Friday, 7 February 2014

High Church vs Low Church - Do We Need to Care?

Can we appreciate Miriam May fully without understanding the religious views embedded in the novel? How do these views affect or interact with the sensational narrative? As much as I would like to leave religion aside and lack interest in the internal politics of the Church of England, I feel that it is necessary to have at least a quick look at what exactly Miriam May says about the church. Is it simply the case, as H. L. Mansel suggests, that the novel preaches for the High Church by presenting Low Church men as villainous? Or is there more to it?
The terms High Church and Low Church have a long and varied history. By the time of Miriam May (1860), the factions of the Church of England were well established. Starting in the 1830s, the Oxford Movement associated with High Church, had voiced their views that the Church of England needed to be saved from encroaching laxity and freedom in religious matters and that it, really, was the third branch of the only true Christian church (together with the Orthodox and Roman Catholic branches). High Church leaned towards Rome and was also referred to as 'Anglo-Catholic,' the Low Church was also known as "evangelical protestants." Unlike in the High Church, Low Church services did not follow a prescribed order of complex rituals, and there was more room for spontaneity. Low Church aimed to return to the simplicity of worship assumed to be closer to the Biblical times. Outside of this division were the Dissenters, those who felt that no faction of the established church was right for them (groups like Puritans and Quakers). For the sake of completeness, we should also mention Broad Church - a nineteenth-century label for those members of the Church of England who agreed that a bit of variety and tolerance did not hurt. Today this view within the church would be called liberalism.
(For a more detailed, historical explanation of the differences between Low and High Church see, for example, an article by Dennis Bratcher at
From the start, "the Hon and Rev Calvin Slie" in Miriam May is presented as the villain of the piece. His fondness of Evelyn's golden hair and "elaborate blessings" (Miriam May, Chapter 2) introduce him. He is called away from Evelyn "to move a resolution against " Tractarian Innovations" and " Ritualistic Revivals" at the Town Hall." (Ibid.) If his Christian name is not strong enough a hint, his opposition to these High Church ideas establish Mr Slie firmly as a Low Church man.Later he is described in the newspaper as "a member of the Evangelical party in the Church ; and is favourably known as the author of many recondite controversial treatises in opposition to the more insidious of the " Tracts for the Times." (Miriam May, Chapter 15)

