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The Priesthood Militant: A Sermon Preached at St. Alban’s Church, Holborn, on 16 July, 1924.

By N. P. Williams.

No place: no publisher, 1924.

And he said, Nay; but as captain of the host of the Lord am I now come.—Josh. 6. 14.

I HAVE been asked by the Committee of the Anglo-Catholic Congress to address you this morning upon a subject of momentous import for the well-being, and indeed for the mere existence, of the Church of England, namely, the serious deficiency in the number of candidates for Holy Orders. This is a complex and many-sided question, too vast for discussion within the limits of a single discourse: and I will, therefore, ask leave to confine my observations to a single aspect of it, with which I am most familiar, namely—the question why so many of the best and strongest of the Church’s younger sons, of those who, to adapt Tertullian’s phrase about the anima naturaliter Christiana, the “naturally Christian soul,” seem to be stamped in mind and character as “naturally priestly souls,” yet manifest no disposition whatsoever to embrace the ministry of the Church as the work of their own lives.

I am not thinking of youths of talent and promise whose allegiance to Christianity or to the English Church is of a merely nominal or conventional kind; it would be unreasonable to look for vocations outside the circle of practising Christians and Communicants; I am thinking of the perplexing phenomenon presented by those who come from Christian homes, who are faithful to their daily prayers and devout frequenters of the Table of the Lord, whose lives are unblemished and whose faith unshaken by “intellectual difficulties,” whose characters are marked by decisiveness, personal magnetism, and that power of leading and ruling other men which is fostered by the public schools with their compulsory games and monitorial discipline, who possess in fullest measure the most distinctive and necessary element in the priestly character which is called the pastoral instinct, the inbred longing to shepherd and shield from ill the young, the weak, and the ignorant—and who, nevertheless, have not so much as contemplated ordination as a possibility for themselves, but turn, at the end of their own education, apparently as a matter of course, towards lay schoolmastering, industrial welfare work, the administration of social settlements—towards anything and everything rather than the life of the ordained priest. It is this unnatural and sinister estrangement of so many vigorous, virtuous, and religious youths from the idea of the professional ministry as a possibility for themselves which is the heart of the present difficulty. If we could but work to its full extent the vein of splendid material, penetrating all the strata of society, which we already possess in the best of our communicant boys and young men, the problems both of quantity and of quality would long since have been happily solved.

This, then, is the paradoxical and disconcerting fact, unprecedented perhaps in any other phase of the Church’s history, which we have now to explain—the fact that, at the moment, the idea of the ordained ministry presents so little attraction to many, perhaps most, of those who, humanly speaking, appear marked out for spiritual and pastoral work. It is not in the least likely that the Divine Spirit has altered the methods of his working in the last twenty years, or that he now bestows fewer vocations to the priesthood upon those whom he has endowed with the natural gifts that are necessary for its efficient exercise. The vocations must be there, hidden in the subconscious depths of these young souls, and would spring into vivid and inspiring life if only they could be disinterred and liberated from the mental influences which are silently stifling them. We cannot suppose that, in the majority of cases, pecuniary considerations are the deterrent factor: the unmarried priest, at any rate, is now assured of a modest competence, and those who are on fire with the spirit of missionary adventure, “having food” for body and mind, and a reasonable allowance of “raiment,” will be, like the Apostle, “therewith content.” Nor can we explain the failure of many of the young to respond to the necessities of the Church by the hypothesis that the idea of ordination has never been suggested to them: if the priesthood were popularly regarded as an interesting, delightful, and noble career, it would suggest itself: and, in point of fact, no sermons preached in public school chapels are more resented than those which are devoted to imploring their hearers to become clergymen. The real obstacle which prevents the many subconscious vocations, which must exist, from coming to full fruition does not consist in merely superficial or mechanical difficulties of this nature; it is rather to be found in an impalpable mass-suggestion, a tenuous, all-pervading tradition, a habit of feeling rather than of thought, almost too fugitive, vague, and subtle to be caught and fixed in words, but exercising a repressive influence on the struggles of the soul to answer the Divine call which is all the more deadly because its presence is not consciously known or realized. This intangible mental infection or suggestion seems to be communicated to the youths, of whom I am speaking, as it were by the air they breathe, by the daily and hourly influences of their families, friends, and associates (even, as I have said, though these may be sincerely attached to the Church), and by the circumambient pressure of social convention and fashion, penetrating the soul through a thousand invisible avenues. It is a silent force, which automatically inhibits the free play of the grace of vocation in those animae naturaliter sacerdotales which are alone in question, and impels even Church parents to discourage the idea of ordination in their sons, should it by some means emerge into consciousness; it pervades all classes of society, but is strongest amongst those great families whose splendid tradition of culture and public duty might be expected to inspire them with pride in giving their sons to the service of God in the Church as in the State. It is necessary to define the exact nature of this prejudice against the ministry in plain, blunt, and even brutal language, such as the politeness of our neighbours forbids them to employ, even in the privacy of their own minds, but which is indispensable if we are to grasp the full realities of the situation. It can be summed up in two main propositions. Firstly, that the work of a “clergyman” (to use the term which would spring most naturally to the lips of those who share this prejudice) is in great part of a dull and trivial kind, which offers no opportunity of expression to the heroic, virile, and military qualities of human nature; that it consists mainly of singing choral offices, which, in the last resort, could be equally well rendered by a moderately efficient gramophone, of presiding ineffectually over a noisy and lawless Sunday school, of reading the Bible to the sick, and of acting as a general purveyor of inferior food, music, and clothing, through an endless series of parochial teas, concerts, and sales of work. Secondly, the personality of the “clergyman,” as developed by these uninspiring pursuits, and by exclusive association with women and children, is at best a mild, colourless, and conventional one, and at worst may descend to any degree of the pompous or absurd; and that in either case it represents the sort of thing that no self-respecting boy wants to grow into. It is, I believe, in the wide diffusion of this popular caricature of ministerial life and work that the fundamental cause of the dearth of ordinands, especially in the more leisured and cultivated classes of the community, is to be sought.

