Project Canterbury

The New Reformation: The Church of England and the Fellowship of Churches.

By Percy Dearmer.

London: Humphrey Milford, 1931.


I. Ordered Freedom

One kind of religion, and one only, can meet the needs of the world; thoughtful men, in Asia as well as in the West, are looking for it: a religion Christian, friendly, and free; for good men everywhere wish to be guided by the example of Christ. Only in Christianity can a basis for a universal religion be found: a Christianity, not swollen by accretions or clouded by distortional theologies; but finding its way through all inherited sectarianisms to the widest corporate fellowship, and rendered possible in the only way conceivable to the modern world, that of perfect freedom for all to read, study, think, and speak. The chief hope for mankind is some such embodiment of the principle of universal charity.

By one test every movement and every Church must be judged. Is it shaping towards the spiritual unity of the world and the federation of mankind in the principles of the perfect Humanity? One cannot read the Report of the Lambeth Conference without being moved by the vision which is there shown and by the practical methods which are already at work for its realization in that Fellowship of Churches for which the Conference speaks.

2. The Federal Principle

Before we consider that practicable vision let us think for a moment about this federation of free self-governing Churches which is officially known as the Anglican Communion, and which is so new and surprising a phenomenon that many people have not grasped the great actualized idea of reason and hope that has come into the world. At [3/4] the Reformation, when Britain began to secure freedom of thought—and sprang up at once to be a great Nation, growing into a greater Commonwealth of Nations—our forefathers reformed and reconstituted their ancient Church, the Ecclesia Anglicana of Magna Carta. Looking for example to primitive Christianity, they proclaimed the self-governing freedom of every national Church, declaring the only possible principle of unity for Christendom to be what we now call federation, which is the voluntary union of self-governing communities, such as the ancient Churches of the East had always maintained as against the process of centralized autocracy that had grown up in the west of Europe during the anarchy of the Dark Ages. We must use for this ancient church principle the modern word Federation, since no other can be readily understood: this federal method indeed it is that holds the United States together, and the British Empire. Australia, South Africa, and Canada are themselves federations within a federation, and such also is the project for the vast continent of India. Such also is the only possible ideal for Europe itself, very difficult in realization; and it must be the ultimate ideal for the whole world.

This principle of autonomous federation becomes possible as Churches and Nations through the enjoyment of liberty become more enlightened: it was first put into operation by the Early Church, which consisted of self-governing local Churches, united by a common faith, and together forming one Universal or Catholic Church—just as the United States form one Nation, or as the British Dominions are united to-day in one British Commonwealth. [See p. 153. The references, unless otherwise stated, are to the Report of the Lambeth Conference, 1930. S.P.C.K.] Our forefathers preserved the traditional organization of England into dioceses administered by a bishop, and combined in the [4/5] two provinces of Canterbury and York; and, while declaring that we ‘condemn no other nations’, took their stand on the Primitive, and therefore the only Catholic principle, that of local freedom, and proclaimed their belief in the Holy Catholic Church as consisting of all Christian people ‘dispersed throughout the world’.

And so the ship sailed out upon the troubled waters of the seventeenth century. In course of time sister ships appeared, built upon the same lines, till suddenly the world has to realize that there has grown up in quite modern times a vast, world-wide federation of autonomous Churches called the Anglican Communion, which sprang, as all religions and all organizations have sprung, from one centre, and bears, as most do, the traces of its origin in its name.

3. Friendship with other Churches

The bishops of this united Anglican Church met at the Lambeth Conference in 1930, to the number of 308 (representing 18 Churches or provinces and 2 Regional Churches— 252 dioceses in all), and declared their principles in an Encyclical Letter to the world. [The official term Anglican Communion is perhaps too heavy for popular use. We may call it ‘the Anglican Church’ on the analogy of the Eastern Orthodox Church, which also consists of many Churches.] With the widest vision and a deep charity they looked out upon the world, envisaged the possibility of its drawing together in a Catholic, that is, a Universal reconciliation, and dealt with two matters of the utmost importance for the furtherance of this ideal. First, though not for the first time, they relegated to the forgotten past the old quarrels and jealousies between Churches of different systems, by recognizing gladly and thankfully the existence of other Communions, and establishing means of working towards inter-communion with all those Churches [5/6] which desire unity. Friendly advances had also been made towards the Church of Rome, and an informal conference held at Malines; but the Pope forbade his subjects to take any further part in such conferences, and thus increased the policy of Papal isolation. The rest of Christendom includes on the one hand the Presbyterian Church of Scotland and the Evangelical Free Churches of British and other lands; on the other, distant Churches like the Greek and Russian or the Swedish and Finnish Churches. Of these latter the Report says: ‘We are to-day in friendly relations with Churches altogether foreign to us in race and different in traditions.’ [p. 155] Secondly, the Conference has given its approval to the union in one Church of over 700,000 Christians in South India. This is an act of wisdom and generosity without precedent, I believe, in history, the first example of that new spirit which alone can replace the autocracies, sectarianisms, and nationalisms of the past by fellowship and peace. For the Anglican Church deliberately gives up the South Indian part of its membership in order that a new Church of South India, including Presbyterians and Free Churchmen, may be formed, ‘which will not itself be an Anglican Church: it will be a distinct Province of the Universal Church’. [p. 27]

