Project Canterbury

Dean Church
by D. C. Lathbury

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

Transcribed by Dr Elizabeth G. Melillo
AD 2001

Chapter VI
Life at Whatley

Dear as Oxford was to Church, as the place to which he "owed all that had most enriched and deepened his life," what he loved was the Oxford of the past rather than of the present. The dislike which the comparison bred in him was reinforced in 1850 by his engagement to Miss Helen Frances Bennett, the daughter of a Somersetshire squire and parson, and the niece of his earliest friend, Dr Moberly. The early Tractarians had undergone much searching of heart before they could make up their mind to "rat," as Hurrell Froude had been wont to call the exchange - by a priest - of the celibate for the married state. But Church was not the man to forget that each ideal has its place in the composite life of the clergy. Long afterwards, we shall find him facing the possible abandonment of position and assured income as calmly as though he had neither wife nor children to care for. He could enjoy - and no one could have enjoyed more fully - what, in his farewell sermon at Whatley he called, "the choicest and abounding blessings which God has to give" without for a moment permitting them to stand in the way of a duty if once it should become plain. With marriage in view he accepted, in 1852, the living of Whatley, in Somersetshire, and was ordained priest. The care of a little village of two hundred people must have seemed the grave of any ambition that his friends had ever entertained for him. But Church threw himself into the life of a parish priest with the same simple directness which had marked his life at Oriel and was later to mark his life at Saint Paul's.

The duties were unfamiliar, the solitude of a single-handed cure was at first depressing. But the work was there to be done and he was there to do it, and this was a combination which here, as elsewhere, called forth all his energies. He was a daily visitor at the parish school; he started a night-school; he drew the children round him out of school by paper chases and long walks to provide objects for wondering examination in his microscope; he took an interest in the every-day life of the cottagers - their work, their children, their gardens, their pigs. He would go and sit by the bedside of the sick, watching with them until the dreaded "turn of the night" had passed. He could be summoned to the dying by the sound of pebbles thrown against his window. It used to be a saying that "a man dursn't any longer beat his wife, else the parson would be down on him." And it was the parson who was always sent for to stop a drunken brawl, "and, if need be, to step in to part the combatants." The intellectual interests of his life at Whatley were served partly by his contributions to the Guardian and the Saturday Review and partly by his correspondence. The extracts from the latter given in the Life and Letters are evidence, if no other were forthcoming, of the extent and variety of his pursuits. There is no trace in them of the remote country parish except it be in the greater thoroughness of treatment which is born of leisure. Fortunately one of his correspondents was Dr Asa Gray, the American botanist.

Letters written to people abroad naturally go into more detail and take less for granted than those meant for reading in England, and Dr Gray was the recipient of much of Church's thoughts upon public affairs. Church confided to him his fears about the changes made in Oxford in 1854 - changes to which he has "been on the whole a well-wisher," but about which all the same he feels nervous. "Say what people will, Oxford has turned out more highly cultivated thought, thought which acts with greater power on the country, both in the purely intellectual and in the practical order of life, than any other English body; and if it should be spoilt by clumsy doctoringÉ" He welcomes a theory about the distribution of species, which Gray had put forward, as "being the one to take, instead of Agassiz's, which simply amounts to taking species as they are found, without any inquiry as to their possible previous history." And then he adds, with that keen sense of the wonder of things which never for a moment deserted him, and more than any thing else perhaps ministered to his unfailing freshness of mind, "But the strangeness of creation, whether in many distant centres or one, whether by an individual or a pair, or by a whole family at once, seems equally overwhelming to our present faculties and thoughts." A few months later - the Origin of Species had been published in the interval - he recalls, "the once famous Vestiges," and his thinking at the time that people answered it often "more like old ladies than philosophers." It is "wonderful 'shortness of thought' to treat the theory itself" (of Evolution) "as incompatible with ideas of a higher and spiritual order."

In a letter written a year later, he repeats this criticism, and goes on, "but I am afraid that this is the general way of thinking among religious people: and so the theory does not get fair discussion, either for or against, because there is on both sides an irresistible tacit reference to other interests in the minds of disputants." He speaks with the same wise calmness of the reception give to Essays and Reviews. "It seems to me, with many good and true things in it, to be a reckless book; and several of the writers have not got their thoughts and theories into such order and consistency as to warrant their coming before the world with such revolutionary views. But there has been a great deal of unwise panic, and unjust and hasty abuse; and people who have not an inkling of the difficulties which beset the questions are for settling them in a summary way, which is perilous for every one."

