Front Page Titles (by Subject) MR. GLADSTONE ON RITUALISM. ( From The Economist, 3rd October, 1874.) - The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review)
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MR. GLADSTONE ON RITUALISM. ( From “ The Economist, ” 3rd October, 1874.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 9 (Essays from the Economist, the Saturday Review) 
The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, ed. Mrs. Russell Barrington. The Works in Nine Volumes. The Life in One Volume. (London: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1915). Vol. 9.
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MR. GLADSTONE ON RITUALISM.
We hear it said “that Mr. Gladstone ought not to write on Ritualism; that he ought to keep his pen quiet; that the head of a great party is a kind of trustee for that party, and that he should primarily consider its interest in all which he says and in all which he writes. Particularly he ought not as a political leader to take up an unpopular cause out of the sphere of politics.” Whether ritualism is out of the sphere of politics may, we think, be denied, but further than that, if the Liberal party think that Mr. Gladstone will think of their immediate interest in that way, a great experience goes to show that they have mistaken their man. Mr. Gladstone has never considered his own interest in that way. He has always been doing something contrary to his immediate interest. Every one who is conversant with the political talk of the last twenty or twenty-five years must have heard a hundred times—“Gladstone is done for; Gladstone never can recover from this again; he is his own worst enemy; no one but himself could have done himself fatal harm, and now he has himself done it”. But, in fact, within a month after each of the hundred fatal failures Mr. Gladstone has arisen again and is just where he was before. He has made some great speech or proposed some great measure which has caused everything which was objected to to be forgotten. Every public man wins or loses by the balance which there is in his favour, but there are two ways of gaining that balance. Some statesmen have almost nothing put to their debit, so that all which they do, be it ever so little, goes with only slight deduction to their credit; others have a good deal put to their debit, but then, on the other hand, an immense sum is every now and then paid to their credit. Mr. Gladstone is of the latter class; he “turns over,” as we should say in the City, “a very large amount,” and at the end of the year the balance to his advantage is most considerable, after charging him with all that he ought to be charged with.
We may seem to imply that we do not think that the publishing of Mr. Gladstone’s essay on Ritualism was the wisest of his public acts, and we own we do not think so. Of course you would never have induced by any offer steady or regular English statesmen, such men as Lord Cardwell or Lord Derby, to put their names at such a time to, or to write such a paper, but we should not have thought that conclusive. As we have explained, Mr. Gladstone is not a man who ever can or ever will run in the common groove. Our objection is to the substance of the paper, because we think it improperly changes the issue and diverts attention from the point to which it is most expedient that it should be directed.
Mr. Gladstone says, and very truly, that there has been in all religious communities a great reaction in favour of suitable ceremonial of late years; that in all the odd and bleak style of former years is getting more out of fashion; that in all the “outward and visible” tends to assume a place which previous generations would certainly have refused to it, and which probably they would have been shocked at its even claiming. Mr. Gladstone’s instances do not go beyond the body of orthodox persons—Dissenters or Church people. But the reaction in favour of the “outward and visible” went much wider. We could name a Unitarian chapel so finely built and with so much of ecclesiastical expression that a High Churchman who saw it uttered “Confound their impudence.” Mr. Gladstone could have insisted on nothing more justly than on the augmented respect now paid in almost all sects to the exterior symbol.
But this does not come to the main point. If the outcry were really against an increased respect for the outward and visible, it ought to extend to all sects, for in all of them that respect for the outward and visible is to be seen more or less. But, as we are aware, this is not so. It is only one kind of “symbol” which is execrated; only one sect in which the dislike is held; only one kind of “Ritualism” which people ever think of or Parliament ever discusses. Nor is it to the purpose to insist, as Mr. Gladstone does with much truth and much ingenuity, on the want of artistic sense in Englishmen, and their unfitness to find good outward symbols for inward things; for this unfitness is common to all sects and classes, and if it were the source of the present cry, that cry would pervade all sects, and attack all additional symbols and all new forms of ceremonies. But, as we know, that cry does nothing of the sort; its object is limited to one set of persons and to one kind of ceremonial. There must be something special in this.
