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REVIEW A PARTISAN POLEMIC' T he Idea of the Victorian Church by Desmond Bowen is an attempt to counterbalance the excessive emphasis that some historians have placed on the tribulations of a besieged Church in the nineteenth century. It purports to reach a just appraisal of the situation, just as W. L. Burn had endeavoured to do the same service for the social scene in The Age of Equipoise (not cited by Mr. Bowen) . Mr. Bowen's thesis is supported in some measure by such authorities as Kitson Clark and Asa Briggs. It argues that "the Church saw the great danger in class warfare in England, and as part of a deliberate policy of reconciliation, sought to instil in the middle class the spirit of noblesse oblige." Mr. Bowen traces the various threats to its supremacy: Roman Catholic emancipation in )829; the increasing number of Nonconfonnists in the new Parliament; the Oxford Movement and the subsequent wave of conversions to Rome; and the disturbing implications that could be drawn from Darwinism . That the Church needed revitalization he admits from a perusal of its various abuses: the tithe system, the great inequality in clerical incomes, pluralism, simony, non-residence, and the lack of churches to administer to the increasing horde of industrial workers. It is historical fact that by the end of the century these weaknesses within the Church had largely been eradicated. But what about its response to the dangerous fluidity of Victorian society? If, as Mr. Bowen suggests, the Church was the effective agent of reconciliation, what were the initial steps it took in this role? Clearly Mr. Bowen has little sympatby for the Oxford Movement since he examines it in such a perfunctory fashion, but he is forced to conclude that in the long run it strengthened the Church of England. As he points out, Samuel Wilberforce espoused its belief in the authority of the bishop to the point of harrying Pusey! ( It is surprising that Mr. Bowen makes no reference to David Newsome's definitive study of the Wilberforce family, The Parting of Friends.) Although the Tractarians were too absorbed in asserting the supreme position of the Church to concern themselves with her pastoral mission, Mr. Bowen shows how their successors, the Ritualists, brought colour and richness into the drab lives of the poor, and were also responsible for the establishment of some of the most dedicated Settlement work in the East End of London. Innumerable pamphlets on slum conditions were published, and Oxford students like Arnold Toynbee spent their vaca' tions working in depressed areas. In the latter part of the book, which deals primarily with various outstanding clergymen like F. D. Maurice, Mr. Bowen must show that time and time again their efforts to improve the lot of the poor were continuously harassed by reactionary forces within the Church. Ultimately his argument is reduced to the fact that work among the poor was largely due to the "'Desmond Bowen, The lde4 of the Victorian Church. Montreal: McGill University Press 1968. Pp. xiii, 421. $12.75. Volume n:xVUI, Number 3, April 1969 A PARTISAN POLEMIC 311 initiative of a noble few. Even the Webbs had to admit that by the end of the century the Church was playing a very active part in welfare work. But there was no concerted plan of action on the part of the Church, and when Mr. Bowen argues that the reason the Church was so slow to act was because it was confused by all the forces impinging upon it; and when he goes on to assert that even though it tended to ignore the poor because it was so busy stirring up what Goldwin Smith called the "ecclesiastical cockpit," at the same time it was largely responsible for inculcating a widespread social conscience through its influence on the middle class, we begin to go round the mulberry bush. ''They [Victorian Churchmen} bridged the chasm between the classes, and helped to save England from overt class warfare and anti-clericalism" (337) is an extraordinary generalization, to say the least, particularly when his book does little to support such a contention. Does the Clapham Sect not merit a single reference...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1712-5278
Print ISSN
0042-0247
Pages
pp. 310-312
Launched on MUSE
2015-07-01
Open Access
No
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