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Conrad Noel and the Catholic Crusade: A Critical Evaluation – ed. Ken Leech

May 14, 2013

CNThis is a collection of papers read at the (sadly now defunct) Jubilee group’s AFGM on the fiftieth anniversary of Noel’s death.

The background to what became the Christian Socialist Movement was largely patrician – posh clergy acting in a paternal manner towards the poor – handouts rather than questioning what makes and keeps people poor in the first place and acting so as to change these structures.

The following quotations show the sort of ground covered:

Archbishop Edward Benson:  “He shuddered at the “wildness” of the working class in the year of Jack the Ripper and the Trafalgar Square riots, and feared that in the Dock Strike of 1889 the real victims of social pressures were being used by “base orators”. He wanted desperately to discrimi­nate true from false rights and it is significant that it was in the year of the great strike that he wrote a paper on socialism.

Canon John Crowfoot described Benson as a “Tory by nature”. He had in mind the Archbishop’s historian’s reverence for long-lasting institutions, his respect for the well-tried over the urge to get quickly something for nothing—which increased rather than decreased the spirit of servility. The landed families of England, in Benson’s view, had proved themselves in service; their responsibility could be read in the faces of their children. For this essentially ‘historian’s’ reason, he was sceptical of the idea of transcending class by an act of will. Class was something one rose to, not transcended. What would it mean to speak of “lower class bishops”? Only a few men of genius could have “any effects upwards” and bishops on the whole were not geniuses. As things were, the status of bishops provided work and the possibilities of work for many. He rationalised income differentials by arguing that even landowners who lived on ‘private means’ were ‘paid their wages’, in their case directly by God through the law of inheritance. To radically question this element of continuity in the fabric of law would , be, in his view, to reduce society to the level of management and horse­( trading. It was as a believer and not as a social scientist or even a historian that he found the preservative from abuse—in particular learning from his life-long study of St Cyprian the importance of the “Charismata of Administrations” to control “the application of power and wealth”. When showing members of the Church of England Working Men’s Society around Lambeth Palace he dwelt on such things and not on the bricks and mortar. But so also did he, in hope, when he took round the members of the Liberal and Radical Club. He would not exchange the grace of God for the arrogance of man.”

“Benson hoped that the Archbishops of Canterbury might still be the I tribunes of the people; but unhappily, as his daughters reminded him after hearing a speech by Tom Mann, there was an anti-church virus growing in the hearts of working class people which must first be reckoned with. On a visit to North Africa he speculated that the same weaknesses that had lost the Church of Cyprian to the unitarian Moslems were threatening to lose England to infidelity.”

He hated adversarial politics as witnessed in the House of Lords.

“One thing he was sure of:  evangelicalism “as it exists now”—had not helped to reconcile the classes. Latterday evangelicalism was far too “concordant with wealth”.”

About Henry Scott Holland: ”He despaired of the typical middle class English ethics based on the pagan classics.

“History would no longer be permeable by the Divine Image. Society would become gangrenous. This was the nemesis of an intellectualism which denied the common people a share in its perceptions.  The awful thing about such an elitist society was that it treated the majority of people as mere “hands”, the means of production.”

“From an early stage in his manhood he was sharply aware of the “deep sighings of the poor” and the “stunting of millions of lives”. He reacted against the highly schematic political economy of his youth, the hermetic systems of Riccardo and Bentham. He regretted that they still played so prominent a part in the newspaper and the market place. They might as well be applied to Saturn as to Earth. Christians had unconsciously collaborated with their harsh laws while trying to apply them with kindness, and so lived a miserable doubleminded life, inconsistent in their treatment of fact. He was fiercely critical of the SPCK for weighting its political economy publication on the side of the masters and against the unions.”

“The most frustrating failure of all to Scott Holland was that of the original Oxford Movement which seemed to prefer a theoretical sanctity to an actual wholeness.”

“As with Benson and King, Scott Holland’s social democracy was rootedly incarnational. He thought the Incarnation made all human life “a sacred thing”, incorporated into a Brotherhood of the Redeemed with regenerative power. That regenerative power was equivalent to co-ordination/co-operation. Only through that could health be re­stored to a society distorted by self-centredness. This for him was where Catholicism met Socialism, in that, in political terms, Socialism was a way of stopping the isolation of the interests of separate activities. The clash between Catholicism/Socialism and the prevailing political ethic struck him most forcefully in that between enlivening notion of social work in the Bible and the deadly experience of most work in his own day—”the shadow of death”.

