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George Anthony Denison

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.

'EVERYBODY must regret that Denison has not had a larger and more suitable sphere for the full exercise of his great powers and his really beneficent nature. With his scholarship, his knowledge of law, his ready wit, his promptitude of action, his agreeable address, and his taste for material improvements, he would have made a first-rate medieval Chancellor, Archbishop, and Cardinal.' In these words Thomas Mozley, in his Reminiscences of Oriel College, sums up his account of George Anthony Denison. They are the more significant in view of the fact that the writer of them was by no means favourable to Tractarian doctrines at the time that he penned them.

Had Denison cared one jot about preferment he could doubtless have risen very high in the ecclesiastical world. His talents and abilities were altogether exceptional. But, in an age which was intolerant of Catholic teaching, and under a Queen who was determined to exclude all those of Tractarian sympathies from high office in the Church, Denison chose to renounce all hopes of promotion in the cause of the Faith. When he preached his three famous sermons in Wells Cathedral on the Eucharist, he had already been for some years vicar of East Brent and Archdeacon of Taunton. No further preferment was offered him, and Denison remained for over fifty years in his small country parish. But in the circumstances his services to the cause of true religion were much more far-reaching in their effect than those of many other lesser men who have held more dignified positions in the Church. He entered the battle for the doctrine of the Real Presence at a critical juncture in the history of the Catholic Revival, and his unflinching determination to defend it introduced Catholic teaching on the subject to a very wide range of people. There were probably many other English theologians of the last century who knew more than Denison about the technicalities of the theology of the Mass; but it is doubtful if any others, with the exception of Pusey and Keble, exercised greater influence on the development of Eucharistic teaching.

'I was born December 11, 1805, at Ossington, in Nottinghamshire; one of a family of fourteen children, nine sons, five daughters, living to a man's and woman's estate. So Denison begins his Notes on My Life, published in 1878. In 1819 he was sent to Eton, and in 1823 matriculated at Christ Church, Oxford. In 1826 he took first-class honours in Literae Humaniores, and in two succeeding years gained the Chancellor's Prize, for his Latin Essay in 1828 and for his English Essay in 1829. In 1828 he became a Fellow of Oriel, and was thus brought into close but not intimate relationship with that small group of men whose names have since become world-famous. Among those at Oriel at this time there were both those who were afterwards associated with the Tractarian Movement, such as Newman, Hurrell Froude, and Robert Wilberforce; as well as those who were of the Liberal school, such as Whately, Blanco White, and Hampden. Keble and Arnold were still Fellows, though no longer normally resident. Hawkins had become Provost in the year of Denison's election (1828); Denison, in fact, filled Hawkins' fellowship in the same way that Newman at the same time succeeded to the charge of St. Mary the Virgin's, which Hawkins also vacated.

Denison at once made his influence felt. As yet the lines which later divided these two groups were not very clearly marked. It must be remembered that it was still five years before the Assize Sermon. Denison found the whole atmosphere of the Common Room at Oriel what would be described as 'stuffy.' Looking back half a century later he wrote: 'It was as dull a place socially as I can remember anywhere; men were stiff and starched, and afraid of one another; there was no freedom of intercourse.' He evidently had little sympathy at this time with Newman's asceticism and moral seriousness.

In 1830 he was appointed Tutor of the College at the very time when pupils were being withdrawn from Newman and Froude by the Provost for their pastoral conception of a tutor's functions. This incident shows that Denison's personal sympathies were far from where they were afterwards set.

Denison was ordained Deacon and Priest in the year 1832. Much later he described the 'dire need of the Church at this time.' 'What was wanted,' he wrote in 1878, 'was the system of the Church Primitive and Catholic. The recalling into active life of this system was, as it is still, England's need. The Church was failing within and sorely pressed without. God in his mercy put it into the hearts of chosen men of his faithful servants to lead the way in supplying the one thing which could satisfy the need; and the publication of Tracts for the Times began.'

