A Week in the Future, by Catherine Helen Spence

Chapter viii


Religion & Morality

“For to-day,” said my friend, Mr. Oliphant, “I think it would be well to put you under the care of St. Bridget, who knows more of the religious life of our modern society than I can pretend to do. But this I must premise that in the most extraordinary way religion has showed its vitality. The old historical Christianity was assailed from all quarters. You must recollect that in your own day scientific discoveries and critical studies of the Bible shook the faith of many. But that was nothing to the great mass of infidelity which preceded and accompanied the social revolution which you were expecting — that catastrophe which closed your century and introduced ours. The Meliorists were not all unbelievers, for in every Church in the world there were many who devoutly hoped and trusted that God himself would redress wrongs, and bring in a sort of miraculous millenium; but the active spirits — the Socialists, the Communists, and the Nihilists — were impassioned and aggressive Secularists and looked on the churches as the greatest hindrances in the way of human progress. As the world settled down after the revolution, these Secularist leaders were surprised to find that the churches were not deserted — as they had confidently expected, but that large numbers of the new generation, rising up, clung to the faith in the unseen and the unknown. Worship appears to be a necessity for the average human nature, but, with every advance in knowledge and in morality, comes a change in the ideas we have of the Being whom we worship, and of the services which is acceptable to Him. The constancy of the natural laws, or rather of the natural order, is now too firmly established to allow of prayer for definite blessings being offered. Prayer with us is adoration of a Power felt to be ten-thousand times greater than was dreamed of by Psalmist or Apostle, and aspiration after such perfection as is open to a humanity no longer under a curse, no longer finding its only salvation in fetters or leading-strings, but free to seek after the best and the highest.”

“Then are the Churches stronger than they used to be?”

“They are stronger, in that they have let go their weaker defences, but they are not nearly so strong in numbers as you recollect them. There are still very many sceptics in the world, but the age of scoffers is over. Honest sceptics are acknowledged to have done good service in the past, and to do good service in the present, even by the most devout among us. Religion being now absolutely free, neither endowed nor supported by the State, is a matter between a man’s conscience and his God, there is no longer a premium on hypocrisy, and there is no vantage ground occupied by it, either pecuniarily or socially.”

“Is there then no priestly caste or class now-a-days?”

“No; none at all.”

“Are there no men and women — I see from Miss Somerville that women are included — brought up for the ministry? They used to have this special training, even for dissenting congregations in my day. It was considered that such an education and the devotion of the whole life were needed to make any ministry effective.”

“We consider the ordinary education of the citizen is the best foundation, and the ordinary life the best preparation.”

“Then is the public worship of the faithful a mere matter of chance, those speaking whom the Spirit moves, as among the venerable Society of Friends.”

“Not altogether. Our religious teachers have something superadded in the way of study, though there is great latitude given to outsiders in most denominations.”

“Ah! now I understand. This spiritual ministration — like almost all your literature and art — is the work of that leisure which is so equally possessed by all classes of society, all grades of intelligence and all varieties of temperament.”

“Just so. If Paul, who had the conversion of a whole heathen world on his hands, could earn his daily bread by his avocation of a tent-maker, surely the building up of the faithful in the modern spiritual temple might be accomplished by the many devout souls who have provided things honest in the sight of all men by their work during the week. Naturally permanent charges corresponding to the old parishes and congregations fall to those who are most fitted for it, but help and variety are obtained from others.”

“Lay brothers and sisters, I suppose?”

“There is no lay, when there are no clerics,” said Mr. Oliphant; “but there is a large body of the unattached, who assist the regular ministrants.”

“And St. Bridget belongs to the regulars?”

“Yes, or she could not have joined Fred and Florrie in marriage together. She preaches very well, but her special gift is prayer. We could not afford to shut out quite half of the piety of the world from the ministry by making our women keep silence in the churches.”

“In spite of Paul?”

“We owe no slavish obedience to a temporary instruction of Paul, even if that was what he meant, and not to stop idle questions and interruptions of Divine service.”

“Are you a church-goer yourself, Mr. Oliphant?”

“Occasionally. Not regularly.”

“It is still respectable to go to church? I suppose.”

“Yes; but quite as respectable to stay at home, if you do not feel that it does you good.”

“Then, if the intolerance of the churches, with regard to sceptics, has been softened, what of the intolerance and aggressiveness of the sceptics towards the churches?”

“That is also changed. The churches are not now maintained at great cost to the public. They neither persecute nor taboo non-believers, and, therefore, their attitude disarms aggression. But I must now hand you over to St. Bridget. I am going to have a good day over my book, all the better, I believe, for the week’s talk with you.”

Miss Somerville had an engagement to conduct public worship in the evening, but for the morning she was free. I took her completely into my confidence, and I found her more ready to believe my strange story than even my own kinsfolk.

