The Illogical Priest
A review of Stewart D. Headlam's The Socialist's Church by St. John G. Ervine, in The New Age, 664, May 30 1907.
It is always a matter for wonder to me that any priest, particularly if he be a priest of the Established Church of this country, can conscientiously label himself Liberal or Conservative. After studying the Bible and the life of Jesus and pondering over the Sermon on the Mount, I am amazed that the chosen exponents of the Faith should be so false to that Faith as to bolster up a system of monopoly and individualism. One can understand a layman being a Conservative or a Liberal, but how a priest can logically profess such principles and claim to be a follower of Christ passes the comprehension of a simple minded Catholic Socialist. And here is Mr. Stewart D. Headlam -- who is one of those dreadful High Church priests who get on the nerves of the Church Association -- agreeing that a priest who is not a Socialist is an utterly illogical being. He takes that excellent little Socialist text-book, the Book of Common Prayer, in his hand and he says, in effect, to his brother-priests, "Why don't You read this book instead of merely looking at it." The crux of the whole Christian Socialist position is a Christ-like interpretation of the Prayer Book.
Mr. Headlam is very careful to point out that the Prayer Book is a Socialist document; a Fabian tract. He has not, perhaps, laboured the point so thoroughly as Christian Socialists would have liked, but he has put it to the priests, who, it is to be hoped, will read this little book very carefully, in a somewhat elementary fashion, that their liturgy is purely and simply Socialistic. The basic principle of Christianity is the Fatherhood of God, and an integral part of that principle is the Brotherhood of Man. Mr. Headlam insists upon this fact. He declares that the Sacrament of Baptism is the great Sacrament of equality, whereby every child is declared to be a child of God. He tells us -- that the Eucharist itself is a great levelling Sacrament, whereby all men approach the Almighty in the same fashion, drinking from a common cup, eating of the same bread. He quotes the Magnificat, with its insistence upon the love of God for the poor and His contempt for riches. He might have added that the note of common brotherhood is sounded in the very first words of Matins and Evensong -- "Dearly Beloved Brethren." These are not isolated examples. The Prayer Book is full of the doctrine of the Brotherhood of Man. The prayer beginning "Our Father Who art in heaven" is said at least twice in each of the Church's services, thus laying special emphasis on the fact that God is the common Father of us all.
Now, in any well-regulated family, the father distributes his bounty in equal measure to all his children. A man who gave all his gifts to one of his children, leaving the others giftless, who over-fed one child and did not feed the others at all, who allowed one child to play whilst he compelled the others to work hard to provide it with playthings, such a father would be regarded as unfit for his high office. Yet the average Christian is content to believe that God distributes His gifts with a sense of partiality which would be considered abominable and unnatural in an earthly father. Now, what would be abominable in a man must be infinitely more abominable in God. The fact that twelve million people in these islands alone are always on the verge of starvation must either be a thing repugnant to God or God is not the Father of His people. It is not a bit of good preaching contentment with their lot to the poor, promising them untold bliss hereafter. You cannot bribe away the cynicism of hungry men by ecstatic visions of pearly gates and golden harps, nor can wasted bodies and warped minds be regarded as visible signs of God's love. Either these things are signs of God's hatred of man or God hates the conditions of life which make such things possible. He cannot be the Father of the people and their Persecutor at the same time. Why should God wait until we are dead before He makes us co-sharers in happiness? I am not concerned with the superstitions with which Christians have surrounded the person of God. Mr. Headlam disposes of Balaam and his ass and Jonah and the preposterous whale sufficiently well -- indeed, I was surprised to find that he considered it necessary to deny that these things ever happened, although I was agreeably amazed to find him courageous enough to declare that St. John and St. Paul were not infallible. I pass these superstitions over. What we Socialists are concerned with only is the Fatherhood of God and the impossibility of reconciling present-day conditions of life with that Fatherhood.
Whether men like the Bishop of Birmingham, Mr Headlam and Father Adderley and Percy Dearmer and Conrad Noel and the priests of the Community of the Resurrection will ever bring about a complete understanding of the spirit of Christianity is a point which will not be decided in our generation; but it is good to know that some of them are trying to bring about the Kingdom of God on earth.
St. John G. Ervine
The New Age, 664, May 30 1907.