This is just a hunch, but one that seems plausible…

In the late nineteenth century, F. D. Maurice boldly claimed that “Christianity was the only foundation of socialism, and a true Socialism was the necessary result of sound Christianity.” Following in Maurice’s wake the Christian Socialist Union claimed, “Christianity is the religion of which Socialism is the practice.” At the height of the movement stood a long and prestigious line of visionary theologians and priests, including J.M. Ludlow, Charles Kingsley, Stewart Headlam, Conrad Noel and Archbishop William Temple, to name just a few. The heart of their social program, if it could even be described as such, had always been the Blessed Trinity. It was “the key to socialism, to eternal life, to the unity of the human race, and to the secret of man’s being.”[1]

For various reasons, however, the political movement began to wane in the middle of the twentieth century. Some of the more convincing arguments as to why are the following. According to Darryl M. Jordan, the successful welfare reforms of the post WWII era marked some notable achievements for Anglo-Catholic Socialists. Now that economic achievements were met in part, the movement was on to new causes, such as gender issues and equality. Gary Dorrien takes this claim further. He argues that what really undid a genuine Christian social movement was rise of a voracious capitalism, inculcating western politics into an agnostic market logic and subservience. Moreover, Christian social thinkers were concerned to distance themselves from state-centered versions of socialism and opted to trade under the banner of “economic democracy” rather than “socialism,” which reeked too much of centralized bureaucracy. Bethany Kilcrease, in her paper, “The Mass and the Masses,” argues that in forgoing an alliance with trade unions, the Anglo-Catholics Socialists lost an opportunity to engage British Labor and were soon regulated to a theological ghetto. Although far from conclusive, this brief snapshot does highlight some notable trends within the movement of Anglo-Catholic Socialism.

One trend in particular that stands out is the slow but steady erasure of a theological account of the “social.” Maybe the state had assumed responsibility over social services; perhaps the market had so redefined human relationships that the entire concept of the social was reduced to nominalism (e.g. “there is no such thing as society”). Either way, once a substantial account of the social was left to the wayside, something peculiar took its place. A strange form of political economy emerged. It consisted of an aggregate of isolated individuals competing for rights meted out by what Dorothy Day aptly named, “Holy Mother the State.” Rather than engaging in discussions about the common Good and the order of a common life, the question of individual preferences and how to competitively actualize these preferences in the market, became the political mainstay. The responsibility of authority, rather than having been tasked to cultivate virtue and exemplary lives, was regulated to ensuring that everyone gets their fair share.

It appears then that the original radicalism of the Anglo-Catholic Socialists had dissolved into the very force it once proudly opposed: the agnosticism of market logic. As the communion structure or centering upon the corpus mysticum was eclipsed, genuine vestiges of the social were lost. As no longer having access to the language and debates about the common Good, the Christian Socialist Left, or what remained, contented itself to the pre-established debates about individual preferences and rights mediated through the supposedly neutral space of the market. Bogged down in the mire of “culture wars” and identity politics, it thereby forgot how to ask questions about substantive justice and the just distribution of goods, which, of course, entails a sense of hierarchy. In order to recover the radicalism of this tradition, Anglo-Catholic Socialists will need to recover the primary of the social.

Why, in marked contrast to the dominant discourse of today, were the Anglo-Catholic Socialists not swayed by cult of preference or ‘free expression?’ What allowed them to maintain the language of the Common Good and priority of the Social? One reason might be that for the Anglo-Catholic Socialists, the enemy has always been liberalism – whether through the state or market. From the original Slum Priests, to Kenneth Leech, Rowan Williams, Alasdair MacIntyre, Radical Orthodoxy, Anabaptist and even certain strands of Reformed Theology, the message has been consistent: continued appeals to the ‘right’ of self-expression only to serve to further underwrite the liberalism of market capitalism.

