Society and Sacrament: The Anglican Left and Sacramental Socialism, Ritual as Ethics

Article excerpt

INTRODUCTION

August in New York City is frequently a time of intense heat, where the congestion of city living kindles tempers to the breaking point. This is true in a special way in the tenements of the city, where people without air-conditioning take raw anger and frustration into the streets. It was in this environment, in the tenements of the Lower East Side, that gang violence erupted in August of 1959. At least two young people were shot in gang-related "rumbles" and retaliation. Blacks and Puerto Ricans, already scrambling for the few available jobs society provided for them, squared off against each other. Police and the city of New York vowed more punishment, more arrests. (At this same time, Leonard Bernstein portrayed these struggles in terms of the love of Tony and Maria, but in "real life" it was "East Side Story" as much as "West Side Story.")

In response to renewed war among his youth, the Episcopal priest, Fr. Kilmer Myers of Sr. Augustine's Chapel (now St. Augustine's Parish) also took to the streets. Canceling the church's usual patronal festival and carnival, he led his people in a procession through the streets of his neighborhood, with clergy clad in the solemn vestments of the Eucharist, with banners, incense, and hymns. His purpose: to pray and to plead that the killing stop, and that the authorities see the agony of the young who had abandoned an almost three-year "truce" he had helped work out with youth leaders between rival gangs.

Myers wrote later in his book, Light the Dark Streets (Greenwich, Conn.: Seabury Press, 1957) about his ministry at St. Augustine's. In contrast to a city government and police department intent on further punishment as a solution to gang problems, Fr. Myers posed the presence of people who lived and worked with the young people and a community in desperate need:

A parish such as this ... so filled with darkness, defeat ... and a longing for victory.... We think of next year and the year after that. We are not sure that we have the strength or that we can ask for it. The shouts in the street become an unending shout. The angry cry mingles with music from the tenement....

There is the scream of the police siren. Will it stop in the block? There is the uncertainty at each youth affair. Will someone be shot or stabbed? (p. 96)

In 1981, Bishop Desmond Tutu challenged the government of South Africa to abandon its policy of apartheid, a challenge he and others later won. But at that point, with any kind of victory far from certain, he confronted his opponents with words about his own spiritual commitment:

I want to say that there is nothing the government can do to me that will stop me from being involved in what I believe is what God wants me to do. I do not do it because I like doing it. I do it because I am under what I believe to be the influence of God's hand. I cannot help it when I see injustice. I cannot keep quiet. I will not keep quiet, for as Jeremiah says, when I try to keep quiet, God's word burns like a fire in my breast. But what is it that they can ultimately do? The most awful thing that they can do is to kill me, and death is not the worst thing that can happen to a Christian. (Quoted in S. DuBoulay, Tutu: Voice of the Voiceless [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1988], pp. 174--175.)

How does ritual involve ethics? I would like to present for your consideration one example of such an intersection: the witness of what some have called the "Anglican Left" in both Britain and the United States, or what the historian Peter Jones has named "sacramental socialism." (See Peter d'A. Jones, The Christian Socialist Revival 1877--1914: Religion, Class, and Social Conscience in Late-Victorian England, Princeton, 1968 [especially Part II].) It will be my thesis that the vision of Christian life and witness worked out in the second generation of the Oxford Movement in England and the United States has continued to empower many to the present, not the least of whom have been such urban activists as Kilmer Myers and the prophetic duo of Trevor Huddleston and Desmond Tutu, who were central to the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa. …