George Austin reflects on the expectations of polite society

IN 1882, MARY ALICE BALDWIN started work in Lancashire cotton mill. She was five years old, and her job was to sweep out the cotton waste from under the huge noisy looms. It was not unusual for such tiny children to be killed or maimed by the heavy machinery, but little Alice survived and by the time she was 14 she was herself driving four looms. In 1898 she married Jack Austin, and in 1900 they begat a son, Oswald, who eventually married and begat me. Jack was a publican, landlord first of the Clay Bank Inn and later of the more prestigious Hare and Hounds Hotel in the centre of Bury in Lancashire. At 40, he was too old for the carnage of the First World War and died in 1918 through over indulgence in the products of his trade. He was lucky, at least for the fact of his age. Alice’s two brothers, Will and Robert, somehow survived the trenches but suffered throughout the remainder of their short lives from the effects of poison gas.

With hindsight, we can see all too clearly the evil of child labour in Victorian days and of the callous slaughter of a whole generation of young men in the killing fields of Flanders. Of course, there were voices, few and not very effective, raised at the time. But why were they not heard, or at least not heard immediately, when the events were taking place? We imagine that the tyranny of political correctness is a modern phenomenon, that it is only this generation that has had to endure the power of thought police. Maybe that is true. But in reality, political correctness had its exact equivalent in Victorian days in the assumed expectations of society. As usual of course the church, or least the Church of England, bowed to those expectations, singing with vigour the unreconstructed version of All things bright and beautiful containing the verse The rich man in his castle,
The poor man at his gate,
God made them high and lowly
And ordered their estate.

Rich man, poor man, yes. But in Victorian England, class was even more significant than wealth. Everyone knew his place and kept to it. Trollope, in an essay on archdeacons, commented that such a cleric ‘is a gentleman who is well to do in the world, and who can take a comfortable place in the county society among which it is his happy lot to live.’ Today of course, when even cricket has, though only within living memory, abandoned the distinction between gentlemen and players, it is only bishops who live like minor aristocrats. A few, like York and Canterbury, see its incongruity, but most are, sadly, only too ready to embellish their castles and palaces and general lifestyle with whatsoever they can extract from the seemingly bottomless purse of the Church Commissioners.

In the 19th century, authors like Charles Kingsley and Charles Dickens brought details of the sufferings of children before a wider public and indeed Kingsley’s Water Babies led to the chimney-sweepers Act of 1864, though it was largely rendered a dead letter by the connivance of householders and magistrates alike. Sir Robert Peel the elder, a mill owner himself, had in the early years of the century agitated for legislation which resulted in the Factory Acts of those days, but public and official indifference to their provisions made them largely ineffective. It was, after all, to the benefit of employers to have a pool of cheap labour and to the benefit of workers to produce large families in order to increase the weekly wage packet.

In the First World War, it would have been even more difficult to call a halt to the tactics that used young men as cannon fodder. It is fruitless to speculate what the effect of the presence of modern television coverage would have been on military policy at that time. It was not there, and if it had been, it would almost certainly have been condemned and suppressed as traitorous. In the late 1960s, I was vicar of the country parish in Bedfordshire which suffered a much higher percentage of deaths in that war than the average. One mother had lost three of her four sons, and fourth was sent back from the front so that he might survive.

Every November, we held the usual Remembrance Day service, and one year I referred in my sermon to the great losses that the village had suffered. I made the comment that although those young men had been ready to serve their country, all of them would have hoped above all else to return safely to their families and homes. It had seemed to me to be a compassionate and generous and proper comment to make. Yet when I returned to the vestry, the churchwarden stormed in and all hell broke loose.

Now apparently I had really done it and I was finished in the parish. Those young men had not hoped above all else to return home safe and sound to be reunited with their families. They had been ready to die, and to suggest anything else was to betray them and my country.

That was fifty years after the war had ended, yet still the politically correct chauvinism prevailed, at least in my ex-army churchwarden. I told him that I believed he was utterly mistaken, but that in the light of his attitude I would never again preach at that Remembrance Day service, and for the remainder of my time as vicar I saw to it that that particular Sunday was one of my holiday Sundays. But it did give me an insight into the mind set which allowed the terrible events on the battlefields of northern France and Belgium to be acceptable in British society at the time.