Moreover, the Anglo-Catholics Socialist rejected Liberalism not because it was seen as progressive or liberal, but because it was anything but. As John Milbank states,

Liberalism is peculiar and unlikely because it proceeds by inventing a wholly artificial human being who has never really existed, and then pretending that we are all instances of such a species. This is the pure individual, thought of in abstraction from his or her gender, birth, associations, beliefs and also, crucially, in equal abstraction from the religious or philosophical beliefs of the observer of this individual as to whether he is a creature made by God, or only material, or naturally evolved and so forth. Such an individual is not only asocial, he is also apyschological; his soul is in every way unspecified. To this blank entity one attaches ‘rights’… The pure individual will, as Rousseau and Kant finally concluded, is rather the possessor of a free will. Not a will determined to a good or even open to choosing this or that, but a will to will.[1]

 Such a will, sundered from any teleological ends or moral order, doesn’t do anything but will capricious preferences. As such, it simply mirrors and so reinforces the anarchy of the market. As this new concept of the will rose to ascendancy, the Trinity and the “natural desire for the supernatural” was quietly being nudged to the wayside.

How then to recover a sense of the social and common Good? As Milbank states, the pre-Marxist socialist were committed to a positive form of freedom that participated in the pursuit of the common good rather than being mired in an endless pursuit of negative freedom of choice.[3] In other words, the common Good and individual choices were not pitted against one another. The early Christian Socialists recognized that freedom is only freedom in Common.

But perhaps this is still too abstract. And what would it look like if Anglo-Catholic Socialism were to return to a sense of the priority of the social? Further, how can we even begin to conceive of positive freedom?

In the face of the vacuity of the market, the Anglo-Catholic Socialist offered the sociality of the liturgy. Kenneth Leech’s “sacramental socialism” sought to recover the liturgy as “the weekly meeting of rebels against a Mammon-worshiping world order.” According to Leech, “the Sacraments become freak events in a world which runs on quite different rules.” Here, the world is challenged rather than merely accommodated. Leech goes on to state:

Transformation occurs only in the liturgy and not in the world, there bread and wine remain hoarded, but not offered, concentrated and not broken, maldistributed and not shared. The Eucharist becomes a freak, a contradiction of social reality, instead of a pointer to how reality should be reshaped. If we then go back to read the early Christian Fathers we find how far we have come from their understanding. St. John Chrysostom draws the closest connection between the real presence of Christ in the Blessed Sacrament and his real presence in the poor and oppressed. We need to recover this connection between the Sacraments and the structures of the world, and to take seriously the social and political consequences of being one body in Christ.[4]

To faithfully imbue “the social and political consequences of being one body in Christ” and to see Christ’s “real presence in the poor and the oppressed” is the very sense of communal or Eucharistic body politics that we’ve lost. Perhaps this is because questions of real presence have been regulated, like most ‘spiritual’ concepts, to a theological ghetto, no longer speaking to the world; perhaps a substantial sense of the body of Christ has come to be regarded in strictly voluntarist terms; or maybe this high minded sacramentalism is just not pragmatic enough for most. However, Maurice Reckett noted something profound about the experience of the liturgy among the poor:

The worship of God in which they joined was, by the violent contrast to all else in their lives, at once a vindication of the other-worldliness of their faith and an implicit condemnation of the filthy environment amid which the social sin of an acquisitive and complacent ruling class had condemned them to live. So regarded, the ritual, which mainly centered round the Presence of our Lord amid surroundings more hostile than those of his very Nativity itself, was not ‘empty’ but full of a profound significance; not ‘meaningless’ but clamoring for an interpretation even more far-reaching than most of those who practiced it knew how to provide.

This is a voice we do well to hear today. Anglo-Catholicism has always held to the crude materiality of sacrament and incarnation. Sacraments, like the incarnation, are messy and full of contradictions. Yet at the end of the day they are social events enacting the very Body and Blood of Christ, here and now.

In many ways then, we are in need of a spiritual recovery so as to regain the primacy of the social (especially so within ECUSA!). As Archbishop Michael Ramsey one said, a common sociality and renewal focused on Christ’s Body and Passion “can never move faster than the recovery of inward life.”[5] And Anglo-Catholic Socialism has always, at its best, linked the liturgical with social action. A spiritual recovery is echoed in the response that St. John the Baptist gave the crowd. They asked him, “what then shall we do? And he answered them, ‘He who has two coats, let him grant a share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise’” (Luke 3:10f.). This seems as good a starting point as any.


[1] Arthur Michael Ramsey, F.D. Maurice and the Conflicts of Modern Theology, 57.

[2] Milbank, “The Gift of Ruling,” 213.

[3] Milbank, “On Baseless Suspicion,” in The Future of Love, 120.

[4] Leech, Prayer and Prophecy, 238.

[5] Archbishop Michael Ramsey, The Gospel and the Catholic Church, 190.

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