Dean Church

by D. C. Lathbury

The English Churchman's Library
London: A. R. Mowbray & Company, 1905

Transcribed by Dr. Elizabeth G. Melillo
AD 2004

Chapter XII

No sketch, even the slightest, of Church's life would be complete which did not mention his capacity for friendship. "One of the greatest of talents," he wrote to Dr Talbot(1) in the last year of his life, "is having friends. I wish I had employed mine as it ought to have been employed." Others, however, were aware of no shortcoming in this respect. A reserved man among acquaintances, the Dean was proportionately frank with men whom he knew and loved.

The chief continuous friendship of his life was Lord Blachford's. It began at Oxford; it ended with Lord Blachford's death, a year before his own, it was unimpaired by differences upon ecclesiastical policy. The Dean's admiration for his was equal to his affection. "I never knew so thorough a man, high in his own standard, and true to friendship, even to the breaking-point." To this he adds the highest intellectual praise he could give, that "he counted for much more than people knew in the original development of Newman's mind." In a notice of him which he wrote in the Guardian, he describes how "those who had the privilege of his friendship" were "kept up in their standard and measure of duty by the consciousness of his opinion, his judgement, his eagerness to feel with them, his fearless, though it might be reluctant, expression of disagreement."

Even more striking is a passage in a letter written shortly before Lord Blachford's death. "There are things and times for which there are no words, as when you spoke to me at Blachford about our friendship and thanked me. What could I say when I remembered the immense difference between your debt and mine, and what life and every thing would have been without all that you had done for me and been to me?"

The friendship with Newman was only one degree less close, the difference being that it was suspended for some years after 1845. But the Dean's love for the Cardinal was in no way lessened by the separation, and when, in 1864, Kingsley's unprovoked attack "roused all the old affectionate loyalty" of Newman's friends, Church was first among those who pressed forward to offer all the help and support they could give. In the following year, the two met for the first time for nearly twenty years, and in 1870 Newman came on a visit to Whatley. "You know," Church writes to Lord Blachford, "how he lets himself go when he enjoys being out in the air on a fine day, and looking at what he thinks beautiful."

In 1866, the Cardinal spent three days at the Deanery - "so bright, so kind, so affectionate, very old and soon tired, but soon refreshed with a pause of rest, and making fun of his old age …. The old smile and twinkle of the eye and bright meaning ειρωνεια are all still there, and all seemed to belong to the old days." In 1889, the Deans' eldest daughter saw the Cardinal at Birmingham, and the Dean, commenting on the letter in which she described the visit, says, "That gesture of his, raising his arm, brings back old days as much as anything."

Church never for one moment forgot how much he and the whole English Church owed to Newman. The attempts which were occasionally made, by people who set what they mistook for originality above truth, to attribute the authorship of the Oxford Movement to Hugh James Rose(2) or Alexander Knox(3) - to any one indeed so long as it was not Newman - always drew from the Dean an expression of indignant scorn. There is no better statement of Newman's work in the world, no truer estimate of its aim and temper, than that which the Dean contributed to the Guardian immediately after the Cardinal's death. This warmth of admiration, this accuracy of appreciation, were combined with an absolute conviction on the Dean's part that in the great crisis of their lives he had been right and Newman wrong; and with an equally absolute conviction that never for a moment had the Cardinal's loyalty and obedience to his own Church, even when most tried, wavered or faltered. "The thing is inconceivable to any one who ever knew him, and the mere suggestion would be enough to make him blaze forth in all his old fierceness and power."

"The friendship," says Miss Church, "preserved to the end its distinct and peculiar character. On Cardinal Newman's side, there was still the frank confidence and the reliance on sympathy and counsel which had belonged to the old Oxford days; while by those near the Dean it was always recognised that Newman was a name apart, the symbol, as it were, of a debt too great and a friendship too intimate and complex to bear being lightly spoken of, or subjected to the ordinary measures of praise or blame. Where agreement was not possible, the Dean seldom allowed himself any criticism save that which was implied by silence."

