THE question of the validity of Anglican orders A might seem to be of limited interest if it were only to be treated by the amount of any immediate, practical, and external consequences, likely to follow upon any discussion or decision that might now be taken in respect to it. For the clergy of the Anglican communion, numbering between 30,000 and 40,000, and for their flocks, the whole subject is one of settled solidity. In the Oriental Churches there prevails a sentiment of increased and increasing friendliness towards the Anglican Church, but no question of actual intercommunion is likely at present to arise, while happily no system of proselytism exists to set a blister on our mutual relations. In the Latin Church, which from its magnitude and the close tissue of its organizations overshadows all Western Christendom, these Orders, so far as they have been noticed, have been commonly disputed, or denied, or treated as if they were null. A positive condemnation of them, if viewed dryly in its letter, would do no more than harden the existing usage of reordination in the case, which at most periods has been a rare one, of Anglican clergy who might seek admission to the clerical order in the Roman Church.
But very different indeed would be the moral aspect and effect of a formal, authorized investigation of the question at Rome, to whichever side the result might incline. It is to the last degree improbable that a ruler of known wisdom would at this time put in motion the machinery of the Curia for the purpose of widening the breach which severs the Roman Catholic Church from a communion which, though small in comparison, yet is extended through the large and fast-increasing range of the English-speaking races, and which represents, in the religious sphere, one of the most powerful nations of European Christendom. According to my reading of history, that breach is, indeed, already a wide one; but the existing schism has not been put into stereotype by any anathema, or any express renunciation of communion, on either side. As an acknowledgment of Anglican Orders would not create intercommunion, so a condemnation of them would not absolutely excommunicate; but it would be a step, and even morally a stride, towards excommunication, and it would stand as a practical affirmation of the principle that it is wise to make the religious differences between the Churches of Christendom more conspicuous to the world, and also to bring them into a state of the highest fixity, so as to enhance the difficulty of approaching them at any future time in the spirit of reconciliation. From such a point of view, an inquiry resulting in a proscription of Anglican orders would be no less important than deplorable.
But the information, which I have been allowed through the kindness of Lord Halifax to share, altogether dispels from my mind every apprehension of this kind, and convinces me that if the investigations of the Curia did not lead to a favourable result, wisdom and charity would in any case arrest them at such a point as to prevent their becoming an occasion and a means of embittering religious controversy.
I turn, therefore, to the other alternative, and assume, for the sake of argument, that the judgment of the examining tribunal would be found either to allow upon all points the preponderance of the contentions on behalf of validity, or at the least to place beyond controversy a portion of the matters which enter into the essence of the discussion. I will for the present take it for granted that these fall under three heads:--
1. The external competency of the consecrators.
2. The external sufficiency of the commission they have conferred.
3. That sufficiency of intention which the 11th Canon of the Council of Trent appears to require.
Under the first head the examination would of course include, in addition to the consecration of Parker and the competency of his consecrators, the several cases in which consecrators outside the English line have participated in the consecrations of Anglican bishops, and have in this manner furnished independent grounds for the assertion of validity. Even the dismissal from the controversy of any one of these three heads would be in the nature of an advance towards concord, and would be so far a reward for the labours of His Holiness, Pope Leo XIII, in furtherance of truth and peace. But I may be permitted to contemplate for a moment, as possible or likely, even the full acknowledgment that, without reference to any other real or supposed points of controversy, the simple abstract validity of Anglican consecrations is not subject to reasonable doubt.
And now I must take upon me to speak in the only capacity in which it can be warrantable for me to intervene in a discussion properly belonging to persons of competent authority. That is the capacity of an absolutely private person, born and baptized in the Anglican Church, accepting his lot there as is the duty of all who do not find that she has forfeited her original and inherent privilege and place. I may add that my case is that of one who has been led, by the circumstances both of his private and of his public career, to a lifelong and rather close observation of her character, her fortunes, and the part she has to play in the grand history of Redemption. Thus it is that her public interests are also his personal interest, and that they require or justify what is no more than his individual thought upon them.
