Capital more than of Labour;"
Mr. T. E. Hervey, London County Councillor, speaks to the same effect of what he calls "the Churches." "The Christianity of the Churches has become a respectable middle-class institution, part of a condition of society which many of the more thoughtful workers feel to be out of harmony with the ideals of justice and of progress." Many such witnesses could be cited, but enough has been said to point the fact, obvious to all thoughtful people, that the Church as an institution has become the monopoly of the rich and well-to-do.
Labour thus divorced from the Church remains, as we have seen, not less religious. We have abundantly shown that intrinsically the Labour movement is inspired by religious ideals, controlled by religious conviction, and maintained by the eternal verities of faith, hope, and love.
Its secession from the Church is a witness not against Labour, but against the Church, not against the Faith, but against the unfaithfulness of the Church to that Faith.
It was, therefore, inevitable that the inward realities (or the "religion") of the Labour movement, should seek some sort of outward manifestation. So sacramental is the life of men that there can be no inward experience without a corresponding outward result or sign. Hence the rise of what are fondly termed "the Labour Churches." They came into existence:--
(a) as a protest against the apostasy of the Church.
(b) as an outward expression of the inward realities of the Labour movement.
As a protest against the apostasy of the Church, they follow in the wake of most of the secessions from the Church. Every schism has presented some truth (albeit isolated from the proportion of all truth), and it is clear that as (for instance) "Quakerism" reaffirmed the truth of the reality of the inward voice of the Holy Spirit against a forgetful Church, so the Labour "Churches" exist first of all as a protest against the indifference of the official church to the tragedies of want and suffering to which Labour is exposed. Secondly, the Labour "Churches" arose, and are still arising, as an outward expression of the inward realities (or religion) in the Labour movement. Briefly, I should describe the creed of the Labour "Churches "as belief in the "Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man." Its practical ethic is "the service of man." But let them speak for themselves. Here are the principles of the Labour Church as printed as the preface to their hymnal:--
"The Labour Church is an organised effort to develop the religious life inherent in the Labour movement, and to give to that movement a higher Inspiration and a sturdier Independence in the great work of personal and social regeneration that lies before it. It appeals especially to those who have abandoned the traditional religion of the day without having found satisfaction in abandoning religion altogether.
"The Message of the Labour Church is that without obedience to God's Laws there can be no liberty.
"The Gospel of the Labour Church is that God is in the Labour movement, working through it for the further emancipation of man from the tyranny, both of his own half-developed nature, and of those social conditions which are opposed to his higher development.
"The Call of the Labour Church is to men everywhere to become 'God's fellow-workers' in the Era of Reconstruction on which we have entered."
Or again:--Alderman George Banton, of Leicester:--"The Labour Church is drawn from all classes of mankind, and all sections are welcomed under its broad wings. The great object is to understand all things; to love our neighbours as ourselves, to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and minister to the sick."
It is clear therefore that the Labour Churches have but reaffirmed some of the cardinal doctrines of the Catholic Church; and there is little doubt in my mind that it is in the spirit of these doctrines that they will develop their organizations, until the Church at large has repented of its apostasy, and is prepared practically to admit the truth for which the Labour Churches undoubtedly stand. Would to God we might hasten that day of reunion with these seceding masses by a quick repentance! For it is clear that there can be no final divorce between a movement which in itself is intrinsically Christian and the universal Church of Christ.
Do the Labour Churches "welcome all sections under their broad wings"? How can they stand apart then from that Church of the divine humanity which is in Christ Jesus, Who redeemed us to God by His blood "out of every kindred and tongue and people and nation." Do the Labour "Churches" seek the Fatherhood of God? Then they can know it only through Jesus Christ whom He hath sent, except by Whom no man cometh to the Father. Do they affirm the brotherhood of man? Then must it not be finally in Him in Whom alone all men are united, in Whom there is neither Jew nor Gentile, bond nor free, male nor female, for all are one in Christ Jesus? Do they essay the service of man? Then shall it not be effected in serving Him Who is the Head of every man, the second Adam, the Saviour "Who redeemed me and all mankind?" Do the Labour "Churches" seek practical reform? Then shall they not repossess themselves of that mighty and universal power which covers the world in the Catholic Church? If the practical aim of the Labour movement is to possess itself of the sources of power--the legislature, the great instruments of production and the land--how can it withhold its hand from the most powerful of all forces on the earth, the Church? "The Labour movement," says one of its leaders, "needs the spirit of Christianity to give it increased life and strength." And again, "I look on the Church of England as being legally and morally the birthright of the people." So be it. And we cannot doubt that before long the classes comprised in the Labour movement, estranged by injustice and ill-treatment, but with no radical alienation of will or of conviction from the historic faith, will return to claim their own, and repossess themselves of their most precious birthright in the Church of God. We look forward to and believe in a return of the labouring classes to the Church of Him Whose name they venerate, and to Whose teaching, example and commands, they are ever making their appeal. When this "day of the Lord" comes in England (as it will) they will return "not in single spies but in battalions." This will be the work not of flesh and blood, but of that Holy Spirit Whose unseen motions, even now, inspire the Labour cause. The next "Labour Movement "will also be His work--that movement back to the land of promise, back to the Church of the Divine Humanity and to God; in that "day of the Lord" when
"They shall come from the east and from the west, and from the north, and from the south, and shall sit down in the Kingdom of God. And behold there are last which shall be first, and first which shall be last."