By John Orens
On May 10, 1910, Ernest Maxted, the vicar of Tilty, traveled to the neighboring village of Thaxted to urge its anxious residents to welcome their new vicar, a radical Catholic socialist named Conrad Noel. But Maxted was a combative socialist and by nightfall his meeting had turned into a riot. Maxted had to flee under police escort, shouting before he left, “I have chastised you with whips. One is coming who will chastise you with scorpions!” Dismayed, Noel assured his parishioners that he had no intention of turning their village upside down, and doubtless he was sincere. But his was a revolutionary faith, and he had been wielding scorpions for some time.
Noel was born in 1869 on the grounds of Kew Palace, where his father, a son of the Earl of Gainsborough, was serving at court. But his true home was the secret place where poets, prophets, and pranksters are formed. As a youth he had shocked his schoolmates by advocating Home Rule for Ireland, and had alarmed his parents by denouncing monogamy as an affront to Christian liberty. Drawn to Anglo-Catholicism by its liturgical beauty and the ministry of the slum Ritualists, he decided to seek ordination. But at Cambridge he so devoted himself to supper parties, effigy-burning, and serenading the young women at Newnham College that he was soon rusticated. He never returned and never received a degree. Determined to pursue his dream, he hired a private tutor and was admitted to Chichester Theological College where, having embraced socialism, he challenged his fellow seminarians with quotations culled from the Church Fathers denouncing private wealth.
This was not the path to ecclesiastical preferment. The Bishop of Exeter refused to ordain him to the diaconate. The Bishop of Chester refused to ordain him to the priesthood. Once ordained, Noel carried on as before. While a curate at St. Philip’s, Newcastle, he denounced the Boer War with such ferocity that munitions workers threatened to blow up the church. And his daring was not confined to politics. He dismissed the Tractarians and their conservative disciples as puritanical authoritarians, declaring that he was not an Anglo-Catholic at all, but rather a “Liberal-Humanist-Democratic Catholic.”
Noel’s rebelliousness was inspired, in part, by his era. Like many of his generation, he had cast aside Victorian propriety to seek a fuller life, and his theology reflects this yearning. Noel saw in Catholic Christianity the promise of a sacramental transformation joining heaven and earth. Christ is indeed present in the sacrament of the altar, he argued, but Christ is also present in ordinary bread and wine, “in oil, salt, flowers, water fruit, the colour of the tulip, the secret of the rose, the sounds of the sea, the grace and symmetry of the human body.” Redemption is therefore material as well as spiritual. And it is corporate as well as personal, for it is our shared humanity that is rooted in Christ and we are bound together in the egalitarian love of the Trinity. It is this sacramental vision that constituted the heart of Noel’s socialism and fired his eschatological ardor.
Given his political activism, friends were surprised when Noel accepted a small country parish. But he believed that it is in the parish church, not on the hustings, that God’s kingdom must be nurtured. He plunged into his pastoral labors, eliminating what he saw as the outward and visible signs of a disordered class-bound society. He threw out the Bible boxes with which the rich reserved the best seats in the church. He replaced ugly furnishings with handcrafted banners and tapestries. He introduced English ceremonial learned from Percy Dearmer and infused it with matchless grace. He deprived the choir of its surplices and moved it from the chancel. He opened choral membership to women and encouraged the congregation to sing the service. On feast days, clergy and people processed together, the women wearing brightly colored scarves and the children bearing garlands of flowers. Thaxted church was to be a democratic fellowship united by a common faith, fed at a common board, and engaged in a common struggle.
Had Noel been a mere agitator, the parish might have become a political boot camp. But true to his sacramentalism, Noel encouraged his parishioners to embrace the tangible gifts of joy here and now. He and his wife, Miriam, wove country dancing, Morris dancing, and folk singing into the fabric of parish life. When Gustav Holst settled in the village, he and Noel organized an annual music festival. It was here that Holst wrote the haunting melody that bears the name Thaxted, and it was in Thaxted that he set the carol “Tomorrow Shall Be My Dancing Day” to music that to this day evokes Noel’s vision of the world a-dance in God.
