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An Episcopal Trilogy
by [?]

[1887]

If there is any truth in the old adage that a burnt child dreads the fire, I ought to be very loath to touch a sermon, while the memory of what befell me on a recent occasion, possibly not yet forgotten by the readers of the Nineteenth Century, is uneffaced. But I suppose that even the distinguished censor of that unheard-of audacity to which not even the newspaper report of a sermon is sacred, can hardly regard a man of science as either indelicate or presumptuous, if he ventures to offer some comments upon three discourses, specially addressed to the great assemblage of men of science which recently gathered at Manchester, by three bishops of the State Church. On my return to England not long ago, I found a pamphlet[28] containing a version, which I presume to be authorised, of these sermons, among the huge mass of letters and papers which had accumulated during two months’ absence; and I have read them not only with attentive interest, but with a feeling of satisfaction which is quite new to me as a result of hearing, or reading, sermons. These excellent discourses, in fact, appear to me to signalise a new departure in the course adopted by theology towards science, and to indicate the possibility of bringing about an honourable modus vivendi between the two. How far the three bishops speak as accredited representatives of the Church is a question to be considered by and by. Most assuredly, I am not authorised to represent any one but myself. But I suppose that there must be a good many people in the Church of the bishops’ way of thinking; and I have reason to believe that, in the ranks of science, there are a good many persons who, more or less, share my views. And it is to these sensible people on both sides, as the bishops and I must needs think those who agree with us, that my present observations are addressed. They will probably be astonished to learn how insignificant, in principle, their differences are.

It is impossible to read the discourses of the three prelates without being impressed by the knowledge which they display, and by the spirit of equity, I might say of generosity, towards science which pervades them. There is no trace of that tacit or open assumption that the rejection of theological dogmas, on scientific grounds, is due to moral perversity, which is the ordinary note of ecclesiastical homilies on this subject, and which makes them look so supremely silly to men whose lives have been spent in wrestling with these questions. There is no attempt to hide away real stumbling-blocks under rhetorical stucco; no resort to the tu quoque device of setting scientific blunders against theological errors; no suggestion that an honest man may keep contradictory beliefs in separate pockets of his brain; no question that the method of scientific investigation is valid, whatever the results to which it may lead; and that the search after truth, and truth only, ennobles the searcher and leaves no doubt that his life, at any rate, is worth living. The Bishop of Carlisle declares himself pledged to the belief that “the advancement of science, the progress of human knowledge, is in itself a worthy aim of the greatest effort of the greatest minds.”

How often was it my fate, a quarter of a century ago, to see the whole artillery of the pulpit brought to bear upon the doctrine of evolution and its supporters! Any one unaccustomed to the amenities of ecclesiastical controversy would have thought we were too wicked to be permitted to live. But let us hear the Bishop of Bedford. After a perfectly frank statement of the doctrine of evolution and some of its obvious consequences, that learned prelate pleads, with all earnestness, against

a hasty denunciation of what may be proved to have at least some elements of truth in it, a contemptuous rejection of theories which we may some day learn to accept as freely and with as little sense of inconsistency with God’s word as we now accept the theory of the earth’s motion round the sun, or the long duration of the geological epochs (p. 28).