4. The World Growth of National Churches

The South Indian Church, be it noted, will be a National Church, like the Church of England, and will doubtless lead to a National Church for the whole of India. In China and Japan such Churches have already begun to exist; and plans on the unifying Indian lines are forming for China, Persia, and certain provinces of Africa. [As 'organized Provinces’, each with its ‘General Synod of Bishops, Clergy, and Laity’ (p. 161).] It seems, indeed, [6/7] that these two great continents can only develop on national lines, as they grow out of the initial stages of foreign help. Now much of the peculiar wisdom of the English Church and its freedom from narrowness have been due to its national character; for the wholesome influence of the laity is strongest in National Churches, like those of Scotland, Sweden, or the Balkan States. They enable ‘the God-given genius of great nations to find its appropriate expression in the worship and work of the Church’, and such a Church ‘by its intimate connexion with the nation as a whole can effectively influence the national life’, as the Constitution of the Church of India has expressed it. [p. 162] The beneficent influence of each upon the other is vastly increased when, as happily is the case with England, so wise in her political methods, the Church is also politically recognized and established.

That political wisdom enabled the people of England to resist the individualistic tendencies of the nineteenth century, to avoid the denationalizing of the English Church, and to adopt the better method of removing those elements in the establishment that had pressed hardly on the members of other Churches. Now that the fissile tendencies of the past have changed into a growing desire for unity (already achieved by Scottish Presbyterianism in its Established Church), it would seem that the ultimate ideal for the world will lie in national Churches, recognized, and in our phrase ‘established’ by the State, while, by their federation together, they will form the strongest security for the peace and goodwill of mankind. Such an ideal has been partly realized in England, Scotland, and in other countries like those of Scandinavia which have high standards of popular education. Like most wise systems (like the British Constitution, for instance), an establishment may produce [7/8] anomalies and has to develop by readjustment, because it is not static but dynamic. In England there are two problems at this time. One is to reconcile the desire of the Church Assembly (the Houses of Bishops, Clergy, and Lay Representatives) to regulate the services, and of Parliament (which probably represents in a rough way the average lay opinion) to have a veto in the matter. The fact that the Nation as a whole is so deeply interested in religion, as the long debates of 1927 showed, is a matter for profound encouragement, and should help the Church greatly in her difficult task of adjustment. The second and more important problem is to recover the possibility of a Church of the whole English people by removing the barriers between what used to be called Church and Chapel. Notable steps were taken towards this ideal at the Lambeth Conference of 1920, which recognized among other things the interchange of pulpits; while that of 1930 recommends united evangelism by all the Churches. Much has yet to be done; but representative committees are carrying on the work; and the old separatist ideas are passing. At present Scotland by the union of her three Presbyterian Churches leads the way; but the United States and Canada are moving steadily in the direction of uniting the non-Roman Churches in national federations, and, as we have seen, the same process is pregnant with results in Asia.

Such matters of organization are not material or mundane. For the spirit of freedom and fellowship can only be realized if we organize ourselves to secure it and take every care to avoid the opposite dangers of tyranny and division, which have wrecked Christendom in the past and are responsible for the distorted presentation of religion to-day.

There is in some of the most progressive countries already a real national religion, and not least in England, as I for one have discovered afresh in helping to compile hymnbooks [8/9] and other works for the County Education Authorities. In fact those who do not yet realize how a national religion has formed itself, like a fourth dimension in our midst, will do well to study the hymnody of the English-speaking peoples.

5. Securing Union by Liberty

The task then before the whole Anglican Church is to promote a universal fellowship while preserving the virtue of the national method, in order that ‘the characteristic endowment of each family of the human race may be consecrated, and so make its special contribution to the Kingdom of God’; [p. 153] and it may be added that in this way, as history shows, the recurrent danger of clericalism can be successfully avoided. The task is a difficult and subtle one, like that in the political world of the coherence of Great Britain, the Dominions, and India: but it is. a task which one nation after another has to face; for, as education spreads, men increasingly demand their rights of self-determination and refuse to submit to foreign authority however well intentioned it may be. The day of Emperors, Popes, Grand Inquisitors, and universal dominators in general has passed away with the diffusion of knowledge; but if the old despotisms did in fact fail to preserve unity, it cannot be attained by mere independence. The Lambeth Conference is much alive to this problem; it lays down once more the principle of a living, organic unity: ‘The bond which holds us together is spiritual’; [p. 154.] and it maintains the utmost precautions against the rise of anything like an Anglican papacy. ‘It is a federation, without a federal government.’ [p. 28] The various Churches and Provinces govern themselves through their constitutional synods, and their [9/10] bishops meet every ten years at Lambeth to consult and advise, but not to give orders. A Consultative Body, with power to call in expert advice, carries on the work from decade to decade. It can advise; but ‘neither possesses nor claims any executive or administrative power’.' Resolution 49 defines the position;

