AMBROSE AND JUSTINA.
"No weapon that is formed against thee shall prosper: and every tongue that shall rise against thee in judgment, thou shalt condemn."
No considerate person will deny that there is much in the spirit of the times, and in the actual changes which the British constitution has lately undergone, which makes it probable, or not improbable, that a material alteration will soon take place in the relations of the Church towards the State, to which it has been hitherto united. I do not say that it is out of the question that things may return to their former quiet and pleasant course, as in the good old time of king George III.; but the very chance that they will not, makes it a practical concern for every churchman to prepare himself for a change, and a practical question for the clergy, by what, instruments the authority of religion is to be supported, should the protection and recommendation of the government be withdrawn. Truth, indeed, will always support itself in the world by its native vigour; it will never die while heaven and earth last, but be handed down from saint to saint until the end of all things. But this was the case before our Lord came, and is still the case, as we may humbly trust, in heathen countries. My question concerns the Church, that peculiar institution which Christ set up as a visible home and memorial of truth; and which, as being in this world, must be manifested by means of this world. I know it is common to make light of this solicitude about the Church, under the notion that the Gospel may be propagated without it,—or that men are about the same under every dispensation, their hearts being in fault, and not their circumstances,—or for other reasons, better or worse as it may be; to all which I am accustomed to answer, (and I do not see how I can be in error,) that, if Christ had not meant His Church to answer a purpose, He would not have set it up, and that our business is not to speculate about possible dispensations of religion, but to resign and devote ourselves to that in which we are actually placed.
Hitherto the English Church has depended on the State, i. e. on the ruling powers in the country—the king and the aristocracy; and this is so natural and religious a position of things when viewed in the abstract, and in its actual working has been productive of such excellent fruits in the Church, such quietness, such sobriety, such external propriety of conduct, and such freedom from doctrinal error, that we must ever look back upon the period of ecclesiastical history so characterized with affectionate thoughts; particularly on the reigns of our blessed martyr St. Charles, and king George the Good. But these recollections of the past must not engross our minds, or hinder us from looking at things as they are, and as they will be soon, and from inquiring what is intended by Providence to take the place of the timehonoured instrument, which He has broken (if it be yet broken), the regal and aristocratical power. I shall offend many men when I say, we must look to the people; but let them give me a hearing.
Well can I understand their feelings. Who at first sight does not dislike the thoughts of gentlemen and clergymen depending for their maintenance and their reputation on their flocks? of their strength, as a visible power, lying not in their birth, the patronage of the great, and the endowments of the Church (as hitherto), but in the homage of a multitude? I confess I have before now had a great repugnance to the notion myself; and if I have overcome it, and turned from the government to the people, it has been simply because I was forced to do so. It is not we who desert the government, but the government that has left us; we are forced back upon those below us, because those above us will not honour us: there is no help for it, I say. But, in truth, the prospect is not so bad as it seems at first sight. The chief and obvious objection to the clergy being thrown on the people, lies in the probable lowering of Christian views, and the adulation of the vulgar, which would be its consequence; and the state of dissenters is appealed to as an evidence of the danger. But let us recollect that we are an Apostolical body; we were not made, nor can be unmade by our flocks; and, if our influence is to depend on them, yet the sacraments reside with us. We have that with us, which none but ourselves possess, the mantle of the Apostles, and this, properly understood and cherished, will ever keep us from being the creatures of a populace.
And what in time to come may become necessary, is a more religious state of things also. It will not be denied that, according to the Scripture view of the Church, though all are admitted into her pale, and the rich inclusively, yet, the poor are her members with a peculiar suitableness, and by a special right. Scripture is ever casting slurs upon wealth, and making much of poverty. "To the poor the Gospel is preached." "God hath chosen the poor of this world, rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom." "If thou wilt be perfect, sell all that thou hast, and give to the poor." To this must be added, the undeniable fact that the Church, when purest and when most powerful, has depended for its influence on its consideration with the many. Becket's letters, lately published1, have struck me not a little; but of course I now refer, not to such dark ages as most Englishmen consider these, but to the primitive Church,—the Church of St. Athanasius and St. Ambrose. With a view of showing the power of the Church at that time, I will in this chapter give some account of certain ecclesiastical proceedings in the city of Milan, A. D. 385, during the holy season of Lent,—Ambrose being bishop, and Justina and her son, the younger Valentinian, the reigning powers.
