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Visit to the Old Catholics of Bohemia

by the Bishop of Salisbury
[John Wordsworth]

Reprinted from Foreign Church Chronicle for December, 1889.

London: Rivingtons, n.d.


BEING in Bohemia, I could not omit to use the opportunity of visiting the Old Catholic congregations in the North, which were too distant for the Bishop of Lichfield and myself to reach two years ago, though they are decidedly the most important in the Austrian Empire.

I went therefore from Marienbad to Warnsdorf, by Prague, on Saturday, September 12th, returning by way of Carlsbad on the Tuesday following. Our visit to Crefeld was made on the following Saturday and Sunday on our homeward route, as it lies between Cologne and Flushing.

A few words by way of preface on the general condition of affairs in Bohemia will not be out of place, as they are necessary to understand the Old Catholic position there. This ancient kingdom has gradually been made more and more an integral part of the Austrian Empire, but it still retains a sense of its original independence, and in its Landtag or Provincial Council and its separate Statthalter, or Lord Lieutenant, it has a modified and secondary form of home rule. Its internal condition is, however, in some respects like that of Ireland. Out of a population of between five and six millions about three-fifths are Czechs, of a Slavonic race, and two-fifths are Germans. A great part of the nobility, and generally speaking the agricultural population, are of Czechish blood and sympathies. They inhabit the central and southern plains, and speak a language which is difficult to acquire for one of another race. The German inhabitants occupy the border districts, especially the mountain region to the north, and are chiefly commercial and industrial, being busily and successfully engaged in spinning and weaving, in making glass and porcelain, and in mining works of various kinds. The relation of this district to that inhabited by the Czechs is very much like that of Ulster to the rest of Ireland, but the opposition, though perhaps less outwardly vehement, is much more profound and serious, so that the future of the country is one of the most perplexing problems that can exercise the minds of statesmen. Except in the capital city of Prague the two races live very much apart, and are divided both by language and by political sympathies. The Germans are naturally "Liberal Unionists," as we should call them, desiring to maintain the connexion with the Austrian Provinces, since the German deputies have a majority in the Reichs or Imperial Parliament of the Western half of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. They are, however, in such a decided minority in the Bohemian Provincial Council or Landtag that they have (I understand) withdrawn from its deliberations, having failed to secure the guarantees for the protection of German interests which they thought necessary. The Czechs are "home rulers," and are outwardly at least "clerical," that is Ultramontane, in their sympathies. They are, nevertheless, divided into two parties, the Old, who cling to the conservative traditions of the old kingdom, and the New, who have Panslavist aspirations, and who look to Russia as their natural ally, and might be willing to accept the system of the Eastern Church. Both of these parties, however, unite to oppose the German element, and would undoubtedly use any great political victory over them, such as the crowning of the Emperor as King of Bohemia, for which they are now specially agitating, and the acquisition of an independent Parliament, to drive out the German language as far as possible, and to create a more homogeneous nationality of their own. Indeed, a Bill in regard to Schools is already in process of passing, and may possibly become law, which will have this effect wherever the Czechs are in a majority in any district. I understand that this Bill has now been withdrawn (Sept. 29).

Under these circumstances, it is not remarkable that the Old Catholics should have a strong hold over parts at any rate of the mountain region inhabited by the German commercial and industrial population. This is not due to the survival of Hussitism, because John Huss was almost as much a zealous Czech patriot, and therefore anti-German, as he was a Church-reformer. There is indeed such a survival among the Czechs themselves, biit it has not as yet led any number of them to attach themselves to the Old Catholic cause. The utmost that it produces is a secret sympathy in some quarters, and a less superstitious form of popular religion than is apparent in some other countries. The crucifixes, for instance, by the wayside and in front of the houses are of sober and quiet and not in an exaggerated style of art. The inscriptions upon them are generally "Zur Ehre Gottes," or "Gelobt sei Jesus Christus" ("To the honour of God" and "Let Jesus Christ be praised"). The latter also is the common and beautiful greeting of little children, which they are taught in schools.

