Luke Savin Herrick Wright. Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Anglican Church.
Writing in the summer of 1818, Byron expresses his exasperation with Coleridge's turn from writing poetry to the abstruser musings of philosophy and theology: "And Coleridge too has lately taken wing / ... / Explaining metaphysics to the nation. / I wish he would explain his explanation. " For Byron, this shift in genre coincides with Coleridge's betrayal of the older poet's earlier political sympathies. Coleridge insisted that the apparent reversal of his allegiances obscured an underlying consistency in principle, a principle that demanded adjustments in perspective as it continued to unfold. In Coleridge and the Anglican Church, Luke Savin Herrick Wright argues that Coleridge's self-justification has some basis. The professed consistency arises not, as has sometimes been proposed, from his interest in continental idealist philosophy, but rather from his ongoing engagement with an Anglican tradition. Wright charts this engagement carefully, suggesting that it spans a broader stretch of Coleridge's life and thought than is often assumed, exploring both its initial motivations and its extended consequences for Victorian theorists of the relationship between church and state. No single thread, no matter how lengthy and sturdy, could tie together the sheer range of Coleridge's ambitions and commitments. Yet Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Anglican Church helpfully illuminates the extensive--if not comprehensive--significance of Coleridge's commitment to High Church Anglicanism. At its best, Wright's study grants Byron's jocularly jaundiced wish: it explains the explanations that Coleridge offered repeatedly and at length over the last decade of his life.
Wright begins with the assertion that Coleridge's religious views led him to articulate a sustained opposition to the dominant vision of church-state relations throughout his career, even if the terms of this opposition changed, sometimes profoundly, over time. Wright identifies William Warburton's The Alliance between Church and State (1736) as providing the primary theological justification for the status quo Coleridge sought to contest. This prevailing consensus sees the relationship between church and state in terms of contract theory: "at its most basic, Warburtonian theory can be summarized as a belief that church and state cooperate because each recognizes a mutual benefit in such a relationship--Warburton was, broadly speaking, a utilitarian" (17). For Coleridge, among others, conceiving the intersection of theology and politics in this way sacrifices spiritual integrity to expediency. The alternative vision that he eventually develops conforms to a traditionally Anglican model of "organic union" in which church and state are virtually identical; to be a member of one of these corporate bodies is inevitably to be a member of the other (26). Coleridge's theological views led him by the culmination of his career to a traditionally Tory politics as well, serving as a "bridge figure between the old-fashioned High Churchmen and the Tractarians ... [and as] a part of the gathering forces of Toryism that would emerge as the Conservative party a generation later" (30).
It would have been difficult to predict Coleridge playing this transitional role on the basis of his stated positions in the 1790s, a point Wright partially concedes. While Coleridge's earlier politics were conspicuously radical, however, Wright contends that his religious convictions were more conventional than is often assumed. His avowed Unitarianism, for example, can be seen as a relatively conservative form of dissent that "did not fix itself on ontological conceits but was rather a strictly biblically based interpretation of Christianity that saw the true emphasis of religion as the teaching and ethics of Jesus" (44-45). Similarly, Coleridge's Lectures on Revealed Religion of 1795 "preached a 'social gospel' based on the Old Testament law of Jubilee" rather than "embarkfing] upon an elaborate discussion of the Trinity" (60). Coleridge's critique targets the abolition of property more pointedly than it does the divinity of Christ.
Wright supports these claims by invoking the orthodox Anglican views of Coleridge's father, and by reading Coleridge's letters written around the time of the lectures as evidence of the depth of his commitment to pantisocracy. Though circumstantial, this evidence is closely read and deftly applied. Wright also suggests that the evidence for Coleridge's commitment to Unitarianism is thinner than what might be inferred from a first glance. This, too, yields some provocative food for thought, including Wright's suspicion that Coleridge's speaking tour in support of The Watchmen was conducted in the breach as much as in the observance. Yet the unsettling of one position does not lead inevitably to the establishment of another. Wright persuasively advances the notion that some of the conventional wisdom regarding Coleridge's early career needs reexamination. Occasionally, however, the first half of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Anglican Church substitutes the exposure of the limits of an existing interpretation for the articulation of a compelling alternative. The fifth chapter, on The Friend, suffers particularly from such an exchange.
