Saturday, 29 May 2010

When Socialism replaces the Gospel - a new biography of Donald Soper

I finished reading Mark Peel's, The Last Wesleyan: a Life of Donald Soper (Lancaster: Scotforth Books, 2008), a couple of weeks ago, at the height of the General Election campaign as it so happened. Devotees of the Labour Party of old, like Soper and his many contemporaries, would surely have been dismayed at the lack of principled debate in the 2010 campaign, but that's besides the point for the moment!

Soper was most well-known for his seventy year career preaching in the open air at Tower Hill and Hyde Park in London. The evocative picture on the cover of Peel's biography reflects that lifelong committment. For the majority of his working life Soper was also Superintendent of the West London Mission, the outreach agency that had been originally established by the eminent London-Welsh Wesleyan minister, and champion of the social gospel, Hugh Price Hughes. A lifelong advocate of Christian Socialism, Pacifism and a very liberal interpretation of the Christian message indeed, Soper was a controversial and polarising figure throughout the course of his life. Peel has written a terrific biography, that sets Soper in his context very effectively, and also gives a decent amount of space to his intellectual, theological and political development in addition to the more public facets of his life.

In a sense going over those aspects of Soper's liberal theology that seem most heterodox is a little pointless here. He himself disagreed sharply and publically with evangelicals throughout his life; Billy Graham arosed his ire during the Graham's crusades in 1950s London and some of his clashes with the fundamentist, Ian Paisley are legendary. But what can evangelical readers take from Soper's life?

Well, I can't help but observe that at a time when a Tory-led government (albeit one propped up by the Liberal Democrats) is back in power in Britain, and so many Christians seem to be positively rejoicing, Soper's lifelong commitment to the poor and dispossed, is a timely reminder that Christian's have a responsibility for social justice. Some evangelicals are far too content to make-do with a false pietism that so stresses the atoning nature of the Gospel, that they overlook its rootedness and worldliness. The gospel have a very powerful social dimension - Jesus talked quite a lot, more than many might like to admit, about poverty after all!

Again Soper's lifelong committment to the peace movement is a necessary corrective to many evangelical Christians, particulary on the other side of the Atlantic perhaps, who seem to be far to ready to use crusading military force to solve international disputes. Jesus said 'Blessed are the peacemakers' - he wasn't only referring to that peace which the gospel brings between God and man!

Yet having said all this I really couldn't help but feel that Soper, with his liberal committments, and over-concentration, maybe even conflation (perhaps that's too harsh a term) of Socialism and the Pacifism as almost being of the essence of the Gospel, ultimately had the effect of further weakening, or at least confusing, the cause of Christ in Britain during the second half of the twentieth century. Evangelicals who wish to unify the preaching of the gospel and give meaningful expression to the social implications of the gospel have much that's good to learn from Soper - but there are perhaps one or two warnings sprinkled there as well.

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