The Anglican Communion is a fellowship, within the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, of those duly constituted Dioceses, Provinces or Regional Churches in communion with the See of Canterbury, which have the following characteristics in common:—

(a) they uphold and propagate the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order as they are generally set forth in the Book of Common Prayer as authorized in their several Churches;

(b) they are particular or national Churches, and, as such, promote within each of their territories a national expression of Christian faith, life and worship; and

(c) they are bound together not by central legislative and executive authority, but by mutual loyalty sustained through the common counsel of the Bishops in conference.

In this spirit, and in such ways only, can Christendom meet the future and inspire the civilization which is now rapidly developing, as one class and one race after another wins the freedom of universal knowledge. Born of a truth-loving and sturdy people, which has led the way in the achievement of ordered liberty, the Anglican Church can co-operate in friendship with the remotest foreign Communions, and itself is held together no longer by racial bonds alone, but by the common spirit which has grown up in an atmosphere of tolerance, wisdom, and that regard for sound learning in which Bishop Creighton saw the special characteristic of the mother Church of England. From her [10/11] and from the creative vigour and self-sacrifice of the Free Churches, the spirit has gone forth which is now drawing Christians together of all races and tongues in that new way of unfettered fellowship and free co-operation by which alone, when every nation brings its special gifts, can the regeneration of the world be accomplished.


The faith that is to hold the allegiance of all good men must be broad and simple; and only the teaching of Christ is wide and deep enough for all the world, finding room for the honest doubt of a Thomas as well as for the passionate certainty of a Peter and the reasoned fervour of a Paul or John Evangelist. Churches have decayed, and have alienated the nations they had once converted, through adding new doctrines to the Good News and then requiring unconditional assent to all the accretions. Christ indeed left Christendom free to develop, for without growth there is death; but it was to develop through his Spirit; and in order to escape from the by-ways of atavism, formalism, paganism, obscurantism, subversion, or caprice, a continual reference to his Way is necessary.

There will always be two types of men, as there are two sides to the truth—those who rightly treasure the past, and those who look most keenly from the present to the future; one type rejoices in the riches that the Churches of East and West at different times have accumulated, and its weakness is to preserve the bad coin as well as the good; the other type welcomes the new money that is being minted, and its danger lies in throwing away genuine pieces with the counterfeit. By avoiding the temptation to herd in separation, and by keeping in close touch with each other, the two types can combine to increase the real treasure from age to age. Therefore a Church that is true to Christ must be so comprehensive as to include both kinds of men. As the Conference says in its Encyclical Letter:

It may even be necessary to the Church that men in it should hold and expound different opinions, in order that the [12/13] Church as a whole should have the whole of truth, even as the rays of many colours which the spectrum shows combine to make the light of the sun. [p. 30]

And is not this after all just to be Christian? The Jesus of history drew to himself men of honest and good heart, not asking for any grammar of doctrinal assent; he taught his friends to escape from self and to seek the Kingdom of Heaven, the sovereignty, that is, of God; he did not teach theology nor require any acceptance of difficult theological propositions, nor on the other hand did he suggest that his disciples should give up thinking and abstain from theology.

If we are contemplating Christianity as the world religion, it is the peril of over-dogmatism that we must stress first, because this in the past has been the great temptation for all Churches. Yet it is equally true that we must be strong at the centre if we would be free at the circumference; and a religion of vagueness can never hold mankind. Simple the Gospel of Christ is; but it is also profound, and it is never indefinite. Scholars would probably agree that the message of Christ can be summarized under five heads: The Fatherhood of God; The Brotherhood of Man; The Kingdom of Heaven; Salvation; and Eternal Life. The riches of these five great subjects have only been in part explored, and indeed the meaning of the third has been misunderstood, awakening little interest until recent times. The Christian Church is less than two thousand years old, out of some fifty thousand during which man may have existed upon the earth; and, with no more than six thousand years behind us since the dawn of civilization, we are only now emerging from the first quarrelsome age of childhood. It is in the future that Christianity will be realized, and it [13/14] is to the future, when the fullness of the nations has come in, that we must look.

Therefore the Anglican Churches, says the Encyclical Letter, sharing the leading characteristics of the Church of England,

teach—as she does—the Catholic Faith in its entirety and in the proportions in which it is set forth in the Book of Common Prayer. They refuse—as she does—to accept any statement, of practice, as of authority, which is not consistent with the Holy Scriptures and the understanding and practice of our religion as exhibited in the undivided Church. [pp. 28-29]

Or still more briefly, in Resolution 49, the Anglican Churches ‘uphold and propagate the Catholic and Apostolic faith and order as they are generally set forth [not in the Thirty-nine Articles, admirable as these were for the times with which they dealt, and great as is the value of their vase restraint and comprehensiveness at the present day, but] in the Book of Common Prayer as authorized in their several Churches’ [p. 55] such as those of America and Ireland, which have Prayer Books of their own.

