The Socialist's Church

Chapter II: Some Dangerous Popular Misconceptions of the Church's Teaching.

So far, then, as the Basis and Constitution of the Church is concerned, the Socialists, and all who are keen for Social amelioration, and especially the great mass of the wage-earners, would do well, instead of denouncing or ignoring the Church, to be capturing it, and using it for its own proper ends.

The fact that in the past the Church has been misused should be all the more a reason for now using it. The past misuse of Parliament does not prevent wise men from endeavouring to capture the Great Council of the Nation in the interests of the People; it makes them, indeed, the more eager to do so. The Land, which for so long has had its enormous value monopolised, is at any rate one of the things which the People are determined to get back for their own use, and the more they realise that for years it is their labour which has created that value, the more eager they are to claim their rights in it. The Schools, which for long have been in private hands, are gradually being claimed as the People's Schools; but the Church, splendidly organised throughout the country -- this great Society, so powerful for good or evil, of their rights in which the people have been so long deprived, is not only not claimed, but is attacked and despised.

How is this to be accounted for? Partly, no doubt, by the fact that the Church has been judged by the faults of its members rather than by the value of its Basis. It is easier to denounce the action of the Bishops in the House of Lords than to investigate whether by that action they were proving themselves true or false to the Church in which they were officers. But that does not account for it altogether. Many, who would be the first to assert that such action of the Bishops, and similar action or inaction on the part of other Churchmen, was contrary to the Church's teaching, would be the last to feel that such an assertion in any way made it binding on those who made it to become active members of the Christian Society which the others were misrepresenting; and so help to bring it into line with its own principles and professions. And, if such people were closely tackled, it would be found that their minds were full of a mass of popular misrepresentations about the Church's teaching which kept them back from active Church membership, and that also to some degree they were the victims of a very common kid of hypocrisy, the pretending to be much less religious than they really are. It would be found that they were guilty of taking all the advantages from the Christian tradition, the Christian ideal, the Christian ethics, and refusing to make any outward acknowledgment of the Christian name.

In order, then, that Socialists may take their proper place in the Church, and in order that the Church may have its proper influence upon Socialism, as well as for other reasons, it is necessary to make a clean sweep of a whole mass of popular misrepresentations.

Men are again getting interested in Religion. Materialism no longer satisfies or explains. Men are seeking after God. Socialists are beginning to feel that their propaganda will never be successful unless they have the inspiration and encouragement which Religion gives. The Catholic Faith, the Christian Church, properly understood, is just what they want; but, as foolishly misrepresented, it repels them. Those Clergy and other Church teachers who know what their own documents mean -- and they are in a minority -- are so afraid of alienating the few pious people who frequent their ministrations that they do not speak out; and worse, for more than thirty years the State ha endowed in the elementary schools a system of Biblical teaching which is not even as liberal or frank as that of he Clergy. And so a generation has grown up, well trained in many secular matters, but grievously behindhand in matters of Religion. On all hands, therefore, it is necessary to make a clear distinction between the Church's teaching and the popular religious mistakes about that teaching. There is no need for a new Socialist Religion, no need for a new Theology, no need for a new Church; here and there perhaps some restatement may be necessary, but the main thing, after having proved that the Catholif Faith is essentially at one with the Socialist ideal, is to get rid of the false teaching which the religious world has allowed to accumulate round the Catholic Faith, which chokes it and hides its beauty.


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In the first place, we must be perfectly frank about the Bible, we must deliver the people from the incubus of an infallible book; almost all the difficulties which prevent Socialists and, what is more important, prevent the great mass of the workers from becoming active members of the Christian Church, are caused by crude notions about the Bible, and will disappear when Jesus, the real Word of God, takes the place in man's imagination and thoughts now usurped by the Bible. There are still thousands who think that the Church teaches that the world was made in the first six days of the year 6006 B.C.; that the story of the creation of Adam and Eve and of the Garden of Eden are literal facts; there are still young men allowed to go out into the world so poorly equipped, so far as Religion is concerned, that they are ready to lose their faith in Christ and His Church because they get convinced that the story of the Fall is not literal history; who make shipwreck of their Religion over Cain's wife; who give up their Communion because they do not believe the story of Jonah and the whale, or of Balaam's ass. There is no need to multiply instances. The whole thing would be ridiculous if it were not so terribly pathetic. At a time when men are becoming discontented with Materialism, wen they want Religion, when it is being felt that the great secular reforms which the Socialists are aiming at, will never get themselves established unless men arte conscious that God is moving men towards their accomplishment' at this critical moment the Christian Church allows itself to be discredited because its responsible teachers have not the courage to offend a few pious souls by openly saying that their superstitions, however harmless they may be to themselves, are no part of the Church's teaching, and that it is treason to the Church to treat them as a part of the Church's teaching.