“Where do you wish to go to?” she asked.

“Either to St. Paul’s or Westminster Abbey, preferring the latter. We are too late for early service, so the forenoon must be our time.”

“Westminster Abbey, like a great many churches of all denominations, stands open all Sunday, and is open for morning and evening service every day.”

“That is a good borrowing from the Roman Catholic Church, which the Anglican resembles in many respects.”

“Other churches do the same. The church is now understood to be more a house of prayer than a preaching place.”

“Are the denominations as numerous as they used to be?”

“Not nearly so numerous. Many have merged minor differences and taken a broad platform for united action.”

“Such as the various forms of Methodism, for example?”

“Yes, these have merged in one body. Others, such as the Congregationalists and Baptists have united, both believing in adult baptism only. Infant baptism distinguishes these from the united body of Presbyterians, to whom I am bound by ancestry, but baptism of this kind is now a simple dedication service.”

“Have the High Church Anglicans and the Roman Catholics abandoned the miraculous element in the baptismal service and the sacraments generally?” said I, in the greatest surprise.

“We hear less and less about it as the years roll on. Common sense has attacked it from one side, and from the other we learn that spiritual influences are immanent from the Deity, and not obtained by any jugglery with material things, even by what were called sacramental elements.”

“Then there is no social advantage or prestige in belonging to the English Church now-a-days, nor any heart-burnings among those who remain outside of it.”

“When the establishment and the temporalities fell, the edge and the bitterness of dissent were taken off.”

“What training do your ministers receive to fit them for the position they have to fill?” “Each denomination has its own standard. The scholarship may vary, but piety is thought indispensable.”

“And as the employment is entered into without hope of reward, there is no temptation for such as have no vocation to enter into it.”

“I gave three years of my leisure to theological study, and then had three years probationary work before I took such orders as are needed for the care of a congregation.” “And this, too, is the work of your leisure. In my time the whole life was given to it.” “Given to what?” asked St. Bridget, simply.

“To parochial and ministerial duties.”

“What did these include?”

“Conducting public worship and preaching twice on Sunday and often on weekdays besides. In the Catholic and the High Anglican Churches there was morning and evening prayer besides. There was superintending the Sunday Schools, catechising the young, visiting the sick and the dying, platform work, and generally keeping up social intercourse with the flock.”

“Well, you will see and hear our services to-day. We have no week-day services except morning and evening prayer, conducted by probationers and other volunteers in training for the ministry, which, itself, is only a larger offering of voluntary service.”

“Mr. Oliphant tells me that you pay none of your religious teachers.”

“Not one. Except for the repair of churches which were our inheritance from the past, there is no expense connected with our religious services.”

“Your organists and choir?”

“Give their services as their offering.”

“Your church cleaners and pew openers, if such still exist?”

“These also offer their work without payment.”

“God forbid that I should make an offering to my God of that which costs me nothing,” said I, quoting David.

“Exactly so!” said St. Bridget, “that is what the devout feel. They delight to give of their time, and their care, and their thought, and their prayers, and would feel hurt if they were paid in money or a money’s worth for them.”

“But what of the community which accepts this?”

“We learn to accept much from our brethren now-a-days. If each gives his best for the general good, as you have seen, I am sure in other departments, surely the devout need not hang back. Most of us are poorer than the average citizen, because we are tempted to borrow from the hours which are given to self-supporting work for this labor we delight in. This is the only asceticism possible to us in these times.”

“The clergy of all denominations had great care of the poor a century ago. In North and East London, and in the great manufacturing towns the demands on the time and the purse of ministers of religion were enormous. Countless schemes for the relief and the improvement of the masses were originated or furthered by them, and many were the disappointments they met with in this difficult work of charity.”

“That branch of duty is saved them now-a-days.”

“How do you read Christ’s saying —‘The poor ye have always with you.” Do you consider it to be only a local and temporary justification of the splendid lavishness of the devout woman?”

“In the old material sense it is not true now, but it was with Christ’s weapons and in Christ’s spirit (though often unconsciously) that we virtually annihilated poverty. Who that saw the grand self-sacrifice, the absolute dedication of the noblest souls to the reconstruction of society, could doubt the source of the movement? But there are always poorer and richer intellectually, and especially spiritually, and it is for those who are more highly endowed to aid and encourage the lower and weaker souls. Our whole framework of society rests on that bearing of each other’s burdens which is helpful to all. Every man, no doubt, bears his own burden in another sense. Our individual souls have to account to our Creator for the course they have run, the light they have shed, or the light they have closed themselves to, or intercepted from others.”

