Sermons Preached on Various Occasions
by James de Koven, D.D.
with an Introduction by Morgan Dix, S.T.D., Rector of Trinity Church, New York
New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1880.
THE MISSION OF THE CHURCH OF GOD.
(Preached at Convocation in Milwaukee, April 19, 1876.)
"Then contended I with the rulers, and said, Why is the House of God forsaken?"—NEHEMIAH xiii., 11.
To proclaim the gospel of Christ; to do His work upon earth; to be in His stead a messenger of love, mercy, and pardon to mankind; by the mighty power of the Holy Ghost; to make Christ present, though hidden from mortal gaze—this is the work of the Church of God.
A test of the church's vigor in this respect is its power to propagate itself. If it lives it must grow; if it be Christ's Body it must be full of zeal for the souls for which He died. It must be true of her as it was of Him, that she has a work to do, and that she must be straitened until it is accomplished. She will not need to be preached to, and exhorted, and reasoned and pleaded with, any more than trees and plants and the mother earth, in the springtime, when the sun shines and the rain falls, have to be urged to put forth leaves and flowers. Her mission is to win souls, to convert, to baptize, to offer the mystical sacrifice, to absolve, to heal, to bind up the broken hearts, to bring again the outcast, to advance with unbroken front, to speak with an unfaltering voice, and to make the wilderness and solitary place to be glad for her, and the desert to rejoice and blossom as the rose. If she has this power, she lives; if not, in the words of the text, the house of God is indeed forsaken.
The speaker of the words of the text was a layman, a reformer, a helper of the Church, a man whose life was given up to God, an inspired teacher, and one who was an example of what all these should be; and when he found the house of God forsaken, he said unto the rulers, "Why is it so?"
I do not intend to prove this evening that the Church is not accomplishing its work, nor to bring statistics together to show that there is any decline in her influence. I do not know that it is so. I have no dismal forebodings to utter with regard to the future, for my heart is full of hope. The only point wherein the words of my text have any application is in the thought already indicated, that the house of God is forsaken if the Church does not do her missionary work with zeal, with earnestness, with a sort of generous prodigality, and with real success; and that if she does not do so it can not be her own fault, for she is the Bride of Christ, all glorious within, though the wrought gold of her clothing be dimmed and her raiment of needlework torn; but it is the fault of the rulers.
I have only one statistic to mention. The State of Wisconsin, comprising two Dioceses, consists of about fifty-four thousand square miles, with a population in 1870 of over one million of people; and the Church in the year 1874 had fewer than five thousand communicants. I am well aware of all the reasons for the smallness of the number of communicants, the great efforts of the various bodies of Christians who are earnestly laboring, the large foreign population, the many reasons which prevent conversions in great numbers. I am quite aware of the fact that we are better off than some other Western Dioceses. But with all these allowances the disproportion is a startling one, in view of the claims of the Church, and of the blessings which it is hers to proclaim.
If I go on to assert that the disproportion is the fault of the Church's rulers, I hope I shall not be misunderstood to mean this or that person or body of persons, parishes, Council, Standing Committee, priests, bishops. No one, I think, can watch the labor of most of our clergy and of the various committees appointed to work, without finding great toil, earnest zeal, and, I must say, results not in proportion to either.
If the fault be anywhere, it must lie, over and above whatever want of zeal there is in the most zealous of us, in our methods of work and in the organization that governs and controls us. The work we have to do; the burden that is laid upon each one of God's priests, ay, and on the lay members of the Church also; the awful answer we must one day give; the need, the crying need everywhere must be—not my excuse, for none is needed—but the motive which makes it right to speak of what may be the difficulties we ought to remove.