Some points need here to be noted. The word ‘Catholic’ is frequently twisted to mean ‘medieval’ or even ‘sectarian’, and to some the ‘Catholic Church’ means a Church which is isolated from all others. Now ‘catholic’ is the Greek form of the Latin word ‘universal’, and the Catholic Church is nothing less than the whole Church Universal—‘the blessed company of all faithful people’, to use a phrase common to the Prayer Books of all the Anglican Churches; ‘the holy Catholic Church’ is, to quote again another official definition, ‘the whole congregation of Christian People dispersed throughout the world’. The Catholic Faith is that which is held by the Universal Church. It received classic expression in the fifth-century definition of St. Vincent of [14/15] Lerins, that it is the faith which has been believed ‘everywhere, always, and by all’; though the fact is sometimes overlooked that this otherwise vague definition rightly confines Catholic doctrine to that which was held in the time of the Apostles, since nothing else has been held ‘always’. The Catholic Faith, therefore, means exactly the same as the Apostolic Faith; and, since all that we know of what the Apostles believed is contained in the New Testament, the word ‘Scriptural’ is but another way of putting the same thing. The two Creeds are the great historic attempt to express this faith; and, though all forms of words must by their very nature be inadequate to express the incomprehensible being of God, it is in the truth behind the Creeds that all Christians believe.

At the same time it must be noted that later thought and practice are not excluded in the careful statement of the Encyclical. Many things not mentioned in the New Testament are, of course, true and good. All the Encyclical says is that such things are not to be required ‘as of authority’. In the same way, the Church of Rome or that of Roumania or of Sweden, or any other, may have many excellent things which are peculiar to themselves and not ‘exhibited in the undivided Church’. So, one is glad to think, have we; but we know that we must not try to force them upon others.

And our principles are deeply rooted in the past, but—if I may adopt a homely metaphor—not pot-bound. They can grow all the better because they have been rooted so widely and so long:

We hold the Catholic faith in its entirety: that is to say, the truth of Christ, contained in Holy Scripture; stated in the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds; expressed in the Sacraments of the Gospel and the rites of the Primitive Church as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer with its various local [15/16] adaptations; and safeguarded by the historic threefold Order of the Ministry. [p. 154]

In this spirit Christendom can face the future. A new religion can make interesting and even valuable contributions, but it cannot embrace more than a limited section of people, since tradition holds a large place in all established convictions: yet a faith that cannot adjust itself to the development of knowledge must ultimately die. Overburdened with dogma, and always having to explain and explain away, a Church cannot satisfy the candid and well informed. Yet the religion that is to win the world must have a faith definite, secure, radiant, and profound. The Churches that would help in this greatest of all adventures must have at heart the ideals which have inspired the saints of the past:

And what are these ideals? They are the ideals of the Church of Christ. Prominent among them are an open Bible, a pastoral Priesthood, a common worship, a standard of conduct consistent with that worship, and a fearless love of truth. Without comparing ourselves with others, we acknowledge thankfully as the fruits of these ideals within our Communion, the sanctity of mystics, the learning of scholars, the courage of missionaries, the uprightness of civil administrators, and the devotion of many servants of God in Church and State. [p. 154]

We are united by our unalterable faith in Christ. But each Church is free: ‘The Churches growing up in China, Japan, India and other parts of the world, are joined to us solely by the tie of common beliefs and common life.’ [p. 155.] It will be noticed that the passage quoted above does not say that each Church in our Communion is bound to use the English Prayer Book, or even to accept it, but that all hold the truth of Christ expressed in ‘the rites of the Primitive [16/17] Church as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer Every Church is free to produce a better Prayer Book, if it can.

While, however, we hold the Catholic Faith, we hold it in freedom. Every Church in our Communion is free to build up its life and development upon the provisions of its own constitution. Local Churches (to quote the words of Bishop Creighton) ‘have no power to change the Creeds of the Universal Church or its early organization. But they have the right to determine the best methods of setting forth to their people the contents of the Christian Faith. They may regulate rites, ceremonies, usages, observances, and discipline for that purpose, according to their own wisdom and experience and the needs of the people.’ [p. 154]

Has any such great and wise vision ever been shown before in all the history of Christendom? We think of the past, with its struggles for domination, its fierce schisms—for the idea that a united Catholic Church has ever existed is a delusion, the Church never having been free from division since the primitive age; we think of its fanaticisms and bigotries, its wars, oppressions, and hideous persecutions; we think of the past, which, at its worst, can almost be compared with the present attempt by the atheists of Russia to do without Christ altogether; we think again of the past, with its monstrous battles of swollen theologies, its failure to hold even one half of Europe together, its crass indifference to the despairing cries of the saints from age to age; we think of these things, and we are amazed at the recovery of to-day, at the new dawn in which our Anglican Churches are privileged to share. Surely there is now hope that the teaching of Christ will at last be taken seriously by those who bear his name, and the experiment of Christianity in the end be tried.


