Well, somewhat later than originally promised, here is the next of my blogs marking the centenary of Talbot House (Toc H) 1915-18. There will be more, sometime…..
There is a thread that runs through Talbot House and Toc H that binds me and others like me to the very fabric of the movement. That thread is equality! It is the principle that all those who enter Toc H are treated equally. It is a dogma promoted from the opening of the house in Poperinge where a sign above the chaplain’s door demanded “All rank abandon, ye who enter here” and embraced at the Toc H meeting where a Lord might sit next to a dustbin man. We are taught that the movement tolerates no prejudice and rejects segregation. Yet scratch beneath the surface and we see that things are not quite as clear cut.
Even in those earliest days at Poperinge, there was a room upstairs that was available only to officers going home on leave. It’s true that the army wouldn’t have allowed rank and file soldiers to be absent from their barracks and so only officers could benefit from the arrangement. Nonetheless, it was a small indication that all are equal but some are more equal then others.
In the post-war organisation, the most obvious disparity was that women were only allowed to be associated as domestic assistants. The League of Women Helpers was seen as precisely that and often acted as seamstress and laundry maid to the men. It took another war to see them become a separate but complimentary movement and then the liberating sixties for the constitution to be changed allowing them to join the main movement freely.
Less well-known were the discordant crises – and I don’t use the word lightly – between affiliates of different denominations of Christians during the 1920s. For in those early days, Toc H was not fully open to those of all faiths and none. Far from it; not even all Christian religions were equal.
However, before I begin in earnest, I need to explain that this is not a hatchet job. We have to understand the above in the context of the times. Women were still fighting for suffrage when Toc H started, so not being allowed to join a ‘men’s club’ was hardly surprising. And Toc H was a Christian based organisation and remains so to this day. Over the years it has necessarily had to loosen its membership criteria and offer differing interpretations of the Four Points otherwise its membership may well have faded away even sooner. Therefore this article is really just a look at the issues of the times from a stand of curiosity.
So let me finish this introduction closer to where I began. When I came to Toc H in the late eighties as an atheist I was shown no intolerance nor any attempt made to convert me. Over the next few years I made many new friends from within the ranks of Toc H. They were of different genders; different sexualities; different religions; different ethnic origins; and held differing views about many things. We were all equal and drawn together firstly by the common action we wanted to take in the community and secondly by the love we found in the Toc H family itself. Toc H proclaimed to be open to all from the outset and though it may have stumbled a few times along the way, it got there in the end. And writing this just days after the 2016 US election and a few weeks after the divisive EU Referendum, the openness of Toc H is needed more than ever. One of my best loved Toc H maxims was from the pen of the great Barclay Baron:
To conquer hate would be to end the strife of all the ages but for men to know one another is not difficult and it is half the battle
The Intercommunion Crisis
Famous now as the founder of the Iona Community, George MacLeod was born in Glasgow to a wealthy business family. His World War 1 experiences in the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders earned him a Military Cross and a Croix de Guerre. They also greatly influenced his decision to join the church and shaped the type of clergyman he would become. He knew the work of Talbot House and Tubby during the war and became a member of Toc H afterwards. However it was in March 1922, whilst he was spending a year at the Union Theological Seminary in New York, that he encountered Tubby. Our founder took to the young Scot immediately and MacLeod accompanied him on his trips around the metropolis meeting people. Tubby was keen to establish Toc H in the US and enlisted MacLeod as Toc H’s secretary in New York for the remainder of MacLeod’s time at the seminary. Once the Scot had returned to Glasgow and taken a post at St Giles’ Cathedral, Tubby charged him with opening up Toc H’s work there. Thus on 21st September 1924, George MacLeod was ordained by the Church of Scotland to the full-time appointment of Toc H padre.
Ironically, given what was to come, MacLeod loved the diversity and equality of Toc H. Speaking of a talk to be given to the group by a coal miner, MacLeod said the following:
There were in the room a Colonel of the Regular army, a Captain of the Territorials; three Fascists, two Socialists; two men who had seen the inside of a prison, an ex-Borstal boy sitting next to a policeman; several unemployed, a clerk from the Unemployment Bureau quite near them; a Cambridge man actually on the same form as an Oxford man; a padre and several who rarely go to church; and the rest from offices, shops and works. The incidental fact that the coal miner failed to make an appearance did not deter the above-mentioned prosaic gathering from discussing something else for two hours and singing songs together for half an hour.
This would seem to confirm the long-held beliefs that Toc H was for Everyman. So what was happening that would shake these foundations of the movement and create such a rift in Scotland? In short it was the matter of communion or more specifically intercommunion
At a meeting of 12 Padres at Mirfield in December 1924 it was decided:
a) That it is not expedient that intercommunion services should be arranged in connection with the Toc H festivals and conferences
b) That all sorts of Christians should be welcomed into Toc H
The contentious first point was approved by the 11 Anglican padres present and rejected only by MacLeod, the one non-Anglican padre at the meeting. They were received into the minutes of the Central Executive meeting of 5th January 1925.
MacLeod was furious about this. He strongly believed that everyone should share the same service of communion or the doctrine be divorced entirely from Toc H. In Talbot House, the hop loft chapel was used by those of all denominations. Now Tubby had the living of All Hallows and it had become the Guild Church of the movement, only confirmed Anglicans could be given communion there. Those of other Christian denominations would have to go to the Free Church for the sacrament.
Toc H’s apparent stance, where the Church of England alone was the church of Toc H was in opposition of everything MacLeod had loved about the movement. He had seen Toc H as breaking down both class and denominational barriers in a spirit of post-war co-operation and now they seemed to be reinforcing Anglican supremacy.
