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Under the Lee of Mr. Herbert Thorndike
by F.H.T. Horsfield

American Church Monthly, volume 29, 1931, pp 458-465

THE dingy covers of the volumes of the Anglo-Catholic Library puts them on the more obscure shelves among our books; nearer at hand are the gayer bindings of the books of the more recent adventurers in ecclesiastical learning. Differences of opinion are found among these old time scholars concerning questions of exegetical, theological and liturgical interest, but in them all, a certain ability and devotion which permeate the mind of the reader, and beget studious attention. A real charm of the writings of the old Anglican divines is the fulness and sobriety with which Catholic truth is argued and presented in the face of a lively and protesting majority, and it soon becomes increasingly evident that each writer, in his own way, is standing firm at the crossing of the Jordan.

Herbert Thorndike, sometime Prebendary of the Collegiate Church of St. Peter, Westminster, was the third son of a Lincolnshire gentleman of moderate means, residing at Scramblesly in the same county. It is quite uncertain where and when Herbert was born. No records are found of his birth, baptism, confirmation or ordination. He just escaped being anonymous. There is no record of his early education; and he first appears as a Pensioner of Trinity College, Cambridge, where, according to the statutes, he must have been at least fifteen years old. (1613). He took his B.A. 1617 or 18, M.A. 1620. Elected "Senior Fellow of his College," his record is so mixed with an inferior list of Minor Fellows of the vintage of two years afterwards, that there is no untangling of it all.

Notwithstanding the unrecorded character of his earlier life, he adorned many an office of honor and responsibility, among them a place on the Prayer Book Commission of 1662. To add to the mischances of his career, he refused the degree of Doctor in Divinity from Cambridge, his Alma Mater. Its acceptance incurred some personal duties which would have annoyed him. His declination would seem an unsolved mystery to many of our own scholars who esteem such an honor as the nearest to Heaven that they may ever expect to get.

Schaff-Herzog states "that he must be regarded, as the most learned, the most systematic, and the most powerful advocate of Anglo-Catholic theology and High Church principles in the seventeenth century."

Our author was born within the folds of an enveloping puritanism, thought through all its categories, and emerged in later years a sound hearted and fearless English Catholic, with just a suspicion of the memoranda of his progress. At every chance the Puritans threw him out of his preferments; and for days he went hungry and thirsty, and in peril of his own countrymen; but nothing disturbed his dauntless spirit, and in the political and religious upheavals of the time, he finally came to a permanent seat in Westminster, passing away in 1672. He was a true man for his times, wherein the Continental Reformation—rotting into a revolution, "not the mending of the old Church, but the making of a new Church" (Vol. V. p. 123)—had wrought unutterable confusion in the field of religion by rapidly disintegrating into the deepest hatred of the papacy on the one hand, and into hopeless despair of destroying the Church of England on the other hand. This is a great man, with a lantern, looking for loyalties in a day of trouble and rebuke.

Isaac Barrow criticised the literary style of his friend Thorndike, as lacking in "perspicuity"; which was, indeed, a kindly way of putting it. Our author refers aptly to the style of one of his own pamphlets as: "work cut out, to be made up at leisure." However, each sentence had to be milled out in the consciousness of animated and bitter opposition, and so arranged as to leave no loophole for gainsayers. A safe enclosure was more needed than rhetorical grace. His logical inferences and conclusions are often startling, but quite within his premises, checked by an ample learning in Holy Scripture, almost impossible to successfully controvert, whilst offering a gracious opportunity "that we, through patience and comfort of the scriptures, might have hope."

Schooled in such circumstances, we may be able to learn something from him useful for our different but stirring times, wherein ignorance is still bliss, and malice is no less at work. It may be that we shall feel comfortable and sheltered under the lee of Mr. Herbert Thorndike, and interested in a bit of argument for the clearance of our Church life. The argument may have been heard before, but only in a frightened sort of way. Thorndike says:

I am satisfied that the differences upon which we are divided cannot be justly settled upon any terms, which any part of the whole Church shall have cause to refuse as inconsistent with the unity of the whole church (Vol. V. p. 27).

This clear distinction between the legislative privileges of the particular Church in contrast with the ready veto power of the whole Church, is held by him to be of paramount importance, and most intimate in its implications:

For the unity of the Church being a part of the common Christianity the breach of it will be chargeable upon that side, which makes such a change as the rest have not reason to embrace,—The rules, customs, and rites of the Church, which are called traditions, are not commanded because good, but are good because commanded (p. 113). But the unity of all parts being subordinate and of inferior consideration to the unity of the whole, we shall justly be chargeable with the crime of schism, if we seek unity within ourselves by abrogating the laws of the whole, as not obliged to be in communion with it (p. 28).