“The legislation of a state consisting of socially aware individuals needed to be—in the phrase he became fond of using—”Grandmotherly Legisla­tion”. In a vast state the individual might not always be able to actively participate in decision making but live by and through dedicated people. Nevertheless by association of will he could morally contribute to a common action.”

He found this rooted in principle in the trinitarian communion of the Divine Persons which was unintelligible as discreet acts. Likewise the human person’s liberty was never merely or solely his own. “He could not make intelligible his own liberty except in terms which related him to others, and which therefore defined him as the unit of a community.” The community was not an addition to his own identity, being involved in it from the outset.”

“The Church had failed in itself to realize eucharistic communion as corporate fellowship, for people irrespective of whether they called themselves `catholic’ or ‘protestant’ made of it “an affair of personal preference” giving them private satisfactions. The war had shown up the poverty of this and he hoped all would learn the lesson when it was over. Those who had been up and seen the pattern in “the mount” knew that the old comforting conventions would not “take care” of civilization. The platitudes about growth and progress were exploded. Only in God and through God could man ever become sufficient to control the work of his hands. Corporate sin alone could explain the bloody fields of Flanders. Humanity was confounded by sin.

“In one of his most powerful editorials during the war, he declared that corporate sin was more deadly than private because it appeared “so slight and intangible” in each separate case. But Jesus, while merciful to personal sin, was severe on “class sins”, denouncing them without mitigation. The heinousness of common forgetfulness was seen in the parable of the Foolish Virgins. “We forgot to look after the growth of our industrial towns. It all happened while we slept ….” An immense mass of industrial and social activity was fast passing out of people’s hands. They were becoming parasites, isolated in their own ‘ mental environment. People were not aware of what was happening. They had scarcely challenged—even in the House of Lords—the damning Report of the Poor Law Commission.

About Charles Gore:

“Capital­ism tended to trample on the “root principles of brotherhood” because it made property a higher value than person. He had to warn members of his Oxford diocese “not to be unduly subservient to rich men”.

“Over and over again Gore insisted that the first charge on industry was the maintenance of the workers.”

“ For years he campaigned against the uncontrolled outflow of young people into the casual labour market and spoke out for mothers who lacked ante-natal care. He was an early advocate of old age pensions. An official Convocation Report which he prepared in 1907 urged a person-oriented social ethic which would not treat  people as “instruments”.° As a ‘Catholic’ he believed in “completeness” not atomism. He was hard on the failure of the Catholic movement in the Church of England to recognize its fault in not identifying with the poor.”

About Stewart Headlam: he “ agreed with Benson and King that priests would do well first to tend to their priesthood before plunging into social reform. He insisted that Baptism and the Eucharist abolished all class distinctions—this was the enbarrassing burden of his evidence to the Ritual Commission in 1904 but he was a disciple of Henry George more than Karl Marx when it came to practical politics, as the Fabian Society quickly found out. His organisational links were protean, but his greatest loyalty was to the Land Reform League. G B Shaw characterised him as “politically a Liberal plus a land nationaliser”. He was a “single-taxman”. Headlam was apparently prepared to accept this definition. Harold Hodges, editor of the Saturday Review, called him a “Tory Socialist”, which would perhaps put him in the same camp withT3efiSoir-arrd -possibly King. He was against closely defining socialism and dissolved the Guild when he thought it was trying to define it. Part of the reason why he did not want to see a watertight definition was, as he said in a CSU lecture at Leicester in 1905, that he saw the Church as the “instrument of social reform” and the Church could not be politically circumscribed.”

