The term “Low Church” would seem to imply something base in its nature and levelling in its tendencies, as the term “High Church” would something noble and elevating. The one system might be supposed, from its designation, to lower, to degrade, to weaken the Church; the other to exalt, to adorn, to strengthen it. Such, probably, would be the impression which a foreigner coming into this country, or a person ignorant of parties, would receive from first hearing these terms used.
But we must not allow ourselves to be prepossessed and imposed upon by terms, without considering their origin, and their conventional application. When we would institute a comparison between the two systems, or parties, which these terms denote, and would weigh their respective merits, we must first take into account the exact momentum of the empty vessels, so to speak, which contain the goods of the opposing claimants. These empty vessels are the names by which the respective parties are designated. Now it is an undeniable fact, which is of great moment in this inquiry, that the appellation “High Church” is assumed—the designation “Low Church” imposed: the one is arrogantly claimed—the other meekly borne.
I don’t think there’s much doubt about when and why this particular…piece of writing; I hesitate to call it a novel…ended up on The Wishlist: undoubtedly as a consequence of my consideration of Joseph Ellis Baker’s The Novel And The Oxford Movement, which examined the way in which the novel progressively became the vehicle of choice for the warring factions involved in the inter-church brawling that marked 19th century English religious life. Written by a clergyman called Stephen Jenner in 1847, Steepleton; or High Church And Low Church: Being The Present Tendencies Of Parties In The Church, Exhibited In The History Of Frank Faithful is a perfect example of the way in which the novelistic form was hijacked into the service of writers more notable for their religious fervour than their literary talents. This is a tub-thumping, anti-Tracterian, anti-Catholic, Low Church polemic…although I must say that it is not immediately evident that this is so, since Jenner hides his claws for quite a lengthy stretch of this particular work. Once the claws are unsheathed, though— Yowza!
In fact, for a while there I was falsely lulled into feeling that in drawing Steepleton from the hat, I’d gotten off lightly. The first third or so of this work is actually quite interesting, and occasionally even humorous. However, perhaps its virtues are best illustrated by the fact that for quite some time, it was not at all obvious which side of the factional fence, if any, it was going to come down upon. Steepleton opens with the entrance into the ministry of Frank Faithful, About that eventful period, twelve years ago, when the Church seemed to be awakening from the sleep of a century. This is a reference to the beginning of the Tractarian movement in the mid-1830s, which was itself a reaction to the Reform Bill of 1832 and the (perceived) increasing liberalism of the times, and in particular what was viewed as intolerable government interference in church matters. The text then jumps back still further, and we learn that, It had been Frank Faithful’s desire, from as early an age as he could first lisp his wishes, to become a clergyman. We then dwell, in a supposedly inspiring but actually quite nauseating passage, upon the many ways the precociously devout Frank expressed his calling, for example, He took it into his head to lay by all the little gifts that he received from his friends, in order, as he said, to get money enough to build a church…
We are, presumably, to read all this as Frank being touched by God, since nothing in his family environment predisposes him to a religious calling: his father, indeed, treats his ambitions as a joke*, something he will grow out of, and intends that Frank will enter his business; his mother, though sympathetic, hesitates to oppose her husband.
(*Not surprisingly, this gentleman is referred to throughout as “Frank’s father” rather than “Mr Faithful”.)
Most of the interest of the early parts of Steepleton lie in its criticisms of various common life-practices, secular as well as religious, as from these we are able to infer a great deal about normal middle-class life at the time (at least for boys). At this point in the novel, these criticisms are implicit rather than explicit, with Jenner simply describing how things were done and allowing the reader to draw their own inferences. It’s a very great pity he couldn’t keep this approach up for the duration, but I suppose that’s too much to be expected. Anyway— Here, for example, is a description of Frank’s confirmation day:
By the help of his Right Reverend Brother, the Bishop’s duties were soon over—a merry peal from the steeple announced the termination of the service: the Bishop departed, and the only question that engaged the solicitude of Frank and his companions was, whether they considered the proper Bishop, their own Bishop, had laid his hands on their heads. The rest of the day was spent by Frank, and ten others of the young gentlemen of his own parish, in playing a game of cricket against eleven of another parish. This was followed by a dinner at the Inn, with its usual accompaniments; after which Frank went to bed with a severe sick-headache, produced by the excitement.