He is not one of those who look for an early restitution of such a Christian unity as that which marked the earlier history of the Church. Yet he ever cherishes the belief that work may be done in that direction, which, if not majestic or imposing, may nevertheless be legitimate and solid; and this by the least as well as by the greatest.
It is the Pope who, as the first Bishop of Christendom, has the noblest sphere of action; but the humblest of the Christian flock has his place of daily duty, and, according as he fills it, helps to make or mar every good and holy work.
In this character the writer has viewed with profound and thankful satisfaction, during the last half century and more, the progressive advance of a great work of restoration in Christian doctrine. It has not been wholly confined within his own country to the Anglican Communion; but it is best that he should speak of that which has been most under his eye. Within these limits it has not been confined to doctrine, but has extended to Christian life and all its workings. The aggregate result has been that it has brought the Church of England from a state externally of halcyon calm, but inwardly of deep stagnation, to one in which, while buffeted more or less by external storms, subjected to some peculiar and searching forms of trial, and even now by no means exempt from internal dissensions, she sees her clergy transformed (for this is the word which may advisedly be used), her vital energies enlarged and still growing in every direction, and a store of bright hopes accumulated that she may be able to contribute her share, and even possibly no mean share, towards the consummation of the work of the Gospel in the world.
Now the contemplation of these changes by no means uniformly ministers to our pride. They involve large admissions of collective fault. This is not the place, and I am not the proper organ, for exposition in detail. But I may mention the widespread depression of Evangelical doctrine, the insufficient exhibition of the Person and work of the Redeemer, the coldness and deadness as well as the infrequency of public worship, the relegation of the Holy Eucharist to impoverished ideas, and to the place of one (though doubtless a solemn one) among its occasional incidents, the gradual effacement of Church observance from personal and daily life. In all these respects there has been a profound alteration, which is still progressive, and which, apart from occasional extravagance or indiscretion, has indicated a real advance in the discipline of souls, and in the work of God on behalf of man. A single-minded allegiance to truth sometimes exacts admissions which may be turned to account for the purpose of inflicting polemical disadvantage. Such an admission I must now record. It is not to be denied that a very large part of these improvements has lain in a direction which has diminished the breadth of separation between ourselves and the authorized teaching of the unreformed Church both in East and West, so that, while on the one hand they were improvements in religious doctrine and life, on the other hand they were testimonials recorded against ourselves and in favour of bodies outside our own precinct--that is to say, they were valuable contributions to the cause of Christian reunion.
With sorrow we noted that, so far as the Western Church was concerned, its only public and corporate movements, especially in 1870, seemed to meet the approximations made among us with something of recession from us. But it is not necessary to open further this portion of the subject; "redeunt Saturnia regna." Certain publications of learned French priests, unsuspected in their orthodoxy, which went to affirm the validity of Anglican ordinations, naturally excited much interest in this country and elsewhere. But there was nothing in them to ruffle the Roman atmosphere or invest the subject, in the circles of the Vatican, with the character of administrative urgency.
When, therefore, it came to be understood that Pope Leo XIII had given his commands that the validity of Anglican ordinations should form the subject of an historical and theological investigation, it was impossible not to be impressed with the profound interest of the considerations brought into view by such a step, if interpreted in accordance with just reason, as an effort towards the abatement of controversial differences.
There was, indeed, in my view a subject of thought, anterior to any scrutiny of the question upon its intrinsic merits, which deeply impressed itself upon my mind. Religious controversies do not, like bodily wounds, heal by the genial force of nature. If they do not proceed to gangrene and to mortification, at least they tend to harden into fixed facts, to incorporate themselves with law, character, and tradition--nay, even with language; so that at last they take rank among the data and presuppositions of common life, and are thought as inexpugnable as the rocks of an ironbound coast. A poet of ours describes the sharp and total severance of two early friends:--
They parted--ne'er to meet again!
