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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

The Church of England

The Church of England.

It is well known to students of history that the politico-ecclesi-astical institution whose "Prayer Book is Popish, articles of faith Calvinistic, and clergy Arminian" owes its existence to a compromise. The Protestant feeling which arose in England during the reign of Henry the Eighth, strong as it was, would not have been sufficient in itself to upset the old faith. That autocrat page 161 who cared no more for the reformed religion than for any other, and whose faith was embodied in the words "Royal Supremacy," found it to his interest to enter into an alliance with the zealots who, except in regard to what constituted the one bond of sympathy, namely, a determination to banish Papal authority from England, were the opposites of their royal patron in every conceivable respect. Thus in the very infancy of the Established Church it was divided into two sections, mutually repulsive and irreconcilable; the Court party with its warm faith in hereditary monarchy, its dread of innovation, and its consequent leaning to the doctrines and rites of the ancient Church; and the Puritans, with their strong tendency to republicanism in the State, their stout assertion of the right of private judgment in matters spiritual, and their resolution to fight unto the death, armed with the sword of the Spirit, or, if necessary, a more carnal weapon, against the tyranny of the Bishop of Rome and all his detestable enormities. That any link should have been found strong enough to hold together two such heterogeneous elements for three centuries seems even more wonderful than that the free and slave parties could have coexisted in America for nine decades. Yet, so inextinguishable was the Protestant spirit of the people on the one hand, and so deeply rooted was the conservative feeling of the ruling classes on the other, that the bitter persecutions of Mary, the thinly-disguised enmity of Elizabeth, and the frowns of that vulgar pedant, James the First, served only to intensify the one, while the democratic wave which swept over England about the middle of the seventeenth century failed so completely to affect the latent vitality of the other, that shortly after the Restoration the advocates of divine right and apostolic succession were in almost undisputed possession of the field. By espousing the cause of that most religious and gracious king, Charles the Second, and his courtiers, and by expelling two thousand of its very best ministers, the Church then purchased riches, power, and comparative peace. The old battle cry, however, "No Popery" on one side, and "Church and King" on the other were not by any means abandoned. The conforming Puritans, whose consciences were more elastic than those of the two thousand secessionists, have always, from that time to the present, formed a considerable party in the Church, doing battle for the faith behind the shield of the thirty-nine articles, under the name of Low Churchmen; whilst their opponents, the High Churchmen, holding steadily by the doctrines contained in the Liturgy, have been equally zealous in their defence of what are known as "sound church principles." For a long period, however, the clergy seemed to have fallen asleep, and sloth perhaps was the cause of the mutual forbearance which for a season the traditional enemies showed one another. It has been said that in the good old times of our grandfathers and great-grandfathers sermons were invariably either "high and dry" or "low and page 162 slow," and that one kind differed from the other only in the circumstance that the former abounded in such words as "church" and "sacraments," while the latter preferred the terms "gospel" and "saving faith." Whatever may have been the nature and duration of the armistice, however, it was finally brought to an end by Newman and Pusey. These champions of High Church principles threw down the gauntlet in publishing the Tracts for the Times, and thereby aroused the latent Protestantism of the country to an unexpected extent. To preach in the surplice was rank Popery. To teach the doctrine of baptismal regeneration, which by the way is distinctly enunciated in the Prayer Book, was Romish heresy of the deepest dye. The battle threatened to rage with something like the old fury, when a new symptom appeared in the body ecclesiastic which caused both parties to pause.

For several generations the revelations of Science, and especially of Astronomy and Geology, had been slowly and silently, but surely, undermining the faith of educated men in the historical parts of the Old Testament, and developing a spirit of scepticism amongst even those of the clergy whose orthodoxy seemed to the casual observer unimpeachable. Thus, to take a single instance, the fact that intelligent people have ceased to believe in a personal devil is perhaps due more to the reverend author of the Ingoldsby Legends than to any direct assault upon the old superstition. The development of a rationalistic movement became then merely a question of time, for it was impossible that the national theology should permanently ignore national thought. Accordingly we find that about twenty years ago a distinct party known by the title of "Broad Church," though at first numerically small, rapidly absorbed within it almost all the intellectual power of young English churchmen; and expanded so rapidly, not only in numbers but in creed also, that "Essays and Reviews" fell upon the horrified bishops like a thunderbolt. The puny attempt of these right reverend fathers to cope with the spirit of the age succeeded only in bringing ridicule upon themselves, and in further developing the sceptical spirit. Scarcely had the excitement caused by this episode passed away, when the orthodox were again startled by the appearance of Colenso's works, and the nation generally was edified by another exhibition of impotent rage on the part of his right reverend brethren. The spirit of free inquiry then grew so rapidly that the Voysey phase followed within three or four years, and this must surely have been the climax as far as the Church of England is concerned.

The position of the Established Church is, therefore, totally different now from what it ever has been. It may perhaps be best compared to a triangle, with Dr. Pusey in one corner, Dr. McNeile in another, and Mr. Voysey (or if he has been suppressed, one of his many sympathisers) in the third. Some page 163 "safe" man, say the Archbishop of York, might occupy the centre of gravity.

