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THE PUBLIC WORSHIP REGULATION BILL. 1 (1874.) - Walter Bagehot, The Works and Life of Walter Bagehot, vol. 6 (Lombard Street, Essays on Guizot & Cairnes, The Depreciation of Silver) 
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. 6.
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THE PUBLIC WORSHIP REGULATION BILL.1
If the “Public Worship Regulation Bill” dealt only with subjects theological or religious, we should not interfere in the discussion; but it deals also with political questions on which we do not think it right to be silent, especially as many whom we much respect have, we think, selected a policy of which the effect will be the reverse of what they expect, and the success of which they may hereafter much regret.
All changes in England should be made slowly and after long discussion. Public opinion should be permitted to ripen upon them. And the reason is, that all the important English institutions are the relics of a long past; that they have undergone many transformations; that, like old houses which have been altered many times, they are full both of conveniences and inconveniences which at first sight would not be imagined. Very often a rash alterer would pull down the very part which makes them habitable, to cure a minor evil or improve a defective outline.
The English Church is one of those among our institutions which, if it is to be preserved at all, should be touched most anxiously. It is one of our oldest institutions. Every part of it has a history, which few of us thoroughly understand, but which we all know to be long and important. In its political relations it has been altered many times, and each time under circumstances of considerable complexity. The last settlement was made more than two hundred years ago, when men’s minds were in a very different state from what they are now: when Newton had not written, when Locke had not thought, when physical science, as we now have it, did not exist, when modern philosophy, for England at least, had not begun. The railways, the telegraphs, the very common-sense of these times, would have been unintelligible in the year 1660; they would have been still more unintelligible in the reign of Queen Elizabeth. To attempt to enforce on us now a settlement made in times so different, is a grave undertaking; it ought only to be made after the most ample discussion, and when every competent person has had time to consider the effect.
We have as yet felt little inconvenience from our old law, because we have dealt with it in a truly English manner. Always refusing to change it explicitly, always saying that we would never so change it, we were changing it silently all the while. Year by year this practice was omitted, or this habit insensibly changed. Each generation differed from its fathers; and though they might in part utter the same words, they did not mean the same things; their intellectual life was different. Incessant changes in science, in literature, in art, and in politics—in all that forms thinking minds—have made it impossible that really and in fact we should think the same things in 1874 as our ancestors in 1674 or 1774. Just as in legal theory Queen Victoria has pretty much the same prerogative as Queen Elizabeth, so too in legal theory the English Church may be identical with that of two hundred years ago; but the Church is not a legal theory, it is “a congregation of faithful men”;1 and no one of these is in a state of mind identical, or nearly identical, with those of two hundred years ago.
Many Continental statesmen would be much puzzled at this insensible alteration; they would have a difficulty in imagining a law which was a law in theory but not a law in practice, which no one would alter in word and no one enforce in reality. But the English are very practised in this sort of arrangement—they have a kind of genius for the compensation of errors. For many years we had probably the worst and most bloody penal law in Europe; it is awful to read the old statutes which fix death as the penalty for minor acts altogether undeserving of it. But these statutes did not work nearly so much evil as might have been expected. There was besides a complex system of indictments which let off very many culprits upon trifling flaws, and there was also an absurd system of incessant remissions and pardons; the worst evils of an excessively bad law were exceedingly mitigated by a very bad mode of applying it. Speaking roughly, and subject to minor criticism, the history has been the same in the Church; in it, too, an imperfect law has been remedied by an imperfect mode of procedure. The Church has been allowed to change in this and that because it has been exceedingly difficult to interfere with it. The legal penalty against change has been distant, costly, and uncertain; and therefore it has not been applied. Change has been possible because the punishment of change was difficult. But the essence of the “Public Worship Regulation Bill” is to make that punishment easy. “If the Rubric says so,” say its supporters, “the Rubric ought to be enforced.” This is as if Sir Samuel Romilly had attacked, not our bad penal code, but our bad penal procedure. If, by the historical growth of approximate equivalents, A mitigates B, you will deteriorate, not improve the world, if you change A without changing B, though both may be evils.
