Richard Meux Benson, Patristic Radical

The voice of the preacher is heard in the land and the words are strong and harsh:

God ordained society, but God did not ordain luxury. God ordained society, but God did not ordain idleness, or that any amount of accumulated wealth should free any from the obligation to work and use all of their powers for the benefit of society. God ordained society, but God did not ordain that any place in society should minister to the diabolical pride of the upper class. If you belong to what is called the upper class, it is your duty to see that you level upwards--that you hold anything you have beyond your daily bread in fellowship with any member of Christ's body who is in need; that you share freely any benefit you possess, lifting up your brethren to any higher enjoyment you may possess beyond them. If you do not, God will not suffer such neglect to remain unavenged; if you will not level upwards, Satan will soon have his way and level downwards.

Think not that poverty is the great eye-sore of our city; if we were all poor together we might have God's blessing on our penury. The great eye-sore of London is your accumulated wealth. If a man can have no crime imputed to him save this, that he has accumulated riches in the bank, that alone is sin enough to send him to hell.

The nerve of the man! How could he say such a thing to the congregation of respectable people at All Saints, Margaret Street.

His language is strong and we may not expect this from him, but it is in a place we do not often see. Fr Benson was aware of and outraged by the social conditions of his day, of the poverty of London and the industrial towns. He was, after all, involved in the urban Missions from their inception. He saw and deplored social conditions he saw as repulsive. He speaks of "the extravagances of modern luxury," and of the "aristocracy and ruling classes," he names the "effeminating refinements" of some and the "brutal self indulgence" of others. He speaks of the great London Mission as like the visit of the angels to Sodom, calling out from her midst those whom God would save. He speaks of "the wickedness of the starving poor, less disguised than that of the refined classes," of multitudes "whose very business in life is sin."

There seems to be in this a hatred or rejection of the world, and with that we are familiar in our customary readings of Benson. We are most familiar with it on the subject of mortification and death to the world. We find these a little repulsive.

Mortification is the great means by which we obtain an idea of our own nothingness....Rejoice in that class of mortifications which acts upon us in the way most annoying to our natural temperament, or most wounding to self-love. We should choose that which is least pleasing, the smaller of two works, or that which brings most contumely or difficulty. We must never choose for self.

He speaks of the object of the vows as "self-abnegation, self-annihilation." He speaks of having "our affections crushed," and of a "world in which life is crushed by a weight of sorrow." "A life of religious abnegation," he says, " is a life in which the worldly self is crushed."

He says that the world does this crushing but has no life to give. "It is not the mere street Arab to whom this happens but the statesman, the lawyer, the man of business, the scholar." Speaking of a man of business or science he says, "the world praises him for his knowledge, or his wealth; and the world does not know that he who was almost like an angel has been changed into a demon by this crushing of affections, in the mere worldly toil of the anxieties of life."

How can this man say all these things? What gives him the power, the assurance, to speak in this way about the world? The clue may be found in his saying that "the customs of society are a code of laws which will furnish no precedents for justification at the last great day." It was from the perspective of the last great day and of what lays beyond, from the perspective of the kingdom, that Benson spoke to condemn all that fell short, all that was the reverse of, the Kingdom he knew and awaited. It must have been all his hope, since he seems to have clung to nothing else.

It was, in fact, his great vision against the standard of which all worldly things were tested, and found wanting. So he gently condemned the great religious movement of his day to improve social conditions, because it fell short. In Spiritual Readings: Advent, he says

That community of goods which is the idle dream of the socialist--idle because it is impossible under the conditions of earthly existence--is the glorious end to which earthly discipline is leading us: glorious because it shall be truly achieved in the fullness of spiritual power, the undivided life of the Holy Ghost."
In a later work he says:

This organism of human society was smothered up in the accidents of human corruption. No human effort of reformation could, or ever can, set it free. The old worldly corruption remains inherent in all socialistic efforts, however well intended, and however much impregnated with Christian principles. A new life is necessary in order to remove the corruption, but that new life does not start with tabulae novae, a fresh organization. It is a spiritual power regenerating that social order which makes the antagonistic kingdoms of the world to belong to God and his Christ.