1 Vide British Magazine, 1832, &c. And Froude's Remains, Part ii. vol. II.
Ambrose was eminently a popular bishop, as every one knows who has read ever so little of his history. His very promotion to the sacred office was owing to an excitement of the populace. Auxentius, his Arian predecessor in the see of Milan, died, A. D. 374, upon which the bishops of the province wrote to the then emperor, Valentinian the First, who was in Gaul, requesting him to name the person who was to succeed him. This was a prudent step on their part, Arianism having introduced such matter for discord and faction among the Milanese, that it was dangerous to submit the election to the people at large, though the majority of them were orthodox. Valentinian, however, declined to avail iiimself of the permission thus given him; the chpice was thrown upon the voices of the people, and the cathedral, which was the place of assembling, was soon a scene of disgraceful uproar, as the bishops had anticipated. Ambrose was at that time civil governor of the province of which Milan was the capital; and, the tumult increasing, he was obliged to interfere in person, with a view of preventing its ending in open sedition. He was a man of grave character, and had been in youth brought up with a sister who had devoted herself to the service of God in a single life; but as yet was only a catechumen, though above thirty years of age. Arrived at the scene of tumult, he addressed the assembled crowds, exhorting them to peace and order. While he was speaking, a child's voice, as is reported, was heard in the midst of the crowd to say, "Ambrose is bishop;" the populace took up the cry, and both parties in the Church, Catholic and Arian, whether influenced by a sudden enthusiasm, or willing to take a man who was unconnected with party, voted unanimously for the election of Ambrose. It is not wonderful that the subject of this sudden decision should have been unwilling to quit his civil office for a station of such high responsibility; for many days he fought against the popular voice, and that by the most extravagant expedients. He absconded, and was not recovered till the emperor, confirming the act of the people of Milan, published an edict against all who should conceal him. Under these strange circumstances, Ambrose was at length consecrated bishop. His ordination was canonical only on the supposition that it came under those rare exceptions, for which the rules of the Church allow, when they speak of election "by divine grace," by the immediate suggestion of God; and if ever a bishop's character and works might be appealed to as evidence of the divine purpose, surely Ambrose was the subject of that singular and extraordinary favour. From the time of his call he devoted his life and abilities to the service of Christ. He bestowed his personal property on the poor: his lands on the Church; making his sister tenant for life. Next he gave himself up to the peculiar studies necessary for the due execution of his high duties, till he gained that deep insight into Catholic truth, which is evidenced in his works, and in no common measure in relation to Arianism, which had been the dominant creed in Milan for the twenty years preceding his elevation. Basil of Csesarea was at this time the main pillar of Catholic truth in the East, having succeeded Athanasius of Alexandria, who died about the time that both Basil and Ambrose
were advanced to their respective sees. He addresses the new bishop in these words in an extant epistle :—
"Proceed in thy work, thou man of God; and since thou hast not received the Gospel of Christ of men, neither wast taught it, but the Lord Himself translated thee from among the world's judges to the chair of the Apostles, fight the good fight, set right the infirmities of the people, wherever the Arian madness has affected them; renew the old foot-prints of the Fathers, and by frequent correspondence build up thy love towards us, of which thou hast already laid the foundation."—Ep. 197.
Ambrose had presided in his see about eleven years at the time when the events took place which are here to be related. Valentinian was dead, as well as his eldest son Gratian. His second son, who bore his own name, was emperor of the West, under the tutelage of Justina, who had been his second wife.
Justina was an Arian, and brought up her son in her own heretical views. This was about the time when the heresy was finally subdued in the Eastern Churches; the council of Constantinople had lately been held, many Arian bishops had conformed, and laws had been passed by Theodosius against those who held out. It was natural under such circumstances that a number of the latter should flock to the court of Milan for protection and patronage. The Gothic officers of the palace were Arians also, as might be supposed, after the creed of their nation. At length they obtained a bishop of their persuasion from the East; and having now the form of an ecclesiastical body, they used the influence of Valentinian, or rather of his mother, to extort from Ambrose one of the churches of Milan for their worship.
The bishop was summoned to the palace before the assembled court, and was formally asked to relinquish St. Victor's Church, then called the Portian Basilica, which was without the walls, for the Arian worship. His duty was plain: the churches were the property of Christ; he was the representative of Christ, and was therefore bound not to cede what was committed to him in trust. This is the account of the matter given by himself:—
"Do not," he says, " O emperor, embarrass yourself with the thought that you have an emperor's right over sacred things. Exalt not yourself, but, as you would enjoy a continuance of power, be God's subject. It is written, God's to God, and Csesar's to Csesar. The palace is the emperor's, the churches are the bishop's."—Ep. 20.