I. Her Historic Character

In this last section, if I am to express the character of our Communion, I must take the mother Church of England as my example; for that is the Church I know best, although I have served in the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States and have the deepest admiration both for her Prayer Book and her virile, tolerant character. The whole Anglican Communion indeed is still influenced by the spirit of the English Reformers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, which, partly because of the large share taken by the laity in the establishment, avoided the danger of over-dogmatism and moved towards the goal of constitutional government. The wise conservatism of the English Reformers tempered the work of drastic reconstruction which the dawn of modern civilization rendered imperative; and indeed postponement could only lead to later revolutions of a more violent and destructive nature, as in the case already of France, Portugal, Russia, and Spain. In an age, for instance, of dominant Calvinism (or Augustinianism, to use the term that covers both the Catholic and Protestant forms of that theology), the English Reformers deliberately excluded all reference to eternal torment from the Articles of Religion, a marvel of wisdom unique among all the religious Confessions of that and the succeeding ages. In their avoidance of extremes, their understanding that there is more than one side to a question, their desire to bring good men of different views as far as possible together by destroying nothing that was good and accepting all that was reasonable, they laid the foundations of the Anglican [18/19] character. Very carefully they retained while they reformed the ancient beauty and the traditional order of historic Christendom. Thus in this country the Reformation avoided a sudden break with the past: the wise conservatism of our people retained what seemed noblest and most Christ-like in the ancient services, while their liberalism rejected what was tedious and untrue. Very learned in her divinity, the Church of England drank in also the tolerant and balanced spirit of a laity that was interested in all the sciences of the age—and the hundred years during which the Reformation was worked out in England reached from Copernicus and Galileo to Bacon, Locke, and Newton; she practised also a willingness to abide by the results of sound learning which she has not lost to-day. She resisted the fanaticisms of the seventeenth century as she repels those of the twentieth; and for this reason she has always had to defend herself against the opposite dangers of obscurantism and inconstancy (which are often combined) and has been attacked by fanatics from all sides. With the aid that has come from philosophers and scientists and from Lutheran, Scottish, and Nonconformist theologians, she has been able to develop in the past, and to face the rush of new knowledge at the present day without fear and without prevarication.

2. The Spirit of the Prayer Book

Herein lies the significance of the Prayer Book for the whole Anglican Church; since, although each of our Churches is free in principle to replace it by another, and some (like that of America) have already revised it, yet the spirit of the book is at the very heart of Anglicanism—its Apostolic purity, rich simplicity, noble dignity, and beauty. Other Anglican characteristics there are which we have already considered, the genius for ordered liberty, the freedom from [19/20] truth-shy assertiveness; but in the Prayer Book there is also deep moral earnestness which has imprinted on our people that practical idealism which foreign observers so often notice with surprise, and which has, through movements like those of the Wesleys and the Evangelicals of the eighteenth century and the Broad and High Churchmen of the nineteenth—with the co-operation always of our temporally separated brothers of the Free Churches—warred against social evils, and raised the condition of the people, and is so potent a force for international righteousness at the present day.

How much is due to one short section of the Prayer Book—the Church Catechism! All medieval authors write with despair about the evils and misery of their age; but since the collapse of that system (which some people still idealize by mistaking the early Renaissance for it) there has been, with many errors, relapses, and failures, an enormous moral and social improvement. [For the statistics of the almost incredible improvement in London during the last forty years, see The New Survey of London Life and Labour, vol. i. King, 1930.] The sense of duty, and the realization that duty has two activities—to God and to our neighbour—has been stamped deep in the national consciousness by the Catechism: Churchmen, Quakers, Methodists have been able to appeal to it, and to move people, time and again, out of their selfishness; so that a new and most Christ-like conception of Christianity is accepted today, a conception that has become a great modern force because of the succession of social reformers, from Clarkson and Wilberforce to Maurice and Kingsley, from Elizabeth Fry to Florence Nightingale, which continues unbroken to-day. Great have been our sins and miseries, but the Christian spirit has met and faced them, and is still reducing them step by step. For this reason, while Labour [20/21] movements in general have been anti-religious, in Britain the Labour Party is markedly Christian. Britain is also notable for the fact that its elementary schools are Christian in their teaching, and that the great public schools, which have trained the leading men of many generations, are (to the surprise of foreign observers) in close alliance with the Church; and the Church is trusted, for she is helping to spread uncensored knowledge among all classes.