On his ordination he became Curate of Cuddesdon, the village near Oxford which has since become famous through its Theological College. This he combined with his tutorship in Oriel, and Denison was to be seen constantly journeying between his parish and his college. In 1838 he accepted the living of Broadwindsor in Dorset, in the gift of his brother, Edward Denison, who was then Bishop of Salisbury. This he changed in 1841 for the vicarage of East Brent, a small village in Somerset near the Bristol Channel, which he held until his death in 1896. In 1851 he became Archdeacon of Taunton.


The name of Denison will always go down in the history of the Church of England in connection with his part in reasserting the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist. Pusey, it will be remembered, had been attacked at an early date for teaching the doctrine of the Real Presence. He had preached in 1843 a sermon before the University of Oxford defending teaching on the Eucharist such as was a commonplace in the seventeenth century, but had in the intervening years been forgotten; and he was consequently suspended by the University. As soon as these two years had elapsed, on the very next occasion that he entered the pulpit at Christ Church, he fearlessly reiterated the very teaching for which he had been suspended in the earlier sermon. Both these sermons were published and became famous.

What Pusey had defended at Oxford, Denison, a few years later, defended at Wells. On August 7 and November 6, 1853, he preached two sermons in Wells Cathedral on the Real Presence, reiterating Catholic teaching on the subject. He made clear that 'by "the Real Presence of the Body and the Blood of Christ in the Lord's Supper" is not to be understood the Presence of an influence emanating from a thing absent, but the supernatural and invisible Presence of a thing present; of his Very Body and Very Blood, present "under the form of Bread and Wine." He emphasized, in accordance with St. Paul's teaching in I Corinthians xi., that not only the believers but also the unbelievers partake of the Body and Blood of Christ. He insisted that worship was due to the Sacramental species. Teaching such as this is commonplace to-day in the Anglican Church, but it was new to the majority of the generation to which Denison belonged.

Those sermons, together with a third sermon preached on May 14 of the following year, and some other instances of Denison's teaching which we need not here examine, led to a very complicated series of legal proceedings. His neighbour, the vicar of South Brent (the Reverend Joseph Ditcher), felt that he could not allow the teaching of the vicar of East Brent to go unchallenged, and instituted legal proceedings against him. The Bishops of Bath and Wells (two of them were concerned in these events) did all they could to prevent these proceedings; but the case proceeded to the Archbishop of Canterbury (Sumner), and at a Court held at Bath on August 12, 1856, judgment was given against Denison. This decision became known as 'the Bath Judgment.'

The significance of what had happened was realized at once. A legal opinion had been pronounced which could not be allowed to pass unchallenged, and in the autumn of the same year a protest was drawn up against the Bath Judgment. The teaching of Denison was shown to be in conformity with the best Anglican authorities, including the Book of the Homilies, Cosin, Ridley, Poynet, Andrewes, and Bramhall, extracts from all of which were quoted. This protest was signed by fifteen of the most prominent Anglo-Catholics of the time, including Pusey, Keble, T. T. Carter, Neale, and Isaac Williams. The signatories appealed for the reference of the Archbishop's decision to 'a free and lawful Synod of all the Churches of our Communion.'

In addition to its theological consequences, the Judgment threatened to have practical effects. It involved a sentence of deprivation upon Denison unless he were prepared to recant (as, of course, was inconceivable). Denison accordingly determined to appeal to the Court of Arches; and from then onwards the issue became legal rather than theological. On a technical point of law the Bath Judgment was reversed (April 23, 1857). On the prosecution taking the case on to the Privy Council, the appeal from decision of the Court of Arches was dismissed (February 6, 1858). Denison thus remained legally in possession of his rights; while, though the Catholic teaching as such was not defended by the law, it had escaped final condemnation.

One result of the Ditcher v. Denison case cannot be passed over unnoticed. This is the Eucharistic Literature it occasioned. To begin with, it called forth Keble's famous Treatise on Eucharistical Adoration, which appeared from the press in 1857. This is one of the most important treatises which have appeared in English on the subject. 'It is impossible,' writes Keble in it, 'for devout faith, contemplating Christ in this Sacrament, not to adore him, as it is for a loving mother, looking earnestly at her child, not to love it.'