For Benson, this new order will come only with the return of Jesus Christ in glory. Then all things will be renewed and perfected. Then all the world will be rejoined in a single whole organism of humanity, Jesus Christ Incarnate in us, the original unity which was shattered at the Fall.

Had it not been for the wound of original sin whereby the unifying life of God was lost, mankind would have remained in absolute unity. We may conceive that the developments of nations and individuals would have multiplied and specialized the common consciousness of joyful power, for whatever was the gain of any would have been the delight and possession of all.

As each nationality is formed by the loss of some element essential to the perfect nature of the individual man; so each nationality contains some element essential to the perfect nature of man, and therefore essential to the perfect exhibition of the mystical Christ....The most savage and degraded nations have some element of human nature which makes them what they are. They are not only capable of being restored in Christ, but their restoration is essential to the integrity of Christ's glorified humanity....The dwarfs of equatorial forests and the cannibals in islands of the sea have their individualizing inheritance,--drops of Adam's blood,--and the Blood of Christ cannot assert the fullness of its redeeming power until it has made manifest in them that speciality of redeeming grace, whereby they may claim their part in the inheritance of the Saints, as members of Himself the Second Adam.

The key to how this is to happen, and to how this is to achieve the reunification and salvation of the fallen world, is the work of the Holy Spirit, the only power that is capable of acting thus. The Holy Ghost is the only source of energy and power to consecrate us to God. The humanity of Christ in each person is powerless to act unless the Holy Ghost indwelling that humanity causes it to germinate by communicating the power of the life of Christ. Only then can we please God, and it is only this Holy Ghost that can produce any fruit in us. Without it we are given over to dead works. It would seem likely then that Fr Benson viewed any system with its own new world aimed at, to be one of the "dead works".

This work of the Holy Ghost not only unites an individual to God, but unites individuals to one another, articulating their efforts into an organic scheme, in the Body of Christ, and that not only in the present but in a real unity with the Church of all races and ages:

Each of us in the Church has our own work to do, but it is not a mere stray work; as it is done by the power of the Holy Ghost, it is a part toward the completeness of God's design. What each does is not for our individual gratification in accomplishing something we set our mind to do, but we are taking part in the mighty work He is carrying out in the universal Church of all times and all ages.

He adds that the ages of the past were ages in which a certain portion of building up that unity was accomplished, and the unity awaits us to complete it. Fr Benson goes on to say that the purpose of God's sending the Holy Ghost was to build up this temple in which He might dwell, the Body of Christ, and that this was the original purpose of creation, that "all creation was formed to culminate in this one great glory."

Fr Benson speaks at length of the final consummation, the city of new Jerusalem come down from heaven:

As the City is built together in unity, so we shall gaze on the City without any distraction. We shall see all its parts and in each part we shall read a history of the whole. As by examining one part of a body the physiologist is able to determine the character of the organism to which it belongs; so as we gaze on each saintly stone we not only learn what is that individual experience, but also the collective law in which it is built up in the unity of the whole. So we must gaze upon every stone of this glorious City. There is the individual character of each, and the collective unity to which it is subordinated, but there is perfect agreement in the whole: we shall behold, and find it our delight to behold, Jesus in one and all, by the working of the Holy Ghost.

Here then is the secret of how Fr Benson was able to speak so strongly in condemnation of the world and its ways, and of the destruction of our personalities. He had the knowledge of God and of the Kingdom, compared to which earthly affairs and ways are so much trash, the scum left in the cookpot, as St. Paul was wont to say. Perhaps this can become our secret as well, if we want to move into the Kingdom of God's will and away from the kingdom of the prince of this world.