He was, unsurprisingly, up against some staunch opponents most notably the Honorary Administrator Peter Monie, a former Civil Servant in India and a fellow Scot. Monie felt Toc H should not get involved in such arguments and leave them to the church. He argued that by demanding intercommunion MacLeod risked dividing the movement. He went as far as accusing MacLeod of wanting a Pan-Protestant movement that excluded Anglo-Catholics! This makes sense when we learn that Monie was planning to convert to Catholicism whilst remaining Honorary Administrator. Monie would in fact later be ordained into the Scottish Episcopal Church.
I should make it clear that the division was only around the subject of communion. Indeed in 1925 Great Yarmouth branch were instrumental in founding the United Council of Christian Witness in that town which brought together all denominations to help tackle social issues. That was just one example of the ecumenical drive of Toc H away from the issue of communion.
Tubby tried to distance himself from the battle saying that he was too wise to meddle with a thrust in tierce exchanged between two terrible Scots minds. And to be fair, he was travelling the world with Pat Leonard whilst much of the row was brewing.
On 11th January 1926 MacLeod resigned as Glasgow padre on the grounds that the Central Executive and Founder Padre decline to commit Toc H, as a Society to supporting the cause of intercommunion.
The Central Executive met on March 1st and passed the following resolution:
That the Rev. G.F. MacLeod be informed, in reply to his letter of 11th January, 1926, that the Central Executive of Toc H accepts his resignation from the post of Glasgow Padre with the very greatest regret – a regret that they know will be shared by the members generally.
In the March issue of the Journal, the Central Executive issued a statement that reads very defensively. They are pains to point out that they appoint padres to meet the needs of members of all denominations and do not issue instructions to their padres as to the admission or non-admission of members or other persons to the Holy Communion. They admit knowledge of certain Anglican padres making a mutual agreement on the matter but claim it was not brought formally before them. They reiterate that Padres have the right to administer their own ministries as they feel fit. It is frankly, a turgid, side-stepping, appalling excuse for a statement and it is no wonder that MacLeod was left hurt and angry by it all. However, it would be the same stance that the Central Executive would maintain for years to come.
George MacLeod became minister of the second charge at St Cuthbert’s Parish Church in Edinburgh. He did not resign from Toc H. The Glasgow branch stood firmly behind their padre but decided not to disband. In 1938 he founded the Iona Community where he would ensure that his own creed could be lived.
Tubby and George remained friends. In a letter from MacLeod to Clayton in Aug 1939, they are making arrangements for Tubby to stay at Iona. MacLeod signs off with shared humour: For the dog we charge 2/11 ¾ per week; or 3/1 ¼ if he has bones
The passing of time soon smoothed over the problems caused by the rift. And the problem itself was pretty much ignored as long as it could be. Others would take up MacLeod’s banner in time. In 1929 the Australian padre H.E.E. Hayes raised it whilst visiting London. Hayes – a Knutsford graduate – had caused a ruckus in Toc H Australia in 1926 when he attended communion with several Baptists. (He also angered the authorities by daring to support British ex-servicemen alleging discrimination against them by the Returned Soldiers and Sailors Imperial League of Australia). Hayes was told that ‘the general belief was that it was too early for Toc H to adopt intercommunion as policy’. And so it was brushed over until it couldn’t be brushed over anymore. It was after all, just one more piece of the ongoing riddle – What is Toc H?
As a footnote, I will mention the Unitarian crisis of 1928 which arose out of the January 1926 appointment of a Unitarian minister, Rev. Henry Dawtrey, as honorary Padre at Wood Green. His appointment was not sanctioned by the Central Executive and Peter Monie took responsibility for it. Then in January 1928, two further Unitarian ministers were put forward to be sanctioned as Padres. These cases were referred to Central Council who ruled that no minister of a church describing itself as Unitarian should be eligible for appointment as Padre of the Toc H Association or of any Branch or Group. This ruling reached the press and Toc H were lambasted for it, and were even accused of stating that Unitarians were not even Christians. Toc H denied the latter strenuously although at the same time recognising that ‘some who call themselves Unitarians, particularly abroad, are not Christians’. It did not deny that the appointment of Unitarians as padres had caused some deliberations and it partially justified its decisions by referring to 1927 Lausanne Conference of Christian Churches which did not extend invitations to the Unitarians. The most damning outcome of this particular crisis was the resignation of Toc H President Ramsay MacDonald. His resignation was – quite clearly from his letter to Monie – not a matter of conscience but the wish not to be ‘mixed up in the trouble which will arise’. It did, at least, give him time to prepare for a second term in government! Meanwhile Central Council met on 21st April 1928 and thrashed out the problem. A Resolution from Tubby was passed that basically apologised for the recent bad publicity and stated that Toc H had never meant to imply that Unitarians were not Christians. A second resolution essentially chose to recognise the list of religions drawn up at the Lausanne Conference as the definitive list of Christian religions compatible with appointing Padres. Unitarians were of course not on that list. Since this episode started with Henry Dawtrey, I’ll let him close it with the words he spoke to the special meeting:
We have a different point of view and I interpret the Charter in a different way from you. I wish to assure you that, though you exclude me, you are not excluded from my regard, and that I, like you, seek to do – in the highest sense of the term – the will of God.
Anglicans 2 Others 0
And so our brief look at two turbulent times in the fledgling Toc H’s drive to be Fair Minded draws to a close. Later, I might look at another issue that caused consternation in the ranks and saw another man standing on his principles. It was an altogether more damaging issue and the man who stood up to it, a shining example to us all. The issue: apartheid in South Africa; the man: Alan Paton, but that’s for another day.
Steve Smith © 2016
George MacLeod – Founder of the Iona Community by Ron Ferguson