The first point to which I desire to call your attention is that the distinctive doctrines of the Church are not as definitely and positively proclaimed as they ought to be. Between the Roman Church on the one hand, which declares herself to be the one Catholic Church of Christ, to the exclusion of all others, and the various orthodox and unorthodox denominations which claim to preach Christ to the world, I do not know what reason our Church has to exist, except it be, on the one hand, that she is the American branch of the Catholic Church, and on the other that, because she is so, she can do what no other Christian body can accomplish. That she is a conservative, respectable, highly cultivated, refined body of people, that she has a Scriptural liturgy and even a sound body of doctrine, will hardly prove a sufficient reason for being merely another of the great number of denominations which do the work of Christ, or seek to do it, with all the weakness of disunion, divided counsels, and separate and opposing organizations. The Church of which we are the priests and members puts forth definite claims to do, by an Apostolic Ministry, what God has bidden the Church to do. These are to administer the sacraments—sacraments which profess to be a reality: a Baptism which regenerates, a Holy Eucharist which gives the threefold blessing of the presence of Christ by means of the sacramental presence of His human nature, of the pleading of the one sacrifice once offered by virtue of that presence, and of union with Christ resulting therefrom to the penitent believer; to train up children with true Christian training; to preach the Gospel to sinners, and to have power to bind and to loose, in the name of God and by His commission, the sin-stricken soul; in an age of materialism to present the supernatural world, with all its hidden powers, to the acceptance of mankind; to preach chastity, honor, honesty, family life, and patriotic earnestness to the people; to visit the sick, to clothe the naked, to comfort prisoners, to soothe the dying, and to bear witness to the invisible bonds which bind the living and the dead in one Communion.
These are distinctive claims. If they are false, no priest should dare to present them. If they are true, the Church must dare to proclaim and to practice them. No questions of caution, or prudence, or the fear of offending, can possibly come in, in such questions as these. If it is the Church's mission to do all this, she needs to do it; and the more directly, plainly, without reserve, she does it, the more likely it is that she will accomplish her work.
But—and here is the point—all this needs to be done, not so much by individual effort and individual courage, though these are necessary, as by the organized system of the Church.
Let me suggest some points which do not seem to tend in this direction.
First: Every devout American Churchman believes in the due influence of the laity of the Church in her government, but they ought to be laymen. A layman, I suppose, is a baptized member of the Church who desires to any degree to exercise his privileges as such. I give the feeblest definition I can give, saying nothing about the reception of the Holy Communion and many other duties of Christians. By the laws which govern the Church in Wisconsin, and I believe generally in this country, any person, baptized or unbaptized, who has for six months attended its services, and statedly contributes to the support of an Episcopal Parish, can exercise the duties of a layman in that parish. He can vote for the vestry; he can have his share in electing the lay delegates to the Council; he can thus have a vote and voice, through his representative, in the election of a parish priest, in the general government of the parish, in the legislation of the Diocese, in the election of a Bishop, in the election of delegates to the General Convention, and in the power, therefore, to alter the Prayer Book and to govern the American branch of the Church of Christ.
All these powers the lay members of the Church ought to have; but nothing but Baptism can make a man a lay member. Money, instead of grace, the power to contribute to the support of a parish, is made the basis of representation, instead of that initiatory sacrament without which a man can not bear even the name of Christian. This, of course, is no question as to whether women shall have the right to vote in parishes; it is not a question whether members of a vestry or of the Diocesan Council ought to' be communicants; it lies down at the very root of our organized life, and needs to be extirpated.
That it does not produce such bad results as one might anticipate is due to two limiting circumstances: first, that the larger number of persons who vote in parishes consists of baptized persons; and secondly, that the persons voted for are generally required to be either communicants or at least baptized, though this is not the invariable rule. But, while this is so, who can estimate the deadly evil which must work like a poison through our whole organization, that the qualification for" exercising the duty and right of a lay member of the Church of God should be a money qualification? "What lurking Erastianism, what love of the world, what lack of faith there must be, that this can be, and that year after year it goes on, and the Christian consciousness of the Church does not rise against it.
I pass over the various evils which are the results of this primary evil—the tendency to make the clergy hirelings; the false constitution and character thereby given to parishes; the steady lowering of the ministerial character which it has the tendency to promote—because my object is to mention another great difficulty in our organization, which has no doubt a kindred root with that already mentioned.
