W. J. SPARROW-SIMPSON, D.D.
Written and published at the request of the Birmingham
CATHOLIC LITERATURE ASSOCIATION
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2016
The Bishop of Birmingham's recent teaching makes it difficult for Anglo-Catholics to escape from controversy. Being challenged, they have been compelled to defend their convictions. Enough has been already said about the Bishop's letter addressed to adherents of that School. But further utterances have followed in addresses delivered to Liberal Evangelicals which again compel a further defence of the Anglo-Catholic position.
In a sermon the Bishop is reported to have said:—“Was the ‘old faith,’ for which some pleaded, the Catholicism of the Middle Ages, which this Church repudiated nearly four centuries ago? That faith was contaminated by all sorts of superstitions, pagan survivals imposed upon the Church by popular desire during the Dark Ages. It was vitiated by sacerdotalism. Through it ran the belief that the priest had magical powers. Such beliefs entered Catholicism from the ancient mystery religions, and had no foundation in the New Testament. There was a Catholic Movement in the Church of England which sought to resuscitate those excrescences of their faith.” [Birmingham Daily Post Feb. 9th 1925]
This is only a newspaper report of the Bishop's sermon, but it is the report given in “The Birmingham Daily Post.” It is read at the centre of his diocese, and, so far as we know, it has not been contradicted or corrected. It is the version of his ideas which is [1/2] circulated among his people, and beyond them, and widely read in many places.
The main points of this paragraph appear to be that the Catholicism of the Middle Ages was—
1. Contaminated by superstition.
2. Vitiated by sacerdotalism.
3. Permeated by belief that a priest had magical powers.
All of these the Church of England is said to have repudiated four centuries ago. And the Anglo-Catholic Movement is then charged with seeking to resuscitate them.
Three formidable terms are uttered—Superstition, Sacerdotalism, Magic. But none of them are defined, or explained, or even illustrated.
I. The first assertion is that Mediaeval Catholicism was contaminated by superstition. Of course, if this was merely a statement of historical facts in the past there would be no need to discuss it, but the Bishop charges Anglo-Catholics with resuscitating a Catholicism so contaminated. The difficulty with statements of this kind lies in their vagueness. Superstition is used in a variety of senses. If the hearers of such words as “Catholicism contaminated by superstition” went home and consulted a dictionary to ascertain precisely what superstition represents they would find that Webster's Dictionary says it is “excessive reverence”; “an ignorant or irrational [2/3] worship of the Supreme Deity”; “the worship of false gods” and “belief in the direct agency of superior powers.” These varieties of meaning show how comprehensive the use of the term may become, how liable it is to be misunderstood, and how necessary it is to define the sense in which it is being employed. That is exactly what was not done in the present instance. The hearers were informed that Mediaeval Catholicism was contaminated by superstition. But they were not told what the superstition was—nor how the Catholicism which was at that time contaminated is distinguishable from the superstition which contaminated it, nor indeed whether the Catholicism apart from the superstition is true. The meaning of any statement about superstition varies according as it is made by a Catholic or by a Protestant. And therefore such a statement as that made by the Bishop of Birmingham, with neither the term Catholicism nor the term Superstition explained, leaves the hearer to infer its meaning from what he imagines to be the speaker's presuppositions.
It ought to be frankly acknowledged that there is such a thing as Catholicism which is not contaminated by superstition, and that if the Church of England threw off the superstition, it did not forsake the Catholicism. What the speaker criticises is a degenerate type, something to which, if Catholicism is liable and has lent itself, is no part of its essence, but in reality foreign to its spirit.
