Tancred/Chapter X


A Visionary

ABOUT the time of the marriage of the Duchess of Bellamont, her noble family, and a few of their friends, some of whom also believed in the millennium, were persuaded that the conversion of the Roman Catholic population of Ireland to the true faith, which was their own, was at hand. They had subscribed very liberally for the purpose, and formed an amazing number of sub-committees. As long as their funds lasted, their missionaries found proselytes. It was the last desperate effort of a Church that had from the first betrayed its trust. Twenty years ago, statistics not being so much in vogue, and the people of England being in the full efflorescence of that public ignorance which permitted them to believe themselves the most enlightened nation in the world, the Irish 'difficulty' was not quite so well understood as at the present day. It was then an established doctrine, and all that was necessary for Ireland was more Protestantism, and it was supposed to be not more difficult to supply the Irish with Protestantism than it had proved, in the instance of a recent famine, 1822, to furnish them with potatoes. What was principally wanted in both cases were subscriptions.

When the English public, therefore, were assured by their co-religionists on the other side of St. George's Channel, that at last the good work was doing; that the flame spread, even rapidly; that not only parishes but provinces were all agog, and that both town and country were quite in a heat of proselytism, they began to believe that at last the scarlet lady was about to be dethroned; they loosened their purse-strings; fathers of families contributed their zealous five pounds, followed by every other member of the household, to the babe in arms, who subscribed its fanatical five shillings. The affair looked well. The journals teemed with lists of proselytes and cases of conversion; and even orderly, orthodox people, who were firm in their own faith, but wished others to be permitted to pursue their errors in peace, began to congratulate each other on the prospect of our at last becoming a united Protestant people.

In the blaze and thick of the affair, Irish Protestants jubilant, Irish Papists denouncing the whole movement as fraud and trumpery, John Bull perplexed, but excited, and still subscribing, a young bishop rose in his place in the House of Lords, and, with a vehemence there unusual, declared that he saw 'the finger of God in this second Reformation,' and, pursuing the prophetic vein and manner, denounced 'woe to those who should presume to lift up their hands and voices in vain and impotent attempts to stem the flood of light that was bursting over Ireland.'

In him, who thus plainly discerned 'the finger of God' in transactions in which her family and feelings were so deeply interested, the young and enthusiastic Duchess of Bellamont instantly recognised the 'man of God;' and from that moment the right reverend prelate became, in all spiritual affairs, her infallible instructor, although the impending second Reformation did chance to take the untoward form of the emancipation of the Roman Catholics, followed in due season by the destruction of Protestant bishoprics, the sequestration of Protestant tithes, and the endowment of Maynooth.

In speculating on the fate of public institutions and the course of public affairs, it is important that we should not permit our attention to be engrossed by the principles on which they are founded and the circumstances which they present, but that we should also remember how much depends upon the character of the individuals who are in the position to superintend or to direct them.

The Church of England, mainly from its deficiency of oriental knowledge, and from a misconception of the priestly character which has been the consequence of that want, has fallen of late years into great straits; nor has there ever been a season when it has more needed for its guides men possessing the higher qualities both of intellect and disposition. About five-and-twenty years ago, it began to be discerned that the time had gone by, at least in England, for bishoprics to serve as appanages for the younger sons of great families. The Arch-Mediocrity who then governed this country, and the mean tenor of whose prolonged administration we have delineated in another work, was impressed with the necessity of reconstructing the episcopal bench on principles of personal distinction and ability. But his notion of clerical capacity did not soar higher than a private tutor who had suckled a young noble into university honours; and his test of priestly celebrity was the decent editorship of a Greek play. He sought for the successors of the apostles, for the stewards of the mysteries of Sinai and of Calvary, among third-rate hunters after syllables.

These men, notwithstanding their elevation, with one exception, subsided into their native insignificance; and during our agitated age, when the principles of all institutions, sacred and secular, have been called in question; when, alike in the senate and the market-place, both the doctrine and the discipline of the Church have been impugned, its power assailed, its authority denied, the amount of its revenues investigated, their disposition criticised, and both attacked; not a voice has been raised by these mitred nullities, either to warn or to vindicate; not a phrase has escaped their lips or their pens, that ever influenced public opinion, touched the heart of nations, or guided the conscience of a perplexed people. If they were ever heard of it was that they had been pelted in a riot.

The exception which we have mentioned to their sorry careers was that of the too adventurous prophet of the second Reformation; the ductor dubitantium appealed to by the Duchess of Bellamont, to convince her son that the principles of religious truth, as well as of political justice, required no further investigation; at least by young marquesses.

The ready audacity with which this right reverend prelate had stood sponsor for the second Reformation is a key to his character. He combined a great talent for action with very limited powers of thought.