The American Civil War has its share in this part of the correspondence, but unfortunately it is referred to only in two letters, one at the beginning and one at the end of the conflict. In the first, Church takes the view then common in English society but takes it on a very different ground. He is "an optimist" about secession, not, as many people were, because it would make the United States weaker, but because he was inclined to think that "it is a case where separation, when once accepted, may make both parts greater." In the second letter he views the result on its bright side. "Slavery is destroyed. I cannot say that beforehand I should have said that this was the way in which it had best be destroyed. But the thing is done and I earnestly trust that its consequences may be controlled in the right direction." English politics also appear from time to time. Writing under the impression of coming change which was so general at the time of Lord Palmerston's death, he describes himself as "a Conservative by instinct and feeling." But he puts his finger on what then were, and have been more than once since, the characteristic faults of the Conservative party - negativeness, barrenness, fierceness.

When Mr Gladstone came into power in 1868, he offered Church a Canonry at Worcester, but in the Guardian Church had defended by anticipation the policy of the new Government in reference to the Irish Church, and had then made up his mind that he would have to give some proof that he had not been writing for the good things such writing might bring him. The terms in which the offer was put to him did indeed make it "hard to say 'No,' " but still "No" was said. "I found it hard to bear the idea of being held up as the example of the lucky High Churchman, who managed just at the right moment to pronounce in favour of what two-thirds of his brethren consider an anti-Church policy in Ireland." His acceptance of the policy in question did not blind him to its drawbacks. "There will be a great deal of hardship and some wrong; and the immediate effect will probably be imperceptible in reconciling Ireland to her elder sister. But it is not an easy thing for a nation to clean its hands, and I am willing to make much allowance for the probable imperfection and clumsiness of the process."

Disestablishment in Ireland turned men's thoughts, for a time, to Disestablishment in England, and there is a great interest in the comparison between what Church said on this question in 1870 and what he said in 1850.In the earlier year he wrote in the Christian Remembrancer an article on the Relations between Church and State, the last paragraph of which runs thus: "But there in one contingency which in the present state of the world comes unbidden into out thoughts. It may be the fate of the Church throughout the world to sink again, as regards the State, into the condition of a sect, as she began to sink from being the associate - honoured or disliked or reluctantly acknowledged - of Governments, to be ignored by them as a mere school of thought, or watched as a secret society, or legalised as a harmless or even a useful association. Something like it has happened abroad and it may follow here. But do not let us use words lightly about it. If it comes we may turn it to account, as it has been turned to account abroad. But before it came the Church abroad shrank from no sacrifice, which she could consider lawful, to avert it; she well knew what she would lose by it, whatever might be its compensations. And surely the Church here would be inexcusable if she courted it or needlessly let it come to pass. This great nation of Englishmen is committed to her trust; if she cannot influence them, what other body has a more reasonable hope? If they will break away from her or cast her off, let it be clearly their fault, not hers or that of her clergy."

In the twenty years that followed, Church had come to see more strongly the case on the other side. The example of France had shown that a Church might be so set upon averting Disestablishment as to consider lawful some sacrifices which she would have done better to shrink from. He had not, indeed, changed his estimate of the consequences of Disestablishment. "I think," he writes to Asa Gray in 1870, "it will be an evil thing for the present generation at least; for certainly no machinery that I can see could take the place of the Church in the country districts; and, with all their innumerable shortcomings, the English clergy, as a whole, have worked well and hard for the poor and helpless, who would be badly off without them." But he sees more plainly than before the growing divergence between the unchanging Church and the changing State. "I think sometimes that we are nearer than we know to a great break-up. The difficulty is beginning to be more visible every day, of reconciling a Church with great privileges with the general set of modern policy; of combining a National Church with a Church having the raison d'être of a religious society, believing in a definite religion and teaching it. Generosity, consciousness of our ignorance and liability to prejudice, and honest tolerance, may keep things together for a time; but tolerance is apt to take the form of mere indifference or absence of convictions; consciousness of ignorance requires more knowledge than most people have; and generosity sometimes is merely making free with what other people value and you don't care for, and what calls itself by that name is often a very questionable quality. So, one of these days I expect that we shall find ourselves put into the position of having to choose between making the Church co-extensive with what can be called the religion of the whole nation, or giving up our present position(1)."

As commonly happens, the approach of this "break-up" has been far slower than Church expected. What he said of the ecclesiastical situation in 1870 may still be said of it in 1912. But the course that he thought events would follow is the course they have followed in fact, and the choice that he expected Churchmen would one day have to make is more than ever the choice which lies before them. The only difference between the two periods is that a name has now been found for a process which in 1870 had not been finally labelled. Whereas men then spoke of making the Church co-extensive with the nation, they now speak of making it Undenominational.

To none of his correspondents does Church seem to have written so fully and regularly as to Dr Asa Gray. But there are passages in almost all his letters of this period which equal in interest those from which I have been quoting. One note which runs through many of them is the limitations of human knowledge and the imperfection of man's realisation of them. "The way in which people go on spinning arguments, " he writes to James Mozley, in 1855, "as if the whole of the invisible world was as easy to be understood as the theory of the steam engine, has long been one of my standing wondersÉ. The idea of perfect and absolute knowledge, which is involved in so much of what is said and taught on all sides, becomes daily more unendurable to me."

