It will come as no great surprise to learn that Jonathan Swift was not particularly tolerant towards those who occupied this pulpit during his long tenure as Dean. We are told that
‘As soon as any one got up into the pulpit, he pulled out his pencil, and a piece of paper, and carefully noted every wrong pronunciation, or expression, that fell from him. Whether too hard, or scholastic (and of consequence, not sufficiently intelligible to a vulgar hearer) or such as he deemed, in any degree, improper, indecent, slovenly, or mean; and those, he never failed to admonish the preacher of, as soon as he came into the chapter–house.’
At least some of his successors, I have noticed with more than a little gratitude, have been rather more merciful to visiting preachers. But we would be mistaken to imagine that Swift’s exacting demands on other preachers was merely symptomatic of his acerbic nature. Swift set the same high standards, and more, for himself as a preacher.
As we celebrate the tercentenary of his installation as Dean of this cathedral, it is not particularly easy to delineate the spiritual Swift behind Swift the controversialist, the political commentator, the satirist or the wit, but he is nevertheless there, and most clearly in his preaching and in his praying.
But because a sermon is neither a lecture nor a paper, I want for a few minutes to reflect on the aspects of Swift’s spirituality and theology that resonate through into the present day in which we live and have our being. He was indeed a harsh critic of preaching, his own preaching as much as the preaching of others. He was dismissive of any over–emotionalism in the delivery of the sermon, and in this he was characteristic of the restoration and post–restoration Anglican tradition, but there was more to him than this. We know that he worked relentlessly on his own sermons. He feared that the time devoted to his other activities might have prevented him from being the preacher he longed to be. And although he disliked any over-use of emotion or rhetoric, this was primarily where emotionalism was being used as a substitute for the rational. In his famous Letter to a Young Gentleman, he urges that if the argument is strong and clear, then it can, and it must be delivered movingly.
Above all, Swift detested theological over–complication for the sake of it; he does indeed speak to the theologian and to the preacher of every generation. His sermons – the few we have available to us – indicate also that he rooted his theology in a very straightforward acceptance of the basics of the faith. So, in his sermon on the Trinity, he asks his hearers that they believe the fundamental doctrine of the Trinity even if its precise workings, although not irrational, are beyond human knowledge. Within Swift’s approach, there are echoes of some of the insights of modern psychology.
At anything beyond the shallowest of levels we can only convince others, if what we have to say attracts not simply their reason but also their emotions, and their sense of symbol and security. Reason alone will not convince, other than in the world of mathematics or purely theoretical enquiry. Coupled, however, with an emotional appeal, and an entreaty to that which they believe they already ‘hold dear’, men and women will become more likely convinced of the validity of an argument. Not only in his political writings but in his sermons and preaching, Swift shows his astonishing grasp of the art of persuasion. His sermons, whether dealing with doctrine, social theology or ethics are straightforward and persuasive, but more than simply rationalist. His approach – if not his precise mode of expression – transcends his own context as an example of fine theological exposition. In an age that cries out for intelligent Christian apologetics, the approach of Jonathan Swift remains apposite and profoundly necessary. Christian preaching and teaching should indeed be reasonable, but also of the heart, and related to that which the reader or hearer believes to be symbolically core to their own identity and values.
But we find also in Jonathan Swift an important and fully relevant contribution to social theology. He was indeed a controversialist and political satirist but Swift underlines a very useful religious understanding of the fundamental loyalty of the Christian in relation to society. In his celebrated sermon On Doing Good preached in 1724 and based on the exhortation in the letter to the Galatians that we are “to do good to all”, we see a firm theological basis for Swift’s political thinking. Drawing a distinction between loyalty to the apparatus of the state, ‘the King’ and loyalty to the good of all – the common good, the welfare of the whole of society – we are given a topical reminder, just as a G8 meeting is about to take place not far distant from here, that sectional interests within society cannot be allowed to dominate the needs of society as a whole.
As we celebrate Swift’s arrival here in St Patrick’s Cathedral 300 years ago, we should recall also an intensely personal aspect to his spirituality. There was certainly a depressive, introspective and even self – pitying side to Swift. Shortly after his arrival here in the Cathedral, he felt an acute loneliness; in his own words, ‘neither loved nor known’.
My state of health none care to learn;
My life is here no soul’s concern.
And those with whom I now converse
Without a tear will tend my hearse
His own prayer life remained, however, disciplined and regular. His biographer Irvin Ehrenpreis uncovered – from Swift’s contemporaries – descriptions of his gathering of his servants to his bed – chamber each evening for prayer with him. There is an even more moving story of how, as Swift became more deaf, he spent time each night in private devotion after his friends had retired to bed, using the liturgy of the Church for his private devotion. The description is perhaps slightly spoilt by the comment by the author of this account, Prebendary John Lyon: ‘His prayer book (which I have) being fouled with the snuff of his fingers shews the parts he most approved of.’ Certainly his prayers for Stella as she approached death demonstrate not only his instinctive use of familiar phrases from the Book of Common Prayer in his time of distress but also a depth of spiritual conviction that was neither contrived nor affected. None of this should lull us into any mistaken belief that Swift’s years as Dean of this Cathedral were unclouded by controversy or fractiousness. As might be expected, the Dean had quarrels and wrangles with a splendid variety of people associated with the Cathedral, from vicars choral who assisted at ‘a club of fiddlers in Fishable Street’ to Archbishop William King himself. Today, however, as we celebrate this tercentenary of Jonathan Swift’s installation as Dean, we must surely commemorate with thankfulness also the priest behind the pugilist.
Receive our monthly newsletter for news and information