Theoretically, the well-trained Churchman has a very lofty idea of the Episcopal office—sometimes an exaggerated notion of it; and yet while this exists, practically the office is shorn of its real glory. The money-qualified electors choose the Vestry and the delegates to the Council; the lay delegates have either an actual, or, at any rate, a veto power in the election of a Bishop. It is not surprising that they should feel as if the elected Bishop had simply such powers as may be conferred upon him by the Constitution and Canons of the Church, which they or their predecessors have formed, and which at any time may, by due form of law, be altered. Hence, a Bishop's work and duty is whatever the Canons require him to do. He is to ordain, and confirm, and hold visitations; he is to preside at councils and be the chairman of committees. He is to be the pleasant guest of the chief layman of the parish and advise the clergyman when advice is needed. He is to attend to routine duties .without end, and, above all, to be in journeyings often. If he can preach well and talk well; if he is provident and cautious and a good executive officer; if he has personal influence and an untiring physique; if his digestion is unimpaired, his nerves unruffled; if he concentrates himself upon nothing, and diffuses a mild Episcopal perfume over everything, he meets the common theory which prevails of what a Bishop ought to be.
The opposite theory only needs to be stated. He receives the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Bishop in the Church of God. He is bound to be an overseer, to confirm, to ordain, to do all the works I have mentioned. But, above all, he is called to be one upon whose soul the awful burden is laid to convert men to the obedience of the faith. He must offer the Holy Eucharist; he must preach the Word; he must bind and loose; he must organize; he must, above all things, be a shepherd, a guide, a Father. The Canons of the Church are simply the directions according to which he exercises his office. Wheresoever they do not limit that office, the inherent powers remain; and to convert men to Christ, to be the chief pastor of his Diocese—this is the Bishop's glory.
Hence the "see system," as it is called; which simply means that the Bishop who would thus exercise his office must needs do it within definite limits of space, and where the want is greatest, that is, where life and population have met together, in the city, rather than primarily over long lines of railways and interminable prairies.
Hence, too, the need of the Bishop's Church, and the Chapter of devout and earnest clergy, to be the central expressions of his work and power—the heart whence life flows forth to all the members, and which, while it makes his work more effective, gives the true constitutional check upon any possibility of despotism. Placed in this position at the center of his work, surrounded and upheld by devout, dignified, and independent priests, counseled and supported by faithful and educated laymen, the Bishop can become, as he never can in any other way, the true missionary of his Diocese.
Two things will largely contribute to this result. The Bishop's Chapter must be a missionary body. In it will be the officers of the Diocese, who have in charge the financial, missionary, and educational works of the Diocese. When, then, the Bishop goes forth to care for any need of his people, to visit, to preach, to revive the work, to seek for Christ's sheep that are scattered abroad, he does so with the knowledge of the whole position, with the aid of those who are caring for the needs in question, with a power which does not belong to one man, however great those powers may possibly be, but with the combined wisdom, fervor, and power of the very heart and center of his Diocese. The second thing is that, wherever he plants missions, the "see" idea will be the model after which he establishes them. The common way in which missionaries are sent does not tend to true and orderly growth, and is injurious to ministerial efficiency. There comes a request from some small village, or town or country neighborhood, for a clergyman. It is backed by some effort on the part of a faithful few. A rich man or so, who thinks that an Episcopal Church will assist the growing community, promises a contribution or gives it, and becomes thereby the chief layman of the parish. A small missionary stipend is added, and the clergyman is sent. Away from his brethren, struggling to maintain a family with insufficient means, without books, drawing an occasional stimulus from the visit of the Bishop, a convocation, or a convention, what wonder if he goes from place to place, and loses heart and vigor, and can not grow! And then the interminable evils of half-organized, imperfectly constituted parishes, the gossip and quarreling, the ignorance and conceit, until what was meant to be for the salvation of souls fails of its full power and effect. Suppose, on the other hand, a body of clergy, four or five, under the guidance of some well-trained priest in a large town, with due subordination and guarded rights, a Chapter like that at the Cathedral, and, like it, under the Bishop.
