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THE CONDITION AND PROSPECTS OF THE
CHURCH OF ENGLAND.
THINK that many of those whom I am about to address in
this College* on the condition and prospects of our National Church, may very probably be asking themselves at this moment what possible claim I can have to do so, or what possible good can come of anything I may say. I, at any rate, very readily admit that such questions would be most reasonable, so perhaps a few preliminary words of explanation may not be out of place.
It was some months ago, before the late occurrences at Hatcham and all that has followed on them, that the proposal was made
Even then I had serious doubt as to accepting, and ultimately did so with some reluctance. The doubt arose from a genuine belief that I had much more to learn from than to teach the members of Sion College on such a subject. It is true that I had been asked to speak or lecture on the Church question at Birmingham, Norwich, and elsewhere: but those addresses were delivered to popular audiences, to whom I had been asked to speak as a politician, and at times when this great controversy was in a very different phase. But in this place I knew that I
I should be addressing an audience of experts, the metropolitan representatives of the great profession (or “ calling," to use the better word) of ordained ministers of the National Church-a very different and much more serious matter. Hence
Hence my doubt. My reluctance arose from a dislike to stir still waters, and raise discussion upon grave matters at a time when there seemed no pressing need for action or decision with regard to them. And I own that the earlier part of the past year appeared to me to bear many signs of such a time; for the usual motions, pointing to a
* This article was delivered as an address, at Sion College, March 13th. VOL. XXIX.
severance of Church and State, or to reconstruction or reform of one kind or another, had not been made in the House of Commons. In the addresses of members and candidates to constituencies last autumn, when reference was made to the Church question, it was generally treated as a kind of neutral territory in politics, even advanced Liberals, like Mr. Leonard Courtney, declaring; that though they were theoretically in favour of the entire severance of Church and State when the proper time might come, yet they saw no sign of its coming, and deprecated any attempt to force it. On the other hand, one most important Church reform, the full meaning of which has never been popularly appreciated, I mean the subdivision of dioceses and the appointment of Suffragan Bishops who should not be Peers of Parliament,—had made great progress, almost without opposition from the nonconforming bodies or the Liberation Society. Thus far the time seemed one for letting well alone, and I should certainly have desired to do so then, but for the smouldering discontent already too apparent in one extreme wing of the National clergy. In view of this, however, it seemed to me possibly worth while to put forward at Sion College a lay view of the matters which were causing such discontent amongst a section of Churchmen. So with this view I overcame my reluctance, never dreaming that before I should address you here, this smouldering fire would have burst into a blaze; that we should have, on the one hand, the Church Union publicly denying the right of the nation to control the clergy, and clergymen declaring that they “ will labour night and day to set the Church of England free from a persecuting State;" on the other hand, the Liberationists, reassured at hearing their own war-cries issuing from within what they are used to regard as the hostile camp, openly preparing for a campaign which they seem to think may be the final one.
Had I been able to foresee such a state of things, I candidly confess that I should have declined this invitation. The prospect is to me altogether too sad and too confusing, and the issues are at present so undefined, and the forces on either side so undeveloped, that I would very gladly have been silent, at any rate till I could see more clearly how the great controversy was shaping itself, and what it beloved one to say or do in this matter who looks upon the connection of Church and State-of the spiritual and temporal life of the nation, as it exists, and has existed in England ever since we were a nation—as a part of our national inheritance which it would be a grievous misfortune, and an irreparable misfortune, to lose.
I am here, however, to speak to you on the subject, and must do so to the best of my ability, glad at any rate that you will hear the views frankly expressed of what I believe to be a much larger
proportion than is generally supposed of ordinary English Churchmen—laymen who have no strong bias for or against any party in the Church; who have neither time nor taste for the lamentable party wrestling-matches got up by the (so-called) religious press and societies; but only desire to use themselves in peace, and to hand down to their children, the opportunities for Christian worship and Christian living which have served their forefathers for so many generations-improved and reformed to suit the needs of a new time, but still an inalienable part of the birthright of every English child. I repeat that I believe-and, as one who has had much intercourse with all classes of our society, and has for years been much exercised by this question, have broad grounds for my belief—that this class is a far larger one than is commonly allowed. And it would be a great mistake to suppose, because they make no strife or fuss about their religion, that they do not really care about it. It is often assumed, nowadays, that the bulk of our Church laity are mere formalists, supporting religion because they believe the parson to be the most powerful kind of policeman; and ready to welcome whatever form of new worship, or no-worship, may come next, when criticism and science shall have dealt finally with the supernatural and Christianity, so long only as some form or other be left to keep the common folk in order, and their own wives and children quiet. On the contrary, we (for I must rank myself in their number) are thoroughly satisfied that Christianity is in no more real danger now than it was a hundred and fifty years ago, when Dean Swift, and many other greater wits than we have amongst us nowadays, thought and said that it was doomed. We hold in perfect good faith that the good news our Lord brought is the best the world will ever hear; that there has been a revelation in the Man Jesus Christ, of God the Creator of the world as our Father, so that the humblest and poorest man can know God for all purposes for which men need to know Him in this life, and can have His help in becoming like Him, the business for which they were sent into it; and that there will be no other revelation, though this one will be, through all time, unfolding to men more and more of its unspeakable depth and glory and beauty, in external nature, in human society, in individual men. That I believe to be a fair statement of the positive religious belief of average Englishmen, if they had to think it out and to put it in words; and all who hold it must of course look upon Christ's Gospel as the great purifying, reforming, redeeming power in the world, and desire that it shall be free to work in their own country on the most favourable conditions which can be found for it.