There is something special. It is true that all kinds of religion tend to form to themselves a ritual; but it is not true that all have that tendency equally—some have it much more than others. Those which have it most are those which are based most on the sacramental principle. We cannot go fully into the reasons for this. Theological disquisition is not suitable to these pages; but roughly we may put the matter in this way. The essence of a “sacrament” is that the officiating person performs an invisible supernatural act; he changes the elements of bread and wine into something which is no longer bread and wine; he gives the mere water of baptism a supernatural efficiency which does not belong to it in reality. The essence, the leading and cardinal point of religions based on this principle, is the public working of an imperceptible but efficacious miracle. The special characteristic of other kinds of worship is that something is said or felt or believed, but here that characteristic is something done. Inevitably this great act tends to surround itself with other minor acts. A worship of prayer and preaching may be content with prayer and preaching, but a worship of supernatural acts tends naturally to surround itself with preparatory natural acts; it jars human nature to begin with so great a thing, it requires to be introduced by some minor thing. As a matter of experience sacramental churches have been churches of ceremonial; the churches which have completely rejected the sacramental principle have been those in which the worship has been the plainest and the ritual the least. And the theory of human nature would lead us to expect that it would be so.
In one of his most remarkable books the greatest Roman Catholic writer of this age describes the point forcibly. He introduces a recent convert as saying:—“I could attend masses for ever, and not be tired. It is not a mere form of words, it is a great action, the greatest action that can be on earth. It is not the invocation merely, but, if I dare use the word, the evocation of the Eternal. He becomes present on the altar in flesh and blood, before whom angels bow and devils tremble. This is that awful event which is the scope, and is the interpretation of every part of the solemnity. Words are necessary, but as means, not as ends; they are not mere addresses to the throne of grace, they are instruments of what is far higher, of consecration, of sacrifice.” Minds in this temper try to procure for themselves the most striking ceremonial which they can procure; they endeavour to accompany the invisible drama with a visible drama as lofty, as exciting, and as little inappropriate as they can.
The moment that we understand that Ritualism is the natural accompaniment of this kind of religion we also understand why the English dislike Ritualism, for they dislike this form of religion—dislike it more than they dislike any other; “Popery” is the best-known instance and the most striking development of it, and the English people hate “Popery”. The idea of such a kind of worship besides seems alien to them, and to run counter to their instincts. The idea of an invisible supernatural act performed close to them startles them, shocks them, and seems, as they say, “carrying things to an extreme”. And they would not like it any the better, but much the worse, because the power of performing so great an act, if once believed and admitted, inevitably gives to those who perform it diffused prestige and influence; this doctrine establishes a priesthood in the world, and the English people hate a priesthood. The most striking Ritualism is accordingly hated in England, because the species of religion which most tends to be strikingly Ritualistic is equally hated.
We should not have thought it necessary to write on a subject far from those most usual to us if we had not thought that the matter was very serious to us. In so saying, we give of course no opinion on the truth or falsity of any theological doctrine. Ours are not columns in which such topics can be spoken of. We mean that the political consequences of “Ritualism,” in the sense in which we have explained it, and in the manner in which in truth it arises in the real world, are very serious. It endangers the establishment of the Church in England, both if it retains within its limits those who sympathise with Ritualism and if it expels them. If it retains them it is in danger, because it identifies itself with a kind of religion which the English people dislike exceedingly and which they fear exceedingly. The connection between the Church and the State in England may easily be severed if that Church gives a home to those whom the common feeling of the nation particularly dislikes and at whom it is particularly irritated. On the other hand, if the Church expels those who sympathise in this movement and those who take part in it, it runs into danger because it narrows its boundaries; because it loses the support of an eager and earnest body; because no one can know how deeply notions akin to this permeate society, and how many may be affected by measures directed against them; and because, owing to many circumstances, the same class of men no longer enter the Church that used to do so, so that she has to be content with inferiors; and because, therefore, any new exclusion would be the diminution of a class already diminished, and the weakening of a power already impaired. Either way, the result to the Establishment is important.
We are grateful to Mr. Gladstone for what he has given us, but we own we think he ought to have done less or more. Either he ought not to have written on a subject on which he was sure to offend many, or he ought to have grappled with that subject in its practical aspect, and upon the side on which, far more than any other, it influences our politics.