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The Moral Minority

Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England Vol.II: Assaults

by Maurice Cowling
Cambridge University Press, 375 pp., $49.50

Maurice Cowling, a fellow of Peterhouse, is well known in Cambridge, England, as a modern historian and an advocate of what he calls “intellectual Toryism”—which is very different from the Toryism of practical politics. He has, by now, followers who somewhat pretentiously describe themselves as “the Peterhouse school of history.” Some of these are able, though few of them are very clear writers; they have recently given each other a good deal of publicity; and a newly published book by one of them assures us that they have founded a new tradition in political philosophy.* In the foreword to his own new book, Mr. Cowling, while acknowledging the help of a loyal army of Peterhouse men, darkly suggests that I am not entirely sympathetic to his philosophy. This, I fear, is true. Nevertheless, I shall try to set it out fairly before responding to his challenge and commenting upon it.

In 1980 Mr. Cowling published what we now know to be the first volume of a three-volume work, Religion and Public Doctrine in Modern England, expressing his historical philosophy. It was a somewhat odd book: a series of potted intellectual biographies of a miscellany of English worthies of the last century and a half. There were politicians (the third Marquess of Salisbury, Winston Churchill), imaginative writers (T.S. Eliot, Evelyn Waugh), historians (Sir Herbert Butterfield, Dom David Knowles—fellows of Peterhouse). There were also some more obscure Cambridge dons of the 1930s, and indeed since.

Although we are told that that volume “defined the principles according to which the intellectual history of modern England should be written,” most readers were left in some uncertainty about those principles. However, as one read, certain strong personal opinions emerged. The author expressed a general hatred of “liberalism,” which, he insisted, it is the duty of good men to “resent,” even to “sneer” at; and he certainly sneered to some tune. Most of the characters in the book are either condemned for liberalism or found wanting as insufficiently radical opponents of it.

One of the reviewers of that first volume, Mr. Bernard Williams, provost of King’s College, Cambridge, referring to Mr. Cowling’s “distrust of all merely secular improvements,” likened him to “the more unreconstructed type of cardinal…in the unliberated heartland of the Church of Rome.” This comparison has delighted Mr. Cowling. To him it illustrates “the demonology of the liberal mind,” and he welcomes “these flattering accusations” as “wounds which anyone should be pleased to bear,” for they show that “Provost Williams” has understood the purpose of Volume I: that it was “designed to put question-marks against the assault on Christianity.” This is a great help, and we can now read Volume II, which is subtitled Assaults, and is described as self-contained, with an improved sense of direction.

What Mr. Cowling now seeks to show, by the same method of intellectual biography, is the destruction, in England since 1830, of religious orthodoxy as the essential frame, or even dynamic, of political society. He does this not as an objective historian (he despises objective history, now “professionalized to the point of imbecility”) but, explicitly, as a propagandist, committed to a certain view: to a belief, not in the truth of that orthodoxy (he shows no belief, or even interest, in any Christian doctrine), but in its necessity. He believes that it should have been preserved, defended, revived; for “a properly entrenched and intelligent orthodoxy is as valuable as any of the skills which produce industrial and commercial revolutions.” By an “intelligent orthodoxy” he appears to mean one that knows how to maintain itself by “a cunning religious acerbity,” “reactionary bloodiness,” and is proof against “degenerate philosophising.”

The orthodoxy that has been disintegrated in England since 1830 is, we are led to understand, the Anglican “public doctrine” of “the ancien régime.” Whether such an orthodoxy ever effectively existed, outside the ideology of the old Tory party, except possibly in the 1630s, can be questioned; but we will let that pass. It is certainly true that, legally, the Anglican Church was not only established and privileged but possessed, in some respects, a monopoly. That monopoly (which did not guarantee anything so narrow as an “orthodoxy”) was broken in 1829 when the Tory politicians Sir Robert Peel and the Duke of Wellington, yielding to Irish disaffection, Whig pressure, and liberal ideas, introduced the Act of Catholic Emancipation which gave the parliamentary vote to Roman Catholics. This was the beginning of a process which ended in the opening of Parliament, the universities, the services, the professions, to Catholics, Dissenters, Jews, and unbelievers.

Catholic Emancipation was not, in itself, a religious or intellectual surrender. It was essentially an affair of Irish politics. But it led, in England, to a religious reaction, and that reaction was intensified by the next important stage in the process, which was also Irish: the Irish Church Temporalities Act, passed by the Whig government in 1833. By this act, the vast revenues enjoyed by the (often absentee) Protestant bishops in Catholic Ireland were reduced in order to finance local improvement. Its enactment drew cries of horror from English Tory churchmen, already exasperated by Catholic Emancipation, and one of them, John Keble, publicly denounced it, in an assize sermon in Oxford, as “national apostasy.” Keble had previously attacked Peel as a traitor on account of Catholic Emancipation. Now he and his Oxford friends launched a series of “tracts” in defense of their threatened Church. That sermon and these tracts marked the beginning of the “Oxford” or “Tractarian” movement: an attempt to redefine and refortify the Anglican Church so that it might reassert, and perhaps reclaim, its threatened monopoly.

