“Join the Revolution!” “Yes, but which one?”

THE REVD LEIGHTON THOMAS describes how the Order of St Francis was created in a time of depression and revolution in Europe.

THE Russian Revolution was getting underway 100 years ago. The Czar Nicholas II and his family had been mercilessly despatched, the peasantry had been ‘released’ and Vladimir Lenin, with his wife and children, made the Kremlin their home. In March 1918, under his leadership, The Russian Communist Party came into being. Religious institutions were closed or desecrated, their clergy were humiliated or killed and Atheism became the creed for the new socialist republic. These were violent times. There were at least two attempts on the life of the Chief Commissar and what followed in the subsequent reign of terror resulted in the loss of 20 million Russian citizens and a Cold War that at one time threatened the annihilation of the entire world. The opiate of religion was forcefully removed. The state insisted the peasantry should live without the Christian faith or the once-revered Orthodox Church.

A statue of St Francis. Photo: Shutterstock

At the same time in the United Kingdom, the spark that Karl Marx had once hoped would ignite the fires of revolution never happened. The Church of England continued its traditional ways, innocuous, kindly and somewhat bland. Everyone in the pews and nearly everyone outside of the Church were quite prepared to state their religion as Church of England. The local vicar might be ready to concede that most of his flock lacked some understanding of the faith. But he had equal confidence that his fellow countrymen would carry within themselves the infection of good courage, and some of them would take it, in some cases, to distant parts of the Empire.

However, embers of a different kind were being kindled within the Church. These embers were “fiery and sweet as honey…,” to quote St Francis. The Revd Douglas Downes (Brother Douglas, as he wished to be known) was a Professor of Economics at Oxford University. He was distressed to see countless homeless and hungry people because of the depression and in the aftermath of the First World War. With a group of volunteers, he sought out and befriended those people.

When a Dorset landowner, Lord Sandwich, offered them a small farmhouse in Hilfield, Dorset, they developed their ministry to the destitute. Brother Algy later joined them – he had a much better idea of the nature of religious communities and life. The Society of St. Francis (SSF) came into being, reviving within the national Church the vision, practice and disciplines of the Franciscan Order. This included the three conditions of Poverty, Chastity and Obedience for the First Order and the Three Ways of Service in Prayer, Study and Works. In its own way, the SSF has become a radical and impressive movement, pointing to the continuing love of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit. It was a revolution of sorts.

At the other end of the European continent, Vladimir Lenin, a lover of radical change and maximum upheaval, was making a name for himself. But in England and in sharp contrast, Brothers Douglas and Algy were invisible on the world stage. Their reforming zeal was softened by the humility that was the very foundation of their new life. They wished to recapture the Spirit of Christ as it was demonstrated in the life of Francis.

They were aware that Francis knew little theology. Of books, he needed only the Bible. Of preaching we should “use words if necessary.” He looked beyond ecclesiastical structures and ‘high offices’ and drew to himself men and women whose work is their daily prayer. He claimed nothing and yet seemed to possess all things. His witness was jubilant and spontaneous, particularly when circumstances required an immediate, courageous and loving response, and especially when weak and sick friends were intimidated by authorities and bullies.

He revelled and rejoiced in being “a fool for Christ’s sake” (taking up that image of St Paul in 1 Corinthians 4.10). He was prepared to make a complete ass of himself in public, even to be regarded as a Godly clown if such behaviour brought to others the gracious and merciful figure of Christ.

Vladimir Lenin once made a throw-away remark reflecting his arrogance towards his peasant sympathisers. They were polenzi durak – “useful idiots.” He saw them as ignorant souls who knew nothing of the complexities of the doctrine. They were, however, useful enough to join the common ranks; and, if necessary, to shout and fight for the cause. This suggests Lenin was not entirely committed personally to the social harmony that he formally espoused. The haughtiness of the first Communist leader lies in sharp contrast to the joyous spirit of il poverello (the poor man), or St Francis. I imagine Francis giving a wild huge cheer, with laughter and hearty approval. He would say: “Yes, if you like, ‘one of Christ’s useful idiots’. Why not? Does not Christ himself demand of us a humility and joyfulness that is rooted and grounded in the love of God.” But the political agitator had other ideas in mind.

The revolutionary moment for Lenin was clear: “It was that point at which subjects are unwilling to go on living in the old way and the rulers unable to go on living in the old way.” Neal Ascherson writing in The Observer in 1989.

Francis would have nodded in acknowledgement. Apart from that – and that both had been born into rich, middle-class families – that is all they had in common. They were bound to go their different ways. The Marxist revolutionary fought, suffered, killed and ultimately failed to establish the Soviet state of which he dreamed. Francis, after 700 years of travel continues his journey, modestly, quietly and with merriment and laughter. He leaves us with his final words; “I have done what was mine to do; may Christ teach you what is yours.”

“The wagon is not far from here.
I’ll try to hitch a lift.
He is making for the Kingdom.”
Leighton Thomas

The Revd Leighton Thomas is a retired priest who has permission to officiate in the Oxford Diocese and a Franciscan Tertiary.

For more on Franciscan Tertiaries check out Hilfield Friary or the UK Franciscans website, or email novguard@tssf.org.uk, phone: 01865 556982.

PETER DIXON is the European Provincial Novice Guardian for the Third Order of the Society of St Francis (TSSF).
TSSF is part of the Society of St Francis, an Anglican Society under the protection of the Bishop of Chelmsford, the Rt Revd Stephen Cottrell. There are 1,800 members in the European Province. The Oxford area has around 40 to 50 members. TSSF consists of people who follow ordinary lives but do so under the vows and discipline of the order.
Peter says: “Our vows are threefold: to make our Lord known and loved everywhere; to spread the spirit of love and unity throughout the created order; and to live simply. St Francis is our model. We particularly value the fruits of the spirit of humility, love and joy as being indicative of the Franciscan charism.”

If you are not on the internet and would like to learn more call Peter on 01889 569722.