- Stuart Headlam’s Radical Anglicanism: The Mass, the Masses, and the Music Hall
The nineteenth-century Church of England encompassed a spectrum of religious attitudes that included dour High Churchmen such as Edward Bouverie Pusey (who unlike John Henry Newman and others did not convert to Roman Catholicism), pious Low Church evangelicals, and liberal Broad Churchmen who reconciled their teachings with those of Charles Darwin and kindred scientists. Stuart Headlam (1847-1923) fitted none of these categories. Instead, this graduate of Eton and Cambridge became "the most bohemian priest" (p. 1) in the history of his church. He defined himself as a Catholic who welcomed elaborate ritual; he preached "universal salvation" in the slums of London's East End; he invited "wicked" music hall dancers to the Church and Stage Guild that he founded, [End Page 559] and he saw joy rather than vice in popular amusements. He also instituted the egalitarian Guild of St. Matthew and edited the Church Reformer; he fostered the education of the poor as an elected member of the London County Council; he welcomed the socialist revival of the 1880's and 1890's, and he served for a decade as a member of the executive committee of the Fabian Society; he concluded his life as president of the London Shakespeare League. He also scandalized his church superiors by becoming the friend and defender of a notorious atheist, Charles Bradlaugh, and by providing bail for the imprisoned Oscar Wilde.
Basing himself on Headlam's published writings, on church archives, and on relevant monographs, Orens has provided the first modern biography of Headlam, and he has done so in an admirably compact, fair-minded, well-documented, and readable manner. Such conciseness does have a few disadvantages, however. The opening chapter, "Anglican Difficulties," cannot do justice to the complexity of the mid-Victorian church in which Headlam was ordained. And the "socialism" that Headlam professed during much of his life remains curiously fuzzy. It meant both the kingdom of heaven realized on earth and the arbitrary confiscation of large landed estates. It meant a single tax (a la Henry George), the unionization of the semi-skilled, the collective ownership of the means of production, and at the same time a dawning suspicion of the bureaucratic coercion to which Marxist socialism might lead. True socialism, Headlam insisted, was not only "distinctly Christian" but also involved "the greatest economic change with the least possible interference with private life and liberty" (p. 121).
By the time of Headlam's death, the Church of England had become far more sympathetic to Anglo-Catholicism and to social reform than fifty years earlier, and its leading clerics no longer insisted on biblical literalism or scorned actors and dancers. Yet Britain's laboring masses had failed to embrace the Anglican Church as "the divinely ordained instrument of social emancipation" (p. 79). Church attendance figures had instead begun to tend downwards—as they were to continue to do, slowly, through the rest of the twentieth century.