Project Canterbury




Preached at Great St. Mary's, Sunday, March 10th, 1889.



Second Series Vol. 1, No. 7 July 1889
Swan Sonnenschein & Co.
Paternoster Square, London

Monthly Sixpence


Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012

"I will send Elijah. . . and he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to the fathers lest I come and smite the earth with a curse." MAL. iv. 5, 6.

THE last of prophets, who heralds the day of the Lord, is to restore the spiritual continuity between the generations of God's people; he is to bring the spiritual fathers of the race to recognise in the men of his own age their proper sons; he is to make the men of his own age welcome with the affection of sons their spiritual progenitors. He is to restore spiritual continuity "lest God come and smite the earth with a curse."

For breaches of spiritual continuity, that is, religious revolutions, are almost always disastrous. There are times, indeed, when God has willed nations to break with the past. "Instead of thy fathers, thou shalt have children." But such exceptional moments we need not now consider. Speaking generally, even where breaches of religious continuity are not as permanent as it at first appeared they would be, they are pregnant with disaster.

They are not always permanent. The incoming of some flood of new knowledge may antiquate received statements of the current religious teaching, and the men of the "new learning" may revolt from what seems like intellectual bondage, and yet after all it may appear that what they revolted against was rather the parody of their faith [15/16] than their faith in its true character, and a harmony between the combatants may yet be arrived at again, which is a victory of the faith, but not a victory to either side. Or the fascination of a new point of view, like the points of view of physical science in our own day, may render men for a time blind to the limits of their new method. They may discard everything that does not fall under its ken. But after a time it may become apparent that the new point of view cannot command the whole field of human experience and fact. Nature reasserts itself in its completeness again. Or once more the inadequacies and sins of the Church of any period may provoke revolt, the revolt of the moral consciousness of men; and after a period of angry controversy the Church may, more or less, mend her ways; the fresh enthusiasms of the first reformer may lie down; the results of the new movement may disappoint anticipation, and another generation may grow to see more possibility of finding spiritual motherhood in the Church of their fathers. There are reformations and counter-reformations; there are revolts and reactions. There are "blindnesses in part" which happen to our Israels, which may be necessary to let loose new or suppressed forces, and which may lead at last to reconciliations.

So it may be. There are revolts which are not apostacies. But so it is not always. There are breaches which are never healed, at least in this world. And in any case such losses of spiritual continuity are terrible evils; and there cannot be a serious man amongst us to-day who would contemplate the failure of the Christian religion to keep its hold on the best heart and intellect of the coming generation without dismay. More and more then, as we go on in life, we feel our responsibility [16/17] for making the best of the heritage which the past has bequeathed to us. I speak not now of the heritage of civilisation, or knowledge, or good scholarship. I speak only of that highest heritage of all, the heritage of Christian creed and character. Verily we have entered into the labours of other men. The martyrs suffered for this faith; theologians fought its great battles and brought its whole fabric out clear from the subtle inroads of more or less plausible errors which would have disintegrated its substance or dimmed its light; in days of spiritual sloth revivalists, evangelists, reformers, have stirred to new life the dying embers of religion, and shown the Spirit to be still amongst men. The generations immediately behind our own have been specially fruitful in such efforts of spiritual recovery. Thus we stand to-day charged in a special way with the tremendous responsibility of not suffering the work of our spiritual fathers to fail. What they have handed down to us, is a trust for us to suffer and to work for. And as we go on in life, as slowly (each in his own sphere) we see the older generations passing from us, as, like Elisha, we know that, our masters taken away from our heads, we stand no longer the taught but the teachers, no longer children but parents, no longer supported but supporters, more and more there fills our mind the passionate yearning that the heritage of truth should not fail in its passage through us, that we may not have the human life round about us impoverished in its richest part through our unfaithfulness, whether that be foolish compliance and weak worldliness and want of faith, or on the other hand, reckless fanaticism and blind unyieldingness.

