April 14, 2010

Anglo Catholic for Secularism: Religion and William Gladstone's Church Policy


Nationalism was not the only way Gladstone’s religous views led to radicalism. Another was in the matter of Church establishment. This was an enormous issue in late in nineteenth century British politics. Only a minoiryt of churchgoers attended the established churches but they had a full staple of links to the state and legal privileges including tithes(that is taxes paid to clergy of the established church). At a time when sectarian alignment was perhaps the biggest dividing line socially these links were fiercely resented and defended . Radical cries of “free church” and conservative of “church in danger” were the staples of election campaigns. As the narrow foundations of a welfare state in education were laid from the 1870's onwardsthe funding of this also became a huge issue-particularly as religious schools were nearly all Anglican or belonged to the unpopular Catholic minority.

As mentioned in a previous post in his youth Gladstone believed the state needed to be the political expression of the state. He soon cast this aside as impractical. In it’s place developed an opposition to the merger of Church and state (albeit one subject to caution and pragmaticism) . This was based in large part on the very absolutism of his religous views. Gladstone believed that such measures as the legalisation of divorce and remarriage involved the state rejecting it’s Christian identity. Thus drawing further arbitrary (in his view) lines was merely a form of tyranny. It was in large measure for that reason he risked a great deal of criticism by supporting the case of Charles Brandlaugh who as a freethinker refused to swear an oath to god to sit in Parliament and clashed viciously with Lord Randolph Churchill on this issue.

AT the same time the compromises involved in the practical politics risked in his view corrupting distinctive Anglican doctrines. In the 1870’s education funding became significant and rapidly became the subject of sectarian and religious controversy over what schools should be funded and what religious education should be provided . Gladstone tended to the most hard core “secularist” position no funding for religious education by the government at all. Nearly all the other advocates of this support were hostile or indifferent to religion or militant anti Anglican Nonconformists. Nonconformists lacked schools of their own –though most of them unlike Gladstone were supportive of “non denominational” bible teaching. Gladstone’s logic was very different then he was against “non denominational” teaching because he believed it would miss the most important religious teaching and he was against funding of religious schools because he believed that would determine content. Gladstone’s fussy Anglicanism led him to oppose any government support of the Anglican church. This was a very rare combination of cause and motive! Though in a deeper sense it was arguably typical the opponents of establishment feared the combination of state and religion usually because they saw it as a threat to their own religious convictions.

It should be noted this was not just a form of fussy Anglicanism. In a sense Gladstone’s Anglo-Catholic tendencies were partly responsible for his disestablishmentarianism as well as the sectional Anglicanism linked to it. The more the state was involved with the church or church schools the more control nonconformist had over it- with their virulently protestant view (and to a much lesser extent sceptics and rationalists). Similarly Priests tended to much more supportive of Anglo-Catholicism than devout laity unsuprinsgly perhaps given the emphasis Anglo Catholicism lays on the role of the Priest ( as one sign Anglo-Catholic Churches generally got lower attendance than the Evangelical) . The Establishment of the church and government funding of education gave more power to lay members of the Church of England as compared to the clergy. Gladstone both saw this as a diminishing of the proper role of the Clergy and as a threat to his preferred theology .

This was certainly a legitimate fear. AS late as the 1920’s Anglo Catholics now the most powerful force in the church hierarchy pushed a new more Catholic addition to the Prayer book –only to see it beaten in the House of Commons after enormous opposition from “low church” Anglicans and nonconformists alike . Within the Church of England evangelicals were the strongest supporters of establishment for exactly these reasons well into the twentieth century. Ironically they often had extremely similar personal theology to nonconformists who were among the most fervent opponents-in large part because they saw establishment as the government blessing of "catholic"practices and beliefs.

IN Gladstone’s own lifetime “anti-ritualist” laws to curb the more extreme anglo catholic ceremonies were a staple of late nineteenth century British politics. Perhaps the most extreme moment was under Disraeli Gladstone’s arch rival whose hatred of “rits and rats” (ritualists/ Anglo-Catholics and rationalists- those who called for a less supernatural Christianity ) led to them being excluded from appointment as bishops(and the appointment of lots of evangelicals. Similarly Gladstone’s new embrace of “free church” seems to have owed something to the Gorham judgement which in the early 1850’s ruled that clergy of the Church of England could deny baptismal regeneration if they saw fit (the doctrine that baptism in itself supernaturally wipes away sin in infants). Thus Anglo-Catholicism as well as nervous Anglicanism contributed a great deal to Gladstone’s wariness of the union of Throne and Altar that was at the heart of the UK right as with just about every other western state of the era.

National issues and church policy broadly defined are not the only ways in which Gladstone’s politics was affected by his religion though they are probably the preeminent. In the relatively narrow area of sexual morality he tended to champion restrictive laws and in old age bemoaned he could not lead a crusade against contraception-though religious differences on such matters were relatively minor in his lifetime. He had a deep belief in the importance of character formation and responsibility that partly lay behind his belief in “economy” and h is vision of economics as discussed in the next post. He believed very much in the need for morality backed by religious sentiment to determine political action- in many ways his socio-economic vision as we will see in the next post was heavily driven by belief in the importance of character, general rigid and clear rules and the need to have ethical themes run through society. His emphasis on peace in foreign affairs may also have held some religious roots.

This is a picture of Gorham the priest whose survival in the church of England (thanks to courts) while denying the key catholic doctrine of baptismal regeneration so angered Gladstone.

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