The Blog

The Church Has Alienated the Left-Wing: Reflections on Wellingborough Diggers Festival

Over the last weekend those of us of a leftish persuasion could be found celebrating the contribution the Diggers made to British politics at the Wellingborough Diggers Festival. Wellingborough is important in the history of the Diggers, as the True Levellers came to be known, as from the late 1640s until they were rounded up and imprisoned on 15 April 1650 there was a community of Diggers near the East Northamptonshire Town.

Despite the Diggers being radical protestants whose movement is based on the description of the early church described in the book of Acts the festival, in common with the majority of those who are active on the political left, had a secular flavour. In fact the modern left is not only secular but populated by many who are evangelical in their atheism - as someone who is active in both the trade union movement and campaigning for human rights the assumption is all too often made that I must therefore necessarily be atheist. It is harsh however to blame the left when large parts of the Christian church have, in recent times, aligned themselves, consciously or otherwise, with the political right.

Believing in secularism - that Church and the State should be functionally separate - is a sensible proposition that in no way necessitates atheism, or even agnosticism. To accept that religion has been used as a tool of oppression throughout history, whether it be Christianity, Judaism, Sikhism, Islam etc..., and still is today, should not be allowed to be an argument for attacking faith - Christ for example spent his life challenging the organised religion into which he was born and his faith is rarely, if ever, doubted.

The Diggers movement inhabited a space on the extreme left-wing of politics, believing not just in sharing but in the notion of common ownership. This belief in holding everything in common grew solely from the belief of the founders that their faith necessitated that they live as the apostles and the early believers lived, as described in the passages in Acts which are commonly subtitled 'the model church'. That the book of Acts provides not only a description of the early church but a model that the modern church should aspire to is an uncontentious claim that is often preached on. Acts verse 2, chapters 44-45, on which Gerrard Winstanley based the founding principles of the True Levellers reads: "All who believed were together and had all things in common; they would sell their possessions and goods and distribute the proceeds to all, as any had need." My father, a Congregational minister, draws the parallel with the Marxist edict that "each gives according to his ability and takes according to his need" and it is difficult to come to any other conclusion than that the apostolic church and the Diggers were living Marx's vision of society.

The concern for much of the modern church should be that when people look for communities that could contribute to a celebration of the Diggers they do not see it in the church. This is unsurprising though for if you look at much of the modern church you would see little if anything that resembles the apostolic church described in Acts. Radical Protestantism of the congregational form described in Acts is not extinct, although rare even in the Congregational churches that took its name, and the Quaker movement continues. Yet the church that contributed so much to the Diggers is viewed from outside as a predominantly right-wing institution, intolerant of difference and critical of human rights. Even Christ, who sat with outcasts, preached common ownership and embodied gender equality might struggle to recognise his bride.