I. "To turn the hearts of the fathers to the children." How are we to get the old religion to recognise the men [17/18] of our day? The hearts of the children to the fathers. How are we to get the best men of our day to recognise the old religion? How are we to 'turn' them one to the other? for they are in some measure already averted from one another. The continuity is endangered, the breach does threaten. How are we to play our part to recover it? We fear, and yet even as we fear, we wonder at our own alarm. For let a man get at all into the heart of the Christian religion, and he becomes conscious at once that what that religion corresponds to is nothing which is changeable in human nature. Knowledge grows and past knowledge is outgrown; criticism develops and its method alters, and a past criticism is a bygone criticism. In civilisation, in social conditions "the old order changeth." But underneath all these developments there does lie a humanity which is permanent. Is it not one of the deepest pleasures of classical study that it brings us constantly in contact with ancient expressions of wants and experiences and emotions which we recognise as our own? We shake the hand of recognition with the poet or the dramatist or the moralist across the ages, and feel a sense of kinship all the more delightful because the changes of outward circumstance had deceived us into forgetting it, and "there is nothing new," we murmur, "under the sun." And in Christianity in proportion as this underlying humanity was more fully realised and more deeply stirred, do we catch the pledge of its permanence. The dress, the circumstances of a particular epoch fall easily off the Christ, and He stands disclosed the spiritual Lord of all the ages. The consciousness to which He appeals, the need of God, the desire for the divine Fatherhood, the sense of sin, the cry for redemption, the experience of strength which is given in response to the [18/19] self-surrender of faith, the union of men of all sorts and classes in the fellowship of the Holy Ghost—this consciousness, this experience, does not belong to any one age or class. It belongs to us now as much as to the men of old. We may take a passage from a Christian Father—an Augustine or an Athanasius—we find him offering us, perhaps, some analogy from the natural science of his time, and we smile at it. Then he gives us a bit of interpretation, and we discard his criticism for we have got a better. But if we look beyond these we find a true spiritual master with a message as good for us as for the men of his own day. The pledge that a catholic religion is possible lies in the recognition (in the moral and spiritual departments only) of a catholic humanity, which may be dormant in superficial ages and men, but can everywhere be awakened by life's deeper experiences or the profounder appeals of the men of God; and what is true of the teaching of great human poets is true in an infinitely higher degree of the Christian faith—

"Deep in the general heart of man
(Its) power abides."

II. How are we to play our part, then, in keeping unimpaired or in restoring the spiritual continuity of our age with the past? First, pre-eminently and for all of us, the task is to be wrought out in the character by spiritual discipline. And it is this fact that makes it seem to me that the subject I am proposing to you to-day is not at all inharmonious with that call to spiritual discipline which Lent is just beginning to make upon those who desire to be the obedient children of the Church. Christianity finds its chief witness in life, in character. As a life—not as a bare doctrine—did it come into the world: "The Life was manifested, and we have seen it [19/20] and bare witness. Before the message passed from Christ, He had given it a body. He had embodied it in a Church, in an organised social life, in which various gifts of various individualities, disciplined into unity, should reflect the fulness of His Manhood, and exhibit in a whole society "the perfect man." All down the ages it is character which has been the chief instrument of propagating the truth. It has been character we know in our own cases that has made the deepest impression on us. What is the Christian character? It is Sonship; it is something that is peculiar to Christianity; much more than mere morality or abstinence from sin. It is the direct product of a conscious relation to the Divine Father, a fellowship with the Divine Son, a freedom in the Spirit. It is a secure confidence in the manifested love of God; it is the reflection of the Divine Compassion, which found its real revelation in the self-sacrifice of the Son: all its roots are cut if Christ's character is not really the character of God, and Christ's resurrection is not a reality which guarantees the final victory of His cause and Person. Yes! Christian sonship is the direct outcome of Christian motives, and its chief evidence lies in itself: in its applicability to life, in its power over circumstances, in its freedom from panic fear, in that wonderful sense which it alone possesses, that though the world is full of mystery it is not a baffling enigma. Christ's Passion and Resurrection has given the clue. Certainly the chief witness for Christ in the world is the witness of Christian sonship.

