Arthur Middleton on Neville Figgis CR (1866-1919)
From 1900 to 1925 the climate of thought in England was antipathetic to the old ways and guides, preferring to follow a pro foundly false utopianism of perpetual and automatic progress. It repudiated supernatural religion in general – and the Church of England in particu lar – and it became a dominant attitude towards life that questioned our Lord’s credentials. Fr Neville Figgis, of the Community of the Resurrection, made a pertinent point in 1909 to a startled Cambridge audience: “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, London: Longmans, Green & Co. (1909), 8.] Facing this secular spirit, many saw that the real task was the integration of Christianity with the passion for social righteousness which underlay so much secular preaching. This enabled the Church to take the whole culture of the age, the spiritual ethos and the social organization of its civilization as its field of action. Bishops Charles Gore and John Percival constantly preached this, as did monks like Neville Figgis and Herbert Kelly.
Figgis was a historian and a theologian, the son of a Congregationlist minister in Brighton. He attended at St Cathar ine’s College, Cambridge, where he was influenced by F. W. Maitland and Mandell Creighton. His early Evangelicalism left a permanent mark; and though he subsequently became an agnostic, he experienced a crisis of his unbelief and returned to Christianity as an Anglo-Catholic – though he described himself as an “Evangelical Catholic”. He was resolutely opposed to the idea of absolute sovereignty, so that he was among the first Christian thinkers alive to the dangers to religion and human freedom of the modern omnicompetent State. Fully aware of the dangers of the neo-Erastianism that emanates from modern socialist democracies, he urged on his contemporaries the choice between Christ and a Secular Utopianism.
Always, he combined with his sacramentalism a personal sense of commitment to whom he called “the strange Man on the Cross.” “I think we can say that so far as creed goes, a man is a Christian or a non-Christian so far as he can enter into the spirit of the hymn ‘When I survey the Wondrous Cross’.” For Figgis, only a full-blooded orthodox understanding of Christ as true God and true Man (the Chalcedonian definition), with a stress on the Atonement, could meet people’s real needs. “Either this thing is a delusion, the most gigantic the world has known, or else it is a revelation from beyond, a gift of grace, something which we could not have done for ourselves.”
The Gospel and the Modern World.
Figgis’s parish experience gave him an insight into the problems and perplexities of ordinary people, making him aware of the shallowness of much that passes for religion and culture in academic circles. His Hulsean Lectures at Cambridge in 1908 demonstrated how the Gospel meets people’s deepest needs at a time when the study of comparative religion was stressing the similarities of the great religions. The danger for Christianity was that its claims might be whittled away in the effort to reduce it to “no more than one of many cults”. Figgis urged that the emphasis should be on Christianity’s difference from, not its likeness to, its rivals: “We are Christian not because our faith resembles that of other men, but because it does not.”
Is Christianity merely an episode in the world’s history, to be transcended inevitably with the progress of culture? Or is it the revelation of God, not merely one cult among many? The choice was not speculative but practical, not the holding of a set of propositions as probable, but whether “I can go on kneeling in prayer and confession, reciting the Creed in worship, and receiving God in his own Sacrament.” [Ibid, 15] So Christianity must retain its sense of mystery and the miraculous, which is a sign of God’s freedom in his world. A sense of the miraculous is a bulwark against being lost in a world of scientific fatalism; and assures people of the freedom of God and of nature. A world in which there are no miracles renders God the slave, not the Master, of the physical universe.
Civilisation at the Crossroads
“Western civilization, inherited from the Christendom of the Middle Ages, has been built on the faith in personal values and the reality of freedom. This faith is now menaced and in many places gone. It is largely lacking in the more characteristic products of the present day – all that seems most modern and freest from the past.” [Civilisation at the Cross-roads, London: Longmans, Green & Co. (1912), 9]. Figgis sought to show convincingly that the edifice of modern culture was by no means so impressive or as secure as had been supposed, nor the voices of the latest oracles so cogent or united. He claimed, in fact, that people had not out grown redemption and that civilization and not Christianity now stood at the crossroads. The builders of modern civilization, those who control its educational forces, must take into account ends beyond civilization itself.
As for the Church, in 1916 he named the evil of “the doing of Church work in a spirit of mere business, something to be got through. The only way to avoid this is for the priest to be instant in prayer. If he is not he will lose that touch of the supernatural, without which he has no right to be a priest at all.’ [Some Defects in English Religion, London: Robert Scott (1917), 60] When the bishop ceases to be a pastor and becomes a manager he loses all respect for his flock’s consciences. The same sea-change happens in the parish priest when he becomes the businessman.