Doubtless to us, who know the glory and romance of the Catholic priesthood, and within these walls, saturated as they are with the still fragrant memories of a Mackonochie, a Suckling, and a Stanton, this drab and bourgeois conception of the ecclesiastical state, which I have just sketched, will appear to be nothing but a monstrous and incredible nightmare. But we are considering the Church of England as a whole, and the state of lay opinion within and without it—an opinion which finds unmistakable expression in the figure of the conventional clergyman, as he is depicted in literature and on the stage. It cannot be said that the post-Reformation English clergy has fared very happily at the hands of our poets, playwrights, and novelists. The most lifelike of Shakespeare’s curates, Sir Nathaniel in Love’s Labour’s Lost, is the dullest of pedants: Fielding’s Parson Adams is a kindly soul, but quite without any touch of the heroic or the supernatural, and is more than offset by the bestial Parson Trnlliber; the Vicar of Wakefield is a model of mild decorum and domestic virtue, but cannot be imagined at the head of a cavalry charge or on the bridge of a destroyer: whilst the polished and worldly clerical gentlemen who flit through the pages of Jane Austen appear to be most at home in the ballroom or the hunting field, and would probably have presented a spectacle of well-meaning helplessness at the side of a death-bed in the slums. Nor does more recent literature yield a more flattering delineation of the English clergyman or of his work: the best that can be said of Trollope’s clerical characters is that they are for the most part conscientious and innocuous; whilst the quarrelsome dignitaries of Mr Hugh Walpole’s Cathedral, and the various types of pathological fanaticism depicted by Mr Compton Mackenzie do not constitute the happiest of exceptions to the law which appears to dominate the world of fiction apart from their books, namely, that ecclesiastical figures must normally be conceived as the embodiments of more or less amiable futility. Of the stage clergyman, perhaps the less that is said the better. It is not without significance, as we may presently see, that for the two most celebrated literary portraits of ecclesiastics who can be wholeheartedly admired we must look outside the sphere of post-Reformation Anglicanism: I am thinking of Chaucer’s “poure persoun of a toun,” of whom it is said, in unforgettable words, that

Cristes loore, and his Apostles twelve,
He taughte, but first he folwed it hym selve,

and of Victor Hugo’s saintly bishop in Les Misérables. But it is the literary and dramatic tradition of the last three and a half centuries in England which counts to-day; and both the meaning and the psychological effects of this are unmistakable. It both draws its life from, and in turn helps to reinforce and stereotype in the subconscious area of the public mind, what it is fashionable to call a “buried complex”—a relatively permanent system of thoughts and emotions which clusters round the idea of the “clergyman” and his work, which includes as its chief ingredients the conceptions of dreariness, insipidity, and conventionalism, and which constitutes, as I suggest, the most formidable, because the least tangible, impediment to the growth of ministerial vocation in many of those whom I have described as “naturally priestly souls.”

