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best may fall; and in general literature, in our darkest days, Lord Byron confessed the power of its rebuke; and our best writers have never been reluctant to acknowledge the value of its approval. It has done something towards purifying the literary atmosphere, and has helped to restore a purer, as well as a more vigorous, tone both in the pulpit and in religious literature.
Glancing over these sixty years now passed, we cannot fail to see that religion in the church of England has presented itself under several different aspects. Within the space of the Christian Observer's existence, we have witnessed four different conditions of the church of Christ in this land.
It does not require any great exertion of the memory to bring before the mind's eye the position occupied, between the beginning of this century and the year 1820, by those members of the church of England who honestly received the doctrine of the Articles, and who carried out the preaching of St. Paul, of Augustine, of Luther, and of Bradford, Jewell, and Hooker. They were, as of old, "everywhere spoken against." They were a proscribed class. When political friendship had induced Lord Liverpool to select the brother of Lord Harrowby for a bishopric, the Primate of that day protested against the elevation of one who, he said, "had preached in a conventiele!"that conventicle being, in point of fact, St. John's chapel,-the pulpit of Richard Cecil and of Daniel Wilson. And this was the state of things during the whole of the first quarter of the present century.
But it was discovered, after a time, that this policy was not prospering. The establishment of the Thornton and Simeon trusts, on the one hand, and the rapid growth of the Bible and Missionary Societies, on the other, showed that Evangelical religion was gaining ground even in spite of the disfavour with which it was regarded in high places. The appearance of Dr. Ryder, and soon after of two other names, which we need not mention, on the episcopal bench, marked the dawn of a new state of things, and between 1820 and 1835 the previous alienation between the "Orthodox" and "Evangelical" parties in the church seemed to undergo a change, and there were even signs of an approaching union. When the Church Pastoral Aid Society was founded by the Evangelical party, there were amicable approaches on the part of bishop Blomfield, and even of Dr. Pusey; and if one or two difficulties could have been surmounted, a fusion of "High" and "Low Church" might have taken place on the platform of that Society.
No doubt worldliness had crept into the bosom of the spiritual church; and the old self-denying maxims of the Scotts, and Newtons, and Cecils fell into disuse. Wealthy men began to profess a sort of
semi-Evangelical faith; luxury and ostentation increased, and a great lowering of the tone of Christian profession took place. But meanwhile the various societies for home and foreign missions expanded; and worldliness, though it increased, did not extinguish the inner life of Christ's church. A new policy seemed necessary to the great enemy of the truth; and, in fact, the "peace policy" was never anything more than a stage of transition.
The third plan took its rise, ostensibly, from the alarm excited by the Dissenting movement consequent upon the Reform Bill of 1831. The church was thought by many to be doomed; and when Lord Grey, in the House of Lords, advised the bishops to "set their house in order," it was assumed that he meant to imply all that was expressed in Isaiah: "Set thine house in order, for thou shalt die, and not live." A small committee was formed in Oxford, for the defence of the Church in its peril; and, distrusting the support of the government, it was resolved not to aim at the maintenance of the "Establishment," but to advance with firmness the claims of "the Church."
This was a fundamental error, and it led straight to popery. The series of publications, called "Tracts for the Times," which emanated from the Oxford committee, soon grew more and more “mediæval,” more "Catholic," and, at last, "Romish." One after another of their authors began to discern the logical termination of their main argument, and they honestly accepted the results. The great majority of those who prepared and sent forth the "Tracts" are now dead, or in the bosom of the church of Rome. Only some two or three have shrunk from the admission of the legitimate consequences of their own arguments: they have become silent, but have not relinquished their preferments. Still, as a living, prospering system, Tractarianism may be regarded as a thing of the past. Multitudes of Tractarians, indeed, remain, and propagate a semi-Romanism in their parishes. But their literature, so rife and so formidable twenty years ago, is now effète, or even apparently dead.
All errors, however, when they pass their meridian of popularity, produce, not a return to truth, but a re-action to a corresponding error on the other side. The suppression of a living Christianity in France, and the triumph of an infallible church, led to a pestilential. infidelity; and infidelity, ripening into rebellion, disorder, and anarchy, ended in the establishment of a new and more powerful despotism. The Tractarian writers of 1844-5 insisted upon the credibility of Roman miracles. A new Oxford party has risen upon their fall, denying the credibility of any miracles, scriptural or popish. The real animus was at first, and is still, a rooted dislike to evangelical truth. Not a few there are who, zealous Tractarians in 1845, are now zealous Rationalists.
One of the Seven Essayists, it is well known, was the friend and supporter of Mr. Ward in the struggle which ended in the expulsion of the author of the "Ideal" from the University of Oxford. He is now the associate of the Baden Powells and Rowland Williamses! But in this there is nothing new; the days of Louis XVI. presented many similar instances, of men who vibrated between superstition and atheism; the greatest name in French literature being, perhaps, the most prominent example.
And now, at last, while the whole episcopal bench, and eight thousand of the clergy, have publicly expressed their disapproval of the Seven Essays, a knot of men, not unknown to fame, have come forward to inform the public, that they neither sympathize with the Seven Essayists, nor with their oppugners. For a dozen years past, this, the most recent of our theological parties, has been chiefly known by this characteristic,-that it disliked the High Church, and the Low Church, and the Tractarians, and spent its time for the most part in showing that nearly all the world was in error, except some few teachers and their followers,-the late chaplain of Lincoln's Inn being the acknowledged leader. In conformity with their established practice, we are now informed, that while the Seven Essayists are in error, the eight thousand clergy are equally, or even more, in the wrong; and the Evangelical party are, of course, more to be blamed or pitied or despised, than either of the other two.
Thus matters stand at present. If firmness, vigilance, and charity were ever wanted, they are wanted now. If the wisdom that teaches to "discern things that differ" was ever needed, it is needed now. It is under this conviction that we prosecute our task, and we foresee that it is not likely to be an easy one. But of the result we cannot entertain a doubt. The Church of England has passed through grievous perils, and we believe she will outride this "windy storm and tempest." In our minds the conviction is deep and strong that when the church of England perishes, the greatness of England dies with it. We wish to make no ungenerous reflections; but we cannot avoid the contrast with another country where our own Protestant faith is professed, and where the want of a state church, with its independence in the pulpit, and in every walk of ministerial life, may, in this gloomy hour of civil war and national distress, be distinctly traced. But one thing we know. Whatever may become of the Church of England as an establishment, the council of the Lord that shall stand; the gates of hell may pour forth their armed legions, but against the church of Christ they shall not prevail. We labour for the church of England with a good hope, -for the church of Christ, with a perfect confidence, that all will be well at last.