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Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions
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‘On the Side of Christ’: Fascist Clerics in 1930s Britain
Thomas Linehan
a a

Brunel University,

Available online: 18 May 2007

To cite this article: Thomas Linehan (2007): ‘On the Side of Christ’: Fascist Clerics in 1930s Britain, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 8:2, 287-301 To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/14690760701321189

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Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, Vol. 8, No. 2, 287–301, June 2007

‘On the Side of Christ’: Fascist Clerics in 1930s Britain

THOMAS LINEHAN
Brunel University
thomas.Linehan@brunel.ac.uk TomLinehan 0 2 8000002007Movements Taylor and Francis 2007 & Francis Original Article Ltd and (online) 1469-0764 (print)/1743-9647Political Religions Totalitarian 10.1080/14690760701321189 FTMP_A_232014.sgm

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As to Fascist Policy, there is nothing whatever inconsistent with Christian teaching; rather between Christianity and Fascism there is a harmony of ideals.1 (The Reverend E.C. Opie) This article will focus on a small, hitherto unexplored, segment of the membership of the British Union of Fascists (BUF), Britain’s largest fascist party of the 1930s.2 The BUF included clerics in its ranks and this article will focus on a particularly vocal group of them, all lower clergy in the Church of England who, in fascist publications, aired their views on various aspects of fascism as well as the relationship between fascism and religious belief. By considering these writings we can shed light on BUF clerical ideology, in addition to gaining insight into the motivation behind clerical support for fascism in a more general sense. The article will also consider the concept of ‘political religion’ in relation to the BUF clerics, particularly the question as to whether their motivation and ideology fits the political religion paradigm. Finally, this analysis will deliberate on the ways in which the BUF clerics sought to legitimate various aspects of fascist ideology and practice, and to reconcile their support for fascism with their Christian beliefs through their interpretation of Biblical scripture and other Christian texts. In late February 1934, a contingent of local Plymouth fascists marched through Plymouth city centre to attend a special service at St John’s Church, Sutton-on-Plym. When the Blackshirt column eventually arrived at its destination, it was welcomed from the pulpit by the minister of St John’s.3 That same week, in another fascist ritual with a religious motif, Robert Oswald Point, the newborn son of BUF members ‘Mr and Mrs Ronald Point’, received the first official Blackshirt christening at Holy Trinity Church in Sloane Square, London.4 Watching the minister’s christening at Holy Trinity from the Church aisles was a congregation composed almost entirely of uniformed fascists. One way to read these scenes is to see them as examples of a ‘political religion’ that ran through the BUF’s outlook and practices. Political religion theory posits the view that certain types of political movements, like fascism, functioned as a surrogate religion for individuals experiencing anomie in an increasingly secularised modern world. It is within this context of a de-spiritualised modernity that fascist movements, through ritual, performance and myth, sought to forge a substitute faith centred on newly ‘sacralised’ earthly entities in order to fill the spiritual and psychological void left by receding religious beliefs. These sacralised entities, such as nation, race or class, were to become the new focus of worship and
ISSN 1469-0764 Print/ISSN 1743-9647 Online/07/020287-15 © 2007 Taylor & Francis DOI: 10.1080/14690760701321189

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devotion, ‘even to the point of self-sacrifice’, as Emilio Gentile put it, in a similar manner to religious deities and shrines in an earlier age of piety and spiritual faith.5 It is certainly the case that the BUF’s rhetoric and activism exhibited devotional, evangelical, sacrificial and penitential ingredients which shared characteristics with earlier forms of religious belief. Mosleyite writings were laced with such ingredients as they sought to garner support for the secular project of ‘national rebirth’ by infusing it with the aura of a religious experience. As Mosley himself explained in 1933, ‘Fascism comes to politics with the force of a new religion, and draws from its adherents a spirit of sacrifice and self-abnegation in the cause, the force of which triumphs over all material things’.6 ‘The creed we serve’, said another British fascist, ‘teaches us that struggle is ennobling and that its action on the soul of man imparts a sacramental strength’.7 Another likened modern fascism’s ‘raw and ruthless’ urge towards revolution to the then new creed of Islam ‘which ran like fire through the heterogeneous communities of the Byzantine-Magian world’ during the seventh century. According to this spin on history, the new Islamic faith cut decisively through ‘the fictions and the fancies of an older world’ because it had, like fascism, ‘revolutionary economic bases, a physical fire and a spiritual urge towards creative action’.8 Beyond the rhetoric, there are other aspects of the BUF’s profile that fit the political religion paradigm. Like earlier Christianity, or even early fundamentalist Islam, fascism was a proselytising faith that aggressively sought out converts. Again, as with some faiths, in its insistence on corporate dictatorship and the single-party state, totalitarian fascism was a monotheism in that it refused to countenance rival deities. In a related sense, and as with some strands of fundamentalist religious belief, fundamentalist fascists claimed to posses the absolute, inviolable truth. There were the sacred texts, too. For example, Mosley’s apocalyptic assessments of a supposedly ailing, decadent, late-imperial Britain, The Greater Britain (1932) and Tomorrow We Live (1938), served as sources of inspiration for the BUF membership, while their intrinsically palingenetic message was a call to faith around an apparently redemptive, regenerative mission to bring into being the nation’s so-called ‘spiritual rebirth’. Through such sacred texts, and as with organised religion, fascist recruits were provided with certainty in place of doubt, and with grand narrative explanations to counter the confusions thrown up by an unrelenting modernity. The scenes at St John’s Church and Holy Trinity Church, then, can be read as further evidence of this strain of political religion. The ritual march through Plymouth city centre and the wearing of fascist paraphernalia by the Mosleyite gatherings on both occasions give a clear indication of the secular-political nature of the BUF project. Perhaps the Blackshirts gathered at Plymouth and Sloane Square felt that they needed church blessing for their secular-political project. Doubtless, they wished the church to sanctify their political endeavours and invest them with a sacred aura. It is the church setting and particularly the clerical presence at these events, however, which lend these scenes their particular interest in the present context and suggest that another dynamic to that of political religion may have been in play. We do not know whether the clerics officiating at St John’s and Holy Trinity were BUF members. The press descriptions of the two ceremonies are perfunctory, with the clerics only appearing as silent participants in the ceremonies. Nevertheless, what we can say with certainty is that they threw open the doors of the church to uniformed fascists and proceeded to give