The cultus of the Blessed Virgin Mary again is not strongly prominent, and the influence of certain of the older monastic orders to some extent seems (to an outsider at least) to restrain that of the Jesuits. A convent of one of these orders, I may remark, the Premonstratensian Abbey of Tepel, is owner of the country about Marienbad, and administers the baths as well as supplying clergy to the churches and villages round-a state of things that seems to the English visitor to put him back almost into the middle ages.

Warnsdorf itself lies close to the Saxon frontier in the mountain district of Lausitz, and in a level valley surrounded by a chain of beautiful hills with something of distinctive outline. It is in reality. a place larger than Salisbury, but it has all the appearance of an overgrown village, something like a Yorkshire manufacturing village, but brighter and cleaner, though with even less method in its arrangement. It has a population of 18,000, which is large for Bohemia, and has risen to the dignity of a Town Council, the members of which are about two-thirds Old Catholics, and are presided over by an Old Catholic Burgomeister. The inhabitants are almost exclusively German, and are engaged in spinning and weaving cotton in about fifty factories as well as in their own homes. The parish is directed by an excellent priest (Pfarrer Nittel), who has resided there for thirty years, at first as religious instructor in the schools, and since 1871 as Old Catholic pastor. He is assisted at present by three curates, or co-operators, who help him to minister to a large district in the Lausitz and Iser mountains, lying between the better known Erz-Gebirge and Riesen-Gebirge, and extending from Tetschen-Bodenbach to Richenberg. The Old Catholics in this district are not far short of 7000 souls, and have increased by over 600 in the last year, and have every prospect of future increase as soon as churches can be built and clergy supplied. But what is more important is the good spirit that prevails amongst them, the independence and courage of the congregations, which are entirely self-supporting, and the brotherly love and patience that animates them. No one can look into these strong and truthful German faces, and grasp the hands of these earnest men and women, without feeling that this is no transitory movement, but that it has a solid and substantial reality and one most hopeful for the future of Christianity in Central Europe. It is fortunate, I think, that it radiates at present all from one centre and is therefore united and continuous, so that the efforts of one place are stimulating and suggestive to the next. Arnsdorf (close to Haida), about twelve miles south of Warnsdorf, already has the use of a very nice cemetery chapel, and has a delightful congregation. Dessendorf, in the Iser mountains, is about to build a church, the foundation-stone of which was to be laid last Sunday, and Stein Schonau and Meisterdorf, near Arnsdorf, will probably soon begin. At Bodenbach there is a large influx of adherents, but as yet no church. I regretted much that I had only time to visit Arnsdorf and Stein Schonau, especially as I had very kind invitations both to Dessendorf, Meisterdorf, and Bodenbach.

I arrived at Warnsdorf quite alone on Saturday night, and was welcomed by some of the principal members of the body, the rest being in committee, in preparation for the Synod which was to be held next day. My kind host, Herr Frohlich, head of the chief house in this place, the firm of Frohlich Sohn, which employs about 800 workmen, soon made me feel quite at home; and I was lodged in apartments in his beautiful house, which had been occupied by several distinguished guests on previous occasions. No English Churchman who can speak a little German and who has any breadth of sympathy need feel himself a stranger amongst the Old Catholics such as I have everywhere met them.

