Open main menu

The Empire and the century/The Empire and the Church

< The Empire and the century


THE EMPIRE AND THE CHURCH

By THE RIGHT REV. THE BISHOP OF STEPNEY


The Editor of this volume has asked me to write a short chapter on the relations between the Christian Church and the development of the Empire. It is obviously a subject more fitted for a volume than a chapter, and the time assigned to me is too short to enable me to treat it freshly as well as shortly. The fact that a place should be given to it in such a book as the present is, at least, a sign of the increasing seriousness with which Imperial problems are approached. The development of the Empire is felt to be something more than a theme for perorations and patriotic songs—rather, a task which demands fixity of purpose, vigour of thought, and strength of character. It is a task which must profoundly influence the religious, as well as the political and commercial, outlook of the British nation. The Imperial spirit in the State calls for an Imperial spirit in the Church.

Here two preliminary explanations must be made:

1. First, an Imperial spirit in the Church must be clearly distinguished from a spirit only too common which identifies the providence of God and the extension of the British Empire. We are all familiar with the sort of language—specially offensive to other nations—which implies that the acquisition of new markets for British goods, or the annexation of new territory to the British Crown, must be acts not only of the British Government but of the Divine government of the world. A true Imperial spirit in religion does not seek to claim God for the Empire, but rather to claim the Empire for God; it does not wish to make 'the Empire' a religion, but to make the Empire religious. Put bluntly, we can only be sure that God is on the side of the extension of the British Empire if the extension of the British Empire is proved by its ideals and methods to be on the side of God.

2. Secondly, in the present context the word 'Church' is used in no strict or technical sense, but simply as the whole company of professing Christians organized in different religious bodies. What is said is meant to apply to the influence and policy of every Christian body. But it is only natural that the present writer should think mainly of the responsibilities and opportunities of the Church to which he belongs, and which he knows. It is the more natural because the English Church, which is older than the English nation, which has been for long centuries bound up with its development by a thousand ties of association, influence, and constitution, has obviously a special responsibility to the nation in its new stage of Imperial expansion.

What, then, is the place of the Christian Church in the building up of the Empire? To this question only four answers can here be given, and these very shortly. We look to the Church to strengthen the moral force of the Empire, to give a true ideal to its development, to counteract the destructive forces which it brings, and to deepen the unity which holds it together.

1. First and foremost, we look to the Church to strengthen the moral force of the Empire. After all, the strength and permanence of our Empire depends upon the character of its citizens. This is a commonplace so obvious that its importance is very generally Ignored. We take, and rightly take, immense pains to open out new channels of trade, to develop new material resources. We are apt to suppose that the development of character can be left to take care of itself. Yet the minds of many readers of this book as they read of the problems and the opportunities of Empire will probably be haunted by the question, 'What about the moral character which is to carry through this momentous business? Have we as a race, here at home and in the Colonies, the moral as well as the mental and physical strength to face these problems and use these opportunities?* He would surely be a very easy optimist who felt no trouble about the answer. On September 6, 1905, a long and striking letter appeared in the Times, under the signature of 'Vidi'—an obviously able and competent observer of his own and other nations—from which I quote these words:

'It is discouraging to see the lessons of the ordeal of the South African War still unlearnt, the warnings in great part unheeded, and all classes of the nation bent on gratifying an un-English passion for luxury and excitement. Large ideas seem to be tabooed, and empty "cleverness" exalted; responsibilities to be ignored; a hand-to-mouth happy-go-luckiness to be the prevailing mood.… I should scarcely have cared to trust my own impressions had they not been confirmed in a dozen quarters by men whose hands are on the public pulse. One such said: "… Underneath we are still sound, but we have run to seed, and want two or three years of good stiff adversity to lick us into shape." And yet another complained: "Despite the Japanese example, we cannot generate any real spirit of everyday devotion to the common good. We lack 'drive' and deep conviction. We have some patriotic instincts and prejudices, but prejudice is a bad makeshift for reasoned purpose." The names of the men who spoke thus would startle many of your readers.'

If there be any truth in all this, it is plain that the moral fibre of our race stands in need of strengthening. The business of Empire cannot be done without the capital of character, and in that capital we are not too rich. It is, therefore, of the utmost Imperial importance that the forces which make for moral character should be kept fresh and strong. It will not be denied that the most potent of all these forces is Religion. What a man really believes as to the ultimate meaning of the world and of his own place within it must be the most decisive power in determining the conduct of his life. Looking at the matter in a purely practical aspect, there can be no question that belief in God—the faith that the ultimate meaning of the world is the will and love of an Infinite Person, and that man's place in it is to obey that will and respond to that love—is the belief which, if it be honestly held, does produce the strongest and most durable stuff of character. Without some such controlling faith, character tends to follow the lines of least resistance, to be weak—weak not perhaps in single points, such as personal bravery or resourcefulness or cleverness, but weak in its total consistency and force. And for most men, to be effective when it is most needed, this faith must be a sort of instinct, wrought into the very texture of their life. Now, it is the very primary work of the Christian Church to surround a man's life from the cradle to the grave with the influences of this faith. If the Church is kept ever alert and vigilant in the foreground of Imperial expansion—sounding on the veldt of South Africa, the fields of Canada, the pastures of Australia, the plains of India, its persistent reminder, 'Remember the Lord thy God'—then it will preserve beneath the fabric of Imperial development the indispensable basis of strong and durable character.

