By Zachary Guiliano

Recently, I found myself delighted and slightly disgruntled by the appearance of an essay by Tony Hunt, “To the Sources: A Study in Anglican Socialism.” The reasons for my delight may be obvious. It appeared in a recent issue of The Hour: a newfangled e-zine whose beautiful design impresses, while gesturing toward a specific subgenre of cool. Or perhaps a sub-subgenre: its 1980s aesthetic and its origin as a self-proclaimed product of the “Anglican Catholic Left” suggest a relatively small group of people, putting out an idiosyncratic high-quality publication. How enjoyable, and how in the tradition of socialist and Anglican publication.

At the same time, I have some strong opinions about Anglican Social Theology or Christian Socialism in the Anglican tradition, both as a historian who has done some work on Anglo-Catholicism and as one of those left-leaning Anglican Catholics presumably among The Hour’s target audience. It should come as no surprise, then, if I beg to differ on some points.

Hunt disavows any expertise, and mostly his contribution describes an attempt to read through the tradition of Anglican Socialism as part of his M.Div. program amid a global pandemic, proffering what fruits he can. He urges us to return to some excellent sources. Ad fontes! (“back to the sources”) he says, reminding us that ressourcement “is one of the primary motivating factors” behind The Hour. He admits, too, that in this particular case he mostly drew on those deep wells that he could find already on his bookshelf or online. (He points us to a forthcoming article by Gary Dorrien, which will appear in the Anglican Theological Review, for more meaty reading.)


This is admirable. Like all of us, Hunt found himself left adrift by COVID-19, and he cannot be expected in a single M.Div. course to have characterized an entire movement and its body of thought, particularly since, in my estimation (and others), it has never been described in a satisfactory way. He helps us out in what ways he can, by offering up these works for reading:

  • Percy Dearmer, Patriotism
  • Stewart Headlam, The Socialist’s Church
  • F. D. Maurice, Tract (1) On Christian Socialism
  • Conrad Noel, Socialism in Church History and The Battle of the Flags
  • Vida Scudder, Socialism and Character and Social Teachings of the Christian Year
  • F. H. Smyth, Manhood into God
  • R. H. Tawney, The Acquisitive Society and Equality and Religion and the Rise of Capitalism
  • Gerrard Winstanley, The New Law of Righteousness

I’d certainly commend reading some of these works for a perspective on Anglican or Christian Socialism. At the same time, I found the list interesting because I wouldn’t have named any of them, if I were in his position. Let me explain why.

First of all, our understanding of Anglo-Catholic socialism is probably best served by looking at other sources than theory-laden economic tracts. The Anglican social tradition in the late 19th century was beholden to a great variety of trends, some specifically English, others international, some cultural, some churchly, all tangled together. Many of these influences failed to pervade that mass of Anglo-Catholic clergy who went on to work in parishes. We have to remember: not everyone was sitting down to read highbrow accounts of economic reorganization or the rejuvenation of cultural life among the rural and urban poor, but our clerics would have had particular kinds of theological formation that were relatively common to all of them and most would have exhibited the social concern that was common in that time.

These facts make it difficult to delineate any single set of books that would readily characterize Anglo-Catholic thought in the period Hunt was describing, to use for the sort of contemporary reading list Hunt has made — unless, of course, we take a look at what Anglo-Catholics themselves referred to.

So what sources would help our quest to understand Anglo-Catholic socialism? Over 10 years ago, I spent some time on this question while studying in Oxford for a summer, and what I found most fruitful was to look at expressions of “Eucharistic social theology”: namely, the outworking of Anglo-Catholic sacramental theology, with its strong emphasis on the unity that the sacrament establishes in Christ and among women and men. This then forms the basis for the kind of work among the poor and across classes that so many have found inspiring.

This form of sacramental theology is a commonly cited emphasis in Anglo-Catholic theology of the 20th century, particularly at the Anglo-Catholic Congresses, and I was interested at that time to trace this thought back to the Tractarians themselves. This seemed particularly important, since Anglo-Catholics between 1860-1933 constantly said they derived their social thought from the Oxford Movement beginning in 1833 (rather than, say, Karl Marx, John Ruskin, Conrad Noel, R.H. Tawney, or Neville Figgis, important as these obviously are in other respects).

Even so, the links from 1833 to 1933 were not as obvious as later generations claimed. Like Hunt, I found only a little in The Tracts for the Times that exhibited a link between Eucharistic theology and some form of social consciousness. However, by digging a bit further into Tractarian writing — into sermons, into other books, and into Keble’s wildly popular poetry collection, The Christian Year — things became rather clearer.

