Nonfiction > Henry Craik, ed. > English Prose > Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
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Henry Craik, ed.  English Prose.  1916.
Vol. V. Nineteenth Century
 
Anselm
By Dean Church (1815–1890)
 
From Anselm

ANSELM had won a great victory. What was gained by it?
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  1
  It was, of course, directly and outwardly, the victory of a cause which has never been popular in England; it renewed and strengthened the ties which connected England with that great centre of Christendom, where justice and corruption, high aims and the vilest rapacity and fraud, undeniable majesty and undeniable hollowness, were then, as they have ever been, so strangely and inextricably combined. Anselm’s victory, with its circumstances, was one of the steps, and a very important one, which made Rome more powerful in England: even with the profound and undoubting beliefs of the eleventh and twelfth centuries, that did not recommend it to the sympathy of Englishmen; it is not likely to do so now. But those who judge of events not merely by the light of what has happened since, and of what, perhaps, have been their direct consequences, but by the conditions of the times when they happened, ought to ask themselves before they regret such a victory as an evil, what would have come to pass if, in days like those of William the Red and his brother, with the king’s clerical family as a nursery for bishops, and with clerks like Ralph Flambard or Gerard of York, or even William Warelwast, for rulers of the Church, the king and his party had triumphed, and the claims founded on the “usages” to the submission of the Church and the unreserved obedience of the bishops had prevailed without check or counterpoise? Would a feudalised clergy, isolated and subservient, have done better for religion, for justice, for liberty, for resistance to arbitrary will, for law, for progress, than a clergy connected with the rest of Christendom; sharing for good, and also, no doubt, for evil, in its general movement and fortunes, and bound by strong and real ties not only to England, but to what was then, after all, the school and focus of religious activity and effort, as well as the seat of an encroaching and usurping centralisation, the Roman Church? Men must do what they can in their own day against what are the evils and dangers of their own day; they must use against them the helps and remedies which their own day gives. There was in those times no question of what we now put all our trust in, the power of the law; the growth of our long histories and hard experiences, and of the prolonged thought of the greatest intellects of many generations. The power which presented itself to men in those days as the help of right against might, the refuge and protector of the weak against the strong, the place where reason might make its appeal against will and custom, where liberty was welcomed and honoured, where it was a familiar and stirring household word, was not the law and its judgment-seats, but the Church, with its authority concentrated and represented in the Pope. That belief was just as much a genuine and natural growth of the age, as the belief which had also grown up about kings as embodying the power of the nation; that it was abused by tyranny or weakness was no more felt to be an argument against the one than against the other. The question which men like Anselm asked themselves was, how best they could restrain wrong, and counteract what were the plainly evil and dangerous tendencies round them. He did so by throwing himself on the spiritual power behind him, which all in his times acknowledged greater than any power in this world. What else could any man in his struggle against tyranny and vice have done? What better, what more natural course could any man have taken, earnest in his belief of the paramount authority of spiritual things over material, and of reason over force; earnest in his longing for reformation and improvement? The central power of the Pope, which Anselm strengthened, grew rapidly with the growth and advance of the times: it grew to be abused; it usurped on the powers to which it was the counterpoise; it threatened, as they had threatened, to absorb all rights of sovereignty, all national and personal claims to independence and freedom; it had, in its turn, to be resisted, restrained, at last in England expelled. It went through the usual course of successful power in human hands. But this is no reason why at the time it should not have been the best, perhaps, even the only defence of the greatest interests of mankind against the immediate pressure of the tyrannies and selfishness of the time. If anything else could then have taken its place in those days, the history of Europe has not disclosed it.
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  2
  And if nothing else had been gained, or if, when he was gone, the tide of new things—new disputes, new failures, new abuses and corruptions—flowed over his work, breaking it up and making it useless or harmful, this at least was gained, which was more lasting—the example of a man in the highest places of the world who, when a great principle seemed entrusted to him, was true to it, and accepted all tasks, all disappointments, all humiliations in its service. The liberty of God’s Church, obedience to its law and its divinely-appointed chief, this was the cause for which Anselm believed himself called to do his best. And he was not afraid. He was not afraid of the face of the great, of the disapprobation of his fellows. It was then an age of much more plain speaking than ours, when intercourse between kings and other men was more free, when expression was more homely, and went with less ceremony to the point. But when Anselm dared to tell what he believed to be the truth in the king’s court, it was more than the bluffness of a rude code of manners; he accepted a call which seemed divine, with its consequences; the call of undoubted truth and plain duty. That for which he contended was to him the cause of purity, honesty, justice; it involved the hopes of the weak and despised, in the everyday sufferings, as unceasing then as in the days of which the Psalms tell, of the poor and needy at the hands of the proud and mighty. There might be much to say against his course; the “usages” were but forms and trifles, or they were an important right of the crown, and to assail them was usurpation and disloyalty, or it was a mere dream to hope to abolish them, or they were not worth the disturbance which they caused, or there were worse things to be remedied; difficulties there were no doubt; still, for all this, he felt that this was the fight of the day, and he held on unmoved. Through what was romantic and what was unromantic in his fortunes—whether the contest showed in its high or low form—as a struggle in “heavenly places” against evil before saints and angels, with the unfading crown in view, or as a game against dastardly selfishness and the intrigue of courts; cheered by the sympathies of Christendom, by the love and reverence of the crowds which sought his blessing; or brought down from his height of feeling by commonplace disagreeables, the inconveniences of life—dust, heat, and wet, bad roads and imperialist robbers, debts and fevers, low insults and troublesome friends,—through it all his faith failed not; it was ever the same precious and ennobling cause, bringing consolation in trouble, giving dignity to what was vexatious and humiliating. It was her own fault if the Church gained little by the compromise, and by so rare a lesson. In one sense, indeed, what is gained by any great religious movement? What are all reforms, restorations, victories of truth, but protests of a minority; efforts, clogged and incomplete, of the good and brave, just enough in their own day to stop instant ruin—the appointed means to save what is to be saved, but in themselves failures? Good men work and suffer, and bad men enjoy their labours and spoil them; a step is made in advance—evil rolled back and kept in check for a while only to return, perhaps, the stronger. But thus, and thus only, is truth passed on, and the world preserved from utter corruption. Doubtless bad men still continued powerful in the English Church. Henry tyrannised, evil was done, and the bishops kept silence; low aims and corruption may have still polluted the very seats of justice; gold may have been as powerful with cardinals as with King Henry and his chancellors. Anselm may have over-rated his success. Yet success and victory it was—a vantage-ground for all true men who would follow him; and if his work was undone by others, he at least had done his work manfully. And he had left his Church another saintly name, and the memory of his good confession, enshrining as it were her cause, to await the day when some other champion should again take up the quarrel—thus from age to age to be maintained, till He shall come, to whom alone it is reserved “to still” for ever the enemy and the avenger, and to “root out all wicked doers from the city of the Lord.”  3
 
 
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