2. Secondly, we look to the Church to keep a true ideal before the development of Empire. Few of us would be cynical enough to say that the mere instinct or impulse of expansion carried its own justification with it. Like other natural forces, it must be controlled by some moral principle. We feel that no nation has a right to roam over the world like an overgrown bully forcing elbow-room. Hence we ease our national conscience by claiming that the development of Empire brings *the blessings of civilization.' But we are not always clear as to what we really mean by the phrase. We sometimes speak as if it meant the extension of our trade. But the extension of trade is not necessarily a blessing if it only means the creation of artificial wants in native races in order that we may make money by supplying them. Even just and orderly government may not be in itself an altogether unmixed blessing, for we may by firm government destroy not only disorder but vitality. We owe something more to the races whom we govern than merely to keep them in order. The truth is that, in speaking of 'civilization,' we are apt to confuse means and end. The end of all civilization is surely the increase of the opportunities of noble living. Commerce, government, education, are only means to this end. But, unless there be some effective and continuous reminder of the true end, then the means become ends in themselves. It is for the Church, for religion, to prevent this tendency—to witness to the duty which we owe to all the subjects of the Empire—a disinterested desire to strengthen the resources of noble life; and to supply a succession of men in every part of the Empire who will keep this ideal steadily in view.

3. This second point leads to a third. We look to the Church to help in counteracting the dissolving and disintegrating influence with which our Western civilization inevitably affects the races whom it touches. A mummy in the British Museum, if left untouched and secure from the outer air, may defy the ravages of time for thousands of years; but let the air enter, let a living hand only touch it, and it crumbles into dust. So systems of religion and conduct, preserved by the traditions of centuries, dissolve at the touch of the white man's hand. If they are to be preserved, it is not the missionary but the trader and the teacher who must be kept out. Take as a single illustration the European education which we offer to the natives of India. In the words of a distinguished civil servant, 'the effect inevitably is that in proportion as these young men have been trained in English-speaking schools and colleges, in that very proportion their old faith and their old creeds grow weak; in that very proportion all the old morality based upon their old creeds loses its binding force. So far as the spiritual and moral side of the young man's character is concerned, English education is absolutely and solely negative and destructive.' It is not contact with Christianity that destroys, but contact with civilization. But can civilization of itself rebuild the moral basis which it destroys or substitute another for it? Christianity can and does. It is no paradox to say that Christianity preserves whatever truth and worth there may be in native moral and religious systems from the destructive influence of civilization. Christian missions are now, at least, learning to commend their religion not by merely overthrowing others, but by liberating what is best in them, and claiming its true fulfilment in Christianity. At the very least they offer some religion and some morality to fill this blank created by the inevitable effects of civilization. The Church can build up just in that region of life where the Empire can only destroy.

4. Lastly, we may look to the Church to strengthen the political unity of the Empire by the spiritual unities which it creates. For the permanent incorporation of the native races, can there be any influence comparable to that of a common religion? Racial and social barriers cannot, indeed, be suddenly removed without the gravest danger. There was point as well as wit in the saying, 'I will accept the black as my brother when I can accept him as my brother-in-law.' But these inevitable divisions can be enormously mitigated by community of spiritual position. Long before common citizenship in the Empire may be either possible or desirable, there may be common citizenship in the Church. But it is as a unifying power within the English race throughout the Empire that the Church may play a specially valuable part. In the history of old England the unity of the Church in the midst of tribal divisions prepared the way for the unity of the nation. Under the changed circumstances of the newer England of the Empire, may not the strength of a common religion still help to promote the strength of a common civic spirit? Powerful as the bonds of mutual interest may be, the bonds of common sentiment, of common traditions, memories, ideals in the most enduring part of man's life, must be, if not more powerful at some particular moment, at least more permanent. The influences of common religion not only turn the minds of men towards 'home,' and warm their feelings towards the old country, but also bind them together by a tradition which runs deep into the bases of life and far back into the bases of history.

The Christian Church has its own course to take, its own destiny to fulfil; but if there be any truth in the positions thus briefly summarized, the relations between it and the Empire ought to be those of close cooperation. On the one hand, the Empire, if it is wise, will learn to value, for the sake of its own welfare, the work of the Church. So far as it can, within the limits of public policy, it will encourage and facilitate the development of religious influences throughout the Empire. It will not look askance at the missionary, but regard him as in the truest sense an Imperial force. But, on the other hand, the Church must learn to adapt itself to the new responsibilities of Empire. It must learn to think and plan Imperially. It must adjust its point of view to the perspective of a new and wider horizon. It must regard not the nation here at home but the Empire as the real sphere of the future. It must prepare for that future by adopting Imperial problems as its own, and willingly sending out its ablest men to meet them. It must put its best brain and spirit into this wider work. It must do all it can to prevent our own local religious controversies from crossing the seas. It must, by patient foresight, prepare native Churches to develop on their own lines, untrammelled by the limitations of merely British religious history. While retaining its own definite faith as a trust which it holds for posterity, it must have the largeness of mind and breadth of spirit to adapt it to new conditions and wider issues. Thus, not only may the Church be a power in the true development of the Empire, but the Empire may be a power in the true development of the Church.

But I return to the main point of this brief paper. The fabric of our Empire rises with ever expanding responsibilities. How are we to maintain the foundation of moral character on which it must rest? The State cannot ignore the question. The Church exists to give an answer.