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Fascist Clerics in 1930s Britain 289 them – and their offspring, in the form of the Blackshirt baby Robert Oswald Point – the blessings of the Anglican Church. Something else we can say with certainty is that the clergy officiating at St John’s and the Holy Trinity in February 1934 were not the only churchmen in this period prepared to give the church’s blessings to the fascist project in Britain. With these clerics, all lower clergy in the Church of England, we are not confronted with an absence of information or silence.9 Although small in number, they openly attested to their membership of the BUF and were vocal in their support of fascism, to the extent that they were prepared to air their views in fascist publications. Yet it is necessary to make one caveat before we proceed. In the absence of the officially compiled BUF national membership registers which, historians believe, were seized by the security services when the BUF was proscribed in mid-1940, it is impossible to say how many clerics followed Mosley beyond the few who appeared in fascist publications. Nevertheless, the following comment made by the Reverend E.C. Opie of the BUF is not without interest. ‘It is significant that the membership of the Movement [BUF]’, he wrote in April 1936, ‘includes not only lay members of the Established Church, the Roman Catholic Church, and the Free Churches, but many clergy and ministers in Britain are amongst the most ardent advocates of Fascism’.10 We will encounter some of these more vocal clerics presently, and beyond this group we can identify a few others, such as John V. Thomas, the Vicar of Langton-by-Wragby, and the Reverend H.S. Tibbs of Teigh Rectory near Oakham, Rutland. Thomas and Tibbs both had links to the BUF, and we know that the former was a member of the BUF’s Lincoln branch. Another cleric associated with the extreme right in this period was the Unitarian Minister, Reverend Calverdale Sharpe. There were ‘fellow-travellers’, too, as with the Reverend K.P. Scwabcher, Curate of St Mark’s, Plumstead, and those enamoured with Hitler’s Germany, such as Arthur Headlam, Bishop of Gloucester, and the churchmen associated with the Anglo-German Brotherhood.11 Anti-communism Not surprisingly, the clerics who gave vocal support to fascism in BUF outlets were partly motivated by a revulsion of Bolshevik communism that stemmed from their religious convictions. For one such cleric, the Reverend M. Yate Allen, it was the ‘first and foremost’ reason for his support for fascism. The tone of Allen’s anti-communist rhetoric was unsparing. In fascism, opined the Reverend, one found ‘health, purity, industry, faith, hope, charity … Christ’; while on the other side, in communism, was ‘cruelty, murder, filth, immorality, and a hatred of God and His Church … the devil … antichrist’. ‘How can one’, he went on to ask, ‘take one’s stand elsewhere than on the side of Christ’.12 It is not difficult to locate the source motivating this revulsion. Communist persecution of the Russian Church, and particularly the attacks on the Catholic Church during the Spanish Civil War, sent clerics like the Reverend Allen into paroxysms of hatred. In Spain, stated Allen in the same piece, ‘thousands of Christian priests and nuns have been cruelly tortured and slain as though by a tribe of most cruel savages. Many were soaked in petrol and burned alive, and even more bestial tortures than these were inflicted by these people’.13 It should be said that it was a characteristic of such rhetoric not to provide mention of nationalist atrocities. Thus, for Reverend Allen, all the cruelties charged to Franco and his followers were ‘untruthful’. This

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included the bombing of Guernica which, in an extraordinary case of selfdelusion, he claimed had been ‘destroyed by the Reds themselves’.14 The Spanish conflict also influenced another fascist cleric, the Reverend H.E.B. Nye. Harold Eustace Bertram Nye’s Rectory covered the village of Scampton in Lincolnshire, where he resided in a large house just beyond the village with his wife and two daughters.15 From the solitude of his study, which furnished Nye with the luxury of looking out on to extensive grounds, he penned many an article for the BUF press. In one piece, in July 1938, he chilled his fascist readers with an account of a Spanish priest, about to be shot by ‘Red executioners’, who had both his hands cut off at the wrist after he had asked for his bonds to be loosed ‘in order that he might bless his murderers’.16 ‘Happy the Church that can claim as sons and daughters these shining spirits’, continued Nye, ‘of whom, to quote St Paul, the earth was not worthy’.17 Although a Church of England Rector, Nye felt a spiritual affinity with the Catholic Church. In another piece, an account that drew on Oswald Spengler’s highly speculative two-volume grand narrative The Decline of the West (1918, 1922), which claimed to chart the evolutionary life-cycles of cultures and civilisations, he declared that ‘this Civilisation of ours is based upon the principles of the Cross’ and had been ‘moulded by the Catholic Church’ in an earlier Age of Faith.18 To Nye, this Age of Faith – meaning pious devotion to the Cross – always gave spiritual direction to a ‘Culture’, a one supposedly being characterised by discipline ‘and the energy of youth’, as well as by spiritual faith. Apparently, the ‘Civilisation’ phase which Britain and the West had entered, was the period of old age and was beset by all the limitations and perils of that phase of life: a waning of vigour, self-indulgence, lethargy, scepticism and, most destructively, the threat of cancers. As a palingenetic fascist, Nye had no time for ‘Democracy’, believing that it revealed all the symptoms of ‘old age’ mentioned above and was thus the harbinger of Civilisation’s eventual dissolution. The ‘Bolshevik threat’, though, seemed to chill his blood. Drawing on a range of lurid metaphors, he wrote that ‘Communism is the cancer that causes the death of every civilisation’, while communists ‘are the vultures who scent the corpse of humanity from afar’.19 It was this apocalyptic mindset and religious anti-communism which inclined clergymen like Reverends Allen and Nye towards support for fascism. Fascism is cast, in their minds, as the defender of Christian Europe. Fascism is ‘the modern Saint George, and the killer of the Dragon of Communism’, Nye tells us, in a typically rhetorical outburst.20 In his mind, fascism and communism appeared as two eschatological groupings working respectively for good and evil, light and darkness, order and chaos in the world – a mindset that draws comparison with some of the Gnostic ideas held by early Christians. As with Gnostic assumptions, this was to be a decisive battle for supremacy. Moreover, for those who believed in Jesus Christ, wished to attain the gnosis of the ‘higher realm’ and be saved, neutrality or apathy was not an option. There should be no underestimating the gravity of the crisis, Nye informed his readers: ‘On the one hand stands Christian Europe, the product of the Age of Culture. On the other, the soulless Frankenstein of Red destruction … There is no middle course. We either side with those who died with the words “Long live Christ the King!” or we are found in the ranks of those who put them to death’.21 Clerical fascist discourse was replete with Gnostic residues of this kind. One BUF clergyman, the Reverend Ellis G. Roberts, even entitled one of his contributions to the fascist press ‘Against the Rulers of the Darkness of this World’.22 This is our first encounter with Ellis Roberts, for he

