I am a member of this class. I was educated at a select school for the daughters of gentlemen—that is to say, I am entirely self-educated. As for leisure, to quote the incomparable Ogden Nash: “I would live all my life in nonchalance and insouciance were it not for making a living which is rather a nouciance.”
Those of us, then, who are regarded as suitable material for the “life-changing” methods of Buchmanism, doubly suitable if we are critically minded, have a right to question how this metamorphosis is to be brought about and the results it is likely to produce. And we do question it here, there and everywhere: in the columns of the Press: in drawing-rooms and clubs: in student bed-sitting rooms: over dinner-tables, and under the “lovingly relentless” eyes of Groupers themselves at innumerable meetings and occasional House Parties. The House Party is a name designed apparently to give a social cachet and a worldly flavour to the concentrated activities of the Group spread over several days and centred in a private house, a college, or a luxury hotel.
But so far our questionings have brought no adequate answer, and this has only served to deepen our misgivings.
Many of us have read—or valiantly attempted to read—For Sinners Only, but have received no assurance from this. It is the main “text-book” of the Movement and it is also a piece of incredibly cheap journalese. I emerged from its study feeling as if someone had attempted to drown me in a bath of treacle. Its sickly sentimentality and grotesque examples of “Guidance”, especially, are a sufficient proof that there is something very wrong with this new form of revivalism. Its propagandist value must be doubtful, for it must have warned off as many as it has attracted.
Many prominent people, both among the clergy and among members of the University of Oxford have already written or spoken with gravity of their fears regarding the Movement. So far as I know I am the first critic from among the rank-and-file of potential converts. My book is by no means a record of my own opinions and impressions. I have heard the majority of the doubts expressed over and over again. In that sense I am but a spokesman.
The Group insists upon regarding critics as base people ready to “crab” any spiritual endeavour. They refuse to see them as men and women who are anxious to find a solution to their own and the world’s problems, but who fail to see the answer in what appears to be the singularly facile doctrine of Buchmanism.
There must be thousands who, having shared an upbringing and outlook similar to my own, regard Dr. Frank Buchman’s Revival from an almost identical standpoint. They, like myself, are full of admiration for the high endeavour that undoubtedly actuates the majority of the Group members. But we are repulsed by the emotional appeal, alarmed by the sometimes unfortunate results of “conversion” on formerly normal people, and disgusted by the levity and cheap jokes that destroy the dignity of true religion and mitigate the seriousness of sin in the proper sense of the word. We refuse to accept the doctrine of Divine Guidance as it is interpreted by them.
We have seen “sharing” (or the public and private confessions of the Buchmanites) result if the subject is inexperienced and sensitive-in depression and besmirching.
As for the snowball activities of the Group whereby every new convert is bound to go out and interfere with the lives of his fellows in an effort to “change” them, that appears to be often impertinent and unnecessary.
I regard the Oxford Group Movement from the point of view of those who believe that religion in all its aspects has never been more absorbingly interesting or more vitally important than at present. Nominal Christianity is mercifully a thing of the past. The days—not so long gone by—when it was associated merely with respectability are over.
To-day once again, as it was two thousand years ago, the Christian philosophy of life is a lively and debated interest among men and women of the world. Every thinking person is faced with the question, “What think ye of Christ?”
In order to make clear my approach to the Oxford Group interpretation of Christianity, I should like to say something about my own religious background, because I believe it is one that is shared by so many potential Groupers who have had a conventional—though none the less sincere—religious teaching.
I was brought up in the fear of God in the days immediately before the War, when little girls wore pinafores and pigtails and were told that they should be seen and not heard. My mother read to me from “Peep of Day” and “Line upon Line”, and I was taught, among many things, to believe in Adam and Eve and the Flood that destroyed the whole world, including Breconshire where we lived.
Religion permeated every part of one’s life: it was as natural as sleeping and eating. One said one’s prayers with the same regularity as one cleaned one’s teeth. One gabbled “Thank God for my good dinner,” whispered a panic-stricken “Please, God, help me down” when one got stuck at the top of a tree, and “Please God, takecare of me,” when forced to go upstairs in the dark.
The New Testament was taught against the background of the Old Testament, and both were interpreted through the formal dignity of the Church of England. I piped my treble “Amen” to robust curses on Ash Wednesday, as cheerfully as I sang “While Shepherds Watch” at Christmas time.
Then came schooldays.
