July 12th, 2009
(Quotes from Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria)
Still the Church presents to every man of learning and genius a profession, in which he may cherish a rational hope of being able to unite the widest schemes of literary utility with the strictest performance of professional duties.
This attitude seems rather unfortunate: not, of course, because many of the authors whose maintenance was provided by the Church of England did not both diligently discharge their duties and also write widely and learnedly; but because, in spite of prohibiting any positive ministerial neglect, still would view the ministry of the Gospel as a means to another end. It is acknowledged that it is considered a noble means; and it is acknowledged that the end in view is quite the opposite of mean. But it cannot be consistent with the attitude of the Apostle to the Gentiles that preaching the unsearchable riches of Christ should be subordinated to any other purpose. And Coleridge’s rather skewed attitude is demonstrated a little lower on the same page:
That not only the maxims, but the grounds of a pure morality, the mere fragments of which
…the lofty grave tragedians taught
In chorus or iambic, teachers best
Of moral prudence, with delight received
In brief sententious precepts;
and that the sublime truths of the divine unity and attributes, which a Plato found most hard to learn and deemed it still more difficult to reveal; that these should have become the almost hereditary property of childhood and poverty, of the hovel and the workshop; that even to the unlettered they sound as commonplace, is a phenomenon, which must withhold all but the minds of the most vulgar cast from undervaluing the services even of the pulpit and the reading-desk. Yet those, who confine the efficiency of an established Church to its public offices, can hardly be placed in a much higher rank of intellect. That to every parish throughout the kingdom there is transplanted a germ of civilization; that in the remotest villages there is a nucleus, round which the capabilities of the place may crystallize and brighten; a model sufficiently superior to excite, yet sufficiently near to encourage and facilitate imitation; this, the inobtrusive, continuous agency of a Protestant Church establishment, this it is, which the patriot, and the philanthropist, who would fain unite the love of peace with the faith in the progressive amelioration of mankind, cannot estimate at too high a price.
Here the point to be emphasized is the curious connotation of the line, undervaluing the services even of the pulpit and the reading-desk. This does not seem to place the highest value on the work of the pulpit, and the following statements make it regrettably clear (for we would fain think well of Coleridge in all parts and relations) that he thinks of the civilizing influences of the Church above and beyond its saving influences. The point is not to undervalue the effects of the Gospel on society as a whole (though here too, I think we must expect more from the proclamation of Christ than from the discreet attendance at garden parties and the citation of Horace), but to lay the emphasis with Paul that it has pleased God through the foolishness of preaching to save those who believe: their salvation is fundamental to other influences (at least those of a perdurable nature): and it is primary. We may have the former without the latter, but we shall never have the latter without the former.