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Fascist Clerics in 1930s Britain 291 made his first appearance in Mosleyite circles in 1936. At that point, he was a Church of England clergyman of some 45 years standing who hailed from North Wales and had a strong church background. His father had been a rector responsible for a mountain parish in North Wales, while his brother was a canon serving at a cathedral in the same region. Ellis Roberts dovetailed his clerical calling with trips to India where he taught history to undergraduates. In later years he served as a rector for country parishes in the Midlands.23 We shall hear more from Reverend Roberts further on. Christian Faith Fascism It was not solely an anti-communism motivated by religious convictions and Spenglerian ideas that drew clerics like the Reverend Nye towards fascism. Not only did churchmen like Nye (and this also included Ellis Roberts) see fascism as the best guarantor of the Christian Faith against the encroachments of ‘Atheistic communism’, but they saw it as being entirely consistent with Christian principles. Moreover, when these latter perspectives are considered it seems that we are dealing with something that is not quite of the same order as fascism in terms of ‘political religion’. One cleric who joined the BUF in 1936, the Reverend Noel C.R. Campbell, was in no doubt that fascism was compatible with Christian belief. When considered, he said, the fascist programme ‘will be found to be in accordance with Christian principles … and to be the setting up of the Kingdom so near as we can get to it in our time’.24 Another minister, the Reverend A. Palmer, a frequent scribe for the BUF press during 1933 and early 1934, was just as enamoured with the fascist project.25 The system of government proposed by fascism, he announced, ‘is so remarkably like the one of Divine arrangement’.26 As for the particular characteristics of this fascist system of government, Palmer had in mind rule through dictatorship. He sought to reconcile these two seemingly incompatible positions, his Christian sentiments and the endorsement of dictatorship, by claiming, incredibly, that Jesus Christ was ‘the greatest Dictator this world has ever seen, or will ever know’. ‘He spoke for all, He worked for all, He died for all’, explained Palmer. ‘He was the servant of the people’.27 Palmer was not alone in seeing Christian principles at work through fascist dictatorship. Fascism, the Reverend G.W.H. Webb wrote in 1936, holds that ‘it is the function of the Ruler to rule, and that the people find their fullest liberty in obedience to their freely chosen Ruler. This is not incompatible with Christianity’.28 Reverend Webb then gave his readers a potted history lesson in an effort to lend credence to his claim, telling them that the Christian Faith arose and flourished under the Roman Empire’s dictatorship.29 Reverend Webb was just as enthusiastic about the Fascist Corporate State. Apparently, Christianity rose to its highest expression in the ‘corporate feudal state’ of the Middle Ages. In a similar vein, the BUF’s corporate dictum that all should serve the state and none the faction, because all were members of the one body with each having a particular contribution to give to the whole, was but one example of Christian duty towards one’s neighbour.30 The notion that all were members of the one, corporate body and that all had a duty towards that body went beyond Christian neighbourliness. Yet it was felt to be in accord with the most fundamental of Christian principles. Reverend Nye gave a clear statement of this view: ‘In the Christian Church the individual is a member of a Divine Body; his first duty is towards that Body; he is constantly reminded that he owes his own life to the fact of his union with other members

