Conrad Noel and the Catholic Crusade
Conrad Noel

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"He loved justice and hated oppression."


Conrad Noel (1896-1942), the "Red Vicar" of Thaxted, England, was one of the most colorful figures in the Christian Socialist Movement. Along with Percy Dearmer (of the The Parson's Handbook fame) he was a dissident left-winger in the Guild of St. Matthew and the Christian Social Union, "bringing consternation to Stewart Headlam and to Scott Holland respectively," as Peter d'A. Jones remarks. Noel was one of the founders of the Church Socialist League in 1906, but left it in 1918 to found the Catholic Crusade.

Never modest in its objectives, the "Catholic Crusade of the Servants of the Precious Blood" aimed, among other things:

To create the demand for the Catholic Faith, the whole Catholic Faith, and nothing but the Catholic Faith. To encourage the rising of the people in the might of the Risen Christ and the Saints, mingling Heaven and earth that we may shatter this greedy world to bits.
Noel's socialism was not of the milk and water variety; he had little use for the gradualism of the Fabians or the opportunism of the British Liberal and Labour Parties. He saw through the hollow promises of post-war "reconstruction" made by the ruling classes to secure the cooperation of labour during the First World War, and warned his congregation:
We must mark the sinister proposals that are being made in high places for such social reconstruction as will inevitably forbid the restoration to the poor of hard-won liberties willingly surrendered during the war. . . Reconstruction without revolution is evil, for Reconstruction must be the outcome of Revolution. In the Battles that will have to be fought against the forces of death, whether frankly reactionary or masquerading as State Socialism and Social Reform, we must ally ourselves with the forces of life, and with St. Ambrose of Milan, with St. Thomas of Canterbury, with Our Lady of the Magnificat. And in the coming rebellion against the Prussians in England, Catholics will need such fiery allies to save them from the tame surrender of Nonconformist and Agnostic labour leaders, and to steel our spirits in these days when 'whoseover killeth us will think that he doeth God a service.'
And in 1919 he told a Church Socialist League meeting:
Heaven forbid that Trade Unions should trust the leaders they elect, but Heaven forbid that they should continue to elect such leaders! Much better that the rank and file should kick over the traces than follow placemen, gas bags, puritans and lobby worms who misrepresent them, but if the rank and file had been more creative it would have produced leaders it could have followed.
Upon the formation of British Communist Party in 1920, the Catholic Crusade explored possible affiliation with the Third International. As Reg Groves comments, "It was quickly evident that the Third International would have rejected the request; and that if they had accepted it, the relationship would have been a brief one." Some years later Noel became loosely supportive of the "Left Opposition" grouped around Leon Trotsky. Finding the membership of the Crusade too uncritical of Stalinism, Noel split it to found the Order of the Church Militant, of which F. Hastings Smyth was at one time a member.

Maurice Reckitt writes of Conrad Noel:

It cannot be questioned that in virtue alike of the vigour and fertility of his mind and the force of his personality, Noel was for two full decades the real leader of the political and ideological Left in the Church of England. The 'Battle of the Flags' at Thaxted Church in the early 'twenties, whatever may be thought of the validity of the issues or the wisdom of entering on such a conflict, was the sort of tussle that only such a man as Noel could have inspired and so long sustained.
Like many Socialist-minded clergy whose convictions extinguished any chance for preferment within the Church, he bounced from job to job, lecturing for the Church Socialist League and on many secular Socialist platforms, until offered a position at Thaxted by the patron, the Countess of Warwick. She was an aristocratic socialist and feminist, an admirer and biographer of William Morris, who apparently rather hoped that Noel would simply use Thaxted as a base from which he could continue his speaking engagements around the country. Noel, however, took his responsibilities as Vicar seriously and settled down to make Thaxted parish church a center for liturgical and social renewal which attracted attention from around the world. A passage quoted in Conrad Noel's autobiography captures some of the spirit of the lively movement he led:
The revolutionary teaching at Thaxted may be studied in books and pamphlets on sale in the church, but the Thaxted experiment is by no means only concerned with the pulpit and the press, but just as much with the life of a group and the expression of that life in worship. Thaxted is becoming a place of pilgrimage for those who are tired of the sluggish routine and conventionalism of much modern Nonconformity and of the 'C. of E.' We are proud to claim membership in the Church of England for she is the Church of Anselm, of Becket, of those such as Langton and John Ball who fought for the freedom of the people, the Church of Laud in his fight against a narrow Calvinism and the oppression of the poor, and in still more modern times, the Church of Maurice and Kingsley, of Scott Holland and Stewart Headlam. All this the 'Church of England' calls to mind, but the 'C. of E.' is only another name for the Establishment, and the Establishment is the religion of the ratepayer, and the religion of the ratepayer is not a religion but a disease.

