THE CATHOLIC CRUSADE 1918-1936

A reprint of its original Manifesto with an introduction and notes by Reg Groves


INTRODUCTION

THE Catholic Crusade was founded on the evening of Wednesday, April 10th, 1918, at Thaxted Vicarage.

Few organisations can have had so inauspicious a start. Less than a dozen people came to the meeting, [1] and of them, only the Vicar, Conrad Noel was known at all outside the little Essex town. The war was in its fourth year; most of the younger men, and the most likely supporters of the new group were away on distant battlefields; and attention of people at home was fastened anxiously on bloody fighting in France, where Allied armies were reeling back before an immense German offensive.

The handful of people at the Vicarage resolved none the less to set up "the Catholic Crusade of the Servants of the Precious Blood to transform the Kingdoms of the world into the Commonwealth of God". Early on the morning of Saturday, April 13th, some of them on their way to work at Thaxted's sweet factory, attended the first Crusade mass, held in the Becket chapel of the old church. A short statement of aims, rules and methods had been drawn up, and handwritten copies were reproduced on a jelly for distribution to selected prospective members.

Members came along slowly during the rest of that year, but though numbers grew as the Thaxted men, and sympathisers among Church Socialists, came back from the war, there were never very many, [2] for the Crusade was always selective and asked a great deal of its members. During its eighteen years existence, [3] it never had more than two or three hundred members. It remained a handful, but enough of a handful to make itself seen and heard with effect on numerous occasions and in several places.

PRIME mover in the formation of the Catholic Crusade was Conrad Noel, who in 1918 was forty-nine years old, and had been Vicar of Thaxted for eight years, his first living since his ordination in 1894, the intervening years having been spent in energetic propaganda work for Christian Socialism among socialist workingmen and churchgoers, patched with occasional, precarious but by no means always fruitless curacies. A popular figure on socialist platforms, Noel was one of the socialist parsons who, under stimulus of the sensational Liberal Party election victory of 1906, and the appearance in Parliament of 29 nominally independent Labour Members, had founded in July of that year the Church Socialist League, a body more political in its aims and more directly involved in the labour movement than its predecessor, the Guild of St. Matthew.

The League's organising secretary from 1907 to 1910; and its most flamboyant personality, Noel during these years was telling audiences of socialist workingmen and women that the Church was founded to be "the Social Democratic organ of the Kingdom"; that "the Sacraments were social pledges of the Kingdom"; that "the creeds had a Social Democratic significance"; that the Liturgy was "soaked in Socialism"; and that "the Church of England, in taking her stand at the Reformation on not the Bible only, but the Bible as interpreted by early Church writers, is possibly committed to communist principles which go beyond our modest Socialist proposals. "

Churchgoers, Noel argued, "must at least be Socialists and work with their fellow Socialists, Christian and non-Christian alike, for .the establishment of God's international commonwealth." In economic Socialism was to be found "the practical and scientific form for our own day and in one important sphere for the realisation of those very objects which the Church has always had at heart." Though Noel did not believe that economic Socialism alone could create and sustain a true socialist commonwealth, he did share with Socialists of all sorts its basic proposals and assumptions. But by 1910 these were in question; many were saying that economic socialism as generally understood and accepted could, in the hands of a bureaucratic state, become a means not of enfranchisment but of economic subjection. Many of the younger men were turning from Labour, Fabian and Liberal reformist politics to the advocacy of militant industrial action; and the workers themselves, in a series of widespread strikes, were displaying a temper unknown in Britain since Chartist times. [4]

Yet Noel's opinions on what had to be done, and how it had to be done, in church and state, remained unchanged in essentials. He seemed satisfied that the Church Socialist League would continue to grow in numbers and influence, and that change in the Church would be accelerated. A few months before becoming Vicar of Thaxted, [5] Noel wrote, "What is urgently needed is a reinterpretation of the creeds and their application to the practical life of man, the democratisation of the Church, an effective desire to meet both Nonconformists, Atheists and Agnostics, listen to their criticisms, and, with their help, rebuild the national religion, without sacrificing a single essential principle." That someone as audacious as Conrad Noel should have made proposals so potential of that procrastination in which the Establishment excelled, showed how badly new inspiration was needed. Thaxted was to provide it.

IN the small, and apparently somnolent, Essex town, Noel was less fettered by his obligations to movements of the day and hour; and it was as though liberated imaginatively by the spell of the place itself that he improvised and adapted freely. If, Prospero-like, he called forth votaries, and they came, children, lads and lasses, working men and women, eager to play their parts in the pageant of the social gospel as it unfolded against the old stones of the hauntingly beautiful church, it was because the commoners were waiting for just such a summons. If Prospero conjured from his spirits of fire and air the music and drama of creation, and his themes were those of estrangement, redemption through suffering, and reconciliation, whereas Noel shaped the drama of the mass, the music, the teaching and the common life of the church to contemporary urgencies, and made of it all a summons to social salvation and a premonition of Christ's Kingdom on Earth, yet Noel drew much of his symbolism and ceremony from medieval life, which in turn was rooted in the rites and beliefs of antiquity and pre-history; and so he, too, touched those deeper strains of poetry and imagination which had to do with the eternal verities of God, Man, and Nature. [6]

