Benson: Non-Catholic Denominations, The Broad Church (for the text of this book)


The “Broad Church” party of the Church of England was the subject of chapter 6 of Monsignor Robert Hugh Benson’s Non-Catholic Denominations. The opening of this section is quite remarkable because it is precise, concise, and humorous all at the same time:

If it is difficult sometimes to define exactly the principles on which other parties in the Church of England take their stand, it is far more difficult in the case of the “Broad Church” School, since their very essence is, so to say, undefinibility. Where the High Church party makes a precise statement and the Low Church party contradicts it, the Broad Church deliberately leaves the question open as being at least only doubtfully essential to Christianity (76).

Further, says Benson, the elusiveness of “Broad Church” doctrine is compounded by the fact that the Broad Churchman sees himself as “moving with the times,” and open to new thought about old problems (77). Even Revelation, to the Broad Church, has to pass through the thought “of various centuries, temperaments, and civilisations” (77).

But whereas it used to be thought that one should seek the truth, and then consider its effects on our conduct, the Broad Churchman tests what professes to be the Revelation of God by its effect on conduct. Those who originated this outlook thought that they were freeing religion from being dry, sterile, and scholastic, and so placed an emphasis on conduct and social reform. But the result has been that: “Belief is not so much released into conduct, as confined by it; dogmas which cannot be made to square with modern thought and needs are apt to be dismissed as “barren,” and therefore untrue” (78-79).

This “pragmatic” approach to doctrine means that they are moving towards a position where, for example, if one does not know whether Jesus Christ was “divine” in any way, yet if it is good to say that He was, then they will accept the Divinity of Christ (79). Benson is clear that many of the Broad Church party were not yet there: many sincerely believed in His divinity, but they were, he said, tending that way. I think time has proved him right. In this respect, he is like a Modernist: he looks to the value of a teaching more than to the facts. And so it is that many Broad Church clergy no longer literally believed in teaching such as the Resurrection.

Benson offers a striking example: baptism. A Broad Churchman “would regard as the grossest superstition, any belief that Baptism made any difference whatever to the destiny of a dying child ; certainly he would baptize a dying child if opportunity offered, from a sense that the action was seemly, customary, and according, probably, to Christ’s intention; but he could not bring himself to believe that its omission was really significant” (80-81). This is a very contemporary example for the Catholic Church, but it is no more so than what Benson says about their attitude to the Sacrament of Penance:

He would not denounce (it) … nor … (would he) urge it : he would think it was a useful discipline for some souls, and … might even allow that absolution had an “objective” value; yet, probably, he would never make his own confession, thinking it the sign of a strong and liberated soul to be able to obtain the effects of the rite the assurance of pardon and union with God by other means. For his sense of sin is not acute of sin, that is, as conceived by the Catholic to be the deliberate opposition of the human to the Divine Will; he is apt rather to picture it as the result of ignorance, or environment, or heredity. Its effects, he deplores, and its “reality” he allows : yet it is scarcely as an outrage that he thinks of it. (81)

The Broad Church attitude, that is, their system of interpretation, had started to spread to the High Church (82-83). That is an interesting observation: people without a living voice of authority will tend to make “pragmatic compromises” for the practices which strike others as whimsical oddities.

When it comes to the Bible, even the Low Church has been influenced by the Broad Church acceptance of modern biblical criticism, a discipline which will “if established, completely subvert their position” (83).

Perhaps the most astounding insight in this chapter, at least for me, was this:

Protestant Christendom, originally taking its stand upon Justification by Faith only without works, now preaches Justification by works without Faith. It was originally said that if a man had living faith, his works were unessential; it is now said that it does not matter what a man believes, so long as his life is right. This too, then, is the effect of the Broad Church movement, tending as it does to reverse Protestantism without restoring Catholicism. (84)

That had never struck me before, but I think Monsignor Benson is right. He then turns to how to engage in discussion with the Broad Church. The first thing is to try to have them accept a scholastic conversation, one in which a statement can be clearly made and defined, and so accepted and refuted. He gives some examples from marriage law. However, he admits it is difficult to get the Broad Churchman to commit to an exact discussion.

A more promising avenue may be to consider exactly what matters most to the Broad Churchman: human conduct. Monsignor praises Chesterton’s books Orthodoxy and Heretics as showing that: “with the rise of ‘modern thought’ there has been a revival of that old pagan despair, inertia and pessimism which Catholicism and Catholicism alone succeeded in overthrowing” (87) He makes some other comments along these lines, but I think that the really important point which emerges is this: according to Monsignor Benson, the Catholic is (or at least was in 1910) accustomed to “receive truth along scholastic lines, fenced and defined by irrefutable logic” (88) But the problem is that this method will not work where the scholastic method is rejected. Rather, the need for Catholics in dispute with the Broad Church is to muster “tendency against tendency, and general judgment against general judgment” (89) and here the universality of Catholicism, and its appeal to common people, even people of no education was very much in its favour. I am not sure if that argument still stands. When Benson was writing, what he called “modern thought” had little appeal to the average person, but Catholicism did. Today, the danger is not from modern thought, it is from modern thoughtlessness, and there seems to be no doorway so close to the floor that today’s errors cannot crawl beneath it and find their way in.

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