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A legacy for those who come after

04 December 2015

Barry Orford considers the life and legacy of Dean Church

Right thinking: Dean Richard Church (1815-1890)

Right thinking: Dean Richard Church (1815-1890)

TWO hundred years ago, in 1815, a man was born who claims our attention by his devout life, his writings, and because he represents an Anglican type that seems in danger of vanishing. Archbishop Michael Ramsey called him “one of the greatest of Anglicans”.

Richard Church was born not in England, but in Lisbon, and breadth of culture and lack of insularity were always a mark of his mind.

As an undergraduate in Oxford, Church was profoundly influenced by Keble, Pusey, and Newman, as they worked to restore to the Church of England a sense of its Catholicity. Newman’s defection to Rome was a heavy blow to Church, as to many others. Their friendship was later renewed, although he never wavered in his criticism of Newman’s Roman position.

But, unlike the first Tractarians, Church’s studies were not primarily theological or patristic, but historical. This, combined with his wide interests, including literature and the sciences, gave him a balanced perspective, and a willingness to believe that new ideas could be enriching.

The challenges to Christian belief that came later in the 19th century from science and biblical criticism did not perturb him. He knew that questions must be faced, not avoided.


AFTER his marriage, Church spent 18 years as rector of a country parish, combining pastoral work with study and writing. He helped to found The Guardian in 1846, an important newspaper in the support of Tractarian principles — and the reason that the better-known Manchester Guardian could not shorten its name until after the ecclesiastical paper had folded in 1951.

The Prime Minster, William Gladstone, presented Church with a number of offers for advancement, all of which he turned down. In 1871, he offered him the Deanery of St Paul’s Cathedral, and Church turned this down, also. It took the combined powers of Gladstone and Canon Liddon to persuade him to change his mind.

To move straight from a rural parish to St Paul’s Cathedral seems astonishing today. It drew comment at the time, but Gladstone’s choice was vindicated triumphantly. 

Church (thereafter called Dean Church), presided over arguably the greatest cathedral chapter in Anglican history: its canons would include Liddon, Scott Holland, J. B. Lightfoot, Robert Gregory, and William Stubbs. He oversaw a transformation of the cathedral’s worship and fabric, and, at the same time, until his death in 1890, he became a quietly influential figure in the wider Church.

This influence was not achieved by flashy charisma. He was disciplined, scholarly, and kindly, but with a steely core, prepared for battle if necessary.


DEAN CHURCH’s writings include a classic account of the Oxford Movement; an extended essay on Dante; and some excellent sermons.

Particularly valuable is his impressive lecture on Bishop Lancelot Andrewes, which reveals the Anglican tradition — Catholic, critical, and humane — in which Church stood.

It repays reading as a picture of the growth of the Anglican ethos. Dean Church was firm on two points. First, that the religious approach of the English Church was not fixed in the reigns of Edward VI and Elizabeth. What was decided then was, in many ways, provisional and crude — the product of turbulent times. The Anglican mind continued to be formed well into the 17th century.

Second, that it is easy to overlook the significance of the English Church’s refusal to follow the path of European Protestantism. It was notable not for what it rejected of tradition and order, but for what it retained.

Looking to the model of the primitive Church, revering the scriptures, respecting history and reason, it declined to grant complete religious authority to either the Pope or the Bible.

This meant that Hooker, Andrewes, and their successors, had to overcome assaults not only from Roman Catholics abroad, but, more particularly, from Puritans at home.

“The demand of the Puritans”, Dean Church wrote, “was that nothing should be allowed but Puritanism,” which would have led to the substitution of “an entirely new idea of the Church from that on which the Reformation in England had been based”.

He believed it a mercy for Anglican polity that “Hooker had maintained the claims of reason against a slavish bondage to narrow and arbitrary interpretations of the letter of scripture;” and that Andrewes “vindicated on its behalf the rights of Christian history”, and “claimed for the English Church its full interest and membership in the Church universal”.

The Anglican balancing act between Catholic and Reformed described by Dean Church annoyed absolutists, who wanted the assurance of an unchallengeable authority.

Dean Church was clear that it formed a body “unique in its constitution, unique in its strong permanence and its fruitfulness”, demonstrating “a force of continuous growth and of vigorous recovery after disaster and stagnation”.

Today, as the Church of England and Anglican Communion face conflict between strident partisans, Dean Church’s insistence on the nature of historic Anglicanism seems more necessary than ever.

Archbishop Henry McAdoo, the first Anglican co-chairman of the Anglican Roman Catholic International Commission, pointed out the clear line of thought linking Hooker and Andrewes to Dean Church, and, through him, reaching to Charles Gore and the Lux Mundi essayists.

They shared “this vivid sense of the present reality of continuity with the past, and the sense of the necessity of the freedom of reason to differentiate and to assess”.


CIRCUMSTANCES have changed since Dean Church wrote, and later research may have modified some of his opinions, as he would have expected.

His sense of history and culture, however, and his immovable doctrinal orthodoxy, combined to produce the liberality of mind and spirit that represents the Anglican character at its best.

He wrote: “What [Andrewes] did was less for his own generation than for those that came after.” Might the same be true for Dean Church?

Finally, at a time when the talk is of grooming people for advancement in the Church of England, Dean Church’s “positive revulsion from the self-seeking and ambitious habits of the clergy” is a reminder that appointments to high ecclesiastical office are sometimes made best from quiet, hidden, dedicated people, who have to be dragged to promotion protesting (honestly) that they do not want it.

The Holy Days list in Common Worship honours figures who opposed the Church of England. Should not the list include, on the anniversary of his death on 9 December, Richard Church, one of Anglicanism’s most faithful servants?

The Revd Dr Barry A. Orford is an Emeritus Fellow of St Cross College, Oxford.

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