Now what is there in the Thaxted worship which scandalizes the 'ratepayer' and attracts many in the town itself and many pilgrims from all quarters? Perhaps it is the homeliness and unconventionality which many people appreciate. The organ and surpliced choir no longer predominate. The processions on High Days and Holidays include not only the ceremonial group in bright vestments, but the people themselves, children with flowers and branches, women in gay veils, men with torches and banners, all this colour and movement centering round the Lord Christ present in the Eucharist. We preach the Christ Who all through His life stressed the value of the common meal, the bread and wine joyously shared among His people, the Mass as prelude to the New World Order in which all would be justly produced and distributed. The Lord thus chose the human things of everyday life, the useful bread and the genial wine, to be the perpetual vehicles of his presence among us till His kingdom should come on earth as in Heaven. But all this involves politics, and we are often rebuked for mixing politics with religion. Well! the blind following of any political party, the politics of the party hack, these are certainly not the business of the pulpit; but politics, in the wider sense of social justice, are part and parcel of the gospel of Christ and to ignore them is to be false to His teaching. Worship and beauty are not to be despised, but worship divorced from social righteousness is an abomination to God.

- - Conrad Noel; an autobiography, edited with a foreword by Sidney Dark. London, J.M. Dent, 1945.


The Kingdom of Heaven

from Conrad Noel's The Life of Jesus, New York, Simon and Schuster, 1938.

The message of John the Baptist as herald of the Christ had been, "Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."

On the arrest of John, Jesus came into Galilee, and leaving Nazareth he came and dwelt in Capernaum and "from that time Jesus began to preach and to say "Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." He chose certain disciples, who left their boats and followed him. "And Jesus went about all Galilee, teaching in their synagogues the good tidings of the kingdom." His model prayer, according to the same evangelist, contains the petition: "Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven." The Sermon on the Mount might be summed up in the phrase: "Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His justice and all these things shall be added unto you." Later, "Jesus went about all the cities and the villages (of Galilee) teaching in their synagogues and preaching the gospel of the kingdom and . . . saying the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand." He sent out his twelve and charged them "saying . . . as ye go, preach, saying, the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."

It is the same in the gospel according to Mark: "Now after that John was delivered up, Jesus came into Galilee, preaching the Gospel of God and saying, the time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand; Repent ye and believe in the gospel" . . .

The Kingdom of God or of Heaven is mentioned some hundred and fifty times by name in the New Testament, and many more times than this, if we remember its synonyms, such as the regeneration, the next age, the day, the city of God, the commonwealth, the banquet.

Seeing, therefore, that the good tidings which the Lord Jesus brought to mankind were the good tidings of the kingdom, we must ask at the outset, what is the Kingdom of Heaven?

We are inclined to dismiss the unscholarly and untenable assumption that the kingdom consists in a comfortable feeling in the individual soul between itself and its private god, or that it is a place to which the soul soars beyond the grave when it dies. But these misconceptions are so popular that they will have to be corrected by a close study of Jewish history.

