After his father's death in 1828 he was sent to a school of a pronounced evangelical type at Redlands, Bristol, and went in 1833 to Wadham College, Oxford, then an evangelical college. He took first-class honours in 1836, and in 1838 was elected fellow of Oriel. One of his contemporaries, Richard Mitchell, commenting on this election, said: "There is such a moral beauty about Church that they could not help taking him." He was appointed tutor of Oriel in 1839, and was ordained the same year. He was an intimate friend of JH Newman at this period, and closely allied to the Tractarian party. In 1841 No. 90 of Tracts for the Times appeared, and Church resigned his tutorship.
In 1844-1845 he was junior proctor, and in that capacity, in concert with his senior colleague, vetoed a proposal to censure Tracts publicly. In 1846 Church, with others, started The Guardian newspaper, and he was an early contributor to The Saturday Review. In 1850 he became engaged to Miss HF Bennett, of a Somersetshire family, a niece of George Moberly, bishop of Salisbury. After again holding the tutorship of Oriel, he accepted in 1858 the small living of Whatley in Somersetshire, near Frome, and was married in the following year. He was a diligent parish priest and a serious student, and contributed largely to currenl literature. In 1869 he refused a canonry at Worcester, but in 1871 he accepted, most reluctantly (calling it "a sacrifice en pure perte"), the deanery of St Paul's, to which he was nominated by WE Gladstone.
His task as dean was a complicated one. It was (1) the restoration of the cathedral; (2) the adjustment of the question of the cathedral revenues with the Ecclesiastical Commissioners; (3) the reorganization of a conservative cathedral staff with anomalous vested rights. He described the intention of his appointment to be "that St Paul's should waken up from its long slumber." The first year that he spent at St Paul's was, writes one of his friends, one of "misery" for a man who loved study and quiet and the country, and hated official pomp and financial business and ceremonious appearances. But he performed his difficult and uncongenial task with almost incredible success, and is said never to have made an enemy or a mistake.
The dean was distinguished for uniting in a singular degree the virtues of austerity and sympathy. He was preeminently endowed with the faculty of judgment, characterized by Canon Scott Holland as the gift of "high and fine and sane and robust decision." Though of unimpressive stature, he had a strong magnetic influence over all brought into contact with him, and though of a naturally gentle temperament, he never hesitated to express censure if he was convinced it was deserved. In the pulpit the voice of the dean was deliberately monotonous, and he employed no adventitious gesture. He may be described as a High Churchman, but of an essentially rational type, and with an enthusiasm for religious liberty that made it impossible for him to sympathize with any unbalanced or inconsiderate demands for deference to authority. He said of the Church of England that there was "no more glorious church in Christendom than this inconsistent English Church." The dean often meditated resigning his office, though his reputation as an ecclesiastical statesman stood so high that he was regarded in 1882 as a possible sUccessor to Archbishop Tait. But his health and mode of life made it out of the question. In 1888 his only son died; his own health declined, and he appeared for the last time in public at the funeral of Canon Liddon in 1890, dying on 9th December in the same year, at Dover. He was buried at Whatley.
The dean's chief published works are a Life of St Anseim (1870), the lives of Spenser (1879) and Bacon (1884) in Macmillan's "Men of Letters" series, an Essay on Dante (1878), The Oxford Movement (1891), together with many other volumes of essays and sermons. A collection of his journalistic articles was published in 1897 as Occasional Papers.
In these writings he exhibits a great grasp of principles, an accurate mastery of detail, and the same fusion of intelligent sympathy and dispassionate judgment that appeared in his handling of business. His style is lucid, and has the charm of austerity. He stated that he had never studied style per se, but that he had acquired it by the exercise of translation from classical languages; that he watched against the temptation of using unreal and fine words; that he employed care in his choice of verbs rather than in his use of adjectives; and that he fought against self-indulgence in writing just as he did in daily life. His sermons have the same quality of self-restraint. His private letters are fresh and simple, and contain many unaffected epigrams; in writing of religious subjects he resolutely avoided dogmatism without ever sacrificing precision. The dean was a man of genius, whose moral stainlessness and instinctive fire were indicated rather than revealed by his writings.
See Life and Letters of Dean Church, by his daughter, MC Church (1895); memoir by HC Beeching in Dict. Nat. Biog; and DC Lathbury, Dean Church (1907).