The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 20
The Liberal Clergy
The Liberal Clergy.
Sir,—As one of the clergy of the Church of England whom Mr Creery in his letter mentions by name, I ask you to allow me to reply to some observations of his which seem to be founded on misapprehension.
After enumerating some of the disadvantages under which "heretical" clergymen labour, he states his opinion that they expose themselves to those disadvantages "solely with the hope that by their example and teaching the Church may be widened, so as to comprehend parties of all opinions."
Now, it is perfectly true that we cherish the hope of seeing the restrictions sufficiently relaxed, so as to enable all really earnest and devout men, who wish to teach what they believe to be true, to serve as ministers in the National Church. But I think Mr Creery greatly errs in considering this hope to be the primary object of those exertions of ours which involve us in so much trouble.
I, for one, distinctly deny that this is ray object in the course I am pursuing. If I am asked, "Why do you place yourself in such an unpleasant position? "my simple answer is, "Because I feel it to be my duty." I shall be only too glad if I can do any good to my fellowmen. I shall be nearly as page 4 glad if I can in any way widen the liberties of the clergy of my Church. But I have nothing to do with these possible results; my business, as a preacher and a teacher, is to speak out of an overflowing breast what I believe to be true, and not to trouble myself about the effect which my words may have either upon the Church at large, or even upon my own congregation, much less to think at all about the probable consequences to myself. Nothing less than this loyalty to truth as truth, and this absolute reverence for duty as duty, could sustain us under the pressure of authoritative opinion, and under the sacrifice of our own comfort and worldly prospects.
I can assure Mr Creery and your readers that we have no ulterior object. We are servants of God and the truth, as far as we can discover it. In serving truth with a single mind we hope, in that way, best to serve our Church and our country; but we should in vain hope to serve them in any other way, or by having a lower aim than the simple declaration of our honest convictions.
This has already borne good fruit, although perhaps not sufficient to satisfy the eager wishes of the Rev. A. M. Creery, and those who like himself abandoned our Church in despair. The terms of subscription, which he says he tried in vain to get relaxed, have been relaxed, and in such a way as to make it increasingly difficult to convict a clergyman of heresy.
The Prayer Book is not yet reformed, but we would rather wait till men's minds are educated up to the point necessary to secure a radical and effective revision. The influence of what has already been said in the Church during the last eight or ten years even exceeds our expectation; every day makes our position stronger, and swells the ranks of those who prefer private judgment to authority.
I must ask your indulgence to let me say a few words in reference to Mr Creery's reproach against page 5 us for not following his example of secession. I will not attempt to say now half that may be fairly said in favour of retaining our clerical office as long as the law allows us to do so; but I wish it to be clearly understood that conscience is as much our authority for remaining where we are as we presume it to have been Mr Creery's authority for leaving us. It is somewhat unfair and onesided to insinuate anything to the contrary. We do not wonder at the Orthodox bringing the accusation of insincerity and hypocrisy against those who have made such startling announcements of their own convictions as I and some others have done; but we do wonder that men who sympathise with much that we do think and say should allow their sectarianism to prevail over their love of truth, and to lead them to discourage efforts, however honest and selfdenying, which are not made according to their own pattern, or issued under their sanction. The Church of England is under the control of Parliament, and as such can be modified as to doctrines, rites, and discipline in accordance with the best religious feelings and convictions of any given age. On this account solely, and not for its rank and endowments, do we "heretics" cling devotedly to the National Church. We know by experience and observation that there is no liberty, no independence, worthy of the name, to be enjoyed elsewhere. We see that in every sect, even in the Unitarian body itself, "heretics" are in more evil case than any of us; no professed freedom from creeds and articles would confer the liberty which we enjoy, even at this moment, with all its restrictions in the Church of England. You have, I think, admitted that Theodoro Parker himself would have found few Unitarian pulpits open to him in England some five or ten years back. We are alike free from the tyranny of conferences and of congregations. Convocation is simply an object of curious amusement, and has no terrors for the beneficed clergy. We are upheld and page 6 protected by the law of the land, and until that law is declared against us we have equal right to teach and minister in our Church with the whole bench of archbishops and bishops.
To help others to perceive the moral tenableness of our position, let me remind them that the religious opinions and beliefs of our countrymen are undergoing rapid change. The Church of England is in a state of transition. Objections to her Articles and Formularies are now being made by Churchmen, lay and clerical, which were not thought of, except by very few, twenty years ago. The Church of England may pass into still closer harmony with the Roman Catholic branch of Christendom, or it may become still more Protestant and develop into Theism. We need not make prophecies, but we know for certain that, whatever change will be made, it will be made by Acts of Parliament only, and by a Parliament which will then express pretty fairly the religious convictions of the people at large.
Should there be any reactionary movement which would reenforce doctrines which are distasteful to me in such proportion as to leave a decided deficiency of what I now admire and adopt, then the question of my retirement from the Church of England's ministry would be reopened and quickly settled. But while I feel I have a small share in the work of substituting reasonable convictions for unreasonable superstitions and beliefs granted to me by the law of the land within the freest Church in this country, I will not throw away so good a chance of being heard and listened to as I now enjoy through the protection of the law.
I shall read with interest Mr Creery's promised letter, and hail with pleasure any really wise suggestion on the great subject which he has taken up. Only let me say, it does not only seem somewhat ungenerous, but it is quite useless, to bring a charge of insincerity against us. We have counted the cost page 7 long, long ago, and, among other items, by far the most formidable we had to dread was the certainty that we should be, not only misunderstood, but openly accused of want of conscientiousness. Then we looked our worse fear in the face, and we resolved to stand and brave it. We are now quite familiar with it, and have grown accustomed to the noise which at first sounded so threatening. Men may judge us, but they are not our judge. We must leave our accusers to the growth of their own minds and to the all-healing influence of time.
Charles Voyset.Healaugh Parsonage, July 20th, 1868.