Project Canterbury

Lead, Kindly Light:
Studies of Saints and Heroes of the Oxford Movement

by Desmond Morse-Boycott

transcribed by Mr Robert Stevens
AD 2000


Henry Parry Liddon

THE name of Liddon recalls the renascence of St. Paul’s Cathedral (when it became a power it is not now) and the sunset of the age of golden preachers.

Captain Parry was Liddon’s godfather, his father, Matthew Liddon, an officer of the Royal Navy, having served under Parry in the attempt to discover the North-West Passage.

Henry was the eldest son of a family of ten, born at North Shoreham in Hampshire on August 20, 1829. His childhood was uneventful. His favourite game was preaching in a surplice made of The Times. He was always quietly good, and his seriousness made his word count among his mates at the boarding-school in Lyme Regis, where he was sent when he was ten. He entered King’s College School in 1844. A contemporary writes of him:

He always seemed to me an elder brother, who wished the young ones were more serious. . . . I always found him friendly, gentle, and considerate. So far as I can remember, he was at seventeen just what he was at twenty-seven, or thirty-seven, or forty-seven—sweet, grave, thoughtful, complete. Others, perhaps, may recall growth, change, completeness, gradually coming on him in look, form, mind, and character. I cannot. To me, when I heard him preaching in St. Paul’s, or heard him speak at Oxford of more recent years, he was just the same earnest, zealous, affectionate, and entirely otherworldly nature that I remember at seventeen. The lines in his face may have deepened: the look may have become more anxious of late years. But, as a schoolboy, I always thought he looked just what he did as a priest. There was the same expression of sweet, somewhat fatherly, somewhat melancholy interest. He would reprove, exhort, advise boys just as a young priest does in his own congregation. We expected it of him: and it never seemed to us to be in any way stepping out of his own business when he gave one of us a lecture or a sharp rebuke. We seemed to feel that this was what he was there for. He was entirely a priest amongst boys.

He won a studentship at Christ Church, Oxford, at the age of seventeen, fell under Pusey’s influence and became an Anglo-Catholic. When he left Oxford he worked with Mackonochie under the rigorous Butler at Wantage; broke down; and then became first Vice-Principal of Cuddesdon, a college for ordinands founded by Bishop Wilberforce.

His work there was of short duration, for differences arose between him and the Bishop, and the opposition of Protestants and the nervousness of moderate Churchmen combined to make him relinquish his task. But Cuddesdon bore the stamp of his remarkable personality long after he had left. He set before the theological students an ideal which was unusual in days when it was possible for a man to be ordained with little or no training, on the strength of moderate success in examinations or merely family status. And ordinations left much to be desired, as one can see from the following letter written by a young priest in 1841, thirteen years before Cuddesdon was opened:

I was ordained priest by his holiness of Winchester on July 11th, at Farnham Palace. There were about thirty men ordained. The palace is a fine old place; many of the men were lodged there during the examination, and all dined there every day. The dinners were sumptuous: all served upon silver. Oh, if some of the old bishops could have looked in!

I arrived at Farnham on the Saturday; after dinner we were ushered into the private Chapel—a queer place, comfortably carpeted and cushioned.

The Bishop gave an exposition; and then his chaplain offered up an extemporary prayer—such a prayer! The Prayer-book was altogether discarded. The Ordination was conducted in the most comfortable manner. Great praise is due to the head valet for the orderly arrangements; he was most indefatigable in his exertions to secure the ladies and gentlemen good seats; and indeed I may say the same of the livery servants; they were all motion—sliding about the Chapel in pumps—noiseless as cats. Nor should I forget the Bishop’s Chaplain, who was especially polite to the elect few who honoured the ceremony with their presence.

Arrayed in full canonicals, the flowing sleeves of his surplice floating on the breeze which his flight from the drawing-room to the Chapel occasioned, he smilingly handed a galaxy of beauty and fashion to their cushioned seats. When all men were seated in breathless expectation the sleeves were heard in the distance, and presently appeared the Chaplain, leading in the Bishopess, the first of a long procession of children and maidservants; all the candidates, except myself and one or two others, arose, and testified their respect. Lastly the Bishop entered (all men on the tip-toe of expectation) wearing the Order of the Garter. He smiled blandly—the men-servants rushed to the Altar Gates—they flew open, the Bishop entered—they closed—the men-servants retired. A hymn was given out—the Bishopess arose and led the singing, leaning gracefully over the pew door. Even at the very moment when silence is kept awhile, the Bishop’s wife commenced singing the Veni Creator Spiritus.