In music, in dance, and in joyful worship Noel was molding Thaxted into an image of the heavenly Jerusalem. But his vision was not confined to Essex. In April 1918, he gathered a small group in the vicarage and there established the Catholic Crusade of the Servants of the Most Precious Blood “to break up the present world order and make a new in the power of the Outlaw of Galilee.” Its extravagant name was more than matched by the extravagant manifesto Noel wrote for it:
If you believe in the Blessed Trinity and a Divine Commonwealth steeped in the worship of the Social God, the Blessed Trinity, One-in-Many, Many-in One, Variety-in-Unity, not as senseless dogmas for Sundays only, but as the basis and meaning of life; if you believe in re-creating the world in the similitude of the Social God, in whom we live and move our being, Help the Catholic Crusade. …
If you are prepared to fight the soul-savers with their Glory-for-me religion, and to join the soul-losers for Christ’sCause with their Glory-for-all religion, Help the Crusade. …
If you understand that membership of the Crusade means the enmity of the world, and especially of the world in its intensest essence, the Clergy; if you understand that you will be thought a crank by the revolutionaries and made an outcast by the pietists … [i]f you are prepared to lose your job and your friends; if you are willing to give not only your money or your life, but if necessary your money and your life, Enlist in the Crusade.
We ask of you everything; we offer you nothing—nothing but adventure, risks, battle, perhaps ruin; with the love and loyalty of comrades, and the Peace of God which passeth understanding.
The Crusade attracted much attention, but very few members. Apart from its flamboyant rhetoric, Noel made membership difficult to obtain. Few parishes would accept a Crusade incumbent, and incumbents who hired a Crusade curate sometimes came to regret it. Lamented one such vicar to his assistant, “I know that you are doing God’s work, but why, oh why, did he send you to me?” ¾words that Noel’s evangelical bishop, John Edwin Watts-Ditchfield, surely uttered more than once. The Bishop of Chelmsford could see that Thaxted church was flourishing. But he disliked Noel’s politics and religion, and when the village was engulfed by conflicts that he blamed on Noel’s obduracy, his patience came to an end.
On June 19, 1919, against the bishop’s wishes, Noel celebrated Corpus Christi, carrying the Host from the church to the vicarage garden. He informed Bishop Watts-Ditchfield that nine days later, at the midsummer festival, the church would again lift up the Son of Man as the God of Justice, this time in a procession through the streets of the village. Noel’s advertisement in the Church Times was deliberately provocative: “The Catholic Crusade welcomes all who wish to join in the procession of the Divine Outlaw and to receive His blessing to encourage them in battle. Mere onlookers are not welcome.”
On that day, the village was crowded with both worshippers and Protestant rowdies. A squad of uniformed policemen protected the Host, and Noel accounted the festival a great success. The bishop did not. He summoned Noel to Chelmsford and demanded that the processions cease. Noel refused. The bishop invited Noel to lunch. Again, Noel refused. “I cannot sit at the table of a heretic,” he said and left. The bishop then placed Thaxted under an interdict. No curate would be licensed and no child confirmed until Noel gave way. Noel would not, and the interdict remained. Two years later another battle erupted.
At the beginning of the First World War, Noel placed the flags of Britain’s allies in the church around an icon of St. George. Later he added a red flag to symbolize the international unity of all people, and the Sinn Fein flag to honor the Irish struggle for independence. When the war ended, Noel replaced the display with three flags: the red flag, the Sinn Fein flag, and the flag of St. George. The Union Jack, he explained, being a flag of empire had no place in a church. There were complaints, but no one took much notice until Sunday, May 1, 1921. To honor the socialist May Day festival, the red flag was carried in procession around the church. Soon after, someone stole the flag. Noel brought in a new one, but Cambridge undergraduates stole both it and the Sinn Fein flag and sent them to the bishop.