It was not until after the student unrest of the 1960s that it became the ‘right thing to do’ for Christians to be politically active and aware. When I was a curate in Notting Hill in the late Fifties, the parish of St Clement’s, Notting Dale was seat of race riots on a scale which had not been seen before in Britain, and the area became a target for right-wing extremists groups, including Oswald Mosley’s fascists. Those of us tried to stand up against racism were supported by musicians such as Johnny Dankworth, Bennie Green and Alexis Korner, but not by politicians of any hue. As for the church, the local bishop of Kensington, Cyril Eastaugh, and Fr Trevor Huddleston, then at Holland Park Priory, could not have done more. But so far as the Church of England was concerned, that was it, and those of us who were involved were given the distinct impression that we ought to sit down, shut up, and pretend none of it was happening.

By the 1970s on the other hand, anti-racism was ‘in’, and senior churchmen and women scrambled to climb on the bandwagon, nowhere more so than among well born or socially ambitious lay and clerical members of the General Synod. The World Council of Churches set up its Programme to Combat Racism, ostensibly to help organisations throughout the world fighting to produce a more decent and tolerant society. In reality however, the Council was so dominated by Marxist influences and aspirations that, particularly in Africa, bodies which otherwise fulfilled the Programme’s aspirations were quite deliberately denied grants if they were not also Marxist. The grants moreover were otherwise quite indiscriminate.

Those of us who raised questions about well-documented terrorist activities of some of the groups were ourselves denounced as racists. They were not ‘terrorists’, they were ‘freedom fighters’, and if ‘unfortunate incidents’ did occur, such as the bombing of innocent civilians, black and white, at a bus stop, or the massacres perpetrated by Robert Mugabe’s notorious Fifth Brigade, this was simply because one ‘can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs.’

Just before I went to Canberra as a delegate to the WCC Assembly, I was taken aside by a Synod staff member and told, ‘We hope no one is going to raise the matter of SWAPO detainees tortured and killed in camps in other parts in Africa.’ (Another staff member warned me similarly, ‘We hope no one is going to mention WCC support for the Ceausescu regime.’) Decent chaps simply did not make waves and if they did behave in such a politically incorrect fashion, that they must face the consequences in abuse and unpleasantness or worse.

The moral and financial support given over many years to organisations that were at best dubious and at worst quite simply vile was perhaps the shabbiest episode in recent ecclesiastical history. But church leaders who were openly Marxist were far less culpable than the many – and that included most of the English church leaders – who privately supported the critics but kept their heads down and their lips closed. In some cases, it was because they were ambitious and knew that to speak out would damage their career prospects. For others it was quite simply fear of the abuse that would be their reward. As one said to me, ‘I am with you wholeheartedly but I’m sorry – I simply could not face what the you have had to face.’

With the memory of that kind of blatant support for terrorism and compliant silence of too many, it is little surprise that Robert Mugabe can act as he does at this time against black and white political opposition in Zimbabwe. One wonders if the church today would have been so deafeningly silent if a white right-wing dictator had behaved in the same way. No, I withdraw that – one doesn’t wonder for a moment.

At least they can argue that they are simply following a biblical precedent. After all, when Pontius Pilate gave the ecclesiastical leaders in Jerusalem a choice between the release of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, or Barabbas, a convicted terrorist, they naturally chose Barabbas.

Hindsight is of course everyone’s cop-out, and all that has gone before has within it the smugly applied assumption that we would know better today. True, we would not allow little Alice Baldwin to work in a cotton mill at the age of five in these more enlightened days. Nor is conceivable that the general public would complacently accept the actions of generals who sent a whole generation of young men to certain death. And church leaders might possibly just recognise that it is as reprehensible for someone to terrorise another whatever of the colour of their skin or of their politics.

If, because of the assumptions of society (or as we might say today because we seek to act with political correctness), our eyes have been closed in the past to the abuses which those assumptions have produced, should not hindsight have made us more sensitive to abuses and faults in our own society? If every previous generation has had its blindnesses, is it not prudent to conclude that we might well be making the same mistake?

Will future generations wonder why we failed to act on the growth of an underclass in a society where most of us are increasingly better off? Or why the drug menace has been allowed to escalate so that even children in primary schools know where they can get a fix? Or how social workers, genuinely caring for children, can take away a young girl from loving parents and place her with a paedophile? Or what has happened to our system of justice that a bus driver can himself be arrested for detaining an underage hooligan who had deliberately and systematically smashed the bus’s windscreen? Or how Britain has become the divorce and abortion centre of Europe?

And for the church, perhaps we should surely ask where are the proliferating spokespersons of our growing army of social responsibility officers? Our generation will make its own mistakes, but at least that benefit of hindsight should make us remember that every previous generation has made mistakes which seem obvious to us but to which they were as blind as we are to our own.

George Austin was until recently Archdeacon of York