The Doctrine of Reserve

Before Tract 90, the most controversial Tracts for the Times were two by Isaac Williams, On Reserve in Communicating Religious Knowledge. Their argument is detailed, but the basic message is simple. The mysteries of faith should not be made public without considering the state of the hearers. Teaching must regard the disposition and prior knowledge of the taught, not revealing too much to those not spiritually ready to receive it. There is particular peril in preaching the doctrine of atonement without a concomitant call to repentance and amendment. Nor should this, or any other doctrine, be separated from the ordered discipline of the Church. Willams believed that this corresponded to a divine principle revealed in the hidden nature of much of Christ’s earthly ministry and elsewhere in Scripture.

The Tractarians were troubled by the unchurched state of the England. The Evangelicals, creditably but sometimes lacking discretion, were trying to reach the deprived areas which a generation later would often be evangelised by Anglo-Catholic priests. There were spectacular conversions, with imperfect understanding and without deep roots. The Tractarians and their successors emphasised proper instruction, and the necessity of Confirmation – a rite which had come to be sadly neglected. Opponents of the Tracts argued that they would conceal Atonement and withhold comfort from sinners. Williams and other Tractarians never undervalued Atonement: there is strong Atonement theology in later Anglo-catholic teaching. They objected to presenting it emotively and in isolation.

Reserve referred also to proper reverence in speaking of sacred matters, with the numinous sense typical of the Oxford Movement. In his History of the Arians of the Fourth Century, published in 1833, Newman had condemned the loose discussion of sacred themes. Williams derived the principle the discplina arcani of the early Church; full evidence for this is lacking, but there certainly was care to protect the sacred mysteries from profanation.

The principle is valuable today in post-Christian society. It is discretion, not withholding; the danger of Gnostic ideas of special knowledge for a higher class of Christians lurks in some charismatic circles. There is peril also in some popular mass evangelism, with emotive appeals not followed by proper instruction. Pastoral care demands the gradual approach, bringing people from where they are to an informed faith. Reserve is not opposed to the command to preach the Gospel to all, but recognises one of the polarities of Christianity. We must move between reserve and zeal according to circumstances.

Social convention and the media seem to agree that Christianity can be assailed while other religions are protected. Sacred things are spoken of lightly and even blasphemously. Reserve would restrain bishops and theologians who make their speculative theology public, ignoring the differences between an academic seminar and a television appearance. It would bring more reverence in churches, discouraging loud conversation before services, making the Peace less prolonged and frenetic.

Reserve is a Catholic principle: human intellect and reason are given by God and not contrary to revelation, but cannot apprehend all the mysteries of faith. It is also a truly Anglican principle of good order and moderation, even though not readily discernible in much Anglicanism today.

Raymond Chapman is Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London and an honorary assistant priest at St. Mary’s, Barnes.