The controversy also occasioned two other significant treatises on the doctrine of the Mass. The one was Denison's own publication of a work of Saravia, the friend and probably confessor of Richard Hooker, on the Eucharist. The original Latin, written in 1604, and dedicated to James I., had been preserved in the British Museum. Denison printed both the original Latin and an English translation made by himself. To it he also added some notes on Saravia's life; and he showed that the teaching which the Bath Judgment condemned was taught in the early years of the seventeenth century by one of reputedly Calvinistic sympathies.

The third work which the case occasioned was Pusey's Doctrine of the Real Presence, which was published in the summer of 1857.


The news that the case against Denison had terminated in his triumph was received with enormous enthusiasm by his parishioners. The whole of the village--every man, woman and child that could come--met the Archdeacon at the neighbouring Highbridge railway station on his return from London. As soon as the Archdeacon and Mrs. Denison had arrived, an address was read to them; and when the bounds of the parish were reached, the horses were taken out of the carriage, which was then drawn by the parishioners for a mile and a half to the church. Here a service of thanksgiving was held. The Archdeacon and Mrs. Denison were then drawn on to the Vicarage, and after further hearty cheers the crowd dispersed. Incidentally, the enthusiasm with which Denison was greeted on this occasion is an undoubted indication of the way in which he had won the affections of his people. This was one instance of countless others of the success of the Tractarian and post-Tractarian priests among country people.

Like many of the other leaders of the early Catholic Revival, Denison had little concern in the early part of his life for 'ritual.' (This word may be used here because it is the one which Denison himself uses--often in inverted commas.) Later he viewed it more favourably, and notes in his autobiography the change which had come about in him in this particular matter. But even so, his own practice was till the end very moderate, judged by present standards. He never wore vestments, and never used wafer bread. The 'ritualism' which he himself adopted did not go beyond the eastward position, altar lights, and the mixed Chalice. In 1878 he wrote, 'I am glad always to be present at the highest and most costly decoration; but my habit at home has been, is, and will continue to be, partial only.'


Most of the Tractarians had grave fears of liberalism in theology; the saintly Dean Church was perhaps the most notable exception. They were convinced that any concessions to the demands of liberal theologians would open the doors of the Church to unbelief. They pointed, not without force, to what they conceived to have been the devastating effects of liberalizing teaching upon the religious outlook of Germany, and believed that unless they took a firm stand a similar state of affairs would result here in England. No one held this position more convincedly than Denison, and he took an active part in a series of controversies from the date of the appointment of Hampden to the Bishopric of Hereford (in 1847) onwards.

The year 1860 saw the publication of Essays and Reviews. This volume came from the most liberal school of theologians in the Church at the time. The conclusions implied by Darwin's Origin of Species, published in the preceding year, were freely accepted, and the book raised a storm in the Church. Convocation readily joined in the fray, and in the Lower House Denison was largely responsible for the course which the attack on the book took. On March 14, 1861, he presented a Gravamen to the Lower House, requesting the Archbishop to set up a Committee to report on Essays and Reviews. The Committee came into being, and Denison was appointed Chairman of it; its report was presented on June 18, 1861. As a result of this report and an accompanying resolution, Essays and Reviews was synodically condemned, albeit not until 1864.

Denison's dread of liberalism led him also into taking a leading part in a controversy which aroused the University of Oxford at about this time. A proposal was on foot to increase the endowment of the Regius Professorship of Greek at Oxford. Its endowment was only £38 a year, a sum totally inadequate for such a position. In normal circumstances no one would have doubted the justice of the proposed increase by £300 in the emolument. But it so happened that at this date the Professorship was held by Benjamin Jowett, and that Jowett had been one of the contributors to Essays and Reviews. A conservative party therefore arose, determined to resist the projected legislation at all costs, and Denison was among the foremost of them. By a curious circumstance the measure had been introduced into the University legislative channels by none other than Pusey himself, and Pusey was the chief person in charge of it. It passed all stages until that of the University Convocation (i.e., the whole body of M.A.'s throughout the country) was reached. Denison was determined to stop it at this last opportunity. He very actively persuaded many men to come up to Oxford to vote against the measure, and in the result it was thrown out by 467 votes to 395. This happened in spite of Pusey's properly having insisted that there should be a clause in the proposed statute to the effect that it did not imply any approval of Jowett's theological opinions.

