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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

Correspondence. — The Robinson-Irby Squabble


The Robinson-Irby Squabble.

Sir,—It would have been a novel feature half a century ago for Bishops to be found periodically appealing to those whom they are pleased to style their "dear brethren in Christ." The lay mind has scarcely yet become accustomed to this strain of episcopal effusion, and feels itself somewhat in the light of that member of a family who, from the position of a mere cipher, suddenly rises by some freak of fortune into influence and consideration.

In dealing with the laity of the present age Bishops have a double part to play—and to the best of their ability they play it. A too open cajolery is not to be thought of, engendering, as it would, suspicion and consequent disgust. The modern course of policy is that the many shall be made to fancy they have an interest in what is after all at the beck of a few; that the many shall be little more than puppets, and be pulled with strings equally minute and disguised. The parochial meeting, the public platform, the fussy synod, are all meant to be, as it were, permissive outlets for the furtherance of an Establishment that has never been over nice about, the instruments it makes use of to secure either pelf or worldly position. While it makes use of the laity by virtue of necessity, the Church of England accords that laity only such minimum of power as previous slight renders perhaps more by contrast. But what it dreads above all is that this struggling Hercules of modern growth should once become conscious of its native strength, burst the serpentine coils that have so long shackled it, and free itself once more and for aye of those who, very Laodiceans in word and deed, are prominent as the great impeders of religion and her beneficial action.

His Reverence of Grafton and Armidale is in trouble, and has been giving us some "few words" through the public Press. He is scarcely got into his diocese, and had time to look about him, ere he is charged with being a ritualist, and with being unwilling to show it. Now a public accusation like this may try even a bishop's patience, and while we are scarcely surprised that he should rush into print, we confess ourselves somewhat "at sea" as to the upshot of his explanation.

With all the little ins and outs between Mr. Robinson and Mr. Irby we have nothing to do. It is immaterial to us if and little soreness exists between these two gentlemen, or whether circumstances are more or less coloured than fairness will altogether warrant. The two points to be kept in view are, first, Mr. Irby's charging the Bishop with ritualistic tendencies, and secondly, how far the Bishop's disclaimer (if it amount to as much,) is satisfactory to the public mind.

Now Ritualism is a many-headed beast, and when people speak of it, its features are often pourtrayed in a kind of misty outline that the warmer or cooler imagination of the human mind is wont to fill in with divers colours. It is difficult in fact to describe what is itself a nondescript. But with all page 83 this difference of classification, it is apt to possess certain marks, which, how varying soever under different temperaments, are at once easily detected by a moment's steady examination. As a bone served Professor Owen to discriminate between long-forgotten types of animal creation, so does this religious emanation of the present, day present some outline sufficiently distinctive of its origin. And what are some of the marks? What else than a watery kind of religious sentimentality, more frequently heard in the pulpit than, happily, elsewhere. There it becomes a safe screen for shallow intellect, and a very poor substitute for more worthy matter. The words come soft and tripping off the tongue, and are accompanied with a demeanour which the generality of hearers are too good natured to criticise with severity. And so the farce goes on, to our no small wonderment that I hey who would occupy a position of respect, should so expose themselves to ridicule. When chance brings us within range of this emasculate devotion, while we regret our mishap in having to notice it, we make the best of our bad bargain, and we study the man. We notice his exceeding correctness of outline, his prim and dainty bearing, his lisping diction and falsetto delivery, sufficient for the moment to take your very breath away, and to put all sober and severer judgment to the rout. On our recovery, however, we ask ourselves—What does it all mean? Why these genuflexions, these crossings, these bowings and changes of position? Why such a studied propriety of demeanour, such affectation, such vulpine watchfulness for mute approval? If a more-than-ordinary manifestation is sometimes exhibited—such as the Rev. Mr. Robinson is charged with in the celebration of the Eucharist—it is so much additional "caviare" to the religious apetite: and what may be reprehensible is looked over for the moment on the score of its charming novelty. Now these, and such-like are some of the characteristics of so-called Ritualism, marked enough we should say, to prevent any misconception on Mr. lrby's part when charging Mr. Robinson with erratic practices. But after all, Mr. Robinson may be open to the charge only of self-exaltation and vanity. He may possibly conceive that he has felt the religious pulse of his flock at Tenterfield, and can safely venture on exhibiting a few nostrums to relieve the dullness of common-place and passionless protestant devotion. So far then Mr. Irby may have just cause for his strictures; and just so far Mr. Robinson may feel no remarkable anxiety to undeceive either him or the Bishop.

Assuming then that Mr. Irby has really some ground to go on, we come to the more important inquiry as to the character of the Bishop's action during the whole matter. And here it is we meet with what is to us especially offensive—a want of openness and fair dealing—an oracular and of course an ambiguous phraseology—a studied reticence—a would-be dignified bearing that, under cover of an accidental position, shirks the responsibility of that position. We are well aware his Reverence could plead that he is doing only what his brethren in Christ are doing and have done for a long time past; that is, they have discreetly avoided every test that might prove their sincerity, though it might be perchance at some sacrifice of status. But, no! Cranmer like, it is only when pushed into a corner they dare speak out; and then—Heaven save the mark!—they marvel at the extinguishment of that former respect, not to say veneration, which greeted them so warmly under our second James—when nonconformists, of whatever creed, could for the moment merge all their diversities of religious opinion in one all-pervading feeling of respect and honour for those who not only professed a principle but were in no way backward in maintaining it.

Mr. Robinson's peculiarities are of no moment whatever to us. He may mimic another Church to his full bent, ape its venerable and time-honoured formularies, and fancy himself getting gradually Catholicised. We might, it is true, be tempted to ask him how he can reconcile the little above-noted aberrations with his oath of clerical allegiance, but that we have reason to believe the ecclesiastical conscience is as absorbent as any sponge—as loose as any overcoat put on on a rainy day. If his congregation like him, no doubt page 84 reasons his Reverence of Armidale, why shouldn't they keep him. While he builds up their faith, they may surely build him a parsonage. And what does it matter if the former be of somewhat untempered mortar, providing the materials of the latter be sound and the basis secure. Bishops after all are but human, and their train of thought is apt to be coloured now and then by outward circumstance. What did it matter, we may suppose, to Hezekiah, if the prophet foretold of ill days that should come, so long as there was some guaranty of peace in his own. It has ever been so, and it would almost appear as though direct apostolic descent need not necessarily be accompanied with apostolic virtues and self-denial. We must not—we see it more and more—be too exacting or expectant; but wait patiently for that periodically recurring cycle of ages, when the substantial blessings of another golden age will show us that early tradition is not after all so fabulous as the present state of human conduct might lead one to imagine.