On the other hand, there are a number of matters which have been commonly insisted upon in England as part of Christianity,
as to many of which the kind of Englishmen I am speaking of have come to have no belief at all one way or the other. They have no time to spare for such subjects, and do not feel it needful for their higher life that they should make up their minds, for instance, as to the exact quality of the inspiration of Scripture, the origin of evil, the method of the Atonement, the nature and effect of sacraments, justification, conversion, and other much-debated matters. As to another class of ecclesiastical subjects, such as Apostolical succession, and all the priestly and mediatorial claims which are founded on it, they have indeed made up their minds thoroughly, and believe them to be men's fables, mischievous and misleading to those who teach and those who learn—to priests and people alike.
Probably many of my hearers will consider such a belief as this too vague to be of any practical value; but at any rate, as a fact, there it is, and it has to be acknowledged and accounted with as a fact in dealing with this Church question. And, as a rule, while it hinders those who hold it from attaching any exaggerated or superstitious importance to one form or another of Church organization, it inclines them to respect and value that which they find to have been thought out and beaten out by successive generations, and to have brought the nation safely at least, and not without honour, so far. Such a man is therefore generally an attached, though not an enthusiastic Churchman, and in the main for the following reasons :
First, the historical. Our time is not one in which any institution is able to stand on its pedigree only, but it is also one in which we are bound to be specially careful of any wholesome links which bind us to the past, and make our history one of steady and connected life and progress. And from this point of view the national Church is beyond all question the most venerable of our institutions, and as intimately bound up with the national life as the Monarchy or the Houses of Parliament. The latest and best historian of the Conquest describes the England of 1066 as “a land where the Church and nation were but different names for the same community; a land where priests and prelates were subject to the law like other men; a land where the King and the witan gave away the staff of the bishop;" adding that “such a land was more dangerous in the eyes of Rome than one of Jews or Saracens."
And through the long four hundred years' struggle with the Papacy, the same description holds good; and in every great crisis the Church and nation has held together as one community. When à Becket backed the Pope's claim to make Church Courts supreme over the clergy, and to exempt them from the national tribunals, the King answered by the Constitutions of Clarendon, which declared the Church to be part and parcel of the nation, and the clergy amenable to the civil law like all other citizens; and those Constitutions were supported by clergy and laity alike.
When the King, backed by the Pope, refused the demands of the nation for the Great Charter, it was Archbishop Langton who headed the barons. Two of the three sureties to whom John was bound for its fulfilment were bishops, and the first nine names are those of Church dignitaries. Again and again the identity of the Church of England with the nation was upheld; sometimes by bishops, as when Robert Grostete flatly refused to institute Innocent IV's Genoese nominee to an English benefice; sometimes by the King or his Courts of Law, as when the King's Bench outJawed the members of the assembly of clergy, who had come together without the King's writ, and, in deference to a Papal Bull produced by Archbishop Winchelsea, refused to grant a subsidy to Edward I. for his Scotch campaign. The statutes of mortmain, of provisors, of prohibition, of præmunire, all aimed at some encroachment of Rome on the national character of the English Church, were all passed with the assent and by the help of that Church, which, by its very divisions in such crises, proved its national character. It is not necessary to follow the history since the Reformation, for it is part of the case of those of the clergy who seek to sever the connection that it has existed in full force from that time. Even when Episcopacy was abolished during the Commonwealth and Protectorate, the national principle was upheld, and the established Presbyterian Church was even more intimately allied with the State than its predecessor had been. Cromwell had no more thought of severing the connection than Edward or Henry, but desired to make the Church as broad and tolerant as possible.
And so the Church has continued to our own day in theory, and still is to a very great extent in fact, the nation organized for spiritual purposes, and in striking sympathy with and faithfully mirroring the nation in all its varying moods-at times no doubt persecuting, apathetic, unfaithful—but on the whole faithful to her great mission, and exercising a noble and purifying influence on the national conscience and the national life.
If this is at all a true view of the history of the Church of England, the fallacy of the main argument of the English Church Union at recent meetings becomes clear. Appeal is made to some supposed compact between the State and the Church, and it is contended that the Church never conceded to the State the right of control in spiritual matters when that compact was made. This assumes that the State and the Church in England were at some time two distinct corporate bodies, in part at least composed of different persons, and capable of contracting with one another.