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This page last updated 22 November 2015
Anglicans Online last updated 10 December 2017

A review for Anglicans Online
by Bishop Terry Brown

A review of
Alexander Forbes of Brechin: The First Tractarian Bishop
By Rowan Strong, ISBN 978-0198263570, Oxford University Press.

A reading of Rowan Strong’s Alexander Forbes of Brechin: The First Tractarian Bishop gives one the opportunity to reflect on the saintly Scottish bishop and how his struggles, good and ill, relate to controversies in the Anglican Communion today. 

First, it should be said that Strong’s treatment of the Scottish disciple of Keble, Pusey and Newman is masterful. He discusses well Forbes’ early years in India as a magistrate in the East India Company (resulting in a lifetime of ill health), his theological studies in Oxford and conversion to Tractarianism, his election (heavily influenced by Gladstone) as Bishop of Brechin, his decision to live and minister amongst the poorest labourers of crowded and dirty industrial Dundee, his trial for a Tractarian theology of the Real Presence, his successful defence of the Scottish Communion Office, his near-conversion to Roman Catholicism followed by revulsion after the promulgation of the dogma of papal infallibility, his friendship with Döllinger and the German Old Catholics, and his early death at 58, respected in the end more for his pastoral gifts than his conservative theological views in an increasingly liberal age.

Rather than another reprinting, it would be good to see a revision of this book as one would like to read what more Strong has to say about Forbes in light of his further research on the religious and intellectual life of 19th century Scotland and beyond. Forbes was present at the 1848 dedication of St. Augustine’s College, Canterbury, founded to train missionaries to send overseas, including India. One would like to know, for example, if that interest in the church overseas continued, in light of Forbes’ own knowledge of India, including Indian languages. Likewise, one would like to know if Forbes’ correspondence extended beyond Tractarians in England, ecumenical Roman Catholics on the Continent and Old Catholics in Germany. For the high cost of the book (£105) one would at least expect some photographs.

The Anglican Communion today is, with some exceptions, the site of much inculturation of worship (liturgy, music, dance, preaching), theology and pastoral practice. While some (largely Evangelical) provinces, dioceses and individuals attempt to cleave to the English Book of Common Prayer and/or the Articles of Religion as normative and non-negotiable, for the most part the Communion (including the Church of England) has embarked upon many projects of inculturation, beginning with translation of the Bible and revision of liturgy and moving on to theology, music, pastoral practice, assisted by the insights of the Liturgical Movement, biblical scholarship and the sheer necessity of making the Gospel meaningful and transformative across the world’s cultures, languages and ideologies. While foreshadowed by the critique of English cultural imperialism in F.D. Maurice’s Kingdom of Christ, such necessary diversification and inculturation could not be assumed in the 19th century; indeed, it was greatly resisted, especially in the Church of England.

In this struggle for respect of cultural and national diversity within the Anglican Communion, the Tractarian Bishop of Brechin comes across as a major hero in his almost single-handed defence of the Scottish Communion Office against English and Scottish bishops who wished to see it suppressed for the sake of full communion and mutual recognition of ministries between the Church of England and the Scottish Episcopal Church. The 1764 Scottish Communion Office, incorporating Catholic theological insights of the English non-jurors, was in widespread use in the non-established Scottish Episcopal Church, enshrining both Jacobin Scottish nationalism and theology, and sanctified by a history of persecution by the state. For Forbes, as both a Scot and a Tractarian, its nationalist roots and patristic liturgical theology (mixed chalice, prayers for the dead, invocation of the Holy Spirit over the Eucharistic elements [epiclesis], the prayer of oblation in the Eucharistic Prayer) had to be defended at all cost, especially against Evangelicals (including bishops and priests) in both churches who wanted the Scottish Communion Office suppressed in favour of exclusive use of the more Protestant English Book of Common Prayer. Supported by English Tractarians and his old friend Gladstone, Forbes held out and when Parliament finally removed the disabilities on Scottish Episcopal clergy functioning in England in 1864 (they had previously been allowed to function only 48 hours in England), the Scottish Communion Office was not suppressed. Liturgical diversity within the nascent Anglican Communion was affirmed. It should be noted that the Scottish Prayer Book had already made its mark on the Episcopal Church in the U.S. through its first Bishop, Samuel Seabury, consecrated in Scotland. Strong is silent on Seabury’s influence and whether Forbes corresponded with Tractarians in North America.

Forbes was also exemplary in his response to the frequent temptation to schism. Forbes was consecrated a bishop at the very young age of 30, a fervent disciple of Keble, Pusey and Newman. He immediately gave his heart and soul to the pastoral and teaching work of a bishop. In the small world of the Scottish Episcopal Church, his Tractarian theology of the objective Real Presence got him quickly into trouble with both High Church and Evangelical bishops and clergy. He was put on trial by his fellow bishops for heresy though eventually only “admonished” for his theological position, which he did not disavow. Newman’s defection to Rome was traumatic and Keble and Pusey feared Forbes would follow. Like Newman, he had written a Catholic defense of the Articles of Religion. In many respects, only the Scottish Communion Office gave him assurance that the Episcopal Church was secure in its patristic and Catholic roots. Despite the many times he wrote of leaving the Episcopal Church for Rome, he always came back to his diocese and the people he cared for and the scandal it would cause them. Rather he stayed and worked with a Synod of Bishops with whom he often profoundly disagreed. He too was willing to compromise for the sake of diversity and looked after congregations who worshiped only with the English Book of Common Prayer. In the end, Forbes’ loyalty was vindicated when the First Vatican Council affirmed the infallibility of the papacy, a teaching Forbes attacked with great vigour, while Newman moped.

Finally, despite his inflexible view of theology as a body of immutable revealed doctrine to be accepted without question, despite his monarchical view of the episcopate (rooted in Scottish Episcopal history), including distrust of the authority of the laity, especially with regard to addressing doctrinal issues and sharing in the governance of the diocese, and despite his distrust of “liberalism” in both theology and politics, Forbes does actually grow and change as he interacts with others. His relation with the German Roman Catholic (and eventually Old Catholic) historian, Döllinger, was key to his realization that historical analysis might be a friend after all and a better apologetic method than sheer imposition of doctrine. Yet, had he lived 15 years longer, one cannot be sure that he would have accepted Lux Mundi (1889) and its espousal of a more liberal Anglo-Catholicism, including biblical criticism. But, given the very cautious inculturation of liberalism he was engaged in at the end of his life, there is always that hope.


Bishop Terry Brown is a retired bishop of the Diocese of Malaita in the Anglican Church of Melanesia and currently Bishop-in-charge of the Church of the Ascension, Hamilton, Ontario.