 II. The second assertion is that the Catholicism of the Middle Ages was “vitiated by sacerdotalism.” Now as Professor Moberly said years ago, “everything turns upon the question what exactly is meant by Sacerdotalism.” Here as so often, if we would only define our terms, mutual understanding would be facilitated. If we may take the Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics as some assistance towards a definition, we are told that Sacerdotalism “has been used in two senses, a good and a bad. In the first place it is used to denote the existence in the Christian Church of a ministry consisting of certain persons set apart or ordained by the authority of the Church to minister the things of God to their fellow men, and to be the exclusive instruments in the divine covenant of Sacramental graces. On the other hand, it is used in the sense of an assumption and claim on the part of the clergy to an undue power and authority over the laity.” [Sacerdotalism. Hastings Encycl. Of Religion & Ethics Vol. 10 p. 894]
Now, clearly if Sacerdotalism has represented these distinctly different and contrasted principles, we must know in what sense it is being employed. As a matter of fact, Anglo-Catholic writers are found fully acknowledging that there is a Sacerdotalism which deserves to be condemned. A similar acknowledgment ought to be made by an Anglican Bishop.
 Dr. Bright, for example, held that “some opposition to Sacerdotalism . . . proceeds from a really Christian jealousy for Christ's honour and His people's rights . . . it has been provoked by Sacerdotalist exaggerations . . . so presented it must repel, and it must, even if accepted by the poor, be . . . associated with superstition or something like it.” [Bright Letters, p. 114.]
And a previous occupant of the See of Birmingham writes—
“The chief of the ideas commonly associated with Sacerdotalism, which it is important to repudiate, is that of a vicarious priesthood. It is contrary to the true spirit of the Christian religion to introduce the notion of a class inside the Church who are in a closer spiritual relationship to God than their fellows” . . . The difference between clergy and laity is not a difference of kind, but of function. Thus the completest freedom of access to God in prayer and intercession, the closest personal relation to Him, belongs to all . . . It is an abuse of the Sacerdotal conception, if it is supposed that the priesthood exists to celebrate sacrifices or acts of worship in the place of the body of the people or as their substitute.” [Bishop Gore. Christian Ministry. Ed. 1919. p. 71.]
But while Anglo-Catholics acknowledge that a type of Sacerdotalism has existed which is contrary to the true spirit of the Christian Religion, they affirm, none the less, that there is a Sacerdotalism which is a genuine product of the Christian Religion.
 Long ago the saintly Bishop Wilson, of Sodor and Man, wrote—
“These are they by whose ministry you are made Christians; they to whom the care of your souls is committed; who have Christ's commission to teach you, to pray for you, and to bless you in His Name; to reconcile you to God, and God to you. They are (as St. Paul calls them, I Cor. IV. 1.) Stewards of the mysteries of God; dispensers of His merits, and His graces to His elect. By whom He instructs them in the truth; feeds them with the Bread of Life; by whom He comforts afflicted souls, absolves the penitent, arms them against the fear of death, and fits them for a blessed eternity.” [Bishop Wilson. Works III, 416.]
William Law wrote “when the Bishop or Priest intercedes for the congregation, or pronounces the Apostolical benediction upon them, we do not consider this barely an act of charity and humanity, of one Christian praying for another, but as the work of a person who is commissioned by God to bless in His name, and be effectually ministerial in the conveyance of His graces.”
And William Law adds what kind of prayer he considers these benedictions to be. He calls them “these sacerdotal prayers, these authorised sacraments.” [Defence of Church principles p. 107]
Half a century ago, the “Church Quarterly Review,” which was at that time the recognised organ of the Oxford Revival, maintained that— “The visible priesthood of those that are called official priests on earth is but the practically needful, and orderly executive, whereby, as by special organs, of and belonging to the body, and in no wise to be thought of as separate or separable from it, the body performs to God-ward, vicariously and representatively, through its persona in each lawful congregation, its constant duty of worship. Or, in another distinct yet inseparable aspect, i.e., as towards man, the Christian minister visibly represents and acts for the one true Invisible Priest, whose mouthpiece, in the very humblest and merely instrumental sense, he is.” [C.Q.R. Vol. 1. p. 153-154]
“The official acts of the Christian Priesthood are then at once (and it is highly important to remember this double aspect of them) the acts of the whole Body, which in one sense empowers and authorises them, and also, viewed from another side, the acts of Christ, so far as they are done in His name, i.e., within the true limits of His commission and authority, and in and by His Spirit, whose cooperating agency can alone give them any efficacy in the world of spiritual realities.” [C.Q.R. Vol. 1. p 154. 1875.]
