The Gospel in Action: The YMCA's Social and Spiritual Roles

'The YMCA is something far more than a great social concern. Its basis is spiritual ... The serving of cups of tea, dolly-cakes and cigarettes may not at first sight appear necessarily religious, but, as a matter of fact, there is the very closest connection ... In other words, he sees the gospel in action.' 

These are the words of the Reverend Basil G Bourchier, a chaplain with the Red Cross from the beginning of the First World War, who later served as an Army Chaplain, following a period as a Prisoner of War. Involved in the spiritual care of soldiers at the front, he would have had a direct involvement with the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and witnessed how their hut work, while not overtly religious, was providing the men with an environment of Christian morality. 

The main pragmatic mission of the YMCA's huts behind the front lines and in army bases was to provide the soldiers with a home-like environment, with comforts such as 'the serving of cups of tea, dolly-cakes and cigarettes', as Bourchier cites. The huts themselves provided a space for men to relax and enjoy refreshments, as well as serving as a venue for concerts and religious services. There was great value in this work and the huts were enjoyed by many soldiers, religious or otherwise. This is witnessed by Robert Baden-Powell, founder of the Scouting Movement, who wrote that 'the success of the huts ... has been largely due in the first instance to their material value to the men'. 
YMCA hut at Beaumarais, 1917 © IWM (Q 5384)
This is certainly true. Across the records of YMCA workers and chaplains, there's lots of evidence for long queues for the tea counters in the huts, as well as a high demand for YMCA stationary which was provided free of charge for soldiers to write home. Baden-Powell summarises his view of the YMCA's mission as 'to do good rather than to be good. It is active in principle'. This is certainly in line with Bourchier's experiences which left him 'simply overwhelmed with admiration for the daily and hourly boon that, socially, the YMCA is conferring on our boys'. The material and social appeal of the YMCA is undeniable.

What Baden-Powell fails to notice, however, is the bridge made by the YMCA from "doing good" to "being good"; that is, the demonstration of its Christian values through its pastoral work, What Baden-Powell omits is Bourchier's principle of the 'Gospel in Action'. In each cup of tea served, and through each morale-boosting concert, Bourchier witnessed what he referred to as 'the spectacle of faith related to life'. The seemingly secular social provisions of the YMCA were rooted in 'the Christ[ian] spirit of service' built on the principles of Christian morality.
YMCA hut at Rouen, 1917 © IWM (Q 5457)
 It is this 'broad-minded Christianity', as termed by Field Marshal Lord Allenby, demonstrated through a 'self-regardless devotion to work' that gained the YMCA both gratitude and trust among the soldiers. Chaplains of the war record that only a minority of soldiers identified as religious or practised Christianity, considering themselves to have little time or inclination for thinking about an abstract idea like God within the brutality of war. What the YMCA was able to provide, as recognised even at the highest levels of military command as in Allenby's statement, was a practical demonstration of the values of the Gospel and the benefits of Christian work. 

Bourchier's 'Gospel in Action' recognised that although 'the average Englishman ... is not possessed of any deep religious convictions' he is nonetheless susceptible 'to religious influence', particularly from those 'whom he comes to entertain feelings of friendship and regard', such as the YMCA workers from which he has received comfort and care. This level of trust built through informal religion allowed the YMCA to establish a connection with soldiers that chaplains on their own were not able to reach. This is supported by the Bishop of Chelmsford who wrote that the YMCA had 'done immense services for the cause of Christianity of disabusing the minds of hundreds of thousands of Tommies, who had come to [disregard the Church]'. Quite what the impact of such outreach was, neither Chelmsford nor Bourchier are recorded as observing.

Image result for basil bourchier chaplain
Rev Basil Bourchier (source)
The above statements of Rev Bourchier are taken from an article he wrote in the Church Times in late 1916 and which was republished in the 'Red Triangle Papers', a weekly magazine by the YMCA. Both before and after the war he was vicar of Saint Jude-on-the-Hill in Hampstead, a church which counted the author Evelyn Waugh among its congregation. Bourchier's perspective is therefore one of an established Churchman and voice from within the Church of England. As such, his viewpoint is one which naturally sees the religious in the everyday, and this goes some way to explain why his presentation of the YMCA's work sees higher regard for the association's spiritual basis than Baden-Powell's. 

However, I do not believe that Bourchier's conclusions are solely due to his position within the Church. Descriptions of the vicar present him as a great communicator, albeit 'hammy' and 'preposterous' in the words of Waugh. He saw for himself the efforts of the YMCA at the front and therefore experienced for himself the benefits, no doubt conversing with both the soldiers and the YMCA workers while he was there. An educated intellectual, he was more likely to make the connection between the pragmatic and the spiritual than many, but his observations are merely a reflection of success in the YMCA's stated mission. This was defined by its chairman Arthur Keysall Yapp to be an 'appeal to the whole man - Body, Mind, and Spirit', therefore balancing the practical care for bodily needs with spiritual concerns (as well as caring for the mind and morale). Bourchier describes this in action when he says that the YMCA is where 'our men congregate to receive their spiritual as well as their bodily food'.

Care of the body, mind and spirit were not separate goals within the YMCA, but rather different means to the same end. The YMCA huts provided support and comfort to soldiers from a basis of Christian morality and spirituality. They were 'doing good' by demonstrating the 'Gospel in Action': a pragmatic example of the benefits of Christian religion. There is no insinuation of conversion, either in Yapp's guidelines for the Association or in Bourchier's observations, but rather a more "broad-minded" trust for ecumenical Christianity. Religion is encouraged, but no man is discouraged from the YMCA. Cups of tea, cake, and cigarettes were key to encouraging trust between the soldiers and the YMCA and to creating an environment of Christian love under the circumstances of war. The result, as Bourchier witnessed, was a uniquely pragmatic Church within the huts which saw the 'spectacle of faith related to life'; a religion related in actions rather than merely in teachings. Or rather, the 'Gospel in Action'.

The sources for this article form part of my MA thesis, exploring the role of the YMCA as an 'auxiliary to the Church' during the First World War.

Field Marshal Lord Allenby, within YMCA 'Appreciations', accessed at Cadbury Research Library, YMCA/K/5/1.
Robert Baden-Powell, letters to Mrs Stuart Wortley of the YMCA, dated 03/02/1916 and 08/02/1916, accessed at the Cadbury Research Library, YMCA/K/2/1/16-18
Rev. Basil G. Bourchier, 'The Red Triangle from the Clerical View-Point', Red Triangle Papers: The British Empire YMCA Weekly No, 93, Vol. 2, (20th October 1916), p. 979, accessed at Cadbury Research Library, YMCA/K/2/1/3.
Bishop of Chelmsford, within YMCA 'Appreciations', dated January 1917, accessed at Cadbury Research Library, YMCA/K/5/1.
Eveleyn Waugh, quoted in Philip Eade, Evelyn Waugh: A Life Revisited, (London: Orion, 2016) and Saint Jude-on-the-Hill,
Arthur Keysall Yapp, Romance of the Red Triangle, (London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1919)p. 16.

No comments: