VIEWED ecclesiastically, Bishop French was so unique in his position as an Anglican Churchman, and in his attitude to Church parties and controversies, that no account of him would be complete without a careful statement on these matters.
We have seen that he was brought up in an evangelical home of the beautiful old type which so many writers not themselves identified with evangelical views--Mr. G. W. E. Russell notably--have loved to describe; and that his Oxford life, which coincided with the later Newman period, did not move him from his wholehearted evangelical faith. So much so that, when the missionary call came to him, no question arose as to the organisation he should join. He went to the C.M.S. as a matter of course, and was joyfully received into the brotherhood of that Society. And all his life he loved the C.M.S., pleaded its cause, defended it from hostile criticism, lived in close fellowship with many of its leading members at home and missionaries abroad. "The dear old C.M.S.," he wrote in 1887, "I plead for with heart and soul, however much I wish sometimes they were able to work more in harmony with Church authorities, and on the lines of the Church history of the first four centuries."
But he certainly did not love the Evangelical Party as such. "It is evangelical truth," he wrote in 1867, "that I stickle for. The party, as a party, I never fight for: its Church views I don't agree with; but its teaching, or rather the grand fundamental life-giving truth, which it was commissioned to bring to the forefront, will never die, I believe, because it is the heart and core of the Gospel." But earlier even than that, during his first period in India, he wrote: "In Church views . . . constitutionally and by experience, as well as by study of facts, I am a High Churchman." His historic instinct, his imaginative mind, his love of symbolism, his keen appreciation of patristic and mediaeval writings, his strong view of episcopal authority, all combined to influence him in that direction.
At the same time, he was in no sense identified with High Churchmen as a party. He took his line quite independently of what any recognised Church party might think. His teaching on the Holy Communion, for instance, was of a via media type. He used language which Evangelicals would naturally avoid; but his words, "In the heart of the faithful recipient, not in the hands of the priest who celebrates, the elements are the conveyors of the Lord's body and blood in all their virtues and healing and cleansing gifts," remind us of Keble's original expression in the earlier editions of the Christian Year, "In the heart, Not in the hands," which in later editions was altered to, "In the heart, As in the hands." He not only approved but earnestly advocated the placing of a cross on or over the holy table, and on one occasion replaced with his own hands the cross which some one had taken down; but he wrote strongly against "bowings and genuflexions" borrowed from Rome. He not only defended Evening Communion, but himself practised it, "having," he said, "no sympathy with the Ritualists about Early Communion as alone valid and permissible." He habitually took the eastward position, but consented, where it was objected to, to take "the corner between the north and east." On confession, too, he took a middle line. He condemned "the invasion of the secrecy and privacy of homes" which he thought the Roman use involved, and held that "a ministry whose principle is that the Christian shepherd is beyond all else the father-confessor of his people, though it gratifies the love of power, and fastens silken chains round hearts that are naturally reverential and dependent, feeble, and loving to shake off responsibility, yet does not in the end foster robustness and solidity of Christian character, nor cultivate the best and purest and strongest types of Christian manhood and womanhood." Yet when the Sisters of St. Denys, whom he had invited to India, desired to make their confessions, he heard them himself, "dreading it beforehand," but preferring this to "handing it over to young chaplains." "I had quite satisfied myself," he wrote, "from Hooker, and words in the Service for the Sick and Holy Communion offices, that, within reasonable limits, it was the duty of the Church of England to recognise it as part of the ministerial function."
It will be readily understood that the High Church chaplains in the diocese, who acknowledged that they received him with prejudice on account of his antecedents, learned to appreciate and respect him. His successor, Bishop Matthew, wrote: "No diocese was ever administered on lines more independent of party than the diocese of Lahore by its first Bishop. He had points of contact with every party, and he endeavoured to secure competent representatives of every school among his clergy."
On the other hand, the C.M.S. men, while they revered his saintly character and his unreserved devotion to the missionary cause, were, as might be expected, a good deal troubled about the line he took. That a man should take the eastward position at Evening Communion seemed to some of them strangely inconsistent--as no doubt it would equally be to the opposite school! That he should bring Sisters with vows into the diocese, and at the same time translate Spurgeon's sermons and write of "the delightful notices" of Moody's services and Haslam's reminiscences in The Christian, was a perplexing problem. The senior missionary, Robert Clark, a man of the highest character, who did a noble fifty years' work, and who was his intimate friend, gently remonstrated with him on some of the points above mentioned; but French, with all his humility and distrust of self, was immovable in matters of conscience. To no man would he have more gladly yielded than to Robert Clark; but in 1886 he wrote to him: "If mother [the Church] and daughter [the C.M.S.] disagree, I must be forgiven for taking the mother's side! But it is sometimes not so much the daughter as the daughter's sons!--I am afraid--only a very few of them, happily." And again, after he had left India:
"My last sigh and pang of agony will be for the miserably small and frivolous strifes which fritter away our strength on such trifles as eastward and northern position, mixing of the wine with water, the bishop's pastoral staff, etc. If it were questions like Virgin-worship, or bowing down to adore the elements, then we are on ground worthy of our steel; but the sooner we have done with these childish contentions about airy nothings, so much the better for the Truth and the worse for Rome."