When Essays and Reviews appeared, Church had been chiefly anxious that it should not be answered hastily or violently. "In noticing a book of this kind it is a question whether any thing but a tolerably complete answer does not give advantage to the other sideÉ For any effect to be produced, the main things said must be met face to face and their real value and significance duly measured." Nine years later he notes the "direct result of the extravagant measures which were taken years ago," in the outcry against Dr Temple's appointment to the Bishopric of Exeter. It is "most unjust and in its violence very discreditableÉ. We have not so many great names on the religious side that we can afford to see a man like Pusey, who is a man after all to rank with religious leaders of a high mark in all ages, casting away all the lessons of a lifetime and countenancing the worst violence of a zealot like __ .. Seeing a man, learned and religious as Pusey is, so blindly unjust and intemperate, is a heavy blow against that which is more dear to Pusey than life(2)." Still Church thought that "explanations might have been given (before the day of Consecration), both in charity and in wisdom, without any compromise of liberty."

The Vatican Council suggests a quaint comparison. "One's old feeling towards Heads of Houses, Symons and Co., makes one partly understand how fellow like Dupanloup are dealt with and how they don't like it." But his sympathy with the French bishops did not blind him to the share they had in their own defeat. "There is a good deal of Nemesis in it, for all their past flatteries and unctuous rhetoric about Rome and the PopeÉ. The world if full of warnings to people that they may be taken at their word, and that they had better measure their statements and not talk big; but the position of the French bishops is one of the most remarkable ones." And, in another letter, "People have been talking rhetoric for ages, beyond their real thought, and now they are taken at their word they are all in confusion. But I suppose it is a long time off before people learn the danger of talking beyond their meaning."

The Franco-German War, or rather the moral causes of the French defeat and the moral consequences of the German victory, are the subject of a long letter to Lord Blachford. "I share your indignation," he writes, "so far, that is, as it was provoked by the strange and scandalous lying with which the French have tried to help out their shortcomings." This, of course, was the prevalent feeling in England at the beginning of 1871, and in Lord Blachford it found eager and sympathising expression. The French had first lost every thing by their "lying and vapouring and vanity" and then they had made their fall greater by their obstinate persistence in carrying on a hopeless struggle. No, answers Church, this is not the whole case even as regards the last point. "There is a good deal to be said for French obstinacy and hoping against hope." Their chances after Sedan "though poor were not worthless," and we should have acted in the same way, "if after a great naval disaster the terms of peace had been the surrender of Ireland." Moreover, Church looked further ahead than his correspondent. He had not words to express his admiration at the "intellectual greatness" of the Prussian success. It was a wonderful outcome of "long, underground, patient headwork." But it had a moral as well as an intellectual side to it, and it was the moral side that excited his fear and detestation. This great achievement of human intellect seemed to him "the revival of the military barbarism of the kings and nobles of the old times, with all the appliances of modern knowledge to help them, and make them more horribly proud, arrogant, relentless in their will, contemptuous of right in their means, unmeasured in their claims."

The history of Germany and Europe has made Church's conception of the German temper the common possession of Englishmen. But it was not so in 1871, and the fact is worth recording as an example of the soundness of his judgement and of the way in which that judgement was cleared and reinforced by moral considerations. He had no jealousy of German unity, nor would he admit that any one "had a right, from ideas of 'balance of power,' to hinder or embarrass it." The ground of his dislike was his inability to get rid of the belief that German unity, at present, means simply "the predominance of a great military monarchy at Berlin, animated by the spirit of a feudal caste which looks on soldiership as the highest and most honourable of human occupations." That is the price which Germany has had to pay for her gains in the field.

One more aspect of the time at Whatley must be given to complete the picture. It is that family life which counted for so much in Church's happiness, though his sensitive reserve so seldom permits him to make any reference to it. "My boy has grown up into a Public School youngster, and has won his place on the Foundation at Winchester; an odd mixture of childishness and cleverness, idleness and interest in work, affection and petulanceÉ. Then there are the three little girls, still of that delightful age when they have not come to dream of young ladyhood, while they have all the interest of life and quickness, which only mere children have for their dolls. They are companions not the less pleasant and interesting, from the totally different order of ideas in which they move, and the original points of view from which they see thingsÉ. At this moment the whole party, with the boy at their head, are in the shrubbery, showing the effect on his mind of a recent course of Cooper's novels, and energetically following his lead when he makes them 'be Indians' for him - Mohawks, Delawares, and Shawnees - and they have been pursuing on the warpath, tomahawking and whooping, and displaying the scalps they have taken, all the afternoon!(3)"

It is a pleasant glimpse with which to close the Whatley life - a life surrendered so unwillingly and looked back to with so many regrets.

1. Life and Letters, pages 186, 187.

2.Life and Letters, page 182.

3. Life and Letters, page 177.

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