Mere ecclesiastical quarrels have a slight interest for the laity. They can view with an equanimity approaching to indifference the standing feud between High Churchmen and Low Churchmen. Each side has its stronghold. Each appeals to feelings deeply rooted in the English character; and neither uses language calculated to shock the religious sentiments or habits of thought of the mass of the community. That there should be Evangelicals and Tractarians; and that they should differ, and discuss the points on which they differ, appears as natural to the common run of respectable people, as that there should be Whigs and Tories. When the leaders of both parties unite to repel what they obviously view as an assault on the foundations of a common faith differently conceived, the new concord is more distressing to the ordinary mind than the old discard. Something very strange indeed must have happened, it is thought, when Dr. Pusey writes a 'faithful' letter to the Record, and joins with the best-known leaders of the Evangelical school in a protest against a doctrine threatening to the structure in which both schools had hitherto been included Let us see, in the first place, what it is that has caused so much commotion; and let us consider, in the next place, whether it is wise to be so much moved.
The cause of the commotion is that the highest authority known to the law of England has solemnly decided that it is not illegal for a clergyman of the Church of England to deny that the Bible contains any prophecies at all, in the common sense of the word; to deny, that is, that the coming of Christ was supernaturally predicted centuries before his birth; to affirm that parts of the Bible, usually supposed to be literally true, must be understood to be allegories or fables, or, to use an unfortunate expression, myths; to deny the historical truth of such parts of the Bible as appear to them to be untrue; to deny the goodness of such parts of it as appear to them to be immoral. It has further been declared that the law permits the clergy to hold and teach any doctrine they please on the subject of inspiration; so that they may, if they like, assert that there is no generic difference between the canonical Scriptures and other books. In short, the effect of the judgments is that the law has laid down no positive doctrine whatever respecting the Bible, except that it contains all things necessary to salvation. What else it may contain, and in what sort of vehicle the things necessary to salvation may be contained, are, by the law of England, open questions which the clergy may discuss as freely as the laity.
Whoever reads the judgments of Dr. Lushington and those of the Committee of Council, and compares them with the incriminated passages of the essays of Dr. Williams and Mr. Wilson, will be able to satisfy himself that this is by no means an overstatement of the result of the whole proceedings. That the result should startle those who have never reflected seriously on the character and position of the Church of England is not surprising. Hardly any other Christian body in this country allows so much liberty of opinion to its clergy; and it is certain that, though in the Church of England itself great liberty of thought on this subject has, in fact, prevailed amongst the more learned part of the clergy for a length of time, this fact did not, till very recent times, attract nearly so much general notice as its importance required. The speculations of Middleton went as far in fact, and those of Warburton went as far in principle, as anything written by Dr. Williams or Mr. Wilson; but the great bulk of the clergy not only did not agree with them, but did not even care to recognize their existence. So true was this, that a writer in the Tracts for the Times—usually supposed to be Dr. Newman—used the absence of any article on the subject of the inspiration of the Bible as a reductio ad absurdum of those who held that the Thirty-nine Articles were the standard, and the only standard, of doctrine in the Church of England. He took it for granted that the inspiration of the Bible was a doctrine of the Church of England; but, as the inspiration of the Bible was not affirmed in the Thirty-nine Articles, he concluded that there must be some other standard of the doctrine of the Church of England than that which the Thirty-nine Articles afforded. We all know whither the search for such a standard conducted Dr. Newman and others, after a certain number of oscillations.
It is thus not surprising that, when the nature of the late judgments is fully understood, they should excite both surprise and alarm; but, when the subject is carefully considered, moderate and reasonable persons will probably conclude that, whatever may be the theological value of the opinions of Dr. Williams and Mr. Wilson—as to which, on the present occasion, we mean to say nothing—the judgment of the Committee of Council was not merely legally right, but was the only one which would have been consistent with the existence of the Church of England as a national Church, or, indeed, as anything wider than a sect based on mere popular prejudice, and on no plain or intelligible principle whatever.
Some twenty years ago intense interest was excited by the question, 'What is the Church?' and a variety of answers were devised, each of which favoured the pretensions of some one of the theological schools which divide the country; but none of which could be reconciled with the facts of the case. To those who look at the facts alone, without thinking it necessary to adapt them to any theological conclusion, the answer is obvious. The Church of England is an institution established by law. Both in fact and in theory it comprehends for some purposes all the Queen's subjects in England and Ireland; but its principal direct benefits are confined to that part of them who have a sufficient degree of sympathy with the services which are by law appointed to be held, and with the doctrines which are by law protected from discussion by the clergy, to be willing to join in those services. Every English subject pays for the support of the Church, directly or indirectly. Every English subject, whatever his theological opinions may be, is subject to the Ecclesiastical Courts, and has a right to sot their process in motion. The bishops, as bishops, help to legislate for the whole nation. Every man, whatever his creed, has a right to be married in his parish church, and to be buried in his parish church-yard. The law, and not community of religious opinion, constitutes the Church. This is proved by the fact that there is just as much community of religious opinion in it as the law prescribes, and no more. There is nothing to prevent a Unitarian on the one hand, or a Roman Catholic on the other, from holding a benefice in the Church of England, except certain Acts of Parliament, which the legislature might, if it pleased, repeal or modify to-morrow. Suppose, for a moment, that the Act of Uniformity, and with it the obligation to sign the Thirty-nine Articles and to read the Book of Common Prayer, were repealed. Would the Church of England cease to exist? By no means. There would still be as many bishops, deans, canons, rectors, vicars, and curates as before, with precisely the same powers, the same incomes, and the same obligations in all other matters than those relating to doctrine. If the rector of a parish were to die, the some patron as before would present a new one. The same bishop would have to examine and to institute him; ho would be liable to the same penalties for non-residence or immorality, and he would be under the same obligation to celebrate religious worship in the parish church, though he might have a discretion as to the kind of service to be celebrated. The Church of England is thus differently situated from almost any other religious community in the world. It is an institution of which every Englishman is a member, and in which every Englishman has an interest, whether he likes it or not. That it is at present so constituted that a large proportion of its members—all Dissenters, namely, and Roman Catholics—ore excluded from its direct benefits, is perfectly true; but this is an accidental and not an essential circumstance. The theology of the Church was at one time Roman Catholic. It was at another time (during the Commonwealth) Calvinistic. Parliament might tomorrow make any other change; but, so long as the law of the land makes a public provision for religious worship, confers special powers and privileges upon the ministers of religion, and subjects them to a special discipline, administered by special courts, the aggregate of the institutions so constituted may properly be called the Church of England; the institution, that is, which the English nation thinks fit to maintain and support for religious purposes.