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under one Divine Head’.31 To Nye, this principle of corporate unity within the one body, or one state, was part of a pure and undiluted body of unchanging, universal truth which the Church had passed down to future generations. On this point Nye and other fascist clerics parted company with the modern liberal rationalists, who postulated the ‘heresy’ that each individual was endowed with ample reasoning powers to formulate private judgements or devise his or her own philosophy of life – even if this meant clashing with the ‘accepted tradition’ of theological truth.32 Clearly, for Nye, the fascist urge towards corporate unity within the one body was a conception nearer to the authoritative, revealed truth of Christian tradition and teaching than the doctrine of private judgement favoured by modern liberalism which he thought was the mother of national disunity, declining religious worship and moral anarchy.33 Reverend Palmer also saw Divine inspiration at work in the fascist conception of the Corporate State. He spoke of ‘that great Corporate State of Heavenly Unity’, adding that this should be a ‘mighty incentive’ to every fascist to be loyal to ‘the earthly reflection of it, which we call Fascism’.34 On another occasion, he remarked that ‘He [Jesus Christ] incorporated all in the Corporate State of His Church’.35 Bizarrely, Jesus figured as the ideal fascist in Palmer’s mind. Not only was he thought ‘the greatest Dictator’, as we saw above, but in his lived ideals and purpose were all the precepts that Palmer associated with the fascist life; namely, ‘sacrifice, service, loyalty and discipline’.36 This was the preferred selfimage of the fascists and the ‘clerical fascists’. According to this mythology, the ‘heroic’ fascist of the Spartan type had turned away from the temptations of a hedonistic existence, to live a more ascetic life of service for motives that had their basis in the best of religious virtues. The Reverend Ellis G. Roberts, whom we met above, has given us a spin on this view. The BUF, he convinced himself, ‘is essentially a religious movement’ not only because it opposed atheistic Bolshevism, ‘but because it sets before its members the aim of duty, not of pleasure’.37 With all this comment regarding supposed points of convergence between fascism and Christian belief and practice, we can see that BUF clerics did not see in Mosley’s fascism a ‘political religion’, that is, a substitute religion for their own professed Christian faith. Rather, they saw fascism as the political expression of their Christian beliefs. For them, fascism was entirely compatible with Christian precepts and Christianity. It was the latter’s earthly reflection.38 Reverend Ellis Roberts was unequivocal on this point. He thought the notion ‘that the New Movement is a rival religion to Christianity’ as ‘mischievous and dangerous’.39 Another Mosleyite cleric concurred. Referring to himself as a ‘Practical Parson’, he proclaimed that since joining the BUF ‘I have never been asked to say my prayers to the Leader … or in any way to make Fascism a substitute for Christianity’.40 Wherever one looks across the spectrum of belief and practice, one finds BUF clerics discoursing on these imagined areas of compatibility. Both fascism and Christianity upheld ‘traditional values’, they announced. Thus, for another minister who referred to himself in the BUF press as ‘a priest in holy orders’, both fascism and Christianity recognised the sanctity of the family. Indeed, for this cleric, the BUF’s loyalty towards the national body was but an extension of the family principle applied to the nation, which ‘is merely a family on a larger scale’.41 Both also, according to the ubiquitous Reverend Nye, upheld the sanctity of marriage and the home.42 It was proclaimed, too, that both fascism and the Church safeguarded private property, that mainstay of structural inequality and the bedrock of the status quo.43

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Fascist Clerics in 1930s Britain 293 The fascist warrior ethos and inclination to war was also viewed through a religious paradigm. The fascist clergymen attacked those in the Church of England extolling pacifist virtues from the pulpit who, they said, showed scant understanding of Christian doctrine on the question of war. In a characteristic statement which typically eschewed factual detail, Reverend Palmer praised the ‘soldier saints’ of Christian history who disciplined their souls fighting conspicuously in the ‘Army of God’. In a similarly martial spirit, he added, Christians would find in fascism that same zeal for defending home and country ‘with which their forefathers cried “St George for England!”’.44 For his part, Reverend Nye evoked the historical examples of the Crusades and the wars fought by Christian monarchs against Islam to critique the pacifist arguments of his co-clerics. To Nye, the sword had helped exterminate past ‘heresies’, while the victories of Christian arms had contributed to the spread of the faith.45 There was a similar narrative in play with the Mosleyites’ efforts to give a ‘spiritual’ dimension to their politics, which the fascist clerics interpreted as being at one with Christian precepts. Mosleyite fascism, along with most varieties of the fascist species, was soaked in palingenetic myth. It claimed that it was seeking to bring about a spiritual reawakening in man in order to rescue ‘him’ from the torrent of decadence that supposedly assailed him in the modern era.46 Fascism ‘recalls mankind to spiritual faith’ announced Mosley’s acolyte, Alexander Raven-Thomson, in early 1934.47 Imbued with the fascist spirit, so ran the claim, the new reconstructed fascist man would rise above the outward conditions of materialism, positivism, economic decline and cultural decadence that were displayed in contemporary leisure and modernist art forms. It was an exiled dissident from ‘atheist Soviet Russia’, Nicholas Berdyaev, who had previously held a Chair in Philosophy at Moscow University, that influenced Raven-Thomson’s views on spiritual rebirth.48 Berdyaev wrote of Europe’s need to return to an age of spirituality and faith akin to that which prevailed during the Christian Middle Ages, when there was awareness of a divine plan or ‘great divine purpose’ behind life. BUF efforts to elevate the spiritual, to create a spiritual politics for the modern era, chimed with ‘clerical fascist’ thinking. Reverend Nye, for example, commented approvingly that fascism ‘desires to retain everything that serves to exalt the spirit of man’, and ‘is based upon spiritual principles that accord with all Christian teaching’.49 Ellis Roberts agreed. Writing during wartime in early 1940, he told his ‘brothers and sisters’ in the BUF that, because Mosley’s fascism was a spiritual movement which ‘makes for Righteousness’, and because ‘Righteousness is of GOD and GOD alone [sic]’, ‘you are fighting for God’.50 The Role of Scripture Beyond the rhetoric which professed to see divine inspiration – or even the spirit of the life of Jesus – at work in fascist conceptions and practices, which amounted to little more than fanciful speculation, BUF clerics of the 1930s sought to reconcile their support for fascism with their Christian convictions by reference to a more tangible authority. It was through their interpretation of Christian texts, usually scripture but also selected parables, that they sought to further legitimate fascist doctrine. One could go even further. It seemed that many of these rogue clerics attached to the Church of England felt that the ‘truth’ of fascist ideas and practice had been revealed to them by the incontrovertible authority of biblical scripture.