Likewise, after his father is worn down into allowing him to pursue his vocation, we get a good insight into the educational system of the time via Frank’s awful experiences with private tutors (who send him off to university knowing little more than he did when first placed under their “care”), and his tussle with contradictory university procedures that give more weight to tradition than to preparing students for adult life, let alone for entering the Church.
Steepleton keeps a non-denominational tone for about half of its narrative, presenting Frank as devoted to his calling but unsure which party, if any, he should throw in with; the narrative follows him as he tests out each possibility in turn and begins to draw conclusions. The novel’s messages here tend towards general warnings, such as not confusing the Church with its ministers. With hindsight, however, Steepleton does tip its hand early on about what kind of novel it will eventually be. Recoiling after his parish minister is involved in an embarrassing drunken incident, Frank is briefly drawn to the “Wesleyans”, but decides that he cannot approve various of their practices. Nevertheless, Methodism is presented with a degree of sympathy that is indicative of the overall tendency of the text: indeed, a footnote by Jenner refers to the Wesleyans as “the best allies which the Church of England possesses”.
More indicative still is that when Frank goes to university, he goes to Cambridge. As has been pointed out by numerous commentators (although never really gotten to the bottom of, as far as I know), a ridiculously high proportion of “university novels” are set at Oxford, even if there doesn’t seem to be any particular reason for the choice. Consequently, this particular bit of iconoclasm in Steepleton draws attention to itself. Jenner is even more critical of university practices as he was of private tutoring:
For the Church, in fact, the University affords little or no direct preparation. Though in some of the colleges they do profess to give divinity lectures, yet those who are appointed to give them are often mere novices, who know nothing of divinity themselves; and it is not to be expected that those who have never learned should be able to teach. Hence it is that our church becomes filled with such a number of inefficient, ill-prepared ministers—than whom many cottagers in their parishes have a more clear and consistent view of the Christian system, and, in all but the knowledge of words, are far more fitted to be public teachers.
It is finally Frank’s private studying rather than what he learns at university that allows him to pass his Bishop’s examination. This is for him “a season of solemn seriousness”, as he undertakes a “momentous responsibility”—
His religious views at this time were catholic and scriptural, without any decided bias of party prejudice; for with party he was as yet but very imperfectly acquainted. He fully believed the Established Episcopal Church to be the proper representative of Christianity in this country—a true apostolic branch of Christ’s Holy Catholic Church; and on this ground he became one of its ministers.
Frank’s first curacy falls amongst a predominantly Low Church clergy, though this is made little of to start with. He throws himself with devotion and energy into his duties, gaining a reputation for both his preaching and his parish work. In particular he is a believer in home-visiting as a way of getting to know his flock, and of rounding up strays. There is dissent in the parish, which is presented as the inevitable result of a lack of ministerial zeal, having little to do with actual belief, and Frank manages to bring most of these “wanderers” back to his church.
Along with his actual duties, the great attraction of Frank’s situation is the existence of a clerical society that meets regularly to discuss passages from the Scripture and to debate, and hopefully settle upon, the correct interpretation of matters of doctrine. This allows Stephen Jenner to expound – at length – about what we can take to be two of the hot-button issues at the time: the question of justification by faith alone, and baptismal regeneration. Here, I think it may be truly and not too unkindly said, Steepleton becomes much more like what we might have expected of a novel of this type; and if neither “angels” nor “the head of a pin” actually makes an appearance, I can assure you that the chapters presenting the clergymen’s tireless and minute dissection of these two topics gives that notorious piece of doctrinal dispute a fair run for its money. Here’s just a taste:
“Bear this principle in mind, then, in your interpretation of the baptismal service, which is drawn up strictly in a covenant form. It is a service constructed for the purpose of bringing persons into a covenant relationship to God and his Church. It begins by stating what is required in all persons before they can enter into the kingdom of heaven; it then exhorts the sponsors to join in praying that this blessing may be granted. The blessing is then prayed for in terms which obviously imply that baptism is only a figure and seal of the thing desired. The water is spoken of as being sanctified only to the ‘mystical‘ (i.e, emblematical, as the word means) ‘washing away of sins’. And it is a fact worth knowing that this qualifying word, mystical, is not in the Romish service, which absolutely asserts the washing away of sins by the outward rite. The prayer that follows is, that the child may be washed and sanctified by the Holy Ghost—that he ‘may receive remission of sins by spiritual regeneration‘.”