It is quite a distinct question whether or no any other meaning than this can be attached to the word 'Church.' Many persons have tried to discover one, and have sought to specify the tests by which a true Church may be known, and to lay down the definition -which it must fulfil. Assuming their success to be complete, such a body, if not recognized by law, would not be the Church of England, any more than the first Christian society established in Rome was at the time of its establishment the Church of Rome. No doubt, for its own purposes, it was a Church; but so far was it from being the Church of Rome, that it was a Church unknown to Rome, or known only to be persecuted. It must, however, be admitted that there has been so much difficulty in affixing any definite meaning to the worn Church, that, when it is used in any other than the legal sense ascribed to it above, no two persons can be sure that they are talking about the same thing. Let us, then, use the word in the meaning above assigned to it, which is, at all events, perfectly intelligible, and consider whether any other state of the law respecting the Bible, than that which has been shown to exist by the decisions in the cases of Dr. Williams and Mr. Wilson, would be endurable in the present state of things, or consistent with the retention by the Church of anything like a national character.
If it is admitted that the position of the clergy is to be a legal one, and that they are to be entitled to retain their position until they are removed from it in due course of law for some offence of which the law can take cognizance—and that this is the essence of an established Church is self-evident—it will follow that the law must do one or the other of three things with reference to the Bible. In the first place, it might be laid down that a certain specified volume—say, for instance, a sealed copy of the Authorized Version, like the sealed copies of the Book of Common Prayer, mentioned in the Act of Uniformity—should, for all legal purposes be recognized as the Bible; and that no clergyman should presume to dispute either the authenticity or the authority of a single word of it. Something nearly approaching to this doctrine was laid own by the formula consensus Helvetici, in the latter half of the seventeenth century; and the doctrine of the Westminster Confession on the subject—which is to this day the standard of doctrine in the Church of Scotland—is not much less stringent. Of course such a doctrine might be laid down here, and might be enforced by a court of law; but would any human creature—would Dr. Pusey himself, and the other authors of the Oxford protest— wish such a step to be taken, or assert that it would be in accordance with the practice of the Church? The very notion 'is monstrous. If such were the law, all the elaborate provisions which have been made for securing a supply of learned clergy would become incongruous and absurd. The study of Greek and Hebrew would be needless, and even dangerous. Every one who collated a Greek MS., or discussed a disputed reading, would do so at the risk of being deprived of his preferment. A writer like Dean Alford would be ipso facto a heretic. In a word, the scheme is so monstrous that no reasonable person would propose it, and it may safely be laid out of the account.
Is there, however, any possible legal resting-place whatever between this policy and that which the Privy Council has declared to be the policy of the Church of England? That there are many views intermediate between this and the view that the Bible is a book like any other, which good and reasonable men may take, is proved by the fact that almost every good and reasonable man does take some such intermediate view. For instance, everybody believes that the authenticity of particular passages in the authorized version may be questioned on purely critical grounds. No one, in our day, is blamed for not believing that the text of the three witnesses forms part of the Bible. Others suppose that not only may the authenticity of particular passages be questioned, but that the truth of passages which are not material to religious belief may be treated as an open question. Others suppose that there are different kinds and degrees of inspiration, according to the subject matter treated of. There are, in short, a number of different theories on the subject, all of which have been, and many of which are, honestly maintained by different writers. The question, however, is not, What views may be honestly maintained? but, What views are capable of being legally enforced? Any one who will take the trouble to examine the works of the different writers who have treated of the subject will be struck with two facts, either of which constitutes by itself a conclusive objection to the adoption, as a legal standard of doctrine, of any of the views referred to. In the first place, no one of these views ever was, or claimed to be, more than a private opinion put forward by the person who held it; and the number of these opinions is so great that it is impossible to give any one of them a preference over its neighbours. Tillotson, for instance, denied the inspiration of every part of the Bible which might be discovered by natural means. Warburton taught the doctrine of partial inspiration. Middleton taught a similar doctrine, in language and with applications nearly as bold as those of the Bishop of Natal. Bishop Heber put the inspiration of the Bible higher than any of these writers, but considerably lower than the Westminster diyines. Bishop Wilson, of Calcutta, treated the matter in a spirit very similar to Heber’s. Dean Ellicot puts the tongue of the buckle into but not quite through the hole in the strap, for he expressly declines to affirm that every proposition in the Bible is absolutely true; and the list might be indefinitely lengthened. How could a court of law, even if it had been so unmindful of its duties as to assume the functions of the legislature, decide between all these opinions, and devise a test which would stigmatize some as heretical, and establish the orthodoxy of others?
If, however, such a piece of judicial legislation had been possible, there is a second objection to every one of these views which would make it practically useless as a legal standard of orthodoxy. Not one of them is definite. They all leave the subject at a loose end, and no one of them can be applied to any particular case. Suppose, for instance, the Court had adopted the view which many writers have held—that the Bible is 'perfect in respect of its object;' that is, that it is perfect when it treats of religious matters. This is a perfectly tenable view; but how could a court of law apply it? How could such a court say 'We think that it is open to a clergyman to disbelieve the story of Joshua and the sun and moon, but not the history of Jonah and the whale; and we doubt whether the account of Elisha and the two she bears falls on the one side or the other of the line.' After ten or eleven weary days of argument before the Court of Arches, Dr. Lushington said to the counsel for the Bishop of Salisbury, 'Do you say that it is illegal for a clergyman to deny the truth of any proposition whatever in the Bible, small or great; and if not, where do you draw the line? If you can answer that question, I will sit all day to hear yon.1 The question was answered, in a sort of way, by a quotation which did not meet the point; but it was in truth unanswerable, and is conclusive of the whole matter.