Moberly points out that “the Christian ministry is not a substituted intermediary—still less an atoning mediator—between God and lay people: but it is rather the representative and organ of the whole body, in the exercise of prerogatives and powers which belong to the body as a whole.
It is ministerially empowered to wield, as the body's organic representative, the powers [7/8] which belong to the body, but which the body cannot wield except through its own organs duly fitted for the purpose.
What is duly done by Christian ministers, it is not so much that they do it, in the stead, or for the sake of the whole; but rather that the whole does it by and through them.
The Christian Priest does not offer an atoning sacrifice on behalf of the Church: it is rather the Church through his act that, not so much “offers an atonement,” as is identified upon earth with the one heavenly offering of the atonement in Christ.” [Moberly. Ministerial Priesthood. p. 242.]
In the same spirit, Bishop Gore maintains that—”The New Testament regards the whole Church as a Sacerdotal body, and therefore no doubt the clergy with their special ministry of divine appointment are in a special sense sacerdotal.” [Gore. Quoted in C.Q.R. 1899 Vol. 47. p. 425]
The type of Sacerdotalism which Bishop Gore represents is admirably stated by the Dean of St. Pauls—”The principle is that no ministry is valid which is assumed, which a man takes upon himself, or which is delegated to him from below. That this theory is Sacerdotalism in a sense may be admitted. But it does not imply a vicarious priesthood, only a representative one. It does not deny the priesthood which belongs to the Church as a whole. The true Sacerdotalism means that Christianity is the life of an organised society, in which a graduated body of ordained ministers is made the instrument of unity.” [Outspoken Essays. p. 116]
 If these passages should be criticised as being the utterance of one particular school, it must be remembered that they include writers of the XVIIth century that this conception of Sacerdotalism is a long-standing tradition in the English Church; and that the Anglo-Catholics of to-day are only reproducing the principles which they have inherited.
Moreover, it must not be forgotten that, if there are persons within the English Church who repudiate Sacerdotalism in any form whatever, and assert that it was entirely swept away at the Reformation, there are eminent theologians and teachers among the Nonconformists who condemn the formularies and liturgy of the Church of England itself as contaminated by Sacerdotalism. In their opinion it is not the Oxford Movement, or the Anglo-Catholic School alone, which is amenable to the charge of Sacerdotalism. The Very Prayer Book of the English Church itself is, in their opinion, contaminated by this principle.
Quoting the form of absolution in the Visitation of the Sick, Dr. Mellor, in his Congregation Union Lecture, remarks, “the inference in favour of priestly absolution seems to us inevitable, and the sacerdotalists have here an entrenchment from which they can never be dislodged.” [Mellor on Priesthood. P. 386.]
Dr. Reynolds, the well-known President of Cheshunt College, says that, the form of [9/10] this absolution follows closely in the spirit of that which had been in use throughout the Churches of the West; it is as old as the sacramentary of Gelasius, 490; it reveals clearly the sacerdotal basis which Anglican Catholics can discover for their profession in the structure of the Book of Common Prayer.” [Reynolds Ecclesia 1870 p. 310]
Dr. Dale, of Birmingham, used to assert in the most emphatic way that his own disbelief in Sacerdotalism was complete, but that he was unable to understand how, in face of the language used in the Visitation of the Sick, any member of the Church of England could say that Sacerdotalism was not there.
His biographer says that “he held that in dealing with Sacerdotalism the most effective defence of the Faith was not controversy, but the creation of a type of religious life so alien from the fundamental assumption of Sacerdotalism, that Sacerdotalism within its limits should be impossible.” [Life of Dale of Birmingham. p. 353.]
Dr. Dale was profoundly convinced that this was not the character of the English Church.