“I have been feeling that there seems little or nothing for good, and pious, and energetic, people to do. In my time the amount to be done was enormous, though, I confess, that much of our efforts seemed wasted through our own ignorance and through the weakening of the self-reliant spirit in those we wished to serve. Still, it was for the time gratified activity, which was to our happiness. But now —”

“I can see you are somewhat depressed by what seems to you a dead level of uniformity. To me there appears infinite variety. I feel not only with strangers, but with the hundred or more who inhabit the Owen Home, such contrasts, such gradations of character, and every now and then (well as I know them) I have surprises — things that were quite unlooked-for — either good or bad.”

“Everything is comparative,” said I. “As Mr. Oliphant says, the nineteenth century would have appeared colorless and flat to the feudal chiefs of the twelfth century, or to the buccaneers of the sixteenth. To me it was in many ways painful, but it was intensely interesting. I fear you have forgotten it and its struggles.”

“No one who thinks at all can fail to be grateful to the men and women of that century who saw sympathetically what was the value of humanity. It was a prophecy not far from its fulfilment.”

“And what of its scientific spirit and the long-continued battle it maintained with the creeds of the churches?”

“A battle, from which both came out victorious. The churches were shaken to their old foundations, and came out purified and spiritualised. A century which severed the connection between Church and State, which saw the destruction of the Pope’s temporal power, the source of one-half of the evils under which the Catholic world groaned, and which reorganised that ancient church on surer foundations, which inaugurated general national education, and which, after great bandying of the words, Religious and Secular, as war cries, at last settled their just boundaries. Ah! we, of the religion, owe much to that shaking!”

“All the devout, in my day, were alarmed at the secular tendencies of the age, especially in the matter of education.”

“With me, and those who feel with me, there is nothing secular. Every thing is profoundly religious. I do not believe there is not an Associated Home in the Commonwealth where there is not one — or more than one — who gives religious teaching to the little ones, not on Sundays only, but every day. We follow them to the National Schools, we do not leave them at the continuation schools. It is no part of the State-paid teachers’ work, but it is the privilege of our volunteers.”

“But do not many sceptical parents object to your giving instruction of which they disapprove?”

“Very few of them go so far as that, though if they do, we respect their wishes.” “And does this make all your people grow up pious?”

“No; certainly not. The proportion of professing Christians is much smaller than in your day; but no one professes one thing and believes another. After all, sincerity is the first of virtues.”

“But Rome and its mighty hierarchy? Do you mean to tell me that money does not enter into the relations between priest and people? Why, it was not the maintenance of the clergy that the devout Catholic paid for, it was the saving of his own soul and the souls of those dear to him from purgatorial fires!”

“The first step in the purification of the older Christian Church was the destruction of the temporal power, and making the Pope merely the spiritual head of the church, freeing him from the entanglements and the limitations of an ordinary reigning sovereign. His spiritual power became greater than it had been for centuries. When all other churches relinquished their temporalities, Rome had to follow suit. No church ever contained more devout and devoted souls, and, as a rule, the best religious work had always been done for nothing. It was the salt of the volunteer work that saved the mass from utter putrefaction. It still proclaims itself infallible, indivisible, and unchangeable, but it has, in fact, maintained its authority and its prestige by adapting itself to the new conditions of society.”

“And what of the celibacy of the clergy?”

“That is maintained, as well as that of many working brothers and sisters, but all these earn their livelihood like other people, a little more meagre, generally, because, as I have said, the spiritually-minded want more for their special work than the ordinary leisure of the citizen.”

“I see another cause of the great average wealth of the community, which has so much astonished me. Your religious teachers are natural producers, and not maintained at the cost of the industry of others.”

“We find that much of what used to be stigmatised as ecclesiastical narrowness has disappeared, since our religious teachers ceased to be a clerical caste. Mr. Oliphant often tells me that my caps and bonnets possess the balance of my intellect — in fact, keep me sane.”

“I hope that the Greek Church has been influenced in the same way as the Roman, and that the domination of an ignorant and arrogant priesthood has been exchanged for the helpfulness of an enlightened and sympathetic ministry.”

“It was only suffered to exist on such conditions. The Russian Revolutionists thought they could destroy the Church as they had destroyed the throne, but they found themselves mistaken. The mass of the people felt religion to be a necessity of their nature.”

When we reached Westminster Abbey I was glad to find we were early, and I watched the congregation as it arrived — a plainly-dressed, reverent, and apparently devout body of men, and women, and children. The prayer book had undergone a considerable amount of excision and addition. These happy, contented worshippers no longer called themselves miserable sinners, or entreated the Good Lord to spare them, as if but for their anguished petitions hell and destruction were ready to swallow them up. As children, to a father, they came with their thanks and their desires, knowing that He loved them, and that if their souls were laid open to Him, His spirit of goodness and of peace would flow in upon them. There were pious words of mediaeval saints and of later worthies introduced into the prayers; some, quite new to me, about which St. Bridget informed me afterwards. The hymns were mostly new. I regretted this, because I wished, so much, to recall my own early religious feelings and traditions in that part of the service in which I could actively join. But I could not help seeing, with pleasure, that the musical part of the service all through was congregational.