But never either found another
To free the hollow heart from paining--
They stood aloof, the scars remaining,
Like cliffs which had been rent asunder;
A dreary sea now rolls between.
Let us remember that we are now far advanced in the fourth century since the Convocation of Canterbury under Warham, in 1531, passed its canon or resolution on the royal governorship of the Church.
How much has happened during those centuries to inflame the strife, how little to abate or quench it. What courage must it require in a Pope, what an elevation above all the levels of stormy partisanship, what genuineness of love for the whole Christian flock, whether separated or annexed, to enable him to approach the huge mass of hostile and still burning recollections, in the spirit and for the purposes of peace.
And yet that is what Pope Leo XIII has done, first in entertaining the question of this inquiry, and secondly in determining and providing, by the infusion both of capacity and of impartiality into the investigating tribunal, that no instrument should be overlooked, no guarantee omitted, for the probable attainment of the truth. He who bears in mind the cup of cold water administered to "one of these little ones" will surely record this effort, stamped in its very inception as alike arduous and blessed.
But what of the advantage to be derived from any proceeding which shall end, or shall reduce within narrower bounds, the debate upon Anglican Orders? I will put upon paper, with the utmost deference to authority and better judgment, my own personal and individual, and, as I freely admit, very insignificant reply to the question.
The one controversy which, according to my deep conviction, overshadows, and in the last resort absorbs, all others is the controversy between faith and unbelief. It is easy to understand the reliance which the loyal Roman Catholic places upon the vast organization and imposing belief and action of his Church, as his provision for meeting the emergency. But I presume that even he must feel that the hundreds of millions, who profess the name of Christ without owning the authority of his Church, must count for something in the case; and that, the more he is able to show their affirmative belief to stand in consonance with his, the more he strengthens both the common cause--for surely there is a common cause--and his own particular position.
If, out of every hundred professing Christians, ninety-nine assert amidst all their separate and clashing convictions their belief in the central doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation, will not every member of each particular Church or community be forward to declare, will not the candid unbeliever be disposed freely to admit, that this unity amidst diversity is a great confirmation of the faith and a broad basis on which to build our hopes of the future?
I now descend to a level which, if lower than that of these transcendent doctrines, is still a lofty level.
The historical transmission of the truth by a visible Church with an ordained constitution is a matter of profound importance according to the belief and practice of fully three-fourths of Christendom. In these three-fourths I include the Anglican Churches, which are probably required in order to make them up.
It is surely better for the Roman and also the Oriental Church to find the Churches of the Anglican succession standing side by side with them in the assertion of what they deem an important Christian principle, than to be obliged to regard them as mere pretenders in this behalf, and pro tanto to reduce the "cloud of witnesses" willing and desirous to testify on behalf of the principle. These considerations of advantage must, of course, be subordinated to historic truth, but for the moment advantage is the point with which I deal.
I attach no such value to these reflections as would warrant my tendering them for the consideration of any responsible person, much less of one laden with the cares and responsibilities of the highest position in the Christian Church.
On the other hand, there is nothing in them which requires that they should shrink from the light. They simply indicate the views of one who has passed a very long life in rather intimate connection with the Church of this country, with its rulers, its members, and its interests. I may add that my political life has brought me much into contact with those independent religious communities which supply an important religious factor in the religious life of Great Britain, and which, speaking generally, while they decline to own the authority either of the Roman or of the National Church, yet still allow to what they know as the established religion no inconsiderable hold upon their sympathies.
In conclusion, it is not for me to say what will be the upshot of the proceedings now in progress at Rome. But be their issue what it may, there is, in my view, no room for doubt as to the attitude which has been taken by the actual head of the Roman Catholic Church in regard to them. It seems to me an attitude in the largest sense paternal; and while it will probably stand among the latest recollections of my lifetime, it will ever be cherished with cordial sentiments of reverence, of gratitude, and of high appreciation.
W. E. GLADSTONE.
HAWARDEN, May, 1896.