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According to Reverend Palmer, the fascist urge towards corporate unity in the one state was but an effort to give earthly expression to Christ’s celebrated prayer just before his betrayal and eventual crucifixion, ‘That they all may be one’, as given in John 17:21.51 Other verses from the New Testament, on this occasion the lines in Luke, 11:21, ‘when a strong man armed keepeth his palace, his goods are in peace’, were evoked by Palmer to ‘legitimate’ the fascists’ love of martial values and disavowal of pacifism.52 Reverend Roberts also drew upon the New Testament. When he penned these words in January 1940, Roberts was mindful of the BUF’s weakening resolve, owing to the war and the impending threat of a government crackdown on fascist activities. He tried to stiffen Blackshirt backbones with the following words from Ephesians 6:10 and 12: ‘Finally, my brethren, be strong in the Lord, and in the power of his might … For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places’.53 He was still urging on his co-fascists two months later. On this occasion, John, Chapter 6, was converted into fascist allegory. Take heart from the parable of Jesus’ feeding of the ‘great multitude’ with just five barley loaves and two small fishes, he told his fascist ‘comrades’, and give what little you can to the BUF, and thereby be assured of ‘the Divine blessing’ that will come to you.54 On a previous occasion, Roberts had exploited verses in the Acts of the Apostles to express his disdain for those clerics in the Church of England, which included members of the prelature or higher clergy, who criticised fascism from the pulpit. The goal was usually the same, to seek to invest the Mosley project with an aura of a religious undertaking. Here Roberts used the words of the Pharisee, Gamaliel, to make his point: ‘Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: But if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it; lest haply ye be found even to fight against God’.55 It seems for Roberts, as with the ‘new teaching’ of Peter and the other apostles that Gamaliel was alluding to, that the new message of fascism had the blessing of Divine authority. Reverend Roberts was not alone amongst fascist clergy in attacking those in the Church of England who spoke out against fascism, as we shall see below. The Acts of the Apostles was also exploited by the Reverend Nye. To him, the violent opposition to fascism in contemporary Britain, the refusal by vested interests and communists to give a hearing to ‘the new gospel’ of fascism as he put it, was pre-figured in the event at the theatre of Ephesus in Acts 19:24– 41, when a ‘wrathful’ multitude urged on by the then predominant interests shouted down the apostle Paul’s efforts to propagate the ‘new teaching’.56 Fascist ‘truths’ could also be revealed to BUF clerics from Old Testament texts. Reverend Nye, for example, plucked Joel 2:28 – ‘And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my spirit upon all flesh; and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, your old men shall dream dreams, your young men shall see visions’ – to express his aspiration for the rebirth of a unified Christendom, united in its attachment to an authoritative and unchanging theological truth.57 Not surprisingly, Nye believed that his ‘dream’ could only be realised through the victory of fascist principles.58 Moreover, Nye was not well disposed to those churchmen in the Church of England whose actions, he believed, were not guided by the principles and teaching of revealed theological Truth. Too often, went the charge, this disposition inclined these ‘liberal’ clerics, including higher clergy, to debate on political issues rather than the spiritual matters that they were ordained to pronounce on. Even worse were those who gave vocal expression from the

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Fascist Clerics in 1930s Britain 295 pulpit to anti-fascism. Not only was this an apostasy which undermined a movement that apparently had the approval of ‘Divine’ authority – according to Reverend Roberts’ spin on Gamaliel’s message in Acts as we saw above – it also gave encouragement to Bolshevik ‘priest murderers’. It was the prophet Elijah’s address to the people of Israel on Mount Carmel from 1 Kings 18:21 which helped Nye ‘rationalise’ his loathing of those in the Church who fellow-travelled with the communist ‘Anti-Christ’, represented by ‘Baal’ in this case, while still professing allegiance to Christ: ‘And Elijah came unto all the people, and said, How long halt ye between two opinions? if the LORD be God, follow Him: but if Baal, then follow him’.59 We are already acquainted with the Reverend Noel C.R. Campbell. He, too, believed that scripture was yielding fascist ‘truths’. It was the Old Testament that was replete with the appropriate references for this purpose. Take his reading of the Book of Ezekiel, Chapter 34. Endorsement of the fascist leadership principle was apparently encoded in verse 29: ‘And I will raise up for them a plant of renown, and they shall be no more consumed with hunger in the land, neither bear the shame of the heathen (aliens and Jews in our midst) [sic] any more’.60 Verse 24, ‘And I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David a prince among them’, was but a further endorsement of the leadership principle for Campbell, ‘David’ presumably representing Mosley in this instance.61 Campbell also cited Verse 2 in the same chapter of Ezekiel, ‘The diseased have ye not strengthened’, as indicative of a fascist principle, which suggests that this particular fascist reverend may have also harboured eugenic sentiments.62 Antisemitism What we can be certain of is that, in his reference to expelling ‘heathens’, which he equated with ‘aliens and Jews in our midst’, Reverend Campbell harboured antisemitic prejudices. It should not come as a great shock to us to find a strain of antisemitism within the clerical discourse we have been looking at. We know that there was a pre-existing tradition of Christian antisemitism which was both potent and resilient.63 The prejudices in this tradition were plentiful, not least charges against Jews for being the crucifiers of Christ; the Jew as ‘usurer’; the ‘wandering Jew’ stereotype; and, the most bizarre, the ‘blood libel’ allegation which claimed that Jews ritually sacrificed Christian children at Passover in order to obtain blood for unleavened bread.64 Given the frame of mind of the fascist clerics who have featured in this article, it is not surprising that some of their number absorbed prejudices emanating from this tradition.65 One cleric we have not yet met, for example, who described himself in the BUF press as ‘Vicar’, drew on one of the assumptions of the ‘wandering Jew’ stereotype – that Jews had no homeland – when he spoke of England’s Jews cloaking their true identities under ‘assumed’ English names.66 This Vicar was also given to bouts of extreme and abusive antisemitism. He described Jews as ‘rats of humanity’, saying that they always abused the hospitality given them by the host community.67 George Henry Dymock, a cleric who has also escaped our attention up to now, similarly peddled antisemitic views. Unlike the anonymous ‘Vicar’ above, we know something of Dymock’s identity in that he was Vicar of St Bede Church in Bristol.68 Writing in the BUF press in 1935, he accused Jews of engaging in ‘vile usury’; daily ‘befouling’ the cinema for ‘filthy lucre’; and seeking to engulf the world ‘in a bath of blood’ through their supposed war-talk in the press.69 The