We may do well thus to remind ourselves that, for all our shortcomings, our ideal has been and must be that of truth and righteousness as well as beauty, and that these all breathe through the pages of the Book of Common Prayer. Thankfully we recognize all that other Churches and peoples are doing for the Kingdom of God, and it is not with intent of comparing ourselves with others that we praise the spirit of the Prayer Book. It is our own duty that is there set forth, and the Lambeth Conference has formulated its application to the present age: a Church exists to unite men in fellowship, wherefore it errs if it follows a policy of isolation, and it must throw out hands of welcome to other Communions which will answer its friendship; it exists also to teach, that is, to spread true ideas about religion; it exists to promote individual, social, and international morality; it exists also for the public worship of God, and by this, its chief outward manifestation, intellectually as well as aesthetically, men know it and judge it.

And the primary work of the Church is worship.

In that outward manifestation of worship the English-speaking people of our Communion (and the other peoples in growing measure) possess a liturgical system without its equal in the world. All the Churches of the English-speaking peoples, indeed, share our greatest glory, the Authorized Version of the Bible (the work of the Church of England [21/22] at a time when the Puritans were still in communion with her), and use in varying degree our prayers; all use many of the hymns which are common to us all; but to the Anglican Churches belongs alone the Prayer Book in its completeness, with unfettered freedom to bring the aspirations and intelligence of to-day into our worship by the free use of hymns; and liberty at the same time to use extempore prayer and those free services for which we owe so much to the Nonconformists of past ages.

An American professor of psychology, Dr. J. Bissett Pratt, has explained in his book on The Religious Consciousness the need of uniting the elements of truth and morality in worship with the objective and emotional elements, combining them, let us say, availing ourselves of the one word that has been lately given us to include all this side of worship—combining these moral and intellectual factors with the ‘numinous’. Dr. Pratt notes the difficulty in which Christendom stands, because while the Protestant Churches can supply the intellectual and the Catholic the emotional, the former tend to passivity, omitting the element of objective worship, and the latter to superstitions and the incredible. ‘Very prominent in Protestant worship’ is, he says, that ‘which receives but little stress in the public worship of the Catholic Church [he apparently means the Roman Catholic Church]’—namely the enlivening of the moral emotions’; the Protestant Churches possess, indeed, ‘the highest form of expression which is poetry wedded to music, the rhythm of speech and song’; but they have no established technique—‘we see them fumbling about, groping for light, trying new plans of popular appeal which range all the way from vested choirs to moving pictures’, [22/23] but without finding a solution. [J. B. Pratt, The Religious Consciousness, p. 300. Macmillan, 1926.] For the problem of reshaping that worship is ‘peculiarly difficult':

It means discovering a method of nourishing the religious sentiments of people most of whom are of the intellectual and active types. And it must do this without the aid of the two most powerful means which other churches and religions make use of for the purpose—namely the land of belief which makes elaborate objective worship easy and natural for large groups, and a ritual which has the authority and sanctity of generations behind it. [Ibid. p. 305.]

No more fundamental and suggestive statement of the peculiar virtue of the Anglican position could be made; and it is the more significant that the admission of the unique combination in our Churches of the two sides which elsewhere are separated and diminished is made unconsciously, except that in a footnote Professor Pratt remembers:

The Protestant Episcopal Church has a much less difficult problem; for it has inherited a ritual which not only is beautiful in itself, but is rich in the sanctity and authority of an age-long tradition. Such a ritual is peculiarly adapted to the production of the religious atmosphere; and the individual brought up within the Episcopal fold almost invariably finds his church an excellent place in which to pray. The problem for the Episcopalian is simply to make his ritual elastic and adapted to the growing and ever-new needs of the times, while keeping it also conservative and ancient. [Ibid., p. 306]

There is, perhaps, little danger now of that problem not being grappled; but such adjustment and balance is exceedingly difficult, because it depends upon art, and artists in public worship are rare. There has been danger also during the last half-century of decadence in the imitation of less healthy rites; and imitation in itself has, indeed, always proved fatal to every form of art. The Church must protect [23/24] herself against individual vagaries by securing through corporate and official action the full contribution of sound learning, liturgical, literary, aesthetic, and psychological, as well as the creative gifts of the artist.

3. The English Bible

Let us consider the position. The Prayer Book contains, through its Lectionary, the English Bible; and the Bible forms an important part of all our services. Here we share with Germany the advantage of a magnificent and historic translation; and, without comparing ourselves with that or any other nation, none would agree with us more readily than German scholars when we say that the English Bible (open like the Prayer Book to revision) is the greatest monument of a language peculiarly rich and noble, sharing with the works of Shakespeare and the Book of Common Prayer a position unique and supreme in all the glories of English poetry and prose. Of the contents of the book I need not speak, since we share them with every Church that has the inestimable privilege of an open Bible; but we remember that chief among the glories of our worship is that this miracle of simplicity and splendour is read at all our services, and that to this Book our people owe the highest and best of their characteristics.

4. The Liturgical Setting

The Book of Common Prayer comes near to the English Bible, from which, indeed, it is so largely drawn, in grandeur, wholesomeness, enthusiasm never unrestrained, tenderness, purity, and literary perfection: it has a cadence of its own, as Professor Saintsbury has pointed out, different from the Bible, and each collect has the quality of a sonnet. Over-drastic change was avoided by its authors; for, with all [24/25] their zeal for reform, they were alone among the nations of Europe in appreciating and preserving the general framework and the essential matter of the ancient services which had grown out of fifteen centuries of Christian devotion.