Bustling, energetic, versatile, gifted with an indomitable perseverance, and stimulated by an ambition that knew no repose, with a capacity for mastering details and an inordinate passion for affairs, he could permit nothing to be done without his interference, and consequently was perpetually involved in transactions which were either failures or blunders. He was one of those leaders who are not guides. Having little real knowledge, and not endowed with those high qualities of intellect which permit their possessor to generalise the details afforded by study and experience, and so deduce rules of conduct, his lordship, when he received those frequent appeals which were the necessary consequence of his officious life, became obscure, confused, contradictory, inconsistent, illogical. The oracle was always dark.

Placed in a high post in an age of political analysis, the bustling intermeddler was unable to supply society with a single solution. Enunciating secondhand, with characteristic precipitation, some big principle in vogue, as if he were a discoverer, he invariably shrank from its subsequent application the moment that he found it might be unpopular and inconvenient. All his quandaries terminated in the same catastrophe; a compromise. Abstract principles with him ever ended in concrete expediency. The aggregate of circumstances outweighed the isolated cause. The primordial tenet, which had been advocated with uncompromising arrogance, gently subsided into some second-rate measure recommended with all the artifice of an impenetrable ambiguity.

Beginning with the second Reformation, which was a little rash but dashing, the bishop, always ready, had in the course of his episcopal career placed himself at the head of every movement in the Church which others had originated, and had as regularly withdrawn at the right moment, when the heat was over, or had become, on the contrary, excessive. Furiously evangelical, soberly high and dry, and fervently Puseyite, each phasis of his faith concludes with what the Spaniards term a 'transaction.' The saints are to have their new churches, but they are also to have their rubrics and their canons; the universities may supply successors to the apostles, but they are also presented with a church commission; even the Puseyites may have candles on their altars, but they must not be lighted.

It will be seen, therefore, that his lordship was one of those characters not ill-adapted to an eminent station in an age like the present, and in a country like our own; an age of movement, but of confused ideas; a country of progress, but too rich to risk much change. Under these circumstances, the spirit of a period and a people seeks a safety-valve in bustle. They do something, lest it be said that they do nothing. At such a time, ministers recommend their measures as experiments, and parliaments are ever ready to rescind their votes. Find a man who, totally destitute of genius, possesses nevertheless considerable talents; who has official aptitude, a volubility of routine rhetoric, great perseverance, a love of affairs; who, embarrassed neither by the principles of the philosopher nor by the prejudices of the bigot, can assume, with a cautious facility, the prevalent tone, and disembarrass himself of it, with a dexterous ambiguity, the moment it ceases to be predominant; recommending himself to the innovator by his approbation of change 'in the abstract,' and to the conservative by his prudential and practical respect for that which is established; such a man, though he be one of an essentially small mind, though his intellectual qualities be less than moderate, with feeble powers of thought, no imagination, contracted sympathies, and a most loose public morality; such a man is the individual whom kings and parliaments would select to govern the State or rule the Church. Change, 'in the abstract,' is what is wanted by a people who are at the same time inquiring and wealthy. Instead of statesmen they desire shufflers; and compromise in conduct and ambiguity in speech are, though nobody will confess it, the public qualities now most in vogue.

Not exactly, however, those calculated to meet the case of Tancred. The interview was long, for Tan-cred listened with apparent respect and deference to the individual under whose auspices he had entered the Church of Christ; but the replies to his inquiries, though more adroit than the duke's, were in reality not more satisfactory, and could not, in any way, meet the inexorable logic of Lord Montacute. The bishop was as little able as the duke to indicate the principle on which the present order of things in England was founded; neither faith nor its consequence, duty, was at all illustrated or invigorated by his handling. He utterly failed in reconciling a belief in ecclesiastical truth with the support of religious dissent. When he tried to define in whom the power of government should repose, he was lost in a maze of phrases, and afforded his pupil not a single fact.

'It cannot be denied,' at length said Tancred, with great calmness, 'that society was once regulated by God, and that now it is regulated by man. For my part, I prefer divine to self-government, and I wish to know how it is to be attained.'

'The Church represents God upon earth,' said the bishop.

'But the Church no longer governs man,' replied Tancred.

'There is a great spirit rising in the Church,' observed the bishop, with thoughtful solemnity; 'a great and excellent spirit. The Church of 1845 is not the Church of 1745. We must remember that; we know not what may happen. We shall soon see a bishop at Manchester.'

'But I want to see an angel at Manchester.'

'An angel!'

'Why not? Why should there not be heavenly messengers, when heavenly messages are most wanted?'

'We have received a heavenly message by one greater than the angels,' said the bishop. 'Their visits to man ceased with the mightier advent.'

'Then why did angels appear to Mary and her companions at the holy tomb?' inquired Tancred.

The interview from which so much was anticipated was not satisfactory. The eminent prelate did not realise Tancred's ideal of a bishop, while his lordship did not hesitate to declare that Lord Montacute was a visionary.