David Wilson issues a call to arms for Christ, the church, and the poor
The dishevelled man leaned against the pillar, wearing ‘working man’s clothes,’ and was clearly in need. My grandfather rose from his prayers and walked across the church to give assistance. As he approached, the figure disappeared. Radicalized from his time as a chaplain in the trenches of the First World War and certain both of his vision of Christ and its message, my grandfather did as Bishop North has recently called upon today’s clergy to do: he went to his bishop and asked to be placed in a slum parish. From St. Andrew’s, Wolverhampton he was sent to Holy Trinity, Sneyd, in the heart of The Potteries, where he started to preach a red-hot Gospel.
The sitting congregation of middle-class worthies rapidly collapsed. Unperturbed, Father Jim started to rebuild the ‘church of the poor.’ Sneyd parish became notorious for its uncompromising, radical congregation of potters, miners, unemployed, and their families. Through the general strike and hunger marches of the Great Depression, the congregation took to the streets with the crucifix at their head. Father Jim soon met and joined forces with Conrad Noel, the vicar of Thaxted, and became part of the Anglo-Catholic Crusade, a relationship reinforced by his new curate, Harold Mason, who had been at the original declaration of the Crusade in 1918. The revolutionary significance of breaking bread in the name of Christ, the closeness of communion and communism, Marxism combined with high Anglo-Catholicism, became an explosive and inspiring mixture. Visitors were welcomed into the church by a sign reading:
In this Church of the Catholic Crusade, the Blessed Sacrament is reserved. God is present under the cover of bread, but it is bread consecrated by the body of Christ’s people, who know that God is justice and who, therefore, struggle against the capitalist materialist rules of this evil system for the workers’ commonwealth… But we warn you that unless you see Christ in the masses you cannot see Him in the Mass. Unless you see Him in communism, you will not see Him in the workers’ struggle for bread, you will not see Him at the altar. Unless you are revolutionary against the present evil world, which denies the bread of life to those who produce it, and unless you fight for the common bread for the common people, you must not dare to approach this Holy Sacrament.’ It makes The Society signs in our church porches today look rather lame.
Yet for all the fiery preaching it was very much a ‘hands-on’ ministry. The parishioners re-decorated the church from top to bottom to make the house of God bright and cheerful. The style of worship was charismatic—Anglo-Catholic to the biretta, but charismatic. I recall attending an anniversary service for Conrad Noel at Thaxted some years ago and the few remaining Crusaders had finished singing the hymns whilst the rest of us were just starting the second verse. With stomping feet and waving arms, they were rousing, lively Christians who sang with soul in a sea of contemporary Church of England mediocrity.
After the main Sunday Mass a parish breakfast was held (a discrete way of feeding those in need) and every month a parish supper. Every Wednesday there was a parish meeting that would sit and listen to people’s stories of poverty, unemployment and other challenges and work out how Christ’s teaching called upon them to respond, and then plan how to do so in practice over the coming days or months. Each month a similar meeting was held away from the church in the Town Hall to work across parishes. In this way the church community became engaged not only in supporting each other, in communion with Christ, but likewise with the wider issues of their day. It made for lively and informed political debate. The vicar and churchwardens were even instructed by the PCC to go the AGM of the Church Commissioners to demand why the Church of England was investing their money in the arms industry.
My father recalled what seems an astonishing act of faith: that throughout the Great Depression there was a plate at the back of the church labelled ‘from each according to their ability, to each according to their need.’ Those with extra cash donated, and those in need took what was required. Throughout the Depression, the plate was never empty. It was through such activities that Father Jim became a real ‘father’ to his people whom he deeply loved, despite muttering that the best use of incense was to hide the smell of his congregation. He championed the dispossessed, taking on the council over the eviction of families. He even lent his suit to poor miners when they needed one for formal occasions.
Father Jim’s ministry to the poor lasted for 12 years (1920–1932) before the press got wind of it. He was lambasted across the pages of the national papers for ritualism, for red flags and the hammer and sickle alongside the crucifix, for the photograph of Lenin in the vestry. In October 1932, the Morning Post boomed: ‘Here, in a consecrated shrine of the Church of England, a vicar and his flock have for twelve years been aiming at revolution… their religious creed is Christianity. Their political creed is subversion…’ The situation came to a head a few months later when he was denounced for misleading the minds of children through the teaching in the Sunday School (a charge broadly levelled at every radical since Socrates, and coming soon to a church near you). The issue was debated in Parliament and my grandfather denounced as ‘the Red Vicar of Sneyd.’ He was defended in the debate by Colonel Wedgwood, who begged his peers not to pick on a priest for ‘[foolish] politics not unlike that of the Bishop of London’ when he was a ‘real father to the people of Burslem’ and a force for good across The Potteries. Parliament didn’t agree, and neither did the bishops. With piles of hate mail arriving at the vicarage, and with the church, state and media denouncing his work, my grandfather suffered a nervous breakdown. His later ministry of healing became just as powerful and influential but his days of championing the poor with visionary zeal were over. This was perhaps due to the collapse of the Anglo-Catholic Crusade itself. My grandfather had said of the Russian Revolution that: ‘In Moscow they have rejected the caricature. They reject the label “God” on a package which does not contain God. They have a package with God inside it, but it bears the label “atheism”.’
