Benson: “Noncatholic Denominations,” Nonconformists, in general

In Part II, Chapter 3, Benson comes to a general discussion of the Nonconformists in the UK. They all have in common a repudiation of ceremonialism. Since they are attempting to “spiritualise” religion, to valorise the internal aspect of it and to devalue the externals (not least the institution of a Church), then see anything external as “the adversary, or, at the best, but a very doubtful friend, of the internal” (138). Again, his English is superb: “a very doubtful friend.” Hence they do away with vestments, altar lights, incense, kneeling, and so on. The pulpit, on the other hand, is exalted, as the Gospel is preached from its eminence. Benson remarks:

It is curiously ironical that a movement which has as its professed object the removal of any human intermediary between God and the soul, should have as its result the substitution of the pulpit for the Tabernacle, and a preacher for a priest (139).

Whether those and the following remarks are still true of Nonconformism, I do not know, but they present a vivid picture of how human minds work: having rejected the ritual of liturgy, they come to adopt a sort of uniform of attitudes, so that his actions and gestures when preaching and teaching “are practically prescribed for him by universal custom” (140). The idea of any sanctity, even “relative sanctity” associated with places and days has disappeared, the aim being to “free the soul’s access to God from such use of material things as was thought to hinder it” (141). They abolished any liturgical or prayer books, allowing the preacher free rein, but then found it necessary to rein this in (141).

Benson then comes to the “Revival Services,” roughly similar to the missions of the Catholic Church. These use the most passionate preaching and prayer to awaken a sense of sin in the hearers, and then to move them to express faith in Jesus Christ the Redeemer wo can effect their conversion and salvation. A most remarkable pitch of excitement is reached, with people confessing sin, relating intimate experiences, and even hysteria appearing. Then Benson makes a significant observation about what often happens after these services:

… here is the inevitable and deplorable result, that many of the “converted,” experiencing later the certain reaction from such an emotional crisis, and possessing no system of direction, penance, worship and communion by which fervour might be sustained and guided, fall back again into an apathy and indifference to all religious appeal, for which there seems no remedy. This state of things is further aggravated by a certain popular doctrine that for a backslider after such a conversion as this, there remains little or no hope in God’s mercy (142-143).

Very fairly, Benson states that much good is done by these Revivals, and that the penitent sometimes experiences “a real spiritual movement,” and does not always backslide, but often leads better lives (143).

Benson then moves to “the New Theology” of the Congregationalists, according to which the Divinity of Christ, as always understood, is rejected, in favour of the doctrine that all men can become “Christs” (144-145). In other words, there is no difference in Kind between Christ and ourselves, and naturally enough, therefore, it tends to Pantheism: God is the sea and we are the harbour, so that “all energy and activity is Divine in its very essence” (145). Sin becomes an obsolete concept: “there is only ignorance, and selfishness, and limitation” (146). Miracles therefore disappear, for the supernatural does not exist, even the Virgin Birth and Resurrection are repudiated but as spiritual facts, and neither does Hell exist (146).

In biblical criticism, they follow the “Higher Criticism” which allows them to criticise even the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles, for which they substitute a socialist sort of political ideal (147). The past and tradition are devalued, and – no surprise – they are similar to what is known as “modernism,” and have started to exert an influence on “Broad Church Anglicanism” (147-8).

The great difficulty in engaging with them is that they reject all authority, and effectively even that of the Bible (148-149). I can think I can add, with some justice, that people of this bent argue away any passage they do not like. The only authority is the individual’s experience. Now, Benson states of their principles that when we speak, “I have no more right to object to another man’s ‘experience’ than he has to object to mine” (149). Things have deteriorated since Benson’s day, what I find today is that, to these people, not only do others have no right to disagree the lessons they draw from their experience, everyone else must accept theirs, while that of others can, indeed must, be rejected. How then to speak with them?

… the new theologian, however profound his spiritual humility may be, is practically, from his very premises, bound to take his stand upon the most intense form conceivable of intellectual pride. Certainly this pride takes most seductive and appealing appearances ; it shapes itself into a confession of entire ignorance, but its humility is tempered by an insistence upon the ignorance of all other men as well. That no formulated dogma can be possibly true, at least in the sense in which it was drawn up, is an inevitable corollary from the statement that “Revelation” must always be continuous ; that a twentieth-century divine is in certain matters qualified to judge and to condemn the fallible and immature teaching of Jesus Christ and His Apostles, is a further corollary of the same statement. And yet one further corollary follows from the premises of the ” new theologians,” to the effect that the most recent opinion of modern days is more trustworthy than any conclusions of departed saints and doctors (149-150).

At the risk of quoting too much of Benson verbatim, the next point is quite brilliant:

It is not demolition that he needs his misfortune is that he has already demolished too much it is rather a patient and painstaking building-up before his eyes of the solid bases of the Christian religion in its more elementary and fundamental aspects (150).

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