ENGLISH CHURCH IN THE PRESENT
IN THE UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE.
WHEN I was asked by some of those who heard this Sermon to publish it, I shrank from doing so, because I felt how imperfectly the great subject must be treated within the limits imposed upon me, and how far I had fallen short even of my own conceptions. At all events, I determined not to publish it without careful revision.
But I have since heard that my meaning has been misrepresented, doubtless because it has been misunderstood. I am therefore compelled, in my own defence, to print the sermon exactly as it was delivered, in order that any one who has hastily censured it, may have the means of reconsidering his opinion, and that others, who did not hear it, may be enabled to judge for themselves how far the censure is deserved.
2 CORINTHIANS, VIII. 8. We can do nothing against the Truth, but for the Truth.
[As this text has been prefixed by Bishop Colenso as a motto to his 'Second Part,' I think it right to state that my Sermon was written without any reference to, or knowledge of, that volume.]
WE live in a time when Theological Controversy has acquired a peculiar intensity, when a preacher, if he follows his first impulse, is sure to speak to his audience upon some disputed question. I know well that the whole history of the Church is a narrative of strife. Christ's prophecy, "I came not to send peace on earth, but a sword," has been continuously fulfilled. The temple of Janus has been shut now and then, but the sword of which Christ spoke has never been sheathed, and those who talk of some bygone 'ages of faith,' of a Church at unison with itself, unvexed by quarrels, untroubled by doubts, only skew that in them the [7/8] poetical faculty is stronger than the historical, and that their imagination overpowers their reason.
But although this state of chronic strife has been, by the inscrutable ordering of God's Providence, the lot of His Church in all ages, there are times when Controversy gathers (as it were) to a head, and forces itself upon the mind of all Christian men, whether they will or no. Such a time is the present.
It is in ecclesiastical, as in secular, history. A long war is at length brought to a close. The triumphant success of a conqueror, or the weariness of both parties, brings about a desire for accommodation. Articles are framed, accepted and sworn to as conditions of "peace and amity for ever." But as time goes on, circumstances change; the state once dominant sinks and dwindles; the state which was of too small account to be cared for in the treaty, gathers strength and grows; the one loses the power to enforce, as the other loses the patience to endure; the conditions once gladly hailed, or quietly submitted to, become intolerable; the paper bonds which hold the world,--unless timely wisdom affords relaxation and relief,--are rent into fragments, and there is anarchy and war.
Now, what treaties of peace are in secular history, such are Articles of Religion in [8/9] ecclesiastical. They mark the close of a war--a war not always of words, for, to the misfortune of mankind, these two histories have been welded together in blood and fire. Creeds and 'Articles' and Canons and 'Confessions' are all treaties of peace. Yielding here and claiming there, insisting upon this proviso and that, the contending parties sign the finally-resulting document; and then there is peace. Peace for a time. But, as in secular things new interests and new forces keep growing up, so in religious matters new thoughts keep asserting themselves, new knowledge forcing its way. Tried by the old standards every new doctrine is unauthorized, revolutionary, heretical, and is accordingly, by the great mass of men, condemned unheard. "The mere reception of it, (they say) as a question to be discussed, may lead to endless trouble--a breach of treaty, a tearing up of old landmarks, consecrated by the most solemn ceremonies--and produce who knows what confusion." But there are men of a different stamp, who hold that these new doctrines are not to be tried by the old standards of merely human invention--"if the humanly invented formula says one thing and the Divine fact says another, then, at whatever cost, let the formula be swept away, and another in accordance with the fact be substituted." Thus there are two parties face to face, the one [9/10] resolute for defence, with old habits, old associations and early teaching on their side; the other vigorous in attack, armed with the zeal of recent converts, and surrounded by the charm of novelty. The bulk of the combatants on either side are loyal and sincere, but among both are found men who have joined, not from a love of the cause, but from personal interest or vanity. These men are generally the most violent and the most bitter. And some there are, the wisest and best of their time, whose moral elevation and intellectual culture enable them to look, as it were, over the heads of the combatants, to see through the dust of battle, to judge dispassionately of the motives in operation and the issues at stake. These men stand aloof, while they may, for they shrink instinctively from all violence, and know that the evil passions evoked by the conflict are jeopardizing the weightier matters of Christianity; but when a great crisis approaches, their duty obliges them, at whatever sacrifice, to descend into the arena, to assuage anger, to counsel gentleness, to mediate, and, if it be possible, (with the blessing of God) to guide the feet of their brethren into the way of peace. Let us implore them to do so now, for the crisis is at hand--such a crisis as this Church and Nation have not seen for more than two hundred years. It forces itself upon our thoughts. We cannot, if we would, [10/11] ignore it. We, of all men, are least able to ignore it.
