Arthur Middleton on Neville Figgis CR, a latterday prophet who saw the dangers of treating Christianity as one cult among many

Popular culture 1900–25 was antipathetic to Christian values, following a false utopianism that repudiated supernatural religion in general and the Church of England in particular. Neville Figgis CR said that ‘In the last generation men were unable to take Jesus as Lord, and were sad. Now they are choosing other masters, and are glad’ [The Gospel and Human Needs, 1909]. Moral values were rejected, violence and xenophobia increased and the suffragettes were militantly unfeminine. R.J. Campbell’s short-lived New Theology [1907] was to Charles Gore and P.T. Forsyth an undermining of the faith.

An effective apologist

The Church must break this loyalty to secular gods, encouraging people to embrace tP. Tspiritual values embedded in a classical tradition and inseparable from it. These reside in the Person of Christ by whom they are perpetually sustained and are opposed to secularism and materialism. Fr Figgis urged his contemporaries to choose between Christ and Secular Utopianism, as bishops lamented and parish priests lost confidence in their preaching.

This prophet spoke a word from God to his time and was not an echo of popular thinking but an effective apologist. His Churches in the Modern State resolutely opposed the idea of absolute sovereignty and was alive to the dangers to religion and human freedom in the modern omnicomp etent State. He would have opposed the new Erastianism of New Labour and modern socialist democracies.

Only an orthodox understanding of Christ as true God and true Man can meet the real needs of people. Christianity is a gigantic delusion, or a revelation from beyond, a gift of grace, something which we could not have done for ourselves. ‘Either, it is the power of God able to save to the uttermost and giving peace and freedom, or it is a quack medicine’ [Civilization at the Cross Road, 1912].

The Gospel and the modern world

He knew the shallowness of what passes for religion and culture in academic circles and stressed that the Christian Gospel meets people’s needs, when comparative religion stressed the similarities of religions that could reduce it to ‘one of many cults’. Recently a Jewish convert was rejected for Anglican ordination for not agreeing that all religions are equal which made him unsuitable for the modern Church. The emphasis should be on differences from its rivals. ‘After all, we are Christian not because our faith resembles that of other men, but because it does not’ [The Gospel and Human Needs].

Is Christianity the revelation of God or one cult among many? The contest is for one Creed among rivals, and the question is whether people will have the Christian religion or something else. The choice is not propositional certainty, but whether ‘I can go on kneeling in prayer and confession, reciting the Creed in worship, and receiving God in his own sacrament.’ Christianity’s sense of mystery and the miraculous is crucial, the sign of God’s freedom in his world and one of the main needs of the twentieth century, to save people from being lost in a world of scientific fatalism.

Civilisation at the crossroads

Western civilization has been built on faith in personal values and the reality of freedom, which is now threatened, but modern culture is by no means as secure as supposed. People have not out grown redemption, and civilization, not Christianity, stands at the crossroads. Civilization must value ends beyond itself. Like Western Europe in the fifth century, when the world-organization was on its deathbed, and the Church alone remained unshaken, we stand today.

Indeed this must be the case with any attempt to commend the traditional faith in an age interested in every fantasy, but dismisses a priori the Catholic creed. The evil of today’s Church is ‘the doing of Church work in a spirit of mere business’. To avoid this priests and bishops must be instant in prayer. When the bishop or priest ceases to be a pastor and becomes a middle-manager he loses all respect for his flock’s consciences.

We must, says Figgis, be loyal to the Tractarians and successors because they recovered a distinctive English Catholicism. We are apt to depreciate their sacrifice that gave us that greatness and the richness of our Catholic life in the Church. ND