And so on…for about another 20 pages. (And in fact we get a second chapter on baptismal regeneration later on!)
Now—to cut to the chase a little—Steepleton‘s main thesis is that there is no such thing as “Anglo-Catholicism”, just Catholicism, and that the Oxford Movement and its resultant Tractarianism was a deliberate, covert, underhanded scheme to pave the way for the reintroduction of Catholicism into England under another name. (Boy…I just can’t get away from plots to reintroduce Catholicism into England, can I?? Sigh.) It is argued that one of the Tractarian tactics is to omit, or substitute, or misinterpret (accidentally or otherwise), certain words and phrases in the Scriptures, in order to give the passages that contain them a more Catholic slant. Frank Faithful proves very alert on this score, and painstakingly corrects these passages and elicits their true meaning via lengthy lectures upon grammar and language usage that (at least to this reader) are simultaneously numbingly dull and hilariously funny. But at least now I now the difference between “thereby” and “hereby”.
The second thing that emerges at this stage of the novel is that Steepleton was written in response to another novel. In my post on The Novel And The Oxford Movement, I mentioned that one of the leading exponents of the Tractarian novel, one of the first people to seize upon the novel as a weapon of propaganda in this inter-factional war, was William Gresley. In addition to publishing several extremely popular works of non-fiction, among them Anglo-Catholicism: A Short Treatise On The Theory Of The English Church, Gresley wrote half a dozen or so novels including Bernard Leslie; or, A Tale Of The Last Ten Years, a fictionalisation of his own experiences within the Oxford Movement. Though he roundly criticises both, it seems to have been the latter that provoked Stephen Jenner into taking up his own pen; and throughout Steepleton there are short passages quoting Bernard Leslie and showing exactly where Gresley is wrong / mistaken / fooling himself / lying:
“Ah! I perceive,” said Faithful, “that you have learned the Catechism from your friend, Mr Gresley, and not from the Prayer Book. It is remarkable that twice over in his “Bernard Leslie” does he profess to quote this answer of the Catechism, in proof of his notion that the Church holds the doctrine of regeneration by baptism, and both times does he misquote it, substituting ‘thereby‘ for ‘hereby‘ (pages 68 & 173). Now my argument upon this is, either Mr Gresley did not know the difference between ‘hereby‘ and ‘thereby‘, and therefore unconsciously made the mistake, because the sense which he would put upon it required it; or he knowingly changed the word in order to deceive. You may hang him upon which horn of the dilemma you please.
“But I don’t see,” replied Mr Roodstock, “what difference it can make, whether it be ‘hereby’ or ‘thereby’. Will you explain what you mean?”
“Readily: ‘hereby‘ means ‘by this‘, the last thing mentioned, and that, in this case, was the ‘inward and spiritual grace’, for that is the subject of the question to which this answer relates, and not to the outward part or rite: ‘thereby‘ means ‘by that‘, the former thing mentioned, and that would be, as Mr Gresley makes it, Baptism. ‘Hereby‘ refers to the death unto sin, and the new birth unto righteousness, which is the inward and spiritual grace; and it is hereby we become really children of grace; but not thereby, that is, by baptism, ‘which is only the outward and visible sign’.”
So, are we all clear on that?
(And now, of course, I feel obliged to give the Tractarians equal air-time by reviewing Bernard Leslie. Sigh.)
On the whole Frank is happy during his first curacy; although he cannot help feeling that his openly Low Church brethren are not quite—well, quite. It was a common High Church position that its adherents were all gentlemen, while Low Churchmen were generally rather under-bred. (Anthony Trollope’s Barchester novels, for example, express their High Church sympathies via this slur, amongst others.) Though he admires and respects them for their devotion and zeal, Frank can’t help feeling that the Low Churchmen amongst whom his lot first falls are not quite the gentlemanly companions he desires; and when the parish in which he takes up his second curacy proves to be thoroughly High Church, he is relieved, anticipating that he will find himself amongst clergyman who will suit him both doctrinally and socially.
