Orens, John Richard - Stewart Headlam

  (21 February 09)

Stewart Headlam's Radical Anglicanism



Melbourne SoFiA member Nigel Sinnot reviews 
Stewart Headlam's Radical Anglicanism: The Mass, the Masses and the Music Hall
by John Richard Orens (University of Illinois Press 2003).


 (Reviewed February 2007)


This biography of Stewart Headlam is a volume in the series Studies in Anglican History; and, although published in the United States, deals with a colourful, kind and controversial curate in the Church of England.


Stewart Duckworth Headlam lived from 1847 to 1924 and became a turbulent, idiosyncratic and passionate priest who was often a worry to his superiors. He achieved brief but national notoriety in Britain by being the man who stood bail for Oscar Wilde in 1895. During his lifetime Headlam was much loved and admired by some surprising groups of people, but after his death he was largely forgotten, except by enthusiasts for the history of late nineteenth-century radicalism.


My interest in Headlam stems from my being a member, for more than forty years, of the National Secular Society in Britain, and from being for a while (back in the 1970s) editor of its associated magazine The Freethinker (launched in 1881). Headlam befriended the National Secular Society’s early leaders, Charles Bradlaugh and Annie Besant, and although he debated with many secularists in the hope of winning them to his vision of Anglo-Catholicism, he supported Bradlaugh’s political ambitions and collaborated in advocating secular education in local schools.


Headlam was given a full-length biography by F. G. Bettany in 1926. He is dealt with in biographies of Bradlaugh and Besant, and is often mentioned in histories of British nineteenth-century freethought. In 1979 Headlam was the subject of a 19-page booklet The Mass, the Masses, and the Music Hall: Stewart Headlam’s Radical Anglicanism, by John Orens (then at the University of Boston), and published by the Jubilee Group in East London. More recently Professor Orens (now at George Mason University and also the editor of the Anglican Catholic) has produced this book, which he terms “an intellectual biography” of “the most bohemian priest in the history of the church of England”.


Stewart Headlam was hardly what might be expected of the son of an evangelical father and of the product of an Eton and Cambridge education. As John Orens explains:


Throughout his fifty-four years of ordained ministry, Headlam defended atheists, consorted with ballerinas, and befriended political radicals, all the while denouncing the Anglican establishment and the respectable prelates who led it. He took special delight in shocking conservative churchgoers by using the doctrines they held most dear to justify the things they most loathed and feared: dance, drink, doubt, and social revolution… [And some of his contemporaries were bewildered] by the synthesis of Catholicism, liberalism, socialism, and balletomania that he held to be the quintessence of Christianity.


Eccentric though Headlam’s mix of ideas may have appeared, they were utterly sincere. Authoritarians often have a motto of “Never apologise, never explain!” Headlam, by contrast, rarely apologised but invariably explained, often at great length. Yet he was far from being “all talk”: he was a tireless worker for the poor, the marginalised and the struggling. Although childless, Headlam was fond of children, and devoted many years to campaigning for better education in London. But what set Headlam apart from many educational administrators was, as Orens points out, “he maintained that the schools’ first responsibility was to teach how to live, not how to make money”. And although he spent his final years in the comfortable, respectable suburb of Twickenham, Headlam’s spiritual and political home was always Bethnal Green, in London’s East End, where he had worked as a young curate and which he later represented on the London County Council.


I particularly enjoyed Professor Orens’s account of a Headlam-led deputation of the Church and Stage Guild to the new Bishop of London, Frederick Temple. At times it reads almost like a scene from one of Oscar Wilde’s comedies. Although tolerant of ‘serious’ theatre, Temple was worried that dancers’ short skirts and flesh-coloured tights could arouse sinful passions. Addressing the ballerina Margaret Wooldridge (later to become Headlam’s housekeeper), Temple nervously remarked, “I am sure you are a good woman. I hope you don’t imagine I think any harm of you”. He received the indignant reply: “I should hope not.”


Headlam was always willing to assist people in distress (such as atheists, socialists and music hall performers who had offended the guardians of respectability), even those of whose conduct he disapproved. His willingness to help Oscar Wilde may have been connected with the fact that “others close to him had been caught in similar sexual tangles” and the fact that Headlam’s wife was a lesbian.


What set Headlam apart from many of his contemporaries was his dislike of joyless puritanism. He maintained that ordinary people should have access to art and culture not merely for “moral improvement”, but for pleasure. And although opposed to religious puritanism, Headlam was also worried at what he feared was the secular puritanism of the sort of socialists who preached class war and regimentation. And although he called himself a Christian socialist, and joined the Fabian Society, Headlam remained a member of the Liberal Party. He was also very wary of people who advocated eugenics, free love and the notion that, as John Orens puts it, “the world would be best governed by a caste of intellectual samurai”.


For many years one of my favourite Headlam quotations has been: “It is difficult to be angry and sin not; it is much easier not to be angry at all.” His sympathies, of course, lay with those who were angry about the injustices in the world, and not with the bland or selfish indifference of people who were not angry at all.


I was a bit disappointed that Stewart Headlam’s Radical Anglicanism had no illustrations, apart from on the dust cover, but in other respects the author has covered Headlam’s life with clarity, thoroughness and obvious enthusiasm. The book will, I think, be particularly helpful for readers wanting to understand the complicated and apparently enigmatic strands of Headlam’s theological, social and political ideals, and how these strands were subtly woven together.


John Orens quotes Harold Hodge as writing:


I think that any man or woman who had anything to do with Headlam personally and disliked him was a man to be avoided. There would be something poisonous about him.


I agree, and I hope that this biography will ensure that this most unusual and warm-hearted radical is not forgotten.


i am really interested in stewart headlam and his life because i used to attend a school in bethnal green that is called ''stewart headlam''.i really think that he should be remembered for the work he did because he was a very talented and well educated person who stood up for poor people. he amkes me a very proud girl to have attended a school that is named after this great man.

Posted by sonia

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