Religion in England


THE Editor has asked me to send him my reflections on the religious changes in England which I have witnessed since I first began to ‘take notice’ about seventy years ago. My readers must picture me as a little boy in the Yorkshire village of Crayke in Cleveland, the district of which my grandfather, the rector of Crayke, was archdeacon. It was a beautiful village of about five hundred inhabitants, on a hill rising steeply above the plain of York, six miles from the railroad, and cut off from neighbors of our own sort. The historian Lecky has praised the almost ideal life in these old country rectories, in surroundings of unspoilt rural loveliness. In one of them lived the old archdeacon, surrounded by thousands of books, an old-fashioned scholar who before he buried himself in a remote country parish had been intimate with the Oxford Tractarians, and remained until his death, in 1874, faithful to the churchmanship of Pusey and Keble. My mother told me of a visit of Manning to the rectory, after Newman’s secession and before his own. My grandfather, who was deeply distressed at Newman’s action, wondered what the motive could be for such a man to leave the National Church. ‘A Cardinal’s hat, perhaps,’ said Archdeacon Manning.

The High-Churchmanship of the Tractarians was very different from our modern Anglo-Catholicism. The ‘Puseyites’ cared nothing about ritual. They were learned in theology. They were bigoted Anglicans; the awful fate of Korah and his company was impressed upon us so strongly that we should not have been much surprised to see the Methodist minister swallowed up by the earth. Sunday was a mitigated Puritan Sabbath; cards, theatres, and novel reading, though not forbidden, were discouraged. But we were taught to admire good literature, which our mother read aloud to us (an excellent practice) for some two hours every day. In spite of some prejudices, we had a splendid education, such as no children get in these hurrying days.

Class distinctions were much more accentuated in those days; but those who would understand English social history must realize that these distinctions were quite different in England and on the Continent. With us the sharpest line was not between the nobility and the commoners; it ran right through the centre of the middle class. On one side were all those who ranked as gentlefolk — a distinction conferred not by wealth but partly by belonging to a family recognized by the College of Heralds, and partly by a publicschool and university education. An American may understand this queer prejudice by reading Miss Mulock’s once famous novel, John Halifax, Gentleman. The Church was one of the few professions to which a gentleman might belong; the others were the army and navy, the civil service, the bar, land agency, the higher branches of teaching and research, and (a little doubtfully) banking and medicine. Any connection with retail trade was fatal.

The effect of this was to establish an unfortunate social barrier between the Church of England clergy and Nonconformist ministers, most of whom came from the trading class and had no university degrees. There was thus no chance of terminating the schisms caused by the defection of the Methodists and other sects, which were made wider by the snobbishness of the Church and the bitterness of the Free Churches. All this sounds very silly to an American; and so it was. But caste was an antidote to the worship of wealth, which was more undisguised when these prejudices disappeared. In any case, this source of alienation between Anglicans and Nonconformists has now practically vanished. There is very little snobbishness in England now, except among ‘class-conscious’ socialists and their toadies. Those who used to be ‘the gentry’ do not think about class at all; they have forgotten their pedigrees and their coats of arms. The sons of peers are only too glad to accept positions in business houses.

This change ought to have promoted a rapprochement among the reformed churches in England; but the growth of Anglo-Catholicism, with its peculiar theory of the mechanical devolution of a ‘ valid ’ ministry from the Apostles to Catholic priests, has fortified an old prejudice with a new argument. At present a voter for our Church Assembly has to declare that he is not a member of any other religious body. (This incidentally disfranchises the King, who is a Presbyterian in Scotland.) In my boyhood about one third of my grandfather’s parishioners, including some of the best, went both to church and to chapel. Stiff Anglicanism has now driven these waverers into what its champions call schism. Practically, they divide all other Christians into those who unchurch them and those whom they unchurch.


The credit of awakening a social conscience in the Church of England belongs chiefly to the mid-Victorian Broad Church group headed by Charles Kingsley and Frederick Denison Maurice. At that time there was much to arouse indignation in the condition of the poor, though our socialistic historians have exaggerated the facts considerably. The truth is that England did not recover from the Napoleonic War till about 1850, when a period of great prosperity began, and from that time the economic position of the laborers improved steadily. The AngloCatholics began to be interested in social legislation when the Lux Mundi group — Charles Gore, Scott Holland, and their friends — gave a new direction to the activities of that party. In the last ten years their interest has somewhat abated, partly because the wage earners are now able to take good care of themselves, and partly because in the extreme churches there is a tendency to excessive parochialism or rather Congregationalism, an absorbing preoccupation with the church services. But the court chaplains of King Demos are always in evidence, especially when a Labor government is in power.

