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Canon Stanley on Subscription. Ever since the year 1662, the question of clerical subscription has more or less agitated the minds of thoughtful Englishmen. Every now and then, something occurs to bring it to the surface. Immediately after the Revolution of 1688, Tillotson, Burnet, and others of the liberal party, strenuously endeavoured to alter the Act of Uniformity. Though subsequently no great attempt has been made by the Legislature in that direction, controversies on the subject have been often carried
and just now, it has become one of the rifest inquiries of the age," What is to be done in reference to the terms of admission to office in the Church of England ?" It is a remarkable coincidence, that so very soon after the Bicentenary celebration, when the subject was prominently brought before the country, Canon Stanley should publish a letter to the Bishop of London advocating an important change in those terms.
The pamphlet challenges our careful attention, and we propose giving some account of its contents.
The author presents an instructive sketch of the origin of subscription. It was first enforced by Constantine at the Council of Nicæathe rude expedient of a soldier to enforce religious belief, as he would civil obedience. From the first it was accompanied "by the same casuistry, by the same ambiguity, by the same inoperative results as at present.” Successive councils repeated the process, but never extended it to the clergy generally; and it is a curious fact that neither the priests of the Roman Catholic nor those of the Eastern Church are bound by definite subscription.
New Confessions were drawn up at the period of the Reformation, but at first subscription to them was not required. The most comprehensive and stringent was in the Duchy of Brunswick, where all the
clergy, professors, and magistrates had to declare belief in the Con, fession of Augsburg, the Apology for the Confession, the Articles of Smalcald, and the works of Luther and Chemnitz. In the continental Protestant churches subscription is unknown, or has become a nullity. In England it has been growing since the Reformation.
“The Articles were not subscribed (by anything like general usage) till the twelfth year of Elizabeth ; they were then, after much hesitation and opposition, ordered to be subscribed for a special purpose, and with a limitation which considerably mitigated the evil which it introduced. The special purpose was the wish to have some check on the admission of Presbyterian ministers of other Protestant Churches to serve in the Church of England without re-ordination. The limitation was that the Clergy were to subscribe those Articles · which only concern the confession of the true faith ;' how many, or how few, were implied by this specification has been never determined ; but the attempt at discrimination shewed a disposition very different from that which has since made every allusion and every turn of a sentence as binding as the Articles on the Being of a God or the doctrine of the Trinity.
"The next step was that the Earl of Leicester, with a view of annoying and excluding the Roman Catholic or Romanizing party in Oxford, introduced into the University the subscription to the Articles, which (till 1854) was required from all students at their first entrance. The third step was the subscription to the Liturgy, and to the whole of the Articles enjoined in 1603 by the Canons to be enforced on the clergy, and on all graduates in Oxford, with the view of excluding the rising Puritans. Down to ihis time the Liturgy, as before observed, had remained without any subscription at all. From this time, by a paradox unknown to any other Church in Christendom, the Liturgy was turned from its proper purpose, of expressing the devotions of the congregation, into a storehouse of theological propositions, to be enforced on all those who had not the knowledge to distinguish between the nature of a Liturgy and a Creed. And finally, the subscription to the Articles was extended, and the force of the subscription to the Liturgy immensely increased, by the Act of Uniformity passed after the Restoration, with the express purpose of driving from their places in the Church as many of the Puritan clergy as could be conveniently displaced."
“By an irregular and anomalous machinery growing out of the ecclesiastical and political struggles of the last 300 years, a network of obligations and pledges has been drawn across the entrance to the degree of Masters of Arts in one of our two great Universities, and to the Ministry of our National Church. These pledges are made in a considerable variety of forms, some as stringent as human language can devise, some with considerable laxity, to two different documents. The first and most general subscription is to the XXXIX Articles; the second is to the Book of Common Prayer.”
After duelling upon the Articles—which he commends with doubtful praise-stating that in some “the conflict of jarring opinions has produced a balance of statement which renders them singularly well adapted for the purposes of a national confession,” while in others " the same effect is brought about by the ambiguity of language, especially of language in a state of transition, so unformed and lax as was that of English literature in the middle of the sixteenth century"; he adds, “They do, on their very face, repel the notion of subscriptions to them guch as are now required by law from graduates and from clergymen.
"They consist of a number of complicated propositions on many intricate and difficult questions,-propositions drawn up by men who lived 300 years ago,-in the heat of vehement struggles which have long since passed away-by men who, venerable as they were in station, and some of them estimable in character, and distinguished in ability and learning, were still not the foremost even of the age in which they lived, and therefore not the men whose expressions on these subjects we should most naturally expect to be permanent."