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Jews, he went on, ‘are Apostate’.70 As with other BUF clerics, Dymock sought ‘approval’ for his views in religious texts. In Dymock’s case it was the Book of Common Prayer, England’s ‘Religious Charter’, specifically its injunction that ‘true’ Christians should refrain from offering prayer for Jews and other ‘heretics’.71 Another who peddled antisemitic views in this period was the Reverend Francis William Ferraro, the Anglican Vicar of St Andrew’s Church in Stoke Newington, North-East London. Anglo-Jewry’s representative body, the Board of Deputies of British Jews, was certainly alarmed by Ferraro’s open, antisemitic propaganda. They also believed that he was a member of the BUF.72 Like Reverends Dymock, Ferraro and the anonymous ‘Vicar’, the Reverend Ellis G. Roberts also harboured antisemitic prejudices. We have seen that he was fond of re-configuring scripture in seeking to legitimate various aspects of fascist ideology. He displayed a similar propensity with his anti-Jewish views. Like Dymock, he thought that Jews were beyond the Church and Christian prayer. In one piece in the fascist press, he asked readers to turn to the Book of Matthew to see the ‘truth’ of how God, through Jesus, had rejected Israel. For Roberts, this had been told clearly in the Parable of the Vineyard in Matthew, Chapter 21, with its themes of murder and treachery. Thus Jesus’ words that the ‘The Kingdom of God shall be taken from you, and given to a nation bringing forth the fruits thereof’ was a clear message to Roberts that the Jews had put themselves beyond the ‘true’ Church and forsaken their right to be considered the Chosen People because of their repeated rejection of God’s messengers on earth.73 Matthew 23:13, et seq., also includes Christ’s words ‘woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye shut up the kingdom of heaven against men: for ye neither go in yourselves, neither suffer ye them that are entering to go in’, and was further evidence for Roberts that the Jews had turned from the Kingdom of Heaven and the path of the one true God.74 Post-BUF Activities It would be helpful to round up this appraisal of BUF clerics by tracking their activities after the BUF was proscribed in the summer of 1940 – or at least tracking the lives of those for whom we have some information. For some, the fraternisation with fascism did not have a happy outcome. The ubiquitous Reverend Harold Nye, for example, was detained on 1 July 1940 as part of the roundup of BUF personnel sanctioned by Defence Regulation 18b(1A) of May 1940. Nye was released from incarceration a month later, apparently having convinced MI5 that he had renounced his fascist faith. Nye resigned his living after the war and was still writing press articles in 1948, on this occasion for the Catholic Herald.75 At this point, in 1948, Nye was 75 years old. The Bristol cleric, the Reverend Geoffrey Dymock, was also detained.76 The Reverends H.S. Tibbs and John V. Thomas, both mentioned above, were also held under 18b. We know that Tibbs died in 1941 shortly after his release from detention.77 Incarceration seemed to have had no adverse effect on the Lincoln fascist parson, John V. Thomas. After the war, he served for a period as chaplain to the armed services. Between 1949 and 1954 Thomas served as Vicar of St Michael’s, Sutton-in-Ashfield, in the Southwark Diocese. After 1954 he seems to have disappeared into South Africa.78 The Bristol cleric, Reverend Geoffrey Dymock, also survived detention and the war. He was registered as a vicar in the Bristol area up to 1952.79 Dymock died in 1956. We can track the movements of some of those who also survived the reprimand of the

Fascist Clerics in 1930s Britain 297 state. Although it is by no means certain that Reverend Ferraro of Stoke Newington was a BUF member, despite the Board of Deputies’ concerns, his vocal antisemitism was in no doubt. He seems to have had an uncomplicated war, serving as Rector of St Matthew’s in Bethnal Green, an office he vacated in 1948. After the war, he was installed as Vicar of Heston in the London Diocese.80 Reverend Edward Charles Opie was certainly a BUF member. He appears to have escaped the 18b dragnet and was still working for the Diocese of London for some of the wartime years. We also know that he served a short spell as Vicar of St Martin’s in Kensal Rise between 1941 and 1942.81 By 1955 we find Reverend Opie in the post of Chaplain to Streatham Park Cemetery.82 Mosley and Religion As to the relationship between the fascist clerics and official BUF thinking on religious matters, including Oswald Mosley’s take on religion, we can note points of compatibility but also some areas of divergence. In its official pronouncements the BUF welcomed the moral guidance of religion and the Churches in formulating social law, and expressed a desire to fashion a fascist society in accordance with the ‘eternal’ principles of Christianity.83 It was also official BUF policy to uphold the principle of religious belief and worship, thought to be under threat from secular liberalism as much as communism. The official line was that the BUF adhered to a principle of ‘complete religious toleration’ for all denominations, whether Protestant, Catholic or otherwise. This line was frequently enunciated by movement personnel including Mosley himself, as in the 1938 Tomorrow We Live, one of his more formal pronouncements on BUF policy.84 The BUF proclaimed, too, in a clear swipe at those Church of England clerics who attacked fascism and Hitlerism from their pulpits, that the Churches and their representatives should concentrate on saving souls through spiritual means and eschew ‘interference’ in politics. These were all sentiments which found favour with fascist clerics in Britain. Yet, beyond the claim that there was affinity between fascist and Christian belief as well as the official rhetoric on religious toleration, one has to question the extent to which Christian principle, at least as conventionally understood, was embraced at the higher levels of the BUF. Although Mosley was confirmed into the Church at age 13, he later admitted in his autobiography that he had never experienced the revelation of Christianity at any point during his lifetime.85 He also admitted to a certain impatience with some aspects of organised Christian religion, such as its apparently puritanical and ‘dull’ methods for initiating the young into religious belief. The ‘droning’ of the compulsory morning chapel service, for example, he wrote, was hardly calculated to engender a regard for religion on the part of the young.86 On closer examination, too, Mosley’s religious philosophy was infused with decidedly non-Christian elements. We can see this in his effort, articulated in the Fascist Quarterly in 1935, to reconcile traditional Christian doctrine with Nietzschean thought in addition to his claim that this ‘synthesis’ found expression in fascism. Apparently, for Mosley, fascism had taken from Christianity the principles of service, self-abnegation and personal sacrifice, while from Nietzsche it had taken ideas concerning virile struggle and the ‘superman’, an approach to life which aggressively challenged all obstacles that impeded the ‘march of mankind’.87 Nietzsche advocated a return to a more intuitive existence, a Dionysian life of passion as indicated by the Greek myths, as well as an attitude to life that was ‘aristocratic’ and ‘heroic’ (as Moseley under-

