In 1649 to St George's Hill A ragged band they called the "Diggers" Came to show the people's will. They defied the landlords, they defied the laws; They were the dispossessed reclaiming what was theirs. 'We come in peace' they said 'to dig and sow. We come to work the lands in common And to make the wastelands grow; This earth divided we will make whole So it will be a common treasury for all.'
So begins a song by Leon Rosselson about Gerard Winstanley and the first Diggers – one that I sometimes sing at our folk evenings. The Diggers arrived at St George’s Hill in Weybridge, Surrey, in April of 1649 as a small group of men and women who had lost their homes during the Civil War and due to Enclosure. By August they had been driven from the land by nearby landowners and resettled a short distance away at Cobham, still in Surrey. By April of the next year the local clergyman, another landowner, had managed to force them off that land also. It is a sorry and uncomfortable tale.
For such a briefly-lived movement, the Diggers have had an astonishingly disproportionate influence, still inspiring young and old alike. That fact, alone, speaks of a resonance deep within us that yearns for a different way of being in the world.
Winstanley’s own inspiration, itself, came from the book of Acts, chapter 2, verses 44-45:
And all who believed were together and had all things in common. And they were selling their possessions and belongings and distributing the proceeds to all, as any had need.
But this wasn’t the first time in English history that the Bible had been the inspiration for understanding the equality of all. In 1381 the Peasant’s Revolt was stirred by the preaching of the priest John Ball, credited with the first protest rhyme in the English language, “When Adam delved and Eve span, who was then the Gentleman?” Ball worked alongside John Wycliffe, who was translating the Bible into the English vernacular for the first time in history. Now the Word of God was reaching the Commoners and it was dangerous stuff.
This is some of the history with which we have to contend when we read Acts 2. It is difficult because we don’t take it very seriously any more – it poses far too much of a threat to our established way of life. So we hide behind excuses like ‘history proves its entirely impractical to live like that anyway.’ And its true, many attempts to live a ‘common life’ have ended in failure.
Many, but not all. Monastic communities have been since the first centuries of the Church’s existence as a continuation of precisely this description of the Church in Acts. They still continue today. Of course, there are multiple notorious examples where these ‘communities’ have been farcical mockeries, even evil parodies, of their calling through history. But there are also countless others, untold and unsung, where true life has been lived.
The question then falls to us as to how we are to respond because, despite what we may tell ourselves, possession and wealth are not the answer the world would have us believe, and that, generally, we are inclined to accept. If we were, somehow, to find a way of walking to a different drum, what would the world look like then…
The Bewcastle Benefice sermon for the 4th Sunday of Easter can be found here.