The next day was Sunday. At nine o'clock I received a large number of visitors, including, of course, our old friend, Pfarrer Cech, of Vienna, who since his visit to Salisbury last year has been appointed Bistumsverweser or Administrator of the Old Catholic Diocese of Austria, with the approbation of the Supreme Government and to the great advantage of the Old Catholic body. He was accompanied by almost all the clergy, including an Evangelical clergyman of distinction, Dr. Braasch, Superintendent of Jena, in Germany, who, like Professor Beyschlag, has strong Old Catholic sympathies. Later on the Kirchen-Vorstand, or select vestry, came in and accompanied me to the church, where the Bistumsverweser preached a very appropriate and powerful sermon on S. Luke xiv. 26-30, about the true and false explanation of Our Lord's words as to hating father and mother, the true position of family life in the Church, and also on His words about beginning to build and not being able to finish, and the necessity of patience and perseverance under trial, and even persecution, on the part of those present. As I was without any other opportunity of communicating, I thought it right to receive the Holy Sacrament with the other clergy, and I gave a benediction at the close of the service. I conceive that the resolution of the Lambeth Conference leaves travellers free in this respect; and I venture to think that where there is no English service which can be attended, it is right that those who are in the habit of communicating weekly should receive the Sacrament, even though the outward form and accessories of the service be in some respects different from that to which they are accustomed, rather than deprive themselves of the means of grace. I had, of course, previously studied the Austrian Prayer Book, and satisfied myself as to the teaching of the Austrian clergy. I took care at the same time to let it be known that I was in no sense deputed to represent the Church of England. As an illustration of the practical necessity of some such rule, I may mention that an English lady, herself confirmed by Bishop Fraser, of Manchester, married to a manufacturer now residing at Warnsdorf, came to consult me next day as to her own position and with regard to the teaching and confirmation of her children.

The church at Warnsdorf is a large one, holding about 3000 people, and has been built entirely by the congregation, at a cost, if I recollect right, of some £5000. It is, of course, a very plain building, but serviceable, and it stands well on a little hill, whence it is visible from all sides. It was fairly filled with a reverent congregation, though bad weather prevented it from being entirely occupied as regards the galleries. The singing was excellent, especially a beautiful setting of the Lord's Prayer by Dregert (published by Siegel at Leipzig), which I had never heard before, and the Hallelujah Chorus, from Handel's "Messiah." A fine life-size marble figure of the risen Saviour, the gift, I think, of a Viennese sculptor, stands immediately behind the altar, and is the chief ornament of the building.

Then followed a sociable dinner, attended by the clergy and lay delegates of the various congregations, with many of whom I had opportunities of conversing, and of learning to value their strength and determination of character as well as their good sense and patience under the great difficulties which they have to encounter. Though recognized by the Government as an independent confession, having equal rights with Roman Catholics, they do not receive a penny of public money or endowment, though such grants are made to the Protestants, I believe, since the time of the reforming Emperor Joseph II. Though a small body, numbering altogether in Austria less than 10,000 registered members, the Old Catholics are so jealously watched, and indeed so feared, that almost incredible hindrances are raised to prevent their free expansion, into the details of which I need not here enter.

At two the Synod met in the church, numbering about forty members, who were seated round a long table running north and south, in the centre of which the Bistumsverweser sat as president. I had the honour to be on his right hand, and the representative of the Government, Bezirks-Hauptmann Marx, from the neighbouring town of Rumburg, was on his left. The presence of such a functionary is, I imagine, usual in public meetings in Austria, and does not show any special suspicion of the Old Catholics. He of course took no part in the proceedings. The body of the church was about half filled with persons listening. The business was conducted with great ability and smoothness by the President, and the resolutions were generally accepted unanimously by all present or with very few dissentients. The number of speakers was few, but they spoke well and freely and to the point. Much time was occupied by the President's report of the different branches of his administration, his relations with the supreme and provincial government, and the like. The facts were clearly stated, so that conclusions could be distinctly drawn, but there was no bitterness or roughness of language. The most important resolutions that were passed in my presence were one to have divine service on at least one day of the week besides Sunday, and to send a Rundschreiben or open letter to various ecclesiastical persons and bodies describing their position and meeting objections. Much sympathy was naturally shown with the small but important outpost of Ried, on the Austro-Bavarian frontier, of which Victor Erb, a former student at Bonn, is now the Pfarrer.

In the evening I attended one of those large social meetings, combining supper, music, and popular speeches, which are so characteristic of Germany. It was held in the Turnhalle, or Gymnastic Hall, and consisted of, perhaps, 2000 people. I had, amongst others, to do my best to thank them for the very kind welcome given to an English visitor, and to offer such advice and encouragement as seemed suitable.