In the life of the eminent Quaker, Thomas Hodgkin, we read—”Only on one subject—Sacerdotalism—did anything like a controversial tone creep into his religious utterances. He repeatedly protested against the idea that any human mediator is needed between God and man, and saw in the maintenance by Anglicans of high sacramental ideas a constant insistence on this [10/11] idea . . . He thought that the Oxford Movement was the greatest spiritual misfortune of our country in the nineteenth century. And all sacramental teaching seemed to him an insistence on the view that a mediator between God and man was needed.” [Life of Thomas Hodgkin. p. 351.]
Sacerdotalism is here understood by this Quaker writer to denote human mediation between God and man. But he held quite plainly that, in the English Church, Sacerdotalism was not only involved in the Oxford Movement, but it was a natural result of all sacramental teaching. For with the sacrament came the minister of the Sacrament. And in the Church of England the minister of the Sacrament was invariably and exclusively a definite order of men. But to confine the ministration of a Sacrament to any ministerial officials is to make these officials necessary agents to whom the believer must apply, and through whom alone that sacrament is to be obtained.
Quite consistently, therefore, in order to shut Sacerdotalism entirely out, the Quaker not only excluded the priest, but the sacrament as well. Grant his premise and his conclusion is sound.
The Quaker rejection of exclusive ministry, and of the Sacraments as well, is logical. But the retention of an order of ministry, to whom alone authority is given to celebrate a Sacrament, is essentially Sacerdotalism in principle. Sacerdotalism, therefore, as a mediation between God and man, in the sense of ministry with authority from God to the congregation, cannot be excluded from a Church which confines the ministration of Sacraments to Bishops and priests. Repudiation of Sacerdotalism, plus retention of an exclusive order of ministry, is a compromise which must compare unfavourably with the downright and logical consistency of the Society of Friends.
Accordingly, it was quite natural for a theologian and historian like Professor Bright to observe that “People object to 'Sacerdotalism' too often on grounds which, if they were consistent—which, happily, they often are not—would carry them very much further.” [Bright Letters p.113]
On this subject of Sacerdotalism it is interesting to see how the matter appears to so eminent a Free Churchman as the late Dr. Forsyth. He taught that “the Ministry represents God. It carries the Word of His mercy to the Church and the World . . . the ministry is in trust of the Gospel to the Church. Nay, more, it conveys God in His grace. It is a living Sacrament, for there is a soul of truth in the Roman idea of orders as a Sacrament.” . . . “The ministry is a living Sacrament which not only shows something, but by word and prayer does something in the spiritual world, confers something . . . “ Dr. Forsyth prefers to call this aspect of the ministry as representing God, “the Sacramentalism of the ministry.” [12/13] But if the ministry “represents God” and “conveys His grace” the distinction between such Sacramentalism and Sacerdotalism seems only verbal. Indeed, Dr. Forsyth was not unconscious of this. For he went on to consider the liturgical work of the ministry, especially leading in Public Prayer. “Here,” said Dr. Forsyth, the minister is no more prophet but priest . . . His voice does not come to the Church, but rises from it. He is the organ of the common priesthood of the Church . . . As the officer of the Church he is sacerdotal, as the organ of God he is sacramental.”
Here then, at any rate, Sacerdotalism is accepted as, in a sense, a true account of the Christian ministry. And it is instructive to observe that, in the view of this Nonconformist theologian, the priesthood of the ministry springs out of the priesthood of the Church. The ministry is sacerdotal because the community is sacerdotal. Dr. Forsyth prefers to lay stress on the sacramental rather than the sacerdotal view of the ministry. “He is sacramental therefore more than sacerdotal.” But still he is sacerdotal. And this is the point. If a Congregational Minister can acknowledge the sacerdotal aspect of the Christian ministry, is it too much to plead for a similar acknowledgment from an Anglican Bishop?
