The first Drawbridge Lecture: The defence of the Christian faith

Canon Stephen Jack Marriott
Canon Stephen Jack Marriott © National Portrait Gallery, London

The first Drawbridge Lecture was delivered by Canon Stephen Jack Marriott (above), Archdeacon of Westminster, in Westminster Abbey on 24 January 1946. Canon Marriott was also Chairman of the Board of the Christian Evidence Society. The title of his lecture was ‘The Defence of the Christian Faith.’ It provides a thoughtful analysis of the loss of confidence in the Christian faith, and the growth of what Marriott calls indifferentism’, in the first half of the 20th century. And it shows how Christian apologists immediately after the Second World War saw the task of communicating their faith to a rapidly changing world.

As it is my privilege to deliver the first of these annual Drawbridge Memorial Lectures, it is only natural that I should begin by explaining how and why they have been founded. The Rev. CL Drawbridge was the organising secretary, and then honorary secretary, of the Christian Evidence Society from 1913 to 1937, and to it he devoted all his time and energy with unflagging devotion and unfailing loyalty; aided by Mrs Drawbridge, whose generosity to the Society paralleled her husband’s devotion to its interests.

Wishing, therefore, to commemorate one, to whose labours the Society was so deeply indebted, it was decided to institute an annual Lecture to be called The Drawbridge Memorial Lecture, and it was decided also that the subject of the lectures should be Christian apologetics, that it to say, the defence of the Christian faith, which is the object for which the Christian Evidence Society exists.

The Society came into existence in 1870, as a result of a meeting called by Archbishop Tait in Lambeth Palace. And if one asks, ‘What was it that led Archbishop Tait to convene that meeting?‘ the answer is not very difficult to find. It is that a new movement was making itself felt in the national life, namely, a movement of organised opposition not merely to the Church, but to Christian belief itself. Its inciting factors were the growth of industrialism and the rise of science. It had been growing for some years past, but at this date opposition was becoming formidable and its appeal increasingly popular.

The form which it took was threefold – atheism, secularism and rationalism. The leading exponent of the first was Charles Bradlaugh, whose work was later taken up by Robert Blatchford. The principles of secularism derived from Robert Owen, commonly called the father of British socialism, though the actual founder of the secularist school was GW Holyoake. Rationalism had no outstanding figure as its founder, though one of its early members and instigators in this country was FW Newman, brother of Cardinal Newman.

I do not include in this movement agnosticism, of which the founder, and indeed the coiner of the word itself was Professor TH Huxley; because it never directed its activities to the actual destruction of religious belief. The other three movements did, for though they differed on certain points they were all alike in this, that they were in opposition to belief in the supernatural.

Bradlaugh taught that progress was impossible so long as superstition (and by that he meant belief in the supernatural) remained in the life of man. Secularism taught that human good was to be sought by material means alone, aided by ethical principles, and must not be deflected by the obscurities and falsities of religion. Rationalism taught that reason had absolute authority in the realm of knowledge, and that, therefore, belief in the supernatural was a delusion, from which man must be delivered if the progress of his civilisation was to be ensured.

Now the reason why those three movements – atheism, secularism and rationalism – attracted so many adherents and began to exercise an influence on our national life, of which extent we are only now becoming fully conscious, was because they appealed to a deep-seated passion in the heart of man, namely, his hatred of that combination of dishonesty and injustice which we call exploitation. On the intellectual plane religion was denounced as exploiting man’s tendencies to credulity and superstition, as preying upon his fears and weaknesses in order to keep him in bondage to the Church and its doctrines. Only as those fetters were knocked off, only as he won for himself that liberty of thought which was his due, could he advance to an age of progress and enlightenment.

The charge often preferred against the Roman Catholic clergy of Spain and Southern Ireland, to wit, that they wilfully keep their people in a state of ignorance in order to retain their hold upon them, was in the main the charge these three movements made against the Christian faith itself. On the social plane, their appeal was even stronger, and it met with an even greater and more enthusiastic response. Here they taught that religion was the ally of the landlord and the owner; that it was a reactionary force used by the owning classes to suppress the workers, and to cheat them of their rights.

A writer of our own day makes this accusation in the plainest and most unequivocal terms when he writes: ‘Every claim for justice, every appeal to reason, every movement for security, every proposal to relieve the poverty, to mitigate the sufferings, or to enlighten the ignorance of the masses, has been more or less certain to encounter the opposition of the Church.’

I doubt whether Professor Joad would repeat those words of his today. But when, as an avowed rationalist, he wrote them, he was but repeating the charges of the atheists, the secularists, and the rationalists of earlier days.

For these reasons it is not difficult to see why these movements attracted so great attention, and received so widespread a response. Nor, unfortunately, can it be denied that in both cases there was a substratum of truth in the charges levelled against the Church. The fundamentalism, and the narrow dogmatism with which all too often the challenge and criticisms of science were met; the labelling of all doubt as wicked and godless even when that doubt was due to honest intellectual difficulty, only served to play into the hands of the opponents of the Church, and to lend colour to their accusations.

