By The Reverend Tim Hastie-Smith
On Sunday, 17th September 2023, The President of The Gloucestershire Society, Michael Dobson, held the annual church service and subsequent Feast in the Cotswold village of Winson. The church service was presided over by The Reverend Tim Hastie-Smith, who is Vicar of Bibury with Winson and Barnsley and Diocesan Missioner for New Worshipping Communities.
Tim has kindly provided the following reflections on The Gloucestershire Society, about which he preached in his sermon.
Last month I had the great honour of preaching at the annual Gloucestershire Society Service at Winson. Considered the oldest charity in England, The Society was founded by a group of Bristol merchants in 1657, just three years before the 'Restoration' of King Charles II. Its purpose was to help those in need in Gloucestershire. For me, the question, as we read the parable of the Good Samaritan, was what drove these hard nosed merchants, Thomas Bubb, Jonathan Blackwell, John Lawford, Thomas Wickham, Henry Gouch and John Hicks, to this act of altruism? After all, Bristol is known for trade and slavery, not whimsical kindness, and in the Civil War, almost two decades earlier, the civic leaders had tried hard to maintain neutrality, so that they could keep on trading and making money, whilst Cavaliers and Roundheads beat each other up (It was a vain attempt, and Bristol fell to both Royalists and Parliament.).
So why this act of generosity? We risk, as always, projecting twenty first century thinking into the motivations of seventeenth Century characters.
The past is another country, they do things differently there.
So lets pause and try and get into their head space. If you want to try this at home, start with KM Briggs’s Hobberdy Dick, one of my favourite books of all time. Set at the time of the Commonwealth, it tells the tale of the hobgoblin, whose responsibility is to protect and influence the distinctly unlovely Puritan family, who take over Widford Manor, when its bankrupt royalist former owners are forced to sell up. Her grasp of the period is awesome, and two things strike one forcibly. The first is the harshness of the times, and the second is the absolute centrality of religious faith in the lives of everyone. Not just as a political divider (Puritans v 'Catholics'), nor in the continuing 'fallout' from the Tudor Reformation, but as something utterly fundamental to being human. God simply was. The Spiritual was assumed and experienced, and not always in very obvious ways.
If we don’t grasp that, we can not really understand the seventeenth Century.
We are so eager to see the similarities that we miss the differences. Because there are plenty of parallels. A society gripped by greed, for one. With trade wars rumbling on with the Dutch and the Spanish (The Battle of Ocho Rios, anyone?) and political instability still in Ireland. And Britain’s place in Europe still unclear. And lest we assume that the restoration of a Stuart monarch was inevitable, remember that it was in 1657 that Cromwell was offered the Crown of Britain and the opportunity to found his own dynasty, an offer he was sorely tempted to accept.
But if we want to understand the motivations of those Bristol merchants start with the harshness of life, and the normality of God. And maybe add one other possibility. The interconnectedness of our lives. John Donne, Dean of St Paul’s, had died 26 years earlier, and had written the immortal lines:
No man is an island entire of itself; every man is part of the continent, a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if any promontory were, as well as if a manor of thy friend’s or of thine own were; any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
I wonder if any of our Bristol merchants knew these words?
You may miss it first time round, but Donne rather cleverly makes altruism, self interested. Which, of course it is in some ways. Preventing rebellion, buying brownie points with God, or just a feel good factor. We benefit from being charitable.
And the huge attraction of giving local, as these merchants were, is that it reinforced the connection between giver and recipient. Now, there is a risk here. The hand of the donor is always above that of the recipient, creating an imbalance in relationship. But what the merchants' model did do was create a matrix of duty and responsibility, relationship and interdependence. Whilst there was both taxation and certain levels of poor relief in seventeenth Century England, there was a far greater sense of personal connection, something that modern day tax structures completely fail to reflect.
But once again, this risks missing the God-shaped elephant in the seventeenth Century merchants' hall.
The motivation to give that is so deeply rooted in Christian teaching. David's words after a major fund raising campaign for a temple: Your Lord is the greatness, the power, the glory, the splendor and the majesty. All things come from you, O Lord, and of Your own have we given You. Giving as worship. Giving as a heartfelt response to God’s exuberant and abundant love and generosity.
The founders of the Gloucestershire Society were motivated by a sense of God’s provision and a sense of their full membership of the human race. The Society’s continued life, 366 years later, is a glorious whisper of rebellion in a secularised, de-personalised, relationally sanitised society.
Caravaggio saw the glory of God in the faces of all those he met in the street. His Madonna of Loreto (greeting a couple of pilgrims, whilst standing on the door step of her home in Italy, miraculously uprooted from Nazareth – don’t ask) shows this beautifully. Two foot sore and weary pilgrims, dirty and smelly, shine with God’s love as they kneel before a barefoot mother struggling with her toddler at bathtime.
These are not idealized examples of strapping humanity, favoured by Michelangelo. These are ordinary people. Good enough for Caravaggio. Good enough for God, requiring no Renaissance air brush.
Painted about 50 years before the founding of The Gloucestershire Society, it speaks of an interconnected society within which God dwelt at all times in the grimy ordinariness of life. Making it beautiful. The evidence of their actions is that the Society Founders embraced this world view.