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[Opening Sermon, General Convention, New York, October 7, 1874, by Bishop George Augustus Selwyn, Bishop of Lichfield, from The Church Journal, New York, October 15, 1874, p. 666.]

Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2008


Pursuant to announcement, the General Convention was opened on the morning of the 7th, by Divine Service and the Holy Communion in St. John's chapel. At the hour appointed, all available room in the church was occupied, and the Bishops and visiting clergy, with the Secretaries of both Houses, entered in procession during the singing of "The Church's one foundation." Morning Prayer was read by the Rev. Dr. Perry; the Rev. James Edwards, Vicar of Trentham, Lichfield, England; the Very Rev. Dr. Balch, Archdeacon of Huron; the Rev. Dr. Ellegood, Canon of Montreal; and the Rev. Hugh Ketcham, Honorary Canon of Fredericton. The Litany was said by the Rev. Dr. H. C. Potter. The Communion Service was conducted by the Rt. Rev. Dr. Oxenden; Metropolitan of Canada; the Bishop of Maryland; the Rt. Rev. Dr. Courtenay, Bishop of Kingston; the Bishop of Delaware; the Bishops of Mississippi, North Carolina, and New York, the presiding Bishop as Consecrator, and the Bishops of Rhode Island and Michigan. The sermon was by the Rt. Rev. Dr. Selwyn, Lord Bishop of Lichfield, as follows:


"It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us."--Acts xv. 28.

Behold, brethren, a Synod in the highest sense: "It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us"--God the Holy Ghost uniting believers with Himself by the spirit of counsel. St. Paul tells us in 1 Cor. iii. 9, that we are laborers together with God, and he adds: "Ye are God's husbandry, ye are God's building." The world is the field in which God works with us; He as the Lord of the harvest; we as the laborers. The Church is the building growing into a holy temple (Ephes. ii. 21), in which God is the master builder, and we the workmen. As Christ is both the priest and the sacrifice, so He is both the master-builder and the chief cornerstone. And we, in like manner, are both the workmen and the stones--workmen to lay ourselves as living stones upon the one foundation, which is Christ alone, in Whom we are builded together for a habitation of God through the Spirit (Ephes. ii. 22). In this character of "laborers together with God," Paul and Barnabas went up to Jerusalem, and there declared to the Church and to the Apostles and Elders all things that God had done with them (Acts xv. 4). So also at Antioch they rehearsed all that God had done with them (Acts xiv. 27). The final words of St. Mark's Gospel are thus seen in their course of fulfilment: "They," that is, the Apostles, "went forth and preached everywhere, the Lord working with them" (Mark xv. 20). United work is the result of united counsel. There must be one mind before there can be one work. When the builders of Babel could not understand one another's speech, they left off to build the city (Gen. xi. 8). Not so when the Lord builds the house. The labor will not be lost of them that build it (Psalm cxxvii. 1). As the master builder God lays the foundation, and gives grace to them that build upon it (1 Cor. iii. 10). Many names may be given to that special grace. It may be called unity, or the spirit of counsel, but its special name is edification (1 Cor. xiv. 26). Let all things be done unto edifying. The rule by which we work is the mind of the Master builder. The plumb-line (Amos. vii. 7), the measuring-reed (Ezekiel iv. 3), and the square, are the Lord's. The pattern of things on earth was first conceived in heaven. The foundation on which we build was laid by the foreknowledge of God. He that built all things is God (Heb. iii. 4). It was no part of the creed of the Apostolic Church that every man might build upon this foundation as he pleased. It was not enough to say "I build upon the foundation of Christ"; whether he built gold, silver, and precious stones, or wood, hay, and stubble (1 Cor. iii. 12). A plain warning was given: "Let every man take heed how he buildeth thereupon," for "the fire shall try every man's work of what sort it is" (Ib. iii. 13). There was no place for rival bands of builders. This was the earnest exhortation of St. Paul to the Corinthians (i. 1), when he heard that there were contentions among them: "Now I beseech you, brethren, by the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, that ye all speak the same thing, and that there be no division among you; but that ye be perfectly joined together in the same mind and in the same judgment."

