Recovering the Commons

By W. Christopher Evans

A key marker of Anglican christology is our emphasis on the social. Christ’s own Person contains within himself a social Body meant to witness to all the world of God’s abundant care for all. And that sociality extends into, influences, and interacts with general society where too the Word is at work though hidden, unacknowledged, unknown, and sometimes, even despised. A Word that at times works through general society to bring the Body to Christ again, eschewing naïve notions of a Church that has all the answers, being incapable of rebuke from “the world”.

Anglican christology therefore is greatly concerned for the common and the commons, a Body, in which for Thomas Cranmer’s time was intertwined in daily life. A commons in which those with much were turned to those with less, and all are called to question covetousness, greed, and exploitation. St. Paul’s injunctions in his first letter to the Church of Corinth come to mind.

As I read about the riots in England this week, I was reminded that riots in England and across the Isles are not a new phenomenon. Unjust and widening gaps of distribution of necessities and means for a good life have more than once stimulated uprisings. Faith played a part in these. The uprisings of the mid-16th century nearly unseated Henry VIII.

The factors are complex in the recent riots. An unarmed black man shot to death by police—a common occurrence in my own country where the latest situation of this sort in our area happened just up the road in San Francisco. High unemployment in the inner cities and among young people ages 18-25, also common here, especially among young men of color. A seriously widening gap between the extremely wealthy and everyone else, again, as much an American disease as British. The lowest social mobility in among developed nations. A failure to care for the dignity of all, including the dignity of good and meaningful work, again, here where jobs is the mantra without concern for liveable wage or decent treatment of the employed. A failure to respect one’s own dignity in the face of indignity and injustice, even to the point of harming others. Factors, I might add, that may serve the interests of the wealthy in the short-term, but could signal their own long-term troubles. It is frankly not in the purely self-interest of those who have much to have no concern for those who have little or nothing. Even Adam Smith understood that. As Church, we understand more. Covetousness, greed, and exploitation have no truck in Christ’s own Body, a Body that is meant to signal God’s hope for all.

Those who act out of covetousness, greed, and exploitation should not be surprised to find that those with little react in kind, even with covetousness, greed, and exploitation.

Cranmer, who upbraids nearly everyone and who for all of his failure to question the crown or its slaughter as response to the Western Rebellion, does attempt to recover the commons at a time when the up and coming were using enclosures to cut off the peasantry from access to the commons.

And I wonder, where is the voice of the Churches today? Where is a rebuke to those who would hoard wealth out of covetousness and greed and exploit those with less or nothing for more gain? These who cry socialism for funding a school or supporting the aged without means, but who receive all sorts of government handouts in the form of tax breaks, loopholes, and incentives for themselves? Where is a rebuke as strong as this from Canterbury or 815 rather than a justification of one’s status because of a seat in the Lords or a comfortable place at the heart of governmental power symbolized by a National Cathedral? From his quite socially conservative “A Sermon Concerning the Time of Rebellion”:

And surely nothing more hath caused great and puissant armies, realms, and empires to be overthrown, than hath done the insatiable covetousness of worldly goods. For hereby, as by a most strong poison, whole realms many times have come to ruin, which seemed else to have endured for ever: sundry commonwealths, which before were conserved in unity, have by incurable disorder been divided and separated into many parts….they also, which through covetousness of joining land to land, and inclosures to inclosures, have wronged and oppressed a great multitude of the king’s faithful subjects![1]

And although here I seem only to speak against these unlawful assemblers, yet I cannot allow those, but I must needs threaten everlasting damnation unto them, whether they be gentlemen or whatsoever they be, which never cease to purchase and join house to house, and land to land, as though they alone ought to possess and inhabit the earth. For to such Esay the prophet threateneth everlasting woe and the curse of God, except they repent and amend their lives in time.[2]

But peradventure some will say: The gentlemen have done the commons great wrong, and things must needs be redressed. But is this the way, I pray you to reform that is amiss, to redress one injury with another? Is it the office of subjects, to take upon them the reformation of the commonwealth, without the commandment of common authority? To whom hath God given the ordering and reformation of realms? To kings or to subjects? Hearken, and fear the saying of Christ: “He that taketh the sword shall perish with the sword.” To take the sword, is to draw the sword without authority of the prince. For God in his scripture expressly forbiddeth all private revenging, and hath made this order in commonweals, that there should be kings and governors, to whom he hath willed all men to be subject and obedient. Those he hath ordained to be common revengers, correctors, and reformers of all common and private things that be amiss.[3]

All the holy scripture exhorteth to pity and compassion upon the poor, and to help them; but such poor as be oppressed with children or other necessary charges, or by fire, water, or other chance, come to poverty, or for age, sickness, or other causes, be not able to labour….They speak much against Achab, that took from Naboth his vineyard; but they follow not the example of Naboth, who would rather lose his vineyard, than he would make any commotion or tumult among the people.[4]

Dr. Christopher Evans recently completed a Ph.D. in Liturgical Studies and Church History at the Graduate Theological Union. He offers occasional musings on the Rule of St. Benedict, liturgical questions, and life as a Benedictine oblate at Contemplative Vernacular

1]Thomas Cranmer, “A Sermon Concerning the Time of Rebellion,” inThe Works of Thomas Cranmer, ed. John Edmund Cox, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1846; reprint, New York: Johnson Reprint Corporations, 1968.), 192.

[2] Ibid., 196.

[3] Ibid., 193, 195, 197. Cranmer’s characterization of the crown’s response to the various rebellions is not accurate. Estimates run in the thousands as to the number of persons killed by soldiers of the Crown.

[4] Ibid., 194.