Still more determined, if possible, was Denison's attack on Lux Mundi, which came out in 1889. This book, edited by Charles Gore, then Principal of the Pusey House at Oxford, was a collection of essays by different contributors which attempted to draw out the doctrine of the Incarnation and its implications in the light of the new evolutionary knowledge. In Gore's own essay the new doctrine of Biblical Inspiration was accepted. A storm hardly less than that occasioned by Essays and Reviews was provoked, and Denison, now over eighty-five, entered the ranks of the combatants with his great zeal unabated.

Denison was the more concerned that Lux Mundi came from the first Principal of Pusey House, since he held that it was only reasonable to have expected that that institution would have followed in Pusey's tradition. In 1882 he had printed and circulated a letter among the clergy and people of his Archdeaconry advocating their support, and saying that Pusey House was to be 'an institution the purpose of which shall be to help to the keeping unimpaired, and commending to young and old, the Catholic Faith of the Church of England, the most precious inheritance of the English people.'

Denison had been a warm supporter of the Memorial. But it seemed to him that now its high ideals had been sacrificed. In 1891 he preached a course of six sermons in Wells Cathedral against the book, and in the first of them, delivered on May 10, he referred in characteristic fashion to the book 'issuing from what was, but is not now, the Pusey House, Oxford, November, 1889, edited by the Principal of the house still so called but not so being.'

On February 3, 1891, Denison presented a Gravamen to Convocation against the book. In it he affirmed that the book set forth limitations in our Lord's knowledge, and made assumptions 'that cannot be reconciled with the Holy Gospels; that tend to beguile and corrupt men's minds from the simplicity that is in Christ; are irreverent towards him, perfect God and perfect man; are contrary to the authority of the Church as declared by the Sixth Article of Religion; are contrary to the Book of Common Prayer and administration of the Sacraments.' He then proceeded to move the appointment of a Committee to enquire into the Preface and Eighth Essay of Lux Mundi, but the proposal was lost.

Denison took steps to bring about the condemnation of the book also by the English Church Union, but the Union could not be persuaded to condemn the book, and Denison resigned from it in consequence, after a membership of forty-seven years.

Addressing on February 27, 1890, a meeting of the Union on the subject, he called it 'a most unhappy and dangerous book' and remarked that 'filled as the last fifty-eight years of this century have been with successive assaults upon the Catholic Faith and position of the Church of England, the book called Lux Mundi coming from within is my chief ground for fear.' Apprehensions such as these were widely felt at the time. But the later history of the Catholic Movement in the Church of England has shown the groundlessness of such fears. It is among the glories of the Anglican Church that Catholic piety and intellectual freedom and honesty so frequently go hand in hand.


The same attitude of hostility to liberalism which Denison showed in theological questions was also exemplified in his view on the Schools question. The attitude that he took up was not unjustified in the view of learning, which, as Dr. Webb has well brought out in his admirable book Religious Thought in the Oxford Movement, occupied such a large place in the thought of the Tractarians. All true learning, the Tractarians held, was of a religious character. 'Religion' wrote Denison, 'is the beginning, the middle, and the end of all Christian teaching; the golden thread that runs through it all, linking all its parts together in the right use of the gifts of our life, to the saving of our own, the winning of others' souls; and all to the glory of God/ The modern idea of education, he maintained, was to reverse the proper relationship between learning and piety; it was to put learning first and piety second.