On one occasion he took a quite unexpected course. In 1883 the Bishops of the Province of India and Ceylon assembled for conference at Calcutta. There were Bishops Johnson of Calcutta, Mylne of Bombay, and Copleston of Colombo, who were regarded as definitely "High"; Caldwell of Tinnevelly and Strachan of Rangoon, S.P.G. missionaries of an older type; Cell of Madras, Sargent of Tinnevelly, Speechly of Travancore, distinctly Evangelical; and French. They adopted a series of resolutions on certain Church questions, and issued a "Letter ... to all of every race and religion" in India. French had to leave Calcutta before the letter was finally drawn up, and, as he had thus no opportunity to move the insertion of some additional clauses, he refused to let his name be appended to it. The letter rested the claims of the Church of England upon its "Apostolical Order." French thought that a threefold base should have been mentioned, viz., "Evangelical Truth, Apostolical Order, and Working Power and Usefulness." It was a notable illustration of his independence of mind that he should withhold his signature from a document which had been adopted by a body of Bishops of such varied theological views.
Strong Churchman as French was, he could hold true fellowship with the Presbyterians and other non-Anglicans in the diocese. When some of the C.M.S. men mistrusted him, he wrote, "My dear Presbyterian brethren understand me better." Mr. Forman, the veteran American Presbyterian, said, "If Bishops could be like Bishop French, we should all be ready to be Episcopalians." Another venerable member of the same Church, an Indian minister, the Rev. Golak Nath, asked him to preach to his congregation: "I told him I was prevented by strict Church rules from so doing, but on another visit, when less pressed, I should consent to have a prayer-meeting with them, and do it with pleasure. I also promised to preach with him in the bazaar."
But all questions of Church order and ritual, and even of dogmatic theology, were to Bishop French secondary to the one supreme question of personal religion. That, he considered, was the real characteristic of the old Evangelicalism to which he still clung. An extract from an account of him by Bishop Edward Bickersteth of Japan, who had been the founder of the Cambridge Delhi Mission, and had sometimes acted as his chaplain, will show a little of his private religious life.
"Emphatically he was among those who followed the apostolic model in giving themselves to prayer as well as the ministry of the word. 'We will keep that room, please, as an oratory: we shall need the help,' I can remember his saying when we reached a dak bungalow where we were to spend two or three days. Those of us who, as a rule, prefer written to extempore prayers would probably have made an exception in favour of the Bishop's, largely composed as they were of scriptural phrases linked together with great brevity and skill. At times he carried fasting so far as to weaken his strength for the work which had immediately to be done. He studied with care, and made frequent use of the chief devotional manuals. His love of hymns was intense. Like other saintly souls, he found in them the greatest support, and, though he was not a musician, and found difficulty in keeping the time, would insist on singing them on his journeys.
"No one could be with him long without knowing that he was in the society of one who lived in familiar intercourse with the great minds alike of the past and present. Like S. Charles Borromeo and John Wesley, he pursued his studies unweariedly on his journeys. ... In the years that I was his chaplain, the Gallican divines, Dupanloup, Perreyve, Gratry, etc., claimed his attention increasingly. . . . Among the Schoolmen, he set store on the judgment of Aquinas. Dorner was the modern theologian whom he held to have penetrated deepest into the great mysteries of the faith."
But the man is best revealed by his letters; and it would be hard to find in any biography letters more delightful in every way than those which Mr. Birks selected out of a vast number to print in the Life. They could hardly, however, be appreciated from such very brief extracts as might be included in these pages; and it will be best not to attempt to illustrate in that way his personal friendships and the intimacies of family life. It will be more germane to the subject of this chapter to copy three or four paragraphs in which he, according to his custom, briefly indicated to his wife and children the topics of sermons he had preached:
Easter Day, April 13, 1879.--"This morning I dwelt, in Hindustani, before a wonderful congregation of native Christians--some 200, of whom 75 were confirmed yesterday, and over 160 were present at the Lord's Table this morning--on the destruction of Pharaoh's host in the Red Sea as the appropriate type of the open tomb of the Lord Jesus, round about which are strewn the corpses of the forgiven, obliterated, and subdued sins of His people, as set forth in Micah vii., not forgetting Rev. xv."
Easter Day, Rawal Pindi, April 17, 1881.--"It is a sight to see the churches in Peshawar and Rawal Pindi, the number of soldiers and officers. In this place there has been almost every officer at the Holy Communion to-day at the two morning services. I dwelt on Jesus Christ as the Beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in all things He might have the preeminence. ... I showed how all our beginnings of good, of resisting evil, were embraced in Christ as 'the Beginning,' and how all was from the victory of His cross and the power of His resurrection. . . . My heart rejoiced in delivering this blessed message."
Ferozepore, November 8, 1884.--"This morning I am speaking of the two appearings, or Epiphanies, from Titus ii. 11, 12, the Epiphany of Grace which began the work of God in us and in all His people, and the Epiphany of Glory which completes it! What a beautiful, gladdening teaching is this! "
Lahore, St. Stephen's Day, December 26, 1886.--"This morning I took, after long preparation, a new text, Isa. xxviii. 5, 6, trying to show how, in spite of all the lowliness of the manger of Bethlehem, Christ Incarnate had been seen to His saints in 'all ages as 'the crown of glory and diadem of beauty'--to St. Stephen, to St. Paul before Nero, to Bishop Hannington and his little band of fellow-martyrs in Uganda--to many in high and low places, as St. Louis IX., Elizabeth of Hungary, Alfred the Great."
After reading passages like these, we can better understand how distasteful to him must have been controversies on the externals of ritual and the like. His soul lived in a far higher atmosphere.