One middle course between the two extremes is conceivable; and the very description of it shows how impracticable it is. If there were issued an authoritative edition of the Bible, with an authoritative commentary on every subject connected with it, that commentary might be enforced as a standard of doctrine. The clergy might be told that they might go so far in criticizing the Bible, and no further; and the Courts might enforce this obligation; but this is the only way in which it is even conceivable that a modified degree of criticism should be legally permissible. Without a standard specifying what is allowed, and what is not, all or nothing must be legal; and to try to make all criticism illegal is simply impossible and absurd.
Indeed, if nothing but literary criticism were allowed, the legal position of the clergy would be the same as it is at present. The case would then stand thus:—There once were certain perfect books, which have long since been destroyed or lost. There are still certain MSS. which claim to represent them. Such and such a passage occurs in the MSS. It is lawful for me to inquire whether it formed part of the original perfect book. I consider, for such and such reasons, that the statement contained in the passage is impossible or immoral. If I am right in thinking so, it cannot have formed part of a book which was perfectly good and true. The fact that a passage occurs in a MS. is only evidence, to be taken for what it is worth, to show that it formed part of the original; and the character of the passage itself may be such as to overbalance that evidence. Suppose a man, professing to report a conversation which he had with the late Archbishop of Canterbury, were to ascribe to him all manner of profanity and indecency, would not this in itself be evidence from which every one would infer that he was lying, even though the Archbishop is dead, and no one else but the reporter had heard the conversation? The character of the statements would thus come into question as evidence of their authenticity as much as they could come into question if it were allowed to admit their authenticity and discuss their truth or their moral character. For these reasons it is perfectly obvious that, if the matter is to be legally dealt with, it can be dealt with in no other way than as it has been. Set aside the particular wording of the Thirty-nine Articles as they stand, and attempt to frame a new article to meet the case, and it will be found impossible to lay down any other rule than one of the three described above; namely, general liberty, absolute restriction, or acquiescence in a detailed commentary on the whole Bible.
The language of the Oxford protest shows this, for in a legal point of view its words would leave matters as they stand at present, unless they are construed so as to amount to an absolute prohibition, even of the most unimportant literary criticism. The protest says that the Bible not only contains, but is the word of God. A. B. says, 'I believe that the story of Balaam's ass is not true.' How does this contradict the proposition of Dr. Pusey and his friends? If it contradicts the test, because the test means that everything in the authorized version is absolutely true, then the test forbids any clergyman to doubt that the verse about the three witnesses is part of the Bible, or to assert that there is such a thing as a various reading in the MSS. from which it is translated. If it is open to the supposed defendant to say that God cannot have said that Balaam's ass spoke, because such a statement appears absurd upon the face of it, and may be supposed to be a legendary addition to the original, then the proposition is nugatory. Indeed, the proposition that 'the Bible constitutes the word of God' leaves open the question whether, and to what extent, God thought fit to subject himself to human limitations in uttering it, and what amount of error in fact, or in doctrine, or in morals this allows for. To any one at all accustomed to the legal use of language, it is self-evident that the case is one in which you must say one thing or the other in a peremptory way. Either the whole is true, or only a part; and if a part, then the part must be specified, or the whole left open. Vague general phraseology, like that of the Oxford protest, may be impressive in the pulpit, but it melts into nothing when it is submitted to legal tests, honestly applied. It has a tremendous sound, but no precise meaning; and it is, therefore, altogether inadequate to the purposes of a court of law.
It may, however, be said—and many people would, no doubt, be inclined to say—what do we want of legal tests in such a matter? Why introduce so rough an engine into subjects of such a delicate nature? Would it not be better to allow some competent spiritual authority to say, as the case arose, what is, and what is not the true doctrine of the Church? This is what is really meant by those who object most earnestly to the judgments in question, though it is doubtful whether they fully understand their own meaning. The real scope of their protest, if it is anything more than an expression of individual opinion, is to change fundamentally the character of the Church of England, and to substitute for a national institution, regulated by the law of the land, a mere voluntary association, regulated by the public opinion for the time being of those who choose to belong to it In a social and political point of view, this is by far the most important feature in the present controversy. It is hardly, if at all, less important than the theological question itself. In order to appreciate its full significance, let us revert for a moment to the consideration of the character of the Church of England as a national institution.
As has been already shown, it is to some extent national. It is supported by the nation. It is governed by Parliament, which represents the nation. The nation at large— even that large and increasing part of it which does not altogether approve of the doctrines of the Church —has claims upon its services. The laity have a place in it at least as important and quite as secure as the clergy. A clergyman could not refuse to give the communion to any one who demanded it, unless he could produce legal proof of his having been guilty of some act legally disentitling him to it. Lay patrons can present any legally qualified persons to livings, and may force them on the bishops, on the other clergy, and on the congregations, however much any or all the persons concerned may dislike their character or disapprove of their views. When the clergyman is once presented and instituted, he is as independent as any other freeholder. Nothing but the law can touch him; and the law will do so only in specified ways and on specified grounds. To this extent the Church is a national body—that is, its advantages and emoluments are accessible to all the Queen's subjects, just as the advantages of property are open to every one who can earn them, or the electoral franchise to every one who can rent a £10 house in a parliamentary borough.
This, however, is only one side of the institution. It has a narrow as well as a broad side. The Act of Uniformity, and the other laws which prevent the clergy from denying a certain set of doctrines, confine the greater part of the direct benefits of the Church to those who do not consciously and expressly dissent from those doctrines; and this fact has led many people to consider that the Church is a mere sect; that it is not a national institution at all; and that those who do not agree with its doctrines are, and ought to be, considered as altogether outside of its pale, and disentitled to any share of its advantages or emoluments. In order to make the distinction between the national and the sectarian view of the Church perfectly clear, we will try to show what the character of each would be if it were exaggerated to its utmost limits. It may be as well to say, though, indeed, it is hardly necessary, that this is a mere illustration, and that no reasonable person would think of proposing the full adoption of either principle. The actual institution will, of course, remain as it is now, and always has been— a compromise between the two conflicting systems.
