TOPICS OF THE DAY.
THE HOUSE OF COMMONS ON CLERICAL SUB- SCRIPTION.
IT is a spectacle of some interest to watch the House of Commons gradually accepting the necessity of an impend- ing ecclesiastical reform. The struggle in the minds of the members between what they wish to think as representatives of a half-cultivated electoral class, what they do think as men of intelligence, and what their sympathy with personal friends in the clerical order leads them to desire, gives rise to a pecu- liar tone of subdued and suspensive political opinion which really marks not lifelessness, but a very active though silent decomposition of the old modes of thought. You see the shadow of the coming change most in the effort which the thinking Conservatives make to retain, and invent new apologies for, their old views. This process was visible enough during the remarkable debate on Tuesday on Mr. C. Buxton's motion to relax the present conditions of clerical subscrip- tion to the Articles and Prayer Book of the Church of England. For a debate on so critical a question, in which the leading men on both sides expressed their views frankly and fully, it might, to a mere reader of it, be considered tame. But, in truth, the studied moderation of tone was clearly the result, not of passiveness of mind, but of the state of partial solution into which the convictions of statesmen on this subject are beginning to fall. Scientific men tell us that it is the faint rays of light,—the violet rays —which effect most of the chemical changes in nature, though the red do much more to attract the eye and illuminate the world. So it seems to be in political questions ; the light, faint as it seems, which first touches them is really doing the most important part of the work, dissolving the structural prejudices of nature and habit, setting free, as the chemists say, a certain amount of intellect that was formerly latent or crystallized in traditional modes of thought, and so prepar- ing the way for discussions in which the outlines of practical conviction will become more luminous and distinct after the organic changes of opinion have been matured.
The clear insight of all parties into this attitude of the ques- tion made the debate of Tuesday night momentous though not exciting. Both the mover and seconder of the motion, Mr. C. -Buxton and Mr. Grant Duff, spoke with that studied modera- tion with which men usually speak who know that they have an irresistible ally in the best spirit of their time,—in the crowd of involuntary impressions which are perpetually seek- ing recognition from the reluctant minds of their opponents. 31r. Charles Buxton's speech, easy, graceful, and convincing, betrayed his secret confidence that lie was sailing both with
wind and tide—both with the highest intellect and highest faith of the day on his own side. He gave clear and calm expression to thoughts the force and drift of which his oppo- nents were in vain endeavouring to resist, and they listened musingly, like men who were groping in their minds for an answer to difficulties they found it impossible to ignore. But the most instructive speeches were those which professed to be conservative. Except Mr. Newdegate—whose mind, at least for ecclesiastical purposes, has been preserved as effectually from either decay or growth by the stimulating influence of the Roman Catholic controversy, as the small intestines which one sees bottled in spirits in an anatomical museum—there was not a single speaker against the proposed relaxation who did not evince hesitation and grope for an excuse. Of course the most impressive speech in every way was that of the Chancellor of the Exchequer. He avowed his existing opinion that a national Church, whose only principle of unity is a common faith, can only be held together by a subscription to articles of faith, but he did not even pre- tend to deny that the disaffection existing among the culti- vated youth of England towards the Church is to be ascribed to a difficulty in accepting the subscriptions now demanded. Mr. Gladstone, however, holds this phenomenon to be purely tem- porary, and thinks he can explain it in a manner which will re- lieve us of all fear lest it should continue. It is due, he says, to the severe blow which the great Romanist secession, headed by Dr. Newman, administered to the confidence of cultivated English- men, and especially of young men at the University, in the theology of our national Church. For a whole generation, at least, this great fact has undermined the docility of commencing theologians, but so soon as the eddy of sceptical thought caused by it has passed away, we may hope, says the Chancellor of the Exchequer, to see a return of loyalty in the younger intellects to the formularies of our Anglican divinity. Now, we confess this view seems to us scarcely worthy of Mr. Gladstone's general compitehensiveness of thought. How can so subtle a thinker feel satisfied with referring phenomena of this kind to ft.