There is yet one other misinterpretation which can show a better fight, but which has equally to be corrected, namely, the idea that the Kingdom of Heaven is identical with the Catholic Church. It seems ludicrous that modern bishops should talk of an extension of the kingdom when they really mean an extension of the area in which missionaries are at work. It is ludicrous enough when these bishops happen to be Roman Catholics, although, largely as that communion has capitulated to capitalism, it at least is an international, and is possessed of an international spirit. But when the term is used by the more imperially minded of the Anglican communion, almost as if an extension of a semi-christianized British Empire was synonymous wit an extension of the Kingdom of Heaven, it is no longer ludicrous but savours of blasphemy.

Even as applied to the early Christian communities within the Catholic Church, although the phrase "Kingdom of Heaven" was sometimes used in the sense that the early Church was the seed of that new world order, it was further defined by New Testament and post-New Testament writers; and it can be shown that the new world was conceived as still lying in the future and that the Church was considered as the organ of that brave new world, the midwife, to change our metaphor, to bring it to birth . . .

MosesOne cannot begin to understand the Christ's teaching, unless one has made a study of the Old Testament background which he and his hearers assume. This point is well brought out in the Report of Convocation called The Moral Witness of the Church on Economic Subjects. It is insisted in this document that "Christianity inherited from the Old Testament certain social principles in part embodied in the Law and in part enforced by the prophets and moralists . . . the Lord will enter into judgment with the elders of his people and the princes thereof; it is ye that have eaten up the vineyard, and the spoil of the poor is in your houses; what mean ye that ye crush my people and grind the faces of the poor . . . the tendency of the legislation was to raise the status of the Israelite slave to that of the hired workman who was to be treated as a brother . . . we find a prohibition of usury between Israelite and Israelite and provision is taken against the permanent alienation of the land; various enactments protect labour . . . the general well-being is the supreme consideration retraining the selfish acquisition of wealth. Manual labour is held in honour; it is the necessary basis of all society." Christianity did not take over the formal legislation of the Old Testament, but it did inherit its moral principles which Jesus Christ deepened and universalized.

Dr. Gore, the editor of the New Commentary on Holy Scripture, when Bishop of Oxford, wrote to the same effect, "The Lord assumed all the Old Testament laid down . . . the Law and the Prophets had been struggling for the establishment of a great social system on a great moral basis. The Old Testament is full of all sorts of social and moral doctrines, of social and individual righteousness. The law is full of that, the Prophets are full of it. Now do you see that every word our Lord said, he said to people who had got all that behind them. He could assume it all. It is the point from which he starts. Until you have got there, you have not begun" . . .

We shall note in our study of the Old Testament scriptures that the Kingdom of Heaven is not mainly a realm within the individual soul, a kingdom of the domestic virtues. That these virtues are included in its conception goes without saying, but it is not mainly a private but a public and political virtue that dominates the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, namely, the virtue of justice or righteousness. This may seem surprising to many of our readers who so seldom hear what St. Catherine of Sienna called "Holy Justice" preached from our pulpits. Today you will generally have to go to secular platforms to hear this virtue mentioned. But it is this same justice that shouts at the reader through all the sacred literature, and it is to be the mainspring of the world for which the writers were looking . . .

God himself is called Justice, without iniquity, so that the conception of justice is the foundation of human law. "That which is altogether just shalt thou follow that thou mayest live and inherit the land which the Lord thy God giveth thee."

Nor were justice and judgment a mere matter of law courts. "They that fear the Lord shall find judgment and shall kindle justice as a light." This justice secured to the workers, as we shall subsequently see, the land as their right; Hebrew shall lend Hebrew, because of this fundamental justice to his brother, without grudging and without interest, the precept being extended by Jesus later to all mankind, for all men are our brothers.

Clive Binyon, the brother of the famous poet, had shown, in a little book on social righteousness in Old and New Testaments, that judgment throughout the Bible means social judgment, merciful and just administration of the law, especially in favour of the workers, the poor, the widow, the fatherless, and the foreigner . . .