The national press began to report these goings on, and on May 24, Empire Day, demonstrators carrying Union Jacks descended on the village. Shots were fired, fistfights broke out, and again the flags were stolen. When the disorder continued, Noel was summoned to a consistory court presided over by the diocesan chancellor.
Why not remove the flags? the chancellor asked. “You will get on much better without them.”
“I do not want to get on,” Noel replied. “I want to preach the full gospel of Jesus Christ whether I get on or not.”
The chancellor ordered the flags removed. Noel complied, but the next day he preached an unrepentant sermon. “These ladies and gentlemen who oppose us have the power of destroying much,” he said. “They can destroy symbols. They can destroy material things. They can mob us and hurt us. They can hound our people out of office. They can destroy the body, but thanks be to God, they cannot destroy the soul.”
This was Conrad Noel: eloquent, determined, defiant. And so he would be for the rest of his life. In one respect, his remaining years were easier for him. Bishop Watts-Ditchfield died in 1923, and his successor lifted the interdict. The parish continued to prosper, the Crusade kept up its agitation, and Noel found time to write his long and idiosyncratic Life of Jesus. But there was pain and disappointment as well. Noel was diagnosed with diabetes. By 1935 he was totally blind and had to conduct the services by memory. Some sight returned, but then he developed an inoperable cancer from which he died on July 22, 1942. He had been vicar of Thaxted for 32 years.
Noel had transformed the parish, and even villagers who disagreed with him mourned his passing. But the new world for which he had labored did not arrive. The irony is that Noel’s expectation that it could be otherwise made his failure all the more likely. In his quest for revolution he plunged ever leftward, drawing the Crusade into an uncomfortable and ultimately futile alliance with the Communist Party. His insistence that, in the end, Christians must choose between Catholic democracy and heretical plutocracy struck even many of his admirers as intolerant and unjust.
Noel cuts a dashing figure, but his legacy may at first seem elusive. Even Reg Groves, Noel’s devoted biographer, could only describe the Crusade manifesto as a “fragment of a dream.” But, as Noel observed, “the life of this world [began as] a dream in the mind of God, just as the City of God is a dream in his mind and in the mind of man.”
Noel’s dream has a substance worth heeding. It lies in the sacramental inseparability of beauty, joy, and justice. Noel reminds us that beauty is more than a sign of God’s presence and a revelation of his character; it is a form of righteousness. What is danced on the stage, painted on canvas, or sung in church is the overflowing love of the Trinity. The wondrous world we enjoy through our senses, and the wondrous world to which our imagination gives birth, declare the divinity that binds us together in perfect equality as brothers and sisters in Christ. And they point to a world in which beauty and justice, righteousness and mercy, forever kiss. Only if we lay hold of this mystery in its trinitarian fullness, Noel believed, can we enter the kingdom of God.
Too often we fashion our ideological preferences into theological icons. Conservatives deify order, liberals worship individual freedom, socialists gather at the shrine of economic equality. All these are good, but to what end? Noel would answer that our goal and our source are one and the same: the joyful fellowship of the God-graced human family. Jesus, he observed, never said to create fellowship “by means of peasant proprietorship, or by means of feudal ownership, or by means of economic socialism. He did say, You shall carry it into effect.” If Noel is right, we are free to begin the hard work of listening to community and to God. What we need are not programs so much as vision, the courage to dream and the courage to act on our dreams. Challenges await, but that is the price of adventure, and for Noel it was adventure that made life worth living.
After Noel died, Reg Groves wrote, he passed into “the tales told by the Essex folk in warm convivial corners on wild winter nights … [while] the wind whispered … to the quiet ghosts in the churchyard, ‘O earth, earth, earth, hear the word of the Lord.” That wind still whispers, calling us to believe the joyful promise of the carol Noel loved: “Tomorrow shall be my dancing day.”
Dr. John Orens is professor of European history at George Mason University, and the author of Stewart Headlam’s Radical Anglicanism: The Mass, the Masses, and the Music Hall. He serves on the vestry of St. Paul’s, K Street in Washington, DC