Arthur Middleton on faith in social action

The Faith finds itself enshrined in creeds and formularies but also in the lives of dedicated Christians centred in the Incarnation and thereby concerned for the whole of people’s lives. The Lectionary for 17 June includes for commemoration Canon Samuel and Henrietta Barnett, who have an entry in Exciting Holiness.

Henrietta Rowland was born in Clapham, London, in 1851 into a wealthy home. At sixteen she went to a boarding school in Dover run by the Haddon sisters, who had a strong commitment to social altruism. On her father’s death, Henrietta moved with two sisters to Bayswater and became involved in parish visiting while helping the social and housing reformer Octavia Hill, who was developing a distinctive approach to housing provision and community building. Here Henrietta met Samuel Barnett, the curate of St Mary’s, Bryanston Square, another co-worker of Hill. This commitment to social action and reform drew them together and they married in 1873, moving to the troubled and deprived parish of St Jude’s, Whitechapel.

Henrietta resumed parish visiting and to developing work with women and children. As a great organizer, she attracted women helpers, and taught the valuable role women played as mothers,
s. and ‘women’s distinct moral gifts as peacemakers capable of diffusing class war’. She became a woman guardian for the parish and a school manager for the poor law district schools in Forest Gate. Also she began a series of social initiatives, including helping to set up the Metropolitan Association for the Befriending of Young Servants, and experimented with sending local slum children for country holidays that grew into the Country Holiday Fund.

Working alongside her husband, not in place of him, she discovered her ministry, so that by 1884 Henrietta and Samuel Barnett were working hard to set up the pioneering university
et settlement that became known as Toynbee Hall. The parish was well known for its atrocious housing conditions, poverty and overcrowding, and Samuel Barnett stressed self-help by means of alms. This became the mission of the vicarage family, a mission that was implied by their commitment to the Incarnate Christ. He campaigned for better housing conditions for the poor, and with parish workers from St Jude’s established model housing; and so Toynbee Hall was established, named after the Balliol College historian.

Alongside being a university teacher, Toynbee was committed to the development of adult educational opportunities for the working class and worked with Barnett on this. He was concerned that the gap between social classes should be closed; and that those with money and education should spend time and live among the poor. That was the purpose of Toynbee Hall.

The Barnetts began with sixteen residents, and built a significant social welfare and educational programme. It provided adult education, youth work, housing, health provision and economic development. It gave birth to the Worker’s Education Association (1903); the Worker’s Travel Association (1921); the Youth Hostel Association (1931); Community Service Volunteers (1962); and the National Association of Gifted Children (1981). Canon Samuel Barnett died in 1913, Henrietta in 1936.

People associated with Toynbee Hall as residents were Clement Attlee, William Beveridge, and the economist, George Lansbury. Perhaps on this day we should pray for priests and people in inner city parishes today with their different but no less real problems.

Secondly, we need an increased sense of the environmental dimensions of celebrating the sacraments. The Offertory Prayers in the Eucharist remind us that God’s creation is a gift to us, not something that we simply harness or commandeer. They further remind us of our ability to cooperate with God, so that what we make with our hands goes with the grain of his original creating act and is able powerfully to disclose his presence.

It seems providential that in celebrating the sacraments we use bread, water, wine, oil and precious metals: all things that in the modern world raise political, economic and environmental questions. Sacramental worship has the ability to remind us with force and immediacy of our responsibility to the creation, and we need to be more conscious and more explicit about the way in which every celebration of the sacraments makes an ecological statement.

The local and the sacramental come together in the Parish Mass. It is here that our concern for all that God has made begins, but hopefully does not end.