If I Were a Priest

Because of his forebodings based on the belief that the solar system would in time be engulfed by an icecap, the Very Reverend W . R. Inge, Dean of St. Paul’s Cathedral. became identified in Britain’s press as “the Gloomy Dean.”That he far from deserved the title has often been shown; but if further proof were required, it is given by himself in Diary of a Dean, recently published in England and here commented upon by one of his famous contemporaries, GEORGE BERNARD SHAW.

IT IS puzzling to be born a Quaker, bred a Churchman, and made a Prelate. Dean Inge must often have said to himself, “For which among the rest was I ordained?" In his Diary he confesses to the Quaker; but I, now one of his few remaining contemporaries, being often challenged to denominate myself, and being much of the Dean’s various opinions, have ceased to reply that my nearest to an established religion is the Society of Friends, and, while calling myself a Creative Evolutionist, might also call myself a Jainist Tirthankara as of eight thousand years ago.

When the Dean and I were young the religious word was a battlefield of controversy and persecution. Draper’s Conflict between Religion and Science was a text book. I preached Fabian Socialism in Victoria Park to my little crowd with a Christian Endeavour Apostle preaching on my right and an atheist doing the same on my left: the one vociferating that all atheists had been in the dock at the police court or divorced for adultery, and the other calling the inn at Nazareth the Pig and Whistle, both of them convinced that they were uttering the profoundest religious doctrine and the most unquestionable scientific truth respectively.

All the controversies were in terms of what old photographers called Boot and Whitewash, and Ibsen’s Brand All or Nothing. If the Nazareth inn had the sign of the Pig and Whistle, God did not exist. If the translators of the Authorized Version changed a negative into a positive to save the doctrine of the resurrection of the body, if the Ark was too small to hold all the earth’s fauna in couples, if Joshua could not have stopped the sun in the Valley of Ajalon without putting the whole universe out of action, if asses and serpents could not have conversed in human speech with Balaam and Eve, then the Bible was untrue in every word and sentence from beginning to end. If a Secularist lecturer had been convicted of having travelled by rail without a ticket or kept a mistress (or being kept by one), or advocated birth control, then all Secularists were thieves, fornicators, swindlers, rascals, and prostitutes: and only the ruthless exercise of the Blasphemy Acts could save us from moral chaos and material ruin. Association of ideas passed for logic.

Muscular parsons

Even within the Church of England itself there was controversy. There were muscular Christian rectors who, determined to show that they were no killjoy mealy-mouthed parsons, wore nothing clerical except jampot collars buttoned at the back, and were as assiduous at sports as in services. There were Anglo-Catholies who wore birettas and cassocks, called themselves priests, held up two fingers in blessing, and advertized their services as Masses. There were artist parsons who hung pictures of nudes all round their rooms to show that they had no sympathy wilh the zealots who held that sex is original sin.

There was the Reverend C. L. Marson, who maintained that the first Article of the Church of England is, from the point of view of Jehovah’s Witnesses and the Plymouth Brethren, flat atheism. The vehicle in which he made his rounds was a donkey cart; and the donkey’s name was Sarah Bernhardt. He collected folk songs, which his humbler parishioners classed as debauchery, as they did all fine art and merriment. There were the Christian Socialists, organized in the Guild of St. Matthew : some of them in the Church and Stage Guild with ballet stars and Lions Comiques, notably Jolly John Nash, who made his living by singing the praises of champagne, and was sincerely pious in private. And there were those who followed Herbert Spencer in holding that God is unknowable and unfathomable: in short, Neo-Jainists.

A precious rarity

Into this boiling cauldron of controversy Ralph Inge was born, foredoomed by heredity and environment to be a minister of the Church of England, and destined to be that unique phenomenon, a famous clean who refused a bishopric and became a famous journalist.

It is no part of my business to describe or explain the steps of this unusual development. I know only too well the annoyance and corruption of doctrine caused by people who write and read about noted authors instead of reading what the authors themselves have written, mostly much better. All a reviewer has any right to say of another man’s book is “Read it” unless his verdict is “Don’t read it.” in which case he should give his reasons. But in the Dean’s case, the word is so emphatically “ You must read it” that I shall permit myself only a note or two.

Many years ago I received for review a book entitled Outspoken Essays, and had hardly read three sentences before I smelt that very precious rarity, an original mind and a first-rate literary craftsman. As I was a bit in this line myself I was intensely interested, and reviewed it to that effect. My estimate has never changed. It led to a friendship which has made the kindly references to me and my late wife in the Diary so dear to me that any pretence of impartiality on my part would be ridiculous. There was no difference between us that mattered. But there was a difference. He had met many people I had met, and read many books I had read. But I had read Ruskin, Ibsen, and Marx; and my classics were Orlandus Lassus and Sweelinck, Palestrina and Monteverde, Bach and Handel, Haydn, Mozart, and Beethoven, Rossini, Meyerbeer, and Verdi; whereas in the index to the Diary, Buskin, Ibsen, and Marx are not mentioned, and the Dean, surfeited with the strains of Jackson, execrates music.

A turnip a ghost

I divide sages into pre-Marx and post-Marx. ’The pre-Marxists, brought up on Macaulay and Gladstone, regard and regret the nineteenth century as an age of prosperity increasing by leaps and bounds. To the post-Marxists it is a bottomless pit of hell from which Marx lifted the lid. In the Diary Sidney Webb is referred to only once, and then in a quotation from a noodle who described him as a negligible nobody. And the Diarist records how, when we met, he found himself in unexpected agreement with me, but could not understand my obsession about Russia. Mad he read Marx and discovered the Fabian Society he would have understood. On this point he dates as does another famous friend of mine, Gilbert Murray. He withdraws his description of Gilbert Chesterton’s scriptures as the “elephantine capers of an obese mountebank,” but does not define him as what he was: an extraordinarily gifted Peter Pan who never grew up.

