However, having introduced a little righteous wrath into the code and eventually recuperated your good humour by means of a large dinner, you are bound to fall under the spell of the most disarming friendliness that you have ever encountered. The friendliness continues as long as you are a hearer of the word as interpreted by people anxious to add your soul’s scalp to the rest of their collection.
They will bear—for a little time—with some criticism. But if you fail to acquiesce in conviction and that fairly quickly, then you are no longer interesting, and in the end, you find yourself exhorted from the platform to “pack up your criticisms with your luggage and GO—You are no use.”
One young man, at that last meeting of the Eastbourne House Party, stung by this, rose to his feet and, an almost lone critic in the midst of an audience composed of Groupers, or those sympathetic to the Movement, flung back in a few words the challenge of all those thousands of anxious and serious people who fail to see in the Group the answer to their own or the world’s problems.
“I have been afraid of God all my life,” he said. “I have been hag-ridden by God. I came to learn. I cannot accept all your teaching, and so you tell me I am no use. You tell me to go. I will go.”
“Yes. Go!” said Frank from the platform. “Go and talk it over outside.”
And he went. He was the most desperately sincere, the most moving and the most convincing speaker I heard during the thirteen meetings of the Group that I attended during that House Party. Dr. Buchman told me he had sent back an apology. I hope he did nothing of the sort. The Group owed to him the deepest and humblest apology for his was the cry of a tormented soul. A thousand thousand men and women would echo it. He was the only person in all the House Party who seemed to have suffered spiritual travail. “Religion never meant anything” that is what the Groupers say almost invariably. To this boy religion had obviously meant something. He had been “hag-ridden” by God. Religion had been a disrupting force and his life its battlefield. He did not want the joy and the fun and the thrill offered by the Group. He rejected the blatantly superstitious interpretation of the Guidance of God—and because he had courage and deep feeling, the Group told him to go. They had no use for him. He was followed from the hall by several young men who were prepared to “change” but not to help him. But he had been publicly humiliated and his genuine desire for true guidance had been rejected.
In that incident you see revealed the whole weakness of the Group.
I do not doubt for a moment that on the whole the members of the Group are seriously trying to put into practice at least a part of the religion of Christ and to live their lives in this light. Through each individual life, they believe, and quite rightly, that they can change the community, through the Community the nation, and through the nation the whole world may be re-made. They have undoubtedly the vision of a world in which honesty, justice, mercy and truth would be of first importance. They see the practicability of the Kingdom of God in our midst. And this is no high-falutin and pious hope; it is practical politics. The members of the Group undoubtedly mean well. But there is a great deal wrong with the teaching on which the Movement is based—simply because it is not the whole teaching of Christ. And because of this there is intolerance, bigotry, superstition, exaggeration, fanaticism, smugness, complacency and every evil that has always accompanied a religious teaching based on Christ’s teaching but refusing to face the full teaching in its stark simplicity.
You cannot get a fair picture of the Group Movement until you have taken part in a House Party. An isolated meeting is like one scene from a play. You may strike a scene which would send you away convinced that the whole drama is the greatest masterpiece the world has seen since Christ. You may strike a scene that will make you decide that nothing could be more vulgar, cheap and rotten to the core.
I attended some thirteen meetings of the Group during two week-ends spent at the Eastbourne House Party. As I do not live on faith but by the sweat of my brow, I was unable to spend the full ten days there. Out of those thirteen meetings there was one that will remain as one of the most inspiring memories of my life. The speakers included a Russian priest—leader of the French Group in Paris; a German girl, an American boy, an Oxford undergraduate, a law student, a University girl, a retired Admiral, two middle-aged women—one a Canadian—a publisher, and Dr. Buchman himself. On this occasion each one spoke with quiet conviction and deep sincerity. They were quite impersonal. They showed how the practical teaching of Christ could be put into daily life, how it could make for friendship and trust between individuals and between nations; change the spirit of industry and bring peace on earth and goodwill towards men. Not one of the exaggerations or fallacies were introduced and one did indeed have a momentary vision of what the world might become under the reign of Christ.
In addition to this one outstanding meeting there were perhaps three that did not actually offend. The remaining nine were convincing evidence of the harmful aspects of the Group. Here you found ponderous young men and scatter-brained young women making heavy weather with attempts at slapstick humour. The English are not a wise-cracking nation and they should not attempt it. You saw gross examples of exhibitionism. You found a play on the emotions, an insistence on trivialities, exaggeration in speech, a complete lack of humility, a disregard of facts and a frequently lamentable ignorance of what they were supposed to be talking about. You grew sick and tired of a continual reiteration of “I”, “I”, “I”.
I remember my first reaction to a Group meeting—some time before the House Party. I faced for twenty-four hours afterwards the greatest temptation to a complete disbelief in God that I have ever encountered. Is this, I thought, all that there is to it? Is religion in all its aspects nothing but a drug to man’s intelligence? For I had seen the application of the simple principles of modern psychology that seemed to be sufficient to convince the Group that they bad found and were showing the whole truth.
During a House Party you get a little tired of such expressions as “this crowd” and “a quality of life” and “this fellowship”, and the word “vision” is worked to death.
“And then I came in touch with this crowd. They had something I lacked. Their quality of life made me decided to surrender my life to God. Now I live my life under guidance. Since I have been in this fellowship I have had a vision of how I may change my home and my college. In my Quiet Time this morning the thought came to me that I must share with my father. I am going to write and tell him all about it. I have made some restitution and I am going to write to my prep school-master and say I cribbed. I am going to apologise to a man I used to dislike. I am going to do this. I have stopped doing that.” I, I, I, I, ad nauseam That is the jargon. It is most unconvincing.