In a definitely Church school the effect of much religious teaching and many chapel services is varied. In some cases it may deepen the sense of religion, but if there is a dawning bias towards the world, the flesh and the Devil it may have the reverse effect. Bed called in the morning more insistently than the bell that rang only just early enough to allow one to get through one’s dressing and arrive in chapel in time.
Lessons were frankly a nuisance. The only satisfactory thing in the whole time-table was the moment when one came to the end of a geometrical theorem. Logical conclusions gave a sense of completion and satisfaction. In future, if a rule could be proved to be sensible I lost at least some desire to break it. I was ready to listen to reason. People who could give reasonable answers to my questions earned great respect. And I wanted grown-ups from the depths of their infallible wisdom, to give me proof of the correctness of many things.
Very early in schooldays the rainbow story had been shattered in all its beauty. It was not really hung by God in the sky just to prove that He would never drown the world again. No, it was only the rain with the Sun shining through. Heaven was not “above the bright blue sky”, after all. The blue was not the floor of Heaven, but nothingness—just empty, unending space. And Hell apparently, was not somewhere in the bowels of the earth midway between here and Australia.
People now said something about Heaven and Hell being “states” and not “places”. Perhaps then, much that one had been told, and in which one believed implicitly, was either untrue or quite different?
One grew older and heard a little about the theory of evolution. Then how about Adam and Eve? Just another story, apparently. But everyone who went to church at home believed in the Garden of Eden implicitly. I no longer believed it, and felt rather superior and daring in consequence. But it was easier and more reasonable to believe that the world grew very slowly. It seemed, too, that there were clever people who could write “Q.E.D.” to that theory.
But no one ever explained that the first chapter of Genesis was the story of evolution told in simple manner, and that the sequence of Creation was precisely the same as that taught by the evolutionist.
If the tales in the Old Testament were not to be taken literally, what reason was there to suppose that the New Testament was absolutely true?
I was about seventeen when I asked a clergyman some question—I forget what it was—that arose from my bewilderment. He said, “My child, I don’t know. It’s better to leave these questions alone. They only upset you.” That was not very helpful; besides, questions won’t leave you alone. They nag at you with their incessant, “Why?”
As I grew older there was a good deal about religion that I did not like, though it was too ingrained a habit to shake off. I hated—frankly hated—going to church. The children of the clergy are brought up to be Good Examples, and frequently live to be Awful Warnings, largely because they confuse true religion with an excess of church-going and church activities, of which they have had a surfeit.
It is easy, alas! to lose sight of Christ if the Church looms very largely in the foreground.
By this time a great many precepts had to be thrown overboard as rubbish. The “Be good and you’ll be happy” slogan, for instance, and “Be sure your sins will find you out.” The more one saw of life the more one realised that the Psalmist was nearer the truth when he lamented that “the wicked flourish”. The idea that happiness depended on yourself was obviously another yarn. Happiness depended on other people, and that being so, probably other people’s happiness depended on you. It seemed a more moral as well as a more reasonable point of view.
I suppose most people who have lived in the world and known all kinds and conditions of men and women must have reflected that the conventional interpretation of Christianity is in some ways very wrong.
I remember hearing a nineteen-year old girl, who had landed herself in a nice pickle through the threatened production of an unauthorised baby, say, “I don’t know where to go. I can’t stay in my rooms. You see, the people are very religious.”
What a contrast to “Let him that is without sin cast the first stone” and “Neither do I condemn thee.” The “good” often seemed to be interpreting their Master’s teaching in a strange manner. “What think ye of Christ?” Is He the monopoly of the respectable or the friend of sinners? And by “friend” I mean friend—a Man who chose them for His companions because He liked their society, and Who influenced them unconsciously by reason of the charm of His goodness and the power of His personality, and not through any deliberate “missionising”.
There are thousands upon thousands of men and women of my generation who, up to this point in the spiritual quest will have had an almost similar experience.
They, too, will have had a fundamentalist upbringing first shaken by even that small amount of scientific teaching which comes the way of the most casual education. The Church failed her children when she refused to look facts in the face and to show that science was but a further revelation and not contrary to the essentials of true religion.
They became further estranged by the smug respectability of so many professing Christians at a time when smug respectability was the last thing in the world that they wished to achieve.
They saw their generation tormented in the hell of war that easily outdid the worst fundamentalist version. In that blinding darkness the faith of such men as Donald Hankey and Albert Ball shone like lights by which lesser men and women could grope their way to sanity.
They staggered out into a world, fit for heroes indeed, for none but the heroic could survive, and learned that if the battlefield could be the place of Hell, then the post-War world could be the state of Hell. Many of them had been brought up on the Church Catechism and taught to submit themselves to all their governors, teachers, spiritual pastors and masters.