On Monday the chief event was the "Pastoral Conference," attended by all the clergy and by two lay-members of the Synodal Council. This is one of the excellent institutions which the Bistumsverweser has set on foot, and I was particularly glad to be present at it, as it was possible to speak intimately and familiarly on many points of great moment to a growing Church. It would not be proper to write a public report of this Conference, but I believe that it will be of the greatest importance to the Old Catholic body in the future, and will do much to secure and maintain to the Clergy their proper position in spiritual things. The 'Synod' is chiefly occupied with external matters.

On Tuesday a very pleasant party, including Professor Bendel, a member both of the Reichsrath and the Landtag, and Herr Kuzel, of Vienna, and Dr. Braasch, kindly accompanied me by train to Haida, and thence by carriage to Arnsdorf and Stein Schonau, and so to the rail.

The little church at Arnsdorf was filled, notwithstanding bad weather and an inconvenient hour, with a delightful and earnest congregation. We had prayers together, read by Pfarrer Nittel, and he and Pfarrer Cech spoke to the people, which I was also asked to do, and did very gladly. I have seldom or never seen a more attractive body of people, and I rather longed to apply for the post of Pfarrer there myself. I was glad also of the opportunity of seeing some of the factories of the famous Bohemian glass. This is an industry which would, I think, be usefully transplanted to Salisbury, and one in which the artistic taste of our people would show itself to advantage. Each large village has one glass-blowing factory, but the decorating is done, to a great extent, by the workmen in their own homes, and the colours are burnt in in their own kilns. We had also a warm welcome at Stein Schonau, in another valley, reached by a beautiful drive of about an hour.

On Tuesday night I returned to Marienbad, filled with hope and encouragement by my visit to Warnsdorf, and convinced that great progress had been made in Austria since our journey in 1887. Professor Bendel accompanied me part of the way, and gave much, interesting information.

We set off on our homeward journey on Thursday, September 19th, and spent the night at Bamberg, where I examined the important Alcuinian Bible, with a view to our edition of the Vulgate, and saw some other remarkable MSS. The librarian, Dr. Leitschuh, knows his treasures well, and is most kind in making them accessible to students. At Mainz we received a telegram on Saturday morning, from Bishop Reinkens, inviting us to join him and Bishop Herzog at Crefeld, where the latter was to preach on Sunday. This we were very glad to do. It was a peculiarly interesting occasion, as Bishop Herzog was founder of the Old Catholic community there (having taken it for a few months as his first charge after resigning his position in the Roman Catholic Church), and had not visited it since. He is evidently much beloved there still, and a large congregation gathered to hear him and speak with him. Some, no doubt, came out of curiosity, but all were reverent and attentive to his admirable sermon.

Crefeld is an important manufacturing town, making principally silk and velvet, and has considerable intercourse with England. In fact both here and in the neighbourhood of Arnsdorf we met with a number of gentlemen in business, who spoke English well. Our kind host at Crefeld, Herr Wilhelm Gobbers, has a branch house in London, and we therefore hope to have the pleasure of seeing him and members of his family at Salisbury from time to time.

I need not tell those who are acquainted with the two Old Catholic Bishops, what a great pleasure it was to us to meet them again, and how earnestly I wished them God speed on their journey to Utrecht to confer with the Archbishop and Bishops of the Dutch Church, which may with His blessing lead to important issues. It is no small result surely of the Old Catholic movement even now that a chain of Christian communities, agreeing with ourselves in most important points of Church discipline and doctrine, is firmly established from Rotterdam to Vienna, and that in all of these English Churchmen are welcomed as friends and brethren, though the degree of intercommunion between us and them is not absolutely the same in all.

Oxford, Sept. 25, 1889.

The Committee of the Anglo- Continental Society would gladly send some aid to these noble Bohemian Reformers; and any contributions either to the Austrian Fund or the Austrian Bishopric Fund, for their benefit, should be sent to one of the Hon. Secretaries:

Blickling Rectory, Aylsham, Norfolk;
Or the REV. R. S. OLDHAM,
Little Chart Rectory, Ashford, Kent.

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