Sermon for 1830 Congregational Service

3 October 2004 at :00 am

Sermon for 1830 Congregational Service, 3 October 2004, Westminster Abbey

by the Reverend David Hutt, Sub Dean

Charles Dickens

As a young man exploring London on foot night by night, Charles Dickens's imagination had been captivated by Westminster Abbey. "The Abbey was a fine gloomy society... suggesting a wonderful procession of its dead among the dark arches and pillars, each century more amazed by the century following it than by all the centuries going before."

It was the saintly Richard Hooker writing in the 17th Century who said 'Ministers of good things are like torches, a light to others, waste and destruction to themselves.' Charles Dickens had all the vividness and swiftness of a flame. It was like a flame that he communicated vigour, warmth and light to all who heard him or read his work. He was social critic, active philanthropist, literary editor, journalist, public speaker, talented actor, keen traveller, long distance walker - but above all, and I quote the novelist and Dickens authority Angus Wilson, 'He was a devout and practising Christian, however much sectarians of all denominations raised, and still raise, their eyebrows at his kind of Christianity.'

The textbooks of political economy which held the field in the 19th Century upheld what is called "the commodity view of labour". This is the doctrine that labour should be treated like a commodity, sold as dear as possible and bought as cheap as possible...

Do you remember Sir Joseph Bowley, member of parliament and a character in 'The Chimes' from Christmas Books, who called himself the 'poorman's friend', but whose wife taught the villagers the simple verse:

'O let us love our occupations
Bless the squire and his relations
Live upon our daily rations
And always know our proper stations...'

Or The Revd Mr Chadband in Bleak House who continued to mouth his platitudes on peace and joy while he stuffed himself with rich food?

Or Mrs General, that boring snob, who could tell Amy Dorrit that it would enhance her demeanour if, as she entered a room, she were to say... 'Papa, potatoes, poultry, prunes and prisms, prunes and prisms'. But time there would be soon enough for the sharing of the potatoes, the poultry and the prunes. Indeed, Dickens presents his readers with a prism, for just as prism resolves rays of light into their separate colours, so he depicts the social stratification of 19th Century Britain, and in the light of revelation, shocks a nation into the recognition of injustice.

For the Edinburgh Review Dickens offered to write a description of the ragged schools - but insisted that he would have 'to come out strongly against any system of education based exclusively on the principles of the established church' for 'The dangerous classes of society'. People 'in a state so miserable and so neglected, that their very nature rebels against the simplest religion - mysteries and squabbles for forms must give way to broad instructions in religious principles so general as to include all Creeds'.

It was an absurd irrelevance for well-meaning ladies to ask theological questions about 'The Lamb of God' of youngsters who did no know the meaning of honesty or to distinguish between right and wrong.

The editor of the Edinburgh Review accepted the offer, but hinted cautiously that it seemed to him 'bad policy to hit the church unnecessarily in any tender place.' Dickens agreed with him not to do so. In the even the article was never written.

His antagonism to the evangelical churches and their shepherds emerges clearly in 'Sunday Under Three Heads', 'Pickwick' and Kit's sentiments on his mother's chapel - going in 'The Old Curiosity Shop'. In particular Dickens experienced a life-long horror of hell-fire sermons. Although he had been brought up in the Church of England, his family were not devout and his heart did not warm to the conventionally pious.

Neither did it warm towards the Church of Rome. It is hard for us in these days of ecumenical exchange to imagine the bitterness and violence which surrounded the Catholic cause in the 19th Century. 'That curse upon the world' as Dickens described it. But it was the social and political affiliations which he fought, not its religious faith. In 'Barnaby Rudge' the description of the furious tumult of anti-Catholic agitation reflects Dickens' conviction that the riots were deeply rooted in mass bitterness, and that hatred of Catholics was only their proximate, not their fundamental cause. He is at pains to be fair to the adherents of that faith. No word of theological judgement appears in the narrative. Mr Haredale, the only Catholic painted in any detail, is blunt-spoken and gloomy, but a man of conscience.

Although he had rejected the Church of England and detested the influence of its Bishops on English politics, its services had for his imagination the authority of a familiar comeliness. He made no attempt to analyse as traditional what was traditional in his own feelings; where he recognised tradition at all he disliked it as obstructive and reactionary.

In the same way that Dickens despised elaborate Catholic ceremonial as he observed in Europe, he heartily disliked the Oxford Movement, or perhaps, more accurately, the ritualistic practices which developed from it. These practices looked to the Counter Reformation customs and decoration of Roman Catholicism in the 17th and 18th Centuries. It is interesting to speculate what might have happened to Dickens's spiritual development had he encountered the re-discovery of a distinctive pre-reformation and essentially English form of worship and embellishment which emerged at the end of the 19th Century. This, together with it authentic social concern and concepts of beauty and simplicity of decoration may have afforded him some haven within the structured church. One cannot help feeling that he would have warmed to the Christian Socialism of FD Maurice and Charles Kingsley, author of 'The Water Babies' and Canon of Westminster between 1873 - 1875.

He all too-readily saw the Established Church as hand in glove with privilege, riddled by nepotism and politics. In 'Edwin Drood' we are shown the smooth, time-serving timidity of the Dean of the Cathedral. Disturbed by mere unproven suspicion against Neville Landless, he tells Mr Crisparkle 'The days of taking-sanctuary are past... this young man must not take sanctuary among us.' He has rejected the merciful teaching of the Church for a cautious conformity. Of the Clergy he says 'The clergy must not be partisans, not partisans, we clergy must keep our hearts warm and our heads cool, and we must hold a judicious middle-course and do nothing emphatically...'

Charles Dickens was not primarily a systematic thinker, but a man of feeling, intuitive and emotional. Every book he produced was not only a celebration of the true wealth of life it was an attack on the forces of cruelty and selfishness. It was not an abstract humanity constructed in his mind that Dickens loved, but men, women and children, with all their frailties and absurdities.

In the last book he every wrote, and in a strangely appropriate way that book was never completed - so that there is no final chapter, Dickens gives us both a social and a theological Credo, it is a kind of culmination, and it is touching to know that he had expressed a wish to be buried at Rochester in the shadow of the Cathedral from which 'Cloisterham' is drawn.

Like the gardens of Cloisterham, growing from the graves of Abbots and Abbesses, this world of graves will again bring forth life. Brought to a burning focus of concealed struggle through the forms of his murder allegory in 'Edwin Drood', Dickens portrayed for the last time the fundamental antagonisms and the fundamental problems of his world. And here, finally, he re-affirmed his essential Creed; his belief in the generous loyalties and affections of the human spirit.

At six o'clock on the evening of Thursday 9th June 1870 Charles Dickens died at the age of 58, burned-out like a torch, wasted and consumed by his passion and energy. The last words he ever committed to paper were written among the dappled sunshine and shadow of the leaves around the chalet at Gad's Hill. They convey a picture of a brilliant morning at Rochester "changes of glorious light from moving bough, songs of birds, scents from gardens, wood and fields - or, rather from the one great garden of the whole cultivated island in its yielding time - penetrate the cathedral, subdue its earthy odour, and preach of the Resurrection and the Life. The cold stone tombs of centuries ago grow warm and flecks of brightness dart into the sternest marble corners of the building, fluttering there like wings..."

Charles Dickens was buried in secret in Poets' Corner in the early hours of Tuesday 14th June. Once the funeral became public knowledge, the grave was left open for two days while thousands of Londoners from all social classes thronged the Abbey to pay tribute. His work was done.

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