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Fervid as their Christianity was, it was altogether unprogressive in its form. It was inelastic, incompetent to adapt itself to changing circumstances. Some of their leaders were inclined at one time to favour a scheme of comprehension. It is, however, impossible to believe they would have agreed to any concession which was not evidently superficial. They longed indeed for unity; and there is no reason to believe that they would have hesitated to sacrifice, though it would not be without a pang, many points of ritual and ceremony if it would further so good an end. But in their scheme of theology the essentials of an orthodox Church were numerous, and they would have been inflexible against any compromise of these. To abandon any part of the inheritance of primitive times would be gross heresy, a fatal dereliction of Christian duty. No one can read the letters of Bishop Ken without noticing how the calm and gentle spirit of that good prelate kindles into indignation at the thought of any departure from the ancient 'Depositum' of the Church. He did not fail to appreciate and love true Christian piety when brought into near contact with it, even in those whose principles, in what he considered essential matters, differed greatly from his own. He was on cordial, and even intimate terms of friendship, for example, with Mr. Singer, a Nonconformist gentleman of high standing, who lived in the neighbourhood of Longleat. But this only serves to illustrate that there is an unity of faith far deeper than very deeply marked outward distinctions, a bond of Christian communion which, when once its strength is felt, is stronger than the strongest theories. Where the stiffness of his 'Catholic and orthodox' opinions was not counteracted or mitigated by feelings of warm personal respect, Ken could only view with unmixed aversion the working of principles which paid little regard to Church authority and attached small importance to any part of a Church system that did not clearly rest on plain words of Scripture. No one, reading without farther information the frequent laments made in Ken's letters and poems, that his flock had been left without a shepherd, that it was no longer folded in Catholic and hallowed grounds, and that it was fed with empoisoned instead of wholesome food, would think how good a man his successor in the see of Bath and Wells really was. Bishop Kidder was 'an exemplary and learned man of the simplest and most charitable character.'[146] Robert Nelson had strongly recommended him to Archbishop Tillotson. But he held a Low Church view of the Sacraments; he was inclined to admit, on what some considered too lenient terms, Dissenters of high character into the ministry of the English Church; his reverence for primitive tradition was slight; he had no respect for doctrines of passive obedience and divine right. In Ken's eyes he was therefore a 'Latitudinarian Traditour.' The deprived bishop had no wish to resume his see. It was more than once offered to him in Queen Anne's reign, when the oath of allegiance would no longer have been an insuperable obstacle. But throughout the life of his first successor his anxiety about his former diocese was very great, and his satisfaction was extreme when Kidder was succeeded by Hooper, a bishop of kindred principles to his own. And Ken was in these respects a fair representative of many who thought with him. To them the Christian faith, not in its fundamentals only, but in all the principal accessories of its constitution and government, was stereotyped in forms which could not be departed from without heresy or schism. There was scarcely any margin left for self-adaptation to changed requirements and varied modes of thought, no ready scope for elasticity and development. As Christianity had been left in the age of the first three councils, so it was to remain until the end of time. The first reformers had reformed it from its corruptions once and for all. The guardians of its purity had only to walk loyally in their steps, carry out their principles, and not be misled by any so-called reformer of a later day, whose meddling hands would only have marred the finished beauty of an accomplished work of restoration.

Such opinions, when rich in vitality and warmth of conviction, have a very important function to fulfil. Admirably adapted to supply the spiritual wants of a certain class of minds, they represent one very important side of Christian truth. Good men such as those who have been the subject of this chapter are, in the Church, much what disinterested and patriotic Conservatives are in the State. It is their special function to resist needless changes and a too compliant subservience to new or popular ideas, to maintain unbroken the continuity of Christian thought, to guard from disparagement and neglect whatever was most valuable in the religious characteristics of an earlier age. Theirs is a school of thought which has neither a greater nor a less claim to genuine spirituality than that which is usually contrasted with it. Only its spirituality is wont to take, in many respects, a different tone. Instead of shrinking from forms which by their abuse may tend to formalism, and simplifying to the utmost all the accessories of worship, in jealous fear lest at any time the senses should be impressed at the expense of the spirit, it prefers rather to recognise as far as possible a lofty sacramental character in the institutions of religion, to see a meaning, and an inward as well as an outward beauty, in ceremonies and ritual, and to uphold a scrupulous and reverential observance of all sacred services, as conducing in a very high degree to spiritual edification. Churchmen of this type may often be blind to other sides of truth; they may rush into extremes; they may fall into grave errors of exclusiveness and prejudice. But if they certainly cannot become absolutely predominant in a Church without serious danger, they cannot become a weak minority without much detriment to its best interests. And since it is hopeless to find on any wide scale minds so happily tempered as to combine within themselves the best characteristics of different religious parties, a Church may well be congratulated which can count among its loyal and attached members many men on either side conspicuous for their high qualities.

