ut conciliatoriness has never been the characteristic of religious controversy; pious opinion has always brought out the worst side of human nature; and in both camps Christian and anti-Christian the desire for disagreement has been far more fervent than for agreement or mutual understanding.
It was somewhere about this time that I heard a venerable old Canon of Winchester thank God that, in this Christian land of ours, unbelievers had on their consciences not only the sin of unbelief, but hypocrisy as well; since for worldly reasons, they were obliged to conform, and pretend to faith though they had it not. And it was true at that date, in country parishes at all events, that a doctor who did not come regularly to church would have suffered in his practice; and with all the other trades and profess ions, religion had a commercial value which it was well to recognize.
In that matter, at any rate, things have greatly improved and bowing in the House of Rimmon has become a much more voluntary performance than it was fifty years ago; it is no longer necessary to go to church in order to prosper professionally.
But, as I look back on it, the parish church of my youth was still a fortress for class-distinction and the appear ances . In the middle aisle sat the gentry, here and there among them a few of the more prosperous tradespeople; the south aisle accommodated the smaller shopkeepers, and the more respectable of the working-class; in the north aisle sat the Sunday school children and the riff-raff. But as a symbol of Christian equality (which, however, went no farther) one front pew under the reading-desk was given to the old men and women from the almshouses. Also, in the choir, the gift of a singing-voice levelled out class-distinction.
Another social rule, which concerned only the gentry, was that a newly-arrived bride did not go to church till she was ready to receive visitors: after she had joined in congregational worship calls began.
I suppose that even now, in small country parishes, the Church of England is pre-eminently the Church of the gentry and their retainers. But it would seldom now be made a condition for a maid entering domestic service in a gentleman's family, that she must forsake her own connection and become a church-goer. That, however, was the rule in our own family; and, elsewhere, through out the neighbourhood the class-barrier between Church and Chapel was rigidly maintained. It was some while after we left home that we heard of the sensation caused at Catshill, when the leading lady, having quarrelled with the Vicar, betook herself to Chapel as a protest. Before long, however, the adulation and attention which she received from her fellow-worshippers, drove her back again; for a lady to become a chapel-goer was too much out of the order of nature to be simply accepted even by those to whom it gave most spiritual satisfaction.
One hears a good deal of talk nowadays about the decay of religion; and the Victorian age is spoken of as though it had been an age of faith. My own impression of it is that it combined much foolish superstition with a smug adaptation of Christianity to social convention and worldly ends; and that the main aim of the Established Church was with as little mutual disturbance as possible to make Christianity support Conservatism, and Conservatism support Christianity.
Yet already, beneath the surface, change was beginning and even in some who still held conventionally pious views, beliefs were getting curiously mixed. Our step mother, having an ardent passion for antiquity, had decided that it was compatible with the faith to believe that the world was more than six thousand years old and had taken longer than six days to create; but when one day having read an article in the Contemporary Review which propounded the theory that the builders of Babel were astrologers, and their Tower reaching to the Heavens merely an observatory for the study of the stars when, with pleased interest I quoted that proposition as making for sense instead of architectural nonsense, she turned upon me, and said in a voice of stern rebuke, 'My dear, don t lose your faith!' and I was smitten dumb. What she meant by faith only a Victorian mind could explain; yet without in the least intending it, she did perhaps help me more than anyone else to lose my faith in a good many things social and religious to which she tried most conscientiously to bind my mind. [136-39]
Housman, Laurence. The Unexpected Years. London: Jonathan Cape, 1936.
Last modified 17 November 2012