Keys of Heaven reviewed in Church Times

Ballad of the Christian Socialist

Donald Gray reads the life of a priest who helped Cecil Sharp

The Keys of Heaven: The life of Revd Charles Marson, socialist priest and folk song collector David Sutcliffe

Cockasnook Books £11.99 (£2.50 p&p)*

(978-0-9557460-7-9)

IT IS more than 40 years since the historian and interpreter of the 19th- and early-20th-century Christian Socialist Movement, Maurice Reckitt, wrote: “The name of Charles Marson is not one that is now at all widely remembered. This is both an injustice and a misfortune” (For Christ and the People, 1968). David Sutcliffe, however, has seen to it that justice can now be said to have been done by Marson. He has provided us with the first full-scale biography of this remarkable, but not always the most attractive, priest.

Marson was born a dozen years after Stewart Headlam, whose Guild of St Matthew was the original Christian Socialist organisation, and a similar period before Conrad Noel, perhaps the last of the pre-First World War heroes of the movement. He provides an important link between these two periods.

He began his ministry as a curate with the Barnetts (now commemorated in the Common Worship calendar on 17 June), joining their remarkable work in Whitechapel. Quite quickly, his churchmanship developed from being Broad Church, and was eventually flamboyant Anglo-Catholic. None of this helped him, after Whitechapel, to find a happy clerical berth in England.

Consequently, he spent a brief period in Adelaide, and then, after a few false starts, and a growing realisation that, although he was drawn personally to an urban ministry, his poor health necessitated a different path. He accepted a rural incumbency, the parish of Hambridge in Somerset.

It was there that Sutcliffe “discovered” him. For 20 years, Sutcliffe was the manager of a nursing home based in Marson’s former Hambridge Vicarage. Starting from this, he has not only researched widely, but has been able to use a newly discovered cache of 440 Marson letters and papers, which are now deposited at the Somerset Heritage Centre.

Before going to Whitechapel, Marson thought that he would need to make a choice between the priesthood and journalism. Reckitt said that he had “the pen of a ready writer”; in the event, however, he managed to pursue both occupations throughout his life. Many of his journalistic offerings did little to endear him either to the episcopacy or the “Establishment”; yet others found his political and ecclesiastical criticisms (and they were nearly always that) insightful and astute, if often acerbic.

For nearly 20 years, Marson worked with Cecil Sharp, the pioneer collector of folk songs. They had met originally in Australia, and then Somerset proved to be a fertile ground for research. Sadly, they fell out over an unhappy and rather childish matter.

Even the clean air of Somerset could not alleviate the asthma that had dogged Marson’s whole life, and he died at the age of 55.

This is certainly a biography that needed to be written. Sutcliffe has used his material well, and has provided fascinating details of the life and ministry of this doughty Christian Socialist in those heroic days.

The Revd Dr Donald Gray is a Canon Emeritus of Westminster and former Chaplain to the Speaker of the House of Commons.