During the busiest part of his nineteen years at S. Paul's, Church was always ready to answer questions dealing with the deeper matters of religion, and his replies are uniformly characterised by the same profound sense of the smallness of the field that human knowledge can cover when it essays to unfold the nature and action of Almighty God. Thus, to a correspondent in difficulties about original sin, he insists on the necessity of distinguishing the fact from God's treatment of it. The fact is mysterious and inexplicable, but it cannot be denied. "There is a fault and vice in the race which, given time, as surely develops into actual sin, as our physical constitution, given at birth, does into sickness and physical death." On such a nature as this, God cannot look with complacency or indifference. He must condemn it because in itself it is evil. But of the divine treatment of this fact we know only a small part. For Christians "and those who may know of the gospel," certain known means of cure are provided. For others - for heathens who have never heard of the gospel, and still more for unbaptised infants "who have never exercised will or reason," we may be sure that He has provided other means of cure, which have not been revealed to us. The Dean was never weary of dwelling on the limitations of our knowledge. Revelation lifts a corner of the curtain which hangs between us and the next world, but it is only a corner, and of what goes on behind that part of the curtain which has not been lifted we are just as ignorant as before.

In another letter - to the Principal of Hertford(4)- he emphasises this point still more. "The wisest thing men can do is cultivate diligently a sense of their own hopeless ignorance, and to have the courage to say 'I cannot tell.' " Possibly religion has suffered as much from the want of this courage in apologists as from any other cause. Church's treatment of 'future punishment' is a striking example of this refusal to go beyond what is told us in scripture. He speaks of a sermon which had "worried and almost exasperated him," because it assumed that we know the exact meaning of the scripture terms used, and confused general language about the "certain and terrible punishment" of sin, with the satisfaction of definite questions about the nature and duration of that punishment. Indeed, to Church the "difficulty of finally dealing with evil" was less than the difficulty of evil itself. "How can we imagine ourselves, supposing we had omnipotence or omniscience, enduring to bring into being such un-intermitting masses of misery and sin?"

To a lady who wished to know his thoughts upon the matter of our Lord's sympathy with pain, but took what she must be supposed to have thought the necessary precaution of stipulating that she "must not have the vagueness and platitude," the Dean replied that nothing that he had ever thought about the matter would bear such a test. "Without knowledge, it is difficult not to be vague, and without discovery and the possibility of discovery, difficult to avoid platitudes." But he gives the only real answer: that our Lord did suffer human pain we know because we have been told. But to enquire how, and still more why He suffered, is both idle and hopeless. What is the use of asking what we cannot know? Human beings have to choose between two sets of facts - those which witness to the goodness and love of God, and those which point in the opposite direction. "You must by necessity trust one set of appearances; which will you trust? Our Lord came among us not to clear up the perplexity, but to show us which side to take." And in one most striking passage the Dean suggests that perhaps on the cross our Lord himself shared in this perplexity. "One of the thoughts which pass sometimes through our minds about the sufferings of the Cross is what could be the necessity of such suffering? What was the use of it? How, with infinite power, could not its ends have been otherwise attained? Why need He have suffered? Why could not the Father save Him from that hour? Did that thought, in the limitations and 'emptying' of the Passion, pass through His mind too?"

Of the apparition of the "Higher Criticism," that grave and disturbing controversy which came to the front in the last year of Church's life, we hear but little in the letters. But the attitude that the Dean would have taken up in regard to it may be guessed from a letter to Lady Welby, who had sent him a pamphlet in which she had charged the clergy with keeping silence on this subject when they ought to have spoken.