This argument, which is true at all times, was much more convincing in an age like the primitive, before men had begun to deny that Christ had left a visible representative of Himself in His Church. If there was a body to whom the concerns of religion were intrusted, there could be no doubt it was that over which Ambrose presided. It had been there planted ever since Milan became Christian, its ministers were descended from the Apostles, and it was the legitimate trustee of the sacred property. But in our day men have been taught to doubt whether there is one Apostolic Church, though it is mentioned in the Creed; nay, it is grievous to say, clergymen have sometimes forgotten, sometimes made light of their own privileges. Accordingly, when a question arises now about the spoliation of the Church, we are obliged to betake ourselves to the rules of national law; we appeal to precedents, or we urge the civil consequences of the measure, or we use other arguments which, good as they may be, are too refined to be very popular. Ambrose rested his resistance on grounds which the people understood at once, and recognised as irrefragable. They felt that he was only refusing to surrender a trust. They rose in a body, and thronged the palace gates. A company of soldiers was sent to disperse them; and a riot was on the point of ensuing, when the ministers of the court became alarmed, and despatched Ambrose to appease the tumult, with the pledge that no further attempt should be made on the possessions of the Church. Now some reader will here interrupt the narrative, perhaps, with something of an indignant burst about connecting the cause of religion with mobs and outbreaks. To whom I would reply, that the multitude of men is always rude and intemperate, and needs restraint,—religion does not make them so. But being so, it is better they should be zealous about religion, and repressed by religion, as in this case, than flow and ebb again under the irrational influences of this world. A mob, indeed, is always wayward and faithless; but it is a good sign when it is susceptible of the hopes and fears of the world to come. Is it not probable that, when religion is thus a popular subject, it may penetrate, soften, or stimulate hearts which otherwise would know nothing of its power? However, this is not, properly speaking, my present point, which is to show how a Church may be in "favour with all the people" without any subserviency to them. To return to our history.
Justina, failing to intimidate, made various underhand attempts to remove the champion of orthodoxy. She endeavoured to raise the people against him. Failing in this object, next, by the promise of offices and places of dignity, she set on foot various projects to seize him in church, and carry him off into banishment. One man went so far as to take lodgings near the church, and had a carriage in readiness, in order to avail himself of any opportunity which offered to convey him away. But none of these attempts succeeded.
This was iD the month of March; as Easter drew on, more vigorous steps were taken by the court. On April 4, the Friday before Palm Sunday, the demand of a church for the Arians was renewed; the pledges which the government had given, that no further steps should be taken in the matter, being perhaps evaded by changing the church which was demanded. Ambrose was now asked for the New or Roman Basilica, which was within the walls, and larger than the Portian. It was dedicated to the Apostles, and (I may add, for the sake of the antiquarian) was built in the form of a cross. When the bishop refused in the same language as before, the imperial minister returned to the demand of the Portian Church; but the people interfering, and being clamorous against the proposal, he was obliged to retire to the palace to report how matters stood.
On Palm Sunday, after the lessons and sermon had been read in the Basilica, in which he officiated, Ambrose was engaged in teaching the creed to the candidates for baptism, who, as was customary, had been catechized during Lent, and were to be admitted into the Church on the night before Easter day. News was brought him that the officers of the court had taken possession of the Portian Church, and were arranging the imperial hangings in token of its being confiscated to the emperor; on the other hand, that the people were flocking thither. Ambrose continued the service of the day; but, when he was in the midst of the celebration of the Eucharistical rite, a second message came that one of the Arian priests was in the hands of the populace.
"On this news (he says, writing to his sister), I could not keep from shedding many bitter tears, and, while I made oblation, I prayed God's protection that no blood might be shed in the Church's quarrel; or if so, that it might be mine, and that, not for my people only, but for the ungodly."—Ep. 20.
At the same time he despatched a number of his clergy to the spot, who had influence enough to rescue the unfortunate man from the mob.
Though Ambrose so far seems to have been supported by a popular movement, yet the proceedings of the following week showed that he had the great mass of respectable citizens on his side. The imprudent measures of the court, in punishing those whom it considered its enemies, disclosed to the world their number and importance. The tradesmen of the city were fined two hundred pounds of gold, and many were thrown into prison. All the officers, moreover, and dependents of the courts of justice were ordered to keep in-doors during the continuance of the disorders; and men of higher rank wer menaced with severe consequences, unless the Basilica were surrendered.
