Tuesday, 22 September 2015

JEH: A very British apocalyptic suicide cult

The new Journal of Ecclesiastical History (vol. 66 no. 4: Oct. 2015) has the usual range of treats, and as usual I will arbitrarily pick out those that appeal to me. The most memorable single line is from Jeremy Morris’ splendid treatment of nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholics who went on tours of continental Europe, and whose religion was profoundly shaped by them. The previous neglect of this subject is a grave comment on the insularity of so much English scholarship. Jeremy rightly could not resist, however, pointing out that even some nineteenth-century Anglo-Catholics shared that insularity. W. F. Hook, the energetic, creative vicar of Leeds and later dean of Chichester, had this to say of his one trip to France:
I am heartily sick of Paris; hate France, and think Frenchmen the most detestable of human beings. In three weeks I hope to be in dear old England, and never shall I wish again to quit her shores.
It’s only a shame we couldn’t get that one into print in time for the Waterloo anniversary earlier in the year.

            That’s very British, but it’s not a suicide cult. For that we have to turn to, for me, the most revelatory article in the issue, Sam Brewitt-Taylor’s wonderful piece on the British Student Christian Movement (SCM) in the 1960s. It’s well-known that in the 1960s, the SCM turned towards political radicalism and imploded, going from dominance of the student Christian scene to near-collapse and subsequent irrelevance in only a few years. The usual explanation is that it was trying to hitch itself to the bandwagon of 1960s political activism in an attempt to stay relevant in a secularising age, and in the process got sucked under the bandwagon’s wheels. My interest was piqued. I was a member of the rump SCM group in St Andrews in 1993-4, a group which, though tiny, was high-powered (its alumni include an SNP MP, indeed one elected before the mammoth 2015 intake – hello, Eilidh). They were a lovely group of people, who made my own liberal-evangelical convictions seem terribly staid.
            Brewitt-Taylor’s piece shows that the SCM’s collapse was not a hapless accident but almost wholly self-inflicted. It was taken over by what can only be described as an apocalyptic cult. These radicals, inspired by Bonhoeffer’s ‘religionless Christianity’, believed that God was at work in the secular world and its transformations, and that Christians should therefore abandon all the outward trappings of Christianity and throw themselves into socio-political activism. Like any classic Christian apocalyptic movement, they overread events in the world around them, mis-reading (as we can now say from a safe distance) subtle shifts and ambiguous movements as absolute changes of cosmic significance. The drift of students away from Christianity meant that it was ‘totally irrelevant’ in a world that had ‘no room for religion’. Likewise, they saw signs of the kingdom of God in the rise of revolutionary movements across the world, from student demos to Algeria and Vietnam – and even, though they really should have known better after 1956 and especially 1968, in the Warsaw Pact countries.
            The result was a movement which openly disparaged traditionally Christian activities and advocated revolution. Naturally, most of its Christian members (especially its female majority, who like many women at the time recognised that they weren’t invited to 1960s-style revolutions) simply left. Those who hung on were often uncertain what they should actually do to usher in this postmillenial kingdom. As they subsided into a series of consciousness-raising workshops, the movement sank out of sight.
            The tragedy of this – for that is how I read it – is that the leadership knew what they were doing. They expected to lose much of their membership and their income: these were prophetic, self-sacrificial acts, laying down their institutional life for the sake of the Kingdom. As with most suicide cults, however, the dramatic act of self-immolation didn’t produce the desired results. At least this time, instead of ending in a literal bloodbath, it ended in a commune in a draughty Gloucestershire manor house which wound up for lack of funds in 1977.

            The SCM was many good things: bold, inspired, prophetic, honest, willing to read the signs of the times, determined to lead change rather than being dragged along behind it. Only one problem: it was wrong. Its error, as Brewitt-Taylor bluntly puts it, was ‘contextualising limited religious decline as part of God’s plan to abolish organised religion’.  It’s been the defensive, conservative, counter-counter-cultural forms of Christianity that have survived, this far at least – not least in the student world. We all know that, in reality, hares can run faster than tortoises. But a tortoise is better at coping with crossfire and less likely to dash off a cliff.

1 comment:

  1. Hi Alec. Thanks for a really excellent and informative piece. I do wish such pieces (I've seen a few!) would see fit to mention, though, that the 'suicide' was not wholly effective and the SCM is still very much alive and kicking in Britain today and experiencing somewhat of a period of growth :)