Edward Allen celebrates the example of William Gladstone and his Catholic and Evangelical attachment to the faith

Two hundred years ago this month we celebrate the birth of William Ewart Gladstone, G.O.M. ‘the Grand Old Man’ to his supporters but ‘God’s Only Mistake’ to his bitter rival Benjamin Disraeli.

Originally a High Tory opponent of reform, be it the emancipation of slaves or the extension of the franchise, he became a Liberal champion of reform, both political and ecclesiastical. Nurtured, like his contemporary John Henry Newman, as a fervent Evangelical, he became associated with the Tractarian cause, so much so that some accused him of being a crypto-papist, an odd accusation given his fierce attacks on the RC Church which he believed to be a regime of tyranny.

Evangelical fervour

Yet, like Newman, Gladstone did not lose his Evangelical spirit, possibly because when he argued for the Real Presence, he wanted to communicate that participation in the Lord’s Supper was a vibrant, living and life-changing experience and not a mere memorial, a truth that the Tractarians would share with their eighteenth century Evangelical forebears.

Jenkins argues that some of the confusion that existed over Gladstone’s theological position was that, although he was profoundly interested in religion, his mind coped more easily with practical and historical issues, rather than deep philosophical arguments. From his youthful historical study of Hooker and the Book of Common Prayer, he became convinced that a High Church stance was the correct position for a Church of England man!

Yet while he defended the catholicity and apostolic succession of the ministry of the CofE, especially so after the reintroduction of the RC hierarchy and Apostolicae Curae,

he defended the controversial grant to the RC College at Maynooth, and, well ahead of his time ecumenically, he unsuccessfully proposed the establishment of a combined Catholic and Protestant University in Ireland.

At the same time he was publishing angry attacks on the 1870 Declaration of Papal Infallibility, he was also opposing Disraeli’s Public Worship Bill aimed at the ritualists. To many, he was wrong in moving from opposition to Irish Church disestablishment to carrying legislation to achieve it.

Concern for the poor

Like Shaftesbury he became concerned with the outcasts of society, but again controversially, because his attention was directed to prostitutes, not merely supporting homes for them, but visiting them in their houses. His own papers suggest that he was aware of a sexual motive, though not practice, behind his interest. Commentators argue that, having given up his early ambition to be ordained, he saw his work as part of a lay apostolate, though he’d probably have been wiser to have concentrated that apostolate on his writing in defence of the Church and his support for new sees in the Empire.

He was essentially Anglican in his emphasis upon historicity as a test of doctrine and ecclesiastical order. Evangelical in his high sense of duty (charity combined with personal frugality). Evangelical also in the fervour with which he expressed himself (or a sophistical rhetorician inebriated with the exuberance of his own verbosity,’ Disraeli’s view), but Tractarian in his religious discipline (monastic at times) and Tractarian in his defence of a Catholic view of the Church.

A grand old man indeed, whose breadth of vision is worth celebrating and imitating.