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stood the terms), but also amoral. Mosley’s fascination with Nietzschean ideas, the ‘will-to-power’ and the ‘superman’ ethic of life, despite his efforts at synthesis, hardly chimed with traditional Christian humanitarian conceptions, particularly concerning equality and the protection of the weak. Mosley’s divergence from traditional Christian ethics took an even sharper turn later in his political life, when he speculated on the ‘Faustian riddle’ regarding sin; that is, the idea that evil should be consciously willed in order to attain the good.88 Concluding Comments Given Mosley’s religious philosophy what, then, should we make of the Christian philosophy espoused by fascist clerics in Britain? As we have seen with Mosley’s efforts to reconcile Christian doctrine with Nietzschean conceptions, fascism aimed to achieve integration and synthesis and bring to birth a new form, even if this meant denying and overcoming seeming paradoxes and eliding traditional boundaries. Thus, as well as its efforts to wed Christianity and Nietzschean doctrine, fascism sought to transcend and fuse a range of seeming contrasts. These included ‘vitalistic’ intuition and mind, nostalgia and modernity, capital and labour, individual identity and the collective whole, demagogic populism and elitism, aesthetics and politics, as well as ‘cultural despair’ and optimism regarding national ‘rebirth’. Everywhere one looks in fascist doctrine we see this effort to dissolve elements into an ‘organic whole’, this urge towards integration and synthesis – even if these elements appeared contradictory. In the British ‘clerical fascist’ mindset we find a similar process at work. To them, Christian faith and fascist praxis melded into a seamless whole. Clearly, as we have seen in this article, BUF clerics did not see fascism as a substitute religion for their own Christian beliefs. Instead, fascism was the articulation of their Christian faith through political means. To them, these two ‘faiths’, Christian and fascist, were entirely compatible and complementary, there were no boundaries between them. The ‘truth’ of this had even been revealed to them by the incontrovertible authority of biblical text. Nevertheless, as in other areas of fascist synthesis, the organic form emerging from the apparent reconciliation of supposedly incompatible elements displayed unsavoury features, to say the least. The new organic form brought to birth by the rhetoric of the BUF clerics was merely a representation of Christianity, a mutilated version of Christian belief which endorsed dictatorship, extolled war and the martial spirit, ignored inequality and even pandered at times to the crudest aspects of antisemitic prejudice. Their adherence to fascism even led some down the morally bankrupt pathway of open support for the Third Reich, as with the Reverend M. Yate Allen, who thought of Nazi Germany, in its role of anti-Bolshevik bulwark, as ‘truly on the side of Christ’.89 It remains to say, finally, that history should be grateful that these ‘rogue clerics’ of the BUF only made up a very tiny minority of the clergy in the Church of England.

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Notes
1. 2. Action, 2 April 1936, p.11. The BUF was founded in October 1932 by Oswald Mosley and was proscribed by the wartime British government under Defence Regulation 18b(AA) in 10 July 1940. For general surveys of the BUF, see Thomas Linehan, British Fascism, 1918–1939: Parties, Ideology and Culture (Manchester:

Fascist Clerics in 1930s Britain 299
Manchester University Press, 2000), and Richard Thurlow, Fascism in Britain: A History, 1918–1985 (Oxford: Blackwell, 1987). Fascist Week, 23 February–2 March 1934, p.7. Ibid. Emilio Gentile, “The Sacralisation of Politics: Definitions, Interpretations and Reflections on the Question of Secular Religion and Totalitarianism”, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, l/ 1 (2000), p.1. Oswald Mosley, Blackshirt Policy (London: BUF Publications, 1933), p.7. Blackshirt, 27 July 1934, p.6. W.E.D. Allen, “The Fascist Idea in Britain”, The Quarterly Review, 261 (1933), p.224. I have found no evidence of home-grown Catholic clerics writing in BUF publications. This is not to say, however, that there were no Catholic clerics who followed Mosley. Action, 2 April 1936, p.11. Edward Charles Opie was an Australian. His first office for the Church in England was at St Paul’s in Harringay, London, between 1928 and 1930. He later worked with the Diocese of London after a short spell as Clerical Secretary to a Dr Barnardo’s home; see Crockford’s Clerical Directory, 1937 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1937), p.993. The Anglo-German Brotherhood was founded in June 1936 for the purpose of building understanding between English and German churchmen. Thomas, Tibbs, Calverdale Sharpe and Scwabcher are mentioned in A.W. Brian Simpson, In the Highest Degree Odious: Detention Without Trial in Wartime Britain (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1992), p.214. On Arthur Headlam, the Anglo-German Brotherhood and the English clergymen attached to it, see Richard Griffiths, Fellow Travellers of the Right: British Enthusiasts for Nazi Germany 1933–39 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983), pp.176–7, 251–2. Action, 16 October 1937, p.3, my emphasis. Ibid. On other contemporary attitudes to Spain, see James Flint, “’Must God Go Fascist’: English Catholic Opinion and the Spanish Civil War”, Church History, 56/3 (1987), pp.364–74. Ibid. These details are in Blackshirt, 4 September 1937, p.7. Nye had been Rector of Scampton since 1923, and Vicar of Scampton from 1935. Action, 2 July 1938, p. 5. Ibid. Action, 23 December 1937, p.3. Ibid. Ibid. Action, 2 July 1938, p. 5. Action, 18 January 1940, p.7. These details are in Action, 3 September 1936, p.8; 17 June 1939, p.12; and 24 January 1939, p.12. Action, 31 October 1936, p.8. Palmer described himself as ‘a Minister of Religion with long and extensive experience’. He disappeared from the fascist press, and possibly the BUF as well, after this period. I can find no record of his writings after March 1934. Fascist Week, 2–8 February 1934, p.7. Ibid. Blackshirt, 11 April 1936, p.2. Ibid. Ibid. Action, 5 November 1938, p.5. Ibid. Nye spoke of the clash between theological Truth and private judgement on other occasions. See, for example, Reverend H.E.B. Nye, ‘The Religious Peace of Europe’, in Erminio Turcotti (ed.), Fascist Europe. Europa Fascista, Vol. 1 (Milan: National Institute of Fascist Culture of Pavia, 1939), pp.53–7. Fascist Week, 26 January–1 February 1934, p.7. Fascist Week, 9–15 March 1934, p.7. Fascist Week, 26 January–1 February 1934, p.7. “A Christian View”. Letter from the Reverend Ellis G. Roberts; in Action, 3 September 1936, p.8. Richard Steigmann-Gall has observed something very similar in relation to Nazism. See Richard Steigmann-Gall, “Nazism and the Revival of Political Religion Theory”, Totalitarian Movements and Political Religions, 5/3 (2004), pp.376–96. Rather than a political religion, he asserts, German Nazism was more a form of ‘religious politics’. Where the present article departs from Steigmann-

