The other day at home I found a wonderful book, related to my doctoral studies, which i had not really looked at properly. It is entitled England's Voice of Freedom: An Anthology of Liberty. First published in 1929, it was edited by the radical journalist Henry W. Nevinson, an active participant, among other things, in the women's suffrage movement. He was, unhappily, married to Margaret Wynne Nevinson, a leading (Anglican) Christian feminist and one of my personal heroines. Not surprisingly, there are a number of first wave feminist entries in the book, among a treasury of inspirational texts on liberty.
Nevinson's book is a timely reminder, in this 800th anniversary year of Magna Carta, of the amazingly deep, delightfully varied, and incorrigibly ingrained spirit of liberty in the history and very spirit of England. Of course there are other trends and spirits, not least: the arrogance, authoritarianism, and class-ridden contempt of many English so-called 'elites' down the centuries; an occasionally recurring mean and miserly insularity which can sap the soul of English delight and generosity; and the brutality and coarse violence which has often been close to the surface at home and, sadly, exported abroad. Living away from the land of my birth, I am well aware both of those failings and the danger of romanticising. All great peoples also have inspiring words and lived examples of liberty. Yet, for all that, there is something in the English heritage which, as Nevinson put it, is 'peculiarly English in the ideas of freedom' that have been passed down: 'something that appeals very intimately to the English man or woman born and bred... and nurtured unconsciously upon her ancient traditions as I have been'. Perhaps, at a distance, those unconscious elements can also become a little clearer?...
Nevinson's selection of extracts of 'England's voice of freedom' has been updated by others (including by the late Tony Benn in his Writings on the Wall) and there are some moments of alarming as well as amusing English 'myth-making' and anachronism. It remains stimulating however, both in the range of authors and their contributions to liberty. It begins with the generous response of King Ethelbert (556-616 CE) to the Roman delegation bringing Christian Faith to Kent; with Magna Carta; and the radical priest John Ball, who helped lead the Peasants Revolt of 1381 and was hanged for his pains, though his sermon to the rebels at Blackheath continues to ring down the centuries into all kinds of situations: 'When Adam dalfe and Eve span, Who was thann a gentil man? Similarly, other protests against oppression, like those of Robert Kett (hanged in 1549), and the imagining of alternatives, like those of Thomas More (executed in 1535), may have been politically limited in their own day, yet have proven to be of enduring value. Later times drew upon them and added new potent cries, creative acts and continuing inspirations. Latimer, Shakespeare, the Petition of Women to the Commons (now there's a revolution on the eve of revolution (!), in1641), Winstanley, Milton, Jeremy Taylor, 'freeborn John' Lilburne, George Fox, Mary Astell: all these and others have played their part. Locke, Hume, Paine, Godwin, Blake, Mary Wollstonecraft, Cobbett, Wordsworth; men like Sydney Smith, that sane and witty clergyman, who spoke out against injustice in Ireland and elsewhere; Coleridge, Byron, Shelley, J.S.Mill, Gladstone, Bright, Lord Acton, Carpenter, Bernard Shaw, Hobson and Hobhouse, H.G.Wells, the Pankhursts and Pethick Lawrences, Bernard Russell; the historians J.L.Hammond and G.M.Trevelyan; and a (last in the book) word from Harold Laski: all these and many others find a place in Nevinson's canon. Such voices, as Nevinson affirmed, are various, applying in different ways to political, religious, and social liberty. Yet, as he put it, through all, 'the note of personal freedom is strong and persistent, as was likely in a race so individualistic as ours.'
Nevinson's book is a little reminder to me of how important it is not to forget our histories, or to let them be told as comfortable stories, never mind as mere records of the, temporary, victors. It is a sad thing when people forget their memories and when younger people are given nothing but false memories, deprived of inspirations born of courage, imagination and great struggle. As England, like other nations, continues to seek a future in a world very different from that known by Nevinson, it deserves to know its spirit of liberty afresh and draw on those who made it. May we treasure such voices and pass them to generations yet unborn. For as Nevinson commented, 86 years ago:
'It is useless to speculate to what field the voice of our freedom may next summon us. Freedom, like love, must be conquered for ourselves afresh every day. The battle for freedom is never done; that field is never quiet. Besides the obvious and professional foes - the dictators, slave-owners, despots, profiteers, inquisitors, and censors - we can dimly discern innumerable hosts that work against freedom as white ants which labour always in the darkness of galleries morticed by their own spittle - the scandalmongers, the cowards of habit, the devotees of authority, and the semi-animate Robots of routine. It has been my hope that those who now or at some future time may stand for freedom will take courage from the sayings of people who have in the past contended in the same perennial battle, especially when they notice that in almost every case the battle has been, not to the strong, but to the resolute and the free.'
10/2/2015 10:36:21 pm
You remind us powerfully and eloquently of the need for constant, even perhaps, daily, vigilance in the pursuit and defence of our liberty. As an Australian, I have been blest with the ignorance of the past struggle for freedom that was my inheritance. I should never take it for granted. We here have a corporate memory of some of the worst aspects of English entitlement and colonial shabbiness. We need to be reminded that this memory is only part of the larger story - a proud story of a long working out of the balance between opposing forces won eventually by those who would die rather than be unfree. We have a different agenda now. Freedom is not a battle to be won. Rather it is a privilege to be honoured and shared. We have been granted freedom by those who went before us. We have the obligation to extend that freedom to those who knock on our door asking for their glimpse of it. Asylum seekers might be called freedom seekers.
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Jo Inkpin is an Anglican priest serving as Minister of Pitt St Uniting Church in Sydney, a trans woman, theologian & justice activist. These are some of my reflections on life, spirit, and the search for peace, justice & sustainable creation.