If the return to Religion is to mean a great return to the Church, then the common people must be plainly and frankly told that the Bible is not the infallible Word of God; that the religion and morality which that interesting literature records were tentative and relative; that many horrible and foolish things are recorded in it with approval, which it would be un-Christian for us to approve; that, anyhow, the quoting of texts here, there, and everywhere from a literature which extended over centuries, as texts concerning the Word of God for us, is absurd and immoral, and leads to revolt and atheism, is damaging Religion, and hindering the Church's work. It will not be sufficient for the more liberal Clergy to acknowledge this privately; it will not be enough to dwell on the positive value of the Bible as literature; the negative side must be asserted, and asserted quite plainly. Above all, if the Bible is to be taught at all in the Public Schools, there must be no treating it as the infallible Word of God.

It need not, perhaps, be here stated that to treat the Bible as an interesting literature instead of a series of dictated texts is not a cheapening of Religion, not an accommodating of it to the tastes of the Socialists and the People, but is a heightening of the value of Religion. It is recorded of Maurice, in his later life, that "More and more he had come to look upon all expressions implying that the letter of the Bible is the Word of God, as denials of the living Word of God of whom the Bible speaks." The whole thing is contained in that statement. The Bible, and the Bible only, may be the religion of Protestants, but the Catholic Faith, with its one unique Christian service bearing witness to the Eternal Presence of Jesus Christ, is not founded on a book but on a Person, and gives us a Religion at once reasonable and powerful. It is this misuse of the Bible which is the chief hindrance in the way of that great return to the Church which might otherwise be now be reasonably expected. But it is important to remember that the documents of the Curch are in no way responsible for this misuse, and that it has been largely fostered by the religion which for the last thirty-five years as been established in the State Schools. The people are not in the habit of looking to Bishops, Deans, and Canons for great freedom of thought' but it may be fairly claimed that the Bishop of Birmingham, the Dean of Westminster, and at any rate one Canon of St. Paul's, are far more liberal and reasonable in their treatment of the Bible than the State's teachers are.

Probably nothing would do more to help towards the capture of the Church by the people, than the compelling of the State to have done with its impertinent attempt to teach religion at all; the confining of the State's work to the secular sphere; and the throwing on the Church, and especially on the Church's ministers, the responsibility of doing the work for which they are paid. Anyhow, we have a right to demand that the State shall no longer establish for the children a religion founded on a book in opposition to the Christian religion founded upon a Person and safeguarded in a living society.

But though it is a misunderstanding of the place of the Bible in our religion which is mainly responsible for the fact that so many of the very people who above all others would benefit by using the Church as the great society for the promotion of righteousness, not only do not so use it but flout at and attack it, there are other reasons also. There is, for instance, the confusion of the horrible, unjust, malignant fiction of Substitution with the great Catholic truth of Atonement. The notion that God so hated the world that He had determined to destroy the human race: that Christ by shedding his blood on the cross bribed an angry Father to let off those of the human race who should afterwards correctly believe in Him from the punishment due to their sins, which He had suffered instead of them: that those who did not so correctly believe should be kept after death in torments for ever: this figment has been allowed in the popular imagination to take the place of the Catholic doctrine of the Atonement. Charles Bradlaugh did so much to force the Church to face the evil which had resulted from putting Substitution in the place of Atonement, and the theology of the best teachers has gained so much benefit from his iconoclastic efforts, that some do not realise that the idols he so vigorous attacked are still worshipped, and that the absence of two-thirds of the population from Christian worship is largely due to this continued idolatry.

The belief which was common half a century ago, that a large proportion of the human race were doomed to torments for ever, though of course long discredited by reasonable theologians, still lingers in the Lancashire Sunday schools, and among others who teach the young. And the ghost of this inhuman belief still alienates many from the Church, and has confused men's minds about the reality of sin, the inevitability of punishment and the need for forgiveness. Purgatory, Penance, Absolution, which answer to great human needs, have thus been ignored.

