Bishop George Moberly

George Moberly may not be a name that springs to the front of anyone’s mind in any context. Although he played a significant role in the life of the Church in the 19th Century he does not feature greatly in any of the histories of that time that I have on my bookshelf.

But at Christmas Fran gave me a copy of a book published in 1911 entitled ‘Dulce Domum - Bishop Moberly and his friends’, written and compiled by one of his daughters. This volume, which is a delightful and very personal memoir of a man who was both distinguished but also very human, opens up what was a disputatious time in the history of the Church of England in a fascinating way, and demonstrates in ways that we would do well to recognise and understand today that disagreement on matters of faith and doctrine does not, in the Anglican tradition, require schism and antagonism at a personal level. Friendship and respect can be sustained at a profound level whatever may be the dispute. Of course, to believe that this level of eirenicism was sustained in every part of the church of the time would be naïve and foolish, but nonetheless the story of George Moberly is an exceptionally attractive one.

Moberly was born in 1803. He went to Winchester in 1816 and to Balliol College Oxford in 1822 where he moved on to become a Fellow from 1826 to 1834 and a tutor too. From Oxford he became Headmaster of Winchester until 1866 when he became Rector of Brightstone, Isle of Wight, and soon afterwards a Residentiary Canon at Chester Cathedral. No more than a year passed before he was consecrated Bishop of Salisbury, where he remained until his death in 1885.

Those who know anything of 19th century Church history will immediately recognise that the period of his sojourn in Oxford saw the beginnings of what came to be known as the Oxford Movement, which in turn gave birth to the revival of the Catholic tradition within Anglicanism, and with which the names of John Keble, Edward Bouverie Pusey and John Henry Newman are inextricably linked. But equally, students with a little more knowledge will know that this movement was especially (but not exclusively) linked with Oriel College, and that this minor detail of ‘which college’ was very significant in the overall story of the movement.

Moberly was in Oxford, and was caught up in the whirlwind of activity as Keble preached his famous Assizes Sermon in the University Church in 1833, when he moved from Oxford to Winchester it was in the same year as John Keble became Vicar of Hursley just a small distance outside Winchester. They were the closest of friends until Keble’s death in 1866, the same year that Moberly left Winchester. Also living close by was Charlotte Yonge the novelist, whose family was also enmeshed in the life of the Moberlys. Yet Moberly, however close to Keble and familiar with the other key men of the Movement, was decidedly not ‘of’ the Movement. Life in Winchester Diocese at his arrival in 1835 is recorded in the book by his wife Mary Anne:

Bishop Charles Sumner [later Archbishop of Canterbury] had not long been Bishop of Winchester. He and almost all the clergy of Winchester and of the diocese were of the Evangelical school. He had entirely made up his mind that Mr Keble would go over to Rome, and was dreadfully afraid of him. The Oxford Movement was just beginning, and the new Headmaster [Moberly] had the reputation of being full of Romish tendencies, so for many years he had a hard time of it in Winchester. Canon Jacob was in the forefront of the Bishop’s party, but we could not help getting on with him, he was truly sweet-tempered and kindly. The ladies all got on very well together, but the gentlemen were always in difficulties and sparring. [So what changes?]

It is important in historical terms to realise that there was a very deep-seated fear of the Roman Catholic Church and, in the wake of Catholic emancipation and the setting up of a Catholic hierarchy, great suspicion of what this would mean especially when it set out as its mission ‘the conversion of England’. That is really why Newman’s conversion in 1845 was such a body blow to the Oxford Movement, and deeply affected the way that the Catholic revival in the Church of England was received in the church generally.

The whole book is a very human story of many of the characters with whom Moberly became involved, and beautifully fills in all the gaps of social history that are so often omitted from academic histories. So there is a wonderful story of Robert Barter who was Warden of Winchester College and with his brother, also a clergyman, a very keen walker. And so the story is told:

The Warden was one day walking from Oxford to see his brother Charles at Sarsden, a distance of eighteen miles; at Woodstock he passed the Bishop of Oxford’s carriage. The Bishop called to him to ask him where he was going. ‘To Sarsden, my lord.’ ‘I am going there too: can I give you a lift?’ ‘No thank you, I am rather in a hurry’; and he arrived some time before the Bishop.

George Moberly’s life was however tinged with moments of great sadness. Like many 19th century families there were many offspring and not all of them survived to adulthood. The accounts of the deaths of two of their sons, Arthur and Selwyn, both at the age of seventeen are deeply touching, as is Moberly’s tribute to Keble who died in 1866.

As a history book critics would probably tear it apart because it is deeply personal, at times dishevelled in its organisation, but it is genuinely touching and very informative about a deeply spiritual family seeking to live out a humble faith in the midst of a church apparently in turmoil. And it shows very clearly, as I said at the beginning, that those who set their hearts and minds on God - wherever their personal beliefs lead them to stand in terms of tradition - rather than on the defence of their own position have the God-given freedom to be at peace with anyone. Thank God for George Moberly.

Andrew Deuchar
© St Peter's Church, Nottingham
Last revised 7th March 2004