Very gently they pruned off the accretions that had grown up during the Dark and Middle Ages, removed the undeniable confusions and superstitions, while they preserved what was strong and pure. The Latin services to which they had been accustomed were not understood by the people, and were so overlaid as to be intolerably long and dreary: indeed, the breviary services have nowhere held their own as congregational services in modern times, and the Latin mass is only made possible by being muttered very rapidly by the priest and not heard by the people, who in a very small proportion of cases would be able to understand it if they could hear. From such misfortunes the English Reformers saved us; but they did not follow the common reforming practice of throwing away the baby with the bath: instead, they released it from its swaddling clothes and allowed it to grow up. They gave us, as our Protestant friends on the Continent have often noted with surprise, a Catholic service; but it is in the true sense that our services are Catholic, for our Reformers were intensely desirous of recovering the spirit of the Primitive Church, as is so often stated in the Prayer Book itself; and, now that modern discoveries and scholarship have so astonishingly increased our knowledge of early Christianity, we can recognize with thankfulness that their intuition was sound. They handed on to us a book of worship which is so Catholic in character because it is Scriptural and Apostolic. Its beautiful language surges through our churches and cathedrals in speech and in song with a freshness undimmed and a loveliness continually by music enhanced.

[26] 5. British and American Hymnody

Modern hymnody has brought a profound change to all our services. In this momentous development the Church of England has escaped the danger of committing herself to an official authorized hymnal. Rubrics and official orders from the sixteenth century onwards make it quite certain that the use of hymns as well as anthems was always allowed; but our churches have been left free to add to those which were produced by authority between the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries. As a result of this, Methodists, Evangelicals, and Tractarians alike were able to express themselves and to add their contributions, as well as great Nonconformists like Isaac Watts, and the pioneer American hymn-writers of the last century. Had this freedom been destroyed by an official book the greater part of our best hymnody would not have come into existence. And to-day, even more than in the past, new ways of thought and fresh aspirations are being expressed through hymnody, because the Church of England is not tied by an official book, which in the nature of things would have represented the views of an earlier generation, and even with recurrent revision would always be behind the times.

It is thus that our hymnody has acquired its extraordinarily catholic character: ancient hymns and twentieth-century hymns, hymns by Greeks and Latins, by Churchmen, Methodists, Calvinists, Unitarians, Quakers, all bear witness to the underlying unity of Christians. And whereas the hymns, for instance, of the great German collections contain only German hymns, ours contain all the splendid German chorales we want, as well as translations from Greek, Latin, and other tongues; for we English-speaking peoples have been fortunate in translator poets like the late Laureate, Robert Bridges, and have been able to gather [26/27] the thought as well as the music of other nations into our extraordinarily comprehensive twentieth-century collections. Professor Wilhelm Dibelius was surely mistaken when, in his admirable book on England, he spoke of our ignoring of other nations; for, in religion at least, it is only the British and the American peoples who have thus translated and assimilated both the hymnody and the theology of his own country, and no others have attempted in this matter of public worship to incorporate foreign prayers and hymns as we have done.

It is important also to remember when we are thinking of other systems that the Anglican liberty makes experimental effort always possible. Free Services are an indispensable part of modern Christianity; and we share the power of using them with Protestant Christendom in general. Considerable use is made of them, though liturgical services are normal and more popular.

6. Other Forms of Art

The way in which services are performed, technically called the ‘ceremonial’, needs a synthesis of qualities, liturgical and popular, historical and modern, psychological and aesthetic, which is difficult of accomplishment, and requires both the guidance of tradition and the gift of the artist. It is of great importance, since the main activity of the Church is worship, and public worship fails if it is effeminate and formalistic on the one hand or dull and dreary on the other. Ceremonial has been generally, perhaps always, rained in all forms of religion, by the over-elaboration caused by the gradual accretion of meaningless or trivial actions and ornaments. To counteract this, severe and even drastic reform has in past ages been necessary. Moreover, the ceremonial directions, which are called rubrics, must be few and comprehensive, as they are in the Book of [27/28] Common Prayer, and as they were once in the ancient service books. To preserve the beauty of services, and to prevent over-elaboration and decadence, there is needed both sound learning and the work of the true artist—for only artists realize the indispensable place that reserve and severity hold in the production of every beautiful thing. The combination of a moving simplicity with restrained magnificence in such typically Anglican services as those of Westminster Abbey and Liverpool Cathedral—with countless other churches— shows what the genius of the Anglican Church can accomplish.

Of architecture and the kindred arts little need be said here: the Church in every part of the world suffered from the sham romance that supplanted sound aesthetic principles in the nineteenth century; and terrible harm was done to our churches (much more than had been done by the extremer Reformers or the Puritans in earlier times); but she had at least escaped the art of the Counter-Reformation, and thus was able to maintain, though not without loss, the purity of architecture and ornament, which had come down from early times through the Middle Ages to the first great era of the Renaissance.