The Tractarian movement is central to Mr. Cowling’s book. It gives, he says, “significance to a history which would be insignificant without it.” It was “the only constructive assault on the 18th century Enlightenment,” “the most powerful attempt that has been made in England in the last century and a half to create a coherent Christian intellectuality.” The Tractarians, and the post-Tractarians, are in fact his heroes. Therefore it is necessary to look them in the face.

The Tractarians were university men who sought to regenerate Anglicanism by withdrawing the Church from dependence on the State (now at the mercy of Whig politicians), cleansing it of liberal ideas (which meant of Protestant ideas), and returning to the Anglo-Catholic tradition of Richard Hooker, Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, and Archbishop William Laud. They even went further than Laud, who, having the support of the Crown, could afford to be, in some respects, moderate in practice, liberal and rational in theology. Lacking that support, depending only on themselves, they demanded for the Church (or rather, for their sect in the Church) absolute authority to declare unquestionable dogma: dogma that was to be reinforced and decorated by ritual, not weakened by argument. This was particularly necessary since argument—especially German argument—was at that time eroding the very foundations both of authority and of dogma. Geology, archaeology, philology, and other sciences were undermining the divine inspiration of the Scriptures and the Prophets, the literal truth of the Gospels, the infallibility of the Fathers and Councils.

From the security of their Oxford colleges, the Tractarians denounced Whigs and liberals in unmeasured terms. The Whigs, said Hurrell Froude, had taken up “all the filth that had been secreted in the fermentation of human thought.” John Henry Newman, the charismatic leader of the movement, described them as “vile vermin” and in a note on “Liberalism” (afterward published in his Apologia) implicitly defined his own credo, viz.: that only one religion can be true; that its truth is established by the authority which declares it; that that authority rests on the truth which it declares; that any argument which questions either the authority or the truth is necessarily invalid; and that any other religion, being necessarily untrue, must not be publicly authorized. This credo, though circular in form and impenetrable by reason, is at least internally consistent. The question was, could it be imposed, as an exclusive orthodoxy, on a lay-controlled Church and, through it, on a plural society? After a decade of effort, Newman found that it could not. So, after having split his university, he split his movement by abandoning his Church and seceding to Rome. In the Rome of Gregory XVI there was no danger of surrender to liberalism.

The secession of Newman and his friends to Roman Catholicism was a great blow to the Tractarians, but a faithful remnant did not despair. They had their saint in John Keble; they found their strategist in E.B. Pusey. Pusey had begun as a Whig in politics and a liberal in theology. He had studied German biblical criticism. But soon he felt the ground quaking beneath him and turned sharply around. He declared an absolute ban on all inquiry unless it could be made to confirm Anglo-Catholic dogma, ritual, authority. As a professor in Oxford, he maintained that the function of a university was not to advance knowledge but to resist its advance, and meanwhile to train a crops of clerical coast guards who could protect the threatened island from invading “German” ideas. The greatest intellectual achievement of this learned Orientalist was to push back the date of the book of Daniel so that it could be regarded, once again, as an authentic, inspired prophecy of the Church. Later commentators tactfully ignore this feat of perverted ingenuity.

Such was the Tractarian challenge which, to Mr. Cowling, is the most powerful and constructive intellectual effort in 150 years. Contemporaries did not think so. They were repelled by such abject obscurantism. This was not because they were anti-Christian but because they took account of those intellectual developments which the Tractarians, recognizing the danger, were resolved to ignore. “How different the fortunes of the Church of England might have been,” exclaimed Dean Stanley, “if Newman had been able to read German!” But would Newman have paid any attention to what he could then have read? Pusey knew German, but how did he respond to those guttural Sirens beyond the Rhine? Like that other resourceful pilot, Ulysses, he stopped the ears of his men and tied himself firmly to the mast.

One man who did listen to German voices was Carlyle. He too had been disconcerted by the intellectual erosion of orthodoxy (in his case, Presbyterian orthodoxy) and he looked anxiously for an alternative faith. He tried the socialism of Saint-Simon. He listened to the waffle of Coleridge. But he did not find help in any of these quarters. Least of all did he find it in “spectral Puseyisms,” and he dismissed Newman as having the mind of a half-grown rabbit. Others, having at first yielded to the Tractarians, afterward rebelled against them. The historian J.A. Froude revolted against the task they had set him of editing—not as historical documents but as works of edification—the infantile early lives of the saints. Mark Pattison recalled with disgust the time when he was “deeply tarred with the Puseyite brush.” In 1848, when all Europe was in revolution, he was shocked to think that the intellectual elite of Oxford had wasted their time “debating any matter so flimsy as whether England were in a state of schism or no.”

  1. *

    Charles Covell, The Redefinition of Conservatism (St. Martin’s, 1986).

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