This College of ours was founded, under the invocation of the most sacred mystery of Christendom, for the study, first of theology, and secondly, of science and literature. On the second branch of study no restriction is placed; on the first there is this restriction, that it must be the theology adopted and sanctioned by the Church of England. To that church we are required to renew day by day, and at rarer intervals by the most solemn of all rites, our pledge of adhesion. So that we find ourselves compelled to carry on pari passu, and in harmonious combination, precisely those two lines of thought which are now, or seem to be, in many points, at issue and in conflict. One of our chief functions is to educate men for the ministry of the Church. And I know that the minds of many men, who came here with the purpose of ultimately taking Orders, are disturbed by an apparent discrepancy between what we teach on the one hand, and what we have subscribed to, on the other. It is our duty, therefore, to meet these difficulties, to settle these doubts, if we can; to quiet these disturbed consciences. Some people tell you, "It is not safe to meddle with these questions." This is a notion I utterly reject. If an architect tells you that the foundations of your [11/12] house are giving way, which is the safer plan? sedulously to shrink from even alluding to them, or to go at once and examine them with a view to their reconstruction, if they be found faulty?
Of all the points in dispute at the present time, the chief is that which relates to the inspiration and authority of Holy Scripture.
A great preacher told you from the University pulpit last term that the Bible would be the battle-ground of the present generation. [Dr Vaughan.] And the causes of the struggle are these: The Bible, substantially the same as we have it now, was early received by the Christian Church as the supreme rule of faith and practice. Age after age, the Holy Volume gathered new reverence and new worship. The reformers, when they discarded Saint-worship and Image-worship, clung to the worship of the Book with all the tenacity of undivided hearts. The reformers of Geneva especially distinguished themselves by the fanaticism of their Bibliolatry, and adopted a theory of inspiration--never officially endorsed by our own leading reformers--but eagerly accepted by a multitude which yearned for some infallible authority on which they could rest, as the Roman Catholic rests upon his infallible Church. So they claimed for the Sacred Book not only infallibility in [12/13] doctrine and morals, but also in matters belonging to history and science. Similes, metaphors, and poetical figures of speech were hardened into facts and imposed as articles of faith. To take the most familiar example: the Psalmist's expression of fervent confidence in God's unchangeable providence, "Thou hast made the round world so fast that it cannot be moved," was accepted as the declaration of a scientific fact, till science herself proved by irrefragable arguments that the world does move. So too, in later days, geology, historical criticism and philology, together with the researches of travellers, have tended to prove that in the Bible there is a human element, that legend is mixed with history, poetic imaginings with prosaic narrative, and that no miraculous power has been exerted to preserve it from omissions, interpolations, and corruptions of text; that it is, therefore, not infallible in the sense in which the popular creed assumes it to be so.
These are no new discoveries; they have been familiar to thoughtful men of this and past generations. How, then, do we account for the alarm produced by a recent work in which some of the historic difficulties of the Old Testament were put forward? Simply thus. For years past belief or acquiescence in the extreme theory of Bible inspiration has been a condition of promotion to the highest offices [13/14] of the Church. Hence those who should have taught with authority are either silent, or else speak without commanding assent. [I do not mean, for a moment, to insinuate that those of whom I speak are not sincere in their belief. Allowance, too, should be made for the novelty and extreme difficulty of the situation in which they, as well as the 'inferior clergy,' find themselves placed.] And others, less eminent in station but intellectually the foremost men in our Church, loving peace and shrinking from a course which would expose them to violent abuse, have tacitly suffered the doctrine they dissent from to be taught among the people. Now comes the punishment of this timidity. There is a danger lest the higher faith of the people be shaken by the destruction of this false foundation on which it had been suffered to rest.
But it is not my purpose to enter further into the subject-matter of the controversy: I wish to speak to you of the TEMPER with which men should engage in the discussion, if they hope to be led to a right issue.
First of all, we must be earnestly desirous of Truth. If this be not our guiding motive all our talk will be idle, all our efforts vain. "We can do nothing against, but for the Truth." If, in any argument, we desire victory more than truth, we are not on God's side. God is the God of Truth, and lying lips are an abomination to Him. The cause of God and His [14/15] Christ cannot be served by disingenuous and sophistical arguments. It is shameful to see a religious thesis maintained by reasoning such as would disgrace the cause of a fraudulent bankrupt. Let us, above all things, have no "pettifogging" in Theology. Let no wish to stand well with the world, let no hope of temporal advancement, induce us to dissemble our real convictions, to hide away our real thoughts, to palter with the truth. In the humblest matters of every day life, no conclusion can be sound unless it be consonant with facts. Does not this hold also in the highest things?