That’s not quite how it works out…
Once settled in his new position, Frank eagerly joins the local clerical society, but finds it far different from the one founded and run by the Low Church clergy. The members eschew discussion of the Bible in favour of debates over the Prayer-Book and the Rubrics; they change the subject whenever a point of controversy seems likely to emerge; and they seem much more interested in the convivial dinner that generally follows a meeting than they are in the meeting itself. Sometimes, indeed, meetings are given over to matters not spiritual at all, although not necessarily without intense interest to the clergy:
After a long pause, Mr Sheepfleece started forward from his seat, and said;—“Mr Chairman, it is rather beside the question certainly, but I want to put a query to my brethren about the Income Tax Act, which is just coming into operation.”
Socially, meanwhile, Frank finds his colleagues given over to dissipations such as drinking and card-playing and dinner parties, and deplores their failure to set a personal example for their parishioners. His own attempts to do so find him being given the cold-shoulder in the town. While this does not trouble him, except in so far as his stance has no effect whatsoever upon his colleagues, he is more than troubled by the Tractarian slant he detects in the clerical society, and in the library for which the society is responsible. His attempts to rectify this are thwarted in a variety of ways, including counterarguments made with jesuitical subtlety (“jesuitical”, small-j, is one of Stephen Jenner’s favourite terms of abuse). Matters finally come to a head when another clergyman, a Mr Fairlight, who is “a pious, candid High Churchman, but no Tractarian”, tries to introduce into the library, “The able and learned charge of one of our Bishops against Tractarianism.” There is great consternation when this suggestion is seconded by Frank, but the threatened party has regrouped by the time of the next meeting, passing a motion banning all bishops’ charges from the library. This is of course like a red rag to a bull:
Faithful immediately arose and said, “Gentlemen, this strikes me as a most extraordinary motion—that, from a society, composed as this is entirely of clergymen, it should be proposed that bishops’ charges be excluded! I can have no doubt that this motion has arisen out of the circumstance of one particular charge having been voted into the number of your books—a charge which some are afraid to face—a charge which pours a regular broadside into the vessel which the Tractarian party have fitted out to carry all the people of England to Rome.”
(I think the charge in question is the Visitation Charge of Richard Bagot, Bishop of Oxford, of May, 1842.)
This is the final straw. It is known that Frank’s curacy is coming to an end, and the Tractarians get together to pass another motion, breaking their own rules of association in the process, that no-one may be a member of their society unless he holds a parish living or curacy. And so the troublemaking Frank is shown the door…
From this point Steepleton drops any pretence of being a novel. (Simultaneously, its footnotes get longer, more frequent, and more strident in tone.) Its final chapters amount to a series of lectures given by Frank to some convenient, Dorothy Dix-like parishioners, on such topics as What’s Wrong With The High Church?, The Difference Between Church Principles And Scripture Principles, How To Tell If Your Minister Is Sneaking Catholicism Into Your Parish – And What To Do About It, and What Are The Duties Of A True Protestant?
Steepleton, via Frank Faithful, is perfectly willing to admit that there are pious, hard-working, steady-principled High Churchman. However, it contends that too many of the party are devoted to accumulating earthly powers rather than practising heavenly duties, and put much more time and effort into obtaining preferments and larger incomes than into their obligations as ministers. Hence their insistence upon “Church principles”, which they pass off as the principles of the Church of England, but which shift the focus from the Scriptures to the person interpreting the Scriptures, as well as giving too much weight to “tradition”—thus opening the door to Catholicism. Likewise, the High Church taste for vestments and choirs is too close for comfort to pernicious Catholic ritual, while the taste of some for powers of absolution exposes their desire for greater personal importance. Low Churchmen, meanwhile, are devout, humble and dedicated. They may not always be perfect gentlemen, but they are perfect ministers of God.
But of course, misguided as the High Churchmen may be, their sins pale into insignificance compared to those of the sneaking, treacherous Tractarians and their vile Catholic masters.