Once the focus shifts to Coleridge's later career--roughly speaking, the last twelve years of his life--Wright presents remarkable and consequential insights into challenging, less frequently attended texts. His chapter on Opus Maximum, for example, offers a sustained close reading that convincingly reorders the fragments as they appear in the Collected Coleridge into a more coherent and concise treatise properly titled On the Divine Ideas. The resulting work, which Wright takes to be essentially complete, provides a philosophical account of Christianity identifying God with Absolute Will, which operates as the spiritual element of a vitalist model of life. This identification distinguishes Coleridge's theology from its antecedents in Schelling, and in the Christian tradition more generally. In addition, Coleridge begins developing the claim that the Church of England is a catholic church, in the sense that it is the most faithful adherent to the original inspiration of Christianity, and to its institutional organization in its first three centuries. This claim doesn't incline Coleridge to sympathy with the Church of Rome. What it does do, in Wright's estimation, is set Coleridge apart as a High Churchman in an older sense of the term: the catholicity of the Church of England was "neither an eighteenth-century concern nor an early nineteenth-century (i.e. Ante-Tractarian) concern" (184). Coleridge's desire to situate Anglicanism as the true inheritor of Patristic traditions uniquely anticipates the Oxford Movement, and informs his revised critique of the Whig view of church and state.
This critique achieves its fullest and most influential expression in On the Constitution of Church and State (1829). Emphasizing the English constitution as an idea available to reason rather than a conception drawn from observation, Coleridge stresses the need for the nation to provide moral direction beyond the practical activity of the landed and merchant classes. This direction arrives from the virtual identity of church and state, two intrinsically joined bodies with common members and a common head in the person of the monarch. Coleridge's valorization of the role of the crown might be one reason that his friend Crabb Robinson complained that On the Constitution of Church and State left Coleridge susceptible "to the charge of being desirous to appear more Tory than he really is" (qtd. 201). Wright confirms that Coleridge is every bit as Tory as he appears at this point in his career, but that the appearance is more complex than reflexive labeling would suggest. Coleridge's traditional view of church and state reaches back to the Elizabethan divine Richard Hooker, and partakes of Hooker's subtle but substantial qualification of the authority of the monarchy: "Hooker built a system that shifted the authority of the church from a traditional divine right model to a model in which the monarch's authority as a supreme governor of the church rested on tacit acclamation or acceptance by the populace at large" (186). This modification rendered Hooker suspicious to a reactionary version of Toryism in the eighteenth century.
Coleridge's own resuscitation of Hooker's theoretical limit on the power of the crown remains conservative when set against the larger arc of English political history. At the same time, however, it strikes a more moderate note than Tory alternatives to Whig orthodoxy had sounded throughout the eighteenth century.
Wright's final two chapters offer two contrasting visions of the significance and influence of Coleridge's later religious thinking. His reading of the posthumously published Confessions of an Inquiring Spirit (1840) corroborates the traditional Anglicanism he finds in Coleridge's other later treatises. Its epigraph is taken from Hooker, and its argument builds to the authority of the ordained pastor in providing scriptural interpretation for his congregation. At the same time, however, Coleridge maintains that this interpretation, aided by individual reason informed by the Holy Spirit, is an ongoing endeavor. Wright characterizes the need "for critical interpretation of the Bible" (221) as the concern that spans and unites Coleridge's religious thought. As a harmonizing thread, this would privilege process over result. The final chapter of the book stresses the importance of Coleridge's conclusions, and their proleptic contributions to Victorian Toryism. Specifically, Wright suggests that William Gladstone's The State in its Relation to the Church (1838) draws inspiration from On the Constitution of Church and State in two crucial respects. Gladstone shares Coleridge's objections to utilitarian conceptions of the church's role in shaping policy, and he joins Coleridge in seeing education as essential to this role. Wright contends that Gladstone's ability to render the potentially arcane concerns of the Oxford Movement vital to a broader population owes much to Coleridge's fresh articulation of High Church principles.
The relationship between Coleridge's methods as a religious thinker and his conclusions deserves more investigation; Wright occasionally seems to imply that the latter follows inevitably from the former. Nevertheless, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and the Anglican Church provides a useful map for further explorations of the subject. The later treatises are densely layered, and often scored with divergent or even competing intentions. In seeing through the arduousness of style and the accretion of ambitions in these works, Wright perceptively and often persuasively recovers what is most fundamental in them. His study advances our understanding of an underappreciated facet of Coleridge's achievement.
Idaho State University
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|Publication:||Studies in Romanticism|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 2014|
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