This morning I stumbled across a free copy of Christianity and the Working Classes. It seems that the book was serving no other purpose than taking up valuable space in our tiny parish library, and so was destined for the Goodwill bin. Thankfully, the title caught my eye. The book is a collection of essays from 1906 probing a series of difficult questions: has the church become a church for the well to do at the expense of the working class? Is religion, at least as far as demographics go, the prized possession of the middle to upper classes? Why does the church fail to speak to those who need it most?
The answers vary and the solutions offered by each contributor are eerily similar to our current debates about declining membership and mission strategies. Indeed, there is nothing new under the sun.
One essay in particular stands out. The Rev. J.G. Adderley of the Christian Socialist Union writes,
Our worship seems to many remote from life. Men ought indeed to feel that in church they are away from the wicked world, but not that they are away from what is human. It is at this point that we see how the Christian Social movement is the legitimate outcome of the Tractarian.
As Adderley explains,
We are learning that the creeds and sacraments have been rescued from oblivion not that they may be looked upon as interesting discoveries to be deposited in a museum, but that they may be used and realized for twentieth century human progress.
It is significant that the first modern Socialist Society in England was a “ritualistic” one, the Guild of St. Matthew. The Guild has always put prominently forward the Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion as the basis of a true social life. It has taken Baptism very seriously, and treated the bulk of the working classes as having been admitted while infants into the great democratic society of the Catholic Church. It has exalted the Eucharist as the great protest against luxury, snobbery, and competition, the demons which have made havoc of society.
Over a hundred years after Christianity and the Working Classes, we in the Anglican communion seem to have come full circle. The brief postwar boom has all but ended in the West, leaving profound economic and social questions again at the church’s doorstep. Issues surrounding class and the morality of the workaday week grow more pronounced with each passing year as the numbers joining the ranks of the “working poor” continue to swell. Will we today take seriously that fact that Baptism and Eucharist, rather than being “interesting discoveries to be deposited in a museum,” are in fact “the basis of a true social life?” And not only for our Sunday worship or internecine debates, but for the working world as a whole?
The stakes couldn’t be higher. As Arthur Henderson remarks in his contribution, it is the
want of a true Christian idea that has led to the alienation of the working classes from the Churches and strengthened the ranks of distressing indifferentism, deadly materialism, and doleful pessimism. Not until Christianity is shown in its real nature as an aggressive force, destroying the evil of the individual life, transforming the character of the workers’ environment, taking cognizance of social defects, seeking to right industrial wrongs and remove the injustices under which the workers suffer, will it command the sympathies of the common people.