If the national principle were carried out to its fullest extent, the Church would be considered as an institution intended for the benefit of the whole nation, without distinction of religious belief; and its endowments and emoluments would be so managed as to provide as large a part of the population as possible with that sort of religious worship which they preferred. The notion is so unfamiliar that it is not easy to grasp at once its true meaning; but ways may be suggested by which a national Church might be established, not more connected with one scheme of theology than another. Suppose, for instance, every congregation had the right secured to it by law of deciding, from time to time, what form of worship should be used in the parish church. The law might compel the parish clergyman to perform public service according to that form, or to resign; and he might be under the same supervision as at present, with respect to residence and morality. Many different arrangements short of this might be made for enabling the parties interested—the clergyman, the patron, the parishioners, and the bishop—to adapt the services to their own tastes and views; and there is nothing in itself irrational in the notion of a body subject to one government, and supported by one set of endowments, but made up of Protestants, Catholics, Unitarians, Deists, and Jews, each with their own religious services and their own places of worship. A national Church, in the widest sense of the word, might contain a Unitarian and a Trinitarian party, just as at present it contains a High Church and a Low Church party. If all lived under the same law, men of the most conflicting creeds might be not only members but ministers of the same Church, just as under the existing state of things they are all members of the same nation. Thus, if the national principle were carried to its extreme limit, unity of religious opinion would be treated not necessarily as unimportant, but as irrelevant to Church membership, just as unity of political opinion is at present irrelevant to citizenship.
If, on the other hand, the sectarian view of the Church were carried to its extreme limit, there would be no room at all left for any theological difference of opinion. The doctrine would be that no one was to have any share in the advantages of the Church who did not believe in the doctrine of the Church. This view might not in strictness of speech involve—though it would in the strongest manner suggest—the principle that the Church has doctrines on all, or at least on all important, subjects; and thence again would follow the inference that there must be some authority competent to declare from time to time what was the true doctrine on disputed points. Of course, the result of this must be to narrow the pale progressively as time went on. Every controversy would lead to decisions. Every decision would settle some question previously open; and the consequence would be that every controversy would give birth to one or more new sects,': composed of the persons against whom judgment had been given, and of those who agreed with their views. There is no limit to the lengths to which this process might be carried, till the original unit is reached. Davie Deans went within one step of the extreme, for he considered that, what with right-hand fallings off and left-hand defections, the true and pure Kirk of Scotland consisted of two members, of whom Davie himself was one; and no one can say how near an approach may be made to this bright example by zealous and faithful men, whose minds are thoroughly intent upon dividing every hair accurately into its proper number of filaments.
Probably no one, or hardly any one, wishes to see either of these views adopted to its full extent; but the view which men take of the position of doctrine in the Church will depend upon the question whether their minds gravitate in the one or the other direction. If they incline towards the national view of the Church they fully recognize, generally speaking, the practical necessity of having a standard of doctrine, or at any rate a standard of worship. This, in practice, comes to the same thing, at least for the clergy; for no one would have the heart to devote his life to the celebration of services which he believed to be mere solemn nonsense, even if the law imposed no tests at all upon him. If he were base enough; to do so from interested motives, no test would keep him out. No man who, for money, could reconcile himself to a life of falsehood, would be prevented from earning his money by the fear of uttering one specific lie. At the same time, they feel that freedom is the rule, and restraint the exception; that the object of having a standard of worship is to produce unity of worship; that the object of unity of worship is to excite and support religious feeling by the force of sympathy; and that, except in so far as it is necessary for this purpose, any check is a bad thing, because it tends to narrow the range of the benefits conferred by an institution designed for the nation at large.
Those, on the other hand, who take the sectarian view of the subject, never go to the ideal limit of their creed. They all admit that in every considerable body of men there must be some difference of opinion; and they wish to prevent such differences only on matters which they consider so important as to deserve to be called essentials. Their notion is that there is a body of doctrine, communicated by God to man, of which there are in the world authorized expounders; that the custody of this body of doctrine, and the power of deciding upon such questions as may arise respecting it, is the distinctive and fundamental property of the Church; that all endowments and laws relating to the clergy are mere accidents; and that they are beneficial only if, and in so far as, the benefits arising from them are confined to those who recognize and submit themselves to the body rightfully entitled to exercise the prerogative of determining controversies. They also teach, with various degrees of emphasis and distinctness, that the spiritual benefits of Christianity, and even the right to the name of a Christian, can be claimed by no one who does not recognize and submit to this jurisdiction. Each of these views is intelligible and consistent.
According to the first, uniformity of doctrine cannot be attained, and ought not to be sought for its own sake, though it may, under particular circumstances, be necessary to enforce a certain degree of it, as being the only available means of obtaining that unity of worship which man, as a social being, requires as a stimulant to his religious feelings; and, of course, when this principle is applied to an existing institution, originally established under the influence of the other view of the case, the degree of restraint upon opinion requisite at a given moment will be much greater than that which might be necessary in founding an entirely new institution. It will, upon this principle, be a question of time, degree, and opportunity, how far the existing doctrinal restraints may be safely relaxed, and how the benefits of the institution may be extended in their range to classes which are at present deprived of them.
According to the second principle, uniformity of doctrine is the very essence of the Church; and the power of declaring it from time to time in an authoritative manner, obviously supplies the only means by which it is possible to attain [or preserve uniformity of doctrine. Uniformity of doctrine is the end, and uniformity of worship only a means towards that end. A Church which has either no determinate doctrines at all, or no determinate doctrines on any one important point, is no Church.