The author eulogizes the Liturgy at some length, observing that “The wide charity of the Burial Service is a perpetual protest against the limited conceptions in which many religious persons indulge respecting the future state ;" and then proceeds :
"No doubt as a correction of the subscription to the Articles it is most valuable. There is hardly a statement to which any objection can be raised in the Articles, which is not neutralized by some countervailing expression in the Prayer-book. Most valuable is this as a check to the evil of subscription, but from another point of view a cogent reason against the practice at all. If it is incredible beforehand that vast masses of young men should agree in the literal and dogmatic sense of propositions so numerous and elaborate as those contained in the Articles; if it is equally incredible that the same number should agree in the literal and dogmatic sense of all the sentences in the Prayer-book, many of thein poetical and devotional in form, but, according to the terms in which the subscription is often understood, to be received in their most prosaic and matter-of-fact signification, -it becomes doubly incredible that the same number of youths should receive with the same unqualified and unhesitating confidence, both these sets of propositions, emanating as each does emanate, from ages unlike to each other, and each no less unlike to our own."
"The absurdity (for it can be called by no other name) of these exact and literal subscriptions"—the words are Canon Stanley's, not ourshe fondly considers as “qualified by the wise and liberal construction which, both in Church and State, bas been put upon them.” But is this a correct representation? What authorized qualification of the Act of Uniformity has ever appeared ? The opinions of eminent prelates and others cited by Canon Stanley seem to us, nothing to the purpose. Individual remarks on the subject cannot alter the meaning of an Act of Parliament. The liberal construetion wbich one member of the Church hails as just and true, is denounced by other members of the same Church-perhaps more numerous, and more distinguished by position—as unrighteous and false. The qualification is not even by common consent. In a multitude of cases it is only claimed, not conceded. Yet the author says, in terms which must startle all England,
"But if once we press these subscriptions in their rigid and literal sense, as they have been, especially of late, so often pressed, without regard to all or any of these qualifications, then it may be safely asserted, that in this respect, there is not one clergyman in the Church who can venture to cast a stone at another they must all go out from the greatest to the least, from the Archbishop in hie Palace at Lambeth, to the humblest curate in the wilds of Cumberland.”
After all, he is obliged to admit himself that this free interpretation is not conceded by all Chureh rulers; he says, that though "frequent
it is “ unfortunately not constant," and goes so far as to confess that, at the best, it would be " a tolerable evil," "an awkward, anomalous, incongruous incumbrance of our system ;” and quotes the story of Bentham dissuading the late illustrious Marquis of Lansdowne from coming to Oxford, on the ground that it was “a nest of perjury.”
The evils of subscription are largely insisted on :
“The subscriptions made by Masters of Arts at present hang heavily on the consciences of many who cannot persuade themselves that it is right to assume obligations which they are told that they need not construe literally and according to the obvious meaning of the words, but which they know may be any day thrown in their teeth by some malignant or narrow-minded partisan ; and which, from the stringency of the terms used, seem to them only too capable of such a rigid construction as they repudiate with their whole hearts and souls. Of the whole practice it was well said by the late Oxford Commissioners in 1852:
“This subscription is found practically neither to exclude all who are not members of the Church of England, nor to include all who are.
"On the one hand, it is no obstacle to the admission of some persons who are known to be members of other communions, such as the Evangelical Church of Prussia, the Evangelical Society of Geneva, the Wesleyan body, and the Established Church of Scotland. On the other hand, there are persons who, though members of the Church of England, are unwilling to declare that they adopt all that is contained in the Articles, and therefore feel themselves excluded from taking the higher Degrees. It certainly is singular that a lay corporation should require from laymen, simply as a condition of membership, that which the Church of England does not require for participation in its most sacred ordinance. ..
“! We do not offer any suggestion as to the manner in which the evil should be remedied, but we must express our conviction that the imposition of subscription, in the manner in which it is now imposed in the University of Oxford, habituates the mind to give a careless assent to truths which it has never considered, and naturally leads to sophistry in the interpretation of solemn obligations.'”
The author is also very explicit as to the total inefficiency of subscription in the way of securing unity of doctrine:
“Let the history of the contentions within the Church of England, and without it, tell whether the desired unanimity has been secured by these means.
It is far more true to say that whilst no element of discord has been excluded by these subscriptions, whilst (happily) Calvinist and Arminian, High Churchmen and Low Churchmen, Germanizers and Romanizers, have equally found shelter under the broad shadow of the Church itself, the chief embitterment of their sojourn in this wide tabernacle has arisen from the conflicts that beset and have arisen out of their first entrance through the narrow door of subscription.
“ They are continued (it is sometimes urged) for the sake of preserving unity and purity of doctrine. That unity and purity of doctrine should flourish is no doubt an object much to be desired, and it is an object which, within certain limits, has been attained in the Church of England. But to this result subscription can have contributed only in a very small degree. It must be observed that the instrument employed (if one may so say) is far too blunt for the purpose for which it is designed. Persons are tormented or excluded by it who agree in every particular with those who are included by it, except on the one point as to the degree of force which can be applied to the words in question. A scrupulous High Churchman, a scrupulous Low Churchman, a scrupulous Broad Church.