Sharing the Vision

Review by John Orens

In his first Tract on Christian Socialism, published in 1849, F.D. Maurice imagined a “person of respectability” asking, “Do you seriously believe that a Socialist can be a Christian, or a Christian a Socialist?” To which Maurice replied that not only is Christianity “the only foundation of socialism,” but “a true socialism is the necessary result of a sound Christianity.” Of course, few of Maurice’s contemporaries agreed. And although secular socialism is now a familiar part of our political landscape, many American Anglicans think of Christian Socialism, if at all, as a remedy for bygone Victorian evils.

But, as Philip Turner observes, Christian Socialism remains an important movement in the Church of England, and the evils that Maurice and his companions addressed have not disappeared. Like the early Christian Socialists, we are haunted by the gulf between rich and poor, and by an amoral economic system that idolizes wealth and competitive individualism. Like them, when we look to the Church for guidance, too often we find its response to these ills confused and inept. Which is why, Turner believes, we need to recover the wisdom of the English Christian Socialist tradition.

Turner does not embrace the tradition in its entirety. He complains that Christian Socialists have yet to reckon seriously with the limits that sin places on social reform. He is suspicious of their paternalism. And he contends that they have yet to properly weigh the competing claims of liberty and equality. Indeed, it is neither the Christian Socialists’ politics nor their economics that Turner commends.

Rather, it is their communitarian vision. They remind us, he writes, that love, not competition, is the first truth of human relations. They emphasize that the duties we owe one another are more important than the right to pursue our self-interest. And they understand that a society recognizing human dignity as a divine gift rather than a social construct can nourish authentic personhood.

There is much to ponder in this volume. Unlike many historians of Christian Socialism, Turner emphasizes the tradition’s underlying theology. This allows him to trace the thread connecting writers as different as Maurice and John Milbank with admirable lucidity. He explores how Christian Socialists have wrestled with the perennial tension between the need for social reform and the danger of relying on the state. And like Milbank, he argues provocatively, if not always convincingly, that with the liberal social order in disarray, the Church should turn from promoting legislation to enabling parishes to become the alternative moral communities God is calling them to be.

This emphasis on theology does have drawbacks. Most notably, Turner does not provide the historical context we need to understand how Christian Socialism has changed since Maurice’s day. The late-Victorian economic crisis that gave birth to the Labour Party and radicalized the Christian Socialist movement, for example, goes unmentioned. And by devoting almost all of his attention to eminent ecclesiastics and academics, Turner passes over the important role parish clergy and urban theologians like Kenneth Leech have played in shaping the Christian Socialist tradition.

But if Turner has not written a definitive study of English Christian Socialism, the book he has written is both thoughtful and timely. In the fractured age in which we live, it is easy to lose sight of who we truly are and what God intends the world to be. Scripture teaches that without vision, the people perish. For sharing the Christian Socialist vision with us, Turner deserves our heartfelt thanks.

John Orens is professor of history at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.


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