About Noel himself: “Noel sprang from that secret place where poets, prophets, and pranksters are born. As a youth he had shocked his public school classmates by defending Home Rule, and alarmed his family by denouncing marriage as a monogamic affront to Christian love and liberty. He went up to Cambridge and was quickly sent back down, rusticated for the singular zeal with which he evaded lectures for the pleasures of elaborate supper parties, effigy burning, serenading the young ladies at Newnham, and careering about the country in a dog cart: all in the name of the Catholic faith. And this was only the beginning. Since he believed carousing is a Christian duty, Noel decided upon a career in the Church. The highjinks continued, only now they were tied to a higher purpose. So when Noel entered Chichester Theological College, he urged the Principal to invite rabbis, Buddhist monks, Muslims, Nonconformists, and Jesuits to lecture the students. He scoured the Fathers for their most radical denunciations of private wealth which he then plastered on the walls of his room, taking care to conceal the authors’ names. When his classmates complained about such arrant socialism, Noel revealed that these were the words of Ambrose, Tertullian, Lactantius, Irenaeus and Basil. On those rare occasions he tired of theology and politics, Noel and his roommate would jump out their window, parachuting to earth with their outspread umbrellas.”

“As a curate at St Philip’s, Newcastle, Noel denounced the Boer War with such ferocity that munitions workers threatened to blow up the church.”

“Ardet young men and women were abandoning !Victorian propriety, and with it the moral and philosophical certainties which supported it. Iron laws, whether scientific, economic, or moral were giving way to vitalistic philosophies which celebrated individual and collective action, and human passion. Many churchgoers were as dismayed by this new enthusiasm as they had been by the narrow positivism which preceded it. But others welcomed this stirring of the spirit and called upon the Church to proclaim a gospel which would offer hope to the poor and abundant life to all who seek it.”

“Central to his faith is the conviction that Catholic Christianity demands social revolution. Of course, the Oxford fathers would have been shocked to hear this, and most of their spiritual offspring were suitably appalled. But it was not from conven­tional Anglo-Catholics that Noel had learned his religion. His first confessor was Arthur Stanton, the radical curate of St Alban’s, Holborn, who described himself as “politically socialistic, in faith papistical, in church policy a thorough-going Nonconformist.” His introduction to pastoral ministry was in the slums of Portsmouth where he assisted the democratic ritualist, Father Dolling. Noel built his doctrine around F D Maurice’s radical immanentism and Kingdon-centred theology. Thus, by the time he was ordained, Noel was already an outsider who could find fellowship only with the small band of rebels in Stewart Headlam’s Guild of St Matthew.

“Noel’s socialism was of a piece with this broader radicalism. Like Headlam, Noel was enraptured by a sacramental vision of reality. Catholic pietists and their Evangelical opponents might argue about the precise number of sacraments, he argued, because they do not see the glory of God all around them. God is present in bread and wine, and “oil, salt, flowers, water, fruit; … the colour of the tulip, the scent of the rose, the sounds of the sea, the grace and symmetry of the human body.” All these “are effectual signs of the presence of God who prevents and follows and enfolds us, as the waters cover the sea.” This same God is perpetually “thrusting Himself afresh into the world below,” breaking down the walls which the religious have erected between heaven and earth.

Spiritual redemption requires material redemption; the salvation of the soul demands the salvation of society. On this point Noel is insistent. Neither our souls nor our bodies can be redeemed in isolation, for the ground of our being is the supreme sacrament, Jesus Christ. Through Him all human beings partake of the divine fellowship which is God’s very self.’ Only when we grasp these truths can we understand the Church’s sacramental ordinances for what they are: an everlasting witness to God’s abiding presence which hallows the world and summons us to the heavenly city prepared for us on earth. The ceremonial with which we clothe our ecclesiastical sacraments simply mirrors the creation with which God clothes himself.

“Like many children of Evangelical families, Noel was first attracted to Anglo-Catholicism by its beautiful worship. But the care he devoted to the liturgy and the homely splendour of the Thaxted mass were as prophetic as they were aesthetic. What they prophesied is the Kingdom of God. Noel believed that socialism is the political sacrament through which God will establish his commonwealth on earth. Thus, although he proudly called himself a collectivist, and chided Christian Socialists who refused to embrace the revolutionary agenda of their secular comrades, Noel was a visionary, not a statesman. His socialism was unconventional and idiosyncratic. Like Headlam and other Catholic radicals, for example, Noel clung to the heritage of nineteenth-century liberalism. He excoriated bureaucrats, loathed Fabians, and defended the rights of nations and individuals with the same fervour with which he exalted fellowship and equality.