They found their governors were a laughingstock; and where were the spiritual pastors and masters of the post-War world?
But out of that medley of bewildernment and disillusion thousands of them built up some kind of a religious philosophy by which they lived. They did not go to church very much because the services of the Church were somehow out of touch with their needs; but they said their prayers and tried to do their best. Some managed to side-step the coldness of organised religion and reach the warmth and succour of the Sacraments. They had their background of religious teaching, and they rescued from it all that seemed sweet and sound and that had stood the test of Hell. It is background that matters more than environment.
Many found a refuge and a home in the revival of a pre-Reformation teaching, through the Anglo-Catholic section of the Church of England, thanks to the saintly Oxford Tractarians of a hundred years ago. Here they found the colour and warmth and poetry of religion as well as sane teaching. Some clung to the teaching, but shied away from the strain of emotionalism that they distrusted. Or they disliked the attitude of infallibility adopted by so many Anglo-Catholics, and the effort to force their conservatism too quickly. These were but small matters, however, and only hindered, but did not quench the revival of lifein the Church of England.
Others, a comparatively small number, still kept in touch with the more formal religious organisation that they knew as children. Large numbers gave up bothering about religion. Far more evolved for themselves an unformulated and very simple way of life based upon the teachings of Christ, and followed it as best they could.
It was not against their code to dance and go to the cinemas and play games on Sunday, although the Church lifted hands of horror and complained of the irreligion of the modem world. The Church took scant notice of the growing charity and kindness and the fact that so many people lived decent lives in a time more difficult than any before. How could this be if they were indifferent and irreligious?
Newspaper editors, with their understanding of public demand, decided that religion was a bestseller as a subject for articles and debates.
Other people discovered that religion was welcomed. There appeared one, Frank Buchman, an American, with sound ideas on high-pressure salesmanship and the advantage of advertising.
He said in effect: “You want the best seats; I have them. Walk right up and join in the joy and the thrill and the fun. All troubles solved. No thought needed. Personal attention guaranteed.”
And a post-War generation, lonely in the midst of crowds, hungry in the midst of plenty, with neither standards nor stable background, thought that it sounded good to them. They were joined by those of their elders who were equally at a spiritual loose end.
Many of them had pronounced Christianity to be a failure. But Christianity had not “been tried and found wanting”. It had “been found difficult and not tried” and a milk-and-water version had been substituted. The Oxford Group’s appeal largely lay in the promise of the joy and the thrill and the fun. All as easy as that.
There were other men and women attracted by all that was good in the teaching—the teaching of Christianity, but taken out of its context of suffering and elaborated with some attractive additions. It is to such as these—and among them that gentle and saintly prelate, Dr. Foss Westcott, Bishop of Calcutta and Metropolitan of India—that the Oxford Group owes the preservation of the sound core of Christianity in the midst of the exaggerations, follies, fanaticisms, inconsistencies, thoughtlessness and dangerous theological teaching in which it is enwrapped. These people were selective, choosing the good and leaving out the bad.
But for the thousands of converts there are tens of thousands who, while acknowledging all that is good, are dismayed and horror-struck by so much that is wrong. They are anxious on behalf of those who are not essentially discriminating. They know that materialism has failed, and that a spiritual revival is needed and has been taking place for many years past. But that is a different thing from revivalism.
Prominent Groupers who have heard of my intention to write this book have alternately attempted to bully or bribe me into relinquishing the idea. On the one hand, I have been told that “it will not be a seller”—that “it will be damned at the outset” and “that it will make dull reading”; and on the other hand I have been urged with promises of commercial success to write in favour of the Movement, apparently regardless of whether I am convinced or not. The “wide field” for such a book has been spread temptingly before my eyes. Although the present book has been condemned unread as “dull”, the other has been praised unwritten as a “best seller”. I have been obliged to reply that in all honesty I must associate myself with the large and growing body of thoughtful people who are seriously alarmed at certain aspects of the Group teaching and practice. I have begged my Grouper friends to believe that the critics are not unsympathetic. They would be only too glad to welcome the Group if certain teachings were explained so that they were acceptable to conscience and to intellectual honesty. I hope, but hardly expect, that such an answer will be made. In the absence of any such assurance the grave doubts and misgivings that now obtain must continue and increase.
It would seem from my experience that the Group is somewhat afraid of criticism. One wonders why. Is it because the leaders fear that no convincing answer can be made to the question, “What is the Oxford Group, and is it a sound and good interpretation of the Christian teaching?”