We are bound, as servants of the God of truth, answerable to Him for the employment of our mental powers (the one talent or the ten talents entrusted to our keeping), to employ them honestly, straightforwardly in His service; not to please men, not to secure this or that worldly honour, but to please Him and win, though we cannot merit, the eternal reward. Not as the world giveth, will He give unto us.
"But," it may be said, "truth in this highest sense cannot be comprehended by the understanding nor attained to by the reasoning powers. The mind cannot grasp; it is enough if the heart believe." Now I admit, of course, that the great mysteries, the central truths of religion, cannot be proved by human reason. They must be embraced by faith. We believe [15/16] that God is Love, we believe that every soul is immortal and responsible after this life for the deeds done in the body,--we believe these propositions by faith, but who can prove them? But, as there is in religion the province of faith, there is also the province of reason, and the things of which we are now speaking belong to the latter. In this province no man is required to believe that which his reason tells him is an absurdity. An incomprehensible mystery is one thing; a demonstrable absurdity is another. If a man's religion be all sentiment and emotion, that man's religion is vain; it will stand him in no stead against temptation; reason only can confront passion. You cannot found a principle upon a sensation. "I will pray with the heart, and I will pray with the understanding also." [I have used this quotation, as well as that in a subsequent page, "give none offence, &c." in a sense somewhat different from the original, but in both cases, I trust, conformably to the spirit of the writer.] What is here said of prayer is true of all religious practice. "Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind." Without the sustaining guidance of sound reason, religion is but the fitful flashing of a fire of straw or a casual burst of idle and unmeaning tears.
But to return. We are bound (as I said) to seek for truth. We are also bound to seek for it in a proper spirit. We shall miss our [16/17] way, unless we take Reverence and Humility for our companions and guides. If we take, instead, Arrogance and Self-esteem, they will confuse our vision and mislead our steps. That way we shall find, at best, only some half truth.
Many a young man in the fervour of his first zeal for truths newly made known to him, takes them to be all in all; sees nothing but them; and would sweep away everything to set them up. But this frame of mind is not one fitted either for the Philosopher or the Christian. And in their highest development the two are one. Humility must prepare the heart for the dwelling of the promised spirit that shall guide us into all truth.
We must reverence the calm judgments of older men, we must reverence the institutions and traditions of older times. As, in matters of state, we must not lightly depart from those old paths along which this England of ours has climbed to its present height of moral and material power, so, in matters of religion, we must cling, as far as it be possible, to those ancient ordinances which gave shape and form to the lives of the noblest of our fathers, and comforted them as they fell asleep.
And the Church of England is worthy of all our reverence, not only for what she has been, but for what she is. Throughout the [17/18] length and breadth of the land, the Church is the centre of moral and social life, the main instrument for the education of the young. Her army, twenty thousand strong, supported by zealous auxiliaries, is doing battle day by day with sin and ignorance and all their evil train.
Even among those who are not of her communion, her influence for good is felt. Of all religious bodies, she is the most Catholic and the most tolerant. She is the great peacemaker. She has grown with the growth of England, and in the nation's life her life is bound up. Each of us in his childhood learned her lessons, which are thenceforward associated with our holiest affections, with our earliest, and what will one day be for all of us, our saddest, memories.
There is something wrong in the Churchman who fails in his affection for the Church. We should love and cherish her above all things except truth only. "Magis amica Veritas." And if, at Truth's bidding, we venture to touch the sacred 'ark, we must do it with a gentle and a loving hand.
And, if this spirit of humility and reverence is the only spirit which becomes students of Theology, it is even more becoming to those who are not students, whose occupations in life leave them neither wish nor leisure to examine these questions for themselves, who [18/19] must take their opinions at second hand, and adopt conclusions without having followed the argument.
Again, it is the peculiar misfortune of theological controversies that they, more than any other, engender personal estrangements and animosities. So much the more, therefore, is it incumbent on the Christian to keep a watch over his own heart and his own temper, and to foster a spirit of charity towards all men, and especially towards his opponents. It is a bad thing to hold a heterodox opinion, it is far worse to be of an unchristian spirit. What place is there for calm reflection and sincere love of truth in a mind disturbed by anger and darkened by malice? If a man in all sincerity, from conscientious motives and in a becoming tone, puts forward views which seem to us erroneous, but which he believes to be just, what reason is there for attacking that man as if he had committed some criminal action? [I did not mean by these words to refer specially to any individual.] Let us convince him, if we can, of the fallacy of his theories, but let us not depart a hair's-breadth from the courtesy which every Christian owes to his fellow.
