Reflections on F D Maurice

by Bishop Bruce Gilberd

This reflection scripts a presentation on the controversial nineteenth century theologian Frederick Denison Maurice, given by Bishop Bruce at St Francis Church, Tairua, on Sunday September 11th. Given its ‘seminar’ origin, it is denser than our usual weekly reflections.

We have in Maurice a priest, a theologian, a philosopher, a socialist, a Christian, a pastor and preacher.
He was ahead of his time, and still inspires those who grasp his truths.  He influenced archbishops of Canterbury throughout the twentieth century – notably William Temple and Michael Ramsay.

Maurice walks us through a critical period of nineteenth century theological debate: where is God present and to be found?

The Man and his Life

Briefly … born in 1805.  (Napoleonic Wars in progress.)  Father a Unitarian.  Religious divisions in the home handled gently.  Attended Cambridge University but unable to graduate, as he did not yet belong to the Church of England.

A diffident and shy person.
Felt the call to baptism and ordination at 29, and wrote, “I not only believe in the Trinity in Unity, but I find it the centre of all my beliefs.”
Served as a curate for two years in Warwickshire, then went to Guy’s Hospital (central London) as a chaplain; then rector of St Peter’s at Lincoln’s Inn (one of four ‘Inns of Court’ in London to which barristers of England and Wales belong).
Wrote his seminal book The Kingdom of Christ (1838).

Married in 1837.  Two children.  Wife died eight years later.  Remarried in 1849.

Became Professor of Ecclesiastical History at King’s College London in 1846.  Published many sermons and several books.
Was always looking for involvement in society.  Established and headed up an enterprise called the Working Men’s College.  He was wanting to deal with the real issues of society.  [At King’s College there were complaints about his ‘socialism’.]

Conflict also arose from his 1853 publication Theological Essays.  He had written, “How can a loving God consign most of the human race, made in his image, to eternal punishment?”

He was asked to leave.

He then became Professor of Moral Philosophy at Cambridge University, having a significant teaching and pastoral ministry there, continued to work as a theologian and philosopher.

Maurice died in 1872.

Key Features of Maurice’s Thinking and Teaching:

In no particular order …

  • Maurice articulated seminal thoughts about God, the status of humankind, the nature of the catholic (universal) church, of which the Anglican Church is a part, and the relationship of the church to society, and to the state.
  • His sources were the Old and the New Testaments, the wisdom of the ages, God-given reason, and his own mind and faith.
  • He sought to define the principles and constitution of what it means to be the Church – its roots (downward) and its fruits (upward).  And to do this, how we need to look back, look around, and look forward, to distil key principles.
  • Contemplation of all this must lead to action; this involved him in educating and pastoring working people of London.
  • Wherever we find costly love, and truth (reason, scientific, theological), there is God, doing his work, directly and through people.  God is in both the secular and the sacred.  How can we split what God embraced in his incarnation?
  • Maurice had a deep yearning for unity – in the church and in the nation.  He had no time for “parties” in either.
  • The fatherhood of God, the brotherhood of men (this was the nineteenth century!).
    The Bible is about the history of God’s actions towards humanity, not men’s thoughts about God.
  • Christ is King of the human race.  He is the unifying person.
  • So he sought a just society.  He thought socialism was an expression of this.
  • He (to me) over-equates the ‘Kingdom of God’ with the Church.  Jesus did preach the Kingdom of God, God’s reign amongst us, and brings us into it.  I also realise Paul wrote God “loved the Church and gave himself for it”.
    Is there not a case therefore for the Church’s mission to be the establishment of the Kingdom?
    [But I find it hard to sing the line in the hymn which runs: “The Church of God a Kingdom is”!]
  • The Church is human society in its normal state.
  • Maurice understood that humanity had a diseased will; the Gospel and public worship heals and matures our personal and corporate will, and our reason, which he regarded as including sense, understanding and imagination.
  • Then he emphasises the point that Christianity without a church exercising spiritual authority is vanity and a delusion.  No place for ‘solo Christians’!
    [Some say Maurice’s writings are a peculiar mixture of the conservative and the radical!]
    He writes that Christ comes, in the incarnation, into the world he made, so it readily makes itself his home; and he lights everyone coming into the world (John 1).  All are made in God’s likeness and image.  But our “condemnation lies in us not owning this truth.”
  • Maurice refused to define the church’s boundaries.
  • He saw one of his roles as being to uncover the faith which so many of its defenders buried.  He had a great reverence for truth.  Truth is not relative.  (Compare with today’s views.)  Propaganda precludes a zeal for the truth – about God, humanity, life.
  • He understood Christ’s self-offering on the cross as not our substitute, but as our representative.  Christ’s crucifixion is about … love, obedience, sacrifice, liberation, burden-bearing, triumph, disclosure, revelation, …
  • Maurice viewed the Church not only as the home of the redeemed but as the sign that God had redeemed the whole human race, and the whole human race was, potentially, ‘in Christ’.
    His call to all was, “Become what you are.”
  • We are to live ethically.  Not from dread of punishment or to achieve favour – but because we are profoundly thankful.
  • A right relationship with God inevitably leads believers, and the Church, to the pursuit of justice.
  • Our study of God – theology – must affect our hearts and our consciences.  Yet, dogmatism and secularism are both signs of unbelief.
  • In Christ, on the cross, what humanity most needs has been completely given – a reliable eternal bridge, a relationship, between God and us.
  • There’s nothing created which Christ has not redeemed, he says.  And, sins hinder but do not quench the life of Christ in us.  Like the dark stains on silverware, our sin can be ‘polished off’ the silver beneath.
  • The Inspirer of the Bible writers is the same One who now dwells in and inspires the reader.

Relevance to Today’s Church and Society

Drawing on these thoughts of FD Maurice, I suggest the following for today:

  • Wherever truth and costly love are found (in the ancient but unattributed maxim), thus:
    In essentials: unity … In non-essentials: liberty … In all things: charity.
  • In life, in science, in other faiths, in people … look for truth and love.
  • The Church is a pivotal sign of what humanity is called to be, and must be engaged in service to society – personally and as Christians together.
  • We serve out of our thankfulness.  No other motive is worthwhile.
  • Christ inaugurated the Reign of God and, in the Sermon on the Mount, enunciated its roots and principles.
  • Go beneath ‘parties’ and differences and structures to the unifying taproot – Christ redeeming all humankind – he is King of the human race.
  • Worship, prayer, contemplation must lead to action.  We seek a just society.
  • … and so on …

There is both anchorage and freedom in Maurice’s theology, echoed in James K Baxter’s poem Song to the Holy Spirit (see here).


Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsay wrote, “Maurice loved his fellow men (sic) and walked humbly with his God.”

And (finally) St Augustine wrote, “We would not be searching for God unless he had already found us.”

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