Further, it is a dangerous perversion of the Church's teaching to put St. Paul, or even St. John, in the place which belongs to Jesus Christ alone. If, as the historians say, the Gospels were written after St. Paul had been some time at work, it seems possible that they were deliberately intended to counteract some things dangerously hard to understand in Paul's teaching. Anyhow, the Church is the Christian Church, and St. Paul's teaching, for instance, about women and about slavery, is not necessarily binding on the Church. It is a crude theology which drives a woman to give up her Communion, to separate herself from conscious Church membership, to deprive the Christian Society of the benefit of her intelligent presence on account of some utterance of St. Paul about the women of Corinth. It is cruel that the wage-slaves of England, the victims of anarchic competition caused by the great means of production being monopolised, should be led to revolt against the Church of the great human Emancipator, Jesus Christ, because St. Paul told a slave under the Roman Empire to remain in slavery. So with the use of St. Paul's technical term "the flesh," as well as St. John's use of the word "the world," it is a pity to allow it to be deduced from them that the human affections and bodily appetites are at best necessary evils; or that men who are living most unwordly live in order to mainatin that this world demands and will repay our utmost care and attention, should think that on that account they should have nothing to do with, except in the way of attack, with the great secular Society of Him who came to found a Kingdom of Heaven upon earth.

Few people now read the Book of the Revelation of St. John the Divine; and the extraordinary predictions as to the details of future events which used to be deduced from it have gone out of fashion. But eschatology still holds the field, and there can be no doubt that revolt has been caused by its being supposed that St. John, in that rhetorical political pamphlet, was inspired to describe literally the condition of life after death. This of itself has done grievous harm. But it has also prevented a book which all Socialists, especially all revolutionary Socialists, would have found most inspiring, from being studied by them. There is, indeed, a close similarity between the condition of Rome and the condition of any modern capital; and a comparison might well be drawn between the attitude of the early Christians towards the one and of the Social Democracy towards the other. Indeed, generally the positive harm done by treating the Bible as a series of dictated texts is equalled by the loss which the Socialists suffer by not studying it as a Library of inspiring literature. The Revolutionaries of today would get both guidance and inspiration from the cryptic utterances of St. John the Divine if they were no longer put before them as literal descriptions of life after death.

And, indeed, perhaps one of the chief misconceptions of the Church's teaching is that "otherworldliness" is its dominant note; this mistake has been dealt with in the earlier part of this essay; but it is perhaps worth while to state quite definitely and baldly that the Kingdom of Heaven in Christ's parables is not a place in the clouds, or a state to be entered after death, but a righteous condition of things to be established on earth; that the eternal life is the divine life; that it is quality rather than duration to which the word refers; that it consists not in living for ever and ever, but in the knowledge of God; that the Age which Christ said would end has ended; that Christ is now judging the world, and that every altar in Christendom bears witness to His real presence. Unless this is understood, unless it is made clear that Christ said very little about life after death, but a great deal about the righteous Society to be established on earth, there is a serious danger lest all Socialist effort should be paralysed by the poor being taughth that contentment with poverty here would be rewarded hereafter, and by the rich thinking that kindliness and compassion is all that is needed from them. It is, of course, quite true that Christ was not an economic Socialist; those who think that they have made a mighty contribution towards the movement in opposition to Christian Socialism by making that remark, show that they do not understand that Christ "emptied Himself," that He did not force truths on people who were not prepared for them; but though Christ was not an economic Socialist, He laid down principles of Brotherhood which, in our time, require economic Socialism for their accomplishment. The fact that He said, "The poor ye have always with you," that He blessed the poor fishermen who were His followers, and that He refused to use his influence in the interest of a younger brother in want of money -- these three facts, so often quoted by those who contend that Socialism is anti-Christian, really do nothing which makes it untrue to say that the banner of Christ is now in the hands of the Socialists. There was no foretelling that the grinding poverty should continue when the Brotherhood He came to found was established, there was no blessing of the conditions which make the slums possible, no prophetic protest against a general righteous division of wealth. Moreover, the poor referred to were what we should call the working classes, not the unemployed or the sweated. If, however, there are any who look forward with anxiety to the time when there will be no poor to be done good to, they may take heart by remembering that under even an ideal Socialist system, the idler, the loafer, of whatever class, will undoubtedly fall into poverty and require a good deal of discipline on the part of those who would do him good. In this connection it is specially worth noting that the teaching which has revolutionised Politcal Economy in England was founded on Christ's saying, "I will give unto this last even as unto thee." It is to be hoped that, now that Mr. Ruskin's epoch-making little book can be obtained for a few pence, it will be read far and wide as a text-book of a Political Economy which is essentially Christian.

Once again, there is a popular misrepresentation about the Church's teaching, which makes miracles a necessary part of a Divine revelation. The ancient suggestion, which used to be characterised as devilish, "if thou be the Son of God, work a miracle," has been so thoroughly assimilated by some teachers that they look upon miracles as a proof of Godhead, and so scandal is caused, and the faith of many is shipwrecked.