To make sure he fully understands the magnitude of the threat facing England, Frank decides he needs to visit a Catholic country in order to see its practices and their effects on the people for himself—or, as the novel puts it, to take A Peep At Popery. However, while Frank may declare that he is there to learn “the real character of popery”, all he’s actually doing is confirming his own prejudices. Never at any point does he talk to anyone about their faith, or make any genuine attempt to enter into the hearts and minds of its practitioners; he simply looks on from a safe distance and so, not surprisingly, sees exactly what he expects to see. It is also noticeable that Frank observes only the additional rituals of Catholicism, and never actually gets around to attending Mass.
Two subjects in particular emerge from the rabid anti-Catholic diatribe that constitutes this chapter. The first is confession, which is seen on one hand as an encouragement to sin, and on the other as a form of corruption—particularly the corruption of young girls, whose innocence is shattered by the questioning of the priests—and which, “Sufficiently accounts for the early and general spread of corruption of morals in Roman Catholic countries.”
Not to make any sweeping generalisations, or anything.
The other target for extreme hostility is idolatry. This in general is anathema to Frank Faithful (who is passionate about undecorated, bare-board churches and calls whitewash “emblem[atic] of the holiness which ought to pervade God’s house”), but nothing in his peep at popery horrifies him as much as the tributes he sees being offered to the Catholic saints and, above all, to the Virgin Mary.
One thing you may have noticed about Steepleton is that there are no women in it. We are left in little doubt that this is an expression of Stephen Jenner’s own view of life: that women should be seen and not heard, and preferably not seen either. In this spirit, it is not until Frank moves from his first curacy to his second that we discover that there is a Mrs Faithful, not to mention “a family growing up around him, for which he required a suitable home”; and after that remark they are never mentioned again. There is a brief appearance by an uneducated cottager, who exemplifies the text’s assertion that such better understand Christianity than most university-educated ministers, but otherwise women only appear, and that very briefly, to be mocked for their foolishness and misguided beliefs. When the Tractarians fight back against Frank’s efforts to expose them by rigging the election of a churchwarden, they do so by stooping to the lowest possible tactics: Out-dwelling landlords were hurried (not knowing why) to the rector’s help: even WOMEN were brought in post-chaises to vote…
Stephen Jenner’s loathing of Catholicism is evident throughout, but when he talks about the position held by Mary and her adoration by Catholics he gets a whole extra layer of revulsion in his voice. Mary is finally interpreted here as a ploy to draw weak-minded (and pre-corrupted) women to the Catholic church; and for all that Protestant women are not pre-corrupted, the text expresses a deep concern that they might be weak-minded enough to fall for it too.
I doubt this was what Stephen Jenner was going for, but right now I’ve never felt so furiously Catholic in all my life.
Anyway— Steepleton concludes with an exhortation to all true Protestants to be on their guard against Catholic encroachments and the Tractarian manoeuvring that, knowingly or unknowingly, makes it possible:
Regard not minor differences, where you all hold the same essential truths. Let not party distinctions keep you from co-operation. If you find any, whether called High-Church or low, who show that they really value the purity of faith more than party, enter into a friendly alliance with such. Collect, associate, combine for the defence of the truth, and of the Protestant established Church, as the great bulwark and safeguard of the truth. Let not slight variations of opinion on minor points divide and weaken you. “Union is strength.” If all true Protestant churchmen would but thus lay aside their party jealousies, and contend, as one man, for the faith that was once delivered to the saints, they would be stronger than all its enemies. Everything is at stake:—your Protestant Church, your Bibles, your liberties, the spiritual well-being of yourselves and your children. Arouse yourselves but in time, and these may be preserved to you and to your posterity: continue unwatchful and unresisting, and they are lost for ever…
Steepleton ended up being both more and less than I expected. Its early stages are surprisingly good-humoured and even (as with the sudden intrusion of the Income Tax Act) occasionally funny; but when it loses it, it really loses it. Still…I imagine that what I consider its losses, Stephen Jenner considered its gains. (Inadvertent John Henry Newman joke alert!) I will say this, though: right at this moment I am clearer in my mind than ever before about both the specifics of Protestantism and the doctrinal differences between Protestantism and Catholicism, and that’s knowledge I’m happy to have.
Oh! Right. I suppose I should explain the significance of “Steepleton“: it’s the town associated with Frank’s second curacy. It’s barely mentioned, and never relevant, and you have to wonder why it was chosen as the title of the novel. Wouldn’t just Frank Faithful have been more to the point?