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‘He was an inspiration for social witness’

by
02 November 2006

MICHAEL RAMSEY wrote of Frederick Denison Maurice, whose bicentenary falls this year, that he had “the freedom of mind which can come to those, whom genuine orthodoxy lifts above the partial conceptions of a particular age and above the partizanship into which the orthodox so often fall” (The Gospel and the Catholic Church).

Maurice’s creative response to the challenges of modernity was forged through bruising encounters with other theologians. He paid equal attention to both contemporary criticism and Christian orthodoxy. This approach made him vulnerable to attack — alternately for being too liberal or too conservative.

Yet his doctrinal conclusions foreshadowed later trends. He has been claimed as the theoretician of Anglican comprehensiveness; the inspiration for the Church of England’s subsequent social witness; the founder of Christian Socialism; and the exponent of an ecumenical methodology that has encouraged rapprochement between Catholicism and Protestantism.

He produced, albeit sketchily, a representative theory of ministry in contrast with the hierarchical model that the Oxford Movement supported. He also anticipated the baptismal ecclesiology of some of today’s Anglican apologists. The Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral of scripture, creeds, sacraments, and episcopacy, the formula that has guided Anglicans in inter-Church relations for more than a century, owes much to Maurice’s thinking.

Just as his influence has been decisive in the formation of modern Anglican theology, it has also stretched beyond Anglicanism. Yet assessing Maurice’s work is not easy. His prose is rhetorical and often cumbersome, and his name carries little weight with many modern Anglicans.

Maurice was born on 29 August 1805 to Unitarian parents. Later, his mother and sisters abandoned Unitarianism for a rigid Calvinist Evangelicalism, but his father never accepted their change. The division scarred Frederick’s upbringing, and gave him a desire for Christian unity. He read law at Cambridge, where he came under the spell of Julius Hare (whose sister he married), and through whom he absorbed the influence of the poet and thinker Samuel Taylor Coleridge.

Feat Maurice 7418

A portrait of F D Maurice

From Coleridge, Maurice learnt the merit of appreciating the complexity of truth: no one opinion or point of view could claim to capture truth completely. The task of the theologian was to explore the complementary truthful insights embedded in apparently conflicting schools of thought in Christianity.

Yet Maurice also moved, like Coleridge himself, towards mainstream Anglican belief. In 1831, after a further spell of study at Oxford, he was baptised in the established Church. In 1834, he went on to be ordained.

IT IS PERHAPS encouraging to beleaguered Anglicans today to remember that Maurice embraced the Church of England at one of its greatest periods of crisis, after the granting of political rights to Dissenters and Roman Catholics in 1828 and 1829.

The Church of England, closely associated with the governing élites, was vulnerable. Although the clergy almost everywhere were members of the gentry, they were not necessarily rich. Many could offset the low income of a benefice (in an age before nationally set stipends) only by holding two or more appointments in plurality — a practice that looked corrupt, even if it was for some a practical necessity.

Political radicals and Dissenting critics drew attention to the inequalities of wealth, the established Church’s inefficiency, and its legal privileges. In the end, the sting of all this was drawn by reform — but not before a time of bitter conflict and criticism.

Maurice knew what he was embracing when he contemplated entering the ministry of the Church. “[As] an establishment, it will be overturned, I know not how soon, I am nearly convinced,” he wrote to his perplexed father; and “yet I would rather be a member of it now than in the days of its greatest prosperity.”

He was associated with the Oxford Movement for a short while. He defended subscription to the Thirty-Nine Articles, a condition of matriculation at Oxford, and was wooed unsuccessfully by John Henry Newman and Edward Pusey for a chair in political economy — though he knew next to nothing about the subject.

But a decisive break with them came in 1836 when he read Pusey’s views on baptism, which mistakenly he assumed to represent a doctrine of “salvation by baptism”. He remained a high churchman, but his abiding theological preoccupations were different from those of the Oxford Movement.

In 1837, by then the chaplain of Guy’s Hospital in London, Maurice began an “answer” to Pusey, cast ostensibly as a series of letters to a Quaker friend. These were eventually published as his most famous work of Anglican theology, The Kingdom of Christ (1838).

To the modern reader, it is a complex and uneven book; but it was a remarkable application of Coleridge’s dialectical method to the Anglican understanding of the Church. It signalled basic lines of approach that, much modified, were eventually to become vital to modern Anglican ecclesiology.

Maurice’s analysis of the history of Christian disunity began from a key question: “Where can we find the Catholic Church?” But instead of defining Catholicity in the abstract, and then finding the Church that conformed to it, Maurice assumed the inherent Catholicity of all the major branches of Protestantism, and sought to draw out how it might be identified. He argued, “positive principles” had become embedded in misleading developments.

Maurice dealt directly with Roman Catholicism and the Church of England in the second part of the book. Here he explored six “signs” of Catholicity: baptism, eucharist, scripture, creeds, the apostolic ministry, and liturgical tradition. Each of the signs was described first as it was found in the Church of England, and then contrasted with its “corruption” in Roman Catholicism. Most readers find his treatment of Roman Catholicism particularly unsatisfactory, and it is true that he was not exactly a sympathetic or informed observer.

It is the third part of the book that raises questions for most readers today. Here Maurice turned his attention directly to the Church of England. He applied the same dialectical logic used in the first part of the book to the internal divisions of the Church. In each of the main “parties” — Evangelical, liberal and Catholic — he again found both positive principles and misleading development. By implication, the Church of England was greater than the mere sum of its parts. It needed each of the main parties; yet it needed to rise above their conflict.