 With regard to what the Church of England repudiated four centuries ago, the “Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics” says that—”The Reformation was against sacerdotalism in the sense of an assumption of authority on the part of the priesthood to undertake the whole charge and responsibility of the souls of the people . . . But on the other hand, the ministry of the Church retained a definite sacerdotal aspect. Confession was retained and the power of priestly absolution; only it was not required as essential generally.”
“The Oxford Movement therefore was simply a restatement of what the Prayer Book contains, reasserting the sacerdotal character of the priesthood as exercised in the celebration of the sacraments, especially in the Holy Communion and the ministry of absolution.” [Encyclo. Of Religion & Ethics p. 896]
In the face of all this evidence to Anglican principles it is obviously inaccurate to charge the Anglo-Catholic Revival with resuscitating a Sacerdotalism which the Church of England repudiated. No one denies that movements and officials within the Church of England have repudiated Sacerdotalism in any form. But the Church itself has never officially done this. On the contrary, the principle is recognised in its constitution and formularies.
III. Another theory approved by the Bishop of Birmingham is that “the Liberal Evangelical insisted that the Christian minister had no sacerdotal powers which the Christian layman did not possess.”
No proof is offered of this assertion. [14/15] We may recall how Dr. Fairbairn, writing from the Nonconformist standpoint, tried to prove it. He argued that the Founder of Christianity never called Himself a priest, and that “the writers who apply to Him the name High Priest and describe His work as a sacrifice, carefully deny any similar name to any class of His people. And further that “the people whom the Apostles represent and address, the society they describe, may have in its collective being a priestly character, but is without an official priesthood.” Yet facts compel Dr. Forsyth to admit that priesthood soon appeared. So he asks, “Was it evolved from within or incorporated from without?” And answers “It was borrowed from the Old Testament, and the Kingdom of Christ was changed into a Kingdom of Priests.”
We cannot refrain from indicating the singular arbitrariness of treatment by which this conclusion is reached.
In the first place, no attempt is made to do justice to the priesthood of Christ, although it occupies an entire Book of the Bible. If the Founder of Christianity never called Himself priest, His disciples did it for Him. Secondly, the priesthood of the Church is lightly touched, and instantly compromised by the assertion that if the Society may have in its collective being a priestly character, it is without an official priesthood. Why “may have”?
According to the New Testament, the Church is in intimate union with Christ, is indwelt by [15/16] Christ, and must therefore share His function. The sentence, “Ye are a Kingdom of priests was applied by New Testament writers to the Christian community. It is the Apostles who ascribe to the Church a corporate priesthood. The collective priesthood cannot be eliminated from Apostolic theology. And the priesthood of the Church as a body carries with it, as a necessary inference, the priesthood of its ministers. That is acknowledged, or rather asserted, by the distinguished Congregational Minister, Dr. Forsyth.
Thus the scriptural basis for Christian sacerdotalism is first the priesthood of Christ. Secondly, there is the priesthood of the Church collectively, since the Church is His body. Thirdly, there is the priesthood of the ministry, as the official organ of the collective priesthood of the Church.
Then with regard to the Liberal Evangelical opinion that the Christian minister has no sacred powers which the Christian layman does not possess: it is only right to call attention to the weight of evidence in contradiction to that view. We cannot forget how St. Clement wrote, referring to Israel, “the layman is bound by the layman's ordinances,” and went on immediately to apply the principle to the Christian layman—“but each of you, brethren, in his own order give thanks unto God, maintaining a good conscience and not transgressing the appointed rule of His service.”
 We remember how Archbishop Bramhall taught—“Laymen,” he said, “may and are bound to instruct others in case of necessity; yet the office of preaching and instructing others is conferred by ordination. The ordinary office of remitting sins, both by baptism and by the Holy Eucharist, doth belong to Bishops, and under them to Priests.” [Works iii. 168]
This is the teaching of one of the great Anglo-Catholic leaders of the XVIIth century. He would not have endorsed the opinion that the Christian minister had no sacerdotal powers which the Christian layman did not possess.
