A People of the Jubilee

from Through our Long Exile; contexual theology and the urban experience, by Kenneth Leech. London, Darton Longman and Todd, 2001.

Through Our Long ExileMuch of my theological reflection, over the past twenty-six years, has been pursued and circulated through the discussion papers, newsletters and regular updates issued by the Jubilee Group, described as 'a loose network of socialist Christians, mainly within the Anglican Catholic tradition'. The group contains a range of types of socialist -- Marxists (ranging from 'critical Marxists' to fairly orthodox Trotskyists), anarchists, socialist feminists, Labour Party members of varying shades, and many 'unattached socialists', often with passionate concerns for green, monetary justice, peace, and anti-racist issues. The co-ordination of this network takes up a lot of my time.

The beginnings of the Jubilee Group were in September 1974 when I was instituted as Rector of St Matthew's Church, Bethnal Green, and I wrote a letter to a number of friends about the current state of the 'Catholic movement' in the Church of England. We were particularly concerned about 'the renewal of the social conscience of Anglo-Catholicism'. I put these phrases in inverted commas because this was the language we used at the time. In fact, in those years some people were writing of the death of the Catholic movement altogether. As time went on, the idea that the movement was in crisis became widespread.

Yet within a few weeks of our formation, we had moved beyond this concern. Since its foundation, a major part of the work of the Jubilee Group has been the circulation of discussion papers. Indeed, our first discussion paper was David Lake's 'Crisis of Democracy -- which way for the churches', issued early in 1975, and it is fascinating, and at points depressing, to read it in the current climate. The idea of discussion papers grew from a sense that theology needed to engage with ideas in formation, half-baked, still in process of clarification. Discussion papers carry no authority other than that they reflect an author's current thinking, and they are produced for the purpose of response, further debate, and perhaps refutation. They have fallen into three main categories: commentaries on political structures and areas of concern; commentaries on theological issues, with a sub-section of commentaries on current ecclesiastical issues; and reflections on specific events, debates, publications, and so on.

The arrival of the Internet has, of course, made the circulation of this material much easier, and much Jubilee discussion now takes place through the website anglocatholicsocialism.org and the 'Anglican Left' e-group.

We chose the name Jubilee because of its biblical roots, and because it played an important role in earlier Anglican social thinking. I even wrote an article in The Times on the meaning of the Jubilee idea! Few people had any notion what Jubilee meant, or that it had anything to do with the Bible. In the Bible, the fundamental idea of Jubilee is that of release. The Hebrew words which figure in the shabbat (Sabbath) and Jubilee traditions are not tsedeq, (justice) so much as schmitah and dror (release, liberation).

Abandoning control of the earth is at the heart of Jubilee ethics, as is the need for a regular cancelling of debt and setting free of captives. The Year of Jubilee was not once for all. It was very pragmatic, a call for repeated acts of remission and restoration so that injustice and inequality would not accumulate to the point where nothing but violent revolution could change things. The vision of Jubilee, 'the acceptable year of the Lord', was central to both the law and the prophets, and it was the symbol which sparked the ministry of Jesus in his Nazareth manifesto.

The Jubilee network is an anarchic, disorganised, shambolic phenomenon, more like an atmosphere than an organisation. Like all groups which are located at the 'edge of chaos', it is difficult to pin Jubilee down too precisely. That is its strength though it can also be a source of weakness and ineffectiveness. Nevertheless it does seem to fulfil different kinds of needs in different places and at different times, and to have played a number of important roles. We have, through Jubilee, been trying to do collective theology since its formation in 1974, and have done so from the perspective of a 'community'. We have tried to create a network of loving support and solidarity for the 'Catholic left', along the lines suggested by Alasdair MacIntyre in After Virtue (1981) when he referred to 'net-works of small groups of friends', or by Cornel West and Bell Hooks in Breaking Bread (1991) when they spoke of the need for 'a community of comrades who are seeking to deepen our spiritual experience and our political solidarity'. West elsewhere emphasises the importance of affirming and enabling 'subcultures of criticism' and we have tried also to take this seriously. Jubilee is not an organisation but a loose network, a word we were using long before Castells and others began to describe our age as a network society. While Jubilee is perhaps primarily seen as a community of solidarity, it also tries to be a community of interpretation, one which seeks to read texts, documents, statements and liturgies in a mutually supportive way and with some kind of shared consciousness.

Through Jubilee too we have tried to develop a form of theological and political reasoning and reflection which is not academic, though it involves academics, and yet does seek to reconnect serious intellectual debate and analysis with commitment, action and struggle at local and national levels. Historically our antecedents are groups such as the Guild of St Matthew (18??), the Catholic Crusade (1916) and the League of the Kingdom of God (1922), but, while we look to tradition and the movements of the past for inspiration and nourishment, we seek to relate Catholic social theology to the issues of the twenty-first century. We have no membership, simply a mailing list and local groups, and all our literature is 'anti-copyright'. that is, anyone is free to re-issue it without permission. Our organisation is minimal -- an annual meeting and an executive -- with maximum amount of freedom and flexibility. There is an important anarchist tradition within the network which produces both a chaotic feel and an ability to act quickly. It also leads on occasions to exaggerated claims by others: thus a briefing to Margaret Thatcher on movements of subversion within the Churches in 1990 described us as 'the best known and probably the most influential of these groups'.

The way in which the symbol of the Year of Jubilee has re-entered Christian action and reflection over the last twenty years has been in marked contrast with the situation in 1974. Since then, both at the level of biblical studies and at the level of popular writing, Jubilee symbol has become a central one. The publication of John Howard Yoder's The Politics of Jesus in 1973 was a turning-point. 1976 the Jewish scholar Arthur Waskow was promoting a 'Jubilee Network' in the USA, complaining of 'the recent split between social and spiritual concerns' and suggesting that the Year of Jubilee was a symbolic way of transcending this split. He noted the interest in Jubilee from a range of groups -- Jewish, Mennonite, Methodist, Anglican, and so on. By 1999, Frank Griswold, presiding Bishop of the Episcopal Church in the USA, was calling for Christians to become 'a people of Jubilee'.

Of course, by far the biggest and most politically effective use of the symbol has been in the Jubilee 2000 movement, which began with Martin Dent at Keele University and Bill Peters of the United Society for the Propagation of the Gospel. Dent and Peters met in 1990 and launched what became Jubilee 2000. By 1999 it had supporters in over sixty countries. From 2001, two new bodies, Jubilee Plus and Drop the Debt, will take over its work. Little could we have known, when eight of us started the Jubilee Group in a kitchen in Bethnal Green in 1974, that the theme would become so central in the thinking and praxis of Christians and others. As a symbolic frame for theological work, it remains vital with its fourfold stress on setting free the oppressed, the cancelling of debts, the restoration of the land, and the pursuit of all this in a spirit of festivity, symbolised by the blowing of trumpets. It is possible that Jubilee may contain the spark that can ignite spiritual fires capable of bringing about the personal, ecclesial and social transformation that today's world so urgently needs

As Christians enter the twenty-first century, they do so as exiles, strangers and pilgrims, aliens in a strange land. They will need to learn strategies of survival, and to sing the songs of Zion in the midst of Babylon. The era of Christendom is over, and we need to develop post-Christendom theologies of liberation. For, as Marcia Griffiths reminded us over twenty years ago, our call is not only one to survive in the midst of exile, but to take part in the process of deliverance from Babylon, for we are

steppin' out of Babylon,
one by one.