Curiously enough, though he never mentions Ibsen, he was bothered, as Ibsen was when he wrote Ghosts, by a Darwinian turnip ghost. For Ibsen, disease, especially syphilitic dementia, was inevitably inherited. For the Diarist, it was the cooling of the sun, and the freezing to death of mankind on an ice-cap over the whole solar system. Science has since made hay of both these prospects; but they started the notion that Ibsen and Inge were pessimists.

Freedom or slavery?

Clerically, the Dean escaped the worst trial of a parson’s intellectual conscience: that of having to countenance superstitions he does not share with his more primitive parishioners, yet finding it impossible to cure their souls on any other terms. Rousseau told the world two thundering lies, both of which the Churches swallowed with shut eyes and open mouth. Number one: Men are born free. Number two: Get rid of your miracles and the whole world will fall at the feet of Jesus.

Had Rousseau been born an employer he would have known that we are all born slaves to our necessities: bread and water, clothes and shelter, sleep and play and sanitation. Until these are satisfied there can be no freedom. Had he been a priest in a slum parish he would soon have learnt that if he got rid of the miracles his flock would go straight to the devil. An Irish Catholic statesman of my acquaintance was advized by a clever political lady to adopt a certain not quite straightforward stroke of diplomacy. He refused. She asked why. He replied, “Because I happen to believe that there is such a place as hell.”

Jesus had to warn his missionaries that if they tried to weed the supersitions out of an established religion they would pull out the wheat as well as the tares. Mahomet, who when the Arabs were worshippers of sticks and stones made Unitarians of them at the risk of his life, found that he could not govern them without promising them a paradise of houris, threatening them with a loathsome hell, and claiming divine revelation for his oracles.


Were I an Irish priest and all my parishioners peasants I should say nothing of my own creed of Creative Evolution, which they could neither believe nor understand. I should educate the women in the cult of the Blessed Immaculate Virgin. I should bind and loose in the confessional. I should redeem the dead from purgatory for a cash consideration. I should elevate the Host as the real presenee. Only so could I give them a religion they could believe and a spiritual director they could revere.

All this would have been hard on Ralph Inge if his living had been in Hoxton or the Isle of Dogs. He would soon have been in trouble like Colenso or Bishop Barnes. Happily he graduated clerically in Funismore Gardens, where his parishioners were — how shall I put it? — up to snuff. Thereafter as Dean of St. Paul’s in London city he had no slums to visit and could speak his mind, leaving unspoken the brimstone specialities of the Little Bethels. Even I was invited to preach in the City Temple, and did so with complete acceptance more than once.

“No faith in Democracy”

In the Diary the reason given for our getting on so well together is that we both had “no faith in Democracy.” This must be interpreted as no faith in government and administration by parliaments of anybodies or nobodies elected by everybody. Administration is a highly skilled profession; and government is possible only for the five per cent or so born with the extra mental range it requires. Call them Mahatmas. The Diarist, having that extra range, knows that the remaining ninety-five per cent do not possess it, and are a continual obstruction and a tyranny to those who do.

Young Mahatmas, unconscious of their scarcity, and supposing all their fellow creatures to be as wise as themselves, are always puzzled at first by the stoppage of common minds at the point where the next step seems to the Mahatma to be glaringly obvious, and yet is inconceivable, invisible, and impossible to Monsieur Tout le Monde. History soon convinces him that at best Monsieur elects Second Bests doing only what was done last time, and at worst Titus Oates, Lord George Gordon, favourite actors and soldiers (Henry Irving and Lord Roberts, for instance), the backbone of law and order all the time being the Vicars of Bray who obey any government that happens to be in power, and mind their own business “whatsoever king shall reign.”

The real use of votes for everybody is to prevent us from being governed better than we can bear, as in the case of Prohibition of intoxicating drink in the U.S.A., which had to be repealed in spite of its proved betterment. The Welfare State is not possible with an Illfare constitution. Nobody knows this better than the exceptional thinkers,

A shy scholar

On the first page of the introduction to the Diary his friends will enjoy a laugh which the Diarist did not intend. He describes himself as a “shy scholar handicapped by a ridiculous inability to remember faces.” In fact, there is nothing wrong with his memory. He cannot remember faces simply because he never looks at them. This habit may have begun when he was young and shy, as we all are if we are not congenitally impudent. But the Dean’s hundreds of sermons must have cured him of that. When anyone looks at me candidly straight in the face when making an assertion, I know at once that he (or she) is lying. We are all taught that liars can never do so, though as a matter of fact they never do anything else. The Dean cannot do it. He never looks at you at all. I have known only one other man who had this trick. Sir Frederick Pollock, if he sat facing you, shifted round inch by inch, and left you addressing the nape of his neck. He was none the less a clever man and a wit.

The illustrations in the Diary really illustrate it, and are most interesting. The Dean, an extraordinarily handsome intellectual, with an enchanting smile, should have been depicted in his gaiters; for the full dress of a dean is more becoming than any other now in vogue, except its one rival, the evening dress of a Scottish chieftain.

Note: Jainism, an older religion than Buddhism, holds that their great leader Mahavira was preceded by twenty-three Tirthankaras, or saints, who have attained nirvana, and, though without care for or influence on the world, are worshipped as gods.