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franciscan - January 2001

© The Society of Saint Francis, 2000

Jesus and the Drains

By Alan Wilkinson

A Victorian slum priest, campaigning for better sanitation, was told to stop interfering in secular matters. He replied, ‘I speak out and fight about the drains because I believe in the Incarnation’. Between 1885 and 1895, another slum priest, Father Dolling, transformed the poorest area of Portsmouth. He created a gym to promote physical fitness and dancing, but his ‘Communicants Dancing Guild’ disgusted a local evangelical vicar. ‘Who can separate the secular from the religious?’, asked Dolling. ‘Certainly the Master did not try to do so.’ He forced brothels to close, attacked army authorities for mismanagement and encouraged trade unions. The worship combined high ritual with hymns sung to homely tunes. Dolling, singing songs with servicemen, was very different from the bookish Tractarians. Why did priests like Dolling begin to connect Jesus with drains and dancing? They learned their incarnationalism and sacramentalism from a tradition which included the theologians F D Maurice, Stewart Headlam, Charles Gore and Henry Scott Holland.

F D Maurice (1805-72) proclaimed a God of universal compassion, not a God who selects some and damns the rest. For Maurice, the gospel starts not with sin and fall, but with creation and Incarnation. All are made in the image of God and thus already in Christ, though many do not realise it. Liturgy and sacraments draw us out of individualism into community. Maurice rejected the evangelical division between spiritual and material, sacred and secular. Church and state promote the same ends and can learn from one another. Maurice’s unifying theology has provided the basis for much Anglican social thought and action ever since. It attracts those who dislike boundaries between church and society.

An example of those who were deeply influenced by Maurice was Stewart Headlam (1847-1924). When he was a curate he noticed two of his communicants on the stage. To avoid disgrace, they implored him not to tell anyone. This prompted him to a passionate desire to reconcile church and stage. ‘It is because we are communicants that we go to the theatre’, he said. He created the first socialist society in England, the Guild of St Matthew (1877). Among its aims was: ‘the study of social and political questions in the light of the Incarnation’. He genuflected in adoration when he heard the phrase ‘the Word was made flesh’. ‘We are Socialists because we are Sacramentarians’, he claimed. The creation of a swimming pool, playground or footpath were signs of the kingdom.

So by the end of the nineteenth century there was a shift from atonement to Incarnation in Anglican theology, from God’s wrath to his love, from transcendence to immanence, from eschatology to the coming of the kingdom now. The most famous and influential example of this shift was Lux Mundi (1889), a symposium edited by Charles Gore (1853-1932). It was subtitled ‘Studies in the Religion of the Incarnation’. It regarded scientific, theological and political explorers as allies not enemies. For Gore, the self-emptying of Christ in the Incarnation (Philippians 2) was of profound moral significance. In 1892, he founded the Community of the Resurrection to be a model community and to promote socially responsible living. Later, as a bishop, he argued for a minimum wage, redistributive taxation, trade union rights, co-operative and co-partnership schemes. But he took a more sombre view of human nature than other Liberal Catholics, rejected belief in automatic progress and never forgot that the ‘Word made flesh’ died on a cross of rejection.

Gore’s closest friend, Henry Scott Holland (1847-1918), launched the Christian Social Union in 1889. It inaugurated a tradition of social thought and investigation which in the 1980s led to Faith in the City. Central to Holland’s social thought was the Incarnation: ‘the more you believe in the Incarnation, the more you care about drains’. Whereas continental Christians (including the Pope) thought socialism and Christianity were totally incompatible, the British Labour movement was permeated by Christian influence, thanks to Maurice, Headlam, Gore, Holland and the Free Churches.

This tradition of finding Jesus in the needy continued in the twentieth century. Father Basil Jellicoe, the housing pioneer, was asked why he assisted at St Martin-in-the-Fields, a church where there was no reserved sacrament. ‘Because the crypt is reserved for Christ’s poor’, he replied. A founder of SSF, Brother Douglas, believed that the gospel could be preached authentically to the poor only by those who shared their poverty. William Temple, later Archbishop of Canterbury, preaching in 1919 on Matthew 25 asked, ‘Of what avail is it that I glorify [Christ] in his sanctuary or adore him in the Blessed Sacrament, if when I meet him in the street I turn away from him?’ His best-selling Christianity and Social Order (1942) and his failure to preserve more church schools, showed that he went on believing that the state would continue to support Christendom.

Spurious arguments from the Incarnation have been used by Anglicans to justify everything from seats for bishops in the Lords to blessing nuclear submarines. Indeed, Father Neville Figgis CR and other critics have charged incarnationalism with encouraging false social optimism. The church, instead of challenging the status quo, blesses it. Figgis argued that Edwardian civilisation was moving, not towards sunlit uplands, but catastrophe. Ironically, the proofs of his book on this theme went down with the Titanic in 1912. The theologian Donald MacKinnon, at Archbishop Temple’s 1941 Malvern Conference on church and society, argued that the Incarnation was not the consummation of evolution but ‘irruptive’, ‘catastrophic’, ‘abrupt’. Christ’s whole life was a movement towards death. The Incarnation was not a general principle, but a specific life. It was ‘blasphemous ... impertinence’ to argue that the world could not be such a bad place because it became the setting for the Incarnation. He warned against glib utopian talk about post-war reconstruction. In 1968, MacKinnon contrasted the self-emptying of the Incarnation with the cushioning provided by establishment.

Another critic, David Nicholls, argued that incarnationalism avoided conflict at all costs and taught that the kingdom would come so peacefully that even the mighty would hardly feel a bump when they were lowered gently from their seats. But Christians believe that reconciliation is only achieved through a cross. There were grave dangers in believing (as Maurice did) that the state is sacred, that there is no separation between sacred and secular and that everything can be Christianised. For Bishop Rowan Williams ‘not belonging’ is a Christian vocation for those who, like Jesus, stand for God against nation, religious institution and family.
‘Do not be conformed to this world’, St Paul wrote. During the Thatcher years a government minister called on the Church to develop a theology of success. Archbishop Runcie responded, ‘What do you do with the crown of thorns and Christ’s shed blood when you create a theology of success?’ British Anglicans, powerfully moulded by their surrounding culture, need to become more counter-cultural in their attitudes to issues such as wealth, inequality, monarchy, asylum seekers, sex, taxation, Sunday, the National Lottery. But this depends upon us seeing the Incarnation not as a reason for icing everyone’s cakes, but as a challenge so radical that it led to the cross.

Canon Alan Wilkinson
is Diocesan Theologian
at Portsmouth Cathedral.
His latest study of church and society is
Christian Socialism:
Scott Holland to Tony Blair,

SCM Press, 1998


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