These two views of the matter are not only intelligible, but they are also exhaustive. No third view can be suggested. We do not propose, on the present occasion, to discuss the question which of them is true. We propose to show that the first view is the only one on which, in the present state of feeling and knowledge, the State can possibly act; and that, if the second view is the true one, there ought at once to be an end of the connexion between Church and State, and the sooner the better. If this were clearly understood, it would probably have a considerable effect on the criticisms which are at present lavished on the 'soul-destroying judgment' of the Privy Council.
The proposition, therefore, which we have to support is, that a claim on behalf of the Church of England to be treated by the law as an authoritative expounder of Christian doctrine, would be inconsistent with the maintenance of its legal position, and that the renunciation of this claim is the price of the legal position itself.
Let us begin by considering what the claim in question involves. In the first place, if the Church is to be an authoritative expounder of doctrine, it is obvious that the clergy, or some clerical body, must, for this purpose, be considered as the Church, that is, as its exclusive organ. The Church includes the laity as well as the clergy; but there is no body of laymen which makes the smallest claim to be an authority upon religious truth. There are a certain number of laymen who claim, and with justice, the character of inquirers into the subject; but to declare, ex cathedra, which is the truth about controversies which may happen to arise, is a privilege which no set of laymen ever pretended to. The question therefore is, whether there is any clerical body in this country which the public at large regard with such a degree of confidence that they are willing to intrust them with the right of deciding, judicially, what opinions it is lawful for the clergy of the Church of England to hold? That is, to decide what opinions shall form an indispensable condition to sharing in that vast mass of titles, preferments, powers, and privileges, which make up the endowment of the Church of England. To ask the question plainly is to answer it. There not only is no such body, but for hundreds of years there never has been one. It is perfectly obvious that the object of the two parties which have coalesced in order to sign the Oxford protest, is to discredit, and if they had the power, would be to expel from the Church that third party, which numbers in its ranks such men as Dean Milman, Mr. Jowett, Dr. Stanley, and, in fact, all the most intelligent of the clergy—a party to whose writings upon the points in controversy, no one of any real weight has even attempted to give a serious answer. If this object were attained, as it soon would be by a clerical court exercising the right of developing the doctrine of the Church of England by judicial decision, no one can believe that the process would stop there. We have only to look to the Gorham case for conclusive evidence that as soon as they were a little relieved from the pressure of liberalism, the Record and Dr. Pusey would dissolve their strange alliance, and would set to work to fight out the battle about baptism, and the sacerdotal controversy in general, with which the Privy Council cruelly interfered some fourteen years ago. After a desperate struggle, Mr. Baylee and Dr. McNeill would get their heels on the necks of Dr. Pusey and his friends, or vice versa, and a second great fragment of the clergy would have to leave the Church. This is not mere speculation. It is a conclusion from notorious facts fresh in the recollection of every grownup man. It is, at least, as clear from the general principles of human nature, that if the Church were thus reduced, say to one third of its present doctrinal extent, those who continued within its pale would tend to become more and more bigoted in their views. Those who stood near the limits of the views already officially condemned would be suspected, twitted with their inconsistency, called upon by both sides to go further in one direction or the other, and the result, no doubt, would be that the creed of the Church of England would be reduced to one or other of those extreme systems to which theology is capable of being reduced according to the principles from which people start. It might become a narrow form of Tractarianism, a narrow form of Calvinism, or, possibly—though the event is so unlikely as to be hardly worth noticing —a form of Unitarianism as narrow as either of the other two, and at least as intolerant. Would the English nation endure either of these events? Can any person, moderately well acquainted with the feelings of the laity, suppose for one moment that they would allow a set of fanatical and narrow - minded clergymen, whose opinions were repudiated by a considerable majority of persons of their own profession, to monopolize the emoluments of the Church of England, together with all the social and political influence which that implies? No sensible man can for one instant believe anything of the sort. The matter may be put very shortly. If the Church is to be, in any sense of the word, a national Church, it must, in some tolerable degree, represent the religious belief of the nation; but as the nation is far from being unanimous, the Church must admit of open questions, and this is inconsistent with the existence of a court which would judicially decide, not merely on the legality, but also on the theological truth of controverted opinions.
The proper place of those who feel that no body is entitled to be called a Church which is not prepared to take the responsibility of developing the belief of its members into a coherent and exclusive system is obvious enough. They should set up a private sect of their own. There is nothing to prevent any set of people whatever from associating themselves together for religious purposes upon the basis of their common belief in any set of religious opinions, and it is impossible to contest their right, when they are so associated, to exclude from their society and from all advantages derived from it, whether spiritual or temporal, all those who vary, by one fair's breadth, from any standard of doctrine which it may please them to impose. But it is obvious that no such sect could be a national Church. The proof of this is, that if there were no established Church in this country, it would be utterly hopeless for any religious body to attempt to assume that position; and if what is now the Church persists in assuming the position of a sect, it will not long succeed in maintaining its present position. The more the matter is reflected upon, the more transparently clear will it become that the clergy must undergo the common alternative. They cannot have their cake in the shape of endowments and social consideration, and eat their cake in the shape of imposing their own terms on the public which gives those endowments and that social consideration. A sect has advantages of its own, and so has an established Church, but they are mutually exclusive.
It is always unpleasant to write even for a short time and a limited purpose in what may, to superficial observers, appear to be a hostile spirit to one of the noblest and most characteristic of English institutions. Nothing is further from our intention than to say a disrespectful word of the Church of England, or of its clergy, as compared with the clergies of other religious bodies. They have, of course, the ordinary clerical faults, but they have them in a far smaller degree than almost any other clerical body; and if they could only be brought to understand their own position and their own rights, and to vindicate and use them fearlessly, it would be difficult to bring against them any well-founded charge.
