I am temporarily putting the review of Parish and Parish Church on hold. I have another volume on interlibrary loan, here, that is due soon. So if you are among the small readership, I haven’t forgotten! And since I am on this side note, if anyone knows any fans of Thomas Chalmers, the history of the Disruption / Free Church of Scotland, and especially those who are interested in the old parish model of church organization and witness, please let them know about this blog. I am an amateur in these areas and would appreciate any helpful, constructive comments that could help shape my grasp of things.
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Owen Chadwick has a very interesting essay entitled “Chalmers and the State” in A. C. Cheyne’s collection The Practical and the Pious: Essays on Thomas Chalmers (1780-1847). It sheds some more light on Chalmers’ approach to church establishments, a subject which I have recently treated (https://westportexperiment.wordpress.com/2008/08/22/chalmers-on-church-establishments-part-1/).
Chadwick rises to Chalmers’ defense of establishments, clearing him from unjust aspersions cast against him during his day. He stresses the point more clearly than I think I did previously, that what drove Chalmers to a defense of religious establishments was his largehearted, Christian concern for the poor.
The praise which no one could ever deny him is that he cared about the poor with a compassion which was also the leading passion of his life. How he cared about the poor, what methods he proposed to care for the poor (some of the methods seem peculiar, and not many of them would b e acceptable to the Welfare State of the 20th century), and also the practical results of the compassion, are in question. What is not in question is that he cared. His entrie theory of an established Church rested on this compassion for the poor. At the Tron Church in Glasgow he learned for the first time the nature of the urban slum, and this experience conditioned the rest of his life. He saw that no voluntary system could cope. Chapels supported by their member were chapels of the middle class. They might be chapels of the lower middle class but they were not chapels of working men and they were not in the right place. No system of raising money by gifts and bazaars could ever be enough. Therefore the State must act and supply, or at least must supplement all that voluntary effort could achieve (70).
His 1830 lectures on establishments in London were well-received by the Conservative Party, who continued to view the aristocracy as placed by God to be benevolent patrons of the common people. In these lectures,
His love for the poor was very evident when he talked of slums, only recently regarded as unsafe for members of the middle class to enter, but now visited by a minister, which had become places of cheerfulness and friendliness and welcome. When he speaks of the apostolic drive towards a better people and a higher morality and an enlightened education among the once illiterate areas, the lectures, and indeed the whole theory, are stamped with a deep sense of optimism: the Church moving forward powerfully into the new age on behalf of the poorest people. The lectures were not only strong because they were just what English Tories wanted to hear. They were strong because the idea of Establishment was so obviously rooted in compassion for suffering humanity (75).
We might think such ideas highbrow. But they were genuinely benevolent.
Sadly, the Dissenters used their political influence to quash Chalmers’ hopes for the Melbourne government to help the Kirk build more churches in the sprawling, unchurched cities. They unjustly feared that he and his party aimed at the destruction of Dissent, whereas he only “cared about the poor” and was “friendly to Dissenters as workers in the same field” (71).
These comments of Chadwick’s prompts a related observation. In terms of policy, Chalmers would have been totally antithetical to the 20th/21st century Welfare State. He had no time for non-localized charity, managed directly by a central state bureau. Yet, was Chalmers against the government’s intervention to secure the welfare of the poor? Of course not. Rather, he thought that government should subsidize the Christian ministry to evangelize and pastor the poor, caring first for their imperishable souls, and secondarily to assist them materially through responsible face-to-face involvement. Such a plan, modelled in his St. John’s Experiment and later on in the West Port, tended to preserve the dignity and promote the industry and independence of the poor. The government certainly ought to intervene in the situation, even if only as a matter of sound fiscal policy. To establish a Church would be, in Chalmers’ calculations, to save the state huge sums of money. But the state must intervene for the welfare of the poor indirectly. To indulge in an anachronism, Chalmers did in a sense believe in the Welfare State – only as outsourced to the Christian ministry.
It is interesting to note that, in Chadwick’s appraisal of the man, Chalmers thought that “it would be relatively easy to reunite the Protestant denominations in a single established Church” (74). Chalmers was clearly a broad evangelical for his day. Some have called him ‘the Apostle of Union.’ I don’t doubt that statements in his lectures on establishments tend in the direction of supporting a pan-evangelical establishment. They are reminiscent of Rabbi Duncan’s quaint credo, “I’m first a Christian, next a Catholic, then a Calvinist, fourth a Paedobaptist, and fifth a Presbyterian. I cannot reverse this order.” But whether Chalmers thought it would be easy to unite the evangelical denominations under the umbrella of the 1830s Church of Scotland is another thing. Maybe there is evidence for it in his unpublished manuscripts.
But Chadwick is spot on when he says that, after a broad Protestant consensus, the (secondary) basis for a Church establishment in Chalmers’ thought is the principle of territorialism, not a more nuanced doctrinal stance. “The idea that you should choose a Church on grounds of polity was not all to his liking” (74). He had the goal of Christianizing Scotland always uppermost in his mind, and the best way to Christianize is to localize.
Last, I found it quite helpful to have the following points in greater clarity. Chadwick indicates that the handwriting was on the wall for Church establishments in the 1800s not only because of the huge demographic shift from country to city, but also because of the changing political environment with the push to and the achievement of full political freedoms for Roman Catholics and Dissenters. The “relation of new quasi-democracy to old oligarchy” was pushing at the seams of the old order (77). With the political forces shifting, the purse strings from the State were bound to be cut. The voting blocs were not remaining static.