When the converts have been thoroughly thawed by the influence of their own desire for good, plus mass suggestion, they are called upon to testify at one of the large meetings. The men are far more quick to take advantage of this invitation than are the women. I kept a rough count one evening and found that in about half an hour out of thirteen speakers eight were men and five were women.
A good deal of nonsense has been bandied about the moral atmosphere of these gatherings in hotels or private houses. One sometimes hears that there were great “goings on”. Nothing of the sort, so far as I could see. Never once did I surprise so much as a gleam or a twinkle that might lead one to suppose that they were not a family of brothers and sisters. There is a complete lack of self-consciousness between men and women and, what is far more natural and important, between age and youth. You see the different generations talking to one another on an equal basis. There is no condescension on either side. The older people are quite ready to learn from the younger and the young people are equally willing to be taught and advised by the older—which is a very satisfactory state of affairs. There is, too, a delightful friendliness and a never-failing courtesy.
The world might indeed be changed if this material were rightly used. The pity of it is that Dr. Buchman has underestimated the good in mankind and the power of God. It is unnecessary to add or to detract from Christ’s teaching. The majority of the members of the Group would have been ready and willing to accept the harder and better way. Not all, of course, for there are many who are influenced by the rubbish that is talked, by the social atmosphere and by the opportunity to make little heroes of themselves in public. Others are pathetically thankful to have their worries and responsibilities shelved.
I found some five hundred people gathered together at this House Party. Many nations were represented. There were a large proportion of Americans and some Germans. Canadians and South Africans were there too. At one meeting the ten speakers included three Americans, two Canadians, two South Africans, one Czechoslovakian, and a Scotch parson and his wife. And they call it the “Oxford” Group! The proportion of men and women was fairly equal. Among the young and middle-aged there appeared to be a larger number of men than women. These people represent a cross section of the middle and upper middle classes. The “county” is largely represented for Dr. Buchman is one of the few Americans who understand this typical English section of society. They are a well-dressed and well-fed crowd and you certainly can have your soul saved in the greatest possible comfort. There were Naval and Military men, doctors of both sexes, a K.C., a past director of Lloyds Bank, the head of an advertising business, a Master of Foxhounds and his wife, a sprinkling of the clergy, a priest of the Russian Church, a prominent official of the League of Nations, an American who held a position in President Wilson’s government, a well-known Norwegian statesman, University undergraduates, young women of leisure, and retired professional and business men; indeed, representatives of almost every profession and business. They all have widely different interests in the world, but they are gathered together to share one common interest. In between meetings and meals you will see them sitting in small parties in the lounge of the hotel and every scrap of conversation you overhear is on the same lines.
“Since I lived my life under guidance.”
“I was attracted by so many happy faces.”
“Surrender my life.”
“I have to go to London; God told me to go.”
“In my Quiet Time this morning the thought came to me . . . ”
“No, he’s not changed yet but he’s jolly well going to be . . “ and so on.
These people have one other thing in common. Not one of them seems to be possessed of that subtlety of humour that will enable them to keep a sense of proportion, to laugh at themselves, and to query the superstitions of the Movement. They are extraordinary credulous. (But I forget Dr. Buchman himself and Mr. George Light—the one prominent Trade Unionist present!) The Group laughs uproariously at every ”joke“. They are not difficult to please in that way. They are the audience that the slapstick comedian dreams about.
Although the House Party is drawn from so wide a circle of interests, the members are extraordinarily of one type. There is not a true man or woman of the world among them, once again with the exception of Dr. Buchman himself and Mr. Light. Men and women of the world are included in all classes from the aristocrat to the workman. They are the people who know themselves and their world. They are as anxious as the most ardent Grouper to solve their own problems and the world’s problems. There is nothing in the full teaching of Christianity which would necessarily conflict with their intellectual honesty or that strain of cynicism and scepticism that is part of their make-up. Properly presented it would have a challenge for them. But there is a great deal in Buchmanism that will keep them out of the Movement for ever.
They would be interested in the Buchmanites but hopelessly bored with Buchmanism. For it comes down to this—Group meetings are like amateur theatricals—immensely interesting to the performers, but hopelessly dull and boring for the critical audience. One of Dr. Buchman’s cleverest moves is the exploitation of the histrionic ambitions of many people. Every Buchmanite has an opportunity to stand for a time in the limelight. His personal troubles and ambitions are for a brief time the centre of interest. If you happen to dislike the limelight and, above all, to dislike the idea of putting your most intimate thoughts and feelings under its glare, you are not a potential convert.
No one drinks anything except lemonade, tea, coffee and Ovaltine! There was practically no smoking. None of the women use make-up. A world of Buchmanites might become rather undecorative. Tobacco concerns and the manufacturers of cosmetics would be put out of business if the Buchmanites had their way. Beecham’s pills, however, should soar. No one takes much exercise. When they are not eating they are meeting, and when they are not meeting they are confessing their sins in clumps or receiving guidance in groups.
One young man arose at a crowded meeting and said that now that he had surrendered his life to God he had decided to give up smoking and as proof of this he threw a packet of cigarettes on to the platform at "Frank’s” feet. Later, Dr. Buchman, noticing that I was smoking, offered them to me. Clever man Dr. Buchman.
I left that House Party feeling profoundly thankful that I was not moved to abandon smoking, confess my sins in public, or strew the country with letters of apology. I was glad, too, that I was not pledged to be “absolutely” anything, or forced to bother my head as to whether every impulse and idea is perhaps Divine guidance. If by coincidence I run into an acquaintance in the street, it is unnecessary for me to believe that this is an indication for me to “share”. I need “change” my friends but may keep them just exactly as they are.
I was glad, in fact, that I was “no use” as a Grouper.