Servants of God—or sons
Shall I not call you, because
Not as servants ye knew
Your Master's innermost mind,
His, who unwillingly sees

One of His little ones lost?
Yours is the praise if mankind
Hath not yet in its march
Fainted, or fallen, or died.

Yes, in each hour of need
Of our fainting dispirited race,
Ye like angels appear.

Weakness is not in your word,
Languor is not in your heart,
Weariness not on your brow.

[20] Here, then, is your first vocation. Realise and exhibit the temper of sonship. Men are sure to recognise this, as something which must be made permanent; something they cannot do without; something which is real and the product of real forces. It is developed by generous correspondence with the movement of God's Spirit within us, by constant ventures of faith and acts of inward obedience: it comes of the deliberate and regular exercise of those faculties of the spirit to which Christ most appeals, of prayer, of self-discipline, of faith, of self-knowledge, of penitence. University experience may very easily mar or ruin the beginnings of a spiritual life. I must not enlarge upon this now. But if we allow ourselves in social ambition, if we "seek honour one of another and not the glory which cometh of the only God," we are sure to attribute undue weight to the mere currents of perhaps rather shallow and self-satisfied intellectual opinion round about us, and lose the capacity which belongs to all noble life for standing alone and seeing below the surface, for "proving all things and holding fast that which is good." Or we may fail in moral courage, and swim down the stream with a reluctant conscience, never allowed to make effectual protests. Or we may let [20/21] the methodised systems of study and amusement and social life squeeze out the sadly-unmethodised and unsystematic life of devotion. Or we may lose humility in the desire to make a display. To keep our spiritual life strong we need courage and reserve, and a measure of self-discipline and self-isolation from the forces around us. We need a robust reverence for the past spiritual experience of the race which shall prevent our being taken captive by the first magazine article which assures us that Christianity is a thing of the past. So we shall keep alive in us the motives which make for Christian belief, and when we come to study the rational ground and evidences of Christian belief in any department we shall have some fund of Christian experience to enable us to "try the spirits," and we shall endeavour to study questions of Christian evidence in serious books and by serious methods, not in novels or magazine articles, which impress us, if at all, almost entirely by an appeal to names of presumed authority of which we know nothing. Thus we shall nourish the temper of sonship. A certain fearlessness will belong to us. "We shall not be afraid of any evil tidings."

And this reassurance in every increasing measure will pass to others. "We shall comfort others with the comfort wherewith we ourselves are comforted of God." If at first the enthusiasm for humanity, the sturdy confidence in the future, the noble generosity of character exhibited by some of those among our contemporaries who have lost their Christian faith, bewilders us and makes us feel ashamed and doubtful, we shall probably, even in this respect, in not a few cases, find before long our sad reward—when their enthusiasm has given way to despondency, and their confidence gets sorely depressed, [22/23] and the generosity shows itself not least in giving to Christianity that last and best tribute which unbelief can give, the tribute of regret, and the pathetic readiness to rejoice in work in which it cannot share.

III. Secondly, the obligation of keeping up the spiritual continuity of the generations, presses with especial force upon the Church's teachers. The prophetic office of the Church consists in the permanent function of maintaining an old and unchanging faith, by showing its power of adapting itself to constantly new conditions; it is to interpret the old faith to the new generations, with, fidelity to the old, and with confidence in the new. Thus the Church teacher must first of all study the rule of faith, the authoritative revelation of which he is the steward and minister only; towards which he has one supreme duty: "it is required in stewards, that a man be found faithful." Unless a man is doing this seriously and constantly, the faith will suffer in his hands; the immediate pressure of public opinion and popular likes and dislikes, will mould to themselves the teaching which ought to discipline them, and degrade its spirituality or impair its strength. But this very loyalty to the faith, though of paramount necessity, has itself its danger. The parish priest finds himself surrounded, probably, with a circle of 'good church people.' They are ever with him. He knows their loyalty, their goodness of heart and readiness of will. He feels his most fruitful work is to build them up in spiritual knowledge; to give them what they need. He does well to feel this and act upon it. He is doing thus his most necessary, his primary work—but with an accompanying risk, the risk of letting the Church become a set, a circle, a group, which leaves outside in the cold, untouched and unknown, some of the [23/24] best elements of life and thought and movement in the parish. He is not fulfilling his larger task, his prophetic office. He is not "commending himself to every man's conscience in the sight of God." This he will be enabled to do more readily, partly by a constant study of Holy Scripture, which is the most effective safeguard against outsidedness and narrowness, which is human with all the breadth of humanity, partly by forcing himself to know, as reverently as the unchanging faith, the changing needs of men about him.