Newman, for instance, described the Eucharist as “a feast of love, union, equality.” Pusey’s Eirenicon had the burden of arguing against Roman Catholic interlocutors, but there he described the unity achieved in the Spirit across race, wealth, and gender through the reception of the Sacrament (this theme is particularly obvious, if one cross-references Pusey’s work with details of his biography). This is one particular reason why he had high hopes for church unity, even if he raised many obstacles to it as well.

With regard to Keble: Newman claimed in his Apologia pro vita sua that Keble’s poetry was the primary exponent of the sacramental system in the 19th century, and it is there in The Christian Year that Keble states his belief that sharing in the blood of Jesus imparts eternal brotherhood to all; that all the saints have shared in the communion of Christ’s blood and therefore embrace one another; and so forth.

Is this Christian Socialism? No, not really, not fully, but one can see the seeds that would plant themselves into the hearts of those trained in Oxford and Cambridge or inspired by the Movement, seeds that would bear fruit later. And this, I would suggest, is even more crucial for understanding Christian Socialism than tracts devoted to the subject.

The Ritualists also need to be included in this mix. Hunt says he did not spend much time with them for various reasons: “few wrote any significant works;” they were located “in middle-class suburbs,” and “were not particularly radical in politics.” Each of these points deserves some interrogation, although my initial thought is that this probably describes the average Anglo-Catholic socialist today, given to champagne brunches, occasional volunteering at the foodbank, and some not-too-radical tweeting.

More seriously, it’s not the case that Ritualists were middle-class suburbanites. The main source for this idea is hardly definitive, as its hard data excludes all of the Ritualists outside of London (J.E.B. Munson, “The Oxford Movement by the End of the Nineteenth Century: The Anglo-Catholic Clergy,” Church History 44:3 [September 1975]. pp. 382-395).

This is a significant oversight, in that many Anglo-Catholic parishes were founded in new factory towns outside of London. Munson also relies on the Salvation Army’s contemporary assessment of parish characteristics and parish work. William Booth and his companions were hardly neutral observers, and many Ritualists of the time objected to the descriptions of their parishes. (Many of them also served multiple congregations, due to the large number of services they held in a single parish each day: some congregations would indeed be middle-class, while others were higher or lower.)

But perhaps the most important thing to consider is that the Ritualists were parish priests, not grand economic theorists or authors with the leisure time to toss off a lot of written work. And so, one cannot expect to gain access to their thinking, except by attending to those things that parish priests tend to write: sermons, diaries, letters to friends and family, parish publications, and so forth. And we would have to pay attention to what Ritualists actually did in their parishes: such as founding working men’s associations, schools, youth clubs, and many other social enterprises.

A good amount of work has been done on this material by Dieter Voll in Catholic Evangelicalism: The Acceptance of Evangelical Traditions by the Oxford Movement during the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century (Faith Press, 1963). It makes for an illuminating read. Voll concludes that Ritualist priests did indeed have socialist tendencies and that, while a complete picture of the slum priest phenomenon is still forthcoming, examples of “socialistic ritualism” abound. (It remains unfortunate that over 50 years later, it’s still the case that our picture of the slum priests remains underdeveloped.)

Voll also concludes, as the title suggests, that Ritualists didn’t look only to the Oxford Movement for inspiration. Paradoxically, they were evangelical in temperament and theology, given to revivalist preaching and looking back to the example of John Wesley as a source of inspiration for winning over the poor to religion and to improving their lot. So, ironically, if we want to understand Anglo-Catholic socialism, we need to pick up Wesley’s sermons and his writings on social holiness. It’s no accident that this has been said, too, of Keir Hardie, the main founder of the British Labour Party.

I have left a lot aside here. For a fuller picture, we would have to reckon with the revival of the Anglican religious life (particularly the Community of the Resurrection), with the history of Anglo-Catholic mission societies (United Society Partners in the Gospel, etc), and with many other sources. But I hope I have indicated to some degree why I found myself delighted and disgruntled, and felt compelled to offer a complementary perspective.

I hope contemporary Anglo-Catholics return ad fontes. But looking to tracts on socialism may not be the right course, at least not without supplementation. The writings of Wesley, the broader outputs of the Tractarians, the real parish and institutional efforts and writings of the Ritualists — I think these could make for better inspirations.

The Rev. Dr. Zachary Guiliano is a priest of the Church of England serving as assistant curate at St. Bene’t’s Church, Cambridge. In October, he will be career development research fellow and chaplain at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford.

About The Author

The Rev. Dr. Zachary Guiliano is chaplain and career development research fellow at St Edmund Hall, Oxford. 

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2 years ago

Well done! Thank you. Once people get over the word, which few Americans seem to understand, the value of these thinkers to us these days shines.