It is not worth while to spend time in lamenting the failures and deficiencies of the past, and we may leave to ecclesiastical historians the duty of apportioning among those who are dead and gone the responsibility and the blame for the existence and wide diffusion in the general English mind of this tedious, formal, and uninspiring conception of the Christian ministry; the task laid upon us by our membership in a living and mighty religious movement is to “forget those things which are behind and to reach forth unto those things which are before,” and that, in this particular connexion, means to take such steps as are within our power for the perpetual banishment and extinction of the conventional conception of the “clergyman.” Now, the rules for eradicating an undesirable idea from the mind of a crowd are much the same as those which govern the mental healing of an individual patient. A frontal attack upon an injurious complex is quite useless, and merely serves to drive it deeper. Much may be done by the method of analysis, which, indeed, we have just been employing, which drags the sufferer’s unexpressed and unconscious thoughts to light and confronts him with them in their native crudity. But in the last resort the only permanently curative method is to create a new, healthful, and desirable complex, which will draw off the stream of mental energy from the old disturbing clot of morbid fancies, thus starving and atrophying it so that it eventually shrivels up and disappears altogether; and it is here that the special assistance which the Anglo-Catholic movement can render to the Church in this matter is to be sought. We can permanently heal the slow wastage of the ministry, not so much by attacking the symptoms through the provision of scholarships, bursaries, and the like—though God forbid that I should disparage these things in their proper place—but rather by developing in the general mind of the English laity a new and powerful complex, centring in the idea of “priesthood,” and endowed with so much emotional energy as to suck all the vitality out of the old “clergyman” complex, which is now exercising such a baneful influence on the general health of the Church. In this, as in so many other matters, “the longest way round is the shortest way home”; and the best way of attacking the shortage of candidates for Holy Orders is to hold up an ideal of the priesthood glowing with the splendour of adventurous romance, a gateway for the full and satisfying expression of the heroic, military, virile, and red-blooded qualities of human nature, appealing to the generous, danger-loving impulses of the young and the enthusiastic, and invested by its history and traditions with such an aura of ideal and imaginative radiance that the humblest priest can never appear to be dull, and the mightiest priests are seen to stand on the same level of ethical excellence as the great sailors, soldiers, explorers, and statesmen who command the admiration of all.

Now the Catholic conception of the priesthood presupposes as its background and takes all its colour from the Catholic conception of the Christian religion, and this conception is essentially a military one. It is fully in sympathy with, and prepared to take quite literally, all the New Testament language which describes the Christian life as a warfare waged against the unseen armies of evil, and as a stern and toilsome campaign for the conquest of a terra irredenta, which is God’s fair world now lying “in the Evil One.”’ The war-like, military, conquering genius of Christianity is expressed for us in the wonderful vision of the Apocalypse, which depicts the Christ under the image of a rider on a white horse, who judges and makes war in righteousness, who is clothed with a vesture dipped in blood and whose name is called the Word of God. And after him there come in endless procession the armies of heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean.’ This conception of the Church as an army is familiar to the man in the street as a metaphor employed by noisy and popular hymns; but to the Catholic Christian it is an intense and vivid reality, which is all the more stern and terrible for him because he believes in the possibility of eternal death, and, whilst knowing that the cause of God and goodness must in the long run triumph, has ever before his eyes the possibility that he himself may fall in the stress of the battle. It is not to the point to object that this conception of the Christian life as a grim struggle with cunning and merciless antagonists is common to all forms of Christianity alike; for the popular mind of which I am thinking is now largely dominated by Universalism, that is, the conviction that the world is getting better every day and that all men will in any case be saved; and, wherever this conception prevails, it follows that the “clergyman” is regarded, not as a warrior or a “captain of the host of the Lord,” to use the words of my text—for the whole military metaphor then becomes inappropriate—but rather as a kind of restaurant-car attendant, who may help, by supplying adventitious comforts, to make the journey to the next world less tedious and uncomfortable than it might otherwise have been, but does not directly assist the passenger to arrive at his destination. But where the infinite horror of sin, the existence of evil spirits, and the possibility of eternal loss are wholeheartedly accepted, there life becomes almost synonymous with war; the Church is an army, in which the Son of God himself is the commander-in-chief; its dioceses and parishes, its religious orders, congregations, and guilds are so many divisions, battalions, companies, and platoons, moving forward in the great unending attack upon the trenches of the evil power; its weapons are the Sacraments, the Scriptures, and the prayers of the saints; and its ministers are conceived as a corps of officers, a knightly brotherhood of keen-eyed, disciplined, finely trained men, who are prepared to spend and be spent in the cause to which they have devoted their lives.

