Revisiting Anglican Classics 7: F.D. Maurice, The Kingdom of Christ

This is probably going to be one of the more contentious posts in this series.  That’s not because there’s much dispute about the importance of The Kingdom of Christ in Anglican theological history – there’s some, but generally scholars recognize this is a significant book – but because most people trying to read it seem to find it unwieldy, overlong, and so confusingly written it’s almost indigestible.  It’s definitely one of those books more talked about than actually read – at least nowadays.

So why is it worth paying attention to this book?  It is, for a start, the most important theological work by someone who was probably, after Newman, the Church of England’s most significant theologian of the nineteenth century.  Maurice was a decisive influence in early ecumenical thinking, in the development of Anglican social theology, in eschatology,  in reflection on other faiths, in educational work, and in Anglican ecclesiology, to name just a few areas.  His work is hard going sometimes, but it does repay careful reading.  Time and again, he throws out unusual insights or provocative questions, which force you to question what you think and why.  If the overall drift of his theology was a blend of liberal Anglicanism and moderate High Churchmanship, nonetheless he is very hard to pigeonhole. 

The complexity of Maurice’s theological position in part derived from his relatively unusual – for a mid-nineteenth century Anglican clergyman – intellectual formation.  The child of a Unitarian minister, Maurice’s family home was riven by religious disputes between his father on the one hand, and on the other his mother and sisters who embraced a conservative Calvinism.  Maurice escaped this suffocating if emotionally warm religious turbulence by withdrawing into himself, reading intensively, and falling particularly under the influence of the Romantic poets and writers of the early nineteenth century.  He went to Cambridge to read Classics and Law (as a Dissenter, he could study there, but couldn’t take his degree without subscribing to the 39 Articles), and fell under the personal influence of Julius Hare, his tutor and a confirmed Coleridgean.  A little later, baptised as an Anglican and seeking ordination, he studied at Oxford. 

The Coleridgean influence was decisive.  Maurice was absolutely steeped in his outlook, drawing particularly on his philosophy and religious thought.  When Coleridge wrote in his Confessions of an Enquiring Spirit (not published until well after Maurice had become a Coleridgean), “In the Bible there is more that FINDS me than I have experienced in all other books put together”, we see the shape or intellectual disposition of Maurice’s own theological method: the emphasis is placed not on the reader’s subjective conviction, but on the communicative objectivity of the revelation of God in Scripture.  In other words, for Maurice, as for Coleridge, human reason was not so much a sort of calculating or ratiocinating capacity, as a function of a spiritual imagination which could grasp the truth which emanated from the Word of God.  This did not cancel out the critical faculties, but relativised them by prioritising the action of God in revelation.  You can see at once why some people have thought, surprisingly, that there is an affinity of sorts between Maurice and, of all people, Karl Barth.  God’s Word, for Maurice, was self-authenticating.

And yet, at the same time, there is also in Maurice’s work, as in Coleridge’s, a stunning breadth of intellectual sympathy, which discerned truth in the tortuous, error-ridden processes by which human beings across the ages and across cultures have tried to think about the world and about God.  Some have described this facet of Maurice’s outlook as Neo-Platonic, and it’s certainly true that he tended to see the types and shadows of eternal things in the world of time and place.  I prefer to call this a strongly sacramental sense, but I can see why one might stress its affinity with Platonism.

This aspect of Maurice’s way of thinking is crucial to understanding The Kingdom of Christ.  It’s a long book, made up of what are essentially three distinct treatises, unequal in length.  The first is a sort of ‘placing’ of Anglicanism, or rather the Church of England (Maurice only uses the word ‘Anglicanism’ once in the book, and then disparagingly, in reference to Tractarianism), in the spectrum of Christian believing.  He does this by considering in turn the major traditions of the Christian Church (except for Eastern Orthodoxy), in each case identifying what he thinks they have affirmed strongly which expresses a vital truth of Christian faith, and how they have neglected other truths by an over-emphasis on their points of distinction.  Actually, the Roman Catholic Church is also not considered here amongst the others, as such.  That’s because Maurice thought that the Roman Catholic was like a corrupted shell of the true Catholic Church – it held principles and structures in common with the Church of England, but had effectively subverted them.  I don’t think Maurice knew much about the Roman Catholic Church, in all honesty, and his argument here is particularly weak.  What he did do was to assume that the Church of England simply was the Catholic Church in England – he assumed, in other words, as his starting point the intrinsic truth of the Anglican position.

The second treatise is a long examination of what Maurice regarded as the defining features of catholicity – the authority of the Scriptures, the creeds, the ‘signs’ of baptism and eucharist, the structure of the ministry, and the use of a regular liturgy.  Having established in the first treatise that the existence of the kingdom of Christ is a presupposition of all movements in the Church which participate at least in some respect in Christian truth, here Maurice is laying the outlines of the ‘constitution’ of the Catholic Church.  And it’s here, too, that he discusses the Roman Catholic Church, or ‘Romish system’, critically, as a shadow of the true Church.

The third treatise is by far the shortest, and is really like an appendix to the main argument.  Maurice turns his gaze on the Church of England itself, and here asserts firmly the existence of all these constitutional aspects of catholicity in the Church of England.  He also considers the various ‘parties’ or groups within the Church, and again the applies the methodology (learnt from Coleridge) of affirming their positive statements of principle, and criticizing their denials.  Each party, by implication, stands for a vital truth which must be properly articulated in the catholic Church.

The first treatise, or ‘book’, became influential for Anglican ecumenical theology, and indirectly influential on some Catholic theologians, such as Yves Congar.  The second helped to shape the approach to Anglican ecclesiology which bore fruit in the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, the four-fold argument of Scriptures, Creeds, sacraments of Baptism and Eucharist, and historic episcopate (i.e. dropping the fixed or regular liturgy) which came to characterize Anglican approaches to church unity.  The second also reinforced the ‘national church’ argument, because it defended the idea that the Church of England simply was the Catholic Church in England.  Maurice also brought to bear a rather schematized idea of three ontological categories of family, nation, and church, which sat within each other like Russian dolls, but this is probably the least influential part of his argument.  And the third treatise or book buttressed what is sometimes called the ‘comprehensive’ idea of Anglicanism, the thought that Anglicanism within itself as complementary perspectives the liberal, evangelical and high church interpretations of Christian faith.

Various aspects of Maurice’s arguments were taken up in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries by theologians such as Charles Gore, Michael Ramsey, Alec Vidler and Gabriel Hebert.  By the 1960s it was commonly said that he was the greatest Anglican theologian.  But then Stephen Sykes attacked Maurice’s approach in his 1978 book, The Integrity of Anglicanism (I’ll cover that in a future post), and since then, for many different reasons, Maurice’s star has sunk.  It’s a pity, because the complexity and fecundity of this great work justify the effort required to read it – in my view.

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