"When the ordinary mass of us," says the Dean, "have to choose between speaking of the bible as the Church has hitherto done, and the new language of criticism, it is fair to ask 'What does the criticism say?'" And then he points out how strangely small the crop of "clear, certain, convincing" answers has been. Criticism does not speak with the assurance of physical science, nor do critics write with the modesty and hesitation of the great scientists. If the attack on the received beliefs about the Old Testament had been conducted in the same temper in which Darwin assailed the received views about the origin of species, the new criticism would have made its way more quickly and with less friction. There was no fear, indeed, that Church would treat the question lightly. He was well aware that the new perplexities called for courage and honesty. He only pleaded that they also called for patience - the patience which belongs to the intellect as well as that which belongs to the intellect as well as that which belongs to conduct. Incompetent handling of these perplexities could do nothing but harm, and a man who is conscious that he has not the means of examining them properly "ought to leave them alone," much more to "abstain from pressing them on others."

More significant still is a letter to Liddon, written in the excitement that followed the publication of Lux Mundi. That excitement, in Church's opinion, was the natural result of the omission of churchmen to prepare to meet these "anxious and disturbing" questions effectively. They had left them "to be dealt with by a cruel and insolent curiosity, utterly reckless of results, and even enjoying the pleasure of affronting religion and religious faith." So far Church could go with Liddon. But at this point they parted company. Liddon could not see - perhaps we should rather say did not live to see - how inevitable it was that these difficulties should arise. That they should have presented themselves, not to arrogant and conceited experts, but to deep-thinking and devout Catholic believers, seemed to him a problem that defied explanation. To Church, on the other hand, it was only evidence of the need of some constructive handling of the questions - What the Bible really is, and How it came to be.

Only a few of his letters deal with politics. "I am a Conservative by instinct and feeling," he writes in 1865, "but there is at once a negativeness and barrenness, and also a fierceness, about the soi-distant Conservative party which is not pleasant or hopeful." He had the highest esteem for the moral side of Mr Gladstone's character, and he viewed with intense dislike the kind of hostility which that side aroused, especially in London. "Or all the evil symptoms about," he writes in 1880, "this incapacity to perceive Gladstone's real nobleness, and to keep in check the antipathies created by his popular enthusiasm and his serious religiousness, is one of the worst. It is a bad thing to have a great man before a nation and that a great minority in hit should not be able to recognise him."

But this esteem did not in the least affect his judgement of particular aspects of Mr Gladstone's policy. "I have tried hard," he writes in 1882, in reference to Mr W. E. Forster's resignation, "to believe that he (Gladstone) has been right. But it seems to me that he is blind to Irish insolence and Irish keen sense of their winning game." And in 1886 he writes of Mr Gladstone's Home Rule Bill: "Whether he is right or not, there is something to me unspeakably pathetic in his solitude. And it he goes I am sure I shall not like the conjunction of Lord Hartington and Chamberlain better. Perhaps he is right, and the via salutis may open out of the thick of disaster. But I can't see it; and for the second time in my life I have to try as well as I can to unite unabated admiration with the impossibility of moral or intellectual agreement."

Miss Church gives a comparatively large space to the letters written while Church was abroad in 1847. An absence from England of nearly twelve months was a welcome relief after eight years of strenuous conflict and seeming defeat. His time was spent partly in Greece and partly in Italy, with two interposed visits, one to Constantinople and one to Corfu. The Greek letters of 1847 are so good in themselves that the reader can only regret that the Swiss and Italian letters of Church's later life did not run to equal length. In 1847, his uncle, Sir Richard Church, was one of the leading members of the Greek Opposition, and on reaching Athens, Church at once found himself "in the focus of a political row," which his Oxford experience helped him to understand.

He gives a vivid description of the debates in the Chamber, "remembered not so much by this or that motion lost or won, but by the skill and success on particular occasions of this or that προμαχος ," of the endless visits where the Opposition members met to settle the votes the Minister has bought, the national property he had paid away in return for them, or the sort of poison that had been used to get an inconvenient witness out of the way; of all the curious contrasts of "a half-civilised society in which the circulation and verification of intelligence goes on mainly by the same imperfect means that it did in the days of Thucydides." Then we have a visit to Marathon, seen "late in the evening, the time of day of the battle itself, under a dark, stern, stormy sky," and the experience of being "benighted on the field, with the wind rising and the sea breaking on the beach where the Persian ships with Hippias had moored."

