Henry Craik, ed. English Prose. 1916. Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
Critical Introduction by H. C. Beeching
Dean Church (18151890)
[Richard William Church was born 25th April 1815, a nephew of the Sir Richard Church who led the Greeks in the war of Liberation. His youth was spent in Italy, but at thirteen years old he went to a school near Bristol, from which he passed to Oxford. He took a first class in 1836, and two years subsequently was elected to an Oriel fellowship, at a time when Keble, Newman, and Hurrell Froude were Fellows of the College. He signalised his proctorship by vetoing in Convocation the proposal to censure Tract 90. While in Oxford he wrote several essays for the British Critic, notably one on Anselm, and continued to write for it when, after Newmans secession, it became the Christian Remembrancer. He was one of the founders of the Guardian, to which he frequently contributed, as well as to the Saturday Review. In 1853 he married, and retired to the small country living of Whatley in Somerset, refusing every more public appointment offered him, until in 1871 he accepted, after much pressure, the Deanery of St. Pauls, which he held till his death (9th December 1890). His works comprise a volume of essays collected in 1854, including that on Dante, since published separately; lives of St. Anselm (1870), Spenser (1879), and Bacon (1884), an essay on Wordsworth in Wards Poets (1887), a history of the Oxford movement (1891), and various volumes of sermons.]
OF no modern writer is the saying so obviously true as of Church, that the style is the man. What interests us far more than any particular page in his writings is the personality behind them, a personality concealed rather than obtruded, but plainly individual and full of charm. His peculiar note is a melancholy compounded of many simples, and including those of the scholar, the divine, the traveller, and the accomplished gentleman. He was a student at once of books and of men. Born at Lisbon and bred in Italy, the son of an English merchant of cosmopolitan business and interests, by a lady of German extraction, he was by nature and inclination sealed of the tribe of the wise Ithacan, who knew the cities and ways of men. Hence he was never trammelled by those insular prejudices which surprise us in so many of the religious leaders of his time. Moreover his paternal grandparents were both Quakers; and this fact, while it would still further broaden and deepen his sympathies, may account also for that peculiar vein of quietism and humility which distinguished him; a love of retirement and aversion from great place, in which he recalled his great predecessor at St. Pauls, Dean Colet, whose favourite motto, Si vis divinus esse, late ut Deus, Church might well have adopted for his own.
The note then of Churchs writing is, as we should expect, a reflective note, a note of moderation and wide sympathy. His best work consists of critical studies of Anselm, Dante, Spenser, and Bacon. He was gifted with considerable historical insight and historical imagination, and some of his shorter studies, such as those on early Ottoman history, and the court of Leo X., are admirable specimens of their class. In theology his interest was in moral rather than doctrinal or philosophical questions; his book on Anselm, for instance, ignores almost altogether the philosophical treatises, and his sermons before the Universities or at St. Pauls were always upon such topics as Civilisation and Religion, Human Life and its Conditions, The Discipline of the Christian Character, subjects which required a large and clear outlook, a mind versed in facts more than theories, and a knowledge of historical perspective. His style, properly so called, may be defined as in the best sense academic; it is periodic in structure, correct in syntax, and harmonious in flow and cadence. It is not hard to trace in it the influence of Newman; the qualities which Church had in common or by contact with Newman, candour, lucidity, and precision, are reflected in his style; amongst smaller points of resemblance may be noted the occasional startling use of very familiar phrases; but it lacks Newmans extraordinary flexibility and ease. Its defect is the defect of the academic style, a tendency to become dry; and the defect of excessive moderation, a tendency to become tame. Further, the periods are not always well managed, the principle of suspense is too freely used, or, on the other hand, the paragraphs run to seed. But when at its best, the style is vigorous and vivid, and at no time is it without dignity.