From every corner swelled the notes of praise. No professional choir did that service for the worshippers, but hymn and anthem belonged to all. The responses were mostly musical, but when not so, were simultaneous, and not following a leader. Beautiful music had surrounded every child from the day of his birth: it was like the air he breathed, so everyone seemed to sing, and to sing true in the twentieth century. The reading was also excellent, and not intoned, but natural.

The subject of the sermon I heard in Westminster Abbey was the “rich young ruler,” in Matthew xix, who sought to know what good thing he should do that he might have eternal life. The answer of Christ was “If thou wilt enter into life, keep the commandments.” He said, “Which?” and Jesus said “Thou shalt do no murder; Thou shalt not commit adultery; Thou shalt not steal; Thou shalt not bear false witness; Honor thy father and thy mother; and, Thou shalt love thy neighbor as thyself.” All, it may be observed, duties to our neighbors. The entrance into life depended on the discharge of them. But, if thou wilt be perfect, “Go, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor, and come follow me” The counsel of perfection, as the Catholic Church often calls it, meant the sharing of inherited or acquired wealth with those who had nothing, and the devotion of this life to the spread of the Gospel. The young ruler was able to do the first, but not to rise to the higher level. A vivid picture of the old disparities of life was drawn, and Christ represented less as the mediator between God and man than as the mediator between the rich and strong in this world, and their poorer and weaker brethren.

Terror, with regard to the unseen and the unknown, seemed to have completely passed away. In the case of Miss Somerville, belief in the personal God, in the gracious Redeemer, in the ever immanent Spirit, and the conscious immortality of the Soul was as strong as it could have been in the so called ages of faith, but it was combined with the most perfect confidence that those who did not share her faith might share its blessings. The theological beliefs of the past had aided in evolving conscience; the religious organisations still had it as their task to direct and to strengthen conscience and to gather up all the tender and reverent feelings of the religious nature of man, and, while doing so, allied all their religious feelings to the cause of truth and progress.

If in former times St. John’s had been the favorite Gospel of the devout, it was now Luke who was the greatest authority. In his Gospel, and in the Acts of the Apostles, were found much fore-shadowing of the recent changes in society. Christ was regarded as the prophet and pioneer of the social order so long delayed, when each member of the human family should feel for every other member. Mistake and misapprehension, violence, ambition and greed, had kept back the unfolding of the Gospel germ for nearly two thousand years, but to Christ all Christian socialists, and even many sceptical socialists looked back with gratitude and reverence. Morality and religion were inextricably woven together. The Fatherhood of God was apprehended and understood through the brotherhood of man.

Although so many churches were open all day, the Sunday was not kept rigidly sacred. On Sunday afternoons most of the young people were out of doors, and many of them engaged in such relaxations as I had seen on the Saturday afternoon. Miss Somerville spent it in reading of a devotional character preparatory to an evening service which she conducted, to which I went with her in a small church not far from the Owen Home. She took as her subject Communion with God, and I could see that she would indeed have been a mystic, if she had lived in a darker age. She was penetrated with the Divine, but yet her daily life kept her in touch with the Human.

I asked her if she did not, in some ways, regret the past of which she had made a study, and the heroes and heroines, the saints and ascetics, of the churches whom she loved and admired so much.

“No,” said she, “by no means. Surely the God whom we all worship, more or less ignorantly, must be better pleased with a world in which there is less prayer but more happiness, and less cruelty, oppression and greed. Can there be any praise sweeter to our Heavenly Father than the happy unchecked laughter of children, the hopeful ardor of youth, the earnest endeavors of mature years, the placid contentment of old age? We no longer look on Him as the Lord of Hosts, the arbiter of battles, as our ancestors did, but we see that the millenial peace dreamed of by pious souls in all ages has fallen upon the earth. Woman is no longer degraded as the slave or the toy of man, but takes her equal place in all relations of life. No child is crushed beneath the wheels of the Juggernaut car of commercial prosperity or ascendancy. The distinctions of caste are obliterated. The slave is free, the serf is his own master, the laborer eats in peace and security the fruits of his toil. Surely now, if ever in the history of our earth, the Lord may look on the things that he has made and pronounce them ‘very good.’”

My week has come to an end. Short though it has been, it has been full of interest, full of all that I have accounted life. A good exchange for a year or two of mere existence.

“Now, Lord, let Thy servant depart in peace, now that I have seen the salvation wrought by brotherhood for the families of the earth.”

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Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:00