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ChurchesHallo again to all.

Archival and bibliographic wanderings of late have taken us into the middle twentieth century. Few of us today have adult memories of the political controversies of the 1940s and 1950s, even if we are inheritors of international arrangements made at Yalta and Potsdam, Nuremberg and Tehran. We've long been aware of a diversity in the company of voices who spoke within the Church about the changes and chances of the last century. There are rich seams of thought of every kind in the period's sermons, tracts, pamphlets, screeds, and treatises: monarchist, socialist, republican, progressive by whatever lights, conservative by others, labour-minded, what have you.

One stream in particular, though, has been a surprise. While we were familiar with the rich school of Anglo-Catholic (or even just plain Anglican) socialism—exemplified by figures like Charles Gore, Stewart Headlam, Percy Dearmer, Charles Marson, Neville Figgis, Conrad Noel, Maurice Reckitt, our distant cousin Vida Dutton Scudder, and Rowan Williams or Kenneth Leech in our own day—it was a surprise to read of clerical warmth toward Stalin. The discovery of this sermon preached in Stalin's memory in a church in London has provided food for thought for weeks.

Probably the most famous exponent of this line of thinking was the Red Dean, Hewlett Johnson. The man lived for nearly a hundred years; he met with Soviet, Maoist, and Communist Cuban leaders; and served as head of the chapter of Christ Church, Canterbury for more than three decades. He was awarded the Soviet Red Banner of Labour and the Stalin International Peace Prize. His support for the Soviet Union did not waver even after the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary, when Russian tanks suppressed popular demonstrations in an Eastern Bloc satellite, killing or wounding 15,000 civilians.

The argument? Marxist revolution gave a new priority to human value over financial capital. Stalin opposed the genocidal madness of German National Socialism, building a society in which gender, race, and language had no valence in the evaluation of personal rights. The 1940s Soviet reopening of theological academies and convocation of church councils was a note of toleration and even support for religious communities. A handful of Church of England clergy would not shy away from the notion that Stalin himself was (against his own rejection of the Georgian Orthodox faith of his youth) something of a Christian saint. Suggestions of contrary positions were

political campaigns waged in the interests of the enemies of the Soviet people. They can only serve to undermine the Anglo-Soviet Alliance upon which so much rests.*

Seventy years later, what do we think about this? Are many of us in the Church or the world prepared to defend the positions of a one-party authoritarian state in which human rights were limited in the support of centralized ideologies and policies? Are we aware of the liquidation and deportation of millions of peasants under the Soviet Civil Code, the summary execution of bishops, priests, monks, nuns, laypeople, innocents because their education and profession were understood to stand in the way of Progress? The Anglican affection for Stalin may in retrospect be an understandable gratitude for the Russian sacrifices in a cataclysmic battle against western European fascism, but at the end of the day this is not an excuse to ignore hateful acts.

The liberty of the Christian soul is a freedom to evaluate every question on its own merits: does this idea honour the creation of each person in the image and likeness of God? Does that idea make a way toward the protection of the weak and the poor, the comfort of the sorrowing, the feeding of the hungry? Will a community or state organized around a set of several ideas help to make a place where our beliefs are allowed to flourish according to the consciences of our neighbours?

We need not give in to the tyranny of presentism—the idea that we now know best or most—by taking the example of mid-century churchly proponents of Stalin as a moment in which honest persons followed good ideas and still went wrong. Our duty to divide the word of truth in the present hour is constant, and we ask for the gift of the Holy Spirit to attempt it.

See you next week.

Our Signatures

Richard Mammana


All of us at Anglicans Online

17 February 2019

* Stanley Evans, Churches in the U.S.S.R. (London: Corbett Publishing, 1943), p. 157.

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