“Yet unique though he was, Noel was not an original thinker. Most of his ideas were prefigured by others. Even the ceremonial which drew throngs to Thaxted was as much Percy Dearmer’s as it was his own. But what Noel lacked in originality, he more than made up in fervour and pastoral genius. Noel transformed the work of his predecessors, charging it with eschatological urgency, fusing ideas together with a startling disregard for apparent inconsistencies, and embodying his vision in a parish which would become a veritable sacrament of Christian Socialism.”

“Noel was also the son of a poet and a grandson of the Earl of Gainsborough, and retained both an aristocrat’s daring and an artist’s contempt for bourgeois conventions.”

“Unlike the majority of his reform-minded comrades, Noel was at home in the apocalyptic world of the New Testament. He embraced the eschatological Christ discovered by Catholic modernists and Albert Schweitzer as a revolutionary outlaw into whose rebel band all Christians are enrolled at baptism.”

“Percy Widdrington called the struggle for Heaven on earth “the master idea” of Noel’s theology.” But whereas Widdrington and other servants of the Kingdom were suspicious of the secular Left, Noel threw himself into the revolutionary cause with reckless abandon. At times he seemed to confound Heaven with socialism, and many were the critics who accused him of spinning his religion out of pure politics. Yet just the opposite is true. His outlook, as G K Chesterton observed, was utterly unworldly.” He was not interested in constitutional questions and knew little if anything about economics.”

“Noel was convinced that to answer the great questions of social and political life, “we must go back to first principles. And to our First Principle which is God and His righteousnes …” The Kingdom of God is far more than democracy and equality. It is the world re-created in the image of the Holy Trinity, a world of variety and unity, bound together yet filled with rich and distinctive personalities. So sensuous and passionate will it be that our glorified bodies will enjoy a sexual communion more intense than anything we have yet experienced…….. But although he insisted justice must be established before the delights of Heaven can be savoured, it was on those delights that his eyes were fixed. ”

“But there is  nothing truly Marxist or even Hegelian about Noel’s philosophy. Contradictions are not simply aufgeheben—lifted up—into a higher unity. Once raised into the Godhead they are actually intensified. The greater our fellowship, the greater will be our diversity. Noel’s friend Robert Woodifield saw in this union of opposites evidence of Noel’s theological and political balance. But this does not do justice to the dynamism of Noel’s thought. What he saw in the life of God is not equipoise, but constant activity and transformation, very much like Bergson’s élan vital. And like the élan vital, it can be experienced now, even before the consummation of history. In the very act of abandoning ourselves to the Kingdom, we touch the hem of Jesus and taste Heaven’s sweetness. This happens on the picket line and at the ballot box, in the pub and in the marriage bed. But nowhere is God’s presence more intense than in the gathering of comrades which is the Church of Christ.

“Noel was well aware that an uncomradely spirit had seized the Church in all its denominational forms. Nonconformity, he com­plained, is captive to a world-denying, save-my-soul pietism. The Roman Church is enslaved to papal autocracy and maudlin sentimen­tality. As for the Church of England, Noel made a sharp distinction between the Church of Becket, John Ball and Stewart Headlam on the one hand, and the class-bound C of E on the other. The religion of the Establishment, he noted bitterly, “is the religion of the ratepayer, and the religion of the ratepayer is not religion but a disease.” Yet just as our sin never alters the fact that we are sons and daughters of God, so the Church’s apostasy cannot shake its vocation, which is to be the “Red Army” of the living and the dead to usher in the golden time.

“Noel’s ecclesiology was characteristically daring. Like the slum ritualists, Noel insisted on Catholic order while defying his own bishop. And like the ritualists, he justified himself on the basis of an idiosyn­cratic interpretation of Catholic tradition. But whereas earlier Catholic rebels had sought refuge in hierarchical decrees, Anglican and Roman, Noel found the ultimate voice of authority elsewhere, in the mouth of 1 he “whole people of God.”

At Thaxted, “He deprived the choir of its surplices and its privileged place in the chancel. He opened its membership to women and, perhaps even more unsettling to tradition­alists, he encouraged the congregation to sing the service. Thaxted church was to be a true fellowship, a classless gathering of comrades united in a common faith and a common struggle.