But that the Church of England does not ascribe the same sacerdotal powers to a layman as to a priest seems involved in the very language which the Bishop must repeat whenever he ordains. What else can be the intention, I do not say of an individual Bishop, but the intention of the Church of England, in the words by which it directs a Bishop to ordain a priest? He who says, “Receive the Holy Ghost for the office and work of a Priest in the Church of God, now committed unto thee by the imposition of our hands,” expresses the intention of the Church, as clearly as language can express it, to confer an authority which the recipient as layman does not possess; and professes to bestow upon him a special Divine grace; qualifying him for the office and work of a priest; and declares that this grace is actually bestowed at the precise hour of ordination, [17/18] a grace therefore which he did not have before. All this surely represents a conception of ordination which cannot be reconciled with the theory that the sacerdotal powers of a layman and a priest are the same.
The assertion that the Christian minister has no sacerdotal powers which the Christian layman does not possess, is evidently liable to lead to a disorderly individualism. It cannot be consistently maintained in a Church which restricts certain functions to a Bishop, and refuses to allow a layman to celebrate at its altars.
To say that the Christian minister has no sacerdotal power which the Christian layman does not possess is to fail to distinguish between the share possessed by every member as such in the corporate priestliness, and the official authority possessed by the duly constituted ministry. It is simply not true that the corporate powers are possessed by each individual member as such. He does not possess these unless he is definitely constituted an organ of the body for that purpose. No member of a society can exercise the official functions of that society unauthorised. He cannot represent the body. He cannot be self-appointed to exercise the official sacerdotal ministries which belong to the body. Above all, this must be the case in the Church if the ministry is divinely authorised, if it is a case in which the Holy Spirit has made them overseers.
IV. The third point with regard to Catholicism is, that it was permeated by belief that a priest had magical powers.
Here again there is need to explain what is meant by magic. One has only to open the “Encyclopaedia of Religion and Ethics” at that word to see the extraordinary variety of ideas associated with it.
The need of exceptional caution in the controversial use of this word, and the serious danger of unfairness in charging a fellow Christian with magical practices, was acknowledged in a remarkable passage by Dr. Forsyth, who evidently had misgivings after he had employed it.
“In this discussion I have felt obliged to use the word magical several times, but I do it with some protest and some reserve. It certainly does help to express what I mean about the subliminal, not to say occult, action, without moral points of attachment, which is supposed to be that of the sacraments as working below the region of the conscious, personal, and moral in man. At the same time, it carries associations which I do not wish to suggest, because they would be repudiated by the best of those who cherish the ideals I discard. I do not think it is quite fair to suggest that such people hold any view which would entitle us to describe their form of the rite as conjuring with the spiritual world. For the reference on the priest's part to the living Saviour as the real agent on the occasion puts [19/20] his act on a different footing from that of the magician, whose power acts in direct control of the forces he uses. St. Paul contrasts the communion of Christ and that of devils; and the true antithesis to the action of Christ is not magic but diablerie, or the invocation to the evil powers to set forces at work which no man can directly command. As nobody could suggest such a thing in connection with any form of the Christian religion, and as the idea of the priest's direct control of the occult world is also out of the question (through his faith in the mediation of Christ), there are risks of injustice in using such a word as magical, except to express a contrast with the moral on the one hand and the natural on the other.” [Forsyth. The Church and the Sacraments. p. 270]
We desire most earnestly to state that the intention of the Anglo-Catholic Movement in the English Church is certainly not to resuscitate a Catholicism contaminated by all sorts of superstition, and vitiated by sacerdotalism, and permeated by a belief that the priest has magical powers. None of these things can be fairly ascribed to the leading theologians, Bishops, and teachers of this great revival. They desire a Catholicism dissociated from all perversions of its genuine nature. Sacerdotal in a representative sense it is; in a substitutionary sense it is not. And while they do not for a moment deny the liability of this Movement, like any other, to manifest incongruities and mistakes, yet they demand that, like any other Religious Movement, it should be judged by its best and most intelligent manifestations.