Project Canterbury

Some Defects in English Religion and Other Sermons

By John Neville Figgis

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

[40] IV


"They have healed the hurt of the daughter of my people. . . saying, Peace, peace; when there is no peace." JER. viii. 11.

THE Church of England at the close of the nineteenth century was the most respectable institution ever known in the annals of the human race. The scandals of the later Middle Ages were a thing of the past. The pluralism and laxity of the eighteenth century were mentioned only to be condemned, or, rather, were thought improper to mention. Unthinkable was that state of things when George III was forced to rebuke Archbishop Cornwallis for his immorality. Non-residence was forbidden and idleness reduced. The Evangelical and Tractarian movements and their successors had changed the face of things. In the towns activity and zeal were the rule rather than the exception. Where these were not, decorum was general. Learning was perhaps less widely diffused, [40/41] but it was considerable and in some cases eminent. Marvels of devotion had won men's respect in the slums.

How great the change had been we may see if we look into the Greville Memoirs or other books dealing with the time of King William IV. The cry for disendowment, at one time so loud, had become a whisper. This ought to be remembered by some persons who profit thereby. Owing to men like Father Lowder, Father Dolling, and Father Stanton, our liberals are able to occupy those cathedral dignities from whose serene composure they are able to level sneers at their benefactors. Corporate life had revived, Convocation after an interval of a century and a half had resumed its valuable labours, synods and diocesan conferences, Church congresses and ruridecanal chapters, guilds and societies uncounted testified to an awakened interest. Sisterhoods had sprung up in large numbers, and even the religious life for men had been revived. Foreign missions were never so flourishing, Church services were three times as many and ten times as variegated as of old. Preaching, if not so good from a literary standpoint, had many notable professors and some orators. Clubs and settlements, college missions, Church lads' brigades and girls' friendly societies gathered together the young for their good and occupied [41/42] the patronizing capacities of their elders. Visiting had been carried to a pitch undreamed of under the Georges. Parochial missions were hardly uncommon, even retreats were not rare. Good Churchmen could hold up their heads. Men like Dean Church, who at the close of his long life had witnessed much of this change, might well have supposed that so complete a revolution portended the conversion of the whole of England. So far as could be seen, Nonconformity, while still powerful, was not conquering new ground and barely holding its own.

All this was true, but it had its drawbacks. The Church of England has become more and more a society of respectable people. Its standards are those of good form, though it likes to dress its windows with the bones of martyrs. But as I said three weeks ago, the last thing you will say of it is that it is a society of penitent sinners. To the outsider it seems a body which has no place for sinners, real sinners. "Oh, that's for the quality," said a poor woman about the Holy Communion.

To give an instance, the one thing that no priest ought ever to be is to be shocked by anything he is told. Yet there are a large number of people who, though they may greatly need and even feel the need of coming to a priest to ask his help, would be afraid to do so, unless [42/43] they were very well informed about him, for fear that something they might say would shock the good man's sensibility. Another instance I may mention is that during the discussion of Prayer Book revision, in considering whether those extremely pertinent words at the beginning of the marriage service should be allowed to remain or should be removed, one archdeacon used words to this effect, "There is no doubt that our wives would think that such indelicate things should be left out."

English people have always leaned towards self-complacency. Macaulay pointed this out in his famous passage about the British people in one of its periodical fits of morality. Even now we find people thinking that it will mend the manners of the Germans to abuse them and to bring in fatuous verdicts against the Kaiser for murder. I think worse, not better, of the Germans than such people do. It is a pity to waste energies that might better be employed in destroying their power merely in saying that we are their moral superiors.

Let us consider some forms of complacency in the Church. First of all comes theological complacency. We are always thanking God that we are not as other men are: superstitious like the papists; emotional like those Methodists with their rather vulgar term [43/44] "conversion"; sceptical like the Unitarians. The typical English Churchman says: "I am no Pharisee. I do not fast once a week, nor should I dream of giving a tithe of my income. I object to all experiments in religion. They are un-English."

Some people talk about the English character as though it were the one thing in God's universe that needed no redemption. We might ask ourselves whether Rome with her hold on the supernatural and her welcome for the poor has nothing to teach us; whether we might not learn from the deep personal piety of Puritans; or even gather ideas from the Unitarians and their love of knowledge. We might do all this and yet not copy their faults.

Complacency in our own system of thought robs us of all aggressive power. Too often we seem to think that our own superiority is so clear that all who do not see it are fools or knaves and not worth troubling about. How different is the method of Jesus Christ: "Go out into the highways and hedges and compel them to come in."

This complacency if unchecked will leave us high and dry with all the great currents of the world passing away from us. It kills enthusiasm, for if we are so secure, zeal seems a waste of time.

Worse than this is our moral complacency [44/45] which makes us content with the virtues we have and unconscious of any call to higher things. As Matthew Arnold said truly of the English middle classes " . . . they have great virtues of which they are fully conscious." "Where there is no vision the people perisheth."

Many people ask to-day what vision there is in the Church of England. This may be unfair, but I wish we would give heed to the question.