The Evangelical party has changed quite as much as the Anglo-Catholics. Trollope gives a repulsive picture of the Slopes and Proudies of the mid-Victorian age — a caricature, of course, but Sabbatarianism and bibliolatry were rampant in this school. The advance of science and Biblical criticism hit this group very hard. It was hardly possible any longer for an educated man to belong to it, and many sons of Evangelicals went over to the opposite camp. Now, however, there is a growing school of Liberal Evangelicals, who are prepared to accept the new knowledge. They have realized that the Bible is not the religion of Protestants, as Chillingworth said it was. The religion of Protestants is personal devotion to Christ, the acceptance of the standard of values revealed by Him, and the type of ’mystical’ piety of which the Quakers are prominent witnesses. These new Evangelicals have no prejudice against appeals to the eye and ear in public worship. The bare ugliness of Protestant worship has disappeared. The same tendency is very apparent in Scottish Presbyterian churches. In some of them the furnishing of the building and the type of service approximate very closely to the Anglican model.

The Broad Church or Liberal party has so far leavened the two historical parties that it has almost lost its raison d’être. In my young days, the names of Stanley, Jowett, and Colenso were mentioned with horror, and the very mild volume, Essays and Reviews, was nicknamed Septem contra Christum. The recent High Church manifesto, Essays Catholic and Critical, would have staggered Keble and Liddon. But the limits of concession to Modernism are still undetermined. The movement has split into two sections. On one side are the Liberal Protestants, like Harnack, who, while discarding the miraculous, revere the historical Christ as our perfect exemplar and the final revealer of ethical religion. They necessarily take a somewhat pessimistic view of Church history, which under Catholicism seems to them to have receded further and further from the simple moral ideal taught by Christ. They tend also to regret the invasion of an Oriental religion by Greek metaphysics and sacramentalism. The other section — the Modernists properly so called — declare that it is impossible to modernize Jesus of Nazareth without distorting history in the service of edification. The historical Jesus, the boldest among them say, was an apocalyptic prophet who predicted the sudden end of the existing world order by a supernatural intervention of divine power. The Catholic Church, which was born out of this baseless expectation, owes but little to the historical Christ. ‘We acknowledge as it were two Christs,’ says Loisy; the one a Jewish peasant ‘of limited intelligence,’ the other the ideal object of the Church’s worship. The Church, a living and growing organism, takes for this school the place of the Galilean prophet. The Catholic Modernists had a strange notion that this apologetic might be accepted as legitimate by the Roman hierarchy. When the Pope denounced it as ‘a compendium of all the heresies,’ some of the Modernists were silenced; others, like Loisy himself, a critic of great penetration but unreasonably suspicious of the value of the documents, severed his connection with organized Christianity altogether.

Liberal thought in England is less uncompromising, and tries to steer a middle course between German Liberalism and Modernism. Some of our most prominent theologians are Christian Platonists with a tendency toward mysticism. These rightly contend that the alliance between Platonism and Christianity began very early, as early as Saint Paul, and that it is impossible to tear Platonism from the side of Christian theology without destroying it. This is the type of religious thought with which I personally have most sympathy, and I have devoted much of my life to following up the paths indicated by it.


The study of mysticism has made great progress in my lifetime. Mysticism means the practice of the presence of God; its typical activity is prayer, the classical definition of which is ‘the elevation of the mind to God.’ Mysticism assumes that this communion between the human soul and God is not only possible, but is a fact of experience. Philosophically, mysticism rests on a psychology of the Platonic type. Man consists of body, soul, and spirit. The spirit belongs essentially to the eternal spiritual world, and in proportion as ‘soul becomes spirit’ we ‘have our conversation in heaven,’ even during our earthly probation. It is a law of life that we can only know what is like ourselves; spiritual things, as Saint Paul says, are spiritually discerned. The Greek thinkers taught that salvation consists in ‘ becoming like God,’ or (which for them was the same thing) in ‘becoming immortal as far as possible.’ The way to this liberation of our personality from its lower attachments is by a life of duty and self-discipline, and by concentration of our thoughts and reflections on divine and spiritual things. The so-called mystical phenomena — trance, ecstasy, abnormal visions and auditions — are not a necessary part of mysticism, and no doubt are often the result of nervous overstrain.