“Noel made it clear to his parishioners that their rights were inseparable from their responsibilities. Every sacramental rite, he taught them, conveys grace for combat, not selfish solace. Baptism plants children in the fertile soil of fellowship and enlists them in Christ’s army. Confirmation bestows upon them the duties and rights of priesthood. Ordination raises up representatives of the priestly democ­racy to lead and to serve. There is unction, not as a preparation for death, but to heal and sanctify our bodies for the struggle ahead. Marriage, that most fleshy of sacraments, blesses our passions and directs them to sacrificial love. Noel urged his parishioners to confess their sins regularly, for only those who wage war on their own selfishness are fit to wage war against the sinful social order which holds the world in thrall

“Noel’s revolutionary zeal could have transformed Thaxted into a spiritual boot camp with all the charm of a military base. But Noel desired more for his parish than stern alarums. There must also be merry music, for God’s people do not simply await the Kingdom, exhausting themselves in struggle. They can enjoy it now: its compan­ionship, its wonderful array of talents and temperaments, and its plentitude of divine grace intoxicating our minds and senses. Concerts, Morris dancing, and folk singing were woven deep into the fabric of parish life. There was none of the self-conscious artifice with which we prop up crumbling antiquities. At Thaxted, it was the living who were celebrated, not just the dead. And the greatest celebration was the Mass, the common feast of the living God.”

“Noel was not a political antiquarian, but he was something of a Tory democrat with the old-fashioned Tory’s unhealthy disdain for commerce and contempt for the middle classes.” Discontented with the present and impatient for the future, Noel did look to the past for inspiration. He was too shrewd to whitewash pre-industrial society or the pre-Reformation Church. Nevertheless, he frequently found in history precisely what he was looking for. As Noel ; told tow it, the story of the Christian past is a tale of heroes and villains: workers struggling against capitalists, democrats warring against tyrants. Moses, he tells us, was appalled by “the evils of landlordism, capitalism, and usury in Egypt …” Mary must have been “the darling” of Israel’s messianic communists, “the patriot maid of Galilee.” As for those who resisted the Law and the prophets, Noel dismisses them in equally colourful and anachronistic language. The wealthy peasants of  first-century Judea become “kulaks”. The Zealots are transformed into Jewish Junkers marching to the tune of “Jerusalem fiber alles.” Against such enemies as these, of course, no quarter can be given. And so Noel -marshalls against them an army of saints carefully purged of their shortcomings. Thomas of Canterbury is no longer a querulous de­fender of ecclesiastical privilege, but a champion of democracy. Archbishop Laud is a proto-socialist beheaded by Puritan “Christo‑capitalists.”

“So convinced was Noel that there is a direct relationship between doctrine and action, the he reduced the most complicated theological disputes into political conflicts. He denounces Arius as the theologian of Roman imperialism, and exalts Athanasius as the spokesman of the Alexandrian proletariat. Once the doctrine of the Incarnation was established, Noel argued, “common men were heartened to claim their privileges in a divine democracy”: an assertion which tells us more about twentieth-century Thaxted than it does about fourth-century Rome  Jim Wilson, the crusader Vicar of Sneyd, Burslem, even contended that belief in the Trinity is incompatible with any political system other than democracy. In every generation, then, men and women face a stark choice between good and evil. There is no room for compromise. On this Noel was ruthlessly clear: anyone who shrank i from conflicts, including pacifists, could have no part in the Crusade.

“Although Noel was a sworn enemy of heresy hunters and fundamental­ists, he was implacable when he thought the Kingdom of God was at stake, especially when the enemy was his own bishop, James Watts­Ditchfield. After the Bishop criticized Noel’s decision to celebrate the feast of the Assumption at Thaxted, Noel responded by publicly praying for the conversion of the Bishop of Chelmsford to the Catholic faith. Summoned to the episcopal palace to explain why he had restored the Corpus Christi procession and benediction despite the bishop’s prohibition, Noel would not even accept an invitation to stay for lunch, announcing instead, “I cannot dine at the table of a heretic.”