He who is inspired with true charity is tender of the consciences of others, careful not to wound their feelings or disturb their faith. Here the example and precepts of St Paul may guide us. [19/20] He, earnest and devoted champion of the truth as he was, was careful to "give none offence, that the ministry might not be blamed." He was willing to yield his own opinion on all nonessential points that he might throw no stumbling-block in the path of a weaker brother or cause him to offend. There are many contingencies, especially in a clergyman's life, in which these two duties, the duty of telling the whole truth and the duty of abstaining from offence, may seem to come in conflict, and in which it would be impossible to lay down rules beforehand for a man's conduct. But if he go about his work in the right spirit, he will find that the voice of conscience will whisper to him unerring rules in practice, where the subtlest casuistry will fail to draw a theoretical line.
Such a case as this is not uncommon: he finds one of his flock, a man whose life is emphatically in the right, not a learned man, not well read except in one volume, whose devotion has for years found its expression in the language of David, whose enthusiasm has been kindled and kept a-glow by the inspiration of Isaiah, whose conduct has been guided by the precepts of St Paul and the example of the Saviour--such a man naturally worships his Bible, and extends his adoration of the Psalms, the Prophets, the Gospels and Epistles, equally to all the writings which he finds bound up in [20/21] the same volume. Are we, for the sake of a mere historical or-scientific difficulty, to shake the very basis of that man's faith, the ground of that man's hope? When Moses is read the veil is on his understanding, but not on his heart.
We agree with him that in that casket is contained an inestimable treasure, the pearl of great price. Are we to shake his belief in the treasure merely to prove that in that same casket are stones less precious, such as may be bought in any market or gathered on any beach?
And this brings me to my last point. I have said that he who engages in these controversies should take with him for his guidance, first, a love of truth; next, reverence and humility; thirdly, charity. Last of all, but not least, he must have FAITH. He must cherish the assurance, that in all these difficulties and doubts, the great cardinal truths of Religion, the truths by which we live, the truths in which we fain would die, are not jeopardized nor involved at all. "The law came by Moses, but Grace and Truth came by Jesus Christ." The Law is but the type and the shadow of good things to come. When the good things are come, and as their full significance is gradually revealed to the world, the type is broken, the shadow flits away. It is idle to repair the one, it is impossible to arrest the other. But the thing figured, the substance, [21/22] remains. The great doctrines of Christianity that the soul of man is immortal and responsible to God; that God is Love; that His Divine Son lived for our example, and died for our redemption, are fixed, we trust, for ever beyond all cavil, or dispute. This faith will be our comfort in all trouble, our guide in all perplexity.
When in some high valley among the Alps fair weather is suddenly changed to foul, when a cold wind rises, bearing with it driving sleet and blinding mist, the traveller, wet and weary, sees nothing but the dripping moss and sodden clay beneath his feet, loses the path, and knows not where to turn for fear of the roaring torrent on the one hand and the deep silent gulf on the other, how his heart leaps up, when through the parting rack he catches a glimpse of some wellknown landmark, a mountain-top that soars far above the region of the storm, white with pure snow and lit with calm sunshine! Such a vision is vouchsafed to the eye of faith from time to time to cheer and to guide. For we know, however we may be troubled with controversy and perplexed with doubt, that far above all doubt and all controversy rises that fair hill, the hill of Sion. There is Bethlehem with its cradle, Calvary with its cross, the tomb in the garden, and the mountain of the Ascension, and, high over all, the day-spring that never fails, the light of the presence of God!
 "Therefore we will not fear." At the bidding of the God of truth, we will seek for truth, at whatever cost. If it be His will, we shall not imperil but strengthen the outward fabric of His visible Church. We shall hand it down to our children stronger and fairer and greater than ever, resting on a still wider and more national and more catholic basis. But if it be His will to change the ancient order that seems to us so fair, we will obey even as Abraham obeyed when he went to the place which God had told him of, to offer all that he held most precious on earth. "Even so, Father, for so it seemeth good in thy sight."
"Our little systems have their day,
They have their day and cease to be;
They are but broken lights of Thee,
And Thou, O Lord, art more than they."