The Old Testament begins with an account of the creation of the world, the beginnings of mankind, their "fall" from some original state of innocence. It is possible, as thought the Stoics and early Christian philosophers, that there had been an early communal state of innocence, unconscious, simple, unreflective, and that mankind "fell" from this period of "innocence" into a self-conscious individualism, where they began to have a knowledge of good and evil, passed from light into the darkness of greed, individual and group selfishness, war, competition, strife, and that the destiny of the race was, as taught by the early Church and the Communists of today to win back the communal society on a higher level,

This world commonwealth, which will be supremely valued and maintained by collective effort, will consist of alert and generous people, welding themselves into a classless society with infinite varieties within the common whole. A commonwealth called in the Old and the New Testaments the Kingdom of Heaven.

* * * * * * *

[The story of Dives and Lazarus] is about the only time that our Lord alludes to [a life beyond the grave] for "this world and the world to come" should be translated "this covetous epoch and the good time coming," and his "Kingdom of Heaven" is to be set up, as has been so often insisted in this present work, here on earth . . . Jesus teaches that both the oppressed manual workers and all men of goodwill must fling themselves with all their energies into the cause of a new world here on earth, and that this new world is a replica of the world as it exists in God's mind and of a fellowship beyond death. Such a faith will inspire us to ardent work for the reconstruction of human society, and will give grace and generous inspiration for the task, when we know that it is the abiding and everlasting plan of the Father and will be brought to its perfect fruition in the world beyond.

* * * * * * *

Religion, said Karl Marx, is the opium of the people, but I would remind my readers that Charles Kingsley, Canon of the English Church and most popular of novelists, was saying the same thing at the same time. Writing of the generality of the clergy of his day he says: "We have never told you that the . . . true poor man's book, the true God's voice against tyrants, idlers, and humbugs, was the Bible. Aye, you may sneer, but so it is. It is our fault, our great fault, that you should sneer, sneer at the only news that ought to be your glory and your strength. It is our fault. We have used the Bible as if it were the special constable's handbook -- an opium dose for keeping beasts of burden patient while they were being overloaded -- a mere book to keep the poor in order." (May 1848)

There have been moments, not only in early Christian history, but in the medieval period, when the Christian religion, so far from being the opium of the people, has been the dynamic which drove them to revolt against the "powers that be." It was so when the armed labourers went forth with their priests and Catholic leaders with the crucifix and banners of saints to do battle in the peasants' revolt against their plutocratic enemies, and their battle cries were the slogans of modern communism. It was so when the towns of Europe fought their way to freedom under the fiery inspiration of the Catholic Faith against popes and bishops and abbots, and secular lords. Catholic officialdom was against them, but they could quote and did quote the great Catholic schoolmen as on their side. It was with full knowledge of scripture and the writings of the recognized doctors and divines of the Church that they fought and won. Not only the smaller rebellions of cities but even national rebellions were fought under banners of the Christian religion. The revival of this type of religion in such modern bodies as the Church Socialist League, the Catholic Crusade, and the Order of the Church Militant is no mere eccentricity, but is inspired by Holy Scripture and the most living of the Church's traditions.



From the Epilogue to Conrad Noel's Jesus the heretic (London, Religious Book Club, 1940)

"Would not we shatter it to bits and then remould it closer to the heart's desire?"

We believe in God the Father, Who has made us and all the world: In God the Son, Who has redeemed us and all mankind: In God the Holy Ghost Who inspires us and all the chosen army of God.

Thaxted ChurchWe believe that the source of our life is the Triune God, the Comm-Unity, and that the substance of life is Community, namely, that men, by the grace of God, should of their own initiative come into that freely chosen Fellowship of God's Kingdom which is their home. We must, therefore, give ourselves as workers together with Him for the re-creating of a world in which there shall be an interplay of initiative and co-operation.

We believe that God is terrible in goodness and not in tyranny: Maker of all things visible and invisible: Maker of men: Of the sense of wonder and worship: Of the sense of sight which delights in form and colour, in flowers, pictures, sunrises and gay fabrics: Of the sense of hearing which exults in poetry and music: Of the sense of justice and truth which drives men to rebellion against the tyrants who rob men's lives of vigour, leisure, and nourishment: Of the sense of goodness which will re-create the world: God, Maker and Upholder of men's spirits, minds, and bodies.