After Greece comes Constantinople, where, in 1847, Church exactly gauged the worth of much that he heard then, and of much that has been written since, about the Turkish improvement. "I cannot help fancying that the meaning of this is that they have been bemystified into wearing tight trousers contrary to the nature of their legs, and drinking wine contrary to their religion; that they have been partly persuaded and partly frightened into moderation in the use of the bowstring and the scimitar; that their Oriental admiration of the effects of machinery has very much overcome their jealousy of foreigners, and that the peace which is kept in the East by the West has enabled them to indulge their taste this way to a considerable extent." The foundations of his love for the Divina Commedia were laid or strengthened by his stay in Italy, during which the "little well-worn volume" had been never out of reach, and had been laid on Dante's tomb at Ravenna. "It is filled with marginal notes and jottings, bearing witness to its constant use, and to the associations which had grown up during the journey round numberless passages of the poem."

It was fifteen years before Church had his next foreign holiday. His admirable faculty of description comes out in his familiar letters as much as in his writings. This time Grenoble, the Grand Chartreuse, and Paris supply the material. He notes with delight the brightness of the Champs Elysées, but he notes also on what ground all these pleasure seekers were treading. "There in that Place de la Concorde, all so gay and beautiful, one can put one's foot exactly on the spot where stood the guillotine of Louis XVI, and there, on the other side of the obelisk, whence Marie Antoinette might have looked along the avenue of horse-chestnuts up to the Central Pavilion of the Tuilleries, one October morning, for the last time." He spends a day at Meaux, and finds the cathedral a singularly pure and beautiful geometrical decorated church, "far better than one expected of a cathedral of which Bossuet had been bishop, for somehow there seems a fitness that it should be a grand Renaissance or Louis XIV building."

He did not see Rome till the spring of 1882, and his feeling the first day "was of hatred such as I never felt to London or Paris. I had the feeling that it is the one city in the world, besides Jerusalem, one which we know that God's eye is fixed, and that He has some purpose or other about it - one can hardly tell whether of good or evil…. I cannot tell you how this kind of uncertainty about what the real meaning of the whole thing has tormented and vexed me." Later on, however, he found the old churches, with their old columns and pavements, "most delightful," but when he stops at Florence he notes that there is something about it which to him "is more attractive than any of the great places where we have been, Genoa, Perugia, Siena, Rome.

The next year, he had "a most delightful three days of Dantesque and Fratesque topography." His itinerary, with its recurrent references to the Commedia, is very characteristic. "The Casentino, you know, is the upper valley of the Arno from its source to where, 'turning up its nose' at Arezzo (Purgatorio, xiv) , it doubles back on itself round the great ridge of the Prato Magno (Purgatorio, v.) Dante knew it well. He has shown how he remembered it and all the region in Buonconti's story (Purgatorio, v), whose body was swept away by the fierce Archiano torrent which comes down from the Eremo of Camaldoli into the Arno in the tempest which followed the battle. Dante delighted in the 'green hills and cool brooks' (Inferno, xxx) as much as he hated the inhabitants (Purgatorio, xiv.)

1.  Now Bishop of Winchester.

2.  In a letter of 1888, he speaks of "an attempt to raise H. J. Rose on a pedestal to the disadvantage of Newman," and goes on: "Rose was a considerable personage, but entirely incapable of kindling enthusiasm or stirring dead bones. He protected Newman at his beginnings with countenance and sympathy, and helped him greatly: but he could not have either started or controlled the Movement."

3.  See an article signed R. W. C. in The Guardian of September 7, 1887.

4.  Dr Boyd

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