The analogy, indeed, very imperfectly expresses the truth. In the recent history of the Church, the English have conspicuously shown another of their predominant peculiarities—indifference to abstract truth. When a quarter of a century ago English lawyers in the Court of Privy Council were first required to decide theological questions, they did so in a way which astonished theologians. They declined to supply any abstract proposition. If the enacted formularies contained such and such words, no clergyman of the Church could, according to them, contradict those words, but they allowed the clergy to say anything else. We cannot use theological terms here; but suppose, by an economical analogy, the formulary had said that “Free Trade was beneficial to mankind,” the lawyers would have decided that no clergyman could say that Free Trade was not beneficial; but they would have allowed him to say that “Commercial liberty was inexpressibly disastrous to mankind,” because as lawyers they would not undertake to say that “Free Trade” and “commercial liberty” meant the same thing, or that in an abstract subject the two phrases might not in some way and to some minds seem consistent. In mere description this kind of decision may not seem very sensible, and it is utterly contrary to any which a theologian would ever have adopted; but in practice it preserved the Church Establishment. It was first applied in the Gorham case, and retained the Evangelical clergy in the Church; then, in the Essays and Reviews case, it retained the Broad Church; and lastly, in Mr. Bennett’s case, it retained the High Church. If the Establishment was to be maintained, it was necessary that all these parties should be kept side by side within it, and by this system of interpretation they were thus kept.
Unfortunately, the courts of law have not been able to apply the same sort of judicial decision to the practical directions for the public worship of the Church which they applied to her theoretical teachings. There is inevitably something more distinct and clear about acts which are required to be done at a given time and place, than in statements of abstract doctrine. When the courts have been appealed to, it has not been possible to apply to ritual the same comprehensiveness which has had such excellent political effects in the case of doctrine. But, nevertheless, there is exactly the same necessity for it. Almost every party in the Church is harassed by some of her rules, just as it is hampered by some of her words. The Broad Church dislikes the Athanasian creed, and avoids the use of it. The Low Church and the High Church are in vital and necessary opposition as to the mode of conducting the Sacramental services. In every characteristic Church every party thinks probably something is done which the strict Rubric would forbid, or something omitted which it would prescribe. Until now this difficulty has not been very acutely felt. As we have explained, the imperfection of the law was cured by the imperfection of the procedure. No doubt the Rubrics were framed in other days; no doubt they took no notice of the wants of the present day; no doubt a strict adherence to them would expel from the Church very many whose doctrines had been decided to be consistent with hers. And then, to enforce the observance of the Rubric was difficult, costly, and dubious, and so the natural evil did not happen. The wants of various minds were variously met by various deviations from the law, which in theory were liable to penalties, but which in practice were unpunished.
The scope of the “Public Worship Regulation Bill” is to destroy this variety. It is a new Act of Uniformity as far as “public worship” is concerned. A short and simple process—which has been so often stated that we need not here describe it—is prescribed which will enable objectors to enforce any Rubric, and which no doubt will cause them to be so enforced. The proposers of the bill have not enough considered the applicability of this primary assumption: no Church can have only a single form of public worship unless it has also a single creed. An apparent uniformity may be maintained in specified details; but in spirit, in feeling, in its deepest consequences on those who habitually hear and see, the effect will be different. A service conducted by a Broad Churchman, explained in his sermon, and commented upon in his manner, will be very unlike what it would be if that service is conducted by a bonâ fide dogmatic believer. No mere Act of Uniformity can prevent this. Still less can it efface the inevitable difference between a Sacramental service in the hands of a High Church clergyman and in those of a Low Church one. The two belong to separate and unlike species. The one believes that the service contains a supernatural act, the other that it is an edifying rite; the one regards it as an invisible miracle, the other as a conspicuous exhortation. Make what laws you like, how can the two perform these services with the same tone of mind, the same kind of thought, the same effect on the congregation? You may dress two men up in the same clothes, but they will be two men for all that. If once you permit two or more faiths in a Church, you in truth permit two or more Rituals. The various feelings and the various creeds will somehow find a means of bringing themselves into contact with the minds with which they wish to be in contact. You have “swallowed the camel” when you permitted the creed, and it is useless to “strain at the gnat” and forbid the expression of it.