We believe that God is manifest in splendid men and women, and incarnate in Jesus, the Christ, His only Son, Our Lord, wholly God and wholly Man, conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, Mother of God and Mother of man, who rejoices that her Son is casting down the mighty from their thrones and exalting them of low degree; the Woman clothed with the Sun, with the world at her feet and the serpent under them.

We believe that Christ's Incarnation and wondrous Life, devoted to the liberation of the oppressed and the Commonwealth of God, was met by the malice of the mighty masters of the world who dragged Him down to His Passion and Death on the Cross; but that, despising its shame, in triumph he passed through the realms of the dead to a mighty Resurrection, no mere bodiless ghost but with spirit, soul, and body transformed.

We believe that His Glorious Ascension to the very heart of the Godhead fills all things with His Presence, and creates out of the old and tired human race a new race.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, proceeding from the Father and the Son, coming upon the little band in the upper room, raising them from despair and death to newness of life, and filling them with courage and gladness, making them of one heart and mind to share all things in common and to scatter the good news among the crowds in the Holy City and to the furthest ends of the earth.

We believe, then, in this Catholic Church, a visible Army to be the first-fruits of His Kingdom and to battle for its achievement among men: the very Body of Christ to redeem mankind from the inward tyrannies of sin and the outward tyrannies of cruel systems and cruel men.

We believe that evil conditions are the outward and visible sign on the inward and spiritual rascality on the part of the few, and inward and spiritual apathy on the part of the many, but that once they have been created they react for evil upon the minds of rich and poor, and they must be swept away by an immense awakening in the soul of the nations . . .

We believe that those who by the Power of Christ have overcome sin will one day rise with glorious bodies to enjoy and help in the ordering of the Good Life to come, the overmastering Life of the Golden Age.

We believe that we are pledged to establish it now and are destined to enjoy it hereafter.


The Battle of the Flags

From: Conrad Noel, an autobiography. London, J. M. Dent, 1945

"He hath made of one blood all nations. . ."

Towards the end of the 1914-1918 an Irish lady, living in my parish and knowing my sympathy for the cause of her country, presented me with a Sinn Fein flag to put in the church. We alteady had the old national flag of St. George, and these two represented nationality. But I felt that this nationality in which 'nonek is afore, or after other; none is greater, or less than another' should be balanced by some symbol which should represent the One in Many and the Many in One. What, then, could be better than to add to these national flags the International, in which the Variety in Unity and the Unity in Variety -- the very nature of he God who created the universe -- should be worshiped? What better symbol than this could there be than the Red Flag with the inscription: 'He hath made of one blood all nations'?

Some of the parishioners, hardly any of them churchgoers, were furious, and they began to level insults at myself and my assistants for daring to display the flags. But, for the moment, they did not translate their words into action.

I met the leader of the malcontents outside the church one morning, and he told me he had reported me to the War Office and that the flags would soon be removed. My reply was that he could be little familiar with the slow-going ways and red-tape methods of the War Office, and that it would take months for them to act. Besides, they could not act at all as England was not under martial law. He at last got his answer saying that, improper as such an exhibition was in the House of God, they had no power to act. He then had a question put in the House of Commons with equally fruitless results. The House would have to pass an Act of Parliament if anything was to be done. Why not apply to Mr. Noel's bishop and the Church courts?

He did actually apply to a small group of turbulent undergraduates at Cambridge, who came over and began to riot in the church. They removed the national and international symbols and put the Union Jack in their place. Some of the devout churchgoers rallied round me and we tore up or burnt this emblem of the British Empire with all the cruel exploitation for which it stood. The undergraduates them applied to a farmer, and he helped them to erect a tall ladder reaching almost to the roof of the church, and there they placed the Union Jack. But as soon as this was done, we climbed the ladder, tore it down, and replaced our own flags. The boys and girls were particularly brave and burned the Union Jack. The Cambridge crowd managed to save one specimen of the imperial symbol intact, and sent it to the Bishop of Chelmsford. He wrote, severely rebuking me, and told me he had sent on the Red Flag to Scotland Yard.

