By: Keith Hebden
The 1650s heralded Britain the ‘Commonwealth’ instead of the Kingdom as Oliver Cromwell’s supporters did the theologically-unthinkable and removed the head of God’s representative on earth – King Charles I. The national experiment didn’t last long but it’s legacy in local religious uprisings lives on in constantly renewed experiment.
Among the dissenting radicals were the Society of Friends, or Quakers; the Levellers, the Fifth Monarchists; the Diggers; the Ranters.
For a wonderfully written treatment of notorious ranter Abiezer Coppe read Peter Pick’s chapter in Alex Christoyannopoulos’s ‘Religious Anarchism: New Perspectives’.1
I fondly remember hearing Pick dramatising Coppe’s words although I don’t remember which words he quoted, but they lend themselves entirely to unfettered, playful, and terrible ranting:
Behold, Behold, Behold, I the eternall God, the Lord of Hosts, who am that mighty Leveller, am coming (yea even at the doores) to Levell in good earnest, to Levell with a witnesse, to Levell the Hills with the Valleyes, and to lay the Mountaines low.2
Among these radical Christians were the ‘true levellers’ or Diggers led by Gerard Winstanley a prolific writer and Christian Communist whose theological proposition that the land was a “Common treasure for all” led him to demand of Cromwell that he complete the revolution by throwing down the landlords and priests who cut the people from the land.
Winstanley gathered about him a group of people committed to a simple experiment in common ownership and partnership. They dug the commons together and shared the fruit of their labours each according to need. Sadly, this revolution was short lived; the community was quickly and violently driven from the land.
But the legacy of the Diggers lives on. Their music has been repopularised by Leon Rosselson, Billy Bragg, and Chumbawumba. And in a very humble way their vision and their story has recently been conjured back into our present civilised sighing world by less than a dozen folk living in the rural and highly militarised county of Gloucestershire, England in the form of a ‘Digger’s Agape’.
The liturgy of the Digger’s Agape is based around some of Winstanley’s writings and the food and entertainment is brought by the guests, the only stipulation is that what we brought with us must be something that had “never been bought or sold”: a serious challenge in bleak wintry England where our dependence is almost entirely on Supermarkets.
In our first attempt we gathered with some uncertainty, many of us brought things we felt were not technically free and of the earth some were more obviously free of the trappings of capital: surplus vegetable from a co-operative bio-dynamic farm nearby, a roadkill pheasant, some foraged greens, home-spun foraged wool.
The group has developed in awareness of how our lives depend on a flagging fossil-fuel hungry system. Little wonder we have turned to planning for action. In April 1649 Winstanley and his friends took spade to earth and began to change the world.
In April 2011 The Diggers Agape friends will also take our spades, seeds, and watering cans and reclaim some land for the common treasure of God’s good earth. We’ll sing, pray, and work together and turn the soil over to see if the seeds of a new world lay underneath it after all.
The details of action are yet to be hammered out and some among the group are tentative but still the project is exciting. One of the thrilling things about Diggers Agape as a model of Christian coming together is it’s non-threatening political simplicity. Were we to advertise a Christian anarchist gathering in Gloucester I’m not sure anyone would attend at all.
But to gather and share of God’s good earth, to dig the land, to hear some four hundred year old wisdom read and prayed through into our own context is a gentle invitation to a broad audience of Christians into a more honest politic and more concrete spirituality than Sunday mornings usually allow.
There are many directions a group like this might turn in the future: Guerrilla gardening, seed bombing, orchard planting, Land Share, community agriculture, and others not yet thought up. What makes this a revolution is that the exchange of goods and labour are woven into the exchange of ideas.
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