When one reflects that in 1870, when the Christian Evidence Society was founded, sweated labour was common, housing conditions were appalling, and wages scandalously low, it is not hard to see how fatal it was that the Church in its official capacity adopted the attitude that it was not its brother’s keeper; that its task was to preach purely a spiritual gospel, and not to concern itself with the problem of man’s bread and butter.

Such an inhuman Pharisaism only added fuel to the bitterness of the working masses, and made them all too eager to accept the arguments of those who were aiming at the destruction of religious belief. Though in saying that, let it not be forgotten that at this time also Frederick Maurice and Charles Kingsley were setting going that movement of Christian social reform, of which Charles Gore, Stewart Headlam, Scott Holland and William Temple were staunch supporters in later days.

Those, in rough outlines, are the circumstances which led to the founding of the Christian Evidence Society. How did it attempt to meet the situation? The intellectual challenge arising from the claims and teaching of science which attracted chiefly the interest of the educated classes, was met by the publication of books and pamphlets concerned with Christian apologetics.

In fact, looking back it is very interesting to see what eminent laymen the Christian Evidence Society used to be able to call in its defence. For example, Mr Gladstone supported the Society very strongly indeed. Lord Balfour was likewise a speaker, and not an uncommon speaker, on its behalf. Neither did it lack the help of scientists. In the 1892 Report I notice that there were three Fellows of the Royal Society on the council, and the vice president of that year was Sir Gregory Stokes, an eminent member of the Royal Society. Lord Halsbury was a vice president that same year. And from his undergraduate days, the late Archbishop William Temple was a frequent speaker on behalf of the Society. In reading the past records of the Society one is struck with the amount of real talent, and the number of eminent men that it had in its support.

Its other form of activity was open air work, chiefly in public parks, by which means it sought to counter the unbelief of the man in the street. This work it still maintains, indeed for the past 25 years it has been, not its only work, but its chief activity, and it has had some splendid men to serve it. In spite of limited support, the Society has fought bravely, and has done more good than is generally recognised. That, I think, can be honestly and safely said.

I mention it because there may be some people here who have never even heard of the Christian Evidence Society. It seems to be known to the majority of the clergy of the Church, but it is certainly not generally known to the laity of the Church, let alone the laity outside the Church. One reason for this is that the Society has never gone in for extensive advertising, and also that its support has always come from a limited number of Christian people whose devotion to our Lord, and whose belief that he is, indeed, the Son of God, and the only Saviour of the world, has led them to contribute generously without the need of advertising as a stimulus to do so.

Whether such limited support can meet the demands of the present situation – for those demands are makings the work of the Society more urgent and necessary than ever and call for an extension of its activities if they are to be met – seems to me to be very doubtful.

The situation today is quite different from that which faced the Society when it began its work 75 years ago. For example, professing atheists are not, I think, as common in this country today as they were 50 years ago. There is something in the British temperament which dislikes extremes; some innate sense of decency which makes the average man feel uncomfortable when violent attacks are being made on the person and being of God. An objector at a Hyde Park meeting, who will have the crowd with him when he attacks the Church, will soon lose their support when he begins to denounce belief in God himself.

This does not mean that those who founded these antireligious societies failed in their work. They succeeded all too well, but in a different way. What they succeeded in doing was in inserting in the public mind the idea that recognition of and obedience to God was not, as had hitherto been thought, a bounden obligation upon every man; it was a matter of opinion.

Some still clung to the old views, some adopted the new; anyhow, it was a matter of choice, and each man must choose for himself. So that although the foundations of religion had not been destroyed, they had been unsettled. And it was in that way that the nation’s hold upon the Christian faith was first undermined. As a result, many accepted the freedom which the secularist and rationalist offered, who said, ‘You may live without religion if you like.’

The inevitable consequence was that increasing numbers began to live without any recognition of the spiritual and the supernatural in their lives. They did not go to church; they ceased to say their prayers, they ceased to be interested even in arguments about religion. But it did not end even there, because the children of such people were brought up without any religious teaching at all, and so gradually there came into existence their modern descendants who feel no need of religion whatever, and whose consciences are not in the slightest degree troubled by the fact. With the result that what confronts the Church today is not atheism, nor secularism, nor rationalism, but a widespread, deep-seated indifferentism, which appears to be impervious to any appeal.

It is not an indifferentism which leads people to say that religion is untrue, but that whether it is true or not, does not interest them. That is the situation which the Christian Evidence Society faces today, and it is far more difficult to deal with than those movements which faced it 75 years ago, even though it is the direct outcome of them.

What are we to do? Some say, ‘Go out and preach the Gospel.’ That is quite true. The Church’s primary and bounden duty is always to preach the gospel; but we have got to be realists. The word ‘gospel‘ means ‘good news’, the good news that God sent his Son to be the Saviour of the world. ‘Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.’ ‘If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and He is the propitiation for our sins.’

