Project Canterbury

Some Defects in English Religion and Other Sermons

By John Neville Figgis

London: Robert Scott, 1917.
Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1917.




"Why call ye me Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?" S. LUKE vi. 46.

WE hear much just now of the National Mission. Loud is the lament for the failure of the Church to convert the world. This failure is not surprising. Much of the outcry is needless. Liberty, full religious liberty, has only recently been achieved in practice. With the advent of liberty and the increase of education, conventional Christianity was bound to decay. Numbers in proportion make a worse show. So long as human sin exists, so long there will be many people who will not even try for the Christian ideal. Now that they are free, they say so. If we lose by this we also gain. Those who remain adherents of the Christian Church are [9/10] likely to be the more real. The Church has lost in extension, but it has gained in intensity. I do not believe that we shall ever convert the world, in the sense that we shall make all men conscious followers of Christ. I am not certain that we are ever meant to do so. Certainly we are meant to try. But Christians will always be the salt of the earth, not the whole.

What is alarming is not that the Church has failed to convert the world, but that she has failed to convert herself, or that her conversion is so very partial. That is serious. We Christian people, fully instructed Catholics as we boast, will be better employed in lamenting our own sins than in denouncing the grosser manifestations of the flesh and the devil. The tawdriness of a religion of material prosperity is obvious to us. We can take that for granted. Let us do our part in examining our own consciences and not those of other people.

Let us then try to consider on these Sunday mornings in August some defects of English religion. Those which are most prevalent it is best to consider. Commonly they can be found in most forms of English Christianity, although in very different degrees and proportions. I doubt whether any of them can be confined to any one party or body. We ourselves may be free from one or other. It is not likely that we [10/11] are wholly free from any of these. It is almost certain that we are not free from all.

I suppose that the first and most obvious characteristic of English Christianity which would strike a well-educated Japanese is its sentimentalism. This quality more than any other in Englishmen is what gains for them the accusation of being hypocrites.

But we must define. Sentiment in religion is not sentimentalism. A religion which asserts above all things the friendship between God and man cannot condemn emotion. Real emotion, the passion for God and true religious rapture, the ecstatic sense of union or the passion for sacrifice: these are great things. There is more joy over one sinner that repenteth than over ninety-nine good people. Nothing is dearer to the heart of God than the tears of penitents or the selfless love of a S. Francis. But these things are not especially English characteristics. Only the other day a highly educated intellectual man was complaining to me about all this talk about repentance. What nonsense it was, he said, when things were getting better as a matter of course.

Sentimentalism means delighting in feeling for feeling's sake irrespective of its effect upon our life. It means also the use of language or gesture which implies deep feeling in order to [11/12] disguise our lack of it. I remember one clergyman who was unable to say even a vestry prayer without trying to get a break in his voice. We can see the contrast in literature. You have real pathos, not to be surpassed, in those four lines of Burns:

Had we never loved sae blindly,
Had we never loved sae kindly;
Never met or never parted,
We had ne'er been broken-hearted.

You have the sentimentalist trying to manufacture the drawing-room rhetoric of sadness in Tom Moore, whose chief title to fame now is that he burnt the memoirs of Byron.

Now English religion suffers deeply from sentimentalism. It is not insincere. People make a great mistake when they say that English religion is insincere: at least it is not consciously insincere. In its deepest form the evil is to be traced to Luther. That great man went through a mighty experience, and when at last he emerged out of the tunnel his joy was great, and he called this the sense of being justified by faith. The result of that, as Father Kelly is always telling us, has been disastrous. It was thought necessary for every Christian to go through a similar process. Faith in faith was substituted for faith in God; and as a matter of fact, if you read Luther's works you will see how very little really the personal [12/13] character of Jesus Christ was to Luther. It is a sort of x, his experience of faith which he desires to produce in everybody else.

Now in later ages this faith in faith has tended to become a faith in feeling. Nowadays many people loudly proclaim that religion is a thing of beautiful feelings and nothing else. These feelings are possible almost irrespective of any belief. Consequently all principle in religion is decried. Dogma is declared to be an outworn superstition. A dogma, you must remember, is simply a short statement of the meaning, the general gist, of religion.

So long as men can feel a certain sentimental interest in religion, that is enough. Everything else is secondary; and thus we have undenominationalism. When erected as it is now into a fetish it comes to no more than this, just the vagueness of the religious temperament. There is indeed a nobler and an older undenominationalism. This concentrates on the great Evangelical and Catholic truths of the Incarnation and the Atonement. Believing them to be common to all Christians it would produce a union on those grounds, treating as unimportant, if not false, all doctrine about the Church or the Sacraments.