The most effective work, orderly services, the teaching of the young, the care of public institutions—all these could be done by such a body; and, in addition, missionary stations within a radius of thirty miles could be served by them far more usefully than if the clergyman resided in the smaller community. If the Cathedral Chapter and some of the smaller chapters in the other cities included in the staff of clergy an itinerant missionary, who had his headquarters in the city, and went forth, under guidance, wherever even a solitary family of Churchmen might be—baptizing, administering the Communion, preaching and visiting—it might come to pass, and would, that there need not be in the Diocese a single Church family anywhere that would not be under the care of the Church, its Mother.
Such a system as this proposed would meet, I believe, another question which is of the gravest importance in all missionary efforts—the proper way to raise money. There are but two things necessary to get all the money that is needed for Christian work, and more than is wanted: Faith in the things for which money is asked, and the application to and the request of every human being who calls himself a lay member of the Church, to give. Great sums are not obtained by large donations; they come from many small gifts, and the amount of many small gifts is spiritually a million-fold greater than the same amount given by two or three. A system that will meet all the people with the Saviour's words, "It is more blessed to give than to receive," will never have a deficient treasury. Believe it, my brethren, concentration, a true Episcopal work, the defense of the rights of laymen and laywomen against mere money, will produce a missionary system which will cement, renew, and strengthen, and make the Church go forth, upon her heaven-commanded mission, "fair as the moon, clear as the sun, and terrible as an army with banners."
Nor will it do to speak of this system as a dream, as the proposal, of enthusiasm, as the visions of youth, or with any of the other epithets with which those whose enthusiasm is dead seek to destroy the efforts of the earnest. The system has this great claim upon the attention of Churchmen, that it is the Catholic system which, whensoever it has been adhered to, has won the greatest victories for the Faith, and wheresoever it has been departed from, has been the cause of disaster and pitiable failure.
Nor is one as likely to hear, to-day, the old objection, that the Episcopal system is so exactly modeled after the government of the country, that to depart from it is, in some sort, to lack-in patriotism. One's lips are almost closed when this objection is used, lest there should be too much said or too little. But is not this beginning to be felt by the thoughtful—nay, is it not ready to burst from the hearts of thousands—that we are not living in the republic of our forefathers? Is not the time at hand when the educated and the thoughtful, when the religious and the true of all denominations and bodies of believers, will demand a conservative, high-minded, Christian government—a true, earnest, free, and constitutional republic?
The evils in the Church are not the same as in the country, but they have, no doubt, arisen from a reversal of the true idea of all Church government—namely, that power, like grace, descends from above, not from below. From the apostles to the elders and brethren, from the apostles to their successors in every age, from the days when the risen Saviour breathed on them and said, "Receive ye the Holy Ghost," to our own time, from the bishops to the priests, from the Church to her children everywhere, and from Christ, who has said, "Lo, I am with you always, unto the end of the world," the benediction descends. For when He ascended up on high, we read that He gave His gifts unto men; and what were these gifts? "He gave some apostles, and some prophets, and some evangelists, and some pastors and teachers, for the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, until we all come, in the unity of the spirit and the bond of peace, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ."
Brethren, let us seek to believe and to dare; let us cast away dependence on riches and fashion and worldly opinion; let us preach the Gospel to the poor; let us surrender all things to Christ; let us organize our work after the fashion of catholic order and primitive precedent, and leave the rest. Christ is our refuge and strength; Christ is our Leader and Guide; Christ is our Bishop and Pastor; and, if the ship of the Church be tossed on stormy waves by rudest blasts, then will He come walking upon the waters, and say, "Peace, be still!"
Or, if for us is meant to be the day dark and gloomy, and the heavens black with clouds and abundance of rain, it matters not. On the shore of the everlasting morning, still our Lord is waiting; it may be for others to drag the net to shore full of great fishes, one hundred and fifty and three; yet with His loving welcome will He receive us, who have fed, however unworthily, His sheep and His lambs.