—, manito secession, and not also feel that the Newman-ff.: secession was itself one of the most striking symptoms of the unrest for which he wished to account ? °What could illus- trate more powerfully the necessity for some wider mental range than is now permitted in the Church of England, than this great failure of its greatest formal theologian's attempt to find a tenable basis of thought in the exact letter of its formularies, and his consequent exodus from our Church in search of a more logical communion? No doubt Dr. Newman's movement unsettled, as Mr. Gladstone tells us, the mind of the Church, and broke the confidence of the younger generation in her formal theology—but why ? Because as a dogmatic system our theology was proved inade- quate by that master mind. If the subtle, comprehensive, and imaginative intellect of Father Newman failed to find a coherent theological system for our Church, we may be sure it will be given to none to succeed who look to the systematic elaboration of dogma as their end. The day for that species of pretension on the part of our National Church is passed away, and if, as we trust., she is yet destined to play a great part in the history of Christianity, it must be left to less systematic, less logical, less purely intellectual, but yet much deeper and more spiritual theologians, like Mr. Maurice for example, to trace freely the lines of connection between the cardinal creeds of our Church and the urgent wants of modern Englishmen. We must cease to enforce on every intellect which embraces and wishes to spread these great Christian truths, the petty dogmatic minutite of an age which had little clear insight into the distinction between the letter and the spirit, or between the truth of the revelation and the accuracy of all the external details of it. If our English Church is to be great, it will never again be for the complete- ness and harmony of its intellectual dogma, but for the depth and breadth' of its personal trust in its living head; and nothing can hamper it more seriously in its natural work than to apply once more rigidly to its constitution that elaborate dogmatic idea which Dr. Newman tried to find in its formularies, and proved to be wanting there.
But if Mr. Gladstone's mode of getting rid of the practical difficulty was, as it seems to us, eminently unsatisfactory for his purpose, that of Mr. Buxton's other opponents was still more so; for it consisted in admitting, indeed, the tem- porary disinclination of cultivated men to subscribe the elaborate Anglican formulm, but asserting that somehow or other this would pass away again, as similar tendencies have passed away before. Lord Robert Cecil sneered at Mr. Butler - Johnstone's and Mr. Walter Morrison's three years' experience of Oxford life, and compared it with the 200 years during which these subscriptions have been enforced. Mr. Dis- raeli characteristically comforted his audience by remind- ing them of the infidelity of the days of Queen Anne, when unbelief not only had a chance of attain- ing the mitre, but frequently did attain it,—seemingly unaware that ;he spiritual and moderate character of the present difficulties is the best possible proof that they require something more than a moral revolution to sweep them away ; while worthy Mr. Henley candidly faced the issue, and avowed that, for his part, he would prefer a stupid but pious clergy that could swallow the old formularies cheerfully without taking distinctions. Apologies these for letting ill alone which will probably not recommend themselves cordially to thinking men !
But there were two points urged by the Conservatives which deserve a more telling answer than they received. First, it was said by Mr. Gladstone that there would be no security for the English laity, no certainty as to the doctrine or the worship, without a law of clerical subscription, and that even a clergy dependent on the will of their congregations would be a less evil than a clergy limited in their theology only by their own intellectual caprice. Surely the Chancellor of the Exchequer does not regard the use of the Liturgy itself as a trifling limitation on the theological convictions of the clergy. Does any one suppose for a moment that a disbeliever, say in the divinity of Christ, could honestly use the Liturgy, or that the necessity of subscription to Articles would be any fetter on one who did not feel the limitation in this respect imposed by the Liturgy itself? And if that is not sufficient safeguard for him, what does he say to the answers so solemnly given in the serviec for the Ordination of Priests and Deacons, which certainly guarantee not only a substantive Christian faith, but a confes- sion of general agreement with the Church of England quite sufficient for any law which does not regard suspicion as the natural attitude of mind towards professing clergymen, and bestow its confidence only on reiterated oaths ? Mr. Buxton nevt,s proposed to touch any of these cardinal securities for tt Anglican faith of Anglican clergymen. We may be per- :wetly confident that a clergyman who would not hesitate to use the Liturgy without believing it, and to give the prescribed answers in the two Ordination S'..rvices without knowing that they expressed his own faith, would not hesitate at any number of obligations, however complex. Indeed, the more you multiply mere forms of this kind the more temptation there is to suppose that they are mere forms.