Maurice marked out a broad vision of Christian unity, which applied as forcefully to the Church of England as it did to relations between separated Churches. His method depended on an assumption of historical analysis, and amounted to an argument for a historical ecclesiology.

This left his argument vulnerable on several counts. He seemed unaware of the sophistication of analysis required to discern the positive principles in their corrupt or distorted setting in history. Though his argument was historical, he was not a subtle historian, and his account of history left much to be desired.

Moreover, he was not always alert to the weaknesses of some of the assumptions he made. This is particularly true with regard to the principle of nationality, which he used to defend the establishment of the Church of England, but which he took in a spirit that owed much to Romantic ideas of intrinsic national character. This tended to undermine his apparent ecumenical sympathies.

YET The Kingdom of Christ, for all its faults, remains a book of lasting significance for Anglicanism.

First, it discerns the genesis of modern ecumenical method. Maurice’s retrieval of the “positive principles” of separated Churches, through his historical exploration of the emergence of their doctrinal traditions, was to become widely imitated.

Second, the argument from “comprehensiveness” became a vital tool for Anglicans; and, by attaching significance to the possession of the “signs” of the Catholic Church, Maurice could affirm the Catholicity of the Church of England, while acknowledging regretfully its internal conflicts over the interpretation of doctrine.

In his view, the signs were not merely human artefacts: they were intrinsically powerful symbols, and expressions of divine realities. “Here is a theologian”, Ramsey wrote, “whose emphasis upon Church order springs directly from his sense of the Gospel of God.”

MAURICE is remembered mostly today for his part in the formation of Christian Socialism, galvanised by the widespread alarm in 1848, the “year of revolutions”, concerning the supposed threat posed by the Chartists.

Maurice thought that the Church of England had abandoned its vocation to embrace and transform the nation, and that, in preaching the duties of the poor, it had ignored the duties of the rich.

With his friends Charles Kingsley and John Ludlow, he started ventures that attempted to grapple with social problems: schools, tracts, a newspaper, a series of co-operative businesses, and a Working Men’s College. Of all these, the last survives as one of the oldest adult educational institutions in Europe.

Maurice, like many liberal churchmen and politicians of his day, was socially conservative and suspicious of democracy, but committed to resisting tyranny, and to defending moral and religious freedom. His Christian Socialism had little to do with theoretical Socialism, with Marx and the redistribution of property. Rather, it arose out of his ecclesiology.

Maurice had an ingrained suspicion of religious élitism. He wanted to bring Christ to the poor as well as the rich, to Christianise the “unchristian Socialists”, and to socialise the “unsocial Christians”.

IN 1853, Maurice was sacked from his professorial chair at King’s College, London for appearing to doubt the doctrine of eternal punishment.

In his Theological Essays, published in that year, he had denied that the New Testament word aionios, or “everlasting”, could mean the indefinite stretching out of periods of time. The punishment of the wicked could not be conceived as temporal punishment prolonged indefinitely. Nor could heaven and hell be considered exclusively in terms of future states.

Drawing on John 17.3 (“this is eternal life, that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent”), Maurice argued that the eternal life of the believer began in present faith, and in the knowledge of God. The notion of a God who willingly inflicted unending punishment was difficult to square with the loving God of the Gospels. Yet Maurice was not a universalist. Eternal torment there might be, but it would be the consequence of a deliberate turning away from God.

Suspicion of his orthodoxy was deepened by his lectures on The Religions of the World (1847), and the effect of the controversy was to scar Maurice’s name in the eyes of many churchpeople, particularly Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics. He never quite recovered the rising reputation he had seemed to promise in the late 1840s, but there was something of a late rehabilitation, when he was elected to the Knightsbridge Chair of Casuistry, Moral Theology and Moral Philosophy in Cambridge in 1866. There he died, on 1 April 1872, a day now marked in the Anglican calendar.

AT THE HEART of Maurice’s legacy to the Church of England was a conviction that Christian disunity, whatever its sources, damaged Christian mission. Maurice was a committed Anglican, no less than in the conviction that the fullness of truth could not be encompassed in any one theological system, but in a comprehensive polity of the Church that could best hope to preserve the central convictions of Christians who disagreed with each other.

This was not a faddish ecumenism. Maurice was seeking to confront a crisis in the moral and intellectual authority of the Christian faith which was replicated across Europe. Under concerted attack from political radicals, secularists, and revolutionaries, Christians were beginning to wake up to the fact that their own internal disagreements merely served to confirm the hostility of their critics.

Maurice’s theology combined two contrasting insights: a biblical theology that was content to accept the scriptures as a coherent living voice, and a metaphysical conviction of the universal nature of divine wisdom. At times it seemed as if he could hold these contrasting streams together only by sheer force of rhetoric. Yet his theology was both of its time and ahead of its time.

But, defending the Church of England as he did, Maurice became a pioneer of ecumenical vision, and a prophet of social responsibility.

The Revd Dr Jeremy Morris is Dean of Trinity Hall, Cambridge, and Robert Runcie Fellow in Ecclesiastical History. His book F. D. Maurice and the Crisis of Christian Authority is published by Oxford University Press (0-19-926316-7; £55, CT Bookshop £50).

 

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