He seems to mean by the "whole Church," not so much the Church in its external world-wide character, in which he believed most implicitly, but the Apostolic Church in the sum of its units, each particular Church being bound by its own share to stand by and to maintain the common belief and usage of the whole. The working idea is supplied in the fact that a Council of the Church derives its after ecumenical character from its general acceptance on the part of all the Church. Our Prayer Book carries the same idea into practice: "Let us pray for the whole state (estate) of Christ's Church." In that same prayer, the phrase "all Bishops and Ministers" includes among the others the Bishop of Rome and his clergy, as a matter of course; as is also true of the Litany. This truth should be like a cold hand on our impetuosities, and should arrest any gush of sentimentality, whilst it uncovers the dictates of law and reason. It is this remembrance of the traditions of the family life that should chill the behavior of each member within the lines of common custom.

Naturally the first thought is the meaning of our credal belief in "One Catholic Church":

For either it signifies nothing: or it signifies that God has founded one visible Church; that is, that He hath obliged all Churches (and all Christians, of whom all Churches consist) to hold visible communion with the whole Church in the visible offices of God's public Service, (p. 27)

In another place:

If that change which is called Reformation, preserves not such a Church as ought to be acknowledged for a true member of the whole (or Catholic) Church, it is no reformation, but the destruction of Christianity" (p. 8)

Farther on, almost a prophecy of these later and faint hearted days:

The issue is, and will be, whether you or the Church shall be judge; until you distinguish between the present Church and the whole Church, not contesting the faith of the present Church so far as it holds with the whole (p. 122). Therefore when they say they "believe the Catholic Church," as part of that faith whereby they hope to be saved: they do not profess to believe, that there is such a company of men, but there is a corporation of true Christians, excluding heretics and schismatics; and that they hope to be saved by this faith, as being members of it. And this is that, which the style of the "holy Catholic and Apostolic Church" signifies; as distinguishing the body of true Christians (to wit, as far as profession goes) from the conventicles of heretics and schismatics, (p. 8).

Then he tucks it all in nicely:

Until the dregs of our times, I did not know that it was ever disputed, that Christians are not bound to be members of one and the same visible Church, (p. 121)

The question of a tender ecclesiastical conscience, the claim of which has been near the surface of things ever since the Reformation, and is usually thought to afflict our separated brethren only, receives due attention. The plea of tender conscience:

will easily appear to be saddle for all horses, a pair of stirrups to be lengthened or shortened to all statures, (p. 98) but supposing the unity of the Church ordained by God, to forbear those laws which it requireth, because tenderness of conscience may be alleged against them, is to offend the whole rather than a part. For the same might have been alleged against any law of God's Church. So there could have been no such thing as a visible Church. (98.)

Neither will I say that any of those who desire "forbearance" for the "weak" are in any error destructive to the foundation of faith and the hope of salvation, till they break out in conventicles. When that is done, I am thenceforth bound to charge them with all the error, which the title of their schism can signify. . . . When they do so, then they can be counted no more the "weak" among Christians; than those Jews which St. Paul will have to be forborne as the "weak" among Christians; supposing them to have renounced the faith afterwards, rather than continue in the Church, . . . They have cut themselves off from it by leaving the Church. Let them return and make the best of it. (420)

The antagonism between St. Paul and St. Peter is summed up in this fashion:

But it is manifest likewise, that when St. Paul differed with St. Peter at Antiochia about the necessity of compliance with the Jews for Gentiles turned Christians, he did forbid and must need forbid his followers to show this compliance; lest by that means he might hold them in an opinion of the necessity of the law for the Salvation of Christians (p. 213).

In this interpretation, the principle is laid down that compliance with differing scruples would perpetuate an unsound principle, and should be avoided. On page 214 the stern language of St. Paul in his guidance of St. Titus: I;10-15, is quoted about the "unruly," who were so "because their own consciences were "denied" (p. 214), and their minds, too. Consideration for those who have housed their weak and tender consciences into organized conventicles outside of the covenanted mercies of God, full of oppositions to the Church of God, has often led to the invention of less annoying terms to sooth the feelings of the wanderers, and the succession of the Sacred Ministry has been evaporated into the "Historic Episcopate." The whole trend of the teaching of this learned priest shows plainly that he would not recognise such a phrase if he met it on the street. Church Unity is emasculated into "Christian Union." An honest voice out of the dark, exclaims: "Here I must take notice, that the reason, why the Church catholic is to be held, may be mis-kenned, if it be extended to all that is called Christian, and not limited to that, maintaining the faith, violateth not the unity of the primitive Church" (p. 397-8). In the face of a large opportunity to teach the real significance of the word "Catholic," it is in our time worried down into "Universal," conveying an adulterated sub-sense, and made to mean: "Everything," as a recognised substitute for "Everywhere," and not filling the Church's word "Catholic," as the antithesis of heresy and schism. The faithful voice sounds again: "For this title of Catholic would signify nothing, if heretics and schismatics were not barred the communion of the Church." (p. 8).