One super-eminent quality of English religion is its dislike of the heights and depths. It cannot understand either saints or sinners. I remember a country rector saying to me of a man, a Roman Catholic, "Oh, he has had an awful life." I said, "You mean he now and then gives way to drink; but has he not been converted?" "Oh, yes, but there are those outbreaks": as though that were sufficient, and there was no more to be said about it. If S. Francis of Assisi were to appear to-day he would be locked up, and S. Mary Magdalene would be turned out of the Girls' Friendly Society.

The Church of England maintains with some success a high standard among those of her laity who really are adherents. Also she has shed a smaller proportion of the educated classes than has the Catholic Church in foreign lands. She has the greatest opportunity in the world, as Creighton saw. "The question of the future of [45/46] the world," he said, "is the question of the existence of Anglo-Saxon civilization upon a religious basis." That is clearer now than it was when he said it. We can bring forth out of our treasure things old and new. We can have the strength that comes from being rooted deep in the past, for we have surrendered no part of our Catholic heritage; and we can have all the power and wonder of the future, for we have no such upas tree as ultramontane autocracy. We are open to every fresh avenue of experience. But we cannot do this if we are the slaves of Philistine respectability. Yet that is what we stand for in the eyes of many, that is why large numbers of people like the Church of England.

It is all very well to have a hold on the bourgeoisie in the large French sense of that term; but those great classes who are not in any sense the bourgeoisie, what of them? How do we stand with them? We talked of one such class a week ago. Still worse is our record in regard to the intellectuals, artists, actors, painters, literary men or men of science. Most of them are repelled by us: and I do not mean merely anti-Christians. They think of us as tied to the apron strings of Mrs. Grundy. So we are. We present Christian love shorn of all the beauty of the Cross and the Manger, and we show forth the passion for God as the mincings of a smug gentility.

[47] Is not that true to a large extent? And remember, we do not get over this by using phrases or saying that we are Catholics, and that we have the whole universal Church to draw upon. This church has the advantage of having been recently developed in that line, and so it has a feeling of freedom, but there are many churches which seem to have sunk down into a sort of religion which was described once as "auntism," a religion suited for people who gave up all hopes of matrimony in the 'seventies and 'eighties. You can find such churches, and you know it. So do not let us imagine we shall escape complacency merely by labelling ourselves. We can only escape it really by the Cross of Christ, as I said last week, something that is a sacrifice in earnest.

Social complacency is the worst of all qualities in our Church. A quarter of our ineffectiveness comes from this irritating vice among the clergy, and a full half from it in their wives. I do not believe we shall ever get out of it until the marriage of priests become the exception instead of the rule. That it is which has made the Church so much of an upper middle-class sect. If this is an exaggeration it is nearer the truth in certain parts of it than any other single statement. You can see this set forth in a little novel called The Wonder Year, by Miss Goldring. [47/48] The book has faults, but it shows you how this quality frets the mind of an educated writer descending into the country. And that is what people say about us. The New Statesman reviewed with praise Canon Scott Holland's Bundle of Memories. It called it "Anglican gusto," but it went on to say that such enthusiasm had no real place in the Church of England, and that what the Church of England really stood for was a certain stiff decorum, no more and no less.

Is that true? No, you say, it is not true. Perhaps not. Yet it is so nearly true as to be very plausible. It is your business and mine so to live that it shall cease to be even plausible.


I trust that I have not during this month seemed to you to be unduly pessimistic, for I do not believe in what is called the failure of the Church of England. I think there are wonderful hopes for the future. But I do not think we shall make use of our opportunities or fulfil our hopes if we merely sit comfortably as they used to do, thinking of our incomparable liturgy or something of that sort. Surely we have learned that you do not win the world without fighting, and we need to throw away from us all those swathing-bands and entanglements that hinder us. We know very well the truth of S. Paul's words in regard to the individual when he said, [48/49] "Let us lay aside every weight and the sin that loth so easily beset us and run with patience the race that is set before us." But most people think that is true only in regard to their personal sins. That is not the case. We need it a great deal more in regard to the corporate sins and the kind of sins which we share very often while hardly knowing it.

Let us, then, examine ourselves and see whether there be no truth in these defects of which I have been speaking, and let us remember that we shall not get good, or do so much good, by denouncing them in other people as we shall by trying ourselves always and everywhere to avoid them. One communicant Churchman who manages by the grace of God to do this, whose Churchmanship is untainted by sentimentality and at the same time is free from the hard lovelessness of legalism, who is ever courageous, not merely in physical or moral matters but in regard to the great adventure of religion and the faith of the Cross; who is all these things without that worst form of pride which continually plumes itself on its difference from other people; I say one man or woman who is like that will do more good than a hundred books denouncing ill qualities in other people.

For remember that this can only be reached by the grace of God, and that the Church is a [49/50] strictly supernatural institution of which the meaning is our Lord Jesus Christ.

Hope for us is so great and so full and wonderful because we live by the power of an endless life; and Jesus Christ, we believe, will guide us to do His work, though it may not be to win earthly triumphs or the praise of men.

And will you pray that this National Mission may have in part that result, and that God will unite and bless the efforts of many to bring not only those without but those within to a true sense of sin and a knowledge of the forgiveness wrought by Jesus Christ?

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