No man had a better right to assert an opinion of his own than St. Paul. He had been called from his mother's womb; he had seen the Lord Jesus Christ; be had heard the voice of the Lord speaking to him from Heaven; he had been caught up into the third Heaven to hear unspeakable words. If he had claimed to the uttermost the right of private judgment and rejected all counsel of his brethren, he at least, if any man might have been excused. But this was not the mind of the Lord Jesus as the Lord Himself had revealed it to him, this was not the way along which the Holy Ghost led him; this was not the lesson which he learned and practised at the Synod of the Apostles and Elders at Jerusalem; this was not the example which he saw and followed when he was received, late in the day, as one born out of due time, into that Church in which the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and one soul (Acts iv. 32). The thought was thus deeply rooted in the Apostle's mind that "God is not a God of confusion, but of peace" (1 Cor. xiv. 33).

The right of private judgment was not abolished, but placed under due control. Each believer might have his own special gifts, by which one man would differ from another; to one, the word of wisdom; to another, the word of knowledge; to another, Faith; to another, the gifts of healing; to another, the working of miracles; to another, prophecy; to another, discerning of spirits; to another, divers kinds of tongues; to another, the interpretation of tongues; all these were the work of that one and self-same Spirit, dividing to every man severally as he would. These special gifts, like the powers of foot and head and eye, were for the good of the whole body. There was to be no schism in the body; but all the members were to have the same care one for another. Each member of Christ was free to covet earnestly the best gifts: to pray for more knowledge and more Faith, and more inward and spiritual life, yet all these would be of no avail, without that more excellent way of charity, that bond of perfectness, which unites all the several members in the one body. Private judgment and free expression of opinion were not forbidden in that Synod of Jerusalem. What is a Synod but an assembly of men of many minds, and what would be the value of a Synod if there were no freedom of speech? The Apostolic Church was not exempt from differences of opinion; it was not a Church bound to accept as infallible the opinions of one man. Grecians were free to murmur against the Hebrews, that their widows were neglected in their daily ministration. The converts to the circumcision were free to contend with St. Peter, because he went in to men uncircumcised and did eat with them; others of the converted Jews, in their zeal for the law, taught the brethren, Except ye be circumcised after the manner of Moses, ye cannot be saved. St. Paul did not fear to withstand St. Peter on the same ground, face to face, because he was to be blamed; there was no small dissension and disputation upon the point, at Antioch; much disputing on the same question, at Jerusalem; certain of the sect of Pharisees which believed gave their opinion that it was needful to circumcise them, and to command them to keep the law. Peter, Paul, Barnabas, took the contrary side; and St. James, as President, summed up the debate and put the question to the vote; and then by the united voice of Apostles, Elders, and brethren, the decree was given, and the encyclical letter written with the solemn preamble "It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us."

Can we fail to learn from this inspired history what the right of Private Judgment really means? It means the unfettered right of every man to have his own opinions and to express them freely, but to be ready to give way to the opinion of his brethren, and to accept their decision, as if it were his own. It does not mean the audacious assertion of personal infallibility: "it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to me"; but it does mean that to every believer a power is given, to some more, and to others less, to search the Holy Scriptures, to pray for the guidance of the Spirit; to seek the mind of Christ; to compare spiritual things with spiritual; to be fully persuaded in his own mind; and, yet withal to know himself to be but man, finite, fallible man, still far from perfection, still an Apostle who with all his gifts may require to be taught the way of God more perfectly, still a Peter who may deserve to be withstood. All this his own private judgment, rightly used, will teach him. I cannot be as God, knowing all things. Can I assume to myself the grace of infallibility, which I deny to the head of two-thirds of Christendom, and deny it because he, as the successor of St. Peter, claims a power which St. Peter himself did not possess? Are the gifts of the Holy Ghost, which I have received, so much more abundant that I should be more certain of freedom from all error than they who heard the words of Him Who spake as man never spake, and upon Whom the Ghost came down on the day of Pentecost to teach them all things, and to guide them into all truth? And when the holy and humble man of heart goes, in this frame of mind, into the Synod of his Church, and sees Bishops, priests, and brethren assembled there "with one accord" (Acts xv. 25) in the name of the Blessed Trinity; when solemn prayer has been offered up for the outpouring of the Holy Ghost, not upon one but upon all; when the Holy Communion or the Body and Blood of Christ has united all the members in the one Body of their Lord, what will be the word of counsel which the private judgment of each member in particular will suggest to his mind? Will it not take its form in thoughts like these: What am I in the midst of these gifted men? If I have searched the Scriptures, so have they. If I have prayed for the guidance of the Spirit, so have they. If I have walked with God, much more have they. I am the least of all these holy men. There are men here at whose feet I am not worthy to sit. I thank God that I am not left to trust to the conclusions of my own deceitful heart, for surely in this multitude of counsellors there is greater safety.