Thorndike has the liveliest dread of the well-nigh criminal carelessness of really making things worse in the distracted Church by trying prematurely to make things better. His caution is forgotten in the craze for conferences, uncanonical special services, and a loving companionship with "friendly schism," as we go on our way rejoicing in what the spider said to the fly; whilst our separated brethren quietly smile the while. There is sorrow in the voice, now:

The unity of the Church is of such consequence to the salvation of all Christians, that no excess on one side can cause the other to increase the distance, but they shall be answerable for the souls that perish by means of it. (p. 30)

In such relations we seem to have learned to use a free hand and a full brush close to the limits of indiscretion. The possibility of this "increase of distance" seems like a nightmare to this valiant soldier of the Cross, and he refers to it many times as a present danger:

So they (Church of England) may be no schismatics in God's sight for changing without the Church of Rome, which they knew would not consent; yet we may be schismatics in defying it upon new terms of distance" (p. 97).

A definite scale of measurement is offered:

so it is the standard in Church law, to measure the distance between the true point of reformation and the present Church of Rome, by that which is visible in the Catholic Church. (91) Once more: Now that the several sovereignties have made their several changes without communicating with one another (that is, as not tied to the visible unity of the whole); it is becoming infinitely more difficult to unite them without expressly agreeing in this principle, than it would be to unite all, agreeing in it. For the grounds and consequences of it would be, necessarily, the scale to balance, and the standard to measure all differences. (92)

This measure of distance loses its significance when aligned with expediency or softened into a spasm of friendliness, or good fellowship; for

The due measure is not the satisfying of men's appetites, but the improvement of our common Christianity. (68) Indeed, some would have the law of the Kingdom changed to give them content, without considering what cause we give the Church of Rome to take us for schismatics, balking the whole Church that we may be reconciled to those who have broken from us. (p. 122).

This is a principle with much at stake to-day. In a recent issue of the Church Times, Oct. 17. Resolution 15. is thus referred to: "One thing, we fear is all too clear. Guarded and partial, as it certainly is, the pronouncement vastly widens the breach between Canterbury and Rome."

Our author is genuinely kind hearted, but he will not allow his sympathies, however deeply aroused, to deflate his principles, firmly held; nor will he barter or compromise, or give them away:

though the differences of times and the estate of things will not endure the restoring of primitive discipline, yet shall it be easy thereby to discern, what is abated for unities sake, and what is rejected because the Catholic Church, and the laws of it are not owned, (p. 122).

This noble Churchman seems to have an instinctive appreciation that the principles and laws of the whole Church must be recognized fully, else untraditional ideas and tricks would seep through into the body corporate, and destroy or decrease its vitality:

And in all cases, if the laws of our Church be changed for peace's sake, without regard to that truth, which made it become questionable to change the laws of the Church of Rome: may it not become questionable whether the Church of England remain the Church of England or not? (p. 90).

These are wholesome words, and strongly disinfectant for unwholesome times.

There is another warning from the possible infection of error from those carelessly allowed to reenter the Church without sufficient quarantine.

For is it to be presumed, that they, who have made their own wills their law for so many years, will so much as profess conformity to the rule of the Church: and if they did profess it, there is no reason to think, that they should stand to it, having a disposition dormant of the spirit, to stand to their profession as the interest of their faction shall require. So their coming to Church would be only an advantage for them to infect others. (p. 39).

Many an American parish is staggering under just such a load of flotsam and jetsam as that: the fruit of unwisdom in dealing with the things that belong unto God. Inattention or worse, to this source of confusion in the Household of God has wrought trouble in the Church of England since the Reformation, and in our own Church, too. This desuetude of discipline must be among the contributory causes of much of the party spirit in the Church in these anxious days. It is certainly noteworthy that such an evident warning should have come to us out of an age knowing so little of hygiene, and all unknowing of the psychology of intimate associations.

There never was a time like the present, when the relations of the particular Churches of the Apostolic family needed to recognize with more emphasis the existence of the whole family of God; the whole Church with its imperial rights. Necessarily there must come a Day of Reckoning for clandestine determinants, unknown to the whole body of the Faithful, and to be repented of by our Roman friends, as well as by ourselves.

Isaiah pleads with his generation for the loyalties of their religion; for their whole head is sick, and their whole heart faint.

Josiah Royce sang his song of the excellencies of the loyalties of life to his generation, on another unheeding level of life, but it was only a pleasant song to them all.

Herbert Thorndike cried aloud for loyalties, in the staggering Church of England, infested with aliens to her peace, and drifting from her moorings. He called to a generation slipping into the humiliations of the Hanoverian period: slothful, ignorant, and as unfaithful as they could be with their torn standards; getting ready in a dull way to colonize our Atlantic seaboard with ecclesiastical infelicities, from which we have not recovered, and which are not recognizable to the whole Church.

The shadows are lengthening; it has been an inspiration to find shelter here in the lee of Herbert Thorndike, the stalwart knight in a turbulent age, full of fight for the right, as he saw it. We realize in contrast, how firm he stood for the Church, whilst the fiery darts of the wicked slapped like hail on his buckler. Comparisons may be odious, and they are bound to be disquieting, but to watch the unrest, and the unruly wills of so many of the Church to-day, must drive sensitive observers to turn the hymn into a prayer:

From tainting mischief keep them white and clear,
And crown Thy gifts with strength to persevere.

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