Christopher Smith raises a glass on Queen Victoria’s 200th birthday


I was a bit surprised at how little was made of Queen Victoria’s 200th birthday at the end of last month. I realize that it’s easier to celebrate a birthday if the person in question is still alive, but all the same, I thought we ought to have done more with the anniversary—24th May—than we did. The Royal Galleries put on an exhibition, and the Royal Mint struck a £5 coin with lots of cogs, a steam train and a telephone on the reverse, but then that lot will strike a new coin for any event they think they can make a sale out of. Recently they were even flogging a 50 pence piece to mark the 50th anniversary of the 50 pence piece. In any event, by the time of her 200th birthday, Queen Victoria had been eclipsed by a Sherlock Holmes 50p, on offer in mint condition for £10. Work that one out!

Victorian Britain is not a world away. The Queen Empress died only days into the twentieth century, in January 1901, by which time two of my grandparents had been born. And that, perhaps, might make us feel that we can almost reach back to the time of the Oxford Movement Fathers and the religious controversies of Queen Victoria’s reign (in which she was not, it must be acknowledged, on our side). She acceded to the throne in 1837, and the following year Dr Pusey began to hear confessions. As her reign went on, her loyal subjects built and restored churches, founded new benefices, opened theological colleges, and pushed the boundaries of liturgical acceptability regardless of the Public Worship Regulation Act 1874. Surplice riots had broken out in 1844, and Blomfield, Bishop of London, scandalized churchgoers in his diocese by commending not only the surplice in the pulpit but also the weekly taking of a collection, although Owen Chadwick was of the opinion that churchgoers generally ‘resented these practices as innovations, and sublimated their dislike of novelty into accusations of Popery.’

It was the next Bishop of London, Tait, who fell back on the courts to do his dirty work, since he wanted to stamp out ‘Popery’ but didn’t want to offend his High Church surplice-wearing friends. His chosen victim was my first predecessor, Fr Mackonochie, dragged through the courts in the 1860s and convicted for mixing water into the chalice and ‘excessive kneeling,’ among other things. Later, the 1874 Act would see Fr Tooth imprisoned, and public opinion was scandalized at the incongruity of the punishment. The tide began to turn, and the nonsense was effectively killed off by the ill-advised prosecution of Bishop King.

But never let us forget that the work of the Oxford Movement was first and foremost doctrinal, seeking always to emphasize continuity with the past. In the first year of Victoria’s reign Newman had written that ‘Catholicity, Apostolicity, and consent of the Fathers, is the proper evidence of the fidelity or apostolicity of a professed Tractarian.’ We live in an age which thinks doctrine is a dirty word, and dogma even worse. To accuse someone of being dogmatic is an insult straight out of the ‘woke’ thesaurus, and many in church life have been beguiled by that way of thinking. Yet for most of church history, the idea that an individual might simply discard elements of Christian doctrine and still call himself a Christian would have been unthinkable. We might not all be able to articulate what the Council of Chalcedon said about the two natures of Christ, but it is orthodox teaching and we all ought to assent to it. The Word was made flesh. God has become man; a man has not become God.

To live the Christian life, then, is to identify ourselves with God and the way he has made himself known to his people. And if you shut yourself off from doctrine, you shut yourself off from an understanding of God who has love at the very centre of his being, who therefore creates out of love rather than out of some deficiency in himself (as we might create a Hoover to make cleaning the house easier), or out of a selfish desire to have something to take out of its box and play with.

God possesses a diversity-in-unity that desires not only to create out of love, but also sustain that creation in love. And, accepting that we only have a limited ability to engage in any God-talk, we are painfully aware that talking about God is complicated, but why should we expect it to be otherwise? We are creatures trying to talk about our creator. And yet, as Christians, we have never given up trying to talk about him, because we believe that the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.

Ian Ramsey, a great writer on the language we use about God, said that the work of the Church Fathers in hammering out the technical understanding of the doctrine of the Trinity was not as if they had taken a telescope, pointed it at the Godhead, and written down their observations. Rather, the Fathers laid down some rules for our God-talk, whilst knowing very well that this language is rooted in the Christian experience of the approach of God. As he said, ‘The Christian does not have the single word “God” as his key-word.’ Instead, those early Christians had received an experience of God which demanded a much richer and more complex means of expression. For at its heart is love: love in creation, love in redemption, love in the sustaining of that redeemed creation. And if you are challenged for believing the orthodox Christian faith, that might be your starting point. God is love, and in love he turns to us, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, asking only that we respond to love with love.