True it is, that times have been, and may be again, when one man may stand alone in the midst of an apostate world. Abraham stood alone when he interceded with God. Athanasius stood alone against a world of heresy. Even in Heaven it may be true, as the poet has feigned, that some seraph Abdiel

"was faithful found:
Among the faithless, faithful only be."

But of all the spirits that require to be tried whether they be of God, this spirit of championship needs the greatest caution. It was no true assumption which made Elijah say "I, even I only, am left," (1. Kings xix. 10). But what saith the answer of God unto him (Romans xi. 14): "I have reserved to myself seven thousand men which have not bowed the knee to Bal." What greater temptation can there be to pride than for a man to believe himself to be a defender of the Faith when he stands up before his brethren as the champion of some peculiar opinion? It is thus that the unity of the Church is rent, when men say "I am of Paul," and "I of Apollos," and "I or Cephas," and "I of Luther," and "I of Calvin," and "I of Wesley," and "I of Simeon," and "I of Pusey." But what saith the Holy Ghost? "Is Christ divided?"

As children who have sailed their boats in the pond in their father's garden are filled with astonishment when they go down to the sea in ships and there see the works of the Lord and His wonders in the deep, so the man who has lived in the narrow precincts of his own mind, and measures all things by his own standard of thought, is amazed to find how little he really knows when he comes into the assembly of men older, wiser, more holy, and higher in station than himself. His feelings will be those described by Isaiah (lx. 5): "Thine heart shall fear and be enlarged, because the abundance of the sea shall be converted unto thee." He is as one that has launched out into the deep. He had fished in shallow waters; now he lets down his net into a sea that cannot be fathomed. How partial now seem those which he called his views; how imperfect that which he called his private judgment; the vessels which he drew with did not reach to the depth of Christ's love; his mete-yard could not comprehend that love, the measure whereof is longer than the earth and broader than the sea (Job xi. 9). But now he comes to his Synod, to learn the way of God more perfectly, to seek the mind of Christ by counsel with his brethren: to pray with them for the knowledge of that fulness of the Saviour's love which passeth knowledge until it be comprehended with all His saints (Ephes. iii. 19). The soul escapes as from a prison in which a single ray shone upon it through a narrow chink; true light it may have been from the one true and only Sun, but still a single ray; but now in the fellowship of kindred souls, in the hallowed interchange of spiritual counsel, in united prayer, in frequent communion, the light shines upon him from every side mirrored from the minds of all with whom he walks as friends in the House of God. Feelings unknown before, thoughts which never came into his mind, new views of doctrines, new applications of Holy Scripture, a wider range of spiritual sight-these are the ever growing and ripening fruits of a life of sympathy and communion with those whom God has united together in the mystical Body of His Blessed Son. The whole character of his mind is changed. He has come like a hermit out of his cell to impart to his brethren the answers which God has given to his lonely prayers, and to receive back again from them an hundred-fold the gifts of grace and visions of glory which have been shed abundantly upon the Synod assembled with one heart to pray for the outpouring of the Holy Ghost. The conceit of private judgment is swallowed up in the full assurance of the conviction which has been brought home to the minds of all. The words once so pleasant and so customary, "This is my view," give place to the soul-sustaining decision, which resolves all doubts, appeases all differences, and edifies the Body of Christ (Ephes. iv. 12): "It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us."

How will the promise be fullfiled, that the Holy Spirit will teach us all things, and bring all things to our remembrance, whatsoever Christ has said unto us? (John xiv. 26). How will the Spirit of Truth guide us into all truth? (John xvi. 13). Are we making progress toward that end? We are compelled to answer that we are not advancing. This state of religious strife in which we live cannot be the mind of Christ, the Prince of Peace. It is not thus that we can keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. What one asserts and another denies cannot be the teaching of the spirit of truth. This is not the way by which we shall be guided to the knowledge of all truth. The truth of God must be one. There can be no more contention when we have once found the truth. It is no use to say that we agree in the essentials of the truth. So much the more grievous is it that we should quarrel about trifles. But trifles they are not. Every particle of the truth of God is precious. It must be searched out like the one grain of gold hidden in a bucketful of sand. It is all truth that we seek, and not partial truth, truth in doctrine, truth in prayer, truth in every motive, truth in every action of the Christian life. There must be no compromise with truth; no saying that one opinion or one rule of life is as good as another. If I differ from a fellow-Christian in any single point, however small, of Christian doctrine or practice, I ought not to rest until I have found out whether he be wrong or I.