But next, it is objected that no good can result from the abolition of these suberiptions,to the Articles and Prayer Book for clergymen, if these Articles and this Prayer Book are still to remain the standard of Anglican faith. It is not sub- scription to the Articles, said Lord Robert Cecil, that the real object of attack ; it is the Articles themselves. We reply that no doubt the ohjeetion does lie to any absolute confession of faith on the numberless small points determined by the Articles themselves. No one affects to deny this. There is exactly the same difference between signing the Articles or giving unfeigned assent and consent to everything con- tained in the Prayer Book, and accepting those formularies as the theological standard of the Church, that there is be- tween pledging your private honour to obey the English law:, and living under the liability to punishment if you do not obey them. The simple fact is, that there are hundreds of subordinate dogmas in the Articles and Prayer Book about which nobody cares, and with respect to which no clergyman would be either watched or questioned if once subscription were dispensed with. Take, for instance, the last Article, which confesses that it is right to take an oath when required in a court of justice. Is it not monstrous to suppose that a clergyman who had a crotchet on the subject would be prac- tically in danger of a prosecution for heresy, if he held and preached that an oath was inconsistent with Christian faith ?. Or, if he were, would that small risk be any stain on his conscience, like the necessity of pledging his honour to an article from which he dissented ? Or, suppose a man objecting to the use of the word " accursed" in the Eighteenth Article, or to the definition of the visible Church in the Nineteenth as inaccurate, or to the " Book of Proverbs " in the list of canonical books, or to the statement in the Ninth Article that " the lust of the flesh, called in Greek phronema sark,os' which some do expound the wisdom, some sensuality, some the affection, some the desire of the flesh, is not subject to the law of God," or to a hundred other incidental dogmatic statements touching only the minor points of systematic divinity ; is it rational to suppose that he would risk anything in entering the Church and accepting its standards, in spite of having a different opinion or no opinion at all,—which is the usual state of the case,—about such matters ? We could undertake to pick out with ease a hundred minor dogmas in a couple of hours, on which no cultivated layman of the present day ever had or thought of having a con- viction at all, and with regard to which, as Dr. Johnson said, " we do not know, and perhaps, no man shall ever know, whether they are true or not." Again, with regard to the pre- sent absurd subscription of unfeigned assent and consent to all and everything contained in the Book of Common Prayer, is it nothing to set a scrupulous clergymen free from all imagi- nary self-identification with the imprecatory psalms ? May there not be many a man who would feel scrtiples in giving his unfeigned assent and consent, whatever that may mean, to the assertion that he should be blessed who took the children of Babylon and threw them against the stones ? In short, it is as Mr. Butler-Johnstone so forcibly put the matter in his very admirable speech, that the great ecclesiastical leaders uniformly interpret these subscriptions as meaning nothing more than a general confession of the cardinal points of the Church's creed, and that policy and good faith alike require, that when asking for such a confession from men whose minds ought to be singularly delicate on such matters we should not even allow it to be diluted with hundreds of formal admissions, which are said to mean nothing at all, but do on that very account weaken the force of the greater confession, and tend to reduce it to the level
of their own insignificance. Lord Robert Cecil and his friends would do well to acquaint themselves rather more thoroughly with what the articles and the Prayer Book really contain, before assuming that to abolish the subscription to them would have no effect, so long as they remained the law of the Church. Laws on a myriad points wholly uninter- esting to us in the present day, would be simply obsolete laws, of the very existence of which no one would be conscious. But subscription to such Articles of faith is an obstacle to ordination that any sensitive mind must feel. Is it desirable
that in choosing men to preach the Christian revelation we should make it a condition sine qua non that they should first have gulped down a multitude of assertions, the truth or false- hood of many of which no other conceivable circumstances would ever even have induced them in this life to con- sider at all ? and that they should also swallow some equally insignificant which have to be explained away, or looked at " as parts of a whole," or brought into immediate connection with others of a different tendency, or, in fact, artificially treated, in order not to be explicitly re- pudiated? Look at our theological standards as laws of the Church, and they would only be brought to bear where the need of law is felt ; look at them as demanding the individual fealty and pledged faith of the clergy, and on every doctrinal pin's point there hangs a doubt as to the personal morality of twenty thousand Christian gentlemen. Dr. Stanley must have felt that in reason, policy, and justice, he remained, after the House of Commons had had their say, in victorious possession. of the field.