Accordingly, Denison carried on a strong warfare against all the legislation in the last century which tended to remove the control of elementary education from the hands of the clergy. That a new state of affairs had come about through the granting of full civil privileges to Nonconformists, Denison would never recognize. He wrote strong attacks against the so-called 'Conscience Clause' and fiercely opposed the 1870 Education Act. The Church and State Review, a monthly periodical which Denison edited throughout its not very long career (1862 to 1865), was largely devoted to the defence of the editor's educational views.

The attitude which Denison took to the Schools question he took also with reference to the Establishment. The existence of the Church of England was so closely welded to the Constitution that it could not be disestablished, he felt, without losing its character. It is true that for a short time, at one period of his life, Denison had hesitated (an unusual event for him), but he soon repented. In his Archidiaconal Charge of 1890 he wrote: 'Some time ago I was hasty enough and unwise enough not to see this, and for about two years took part in the "disestablishment" cry. I thank God I was brought to the knowledge of my unhappy error.'


As has already been hinted, Denison was eminently successful as a parish priest. He won the affections of his village folk preeminently through his spiritual ministrations; but two of his 'hobbies,' both conducted for the service of his parishioners, occupied so much of his leisure that any account of his life would be incomplete without reference to them. These were the institution of 'Harvest Homes' and the construction of the East Brent Water Works.

The proposal to have annually a 'Harvest Home' was the result of a suggestion of his churchwarden, Mr. John Higgs, in the year 1857. The first such Home was held on September 3 of that year. It was an institution of a truly medieval character, bringing into close connection religious and secular rejoicing; in fact, in many respects it was reminiscent of the Jewish pastoral feasts legislated for in the Book of Deuteronomy. On the religious side there were two Masses, at 8 and 9; Mattins at 7.30; a Harvest Service and sermon at 11.30; and Evensong at 6. And all this on a week-day.

But the celebrations also included much of a less specifically religious character, and in later years, at any rate, the rejoicings were kept up for several days. There is a graphic description of them in a letter which the Archdeacon wrote to Miss Denison describing the 1883 Harvest Home: 'Took £45 at the gate; subscriptions £68--£113 in all; will pay all expenses, and leave some balance. Wonderful Punch, steam merry-go-round, fortune-telling; various other amusements; teetotal drinks only; footballs, etc., everybody highly pleased; two grand Balls, 1,000 people in tent on Tuesday night, 500 Wednesday night; had food over on Tuesday enough for poor parishioners' second meal Wednesday. . . . Very fine music, dressing in best taste, manners and general demeanour perfect; no doubt an admirable institution; should be witnessed to be comprehended,' and so on. The country people from the villages round flocked to these Harvest Homes, which became famous throughout the neighbourhood.

Not less was Denison remembered among his flock for his activities in connection with the East Brent water supply. When he came to the village, in 1845, there was practically no water there except two shallow wells. 'Drinking water was generally taken from the ditches forming the drainage, into which the sewage of the place all found its way.' Three times the village suffered from epidemics in consequence. Denison built at his own charge the water works to remedy this state of affairs; a detailed account of them is to be found in a reprint of a paper which he printed as an appendix in his Notes of My Life. The result was that East Brent became able to supply the parishioners of the adjoining villages during a drought in 1876. What Boiling's clubs and gymnasium were to the slum population of Landport, Denison's Harvest Homes and Water Works were to the country folk of East Brent.

In a notice in the Guardian for April 1, 1896, over the familiar initials R. G. (doubtless Robert Gregory, the Dean of St. Paul's), there is a remark: 'With the greatest regard for Archdeacon Denison, and a most real and unfailing affection for him, and with a profound conviction of his religious earnestness, of his absolute singleness of mind and purpose, and his courageous perseverance in resisting to the uttermost whatever he thought might be injurious to the cause of true religion, it is impossible not to feel that he was lacking in that statesmanlike instinct which enables a man wisely to judge what will best advance the cause that he has at heart.' With all his courage, Denison had not the characteristics of a leader. But his heroic devotion to truth more than atoned for his misjudgments; and if anyone can claim to be a 'hero of the Catholic Revival,' it is Denison. Asked once what his position was, he replied, 'Extreme High Church.' From this position he never faltered.

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