A church that still embodies Britain's radical tradition by Giles Fraser

By Giles Fraser
October 30, 2006

It may not have exactly been Pop Idol, but the recent hunt for Britain's radical heritage in The Guardian newspaper unearthed a groundswell of enthusiasm for a more subversive take on our Island Story.

The campaign asking readers to tell the paper which neglected radical event from British history most deserved a proper monument led to hundreds of suggestions - from Cornwall to South Uist, from the 13th to the 21st century. In the end, the winner, with 285 votes out of 1000, was Putney parish church, the site of the Putney Debates.

It was against the backdrop of the ideological maelstrom of the civil wars in the 1640s that that one of the most important series of public meetings in British democratic history took place.

In 1647, among the pews of Putney parish church in southwest London, the rank and file of the Roundheads, led by Leveller agitators, argued their case for a transparent democratic state based on suffrage, religious toleration and the rule of law. Cromwell went on to crush them, but the momentum for change continued.

A quick wander today around the church of St Mary the Virgin, Putney, wouldn't readily place it at the centre of England's politically turbulent past. For a start, it seems a bit too modern. In 1973 the church was burnt to the ground.

As flames brought down the roof and swept through the tower, there was every fear that the site might end up a permanent ruin, even a block of expensive flats. As it turned out, the medieval tower was saved, and a new church building rose from the fire of the old.

In religious terms, the arsonist did us a favour. The new church, set up in the round, has a less austere feel and is much better designed for disabled people and families with children. To the disappointment of some visitors looking for a museum, this is first of all a church, with the needs of the worshipping community being the top priority. In a sense, the fire settled that.

Yet as I celebrate the Eucharist on Sunday, I look up at the new gallery and the words that we have set, in gold, above the entrance to the church: "For really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live as the greatest he."

Usually this space is reserved for an improving verse from scripture. But the sentiment of this famous section of Thomas Rainsborough's speech from the Putney Debates is fully biblical - and Rainsborough knew it. Galatians 3 has it thus: "There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female: for you are all one in Jesus Christ."

Perhaps it is worth pointing out that Galatians is even more inclusive than the radical Rainsborough and his gender-specific pronouns. The Levellers agitated only for universal male suffrage. But the trajectory of the argument was towards a government dedicated to the needs of all, one that guaranteed freedom and diversity of expression.

And it is more than a coincidence that this church originated the motion that concluded with the ordination of women in the Church of England and launched the Inclusive Church movement aimed at combating ecclesiastical homophobia. The radical spirit of the debates lives on in St Mary's Church.

It's been fantastic to win this competition. With the award grant, we plan to make a digital copy of the original manuscripts of the debates and have them on display at St Mary's for all to see and be inspired by.

These precious documents are in the library of Worcester College, Oxford. On winning this competition, I approached the college and it has kindly agreed to the principle of us having a copy made.

The Guardian will be donating £1,000 to the cause. This will cover only part of the cost. Ekklesia readers are welcome to make further contributions to complete the project. Cheques, made out to the Putney Parish Development Trust, can be sent to the Rev Dr Giles Fraser, 45 St John's Avenue, London SW15 6AL.

All in all it's great news: the Putney Debates will be returning to Putney.

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