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Anglicanism and Depression

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“Good blazing fires” — that’s one thing that helps if you are down. It is part of a witty, wise discussion of how to face down depression by the Anglican cleric Sidney Smith, whose life ran across the 18th and 19th centuries.

When we face an epidemic of mental illness and a febrile church, Smith’s advice and sense of humor repay study. In recent years, Anglicans have much over which they could get depressed. Smith helps us about face life’s ups and downs with faith.

Smith on Depression

Smith wrote to a friend, Lady Georgina Morpeth, who was suffering with what we would now call depression and listed 20 things that would help.

Alongside “good, blazing fires,” he recommended amusing books, seeing good friends, being outdoors as much as possible and keeping busy. He praised “short views of human life — not further than dinner or tea.”

There is a gentleness to Smith’s advice. “Don’t be too severe upon yourself, or underrate yourself, but do yourself justice.” He urged the recipient of his letter to ensure that the room where she usually sat was a pleasant place and that she avoid inactivity and try deliberately to “do good.” All valuable advice — active benevolence is a serious help in combatting low spirits. And solid common sense was spliced with gentle wit: “Don’t expect too much from human life — a sorry business at the best.”

Shrewdly, Smith advised, “Make no secret of low spirits to your friends, but talk of them freely — they are always worse for dignified concealment.” And there is a distinctly modern feel to his urging that Georgina “attend to the affects that tea and coffee produce upon you.”

And underneath this gentle, wise, warm letter was a darker side: “Lady Georgiana, Nobody has suffered more from low spirits than I have done — so I feel for you.” For all Smith’s geniality, he knew the curse that depression is — which is why he could be shrewd on how to fight it.

And beneath all was a firm faith. “Be firm and constant in the exercise of rational religion,” he advised his depressed friend. Smith’s playful wit should never be mistaken for skepticism. In a century when unbelief was becoming chic, Sidney Smith was solid on the need for faith and the need to exercise it.

Conclusion

I had grown tired of the present with its anger and fear and lies. I was losing faith in the future. I wanted to delve into our deep past, to be buttressed and braced by history.[1]

So writes Peter Ross in his recent volume, Steeple Chasing. We can learn from those who came before us. Sure, they had their failings (and Smith’s are easy to spot from the distance of two centuries). But people like Smith lived in difficult and confusing times, and when they showed strength, they give us a steer in the difficult and confusing times in which we find ourselves.

One of the grim characteristics of our age is how desperately unfunny it is. Anglicans should pray for a second Smith, to puncture the egos of all convinced of their rectitude.

Recovery of Smith helps Anglicans learn to laugh at ourselves. With him as our companion, we grow smaller, wiser, and happier.

And when he makes us laugh, especially when we remember to laugh at ourselves, he gives us a precious inoculation against the self-important indignation that so disfigures our age and, at times, the Anglican Communion.


[1] Peter Ross, Steeple Chasing: Around Britain by Church (Headline 2023), p.5.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Thank you for this! Sidney Smith is marvelous witty. In one of his letters he writes to a London friend that he is out in the country where all sorts of birds are flying around, uncooked.
    Yes, “short views of human life”!

  2. Thank you for this, Victor – I’d forgotten that great one-liner. I hope readers of this blog will feel free to share their favourite Smith quotes!

  3. I first encountered Smith when reading Auden’s Commonplace book back in my salad days of the 70s. Since then, I have been awaiting a revival of Smith, Auden and commonplace books. Most of all, I have been awaiting a revival of the warm humor; lightness of touch; deep, ever humble seriousness; stylistic grace; and anti-cant faith of the fabled Anglican temperament — of which Smith is a prime exemplar.

    Both conservatives and progressives in the Episcopal Church need it so bad. We all need it so very very bad. We, and the world we make, has a lack of epistemological humility that feels to me to be both wicked and laughable. And I say this knowing I am part of the problem. But Smith has always seemed to me to be a guidepost towards a solution.

    An unchecked quote that is probably mostly right but probably also partly wrong — “Madame, I do not wish to encourage catastrophe, but there are holes in the universe.” ( visualize this with a screen shot of the chef in “ Christmas in Connecticut” mouthing ‘catastrophe, ‘ while clutching his cheeks.)

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