TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE HOUSE OF COMMONS AND THE CHURCH.
rEHouse of Commons is in a false position, and it is amusing to see the sort of tantrums into which, under these circumstances, in an excited state of feeling, and a para- lysed state of what physiologists call the " excito-motory nerves," Members on both sides allow themselves to get. The reason the House is in a false position is very simple. The country, very naturally and, as we think, very legiti- mately, wants to stop the extreme Ritualistic practices, but the Archbishops, who made themselves the organs of the country, unfortunately took a very indirect, indeed, in our opinion, a thoroughly disingenuous mode of giving effect to that desire. They proposed a measure giving a short and easy mode of stopping all practices inconsistent with the Rubric, but what they really wanted was to stop some practices, and only some, inconsistent with the Rubric, and to leave other practices equally inconsistent with the Rubric, just as safe as they now are. The manly course would have been to introduce directly a Bill, declaring that it is necessary to pro- hibit in the National Church of England, practices, as Mr. Gladstone puts it, giving " evidence of a design to alter, with- out the consent of the nation, the spirit or substance of the Established Church." The most flagrant of the practices generally construed by the people as having such a tendency,— some of which are unfortunately at present quite legal, and some are not,—might have been enumerated and strictly for- bidden, and the simplicity of Protestant worship, within moderate limits, might have been secured by a limitation of that too great variety in vestments still, we believe, per- fectly legal under an Ornaments Rubric which takes for its standard the obsolete customs of the second year of Edward VI. Such a proceeding as this would have been straightforward, and we do not think that even the most Non- Conformist of Nonconformists could have objected, so long as the National Church exists, to a measure tending to exclude a licence not in the least fair to Protestant members of the National Church. But the course taken was, in fact, far more worthy of the Jesuitic party at which the Bill is supposed to be aimed, than of English straightforwardness. It was pretended, as Sir William Harcourt assumed in his very clever and plausible speech of Thursday night, that the only object of the Bill was to enforce the existing law,—provisions having been nevertheless carefully introduced to avoid so great a calamity as the actual enforcement of the existing law in the wrong places. The discretion given to the Bishops was given for this very purpose. Sir William Harcourt objected parenthetically to the dispensing power given under the ninth Clause to the Bishops ; but Sir William Harcourt knows as well as the Recorder of London that without this dispensing power neither the House of Lords nor the House of Commons could venture to think of passing this Bill. That clause is the thin veil under which the promoters of the Bill conceal the true drift of the measure. They say they wish for the means of enforcing the Rubric both against illegal commissions and against illegal omissions. But they know very well that if it were enforced against illegal omissions, we should have the Church in flames in no time. So they give the Bishops a most objection- able discretion to protect the illegal omissions by a veto on the complaint. And after that, they call the Bill an impartial Bill. Why, it is positively a tricky Bill. We are as heartily opposed to the grimace, gesticulation, man-millinery, and unseasonable foppery of the party against which this Bill is really aimed, as any Englishmen well can be. But let us, at least, fight that party above-board. If they are pro- tected by the present Rubric in many of their antics,—and undoubtedly in some of them they are so protected,—un- doubtedly we ought to recognise that fact openly, and remove that legislative protection so far as we think it an injustice to the people. But it is most unworthy to profess that our object is to enforce the law against all offenders alike, and then provide, under the decent shelter of Episcopal lawn, a furtive way of escape from the en- forcement of the law against our own party. This is the true objection to the Bill of Archbishop Tait. What it professes to be, it is not, and what it is, it anxiously disguises. The simple truth of the case is this :—The Church has become greatly liberalised in a hundred directions since the time when its present Rubrics were fixed. In all these direc- tions, we—and the party which introduced this Bill, though we disavow and wholly disapprove their mode of action—wish to see the liberalisers protected, and not prosecuted. A single party has availed itself to some extent of the strict law of the Church, to some extent of breaches of that law, to move back towards Roman Catholicism. Such a move is exceedingly hard. upon the laity, who fret under it, and have no substantial remedy; indeed, we all admit that there ought to be a remedy.. But a remedy is in any fair sense really impracticable without a plain alteration of the law. It is impossible. for fair men to take the legal ground, and shriek out that the present law is being violated in one direction, unless they are honestly willing to have the present law strictly applied in all directions. We are not so willing. The House of Commons is not so willing. Those who are trying to steal a march on the High Churchmen by this disingenuous Bill are not so willing. It is all very well to cheer Sir William Harcourt, when he says that the Church is governed by an Act. of Uniformity. But what on earth is the use of an Act of Uniformity which has never for centuries produced Uniformity ? Was there uniformity in the last century between the dioceses of Bishop Hoadly and Bishop Butler ? Has there ever been uniformity in this century between such dioceses as those of the late Bishop Hamilton and 'Bishop Thirlwall ? The Act of Uniformity has been practically, in relation to the customs, we are now 'asked to discuss, a mere name. If Sir William Harcourt really proposes to make it a reality, to prescribe a form of public worship from which no one shall be allowed to deviate at all, he will break up the Church, and play second fiddle to Mr. Leathern. As Mr. Gladstone showed in the most powerful speech he has delivered for many years in the House of Commons, for centuries variety has been the custom,. whether or not uniformity has been the law. And if you are really going to adapt the custom to the law instead of the law to- the custom, you had better- disestablish and disendow at once, for- no Church could survive such an experiment.