This is what the world calls bigotry, and why? Because the world cares nothing for the truth. It prefers the belief that every man shall be saved by the law or sect which he professes, to the doctrine that it is only the name of Jesus Christ whereby men must be saved. We, on the contrary, can never cease to pray that we all perfectly know the Lord Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life. What they despise as dogma is that which we seek as truth. We contend earnestly for the Faith which was once delivered to the Saints (Jude 3). How must we contend? Not with strife and ill-will, but with mutual forbearance. Stormy debate and angry recrimination are the bane and the disgrace of the Synods of the Church. Leave them to the world to which they belong, though even in the civil assemblies it is an unseemly thing that they who profess to govern others should be unable to control themselves. But in a Christian Synod, in which we pray for the presence of the Holy Ghost, the tone must be, not of those who contend for victory, but of those who seek for truth. Hush! brothers, hush! the Dove has lighted in the midst; take heed lest she again fold her wings and flee away to be at peace. That Holy Spirit who spake by the Prophets and Evangelists comes in answer to the prayers of the faithful, to guide them to the true interpretation of that Word of life, which, though it be plain to the simple, yet contained hard sayings which "they that are unlearned and unstable wrest to their own destruction" (2 Peter iii. 16). Was there ever any heretic who did not profess to base his doctrines, however erroneous, upon the letter of Holy Scripture? The true office, then, of the Synods and Conventions of the Church is to pray for the grace of the Holy Spirit to enable them to search the deep things of God. We have the Holy Bible in our hands; each one of us is free to read; free to seek the promised blessing that they who search the Scriptures shall find; but still the fact remains that whether it be from prejudice, or self-deceit, or defect of prayer,, the readers of the same Word differ in opinion widely one from another. Can all be right? or, according to the current phrase, shall all agree to differ? O! no. It is truth that we seek. To acquiesce in error is to give up the search after truth. God has set His bow in the cloud to teach us that the refracted rays of many colors must be made to converge again. Men of narrow opinions and partial views must blend together in one, those partial glimpses of the truth which each has mistaken for the whole. When party spirit, like the dark cloud, shall have passed away, and with it the many-colored rays of religious opinion, then will truth of doctrine shine forth like the face of our transfigured Lord, shining as the sun, and like His raiment white as the light. That focus of the scattered rays of light has ever been in the Holy Synods of the Church. How glorious were those days in which the Holy Ghost poured down the spirit of counsel upon an undivided Christendom. Think what we, as descended from Gentile forefathers, owe to the Apostles, Elders, and brethren for that decree, which seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to them: "Then hath God also to the Gentiles granted repentance unto life." In consequence of that decree, we have been brought out of darkness and error to the clear light and true knowledge of God and of His Son Jesus Christ. Think again what we owe to the Council of Nic├Ža where all the diverging questions, "What think ye of Christ?" were gathered into one by the voice of the Holy Ghost speaking through the Bishops of the Universal Church, "We believe in one Lord Jesus Christ, God of God, Light of Light."

Was the Spirit lost when the Churches of the East and West were rent asunder? Oh! no, The Lord has said that "He will be with His Church alway." True it is that a divided Christendom cannot pray for the gifts of the Holy Ghost with the same full assurance as if every prayer went up to Heaven from a multitude of believers still of one heart and one soul. But the privilege which belongs to united prayer may still be exercised, though with abated confidence, by a Church like ours, which it has pleased God to extend far and wide over the face of the earth and among the islands of the sea. Her prayers never cease day nor night. Her Bishoprics are one hundred and sixty. I will not say that a Church like ours can decide questions of doctrine with full authority like that of the undivided Church, but until the time shall come, in the counsels of God, for that reunion of Christendom for which we devoutly pray, the prayers of such a branch of the Church as ours cannot fail to procure for us a large measure of the gifts of the Spirit, if only we agree together as to what we shall ask of the Father. The same desire for unity which brings you together in your General Convention, will much more lead us to look forward to another meeting of the Lambeth Conference, to seek more carefully for the mind of Jesus, and to pray more earnestly for the Holy Ghost to heal the divisions of our Church. Let us, therefore, as many as be perfect, be thus minded; and if in anything ye be otherwise minded, God shall reveal even this unto you. Nevertheless, whereto we have already attained, let us walk by the same rule, let us mind the same thing.

At the conclusion of the service, the House of Clerical and Lay Deputies met for organization.

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