The Church of England has had something of a reputation as a reactionary, conservative institution; a pillar of the establishment; a homogeneous, unified, source of unwavering support for the ruling authorities.
Not so. The Anglican Church has always been an organisation in which diverse and often radical doctrines have been given a platform. In the mid-nineteenth century, Frederick Denison Maurice undertook the task of ‘Christianising socialism and socialising Christianity’ in an effort to make clergymen think about the social implications of their faith. Later, the Christian Social Union and Church Socialist League crystallised the ‘Christian Socialist’ approach, campaigning for social reform through Christianity.
However, Anglicans continued to engage with radical politics throughout the twentieth century. While many followed the Christian Socialist approach, there were those in the Church of England that adopted a far more radical Marxist analysis into their worldviews.
This reconciliation of Marxism and Christianity is intriguing in light of the well-recorded animosity of leading Christians to Marxist communism, and of leading Marxists (including Marx and Engels themselves) to religion in general. However, the Christian Marxists were able to complete this philosophical reconciliation to at least their own satisfaction.
For most, it was the moral attraction of Marxism that drew them to consider the relationship between their religious faith and radical politics. The concern within Marxism for building a new, better, social and economic order in order to benefit the whole of the population struck a chord with a socialised interpretation of Christianity.
The Christian Marxists campaigned for improved, and cheaper, housing for working people in industrial areas, dramatic reform of the capitalist economic order, the freeing of British colonies, and after the Second World War, were heavily involved in the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.
The Russian Revolutions of 1917 and the appearance of the Soviet Union inspired many Christian Marxists. They saw in the existence of the USSR the opportunity to build a society along more Christian lines. Despite the restriction and repression of organised religion in the Soviet Union, prominent Anglicans such as Hewlett Johnson argued vehemently that the Soviet Union was building a society that would become ‘more Christian’ than Britain.
As might be expected, the commitment of these Anglicans to both Christianity and Marxism caused much controversy. There were numerous calls for Johnson to be dismissed from his post because of his political stance, and the various Archbishops of Canterbury during Johnson’s tenure were frequently called upon either to publicly remonstrate him, or remind the public that according to the laws of the Church of England, there were no grounds upon which Johnson could be dismissed for his political opinions.
However, the Christian Marxists also encountered opposition from those who held similar political views. Vicar of Darnall, Alan Ecclestone, took the step of joining the Communist Party of Great Britain in 1948. Despite this, he did not always receive a warm welcome from fellow Party members. At one branch meeting, he stood to ask a difficult economic question. In response, the speaker asked what Ecclestone did for a living. In response, Ecclestone simply pulled down his scarf to reveal his clerical collar. The speaker’s response was simply “Oh dear, you had such an intelligent face.”
The Christian Marxists were often caught in the conflicts and controversies between their faith and their politics, and it is how they navigated this difficult position that must be studied. The lessons that can be learned by considering the relationship between radical religion and radical politics can help us understand the ways in which politics and religion can collide and interact. It is this, above all, that an examination of Christianity and Marxism can contribute.