Matthew Arnold insisted that miracles do not happen, without altogether making it clear what he meant by a miracle; but undoubtedly there are many Christian teachers who puzzle the readers of the Clarion and of the Rationalist press publications, and keep them aloof from the Church, by forgetting that Christ refused Himself to dwell on the miraculousness of His works; that it is their significance rather than their wonder which is important; that if it could be proved that they were done naturally, their significance and Hid Divinity would be in no way impaired. And so, too, His Virgin birth and His glorious Resurrection have been treated as if they were the proofs of His Deity, whereas it was only to men who knew otherwise that He was God that the details of His birth and resurrection seemed reasonable.

The object of this short chapter is to suggest that it is the popular misrepresentations of the Church's teaching which keep Socialists and Social Reformers and the great mass of the working population of England from becoming conscious members of the Church which exists to bear witness to the personality of Jesus Christ, and which ought to be the great instrument by which Religion could be organised for secular human welfare. It is high time that those who take the lead in the Socialist movement should reconsider their position, that they should no longer assume that all this superstition and rubbish is an essential part of the Christian teaching, simply because they were taught it in their childhood, or because it is the State's established child-religion in England. It is about time for the Socialists, Social Reformers, and the great mass of the workers to judge for themselves on these matters, and, if they want guidance, to be guided by men who know something of the subject.

It is somewhat humiliating to those who regard them with respect and honour to find that, in the matter of Religion, they have not gone beyond the mid-Victorian Sunday school teacher -- to find that even a Jesuit Priest, as evidence by Father Tyrell's "Much abused letter," had for years been more rational in his dealing with Religion than they are. However, there is no need for recrimination; it is now abundantly clear that, so far as the doctrine and documents of the Church in this country are concerned, there is nothing to prevent any reasonable person from being an active, conscious member of the Christian Society, and from using that Society as one of the great means for the establishment of righteous social and economic conditions.

In one of the great creeds of Christendom, each Churchman says, "I belive in the Holy Ghost" -- "I look for the life of the coming age." It is no exaggeration to say that since the Reformation till the great Church Revival of the last century, the popular notion was that the Holy Ghost had ceased to work after the Canon of Scripture had been formed; there are some now who think that He died in the third century; but the only way in which the Church can be a real living power, able to adapt itself to the philosophy of each age and the need of each generation, is to believe, with the Creed of Christendom, that the Holy Ghost sanctifies the Church now as He sanctified the Church of the Apostles and the Church of the Fathers.

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When the Socialists recognise this; as a generation of them grows up free from the incubus of all the Victorian baggage; as men more and more feel that to bring about the great material revolution spiritual force if necessary; as they begin to know that force, so as to act effectually, must be organised, so they will be constrained to use the Church as a means to make the life of the coming age more worth living. They will come back at first one by one by coming into contact with Teachers and Clergy who know what their work commends them: but eventually, the stupid, superstitious misrepresentations having been cleared away, this great return to the Church should not be by units but by societies.

There is no valid reason why, in the case of certain Societies, Labour Churches, Ethical Societies and others, this should not take place at once; but it seems probable that it will not take place generally until one great reform already touched upon has been accomplished.

That reform consists in the disestablishment of the Patron and the substitution of the Church in the Parish and Diocese in his place; this, as Thomas Hancock untiringly pointed out, would be to go back to Apostolic habit, when the Church chose its own minister; and would also be following the living example of Switzerland, where, both in Catholic and Protestant Cantons, the Pastor and the Priest are elected for a set term of years by the people. The present system is often scandalous, and in every case prevents the people from realising that they are the Church. It is a proof of the carelessness of the people with reference to this common property of theirs that when the Parish Councils Bill was before the country, no attempt was made to connect this election of the Parish Priest with the working of that Bill. Some little excitement now and again is worked up when some transaction takes place that looks like the sale of a living; but, of course, there is really no more harm in the Patronage of a living being sold than there is in it being inherited' neither is there any more harm in the Patronage being in the hands of a landlord than in the hands of a Christian Bishop; the real evil is that the People, the Church, the whole body of the baptised, whether in the Parish or the Diocese, should be deprived of their right -- or, let us say, be prevented from discharging their duty -- of electing the Parish Priests. One result of all this is that the Ministry of the Church is recruited almost entirely from one class, that the great mass of the workers do not supply candidates for the Priesthood. This evil result may, however, perhaps in the future be remedied by means of Kelham and of Mirfield; but what can never be remedied without the abolition of Patronage altogether, is that men, who have no kind of voice in the management of a Society or the election of its officers, are sure to lose touch with it, however good its institutions may be.

Socialists have made much of a popular election for Parliament, for County and Borough Councils, for School Authorities; they would do well to urge that it is time for the Patron to follow the owner of the pocket boroughs into obscurity.

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