The beginning of Queen Anne's reign was in this respect a period of great promise. Not only was the Church of England popular and its opponents weak, but both High and Low Churchmen had leaders of distinguished eminence. Tillotson and Stillingfleet had passed away, but the Low Church bishops, such as Patrick and Fleetwood, Burnet, Tenison, and Compton, held a very honourable place in general esteem. The High Churchmen no longer had Lake and Kettlewell, but Bull and Beveridge, Sharp, and Ken, and Nelson were still living, and held in high honour. This latter party had been rent asunder by the nonjuring schism. The breach, however, was not yet irreparable; and if it could be healed, and the cordial feeling could be restored which, under the influence of common Protestant sympathies, had begun to draw the two sections of the Church together, the National Church might seem likely to root itself more deeply in the attachment of the people than at any previous time since the Reformation. These fair promises were frustrated, and the opportunity lost. Before many years had passed there was a perceptible loss of tone and power in the Low Church party, when King William's bishops had gradually died off. Among High Churchmen, weakened by the secession, the growth of degeneracy was still more evident. The contrast is immense between the lofty-minded and single-hearted men who worked with Ken and Nelson and the factious partisans who won the applause of 'High Church' mobs in the time of Sacheverell. Perhaps the Church activity which, at all events in many notable instances, distinguished the first few years of the eighteenth century, is thrown into stronger relief by the comparative inertness which set in soon afterwards. For a few years there was certainly every appearance of a growing religious movement. Church brotherhoods were formed both in London and in many country towns and villages, missions were started, religious education was promoted, plans for the reformation of manners were ardently engaged in, churches were built, the weekly and daily services were in many places frequented by increasing congregations, and communicants rapidly increased. It might seem as if the Wesleyan movement was about to be forestalled, in general character though not in detail, under the full sanction and direction of some of the principal heads of the English Church: or as if the movement were begun, and only wanted such another leader as Wesley was. There was not enough fire in Robert Nelson's character for such a part. Yet, had he lived a little longer, the example of his deep devotion and untiring zeal might have kindled the flame in some younger men of congenial but more impetuous temperament, whose zeal would have stirred the masses, and left a deep mark upon the history of the age.

As it was, things took a different course. The chief promoters of these noble efforts died, and much of their work died with them. Or it may be that the times were not yet ripe for such a revival. It may even have been better in the end for English Christianity, that no special period of religious excitement should interfere with the serious intellectual conflict, in which all who could give any attention to theology were becoming deeply interested. Great problems involved in the principles of the Reformation, but obscured up to that time by other and more superficial controversies, were being everywhere discussed. An interval of religious tranquillity amounting almost to stagnation may have been not altogether unfavourable to a crisis when the fundamental axioms of Christianity were being reviewed and tested. And, after all, dulness is not death. The responsibilities of each individual soul are happily not dependent upon unusual helps and extraordinary opportunities. Yet great efforts of what may be called missionary zeal are most precious, and fall like rain upon the thirsty earth. It is impossible not to feel disappointment that the practical energies which at the beginning of the eighteenth century seemed ready to expand into full life should have proved comparatively barren of permanent results. But though the effort was not seconded as it should have been, none the less honour is due to the exemplary men who made it. It was an effort by no means confined to any one section of the Church. There were few more earnest in it than many of the London clergy who had worked heart and soul with Tillotson. But wherever any great religious undertaking, any scheme of Christian benevolence, was under consideration, wherever any plan was in hand for carrying out more thoroughly and successfully the work of the Church, there at all events was Robert Nelson, and the pious, earnest-hearted Churchmen who enjoyed his friendship.