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Wilfred Owen and the Social Question DOUGLAS KERR University of Hong Kong SOME OF THE ORIGINS of Wilfred Owen's war writings may be found in his pre-war involvement in a debate about the proper attitude of Christians, and especially of the clergy, to social misery and injustice. The Social Question was vigorously debated in the years before the First World War. Should Christians take sides, and take action, on social reform? In 1911 W. H. Griffith Thomas, one of the most respected of Anglican Evangehcals, gave a warning to young men considering (hke Wilfred Owen) a career in the clergy: "Christianity emphasises sin, but the social reformer is only concerned with selfishness. . . . We must be particularly careful not to identify Christianity with any ideas and schemes of social and economic reform. ... At the risk of being misunderstood , we must call attention to the fact that Jesus Christ Himself was not a Reformer, and He did not organise men to bring about a reconstruction and improvement of human hfe."1 Holding an authority vested in them by a national institution (so this argument continued), the Anglican clergy could not be seen to be partial. This meant they should not involve themselves in what everyone called the Social Question ; and this inaction was described as non-political. The debate over the Social Question is important in understanding Wilfred Owen for two reasons. One is the congruence, of which Owen was very well aware, between the roles of priest and army officer. The officer was the creature of a national civil and military authority whose orders it was unlawful for him to question. But by the same token he was responsible for men under the wheels of the same juggernaut. The second consequence of the Social Question was more immediate: it became the focus of Owen's growing disgust with the Church and was a crucial factor in his apostasy, a rebellion against authority which was the first really independent action of his hfe. 183 ELT: Volume 34:2, 1991 Wilfred Owen was eighteen when he joined the Rev. Herbert Wigan as lay assistant in his parish at Dunsden near Reading in October 1911, and he was to leave the vicarage in February 1913, the month before his twentieth birthday. It is not possible to say how long or how seriously Owen considered the career in the Church which was his mother's ambition for him. It seems most likely that he took up the post at Dunsden primarily because it seemed to offer him an opportunity to further his secular studies (he hoped to win a university scholarship) with the help of some tuition from Mr. Wigan, in exchange for assistance with parochial work. But for the next year and a half he was treated by the vicar—and would certainly have been regarded in the parish—as if his credentials and function were no different from those of his predecessor as lay-assistant, Alfred Saxelby-Kemp, whose stay at Dunsden overlapped with Owen's until May 1912, when he left for the London College of Divinity and eventually a Church career. From October 1911 to the new year of 1913, Owen lived in the vicarage, helped in the church, and worked hard in the parish at Dunsden. He studied the Bible, tracts, and some theology (begrudging the time lost to botanical studies and poetry), visited the sick and needy, and did more than his share of parish administration. He sat through innumerable meetings and, in the summer of 1912, attended the great annual Evangelical gathering at Keswick. At the end of this time Wilfred Owen was not a Christian in any conventional sense. But during it he hved in the fairly placid mainstream of Anglican Evangelicalism, and was as immersed in the language and affairs of the Church as if he had been a prospective candidate for holy orders without a doubt in the world. It is convenient to see his reluctant attendance at the Keswick convention, in July 1912, as a crisis in Owen's religious hfe. But he went to Keswick under a cloud of misgivings that had been building up for some time already in "the...


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