Russel Wallace : Alfred Russell Wallace (sic)
The Established Church of England at the present day fulfils two distinct functions, the one religious but sectarian and of limited scope, the other secular and more widely beneficial to the community. These two functions are, moreover, to some extent antagonistic to each other. Every one must admit that the parish clergyman at his best, as an educated and disinterested gentleman who feels it to be at once his duty and his pleasure to become the friend and counsellor of his parishioners, who is the constant promoter of peace and goodwill among diverging classes and conflicting interests, and serves as the best medium of communication and sympathy between the wealthy and the poor, is a most important and valuable factor in our present social organization; but unfortunately his good influence is often greatly diminished, and sometimes completely neutralised, by defects in his education or his character, and by his sectarian prejudices. Let us then retain these educational and moral influences at their highest possible efficiency by severing altogether their connection with dogmatic religious teaching. This may, I believe, be effected by the following scheme:
Let the Church, as a religious sectarian body, be completely disestablished and disendowed, but let the whole of the revenues and buildings now belonging to it as the Church of the nation be placed under the control of a body of specially educated men, who shall hold them in trust and administer them for good of the entire population. These officers--who might properly retain the time-honoured name of rectors--should be rigorously selected for their high moral character, energy, temper, and intellect. They should be thoroughly trained in a good elementary knowledge of medicine, sanitation, law, and natural science, and should rank socially with the higher members of the liberal professions. Their duties would comprise much of the parish work of the existing clergy, but being unsectarian and secular it would be co-extensive with the population. Being specially educated, they would be able to give simple medical assistance to the poor in cases of pressing necessity, to assist them in misfortune, to protect them from oppression, and to aid them in securing their legal rights; and they would thus establish their position as true friends, both able and willing to help all in trouble with comfort, advice, and assistance. Another important function of the rector would be to guard and preserve the rights and privileges of the public. He would see that commons and highways were not encroached upon, that footpaths were kept open, that charity or common lands were used for the benefit of the poor, that nuisances were abated, and that unsanitary conditions were amended or brought to the notice of the authorities. He would be an ex officio member of the educational and administrative boards of his district, and when local self-government becomes established the presence of such a body of men over the country might not improbably ensure success instead of failure.
The churches and other ecclesiastical buildings would be under the sole guardianship of the rectors in trust for the public; and they would be required to make arrangements for their utilisation both for religious and secular purposes. Any religious body desiring to have the use of the church for either a Sunday or weekday service would apply to the rector, and it would be his duty to decide what accommodation could be afforded to each, so as to deal equally and fairly with all. As most of the Nonconformists possess chapels of their own they would probably not desire the use of the parish church, except on special occasions, when their own building was expected to be inadequate, and thus all might in turn have the use of the public property. The church would further be available for lectures of an instructive or elevating character, as well as for public meetings connected with any important moral, social, or political movement. Generally speaking, the church or cathedral would be available for all purposes calculated to benefit the community, and would thus become intimately associated with the daily life and moral advancement of the whole people to a far greater extent than in any recent period of our history. All who thus used the buildings would contribute either by fixed fees or by voluntary collections to a fund for their maintenance, and thus we should ensure that these interesting historical edifices, often of grand proportions and admirable alike in design and in construction, should be handed down uninjured to our descendants. I think it is not too much to expect that under the guardianship of gentlemen of the character here indicated, our churches would become in the future a bond of union among sects and parties instead of, as heretofore, a source of contention and enmity.
Whenever disestablishment is effected I would strongly urge that the whole of the property of the National Church be preserved intact, and that compensation to all vested interests be made by way of terminable annuities, so that the next generation may receive its heritage undiminished. This vast property, if fairly distributed, would not only afford a liberal stipend to each of the parish rectors and their assistant curates, but would leave a large surplus which might be placed at the disposal of local committees, of which the rectors would be chairmen, to be expended in such ways as were held to be most conducive to the intellectual, moral, and social advancement of the entire community.
Under some such regulations and conditions as have been now sketched, the office of rector would be one of so much dignity and independence, would afford such ample scope for active benevolence, and so many opportunities for harmonising conflicting sects and parties, and for advancing true civilization, that it would be sought after by some of the very best men of the age. Such men, untrammelled by creeds or dogmas, and representing the highest moral and intellectual level of their time and country, would form centres of social illumination in every parish, and exert a beneficial influence which can hardly be exaggerated.
Religion would then be absolutely free, while all sects and parties without distinction would again benefit by those endowments and institutions, which were originally intended to minister to the spiritual, intellectual, and physical needs of the whole people, and have only in comparatively recent times become the monopoly of a single religious sect.
Somewhat similar views to these were advanced in a paper on "A True National Church" in "Macmillan's Magazine" some ten or twelve years ago, and I now again bring them before the public, in the belief that the time is ripe for them. I sincerely trust that the Liberation Society will on consideration see the necessity of a programme which is constructive as well as merely destructive, and I submit that by adopting some such scheme as I have here suggested they will gain support from many thoughtful Liberals who, while convinced that disestablishment is right in principle and must surely and quickly come about, yet look forward with dread to the inevitable scramble for the property of the Church and the almost inevitable neglect, misuse, or destruction of many of those buildings which have been so intimately associated with our intellectual and moral progress as a nation, and which it is at once our interest fully to utilise for the public benefit and our duty to hand down unimpaired to our posterity.