This is to be especially borne in mind by those who think that there is a party in the Church that desires to introduce Romanism, and who approve of this bill because they think it will counteract that party. The essence of Romanism is not in its ceremonies, but in its doctrines. As was explained to the House of Commons on Wednesday, nothing could be simpler than the mode in which Mr. Newman used to conduct his services at Oxford; and yet he then held “Roman” doctrine, and penetrated half the young men about him with a deep faith in the highest sacramental principle. Unless you reverse the decision in the Bennett case, a doctrine which no common person will distinguish from Romanism will continue to be, and must be, taught in the Church of England. We do not believe it will lose in strength by being denied this or that form of Ritual. It will attract in any case the minds to whom it is congenial, and it will rather gain than lose in éclat by seeming to be persecuted.
We shall be told that this argument proves too much; for that it proves that this bill will do nothing at all, and that therefore at least it will do no harm. But it will, we think, do great harm—at least, if it be good to keep the Establishment, and if it does harm to weaken it. The real danger of the Establishment is from within, not from without. The manner in which its sections have been retained within its limits has in part developed, and as time goes on is still developing more largely, a great evil. Specially the Low Church, specially the Broad Church, and specially the High Church, have all been kept in her communion because the judges refused to draw certain logical inferences from her formularies; as lawyers they declined to draw them. But intellectual young men who are thinking of becoming clergymen, do not like this reasoning. They say: “The courts of law may not like to draw these inferences, but I must. I have spent my youth in a mental training which has prepared me to draw them, and which compels me to do so. Educated as I have been, I cannot take half an argument and leave it; I must work it out to the end. That end seems to me inconsistent with this or that of the formularies of the Church. Others say it is not, but I am not sure that it is not; at any rate, I do not like to risk the happiness of my life upon its being consistent. If in after-years my investigation should run counter to a vast collection of assertions framed by various men, in various ages, of various minds, what will be my fate? I must either sacrifice the profession by which I live, or the creed in which I believe. The lawyers probably might not turn me out indeed; but my conscience was not made by lawyers—I shall have to turn myself out.” This is the sort of thought which more and more prevents intellectual young men from taking orders, and we are beginning to see the effect. The moral excellence and the practical piety of the clergy are as good as ever; but they want individuality of thought and originality of mind. They have too universal a conformity to commonplace opinion. They are not only conscientious, but indecisive; more and more they belong to the most puzzling class to argue with, for more and more they “candidly confess” that they must admit your premises, but, on “account of the obscurity of the subject,” must decline to draw the inevitable inference. Already this intellectual poorness is beginning to be felt; and if it should augment, it will destroy the Establishment. She will not have in her ranks arguers who can maintain her position either against those who believe more or against those who believe less. Scepticism sends trained and logical minds to the intellectual conflict; Romanism does so also; but the Established Church refuses them—refuses them silently and indirectly, but still effectually. The Public Worship Bill will, we conceive, augment this difficulty almost at the very point at which its being augmented will be most calamitous. Many young men who are acutely conscious of the restraints of the Establishment in speculation, are attracted by its freedom in practice. “I may be cramped in metaphysics,” they think at heart, “but I shall be free in action.” But this bill will be a measure—for aught young men can tell, the first of a series—which will limit the freedom of their lives, and cramp them on the side of practice as they already are on the side of thought. The most malevolent enemy of the Established Church could deal her no acuter wound.
Upon the whole, we can conceive nothing clearer than that this bill should not pass this year. We are certain that members of Parliament have not considered the necessary arguments, and that the nation has not done so either.
[1 ] [This paper originally appeared in the Economist on the occasion of the adoption by the Government of the late Mr. Russell Gurney’s Public Worship Regulation Bill. It is here included as a telling practical illustration of the teaching of the essay on “The Metaphysical Basis of Toleration,” pp. 219-237.—Editor.]
[1 ] No. XIX. of the Articles.