The preceding argument is meant to establish the proposition that the clergy of the Church of England cannot be trusted to decide with authority upon the merits of controversies as they arise; and it may seem as if, by admitting, for the sake of argument, that such a power may be claimed and exercised with perfect consistency by the clergy, or by any other part of any voluntary association, we admitted some sort of superiority in the dissenting over the established clergy, and regarded the latter as being bound by golden chains in a degraded attitude. Nothing can be further from our opinion. We maintain, on the contrary, that the position of the established clergy, rightly understood, is as much superior to that of the dissenting clergy in true dignity, as those who occupy it are generally superior in personal qualities. A village debating club can make whatever rules it likes whenever it thinks proper; the House of Commons cannot alter its constitution without the consent of the Crown and the House of Lords; but it does not follow that the debating club is in the more important or dignified position. A private person may employ or dismiss his domestic servants for any reason, even for mere caprice. There are Government officers—judges, for instance—who can be dismissed for nothing but specific misconduct solemnly proved by legal evidence. Does it follow that the relation of a lady to her housemaid is more dignified than the relation of the Lord Chancellor to a judge? Unestablished churches can decide what they please as to doctrine, and impose whatever tests they like; but who cares for their tests and their decisions? Even the members of their own body never think of submitting to the decision. They set up for themselves, and every new sect thinks itself, not without reason, as good as its neighbour. Who knows or cares how many Wesleyan denominations there are? The Wesleyans were originally indignant at being described as dissenters. Wesley himself was strongly tinctured with High Church notions, and dreaded the imputation of schism. In the course of years, the Wesleyan body became as distinct and compact a religious sect as any in the land. It split into two upon the old quarrel of predestination and free will, and since that time has split into no one knows how many 'connexions,' each with its special shibboleth. Where the strong hand of the State interferes to prevent persecution, the process of deciding upon points of doctrine always leads to this result, and the conflicting decisions are worth just as much as the private opinion of those who deliver them, and no more.
There is, indeed, one body which claims something more. The Roman Catholic Church asserts that it, at all events, can develop doctrine and can produce unity of opinion within its borders. There is a certain sort of truth in this, but how much? Throughout the Middle Ages there was a succession of controversies, and a long series of schisms ending at last in the great schism of the Reformation. The Roman Catholics described as heretics those who differed from them, and as long as they could, exterminated them with fire and sword. When that became impossible, schism prevailed, and the Roman Catholic claims stood refuted by fact. If they had been well founded, Protestantism ought not to have existed. The Protestants, when established, had as good a right to call the Roman Catholics heretics as the Roman Catholics had to give the same name to them. They showed to demonstration that if Scripture was the test of orthodoxy, the Roman Catholics were anti-scriptural; that if antiquity was the test of orthodoxy, the greater part, the most impressive and popular part of the system, was a modern innovation; and that, if reason was the test of orthodoxy, the claims of the Roman Catholics were altogether unreasonable. Within their own borders, no doubt the Roman Catholics have kept up a kind of unity by making absolute submission to authority the first principle of their creed, and stigmatising all doubt as sin; but this is only sectarianism on an exaggerated scale. The Particular Baptists are as consistent as the Papists and equally exclusive and dogmatic. The Roman Catholics are only a sect. They form the largest and best-organised of sects, thanks to historical causes; but they occupy precisely the same position as any other sect. The Roman Catholic Church is one of many bodies which claim the exclusive possession of theological truth. Circumstances enable it to make the claim in a less modest and more imposing way than other sects; but the principle is the same.
It may thus be considered as a distinctive peculiarity of the Church of England — a peculiarity due neither to the wisdom nor to the piety of its founders, but to a great variety of circumstances too complicated to be even glanced at here— that it is an institution adapted, not for the teaching of any particular form of doctrine, but for the common worship of God by many people of very various theological views. Like the Constitution, of which it forms one of the most characteristic parts, it is the result of many efforts tending in very different directions; and though certainly not established with enlarged or liberal views, it is, as a fact, more favourable to such views than any other religious body that can be mentioned. Let us consider for a moment the loss and gain of such a position.
First, as to the loss. It does not claim to develop Christian doctrine with authority. This by many persons is considered as a renunciation of the highest functions of a Church. Look at Church history, and consider how far this is true. What is the really great and admirable thing in the history of Christianity? What is the strongest evidence that can be produced of the justice of its claim to be a divine revelation? Beyond all doubt whatever, its establishment. The gradual propagation of the Christian faith over the world, from the days when it was obscurely preached in Palestine, till the days when it came to be recognized as the creed of the Roman Empire, is the most memorable transaction in human history. In the course of less than four hundred years, this immense change was effected, in spite of the cruel and unrelenting opposition of the greatest power that the world ever saw, and in the midst of what appears to have been a deeply corrupt and degraded state of society. There can be no doubt that the first four centuries of Christianity were the time of its greatest exploits. What amount of unity of doctrine was there then? During the whole of that time the greater part of our modern theology was either unknown, or, if known, existed not in the form of doctrine, but in the form of opinion. The Apostles' Greed might be fully accepted by a person who did not believe the doctrine of the Trinity or the doctrine of the Incarnation, as subsequently defined; who repudiated both the sacraments; who denied justification by faith; who did not believe in the devil or in hell; who considered the Bible a collection of common books; and who held any opinion whatever, or none at all, upon the whole subject of grace, predestination, and free will; yet the Apostles' Creed seems to have been the only confession of faith which existed during the first stage of Church history. The great persecutions were sustained, and the conversion of the Roman Empire was effected without any more explicit standard of belief. The process of defining, or, as it has been called, 'developing' Christian theology, has given rise to all the scandals in the history of Christianity. In looking back on the Trinitarian controversy—the type of all the rest—what has Christianity gained by it? Suppose that instead of collecting General Councils, in order to condemn Arius and his followers, the Emperors had acted in the spirit of the Privy Council in the Gorham case, and had said to the disputants, 'These shall be open questions; let opinion find its own level—go on as before; discuss the questions which interest you, without ceasing to join in the same services, and to exchange the same good offices as formerly,'— would the Christian Church have been a great loser? Would it not have gained strength, for all useful purposes, to an immeasurable degree? Considering the character of the times, this would have been out of the question. It was perhaps inevitable that a set of captious, word-splitting, slavish Greeks, who had no solid knowledge, and many of whom had no wholesome occupation, should squabble about homoousion and homoiousion, like freshmen at the universities; but is this an admirable and glorious example? It is represented sometimes as matter of immense congratulation, that Arius and all his party wore finally overthrown and expelled from the pale of Christianity by Athanasius and others. Are we quite sure that Athanasius was absolutely right, and that Arius (whose works and opinions are known only by the representations of his bitter enemies and persecutors) was altogether wrong. Might not Arius have been of considerable use to the world at large, and to Christianity in particular, if his opinions had been allowed to stand or fall according to their own merits? and is it not highly probable that, if they had been members of the same body, and had joined in the same worship, both Athanasius and Arius might have been less harsh to each other, and less absolute and fierce in their own doctrines?