It is a matter of surprise to some that a church so fearfully divided against itself should have stood so long; a church too, which, although it has partaken so largely of the national wealth has egregiously failed in its national duties; which has for centuries allowed millions to grow up in ignorance and lead lives of practical atheism; which has been servile to the rich man and cold or contemptuous toward the poor; which has systematically held itself aloof from any movement for raising the social condition of the masses; and which rouses itself to political action only when its own interests seem to be threatened, as in the case of the recent abolition of the Irish Establishment. By what process of priestly jugglery, it is sometimes asked, can the English people have been imposed upon for three centuries?

The Church of England has maintained its hold, an apologist might say, by means of the incomparably beautiful and solemn language of its Prayer Book, the thorough self-devotion and Christlike life of many of its working clergy, and a kind of traditional and hereditary attachment on the part of its worshippers dating almost from infancy. There is unquestionably much force in this plea; but two additional reasons may be given, which are less sentimental but, perhaps, not less cogent. In the first place, all the great centres of education, Oxford, Cambridge, the great public schools, and nearly all the grammar schools through the country, were placed under the control of the Church. Fellowships, masterships, benefices, were open in almost every instance to clergymen only; and the same system prevails, with but slight modification, to the present day. By this clever artifice, the rising intellect of England has been in every succeeding generation literally bribed into conformity, real or pretended, and an effectual guarantee has been obtained that the heads of colleges and schools shall not encourage a spirit of inquiry amongst the young. Secondly, the Established Church has benefited enormously in point of influence and wealth on account of its social prestige. There was something "genteel" in being seen at church, something decidedly low in dissent. The parson would no more recognise as a social equal the independent minister than he would his footman. Accordingly the retired tradesman who had made a fortune and destined it to the purchase of a factitious position in society, found it necessary to turn his back upon his old fellow-worshippers at Little Bethel, and to secure a seat at the parish church as near as possible to the squire's. England is not the only part of the world in which snobs are to be found, and even in this colony, the parvenu who adopts episcopal orthodoxy as a means of elevating himself in the social scale is not altogether unknown. But in the mother country the effect of these defections from Puritanism upon the prosperity, or at least, the influence, of the Established Church, page 164 has been more marked. Many an old roundhead of the seventeenth century would, if he were now to revisit the earth, be dismayed to find his lineal descendant a tory squire, or possibly a peer, ardent in the defence of Church and State.

The causes thus indicated, although still in operation, are weakening year by year, and with increasing rapidity. The clergy of the Established Church begin to find it to their interest to adopt a more conciliatory and respectful tone towards non-conformists. The Bishop of Winchester, indeed, forgetting that times have vastly changed since he was a young man, asserted in public not very long ago that "beer-shops, over-crowded cottages and dissent were the great hindrances to religious education." The indignation expressed at this in the House of Commons, and the humiliation which the bishop had afterwards to undergo in offering a somewhat lame and undignified apology, may perhaps have the effect of preventing in future any similar exhibition of insolence and folly. It has been observed, moreover, for some years past, that the intellectual standard of the clergy has been rapidly degenerating. Since a large number of desirable offices in the civil service have been thrown open to public competition, many of the most gifted young men from the Universities have been diverted from seeking ordination, who a generation ago would have had no other resource than "the Church;" and in consequence the bishops have been compelled to fall back upon a class of men who may be very good Christians, but who in point of education and social bearing are certainly not likely to add much to the prestige of the Establishment. Independently of this, too, conscience is beginning at last to assert her rights. Scarce a mail arrives from England without an account of some fresh triumph of intellect and honour over orthodox tyranny. One of the most recent instances is the open repudiation of the clerical office by Mr. Clark, the Public Orator at Cambridge, Vice-Principal of Trinity College, and one of the most distinguished scholars at the University. He remarks, in a letter to the bishop of his diocese, that to say "God spake these words," while he does not believe that God spake these words, is to lie to the congregation, and that this lie he will no longer utter. This event has attracted no great amount of notice, although if it had occurred ten years ago, the whole bench of bishops would have been up in arms, and both houses of Convocation would have petitioned the University to expel Mr. Clark as a corrupter of youth. But times have changed, and even bishops have learned a grain of common sense.

That a crisis is impending,—that the Church of England is tottering to her foundations, no well-informed man can doubt; but the precise direction in which (vents are tending we can but surmise. Sir J. D. Coleridge, the present Solicitor-General of England, has recently laid the case before his fellow-churchmen with judicial clearness and impartiality. In a lecture at Sion page 165 College, he pointed out that a national Church must cease to exist as such unless it keep pace with the times; that the old English standards of orthodoxy are worn out and fast falling into contempt; and that the consequence which painfully but distinctly presented itself to his mind was, that the almost immediate disestablishment of the Church of England could only be averted, not by yielding a few immaterial points to orthodox or semi-orthodox dissenters, but, as he significantly told his audience, by throwing open her portals to a far wider extent than any of them dreamt of. Of this we may be assured, that the time for compromise is past. When once the battle has begun there can be no permanent rest until the Church which owes its existence to an assertion of the right of private judgment shall either be swept away, or allow the right of private judgment to all;—in other words, until every symbol of spiritual bondage in the form of confessions of faith and tests of orthodoxy shall be consigned to the place whither the Inquisition has been sent long before it.