Anthony A.J. Williams, The Christian Left: An Introduction to Radical and Socialist Christian Thought (Cambridge: Polity Press, 2022), 211 pages ; 23 cm; ISBN: 9781509542819.
Dr Matthew Barber-Rowell, Research Fellow of the William Temple Foundation
As a Temple scholar and research fellow, my position is informed by and shaped by the Temple Tradition, that is, the deployment of Temple’s ‘consultative methodology’ as a means of brokering across difference (Spencer, 2017). So my view is not limited only to the historical references made by Williams. This is a blessing in terms of drawing on the wisdom and prophetic impact of a giant of the 20th-Century, but also a hindrance, in that Temple offers us only one way to examine the relationship between Christianity and politics. With this consideration in mind, I am grateful to Anthony A. J. Williams for his survey of 150 years of the Christian Left, which takes us on a journey from the Guild of Saint Matthew in Bethnal Green (1877), through the emergence of Christian socialism in the early 20th-Century, through an exploration of the different political and theological facets to the contemporary Christian Left and the challenge going forward.
The opening pages challenge us to consider how contemporary politics is related to Christianity. An image is used of Donald Trump holding a Bible whilst appealing to his political base in the United States. Although a few years old now, this image speaks to the zeitgeist in terms of polarisation, extremism and division, often inspired by, some claim to Christian faith. Is this coercive and controlling behaviour characteristic of Christianity? Williams does not think so. And if not, is there a coherent alternative on offer? This is the challenge Williams sets out, and which he seeks to find answers in The Christian Left.
There is, Williams’ suggests, no one single tradition that can be categorised as the Christian Left. Rather, there are multiple different influences on a movement characterised by concepts of brotherhood, justice, liberty, equality and cooperation. Of these, I found the concept of brotherhood to be most prominent. The foundational influence of the brotherhood of F. D. Maurice, Charles Kingsley and John Ludlow (1848 onwards) on Christian Socialism, was set out at the beginning of Chapter One. With the final words being given to brothers from Balliol College, R, H. Tawney, and William Temple (culminating in 1944). The influence of Stewart Headlam, the founder of the Guild of St Matthew, is used to good affect.
Although, I did not know of his impact, Headlam is given credit for carrying the message of Maurice et. al., and influencing those who shaped the vision for the post-war Labour Government. Through Headlam’s activism, the concept of brotherhood becomes rooted in both a high Anglo-Catholic Christian, and a Socialist worldview. William’s analysis is helpful in understanding that whilst Headlam and his contemporaries are a driving force, they are also deemed to be somewhat esoteric in their approach. It appears that the Christian Social Union (CSU) was set up by Scott Holland and Charles Gore in part at least to avoid Headlam. These details are interesting historically, and become pertinent later in the book, as part of the overarching challenge facing the Christian Left. How are differences dealt with and what does this mean for the Christian Left as a whole? I am left with the understanding that the concept of brotherhood underpins, but this does not mean that it is easy to adhere to.
Williams’ develops his account by exploring the oscillation between questioning of what the Christian Left is and the context of ideological milieu. Following the impact of the post-war Labour Government, building on the vision of Temple and Tawney, groups within the Labour Party and the Christian Left took divergent paths. Different groups later emerged: Christian Socialist Movement (now Christian on the Left), William Temple Foundation, Ekklesia, Jubilee, and latterly Blue Labour and others. Williams account suggests that the boundaries between these groups had been blurred. On the one hand this allowed for the movement of prominent leaders between the groups, which galvanised support, but on the other hand led to confusion around what it meant to be on the Christian Left and indeed a Christian on the left.
The chapters that follow share informed accounts of the different camps that we can understand as being part of the Christian Left, from the Social Gospel, to Catholic Social Teaching, to Lutheran, Reformed or Methodist traditions, to a plethora of liberation theologies, including Black, Womanist, LGBT+, Feminist, and others. There is not space here to engage with these in a way that does them justice, so do pick up a copy for Williams chapters on these topics. However, I will flag the helpful theological question mark that Williams offers in the final chapter. In terms of the positions that different parts of the Christian Left take up, and in terms of the views that underpin those positions. Does the worldview inform the theology or the theology inform the worldview? This question is present in the early movement, highlighted by the focus on Headlam and returns as a constituent theme throughout the movement.
Foundational to the Christian Left and therefore to this volume is the concept of brotherhood. Williams makes clear that brotherhood is contested at least in terms of its foundations, its grammar, and therefore its universalism. Williams’ use of the term allows for exploration of the Christian Left historically and ideologically and also allows for recognition of the imperfections of the movement. However, Williams’ conclusion leaves me with mixed feelings. This is not due to Williams’ writing, but rather his realistic critique of the Christian Left as things stand: the Christian Left is in danger of experiencing alienation from others within the Christian faith and, it appears, also from other none Christian actors on the left. I hope this does not transpire, but Williams volume leaves me with an understanding of how and why it could.
The Trumpian imagery used to open the volume shows that there is a challenge that the Christian Left can meet. The political trajectory in the UK in 2023 indicates the rise of the Labour Party – the removal of the Labour Party from special measures by the EHRC is the latest sign of this. The danger presented by Williams is that the Christian Left might maintain the milieu and it’s alienation from itself in a way that hastens the hopeless descent heralded by Trump. We may hope instead is that the Christian Left can manoeuvre itself into an altogether more hopeful movement characterised by lucid clarity seen previously on the Christian Left. Time will tell. With this in mind Williams’ work has helped to set out the precedence that exists for this oscillation toward opportunity.