Released from the ties of Cuddesdon, Liddon began to develop his remarkable talent of preaching. Mrs. Butler had said, on hearing his first sermon at Wantage: "That young man preaches better than Archdeacon Manning." He bestowed immense labour on his sermons, and was spent and ill when he left the pulpit. Dr. Pusey became anxious. Liddon had been invited to preach in St. Paul’s. He wrote to him: "You preach sermons an hour long at St. Paul’s, and nobody hears you, and you are knocked up a fortnight afterwards. You have done nothing." Yet he could keep the boys at Harrow spellbound. An eyewitness writes:

His appearance instantly attracts attention. "He looks like a monk," one boy whispers to his neighbour . . . the Oxford M.A. gown, worn over a cassock, is the Benedictine habit modified by time and place; the spare, trim figure suggests asceticism; the beautifully chiselled, sharply pointed features, the close-shaved face, the tawny skin, the jet-black hair, remind us vaguely of something by Velasquez or Murillo. . . . The vibrant voice strikes like an electric shock. The exquisite, almost over-refined, articulation seems the very note of culture. The restrained passion . . . warns even the most heedless that something quite unlike the ordinary stuff of school sermons is coming. The text is announced, "Remember now thy Creator in the days of thy youth. . . ." We are listening, for the first time in our lives, to a man inspired. . . .

For an hour . . .

Liddon played a prominent part in every controversy after he had been made a Canon of St. Paul’s through Mr. Gladstone (in 1870). The cathedral then may be summed up in the words of Charles Kingsley, twenty years earlier:

The afternoon service was proceeding. The organ droned sadly in its iron cage to a few musical amateurs. Some nursery-maids and foreign sailors stared about within the spiked felons’ dock which shut off the body of the cathedral, and tried in vain to hear what was going on inside the choir. The scanty service rattled in the vast building, like a dried kernel too small for its shell. The place breathed imbecility, and unreality, and sleepy life-in-death, while the whole nineteenth century went roaring on its way outside. . . . Coleridge’s dictum, that a cathedral is a petrified religion, may be taken in more meanings than one. When will life return to this cathedral system?

It returned through the influence of Canon Liddon and Dean Church. Dean Church was a noble and gracious priest who had come to London "with fears and with repugnance" at Mr. Gladstone’s urging. A biographer says:

Henceforward until his death he was one of the chief influences in ecclesiastical affairs. He detested controversy and shunned public meetings, for he was a shy and sensitive scholar, but his passion for righteousness and truth burnt like a flame, and was felt on all sides. He became, as it were, a "standard conscience by which men tested their motives and their aims."

He and Liddon were twin-souls, and the wilderness of St. Paul’s began to blossom like the rose.

In 1871 the Judicial Committee declared the Eastward Position at the altar illegal, and the Bishop of London, Dr. Jackson, tried to enforce its decision on St. Paul’s. Canons Gregory and Liddon announced that they would not alter their liturgical practice, and invited the Bishop to prosecute them. The Bishop climbed down. A year later Liddon was involved in a battle royal with the Archbishop of Canterbury, Dr. Tait. The Athanasian Creed was attacked, and the attack was fostered by the Archbishop. He fought the Archbishop step by step, and on December 23, 1871, wrote to him:

If this most precious creed is either mutilated by the excision of the (so-termed) Damnatory Clauses, or degraded, by an alteration of the rubric which precedes it, from its present position in the Book of Common Prayer, I shall feel bound in conscience to resign my preferments, and to retire from the ministry of the Church of England.

Dr. Pusey announced the same intention. The controversy dragged on for a long time, but Liddon won the day.

He touched life at so many points that a rapid biography must do him scant justice, and to select episodes is a difficult task. Perhaps the most sorrowful period of his life was when the Lux Mundi crisis began to agitate the Church in 1889. He had been instrumental in the founding of Pusey House, Oxford, and had appointed Charles Gore as its head. It was to perpetuate Dr. Pusey’s memory by being "a home of sacred learning, and a rallying point for Christian faith . . . at what, so far as we can judge (he said) must always be one of the chief centres of the mental life of the country." It was to "exhibit, as the old Colleges of Oxford were meant by their Christian founders to exhibit, solid learning allied to Christian faith and piety." Liddon "knew and loved (Gore’s) general character; knew that he was sound about the Incarnation and the Sacraments; and did not suspect that he had constructed a private kennel for liberalizing ideas in Theology within the precincts of the Old Testament, and so much of the New Testament as bears upon it." The intransigent Liddon was horrified that the collection of liberalizing essays known as Lux Mundi should emanate from Pusey House. Lux Mundi was an "attempt to put the Catholic Faith into its right relation to modern intellectual and moral problems." It had an immense vogue. I do not think it helped anyone. When I was in a seminary fifteen years ago I read some of it. It is now as dead as mutton.