Meanwhile the undergraduates were not having it all their own way, for a much larger and more representative body wrote to the inhabitants of Thaxted, apologizing for the conduct of the turbulent minority . . .

[A]lthough may of these young men were just out for a lark, some of them, at least, became Fascists and joined one or other of the Blackshirt organizations. They and people like them made the Cock Inn their headquarters, and used to parade up and down the town with a large Union Jack, hurling insults at myself and any of my supporters. They held meetings outside the Guildhall which were attended by a couple of women, a drunkard who didn't understand what was going on, two or three children, and a dog. They invited myself and my colleague, Father Jack Bucknell, to attend their demonstrations, but we knew that this would have attracted a big crowd, so we stopped away.

On Empire Day, thousands of demonstrators poured into the town and held a meeting at the Guildhall, at which one of my followers had his hat knocked off for refusing to remove it at the singing of God Save the King. He had a blow in the face, and was only saved by the refuge offered by a kindly Nonconformist neighbor. Shots were fired on that afternoon and things were getting lively, The crowd had left their cars and motor cycles in 'The Swan' yard, and our people, while they were busy singing God save the King, cut their tyres and so cut off their retreat from the place.

There was a body of hefty ex-policemen, who had been dismissed from the force for daring to strike. They found in 'The Swan' yard a large lorry of stones with which the 'loyalist' crowd had threatened to stone the vicarage and every cottage not flying a Union Jack. It was remarkable how few cottages were displaying this symbol. These ex-policemen, who were called 'Lansbury's Lambs,' drove the lorry off into a distant field, emptied all its stones out, and cut the tyres. When they returned to Thaxted, they mingled with the demonstrators and pretended to be their friends. They warded them off the church, whose windows they had threatened to smash, and tried to ward them off from the vicarage. But the crowd surged up the hill . . . There were howls and threats outside [but] nothing much happened and the mob soon died away . . .

[W]isdom was wanted to decide the question of whether to fight the case in the Church courts (for our opponents were now preparing to take the case to court) or ignore what would be evidently a foregone conclusion, to leave the flag flying, and to let them do their damnedest, knowing that the Chancellor was against us and would not be likely to change his mind . . .

I was rather for keeping the flags flying, but my friends brought me to see what a valuable platform for publicity the Chelmsford court would prove. Among these friends were members of the Catholic Crusade, and there were three, who afterwards deserted us for the Communist Party, who also advised taking down the flags and pleading the case in the Chancellor's court. The court proceedings were reported all over the world, and one of the Moscow papers devoted considerable space to them.

The three members who had now joined the Communist Party went back on their advice and wrote, some years later, a letter to the Sunday Worker to the effect that Christians were cowards, as could be seen by Conrad Noel taking down the flags and not fighting on. Naturally we were amazed . . . One of the three . . . was soon expelled from the party for his own frank criticism, and for a time became the exponent in this country of Leon Trotsky's ideas. He said that because of their deep devotion to truth his three great heroes were the Blessed Thomas More, Leon Trotsky, and George Tyrrell . . .

The Red Flag, so hated in 1922, is honoured in 1942 . . . and at the official Communist Party meetings we find Joseph Stalin under the Red Flag with hammer and sickle and Winston Churchill under the Union Jack! What irony lies here!

A Communist lady who is a member of the Anglo-Soviet Fellowship whispered to me at the end of a meeting of that body that she was going to ask Mr. Bardock, at one time our bitterest opponent, to lend us a Union Jack to hang up alongside the Red Flag at the rummage sale in the Church Hall. I called her an unprincipled woman, which was harsh, but true, and she replied: 'Ah well! Mr. Noel, one must please the public!'

[Conrad Noel and the "battle of the flags" were the inspiration for Robert Shaw's 1965 novel The Flag.]