Psychologists, such as William James, have been keenly interested in mystical literature. But, though their researches are of great value, they are unsatisfactory from the religious point of view. The subject of psychology is the study of states of consciousness in themselves. It cannot, while it confines itself to its own domain, discuss the absolute objective truth of the convictions which the mystics hold; and most psychologists are mainly interested in unusual and pathological manifestations of the religious instinct. This limitation has the appearance of prejudging the case against the mystics, most of whom are really quite sane. They, on their side, are not interested in psychology, but in revelation. If it is not God who speaks to them, their faith is vain.

I have long thought that the evidential value of what it is the fashion to call religious experience is far greater than is usually recognized. In a sense, no doubt, the mystical vision is not transferable; it is even indescribable. But when we find a large number of persons, separated in time, place, and even in religion, agreeing closely in what has been shown to them in their quest of the pearl of great price, it seems only reasonable to believe that they are speaking the truth, and that a whole-hearted devotion to a saintly life is in fact rewarded by the gift of ‘seeing the invisible,’ as the Epistle to the Hebrews says. Now that the old arguments from miracle and prophecy have quite lost their cogency, we cannot afford to neglect the confirmation which the mystics offer us, not, to be sure, of alleged events in the past and future, but of what the religious mind really desires, an assurance that there is a spiritual world, and that it is possible for man ‘in heart and mind thither to ascend.’

Parallel to this revived interest in mysticism there is a strong revival of institutionalism. The heart of religion, we are now told, is not rational conviction of the truth of dogmas, but worship, cultus, sacrament. Religion is not, as Professor Whitehead says, what a man does with his solitariness, but rather, as Royee declared, loyalty to a beloved community. The Church is primary; philosophy and mythology are secondary products. Thus we find a new ecclesiasticism, a new emphasis on the religious corporation and the idea of a divine society. This tendency has been strongly marked in England, where Anglo-Catholicism has gained in popularity; and there is a steady trickle of conversion to Rome. It is rather the fashion of young men of letters to become Roman Catholics. They are attracted, it may be, by the uncompromising authoritativeness of a great religious society, which, when submission has once been made to its claims, presents its members with a singularly coherent and consistent scheme of beliefs, and with a very effective method of mind cure, evolved empirically and brought to great perfection. This kind of religion makes a wider appeal than the individualistic mysticism of which the Quakers are the salient example. But the influence of this latter type is far more extensive than the numerically weak membership of the Society of Friends.

Those who speak of the decay of religion in England generally appeal to the dwindling numbers of those who attend church on Sunday. This, however, is a very poor test. An educated population has now many other ways of satisfying its spiritual needs; and it must be owned that our service books are very ill adapted to the tastes of those who have grown up without the long traditions which alone make our creeds, our ritual, and our formulas of worship intelligible. Why, the workingman may say, should I ‘think upon Rahab and Babylon ’ ? What have I to do with Sihon king of the Amorites and Og the king of Basan? Can I be expected to understand the Athanasian Creed? The severance of our town populations from the old traditional culture, based on Palestine, Greece, and Rome, is quite enough to account for our half-empty churches. (Many of them, however, are by no means empty.)

But interest in religious questions is very keen among us. Foreigners were amazed to hear that one of the most animated debates in the House of Commons in recent years was on the question whether the new Anglican Prayer Book should be authorized. Some churchmen were indignant at this ‘interference’ of the State with ecclesiastical matters. They ought to have been very thankful that the laity in our country think that the conduct of divine worship is their concern. It is a healthy sign that the most vital contributions to religious thought and even to devotional literature are the work of laymen. It is not so on the Continent. Alfred Loisy said to a friend of mine, ‘My books are not widely read in France. The Catholics are not allowed to read them; the others are not interested.’ In no other European country are popular scientific books, such as those by Jeans and Eddington, best sellers, as they are in England. And those who read them are far more interested in the religious and philosophical implications of the new knowledge than in mathematical arguments which only specialists can understand.

It is very difficult to predict the future of Christianity in England. Protestantism is the democracy of religion. If we lose our liberties, like most of the Continental nations, whatever we are, we shall not be Protestants. Personally I believe in liberty, and I cannot picture my countrymen living under a dictatorship. Except under a repressive regime, where freedom of thought is not tolerated, fundamentalism has no future. The Church must come to terms with science. This will involve great changes; but if Christianity is essentially a way of living, based on the standard of values which Christ came to reveal, I believe that it will survive by its intrinsic truth and correspondence with the deepest needs and aspirations of human nature.