On some subjects and in some bodies this wise course has been taken; and has the efficiency of the Christian Church, for any good purpose, been impaired? In the seventeenth century, predestination was the subject of subjects. The Calvinists 'developed' their doctrine with a vengeance; and the result may be seen, amongst other documents, in the Westminster Confession, which with admirable gravity divides the enormous majority of mankind who are to be eternally tortured in hell fire, into two classes —the reprobates who are damned because they were always meant to be damned, and the preterites who are damned because they were never meant to be saved. The Church of England in that day took what many people called a dastardly middle course. Being forced to say something about predestination, the authors of the Thirty-nine Articles put together a number of pious sentences which have no particular meaning, and the consequence has been that Arminians and Calvinists have discovered by practical experience that their differences need not prevent them from living under the same government and joining in the same form of worship. Does any one now regret this? Does any one wish that either party had been expelled from the Church? Can any intelligent student either of history or of human nature, fail to see that both the Calvinist and the Arminian have got hold of part at least of a great truth, that it is of the utmost importance that neither side of it should be forgotten, and that if either party could silence the other, the other side most assuredly would be forgotten? What should we say of a proposal to put the Whigs into one House of Commons and the Tories into another? The 'development' of Church doctrine by judicial decisions would be a process tending to precisely the same result.
If we look not at the glory, but at the shame of Christianity, are we not taught the same lesson? If the conversion of the Roman Empire was the greatest exploit of Christianity, the persecution of Christian by Christian has been its greatest shame. It has been the great argument of all the enemies of the Christian faith, from Julian to Voltaire. So base, so horrible, so bloody are these passages in history, that it is as superfluous to stigmatize their infamy as to dilate on the wickedness of such crimes as those of Palmer or the Mannings. The crusade against the Albigenses, the persecutions in the Netherlands, the Spanish Inquisition, the Massacre of St. Bartholomew, the massacre of the Protestants in Ireland, stand in history by the side of the Reign of Terror, and it must be confessed that there are Protestant enormities of a very similar complexion. The brutal usage of Ireland for more than a century, its penal code (copied from the provisions of Louis XIV. against the Protestants, and quite as atrocious), the cruel fanaticism which reigned in New England for many years after the first settlements of Massachusetts and New Plymouth, were not so bloody as the Romish persecutions, but they were not much less disgraceful. Even if we look away from these hideous crimes to the quiet current of every-day life, what spectacle is more contemptible than that every-day persecution which is exercised on all occasions by those who really do think it wrong for any one to doubt the truth of some particular set of religious opinions? Every one must have seen, in private life, how it dwarfs a man's character and blinds his eyes to everything that he ought to see. We sometimes see it on rather a larger scale, but it is always the same petty, dirty, ungenerous spirit. Would any other motive than bigotry have led a number of English gentlemen, in the character of the legislature of a great public body, to act so suicidal a part as the University of Oxford lately acted towards Professor Jowett? ‘We cannot expel you; we cannot refute you; but we can spite you and fine you, and we mean to wreak our grudge.'
These considerations may perhaps justify the proposition that the Church of England loses little by repudiating the pretension to decide on the truth of controversies as they arise, and so to develop its theology into a complete exclusive system. Let us now consider whether it gains by this modesty. It gains the advantage of being the only religious body in this country, nearly the only religious body in Europe, which can, consistently with its own principles, inquire into the truth upon a subject on which knowledge of the truth is of the utmost value to the whole human race; and this it can do with advantages which mere abstract inquirers, men standing apart from all religious bodies, do not and never can possess. Churches or sects which do assume the task of developing systems of theology may, under circumstances, present an imposing appearance. A spiritual tyranny like Popery has, no doubt, the qualities which impress a certain kind of mind. The mere elaboration and intricacy of a system like the Roman Catholic theology has a kind of attractiveness by its very audacity, if by nothing else; but one thing it cannot do. It cannot produce general conviction. People educated as Catholics may cling to the system from the force of early prejudice; pious and able men, and sometimes women, educated in other communions, may become Catholics from sheer terror at the consequences of inquiring or longing for the support of a guide who professes to be infallible; but neither Popery nor any other sect convinces or tends in the smallest degree to convince thinking men who are not cowards. As soon as any theological system has been made perfectly neat and complete all round, it ceases to have the least intellectual value, and the reason is obvious. Those who really think about these things, and care more for truth than for peace of mind, know that there is a vast deal more to be said about theology than ever has been said yet; that objections have been taken which have never been removed; that questions have been asked which have never been fully answered, respecting matters of the utmost importance; and that the only religious institutions worth supporting are those which practically admit this, and which allow their officers to try in real earnest to get at the truth. Where there is a prospect of bona fide inquiry, much may be borne. Borne was not built in a day; and the theology which is to give full play to every part of man's religious faculties, and to recognize and embody the most important facts in the history of the race, must be of slow growth. The best thing that can be hoped for in any institution whatever, is that it should contain the germs of such growth, and that those germs should have room to expand. This, as matters stand, is the case with the Church of England. There is now no reason why the Bible should not be carefully examined from end to end, so that people may know what it really is. Can any reasonable person pretend to doubt that there is a case for inquiry? Can any one venture to affirm that that inquiry has been fully performed, and that any body of men in the world is at the present moment in a position to affirm precisely what the real truth is?