In England music suffered a similar set-back during the Victorian era, and the services lost that strong and virile character that had made them so popular in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, England herself becoming known abroad as ‘the land without music’—Das Land ohne Musik, to quote the title of a book a generation ago about this country. England has, however, now recovered in the music of Europe the high position she formerly held—from John Dunstable in the fifteenth century, to Tallis, Byrd, Orlando Gibbons, Purcell, and the other masters of the classic school of English church music. The art of music is of extreme importance in connexion with the subject of this essay; for the public worship of every church is bound [28/29] up with it; and music, always the means of expressing spiritual things which are beyond the power of words, and always profound in its effects, has since the Renaissance been so revolutionized as to become a new means of human expression, of intense subtlety and of an eloquence that appeals to all races and transcends the barriers of speech.

7. Conclusion

For good or evil, the age of doctrinal unity has passed away; and there is no possibility of educated and conscientious men agreeing in any one philosophy or theology. The expression of the Christian religion in conduct and in art is thus of special importance, since no unifying formula is possible in this era of transition. The bond of any real union of good men must, therefore, be that of charity; and its chief expression must be through art—as, indeed, its highest, and most permanent expressions in the past have always been; for who reads the sermons of the old days, and who does not profit by their art? The highest things can only be spoken through the medium of aesthetic: by poetry and music men express in a true and lasting fashion spiritual realities which verbal definitions tend to obscure or distort. It is so with the Gospels themselves: the message of Christ is undimmed and living to-day because it was given in the terms of parable and poetry, and not in the form of system, dogma, or code. So it is to-day. While the scientists are accumulating knowledge and the philosophers are co-ordinating it, religion must grow freely; and, if it is not to become mere assertion and make-believe, must express itself in terms of beauty, the least misleading, most intelligible, and most enduring way of human presentation. At the centre must always be the personal communion of the soul with God; the whole field will be determined by the practice of the Christian ethic; but the rallying point, [29/30] the sacramental nourishment, and the continual manifestation of those who think most deeply and live most unselfishly in the world, will lie in a noble public worship which can worthily show forth both the glory of God and the reasoned faith, the practical idealism, of his servants.

It was such a reconciliation of science, art, morals, and religion—the one hope for the world—that Thomas Hardy, after long questioning and frequent despair, came to the conclusion was still possible, and possible here through no other agency than that of the Church of this country:

What other purely English establishment than the Church, of sufficient dignity and footing, and with such strength of old association, such architectural spell, is left in this country to keep the shreds of mortality together?

It may be a forlorn hope, a mere dream, that of an alliance between religion, which must be retained unless the world is to perish, and complete rationality, which must come, unless also the world is to perish, by means of the interfusing effect of poetry—‘the breath and finer spirit of all knowledge; the impassioned expression of science’, as it was defined by an English poet. [T. Hardy, Late Lyrics and Earlier, p. xvii. Macmillan, 1922.]

And since Hardy wrote this, nine years ago, the progress in the right direction has been so reassuring and steady, and is so firmly registered for the whole Anglican Church in the Lambeth Report, that we may venture to say it is now more than a forlorn hope or a dream too splendid to be realized.

In all this I have had to speak of that Church in our Communion which I know best; but I believe that in this one example the character of all our sister Churches can be estimated. They will develop in their own way, each in accord with her own genius; and it is just because of our common heritage of freedom, and devotion to truth and to the God of truth, that they will so develop and bring each [30/31] her special gift and glory to the common store. Every society is born of history and has an historical character, developing from age to age, but in a free federation that character will be enormously enriched by the contributions of all the constituent members. Goodly as is our heritage, we can yet dare to look forward to great changes. That the whole Anglican Church has already all over the world common characteristics of its own the Lambeth Report shows clearly enough; but, as the Report itself reminds us:

In its present character we believe that it is transitional, and we forecast the day when the racial and historic connections which at present characterize it will be transcended, and the life of our Communion will be merged in a larger fellowship in the Catholic Church. [p. 153.]

A grand view, most generously expressed. And surely nothing smaller can meet the need of a new world. The day of many separated religious societies has passed away, because communication is swift, and knowledge on its way to being universal; and still more because men are no longer grounded in one place or fixed in one class, and no longer so sure of one particular way of thought as to make any theory the excuse for religious isolation.

The age that is coming, and already has begun, trained in science and increasingly informed by art, will demand a religion expressed in a large way, rooted on a far-reaching tradition, as great nations are rooted, of impressive beauty and dignity as well as faithful, candid, and free. The world in which we are now living is, I believe, increasingly religious, as well as increasingly undogmatic; and it is looking for some ideal system which shall be above all sectional peculiarities, untrammelled by outgrown ideas, and able to unite all good men in ordered liberty and active fellowship around the person of the Christ.

Project Canterbury