Once the truth of Stalin’s purges became widely known, laying bare the extreme cruelty of the Russian Revolution, such ideals collapsed and the Anglo-Catholic Crusade with it. It was the last great social explosion of the Church of England, which has been in decline ever since. This is despite the continuing ministries of inspirational priests like Alan Ecclestone, who lived through the crucible of Sneyd and was inspired by my grandfather’s ministry throughout his life.
With this background, it is perhaps no surprise that Bishop North’s call to return our parishes to the service of the poor fills my heart with joy. So why am I so disquieted? Perhaps because the very need for such a call to the priesthood to minister to the poor suggests a fundamental failure. Where are the visions of Christ and the true vocations? Overwhelmed, I suspect, as the church has evolved the dog collar into white collar administration. Far too many of our priests now have ‘a job,’ whatever their original calling. The church has ‘professionalized’ itself to a point of paralysis, a paralysis suffocating the mission at the heart of the church with bureaucratic complicity to an agenda driven by the state and by the fear of the media, not by God.
On the ground, in the pews, this manifests in curious ways. A dishevelled man walked into our church recently, during the Stations of the Cross. He promptly joined in, crying all the way through. I heard echoes of my grandfather’s ministry. He turned out to be Polish and spoke very little English. For a short time he re-appeared regularly. He may or may not have tried to take someone’s purse. He may or may not have been sleeping rough in someone’s garden shed. Even when the church was closed, he would pray to our Lady through the glass door, kneeling in tears and leaving flowers for her on the doorstep, ‘stolen’ from the neighbours gardens. He gave sweets to the children, stared through the school railings and wandered into the Sunday School. All hell broke loose—it is how the church has trained the congregation to respond. As churchwarden, I was asked how I was going to ‘protect’ the suddenly ‘vulnerable’ congregation, and in particular the children, from this ‘awful’ man. Court injunctions were taken out. Locks were fitted to the Sunday School door and every child and vulnerable adult protection scheme swung into action. He was regularly reported to the police. At about the time we had finally tracked down a Polish speaker who was willing to come and help us communicate, the man disappeared, perhaps to prison, perhaps to Poland. Or perhaps he was taken up to heaven, in which case he made a sorry report. This is how the church now loves its poor neighbour. So much for visions of Christ.
Crippled by the parish share our poor parish (containing some of the poorest streets in Kent) no longer delivers ‘modern’ facilities. Our soup kitchens have long been closed by health and safety and such services ‘pooled’ through the town’s Rainbow Centre to which anyone in need is immediately referred. The centre is a successful ‘Churches Together’ project but has distanced the poor and homeless from the parish. Worse, we are no longer permitted to welcome our neighbour unless they appear within strict guidelines that maintain professional boundaries. Those who fall outside must immediately be referred into diocesan procedures to be dealt with by ‘professionals.’ Professionals for the addicted; professionals for the abused; professionals for the homeless; professionals for the gender-confused; the police for anyone vaguely threatening; social services for anyone showing sign of trauma… those who would ‘love their neighbour’ and assist are instructed to not become involved ‘for their own protection.’ Procedure must be followed or PCCs become vulnerable to legal action, their insurance invalid. The response to the stranger, to those who look in the least desperate, is systematized and secularized. The impenetrable ‘boundaries’ of professional ‘procedure’ results in fear both inside the vicarage and in the pews, through which the love of God for the dispossessed is not allowed to penetrate. In such ways many parishes are both impoverished by the demands of centralized services and disenfranchised by those same services from any direct mission to the poor. Lucky are the parishes wealthy enough to have escaped this trap.
This must end if the average church is ever to recover its ministry. Love for the poor begins in the pews not in Diocesan House or with social services. In response to the resulting crisis of vacuity, churches are being encouraged to become banks, concert halls, community centres, coffee shops, post offices, and delivery centres for diocesan professionals charged with ‘community engagement.’ All of these might be worthy additional uses for church halls, but they are also part of the slippery slope of secularization for any House of God.
It is time to reclaim our churches for God and our parishes for Christ and his mission to the poor. The tools of the Anglo-Catholic Crusade for such ministry are simply waiting for someone to pick them up again. I am not referring to the political movement, which was ill advised, and neither am I, as Bishop North puts it, ‘so busy looking back at the church’s past that we fail to see ahead to God’s future.’ As Bishop North also recognized: ‘In order to turn the world upside down we need to turn the church upside down.’ The Anglo-Catholic Crusade did precisely that. The parish breakfast, the parish dinner, the parish meeting, the town hall, the church loved as the House of God, the charismatic Anglo-Catholic ministry: all seem to me to be awaiting their moment to transform our parishes with visionary zeal once again. They deliver the ‘listening’ and radical parishes that Bishop North advocates. At its heart you will find not fear of our neighbour but the love of God—which is as well, for the fate of my grandfather, and the fate of Christ himself, awaits. The church will not take lightly to being turned upside down. Yet for its own sake, it must be. Through the fire of the Holy Spirit, let our hearts be prepared to see it through.
Dr David M. Wilson is a churchwarden of St Peter’s, Folkestone and Lay Chair of Forward in Faith in the Diocese of Canterbury.