“From whence…………did Noel receive the authority to denounce his bishop, break canon law, and pronounce the judgment of heresy? Anglo-Catholics had been thumbing their noses at bishops for some time, but you will recall that they could appeal, however illogically, to some supposedly definitive pronouncement, whether Anglican, Roman, or Orthodox. But Noel was at war with the Establishment, despised Papalism, and said little about the East. Instead he appealed to a universal Church whose judgments he ascertained with more passion than scholarship.

“Socialism must nurture fellowship, he would tell us, or it is nothing. This is a hard truth for those eager to change the world because it raises a standard against which most of our schemes fall pathetically short. Yet paradoxically it also offers a way out of our current political malaise.,,,, Too often the market lays waste to individuality in the name of individualism…… as our century draws to a close, what can we say about the promises of socialism? Extraordinary things have been accomplished in its name. Monarchs have been toppled, property has been expropriated, schools have been built, social services have been administered. Yet today the temples of socialism are half-empty, its votaries are confused, and its priests are either truculent or unfaithful. Neither the dictatorship of the proletariat nor the Social Democrats’ grandmotherly state has held the hearts of the people or laid the foundation of lasting community. The socialist dream, its undertakers tell us, is about to be buried.

But it was socialists at the beginning of this century who warned that bureaucracy and regulation were choking the life out of their fledgling cause…………,He did say, You shall carry it into effect …” If all our efforts seem to be creating is an intrusive and tyrannical State, then we must define socialism anew. Like theology, Noel wrote, socialism “needs continual rethinking and new statement, and we must not shrink from the mental trouble involved in a thorough overhauling of the Socialist idea……This is a time for the theologi­cal wrestling that F D Maurice called “digging”. What we most urgently need are not programmes, but vision. And if we re-envision our dream, we will find that its compelling power is very much alive.”

(The Christian Socialist Movement is currently undertaking a referendum about changing its name – essentially removing the word ‘socialist’ from its title. I wonder whether Noel would applaud or lament this move.

TPC“ The most notorious battle in his long and notorious career centred around a red banner which he hung in the  chancel at Thaxted emblazoned with the words “He hath made of one blood all nations”.

“He went on to complain that Modern bishops are at home in the drawing rooms talking to fashionable women: ancient bishops were at home in the market places and in the homes of the poor.

He ended his polemic by urging both the creation of smaller dioceses and a return to democratic elections.” – interesting to note that the C of E is currently thinking of larger dioceses, though there was a move in the other direction before that.

“In the liturgical life and celebrations at Thaxted, there was a strong democratic sense. So, for example, processions of all the people were important, and were in sharp contrast to the very clerical and hierarchical processions of the Anglo-Catholics. Services which did not depend on the priest, or where there was a central role for the laity, were stressed. Thus Benediction was valued as a “people’s devotion”  But it was the Mass that was central to the life and activity of the place. As Noel wrote in the draft of his autobiography”

“We preach the Christ who all through his life stressed the value of the common meal, the bread and wine joyously shared among his people, the Mass as prelude to the New World Order in which all would be jointly produced and equally distributed. The Lord thus chose the human things of everyday life, the useful bread and genial wine, to be the perpetual vehicles of his presence among us till his Kingdom should come on earth as in heaven.’”The Mass was “both the foretaste of the Divine Commonwealth, which is the true natural human life, and a means for bringing it about.”

“It is often assumed that the Catholic Crusade was part of the Anglo­Catholic movement, and many Anglo-Catholics today claim it as part of their heritage, albeit an embarrassing and curious part. But this is a superficial and misleading view, and is contradicted by numerous contributions to the journals. …..Several years earlier, Noel had stressed the differences.

“We are not in line, either in thought or expression, with those Anglo-Catholic churches in which you see numerous little boys in chemisettes and clergy bedecked in lace and capped with card­board birettas. We dislike their stiff frontals, muddy colours and multitudinous ornaments.

“There was a strong hostility to Rome which was seen as fascist. Jack Putterill saw the Roman communion as “perhaps the greatest menace to the world’s workers that there is.” ” The stress on the difference comes out most strongly in Bucknall’s chapter “The Catholic Crusade and the Anglo-Catholics” “There is a fundamental difference between us, a difference in basic theology and philosophy.”

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