4 JULY 1931, Page 26

The Confessions of a Christian

THE Cambridge Press has apparently a design in publishing such a book as this by Mr. Webling, for it has been preceded by others similar in kind ; notably that little classic, The Small Years, by Mr. Hendon, which was reviewed here recently. In an age of kaleidoscopic shiftings in religion, science, and social and economic life, certain personal records such as these books offer are likely to be of increasing value. These quiet accounts by quiet individuals of their own affairs .—deeds, thoughts, and observations—will stand up hire the marked posts by which a surveyor is able to measure a tortuous tract of land. They will throw a light on our present day as

the Paston letters, and Pepys' and Evelyn's diaries, now throw upon times past.

The particular value of Mr. Webling's book is that it 'describes sincerely and sensitively the journey of a parsoa through the muddied waters of religious life during the last years of the Nineteenth and the first years of the Twentieth Centuries. The author claims to be of a sceptical nature, but his book reveals him—probably unconsciously—as a faithful being, whose temperament destines him to be a spiritual lieutenant rather than a captain. For his life-story proves to be the quest and the discovery of one moral and religious support after another. At no period of his career was he happy to be isolated, in a promethean position of defiance. That he found himself in this position caused him profound distress, and he cast about for means to rid himself of the unfamiliar and unwelcome freedom. He even went so far as to explore the " scientific " discoveries of the Society for Psychic Research.

• He began life in a social environment from which clergymen of the Church of England are not usually recruited. During his childhood he gained inside knowledge of the Nonconformist persuasion, and was content with this spiritual support during his twelve years as a clerk in a wholesale grocer's office. During that time, however, he discovered the joy of literature and the power of scholarship. Ile girded against the drudgery of his clerk's work, and longed for a life of freedom in the country. He believed that the only way to achieve this trinity of bliss was by becoming a country vicar.

He set about the task with fervour, studying after his day's work. As is so often the case with boys who win scholarships under such adverse social conditions, he undermined his nervous health, and as a result of the breakdown seems to have retained a certain timidity of address that entirely belies the fundamental honesty and vigour of his mind. Recovering, however, from the breakdown, he followed his purpose, and at last was ordained. His account of the interview with the Bishop who was to perform that sacred office is instructive. The Bishop inquired as to his parentage and his financial position. The answer caused the Bishop to raise his eyebrows,

and there was a considerable pause before the aspirant-was accepted.

"Pondering that interview now, I am bound to smile at its oddity. Had I approached the Bishop as a scion of some important family, a finished product of Eton and Christchurch, he would have been perfectly at his ease. It was strange that he should have felt a little hesitation at the thought of ordaining one belonging to the humbler ranks of society, for the members of which his Master Showed so marked a predilection." That comment is very characteristic of Mr. Webling, and reveals the salient points of his personality so far as it shows itself in this book. We see a very likeable being, .whose religious preoccupation does not prevent him from having a gentle and unprejudiced love for men and women. ' It gives him, however, a sense of detachment that enables him -to sub- jugate the heartache, the humiliation, the despair, which are so often concomitants of an impulsive love for humanity. By the alchemy of his faith he converts these unpleasant elements into-a bittersweet humour; a sample of which I have shown in the quotation above. -

Having got so far, the young priest found that his goal was still a long way ahead. Not yet for him was the life contempla- tive, dreaming in rural peace. Persuaded by a fellow-initiate, he took a curacy in a large church in a seaport. His friend was an Anglo-Catholic, a man of passionate faith. Under the influence of this commanding personality Mr. Webling laboured for twelve years, during that time accepting the practical proofs of the efficacy of the ritual of the Catholic faith. But then the _friend departed, leaving the lieutenant to explore alone the arctic waters of the Higher Criticism and what is known in the Christian world as "Modernism."

Mr. Webling was still floundering in those icy latitudes when he obtained the living of an ancient parish in East Anglia. . Sitting in his fifteenth-century rectory, gazing out on his Norman church, he felt the thousand years of English rural history come to life ; a recession of bucolic ploughings and harvestings, births and burials, with a distant backgroUnd of Plantagenet banners, Tudor roses, and the grey waves of Puritanism. But this pageant was spoiled for him by his doubts about the truth of the dogmas which hitherto had sup- ported him. Without those supports, the story of mankind— so poignantly displayed in that museum-piece village— became a meaningless tragedy that drove him almost to madness. Unlike the brave pagan, Thomas Hardy, he saw in that story no record of the triumph of man over the in- difference of a destiny evolving to some other purpose possibly alien to human well-being. Mr. Webling still—for such had become his life-habit—had to find something, a creed, a ralionak, which must convince him of the Universal Good; -a conviction which that uncommentated tale of Man had failed to give him.

It is inexplicable to me that with the fact of mankind before him ; the very flesh and blood and will, mystery of mysteries, • he could find his mind so obsessed and shaken by the conflict of theories ; theories ancient and dogmatic warring with theories recent and iconoclastic. Still more inexplicable is it that with this life of man centrally before him, the very cor cortlium of being, he should grope about amongst the shadowy edges of the field of human life, seeking a meagre psychic food there, while such riches lay at his feet ; the riches of common deeds and thoughts, each one a proof of spiritual power, a proof more hearty in divine or satanic force—call it what you wish—than creeds, gospels, or scientific formulae. But this inability to appreciate Mr. Webling's central problem does not prevent me from enjoying a beautiful book, written with tenderness, spiritual insight, and a manly courage.