Thursday 27 October 2011

Church Shown Up

“The church is in danger - and its connection with the state, and the corruptions thence arising, is the cause of that danger;   its connection with the state has increased its wealth and worldly-mindedness, which is dangerous to a Christian community;  its connexion with the state has a tendency to beget a spirit of bigotry and intolerance in its sons and daughters.”

The resignation of Canon Giles Fraser – Chancellor of St Paul’s Cathedral – has shown up this key establishment in the Church of England in the worst possible light.

After the initial welcome which it gave to the ‘Occupy London Stock Exchange’ protesters it has reverted to type with increasing clarity.  Principles have given way to politics – solidarity with people has given way to fears over finance – the individual has been overtaken by the institution – and peaceful co-existence has been replaced by the threat of violence.

And in the eye of the storm was Giles Fraser, asking the police, not the protesters, to move on, preaching last Sunday on the dangers of corporate financial greed – but eventually overruled by an institution more concerned with its own survival than with the immorality of selfish greed which drives the City around it.

Such actions by the Church are nothing new.

The quote at the top of this page is not from Giles Fraser, or from one of the protesters – but from an ordinary working man from the 1830’s who rose to notoriety around the same issues that motivate those camping around St Paul’s Cathedral – issues of inequality, injustice and greed.  His name was George Loveless – one of the Tolpuddle Martyrs, whose letter “The Church Shown Up” is an deeply incisive attack on the Established Church which in his day sided with the landowners against the ordinary working man & woman – a Church which sided with the rich to keep the poor in their place.  Sound familiar?

To those who know anything of Trades Union History, the story of George Loveless and the Tolpuddle Martyrs will be well known.  Forced to act by landowners and employers who slashed their wages, they formed the first Union, and were promptly arrested and sentenced to Deportation for their impudence.  The case caused a national outcry and after some years they were pardoned.  Yet on their return to this sleepy Dorset village they continued to be denounced by the establishment and the church – to the extent that all but one had to move again to places where their ‘crimes’ were not known.

Like St Paul’s Cathedral, the church in Tolpuddle had its part to play in the story, and like St Paul’s it chose to turn against those who were protesting at inequality and greed.

For 5 years I was vicar of Tolpuddle, and even then, 175 years after those events, I have experienced the cold shoulder of disapproval from some at the Annual TUC Festival, because of the part my predecessor played.   The collective memory of such betrayal runs deep in the folk memory of the disenfranchised.

Initially the vicar of Tolpuddle, Rev Thomas Warren,  tried to act as honest arbiter in the dispute, and brokered a deal between the farm workers and the landowners, acting as witness to the agreement.   But when the landowners reneged on what they had promised, he was pressured into betraying the labourers by the institutions which the church relied on.  He denied ever witnessing such an agreement and soon afterwards the Tolpuddle Martyrs were arrested, tried and sentenced.  The church had chosen to side with the powerful against the powerless while it continued to recite the Magnificat each Evensong, which speaks of a God who

"... hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.

He hath put down the mighty from their seat : and hath exalted the humble and meek.

He hath filled the hungry with good things : and the rich he hath sent empty away."

Today, even though the same words are recited each evening at St Paul’s Cathedral, they appear to have as little impact on the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral as they did on the Vicar of Tolpuddle.

The irony is that George Loveless was not just a founder of Trades Unionism – he was also a Christian – a Methodist lay preacher who saw clear dangers for a church which has become so dependent on its relationship with earthly power and authority that it had lost its soul.

He cites the Church’s treatment of ‘Dissenters’ in his day as a prime example of this.  The Dissenters of the 1800’s were religious dissenters who would not follow the established church, but are they so distant from the economic dissenters who have camped around St Pauls?   

He warns of the dangers of selling out the Gospel of Christ for one of greed and earthly power, reflecting on the contrast between the early church and the present,

“And they went forth and proclaimed " liberty to the captives and the opening of the prisons to them that were bound:”  they rallied round the standard of their master… and although they had to contend with the selfishness of kings, the persecutions of governments, the craftiness of priests…  it grew and increased, and neither the study of cabinets, nor the policy of states, has been able to suppress or retard it…  How different is this from that which assumes the name of religion in our day; mixed with all the glitter of the world, with all the power and pomp of earthly grandeur.”
He also reflects on the dwindling influence that the church has among ordinary people as a result:

How often has it been observed that the clergy are ever foremost in opposing any popular measure that is likely to be carried for the good of the people…  The undue influence, however, of the clergy over various degrees and orders of society, is greatly on the decline; the working classes are beginning to question their value and utility, and to think that they can do without their assistance.
In his resignation today, Giles Fraser has refused to follow the path of my predecessor at Tolpuddle, and yet St Paul’s Cathedral has chosen to follow the well-worn paths of an Established Church.  They have ensured that yet another a nail has been hammered into the coffin that George Loveless observed as the Church once again chooses to align itself with earthly power rather than a crucified Lord.

I will end this post with a few more words from George Loveless – this time on the economics of riches for the few at the expense of the many.   Perhaps they will also resonate with those who are protesting in the camp around St Paul’s.

The poor are rapidly becoming their own teachers, and it is in vain you try to hoodwink and keep them in darkness;  light is appearing around them…They see that labour is the source of wealth… that they are kept in poverty and degradation by those who, living in luxury and idleness upon the fruits of their labour, tell the working man his portion is to labour, to suffer, and to die.

Notwithstanding all the efforts of the clergy to impress this upon their minds, as a command from God, the labouring classes have learnt that, living in a country which overflows with the abundance of the fruits of their labour, the tenth part of which they never enjoy, the first great object they ought to have in view is their own emancipation from mental and political slavery…. that all governments and laws should exist for the common benefit, protection, and security of all the people, and not for the emolument or aggrandizement of any particular family, single man, or set of men.


  1. Oh Benny, this is 'deja vu all over again'! I'm sorry that I am only now reading your post - I did my piece which echoes yours on Friday (see

    I also used the phrase 'sounds familiar' (people may think this was deliberate, but I would claim that these ideas were all floating round the ether). In my case I picked on R H Tawney's book 'Religion and the Rise of Capitalism'. This was published in 1926, the year of the General Strike, and was thought such an important text even 40 years later when I went to university that it was required reading for all arts students. But the events he was describing - and the link between God and Mammon (or at least the Church of England and Mammon) date from the 16th and 17th centuries.
    'Twas ever thus, is one lesson we can learn from this. But 'the people' do have more say now than they did in the 1830s or even 1926, don't they? We may be about to see this put to the test!

  2. Whilst I couldn't for a moment disagree that the C of E has had, and always has had, a vested interest in both the land and money, I can't quite elevate the Cathedral Campers to the level of the Tolpuddle Martyrs. Just to say "it's not fair" isn't enough. It has to be followed up with "and this is how to make things more fair". I haven't heard that yet.

  3. @ Lay Anglicana: I see we are thinking along the same lines again! Thanks you for the pointer to Tawney - and for the excellent round up of comments.

    @ Richard: We should not forget that the Tolpuddle Martyrs did not think they were starting a world-wide movement. Their own aims were very modest and parochial. What we do not know is where our actions will lead, and the same could even be true of the disparate protesters at financial centres around the world. The need of the Topluddle Martyrs was certainly more accute, but the scale of the inequalities is still as great.