We must all wish to make the best, and not the worst, of a misfortune [wrote Liddon]. I do think it a serious misfortune, in itself, and for the sake of the Pusey House. Theology is not a matter of characters holy or attractive, or the reverse. It is a matter of propositions which are either true or false. And I cannot harmonize Gore’s theory of our Lord’s ad hominem arguments with any such belief in the perfection of His Human Soul as Catholic theology prescribes.

He capped this criticism by a magnificent sermon in St. Paul’s. He wrote to Archdeacon Denison, a pugnacious but genial Anglo-Catholic who had been prosecuted by Protestants for heresy in proceedings that stretched from September, 1854, to February, 1858 (unsuccessfully to the Protestant cause), had left the English Church Union over the Lux Mundi dispute, and been throughout his long life (he lived to be 91) a very faithful upholder of Catholic life and practice, believing to the end in the catholicity of the Anglican Communion:

I have tried to tell Gore as explicitly as I can how wrong I think his language, and how gravely the assumed ignorance of our Blessed Lord’s Human Soul on the subject of the Old Testament bears on the true doctrine of His Person . . . it is the high-road to Nestorianism.

While Lux Mundi distressed and even antagonized men like Liddon and Denison, Gore’s later theological contributions have been unequalled in our age, comprehensible even to Fleet Street with its penchant for misunderstanding theology completely. None the less Gore suffered from the press, which always fastened on his "sensational" views (as in the case of the monumental New Commentary) and made him appear more revolutionary than he really was. He was a Catholic at heart.

The lucidity of his writing has helped the educated layman; and his unswerving stand against laxity of morals (particularly in the use of contraceptives) and in behalf of Church Order must ever command the gratitude of the Catholic Movement. Yet, at any-rate in his later years, he was more a critic of the Movement than an enthusiastic digger of wells choked up by our Protestant forbears. He saw it as something nearly fully developed, yet hardening in all sorts of wrong shapes; whereas, though the Movement is celebrating its centenary it is still in its infancy. He might have been a leader, but he never really receded from Lux Mundi. Lux Mundi sent Liddon to the grave in sorrow. On February 19, 1890, he wrote: "Dear Gore is deeply committed to a large number of young men who regard him as the clever inventor of a working compromise between Catholic truth and negative criticism, and who would be much grieved at his relapse into consistent orthodoxy."

Liddon died tragically, on September 9, 1890, worn out by writing an unfinished and massive Life of Pusey; reluctant to see friends; saddened by the death of Cardinal Newman (which affected him almost unnaturally) and despairing of, though faithful to, his Church. "He had lost all heart about the Church, and he was so miserable at the assaults on the Faith that he no longer cared to live."

No shelf of theology is complete without a set of his incomparable sermons, and although he was ever immersed in current affairs and controversies, and thereby in danger of preaching and writing the ephemeral, he has gained an assured place among masters of peerless English. I rank him next to Newman. He was a prophet, too.

If [he once said] the union of Church and State is to continue, it can only be when these changed circumstances are practically recognized—the Church asking for less in the way of support and privilege . . . and the State forgoing the claim to interfere with the Church’s spiritual functions. Should Parliament, in the years which are before us, show an increasing disposition to treat the Church of Christ in this country as if she were merely "a department of the Civil Service," the consciences of faithful Churchmen will, however reluctantly, be driven to urge the separation of Church and State.


Our real danger lies in the direction of attempts to save the Church from Disestablishment and Disendowment by . . . destroying . . . what it has of fixed doctrine and discipline."

The views are the views of Dr. Hensley Henson, but the voice is Liddon’s half a century ago.

Liddon was very human. He was always reading newspapers and violently disagreeing with them. If he had not become a priest he would assuredly have become a great Editor with fire in the heart of his prose. He loved children, but never married. He was a charming companion over a glass of wine, and had a delicious sense of humour. A friend once remarked upon a thick fog that had settled over London. Said Liddon: "Dr. Westcott must have come to town and left his window at Westminster open."

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