This war-like conception and organization of historic Christianity is the fundamental ground of one of its most paradoxical characteristics, namely, its recurring tendency to exhibit a certain sympathy with earthly and temporal militarism. Let me explain what I mean, in order to avoid misunderstanding. For the Christian who takes the Sermon on the Mount seriously, earthly war, considered absolutely and in itself, must always be an utterly bad and hateful thing, and even a just war can only possess that kind of relative and accidental goodness which may be attributed to a lesser evil when compared with a greater. Yet, if we leave out of account those primitive centuries during which service in the Roman army was a thing detestable to many Christians, because of the inevitable contamination with idolatry which it involved, it is not untrue to say that the Church has very generally been conscious of a strange and indefinable affinity between her own spirit and the ideas, traditions, and habits of mind characteristic of the fighting Services, which exist for the sake of war. There are no lay societies where the priest is more at home, and where his position is more taken for granted, than naval and military messes. There is no profession from which it is easier for a man of mature years to pass into the priesthood without dislocation of settled habits and modes of thought than the profession of arms: Ignatius Loyola in the sixteenth century and Charles de Foucauld in the twentieth are the eternal types of those who have exchanged the camp for the altar and the musket for the breviary. A Christian Platonist might say that this paradoxical affinity between the society which is based on love and the societies which are based on physical force arises from the fact that earthly wars are broken flashes and reflections, partial manifestations in time, of the vast cosmic war between God and the rebellious spirit-world which will only end with the consummation of all things. Whether this be a metaphysically correct method of phrasing the matter or not, this subtle kinship between the minister of God and the ministers of earthly wrath and violence emphasizes the ideal aspect of the priesthood as itself a fighting service, a corps of combatants which is never off duty, and not a mere collection of lecturers, organizers of philanthropy, or “resident gentlemen.”

In this aspect it fulfils the dream which has floated before the eyes of many thinkers, sages, and architects of visionary Utopias—the dream of a peaceful soldiery, the guardians of religion, morality, and culture, a beneficent militia which will provide ample opportunity for the exercise of the heroic and masculine virtues apart from the blood, the filth, and the degradation of actual war. You may remember the picture of a class of semi-military ascetics, living in the world, yet not of it, which Mr H. G. Wells has painted in his Modern Utopias, who are, in his imaginary scheme, the salt that saves society from corruption, and the pillars of the universal State; who remind us, with their Rule, their ordered life and discipline, their meditations and their annual retreat, of the great Third Orders of St Francis or St Dominic, and to whom, in reminiscence of those mysterious swordsmen who were the pride and defence of old Japan, he has given the name of Samurai. We may well adapt the word and the idea for our own purposes, and describe the priesthood as meant to be the Samurai of Christian civilization, engaged in a perpetual campaign against evil in all its forms, whether in the individual or in the community, and fighting to set up the Kingdom of God on earth which contains the germ and potency of the completed Kingdom of God in heaven.

When once this martial conception of the priesthood, with the great framework of traditional Christian ideas—the aeonian war between good and evil, the possibility of eternal loss, the Church as the army of God and the sacraments as her weapons—which carries and supports it, has been fully grasped, in public schools, and colleges, and wherever else the strongest type of Christian youth is to be found, it will no longer be necessary to attack that vapid and feeble phantom, the conventional clergyman of the stage and the popular novel. There will be no need to appeal for recruits for the ministry, for the ministry will be regarded as a corps d’élite to which it is a privilege to belong. It will be seen that the picture of the ideal priest’s personality includes all those military virtues which command the hero-worship of the normal healthy boy—the fine training and physical efficiency, the high courage, dignity, self-command, and peace of mind which are born of life-long discipline, the power of initiative, decision, and leadership, the esprit de corps and loyalty to regimental tradition. And it will be recognized that the life of the priest contains the possibility of a supernatural happiness, which has, and in the nature of things can have, no analogy in the life of the earthly warrior; for it flows from the intimate, personal, tender affection which should subsist between every individual officer in the army of God, whether senior or junior, and his august sovereign and commander-in-chief, Jesus Christ, an affection which morning by morning is renewed and consummated in the offering of the Holy Mysteries, and which, though the common possession of all fervent Christians, is endued with a special and incommunicable sweetness for all who share the joys and sorrows of the Saviour’s pastoral charge.

Such is the conception of the Christian ministry which it is ours to disseminate, as opportunity may serve, amongst all members of the Church, and especially amongst the youths to whom the Divine call may come, by writing, in conversation, by teaching, and by precept. And, my brethren of the laity, the question may well shape itself in your minds, what about example? If that has been your thought, you have touched the root of the matter. I spoke, a moment ago, of the sorrows of the priestly life: not the least of these is one which visits the priest each night as he kneels to make examination of conscience, and that is the torturing sense of the contrast between the ideal and the real, between what he fain would be and what he actually is, and the accompanying fear that his weaknesses and failures may, during the day just over, have in greater or lesser degree betrayed the cause which he is vowed to defend, and kept from God the souls which he is set to lead to Him. It is your prayers that we need above all else: the help that you can give by intercessory prayer towards the sanctification and illumination of those who, conscious of their own unworthiness, now bear the dread responsibility and the humbling burden of the pastoral commission, will some day bear fruit an hundredfold in the numbers, the zeal, and the sanctity of their successors.

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