3. 4. 5.

6. 7. 8. 9. 10.

11.

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12. 13. 14. 15. 16. 17. 18. 19. 20. 21. 22. 23. 24. 25.

26. 27. 28. 29. 30. 31. 32. 33.

34. 35. 36. 37. 38.

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39. 40. 41. 42. 43. 44. 45. 46.

47. 48. 49. 50. 51.

52. 53. 54. 55. 56. 57. 58. 59. 60. 61. 62. 63.

64.

65. 66. 67. 68. 69. 70. 71. 72. 73. 74. 75. 76. 77. 78. 79. 80. 81. 82.

Gall’s position is in its suggestion that both political religion and religious politics were aspects of BUF fascism. Action, 18 January 1940, p.7. Fascist Week, 13–19 April 1934, p.7. Blackshirt, 1 June 1933, p.2. Action, 21 May 1938, p.5. As stated by the Reverend Webb; see Blackshirt, 11 April 1936, p.2. Fascist Week, 23–29 March 1934, p.8. Action, 9 July 1936, p.7. On the effort to articulate a fascist ‘spiritual’ politics, see Linehan (note 2), pp.129–30 and 211–2. The concept of the fascist ‘palingenetic myth’ was pioneered by Roger Griffin; see The Nature of Fascism (London: Routledge, 1993), pp.32–6. Fascist Week, 9–15 February 1934, p.4. On this connection, see Linehan (note 2), p.212. Action, 21 May 1938, p.5. Action, 8 February 1940, p.7. Fascist Week, 26 January–1 February 1934, p.7. The full verse reads: ‘That they all may be one; as thou, Father, art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us’. Fascist Week, 23–29 March 1934, p.8. Action, 18 January 1940, p.7. Action, 14 March 1940, p.7. Action, 13 January 1938, p.10. The lines are from Acts, 5:38–39. Action, 9 October 1937, p.3. Nye (note 33), p.53. Ibid., p.56. Action, 29 January 1938, p. 3. The previous verse states: ‘Now therefore send, and gather to me all Israel unto mount Carmel, and the prophets of Baal four hundred and fifty…’. Action, 14 November 1936, p.8. Ibid. Ibid. This becomes clearer in the next sentence of the verse, which reads ‘neither have ye healed that which was sick’. See, for example, Dan Cohn-Sherbok, The Crucified Jew: Twenty Centuries of Christian Anti-Semitism (Fount: London, 1993), and David Torrance and Alastair Lamont, Anti-Semitism and Christian Responsibility (Handsel: Edinburgh, 1986). The ‘wandering Jew’ stereotype arose from the belief that the Jews had been condemned to perpetual wandering because they had rejected Christ. The ritual murder allegation first surfaced in the twelfth century. It should be stressed that not all BUF clerics, including the very vocal Reverend Nye, espoused antisemitic views. Action, 28 November 1936, p.8. Ibid. See also Blackshirt, 14 November 1936, p.2, on Reverend Dymock. Blackshirt, 14 November 1936, p.2. Ibid. Ibid. Ferraro is discussed in Thomas Linehan, East London for Mosley: The British Union of Fascists in East London and South-West Essex 1933–40 (London: Frank Cass, 1996), p.28. Action, 25 November 1937, p.10. Ibid. On Nye’s detention, see Simpson (note 11), pp.213–4. Ibid., p.214. Ibid. The only other known detainee in the group of ‘fascist parsons’ and fellow travelling parsons is Reverend K.P. Scwabcher, the Curate of St Mark’s in Plumstead. For details on Thomas, see Crockford’s Clerical Directory, 1957–8 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1958), p.1152. Ibid, p.338, on Dymock’s postwar movements. Ibid., p.383, on Ferraro’s postwar movements. See Crockford’s Clerical Directory, 1955–6 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1956), p.869, for details on Opie. Ibid.

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83. 84. 85. 86. 87. 88. As stated in Blackshirt, 9 August 1935, p.4. Oswald Mosley, Tomorrow We Live (London: Greater Britain Publications, 1938), p.64. Oswald Mosley, My Life (London: Nelson Press, 1968), p.34. Ibid., p.35. Oswald Mosley, “The Philosophy of Fascism”, Fascist Quarterly, 1/1 (1935), pp.35–46. On Mosley’s efforts to grapple with the ‘Faustian riddle’, see Robert Skidelsky, Oswald Mosley (London: Macmillan, 1975), pp.465–80. 89. Action, 10 October 1936, p.6.

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