The King of Terrors: The Theology of Henry Scott Holland

Article excerpt

AUNT has just died. In A Question of Integrity, Susan Howatch's latest novel, Alice Harrison opens her aunt's will to see if this feisty old woman has left any funeral instructions. Indeed she has, including the command: 'Under no circumstances whatsoever should that ghastly but popular passage from the writings of Canon Henry Scott Holland be read.'

We can be quite sure that on the day of her funeral no-one heard Holland's well known words: 'Death is nothing at all. It does not count. I have only slipped away into the next room. Nothing has happened. Everything remains exactly as it was [ldots] What is death but a negligible accident? Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? I am but waiting for you, for an interval, somewhere very near, just round the comer. All is well. Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. One brief moment and all will be as it was before. How we shall all laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!'

The 'ghastly' passage may never have been read at Aunt's funeral, but if anyone has ever heard of Scott Holland, these are the words they have most likely heard. On this depends the contemporary reputation of a militant advocate of social reform, one of London's greatest nineteenth-century preachers, an Oxford Regius Professor and the spiritual leader of a second generation of Tractarians known as Liberal Catholics.

Why should a man of such stature write such sentimental nonsense? How can it possibly fit with the militant sentiments of his well known hymn, Judge Eternal Robed in Splendour with its prophetic cry: 'fire of judgement purge this land'? The oft quoted words themselves come from a sermon called 'King of Terrors', preached in St. Paul's Cathedral on the occasion of the death of King Edward VII.

Something has obviously gone wrong. There is a contradiction here that has to be explained. And Holland himself sets out to explain it. That is the real point of the sermon, to help his hearers understand the all pervading contradiction in every human life, especially when it surfaces at the time of death. On the one hand there is the terror of the inexplicable: 'so ruthless, so blundering -- this death that we must die. It is the cruel ambush into which we are snared. It is the pit of destruction. It wrecks, it defeats, it shatters. Can any end be more untoward, more irrational than this?' Then there is the inner conviction of personal continuity which death cannot destroy, a feeling that 'death is nothing at all.' Both experiences are real and somehow must be held together in our consciousness. Though 'now we are the sons of God . . . it does not yet appear what we shall be' - this is the terror. We are to grow to be like Jesus, and the heart cannot imagine what that shall be. We are afraid of the growth. We recoil at the prospect of so radical a change. Yet, Holland reassures his congregation, in the power of the Spirit we need not be afraid for 'when He shall appear we shall be like Him, for we shall see Him as He is' -- this is our hope, and the source of our conviction that death is but an accidental moment that changes nothing. By our baptism death is now behind us, not in front, so that as Christians we can walk into the unknown with confidence. Holland concludes, 'Let the dead things go, and lay hold on life. Purify yourself as He bids you Who is pure. Then the old will drop away from you, and the new wonder will begin. You will find yourself already passed from death to life, and far ahead strange possibilities will open up beyond the power of your heart to conceive.'

The Certainty of Faith

In 'King of Terrors' Holland describes an outer reality that terrifies, and an inner conviction that assures. This paradoxical relationship between the certain knowledge of our inner self and the provisional knowledge of outward fact informs all Holland's philosophy and theology, as well as his social and political beliefs.

Holland lays the foundation for this theology of paradox by first exploring the nature of faith, and it is here that he exhibits his greatest originality and makes his most lasting contribution. …