Noel, of course, called forth not spirits but people, who were, like himself, fallible and contentious, and whose mental and emotional responses were often abridged by circumstances and the claims of faction. Unlike Prospero, Noel could not control the Calibans of property ("This Island's mine by Sycorax my mother") nor assuage the embittering consequences of the conflicts and injustices of a society divided into rich and poor, with the poor themselves divided into the rebellious, the apathetic, and the hangers- on of the rich. But the response to the social gospel and its outward and imaginative manifestations convinced Noel that what he called the whole Catholic religion was essential to social revolution and social salvation, and that the Church Socialist League could activate the rebel movements and the Church only along these lines. He pointed out that the Church Socialist League was open to anyone who belonged to the Church of England and was an economic socialist; he drew attention to theological doctrines held by members which were the equivalent of capitalist individualism, and urged the League to base its membership and activities on a restated and renovated Catholic theology.

Discussions on the theology of social democratic catholicism [7] took place in the Church Socialist League, and at private gatherings at Thaxted. Most League members, however, remained obdurate in their conviction that Protestants could be Socialists (If members of the Church of England); and though the Thaxted talks were more useful, no agreed body of doctrine emerged from them. Discussions, renewed intermittently, faded with the outbreak of war in August, 1914; the League's membership and activities diminished; its very future seemed unsure. Noel was stirred to renewed assault on the quiescent members by the Irish Rebellion of Easter, 1916, [8] with its passionate affirmation that without the shedding of blood there could be no social or national redemption. In the autumn of that year, at a long-overdue League conference, Noel presented the document, Some Articles of the Faith to the Executive, asking that it be placed before conference as the proposed basis for future League membership and work. This the Executive refused to do -- though the document was read to the Conference -- whereat Noel resigned, intending, according to the report in the Church Socialist, to start .."A Company of the Redemption, to embody his reading of the great truths and implications embodied in our Catholic faith." [9]

It was to be another nineteen months before the new group was founded, months that brought two revolutions in Russia and the final agonies of the war. By the time of the Armistice, the Crusade's first handwritten statement had given way to a printed one, and, before the end of that year, Noel and others had composed a manifesto, The Catholic Crusade, which was to remain the definitive statement of the group.

It was all of a piece; matter and manner were fused with remarkable success in the manifesto, which caught up in its vigorous prose not only the revolutionary excitements of the hour but also a centuries-old native rebel and socialist tradition. [10] With its publication, the Crusade began enrolling members, in Thaxted from the young men returning from the war and the young women returning from munition factories in the north; and elsewhere from members of the Church Socialist League and the National Guilds League.

The Crusade was selective; a period of probation was enforced on applicants; and only after scrutiny and debate at the Crusade's annual Chapter could full membership be granted. This kept down the number of recruits, but the main reason why the Crusade grew so slowly was that it could create its groups and common life only around a parish church conducted by a Crusade priest; it made its point not only, or even mainly, in words, but in the life of the church and the parish; in ceremony as well as socialism, in sacrament as well as sermon, in plainsong as well as politics.

But livings were not to be had by Crusade priests. [11] Bishops were hostile, to the Socialism or the Catholicism, and quite often to both. Even tolerant Vicars recoiled from the furore created by a Crusade curate or assistant priest, and found it too much to endure for long. At the socialism and ceremonial, at the excitement among the young, at the sight of the church filling up with "dissenters and riff-raff", regular churchgoers protested, wealthy patrons departed, collections fell, and the Bishop often began pressing the Vicar to bring his curate to heel or sack him. "I know that you are doing God's work," cried one unhappy Vicar to a Crusade curate, "but why, oh why, did he send you to me?"

Only where exceptional circumstances made prolonged stay possible for the Crusade priests -- as at Burslem, Delabole and Poplar -- was it possible for the Crusade's point to be made, fluently and powerfully, though sometimes in part only, and then despite much harassment by the authorities; and in such places it was shown that the Church of the Establishment, of the powers-that-be, could become again the church of the true English nation, and that the common people, long excluded, often hostile, responded eagerly to the social gospel in industrial as well as in rural areas. [12]

That it was attempted at all was surprising enough. That, now , and then, it seemed a foretelling of the jocund world to be; that, once in a while, it seemed to renew and restate the myths and paradisal dreams of the centuries; and that it gave to the vision a local habitation and a name, was indeed a remarkable achievement.

More than half-a-century separates us from that obscure April day in 1918 when a handful of people founded the Catholic Crusade. The golden lads and girls are old, or have, as chimney sweepers, come to dust. Little that is tangible remains, only a fragment of the dream held in the words of the Manifesto. Contemplating the baseness of spirit infecting increasingly our culture and our common life, the savage exploitation and destruction of our natural resources, and the behaviour of the modern reprobates of socialism and communism, what the Manifesto of the Catholic Crusade tried to say grows not diminishes in wisdom and relevance as the years roll by.

Reg Groves

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