For the old dogmas are to many men, and to many of the best men, as an unknown tongue. Like the unknown tongues of the Corinthian Church, they are not spoken to edification without an interpreter. The prophetic office of the Church is to interpret the unknown tongues of old doctrine till they speak in the intelligible language of felt human wants. How is this to be done? By knowing the wants. By being in touch with the movements. Serious are the warnings of Christ to those spiritual teachers who do not "discern the times." Seriously did P. Gratry repeat them to the French priests of the last generation. "Hoc autem tempus quare non probatis?" We need the warning too. Each of us clergy in his parish, in his college, in his sphere, each Christian teacher, lay or clerical, must "discern his time:" must know what men are thinking about, and wanting, and asking round about him. He must be able to report as a true watchman what is going on. He must get out of his coterie and know those outside. He must be often more ready to listen than to preach. For one can need but little experience, e.g., of parochial visiting, to know that a man may deliver the best possible homilies with the greatest possible assiduity and the least possible [24/25] results: if he is a wise man he will rather be reserved in admonishing and more quick to listen. Listening, respectful inquiry, the genuine desire to learn of all men, will from time to time strike the spark of a real human want out of a human heart. And such a spark is a guiding light. Bacon, it was said, was ever ready to light his torch at other men's rushlights. This would be a good example for the clergy. "Let no man despise thee" does not mean (I was reminded at my ordination), "go about asserting yourself:" it means "be in character what people cannot despise." He who makes a point of studying prayerfully and with care the wants and feelings of those whom he least easily understands and who least easily take to him; he who suppresses himself and does not make his own acceptableness the criterion of merit: he who discerns his time and sees a movement of God, however overlaid or hidden in every deeper current of social feeling, as he sees a God-given faculty, capable of redemption and only misdirected, in the passions which minister to the vilest sins—he can best make heard his Master's claim, he can best interpret the old faith, in terms of the new need—he can act like the faithful and wise steward, and "bring forth out of his treasures things new and old."

IV. Lastly, there is a special sense in which the task of maintaining spiritual continuity down the generations belongs to the Christian student, to whom is intrusted the prophetic function of interpreting the old to the new, in a special degree. And I trust there are here, at Cambridge, yet many who would desire to claim succession, as Christian students, to those brilliant examples in the generation just above them of scholarship devoted to the service of Christ and His Church.