There is a blindness which might almost be called judicial in the conduct of those who wish to prevent the clergy from undertaking this task. There is about as much reason to fear that the clergy of the Church of England will be rash or revolutionary, as to fear that English lawyers will be hasty in interfering with English law. What will become of Christianity if all real thought about it is to be confined to men like M. Renan, and if its natural defenders and advocates are carefully gagged and handcuffed before they are allowed to answer? Clergymen writing on the Bible will be bound by every consideration, not only of decency but of prejudice, to write of it with the deepest reverence, and with the most earnest desire to secure from their readers scrupulous attention to the truths which it contains. They will also be guided in their inquiries by that experience which nothing but familiarity with the working of the religious feelings can give. Is not this better than the rude and irreverent criticisms of men who have little sympathy with religious feelings and no experience of their working? Was it wise in the French government in the last century to deprive men of letters of all political experience, and to deprive the established government of all literary support? No earthly power can stop religious inquiry. Persecution has not stopped it; and no one now can persecute. No amount of dogmatism, on the part of all the churches in the world, will have the least effect on it. The only thing that the clergy can possibly do, if they do not mean to be thrown on one side by the current, is to go with it heartily. The clergy of the Church of England have still a little time left to take that course. Their best friends will be most anxious that they should not lose their opportunity.
Important as it is to impress these conclusions on the clergy, it is at least as important to impress them on the laity. There are writers amongst us who appear to be determined to make the clergy contemptible by every resource of gentle sarcasm and eloquent denunciation. One powerful writer, who loves to display in little feats of playful ingenuity, a strength of understanding and depth of thought which might do great service to the world if it were more frequently employed on larger subjects and a greater scale, preaches almost every Saturday on the text about suffering fools—especially clerical fools—gladly, and about the inestimable blessings which accrue to the world from the large number of fools contained in it. 'Where,' he seems inclined to ask, 'would all these little ones go for their daily bread unless the Church of England had been provided as a sort of nursery, managed by things in surplices who are neither regular men nor absolute women, but who are fitted both by nature and art for the necessary, though unexciting occupation of preparing the spiritual tops and bottoms which their interesting flock requires.' Another writer, to whom nature has certainly not denied a faculty of writing, which indignation has sharpened to an extent almost morbid, appears to be indignant at the notion that a clergyman can be at once an honest man and a vigorous thinker. He is for freedom for every one except the clergy. Every sort of test is in his eyes an abomination, as far as it bears upon the laity; but that the clergy should be tied down by subscriptions and articles, and branded for dishonesty if they do not hug their chains, seems to appear to him natural and proper. Others tell us that the freedom of the clergy means the slavery of the laity; and that if the clergy are permitted to think freely, their congregations can have no security for the supply of the particular description of spiritual food which they happen to prefer. In other words, that if the physician is allowed to think, his treatment may perhaps surprise some of his patients. In short, amongst the abler part of the laity, there is a very general disposition, not only to despise the clergy, but rather to exult in the opportunity of despising them. The tone which many laymen adopt is, 'You used to be tyrants, you are now crushed under your own armour. In your fierce intolerance you imposed fetters on all the world, which now weigh upon you alone, whilst we go free. You wished to narrow and oppose the spread of knowledge. You wished us all to be bigots, and as regards yourselves, you have got your wish. Keep it now you have got it, keep your money, keep your social position, but do not presume to attempt to think or instruct. If you do we will remind you that you must be held to your bargain, and taunt you with the decrepitude which it has caused, whilst we forbid you to try to cure it.'
Though not honourable, this feeling is intelligible. It is often, though by no means always, a cloak to utter scepticism. Men averse to all religion say, 'We do not mind these fools, let them say what they will; but if the clergy really began to think, they might exercise a perceptible influence on public opinion, and this might be inconvenient to us, and interfere with our proceedings.' The slave-owners and slave-traders of America had no sort of objection to any number of sermons on the text, 'Love is the fulfilling of the law,' so long as they were conceived in the proper conventional tone; but when Theodore Parker and others began to preach about politics, they felt uneasy. The persons influenced by this feeling in our country are perhaps not numerous, and we may hope that the less ignoble motive of real dislike for the clergy and things clerical is more common and more powerful; but whatever the motive may be, this way of proceeding towards the clergy is cutting off your nose to be revenged on your face. It must be admitted that the clerical profession is not in a satisfactory state, and that it requires much reform before it can discharge its functions properly; but the profession itself is absolutely essential to the well-being of society. So long as men are apt to be engrossed by petty and immediate objects, to the exclusion of great and permanent ones, so long as they live under the impression that there is a world beyond the grave, and so long as that impression is liable to be thrown on one side by the common business of life—so long, in a word, as we are weak and more or less wicked—there will be an urgent necessity for setting apart a particular order of men whose special duty it is to remind men of their relations to their Maker and to each other. Whether they do this well or ill, whether they keep on a level with the general intellect of the age or fall behind it, whether they are honoured and respected as the representatives of the highest of human interests, or derided and scorned as the slaves of a stupid superstition, are matters of unspeakable importance. The clergy have rendered greater services to mankind, and have also made themselves more generally contemptible, than any other body of men. It is hardly possible that they should fall into general and permanent contempt, and that that of which they are the representatives should not share in it; and if this happens, human nature itself will become harder and poorer than it now is. It is thus the part of every wise man to encourage by every means in his power the mental activity of the clergy, and to do what he can to raise them to a sense of the importance of their calling, and especially to the importance of the intellectual side of it. Nothing can be more mischievous than to say to them, 'You have engaged to be fools, what right have you to think?' unless it be to say,' You have to do the dirty work of the world, and you ought not to be above your place.' To wish to blind your guide because you are yourself short-sighted is the meanest form of jealousy. If the minds of the clergy are fettered, the necessary consequence is that the laity's are fettered too; and if it turns out that by great good fortune the shackles are less effective than they were supposed or intended to be, the laity and clergy ought to rejoice over the fact in common, and use for their joint benefit the advantage provided for them. Knowledge of the truth ought to be the great object of all of us,—let us try to get at it, and encourage every one who cares to find it, instead of quarrelling over the right of one man or another, to join in the search.
Fraser’s Magazine, May 1864.