The good news is that we are reconciled to God, accepted by God, in spite of all our sins, and our continual sinfulness; that in the life and atoning death of Jesus we have revealed to us the greatness and the certainty of the Divine Love.

But news, to be good news, required certain circumstances. To a man who thinks he has cancer it is good news when the doctor tells him he has no trace of it. It is good news to a mother when her son who has been a prisoner of war in Japanese hands, to receive a telegram telling her that he is on his way home. It is good news to a demobbed soldier to receive a letter from a firm offering him a worthwhile job. In each case the news is good because it relieves a specific anxiety, and because it answers to a known need in the life of the individual. And for that reason, to the indifferentist, the gospel is not good news at all; it is not news of any kind. It does not appeal to anything whatsoever in his life.

As Christopher Dawson says in his book The Judgment of the Nations: ‘We must face the fact that the words of the Bible, and the doctrines of the Christian religion, have become a dead language to the majority of men today. And this means that the great fundamentals of the faith are dismissed as mere words, as pious formulae, which have no relevance to modern life.’

That is the key fact which confronts any Society such as this which is seeking to restore the Christian faith in the life of the English nation. And it calls for a different line of action from that which has been followed in the past. It is possible to give a convincing answer to arguments advanced against belief in God and belief in the Bible, and belief in prayer, and to do so without affecting in the slightest the life and outlook of the person concerned. We cannot in an age like this neglect the appeal to the reason, because we are dealing with a much more informed populace today than were our fathers 50 years ago. But neither can you expel by reason alone an apathy and indifference which is not based on reasoning, and has nothing to do with it.

For this reason it seems to me that just as the secularists and rationalists began an era of scepticism and unbelief by unsettling the minds of people as to the security of the Christian faith, and of religious belief, so must we undermine this self-satisfaction of the indifferentist by showing him that his attitude is neither as harmless, nor as blameless, as he thinks.

How is this to be done? By transferring the defence of the Christian religion from the indecisive realm of intellectual debate to the decisive and visible facts of modern history, and of the world we are living in, by pointing, not to the arguments which confound scepticism and indifferentism, but to the consequences in the lives of men to which their respective creeds lead. Attack them on the lines that ‘By their fruits ye shall know them.’

It has been said that history is a true commentary on man’s religion, and during the last 30 years that commentary is unmistakable. The failure of the Christian Church is a ceaseless argument against us on the part of the secularists and rationalists in support of their contentions. What they need to have pointed out to them is that the failure of the Church is nothing like so real as the failure of the secularism which has supplanted it for the past 30 to 40 years.

What is needed is Christian apologists who do not apologise, but who, like the Old Testament prophets, will speak with firmness and certainty as to God’s way, and God’s will with men; more akin to our Lord himself, when he said: ‘You hypocrites, you can discern the face of the sky, how is it that you discern not the meaning of these times.’

Such a line of approach is not an attempt to preach the gospel, but it is an attempt to break up the hard, impenetrable ground of indifferentism and scepticism, in order that the seed of the gospel may have a chance of getting in. Men know that we are living in a war-blitzed world; but they will not grasp the truth of the gospel until they realise that this is also a sin-blitzed world.

I would like to see a campaign based on such a challenge in the name of Christianity undertaken with confidence, with full assurance and hope: the conditions for it are ripe; the occasion for it has come. People are not yet returning to the Christian faith, but they are wistful and enquiring.

They are not saying. ‘I believe,’ but they are saying, ‘I wonder!’ Are they saying that because as they look into the future they are conscious of two things – a feeling of danger, and a feeling of frustration? Will man, with all his science, and powers of production and organisation, be able to avert that danger, and solve that frustration? They do not know; they doubt it; and doubting, they are inclined once more, at least, to listen to what Christ has to say.

That is particularly true of the younger generation who have fought and won our battles in this past war. Their ignorance of the Christian religion is terrible; but their readiness to listen to its claims is, to me, most surprising. There, then, is the work, and, to my mind, the hopeful work, to which the Christian Evidence Society is called today.

That call, I think, is clear and urgent. The chaos in the world today is due, as a modern writer says, to the unloosing of the dark forces that have been chained for a thousand years of Christian civilisation, and which now have been set free to conquer the world.

When one looks at the staggering advances of civilisation, in the air, in production, in the amenities of life, it cannot be denied that, on the material plane, man has conquered the world. Yet when one thinks of the atheism of Russia, the brutal nationalism of Germany, the indifferentism of this country, can it be denied that he has gained the world by losing his own soul, and that having lost his soul, he is afraid he may lose, and even destroy, the world.

Nothing will move the nation today except an unconditional challenge to its way of life. This is not to question the value of reason, but who today really thinks that sweet reason alone can cope with the mounting tide of evil. It is to the world’s only Saviour that we must bring the people back.

Image: National Portrait Gallery under CC BY-NC-ND 3.0