[26] In the pursuit of such a vocation two things are necessary, for the student as for the pastor. There is the knowledge of the old: there is the appreciation of the new. The knowledge of the old faith—for what stimulates our hope is the consideration that Christianity has already lived through changes social and intellectual, as serious as any through which we can be passing now. We contemplate that early Church; we delight to show how largely it was a product of the times; how the "divine preparation" in history had given it a cradle; how Judaism led up to it; how the dispersion of the Jews supplied everywhere a point of departure for Christianity; how the diffusion of the Greek language and Greek philosophy, at that particular stage, supplied it with a suitable language and a stock of received ideas adaptable to its purpose; how the organisation of the secular colleges had accustomed men to the idea of a membership not unlike Church membership, to special conditions of communion and the loss of them. Then, again, to trace how Christianity, once founded, adapted its organisation to the Roman Empire, so that the organisation of the Church knit itself into the organisation of the Empire, as if the two were inseparable, were part and parcel of the same social order. These considerations may not reach the point of convincing us at all that Christianity is a merely natural product. But so far as they weaken in any degree the argument for the supernaturalness of the Christian Church from the circumstances of its origin, in exactly equal degree they strengthen the argument from its capacity for permanence. In proportion as it belonged to the old social order, it should have declined with its decline, and ended with its end. But the Roman Empire passed away and the Church remained—knit itself indeed into the fabric of mediaeval [26/27] society more intimately than into that of the Roman Empire. The forces which killed the Empire gave the Church a new life. Once again, the rise of modern nations which broke up the fabric of mediaeval Christendom, brought with it only a fresh instance of how Christianity, under the form of national Churches, could again adapt itself to new conditions. Nor had these changes only been changes of social order; they had been changes in the fundamental character of thought and feeling. The change from Greek theology to mediaeval theology is not less than that from the theology of the schoolmen to the theology of the Reformers, as far as concerns at least its intellectual characteristics. Through all these changes Christianity has been permanent, and this permanence is an immense encouragement to us to believe that through the present changes of social and intellectual conditions, the Church system will exhibit a no less striking vitality. Moreover, such considerations surely lead the Christian student to look with most reverence and surest confidence on the elements of Christianity which he sees historically to have been most permanent. In the sense in which the words were originally written and explained by the thoughtful layman, Vincent, in his quiet monastery in the lovely isle of Lerins, there has been a faith which, amidst many elements of difference, has been taught and held in substance semper, ubique, ab omnibus; semper from the first, ubique in all parts of Christendom, and ab omnibus, that is to say, not by every individual but by the bulk of the Church—the common tradition as opposed to the speculations of individual thinkers. On this historic fabric then—on Christianity in its most catholic, its most permanent features of belief and organisation—the elements which have again and again [27/28] borne witness by their persistence through radical changes to their essential character, the Christian student will lay the most stress, to these he will look with surest confidence. And specially across the ages he will still, in spite of ridicule from Romanist or Rationalist, treat with unstinted veneration the witness of antiquity, of the primitive and undivided Church. Partly because it is primitive—and that is a great matter in connection with a religion which is nothing if not a revelation; because he sees Christianity in those early days purer in this sense than it has ever been since, that it was then less mixed up with all the other institutions of society, that its true character is more apparent, its true motives less veiled, its true aims more simply in view. Specially then do we feel that those elements which belong to all the primitive Churches—which we cannot find any Church lacking amid many differences of tone and custom, and which have (under all variations) been permanent ever since—these elements of belief and worship and organisation we feel on surest grounds belong to the essence of Christianity; from these we most desire to make each new departure. Thus behind the reaction of the Reformation, so much more conspicuous for its vigorous protests against abuses than for the clearness of its positive attitude, so much more an awakening than a settlement—behind the Mediaeval Church which coloured every Christian institution, the idea of God no less than the institution of the Episcopate, with that tinge of absolutism and imperialism, which is so certainly alien to the best mind of our time, behind the Reformation and the middle ages, we look back to primitive Christianity for help and guidance. Not only because it is primitive, but also because it is (if I may so speak) so modern. [28/29] The early Greek Church, Greek Christianity, belongs to an epoch, the intellectual characteristics of which are much more akin to those of our own day than any which belong to an intermediate epoch. The Greek teachers exhibit a luminous rationality, a beautiful spirituality, a scripturalness, a large sense of the dealings of God all over the world, a philosophic freedom, a sense of evidence, a belief in the order and harmony of nature and of grace, a deference to individual temperaments which (in spite of critical methods unlike our own) makes us feel easily at home with them, as much at home with them, as on the other hand we mostly find ourselves out of harmony with the miscalled ages of faith—those middle ages, with which some of our modern opponents seem anxious to identify Christianity.