Mr Slie arranges for a sweatshop owner to exploit Evelyn (Miriam May, Chapter 3), he keeps the best wine to himself and serves lower quality to his guests (Chapter 18), he is fond of his own voice and values his own company: " Mr. Slie, by reason of his many opportunities, had long attained to that state of things when he could with difficulty persuade himself that he was not welcome everywhere." (Miriam May, Chapter 5). In short, Mr Slie is self-important, greedy and a hypocrite. He is also the spiritual leader for the righteous and comical ladies of Glastonbury (Mrs Dubbelfaise, Mrs Slim and Miss Todhunter): "They had not heard the Gospel for those many years from the lips of Mr. Slie for nothing. They had his assurance that in the matter of their salvation, their prospects were assuring and comfortable" (Miriam May, Chapter 4).
Mr Wray, Arthur's unhappy tutor recommended by Mr Slie, is a fellow Low Church man, who according to Slie "might see excellence in institutions other than the Church of England. He was a member of that great church that called all Christians brothers." (Miriam May, Chapter 7). He is also a liar, in debt and cowardly. "He was one of those measureless hypocrites whose successes in those households he infested, were in the main brought about by an appeal to that religion which he only professed that he might profane it." (Ibid.)
Every sensation novel needs a good villain, unfortunately Mr Slie and Mr Wray are not in the same league with Count Fosco. Mr Slie goes as far as to stroke Evelyn's golden hair, but no further. He may pray that "a great and withering curse might come upon the ministry of a clergyman of alleged " High Church" opinions" (Miriam May, Chapter 16), but that is as far as he goes. Miriam May portrays these Low Church men as cowardly and selfish, but not as evil. The narrative does not quite have the courage or the desire to make its villains truly villainous. Instead, the villains seem to subscribe to the principle of "faith without works" (more of that below). Mr Slie becomes the bishop of St Ambrose. Mr Wray disappears to pursue other business ventures. Neither man comes to an even slightly sticky end.
As H. L. Mansel observed in his review, Miriam May certainly portrays Low Church preachers in a negative light. But this is not the only way the narrative reflects religious views. There are two rather clumsy digressions into religious matters; the one concerning the tenet of "faith without works" has already been mentioned, there is also a long section on the appointments of bishops. Finally, there is Arthur Trevor's own career in the church to consider.
"Faith without works" is a quotation from the Bible (James 2:20): "Faith without works is dead," and "For as the body without the spirit is dead, so faith without works is dead also." (James 2:26). Faith alone is not enough; it must be reflected in deeds and actions. This was a key message preached by the Oxford Movement. One of its founding fathers was John Henry Newman (1801-1890). In 1834, after a formative trip to Italy, he began writing Tracts for the Times Against Popery and Dissent. In these writings and in his Parochial and Plain Sermons (collected in 8 volumes, 1834-1843) he advocated "deeds, not words and wishes" (Sermon 13 entitled "Promising without Doing"). He called people to take action to protect the church from the increasing influence of the state and restore the church to its discipline, respect and position of power: "With the doctrinal and sacramental faith unfolding in him from his conversion, Newman desired to revive Christianity for a culture descending into unbelief." ( ).
Newman wrote 90 tracts, until the last one, Tract 90 in 1841, alarmed even the rest of the Oxford movement. It argued that the Thirty-Nine articles, which form the foundation of the faith in the Church of England, were in fact compatible with the Catholic faith (and thus undid Henry VIII's Reformation). Newman had gone as 'high church' as it was possible to go. In 1845 Newman joined the Catholic church. He was ordained as a Catholic priest in 1847 and became a cardinal in 1879. In 2010 he progressed to the state of Beatification (further miracles are required before he earns Canonization) ( Henry Newman

 In Miriam May, "faith without works" "in Glastonbury, was the one thing proclaimed. ...  To such a strength had it attained during the ministry of Mr. Slie, that amongst the more seriously disposed of the ladies, there came up, after a one night's deliberation, a very excellent movement, which soon had a name from its enemies as the " Faith without works faction;" and those who were in any way moved to become its members, were inhibited, under severe penalties, from believing anything that was not strictly a matter of unsupported faith." (Miriam May, Chapter 5)
Ms Dubbelfaise, the founding member and leader of "Faith without Works Faction" (and thereby a curious mirror-image of Newman), is in "ecclesiastical difficulties" (Ibid.):
"In her heart she was powerfully disaffected towards Evelyn; still she believed in her heart of hearts, that the persecuted girl might well stand side by side with any matron in all moral Glastonbury. So it will be seen that the difficulties of that lady's position were not by any means small. Did she enter on a great struggle with a painful thing, and speak not well of a girl whom she did not conceal from herself that she hated, the whole strength of the committee of the "charity club," and the " faith without works" faction, would find the very principles to which they appealed for existence disavowed by their founder." (Ibid.).
Evelyn Mervyn cannot be offered charity, for the very reason that Mrs Dubbelfaise has faith in her innocence, because works must not follow faith. When Mrs Dubbelfaise asks for Mr Slie's advice, he reassures her: "whatever we may believe — and in charity we are bound to believe the best — our exceeding faith must not be permitted in its fulness to carry us into that excessive clemency which would indeed be criminal." (Ibid.)
Miriam May turns a key tenet of High Church thinking on its head by leaving out its crucial conclusion: "faith without works is dead." It depicts silly Low Church characters who in their ignorance or misguided religious sensibility completely misunderstand this Biblical notion and apply it to a question of charity with perversely un-Christian results.

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