BOOK REVIEW / One hundred years of God against Mammon: The Community of the Resurrection - Alan Wilkinson: SCM, pounds 25

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The Independent Online
THERE are similarities between then and now. Then, a century or more ago, the prophets rose up to condemn the worship and the wild excesses of Mammon. Now, today's torchbearers are still on the march, even if their language has a distinctly softer edge. Then, as early as the 1830s, Thomas Carlyle began challenging the Gospel of Mammonism, that 'melancholy creed' with its fear of 'the Hell of Not Succeeding'.

Later on, Charles Gore sounded out in similar vein against the unbridled materialism of the late Victorian age. He believed that there was an alternative: he thought the turning away from gross materialism could be achieved through Christian salvation, a perspective of which the modern Church has largely lost sight.

One hundred years ago on Saturday, Gore, together with a handful of colleagues, founded the Community of the Resurrection (CR). If the God of Mammon was to be challenged successfully, Gore and his small band of followers believed, Christians would need to behave more like their ancestors during the first centuries. Against the prevailing orthodoxy which had made greed not merely respectable but something to be admired, they pitted the values of discipleship, the denial of self, fellowship, and an emphasis on service. The history of these monks during the next 10 decades has now been written with the style and learning that readers have come to expect from Alan Wilkinson.

Charles Gore was in so many ways an incongruous figure for the task. Born into the Whig aristocracy, he was educated at Harrow and, naturally, Oxford. With a group of dons he set about reconciling Catholic faith to biblical scholarship and the physical sciences.

Few people today have heard of CR, but does that make the enterprise a failure? Hardly. As Wilkinson unfolds the story, there is much to be learnt for Christians and radicals seeking a proper sense of their roots.

There is also much that today's macho- radicals will mock. The founding and support for the Christian Social Union, with its painstaking campaign for the poor, was the kind of activity that found so little favour during the Thatcher years. Organising boycotts of shops selling goods made by sweated labour is out of fashion for those who believe that radical politics is about passing resolutions. Yet this approach, including the offer of help to trade unionists collecting information on safety at work, and the arguing for a minimum wage, ought to find more than an echo today.

These contributions played more of a role in shaping Labour politics than secularist historians allow. The Gore tradition of a morality underpinning Labour's appeal played a crucial part in the winning of electoral support.

A century later there are three lessons for wider society from CR's history. The first is the danger of refining moral aspirations into a political programme. All too easily, the left saw the defeat of immediate injustices as ushering in a new moral order. Things aren't as simple as that.

The second is the relative ease with which British reformers become truly radical about societies other than their own. The Community of the Resurrection's activities in South Africa, led by Raymond Raynes and Trevor Huddleston, were to be cheered. Yet why was it that South Africa not only radicalised CR's stance in a way that their work in Britain failed to, but also gave the whole community the collective courage to stand its ground?

Then there is the perennial question of how best to organise for change. Should radicals be the light on the hill, taking the absolutist position, trying to influence the political debate from the high moral ground? Alternatively, is the right role that of acting as the yeast in the unleavened bread of the world?

Here, the moral crusader is often plunged into the grey area where moral questions rarely arrange themselves into an easy choice between black and white. Perhaps the story of CR, of a loosely disciplined community that allowed both approaches to be adopted depending on circumstances, is the best way for us to advance.