The Christian student then, I say, will, in the first place, study with reverent care, irrespective of modern wants, the genius of historical Christianity—making himself at one with the religion of Christ in that form in which it has shown itself in experience most catholic, most capable of persistence through radical changes, least the product of any particular age or state of feeling. And, next, as he honestly endeavours to make his own the witness of the past, so he will give himself with frankness and freedom to study the conditions of the present. Mostly the same person does not do both these things. The adherents of the old faith often try (most blindly surely) to persuade themselves that there is really nothing new under the sun, and that the current objections to Christianity have been answered long ago. It is most untrue. Since Galileo overturned the old view of this world as the centre of all things, round which all revolved, modern science has given and is giving a profoundly fresh tendency and point of [29/30] view to the thoughts of men. Modern criticism is, in its accuracy, in its profundity, in its thoroughness, really new. The whole modern point of view as to the value of the individual is, if not new, at least new as a real force in society and politics. The social changes imminent are neither few nor superficial. We do live in an age of profound transition, socially and intellectually.

Well, then, what is wanted is for the same people to take measure of the ancient faith and to discern the signs of the times.

There is much work before us to emancipate Christianity from the shackles of mediaeval absolutism, of Calvinism, of mere Protestant reaction, and to reassert it in its largeness, in its freshness, and in its adaptability to new knowledge and new movements. On one single point, the doctrine of God and of the fall of man, I hope with God’s blessing to endeavour to indicate next Sunday, how part of the fundamental faith of Christendom may be brought into relation to modern science and the modern conscience. On the general question it would be, of course, impossible to attempt more in a sermon than to indicate the elements which must go to make up any solution of the problem. Only it may be permitted to me to remark that the doctrine of God which science now encourages—God as a force immanent in all things, working everywhere (the doctrine of God which is most opposed to the idea of Him as the Great Emperor, external to the world and only occasionally intervening, which we inherit from the middle ages and from last century Deism)—is a fundamental part of the Christian idea on which early writers laid the greatest stress. Again, that science cannot from the point of view of experience lay more stress on the universality of law, than early theology did from the point of view of God, [30/31] whose working, always perfect, orderly, and rational nature expresses. Again that we cannot desire a wider or truer view of the relation of Christianity to other religions and to the whole of knowledge than the fundamental conceptions of Christianity, as the Greek fathers in part developed them, warrant and encourage. Again, that criticism can indeed point out the absence in some Christian epochs of any sense of evidence, for instance, in the early middle ages; it can indeed open out many large questions about the Old Testament which it may not be possible ever to close with critical certainty one way or another, but it cannot dissolve the solid foundation of formulated and conscious testimony, borne in the face of Sadducean scepticism and Pharisaic opposition, on which the fundamental facts repose, with which the Christian faith is inextricably bound up. Lastly, that no stress that modern thought and feeling can lay upon the rights of the individual—upon the "one man one vote" principle—can ever attain to the degree of consideration for the individual life which Christianity, truly understood, contains within her scope; nor can Socialism ever accuse the Christian morality, though it can accuse Christian teachers, of allowing property to forget its duties.

Let us meditate upon the ancient faith and fabric of Christianity, and deal reverently with that ancient trust. Let us deal frankly and generously with modern thoughts and modern wants, and where ancient teaching strains, or has strained, men's consciences, seek a remedy partly no doubt in a deepening of the current conscience, partly also in a purifying of the faith by reference to her originals.

The Church of England has in this respect a unique vocation. She only of Churches has been kept in unbroken continuity with the ancient Christian organisation, [31/32] and has inherited the full tradition of the past, while at the same time she has identified herself with the scriptural appeal of the Reformation, and the freer life which has sprung out of it.

Unique, then, is her vocation and unique her responsibility. It belongs to her to unite the old and the new; "to turn the heart of the fathers to the children and the hearts of the children to the fathers," lest God come and smite the earth with a curse. It belongs to her, and that means to each one of us—if in a special measure to us who are students, or who are, or are to be, ministers of Christ, yet in a real measure to every one who can venerate the religion of his home, of his mother, of the Christian past, who can recognise the tremendous danger of letting slip or weakening his spiritual heritage, and, on the other hand, the boundless privilege of setting to his seal that God is true, and handing on unimpaired—nay more, with a new verification and certificate—the witness of Christ.

Project Canterbury