Frayed cassocks

A book by Coleridge published in 1830 offers useful advice for perplexed Anglicans today

Peter Mullen

What is our life for? Samuel Taylor Coleridge believed the very purpose for which we were created, is mediated through:

. . . the true historical feeling, the mortal life of an historical nation, generation linked to generation by faith, freedom, heraldry and ancestral fame.

In On the Constitution of the Church and State (1830), the reader is startled by what might seem to be an example of extraordinary—and by modern standards dangerous—prescience:

That erection of a temporal monarch under the pretence of a spiritual authority, which was not possible in Christendom but by the extinction or entrancement of the spirit of Christianity, was effected in full by Mahomet, to the establishment of the most extensive and complete despotism that ever warred against civilisation and the interests of humanity.

But he also set out, with penetrating insight and in a style that impresses and delights, the crucial role of the church in our society. Coleridge, whom John Stuart Mill hailed as “the seminal mind of the century”, believed it impossible to conceive a man without the idea of God, eternity, freedom, will, absolute truth, of the good, the true, the beautiful and the infinite. Take those qualities away and we are left with the mere appearance of a human being, a creature baser than the brutest beast.

A Tory in the old sense, a patriot, of the land, Coleridge believed in our need for:

A permanent, nationalised learned order, a national clerisy or church as an essential element of a rightly-constituted nation, without which it wants alike for its permanence and progression; and for which neither tract societies not conventicles, nor Lancastrian schools, nor mechanics’ institutions, nor lecture bazaars under the absurd name of universities, nor all those collectively, could be a substitute. For they are all marked with the same asterisk of spuriousness, show the same distemper-spot on the front, that they are useless medicines for morbid symptoms that help to feed and continue the disease.

He saw a clear function for the clergy:

To every parish throughout the kingdom there is transplanted a germ of civilisation; that in the remotest villages there is a nucleus, around which the capabilities of the place may crystallise and brighten; a model sufficiently superior to excite; yet sufficiently near to encourage and facilitate imitation.

Coleridge had read thoroughly the Anglican divines of the 16th and 17th centuries, especially Richard Hooker and Law, and his model of a parson was a man such as George Herbert:

The clergyman is with his parishioners and among them; he is neither in the cloistered cell, nor in the wilderness, but a neighbour and a family man whose education and rank admit him to the mansion of the rich landholder, while his duties make him a frequent visitor of the farmhouse and the cottage.

The crucial distinction is between what Coleridge calls permanence—the land—and what is progressive: the arts and sciences and the mercantile interests. Both permanence and progression are required in a healthy nation. As the poet and translator C.H. Sisson comments:

Any political unity worth maintaining, or which is anyway to be maintained at all, must contain a principle of foresight and continuity which goes beyond the next series of trade figures; and it will be the foresight of care rather than calculation.

It is the parson who has a foot in what is permanent and in what is progressive from which he derives his foresight of care. For Coleridge, the clergyman is the instrument of both permanence and progression. He loosens up, as it were, the permanence and anchors what is progressive in what abides. The revenues of the church belong in some sense to every family that may have a member educated for, or marrying into, the church. The parish, as both a physical and a spiritual entity, is in fact the only species of landed property that is essentially moving and circulated, belonging to everyone in it and connecting each person with everyone else by means of its historical purposes and its pastoral and social practices.

It might be said that 19th-century England is a faraway country of which we know little; but the issues raised in On the Constitution of the Church and State reverberate still. 

In our secularised society, the idea of the national church has lost all intelligibility. What then is the position of the theological rump among our secularised clerisy? There are three possibilities. We can sit in isolation in some recess of the national structure, such as are provided by the voluntary societies, waiting for better times. We can let our taste for having an ecclesiastical club carry us into one or other of those international gangs of opinion; perhaps that which has its headquarters in Rome. This option is realised whenever an Anglican priest jumps ship and joins the Roman Catholic Ordinariate. Coleridge gives us to understand that any such choice is a political one. We can stay and fight our corner, struggling for an intelligibility which might, and will if our concern is for truth, come again.

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