Another powerful point was made against the Bill on Thum- day by Mr. Gathorne Hardy. Mr. Hardy was not at his ease. He is by nature a representative of the country squire, but hard fate has made him the representative of the country parson, and especially of the Oxford type of country parson. If he followed his nature, he would be a kind of glorified Mr. Pell. But having to follow his destiny, he was on Thursday night a very diluted form of Mr. Knatchbull-Hugessen. But he did make one good point against the Bill. The legality of many of the Ritualistic practices to which the English people object most is still indeterminate, and several of them are- now sub judice, and not unlikely to be decided in favour of the Ritualists. If they are so decided,—and there are some of them which are in all probability in strict accordance with the Rubric,, —this Bill, which is meant as a blow at the Ritualists, may be turned against the Low Church, and we may be in the ridiculous position,—a position in which disingenuous procedure con- stantly results,—of having forged an axe with which to out down, not our enemy's house, but our own. The case is more likely than not. A more clumsy expedient for getting rid of Ritualistic practices than a law to enforce strictly_ a Rubric centuries old, which was made to regulate the worship of half- converted Ritualists, can hardly be imagined. What is needed is a law to make clear the limites of comprehension on the Romanising side. And such a law we ought to have. No party in the House would, we believe, wish to draw too hard a line against the High Church. Mr. Gladstone indicated the proper limit, when he said that practices should be for- bidden " giving evidence of a design to alter, without the con- sent of the nation, the spirit or substance of the Established Church." But it would be the height of folly, in our eager- ness to effect this, to strike a deadly blow at the comprehen- siveness of the Church, and its comprehensiveness on the Liberal even more than on the High-Church side. Nay, we go further. We maintain, with Mr. Gladstone, that it may be a positive evil, and a very great one, to grant facilities for the sudden en- forcement of the Rubrical law even on points on which all regard the law as certain, and almost all as harmless. Take such a. point as Mr. Gladstone referred to, the separate delivery by the priest of the consecrated elements into the hands of the worshipper. There can hardly be the shadow of a doubt that this is in the most express manner enjoined in the Rubric. There can hardly be a doubt that if the Bishops refused to hear complaints of the violation of the Rubric on this point, and yet freely granted a hearing to the com- plaints of the Anti-ritualistic party, they would so offend the sense of equity even amongst people who dislike Ritualism, that they would cripple themselves and discredit their
Church. Yet, is it desirable that a parish church in which this custom has never been observed for generations, and where the people would think it superstition to conform to the Rubric, should be forced all of a sudden, by sheer fear of laying itself open to a judicial proceeding, to accom- modate itself to the law I Why, all England would regard it as a piece of folly. Yet, under the ridiculous disguise of making the Act of Uniformity a reality, this is what Sir William Harcourt and others seriously advocate.
Last, not least, the objection to the present Bill, which is founded on the fact that the Government of the country has not lent its concurrence, seems to us a final one. This is the kind of Bill for which the authority of a responsible Government is absolutely required. It is all very well to say that the two Primates, who represent the Government of the Church, have given it their adhesion. That is true. But the Primates are not in the habit of considering matters from the point of view of the laity. This is precisely a case in which we cannot but think they have adopted that somewhat sinuous and supple policy which is so often attributed to ecclesiastics ; and it is certainly a noteworthy thing that a Conservative Government, anxious as many of its members are to support the measure, is not . able to give the Bill its sanction. Nothing could betray more clearly the real ambiguousness of the measure. Again, which of the statesmen who constitute that Government are favourable, and which are supposed to be hostile to the measure ? Lord Salisbury has expressed his contemptuous aversion to it. Mr. Gathorne Hardy has attacked it vigorously. Lord Carnary on and Lord Derby have kept complete silence. The Duke of Richmond has given the Bill a not very hearty support, and Lord Cairns argued on behalf of a very different, and to our minds, a much less objectionable measure,—a measure con- taining the proposal for " neutralising a certain area of arguable ground,"—but he cannot be said to have done very much for the present Bill. On Thursday night, Mr. Cave was the only person who spoke from the Treasury Bench in its favour. Now is this the kind of Ministerial support to com- mand the confidence of the country ? Why, not one of the weightiest of the Conservative statesmen have adopted the Bill. Could it be clearer than it is that -within the Cabinet itself the measure is looked upon with as much distrust as it is by the leader of Opposition ? And yet for such aBill, so faintly and feebly recommended to Parliament, Mr. Russell Gurney asks the assent of the House of Commons 1