Such were the acts by which the imperial court solemnized Passion week. At length a fresh interview was sought with Ambrose, which shall be described in his own words :—
"I had a meeting with the counts and tribunes, who urged me to give up the Basilica without delay, on the ground that the emperor was but acting on his undoubted rights, as possessing sovereign power over all things. I made answer, that if he asked me for what was my own—for instance, my estate, my money, or the like—I would make no opposition; though, to tell the truth, all that was mine was the property of the poor; but that he had no sovereignty over things sacred. If my patrimony is demanded, seize upon it; my person, here I am. Would you take to prison or to death? I go with pleasure. Far be it from me to entrench myself within the circle of a multitude, or to clasp the altar in supplication for my life ; rather I will be a sacrifice for the altar-sake.
"In good truth, when I heard that soldiers were sent to take possession of the Basilica, I was horrified at the prospect of bloodshed, which might issue in ruin to the whole city. I prayed God that I might not survive the ruin, which might ensue, of such a place; nay, of Italy itself. I shrunk from the odium of having occasioned slaughter, and would sooner have given my own throat to the knife. . . . Presently they bade me calm the people. I replied, that all I could do was not to inflame them; but God alone could appease them. For myself, if I appeared to have instigated them, it was the duty of the government to proceed against me, or to banish me. Upon this they left me."
Ambrose spent the rest of Palm Sunday in the same Basilica in which he had been officiating in the morning; at night he went to his own house, that the civil power might have the opportunity of arresting him if it was thought advisable.
The attempt to gain the Portian seems now to have been dropped; but on the Wednesday troops were marched before day-break to take possession of the New Church, which was within the walls. Ambrose, upon the news of this fresh movement, used the weapons of an apostle. He did not seek to disturb them in their possession; but, attending service at his own church, he was content to threaten the soldiers with a sentence of excommunication. Meanwhile the New Church, where the soldiers were posted, began to fill with a larger congregation than it ever contained before the persecution. Ambrose was requested to go thither, but, desirous of drawing the people away from the scene of imperial tyranny, lest a riot should ensue, he remained in the Portian, and began a comment on the lesson of the day, which was from the book of Job. First, he commended them for the Christian patience and resignation with which they had hitherto borne their trial, which indeed was, on the whole, surprising, considering the usual inflammable nature of a multitude. "We petition your majesty," they said to the emperor; "we use no force, we feel no fear, but we petition1." It is common in the leader of a multitude to profess peaceableness, but very unusual for the multitude itself to persevere in doing so. Ambrose went on to observe, that both they and he had in their way been tempted, as Job was, by the powers of evil. For himself, his peculiar trial had lain in the reflection that the extraordinary measures of the government, the movements of the Gothic guards, the fines of the tradesmen, the various sufferings of the saints, all arose from what might be considered his obstinacy in not yielding to what seemed an overwhelming necessity, and giving the Basilica to the Arians. Yet he felt that to do so would be to peril his soul; so that the request was but the voice of the tempter, as he spoke in Job's wife, to make him "say a word against God, and die," to betray his trust, and incur the sentence of spiritual death.
Before this time the soldiers who had been sent to the New Church, from dread of the threat of excommunication, had declared against the sacrilege, and joined his congregation at the Portian; and now the news came that the royal hangings had been taken down. Soon after, as he was continuing his address to the people, a fresh message came to him from the court, to ask him, whether he had an intention of domineering over his sovereign? Ambrose, in answer, showed the pains he had taken to observe a passive obedience to the emperor's will, and to hinder disturbance: then he added—
1 "Rogamus, Auguste, non pugnamus, non timemus, sed rogamus."
"Priests have by old right bestowed sovereignty, never assumed it; and it is a common saying, that sovereigns have coveted the priesthood more than priests the sovereignty. Christ hid Himself, lest He should be made a king. Yes! we have a dominion of our own. The dominion of the priest lies in his helplessness, as it is said, 'When I am weak, then am I strong.'"
And so ended the dispute for a time. On Good Friday the court gave way; the guards were ordered from the Basilica, and the fines were remitted. I end for the present with the view which Ambrose took of the prospect before him :—
"Thus the matter rests; T wish I could say, has ended: but the emperor's words are of that angry sort which shows that* more severe contest is in store. He calls me a tyrant, or what is worse still. He implied this when his ministers were entreating him, on the petition of the soldiers, to attend Church. 'Should Ambrose bid you,' he made answer, 'doubtless you would give me to him in chains.' I leave you to judge what these words promise. Persons present were all shocked at hearing them; but there are parties who exasperate him."