Now, as a matter of fact, these great fundamental truths are part of the Catholic faith not [13/14] yet submerged, and this pathetic hope is not undenominationalism proper. As that works itself out it is found to be incompatible with insistence upon these cardinal truths. Once accept the undenominational thesis, and you can give no adequate reason for insisting upon them. To do so is to be just as exclusive, as sectarian, it would be said, as the most hidebound Tractarian. I have seen it suggested that the undenominational difficulty in the schools could be solved by everybody's being supposed to teach these evangelical truths. But they would not be accepted. It would merely be setting up a new test that would not be acquiesced in.

You and I, however, are not undenominationalists. May we not, then, regard ourselves as free from this fault of sentimentalism? I do not know. Sentimentalism is independent of one's actual creed. Many people hold their Catholicism or full church views, or whatever they call them, in an equally sentimental way. They preen themselves upon it, despising other Churchmen. Mr. Lacey, in that admirable book on What is Catholicity, has shown how mistaken is this view. A Christian as such, if he be a full Christian, is a Catholic. Catholicity is not something added on afterwards. The full baptized member of the Church is Catholic so far as he does not repudiate his heritage or fall into heresy. If [14/15] we believe that our Church is a branch of the Catholic Church then the Eucharist in the most extreme Low Church is the Catholic Eucharist. We have no right to confine the term Catholic to that part of it which does what we like. To do this is to make the same mistake as those other sentimentalists who confine the term Christian to those who have passed through a special form of spiritual thrill.

I do not mean that we are not to value and try to spread the Catholic faith in all its fullness with every accompaniment of outward splendour and everything that can suggest its history and romance in its ritual. Until we do this we shall not restore the sense of worship now so sadly lacking. Only we must beware of doing it in a narrow and unintelligent spirit; to exhibit the spirit of the sacristy boy is not the way to convert the English people. Some people seem to treat their religion like a drawing-room pet; it is merely their private individual taste. They prate of it just as a food crank chatters of the things he does not eat and you do. This narrowing pettiness, lowering the dignity of the most universal and grandest of all human things, the Catholic life, is rightly described in Mr. Osborne's new book on Religion and the World Crisis--a most admirable book on the whole aspect of historic religion in relation to the present moment.

[16] One thing more, sentimentalism of both these types is at the root of the monstrous gulf between religion and the workaday world. Men are kept away from our churches not nearly so much by want of faith as by a feeling of their unreality. They do not seem to touch the life of an ordinary man. People say that this is especially true of the artisan classes. I think it is not very different with others: lawyers of good practice, doctors, business men, officers. The language seems to them unreal. A frequent attempt is made to raise ecstasies of feeling, and rightly or wrongly these seem to them hysteria. Of light on ordinary life, on the work they have to do and the means by which they are to do it, they find none, except in regard to morality in the narrower sense. So they just leave the Church on one side.

Years ago Mr. John Morley said to the clergy: "We shall not disprove you, we shall explain you." Nowadays he might say, "We do not think you are worth explaining; we shall ignore you." It is partly our fault, and the fault not only of the clergy but of all religious people. Religion is very beautiful, but we must not make of it an enchanted garden, something into which we retire, away from the sorrows and struggles of the commonplace individual. Christianity is the most democratic of all institutions not because [16/17] it gives any special view of politics, but because it includes the commonplace, the ordinary, the average, even the dull, and invests all with the splendour which love can give to any object.

We here probably lament the fancy religions just now so much in fashion. Quite right. But we must take care not to make our own religion an exotic. Nice talk about God, nice little books about religion, nice editions of the more alluring mystics: all these things are very well, but they seen little better to many than the picture of some hard employer who grinds the face of the poor, treats his workpeople badly in the factory, breaking all the Acts, and then once a week in a Sunday school teaches the children of these same people to sing "Safe in the arms of Jesus." There is just as much danger on the one side as on the other.

Religion is not an affair of nice feelings. Nor can we make interest in religion an excuse for neglecting our duties as citizens, that is as members of the fellowship of this people of England. The Christian religion is, above all things, an affair of great principles. Personal it must be in the extreme, for it consists of love, but love is not sentiment; it is union with the Will of God. Love to God and our neighbour sum up true religion; but it is love of a resolute, disciplined will, both corporate and individual. [17/18] I am afraid that some of us are so anxious to use our religion for ourselves that we often forget that corporate side. Even when we talk most of the corporate value of religion in Church life we do not see how far that carries us, and how much more it means than talking about the Church. It means that men's life is a fellowship, and that all things which interfere with that fellowship are of the devil.

S. John had religious emotion, the passion of religion at its very highest, more highly, perhaps, than any other writer in the New Testament; and we cannot go very far wrong, if we test all our sentiments, all our acts and emotions in regard to piety by the principles of S. John. He was no cold moralist, but a warm lover; yet he knew very well the danger of love's becoming merely a luxury.

"Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and every one that loveth is begotten of God and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God; for God is love. Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us. Beloved, if God so loved us, we ought also to love one another. No man hath beheld God at any time. If we love one another, God abideth in us, and His love is perfected within us."

Let us pray that that perfection may be ours.

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