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Unity the Strength of Missionary Action

By George Augustus Selwyn

From Mission Life, Vol. IV (first series), December 1, 1867, pages 297-305.

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


A Sermon preached by the LORD BISHOP OF NEW ZEALAND, on Sunday morning, Sept. 22nd, at S. Lawrence, Gresham Street.

ACTS xix, 32.--"Some cried one thing, and some another: for the assembly was confused; and the more part knew not wherefore they were come together."

POPULAR judgments are the same in all ages. They all spring from the same shallow fountain of human self-conceit. No beam, however great, in a man's own eye, prevents him from seeing a mote, however small, in his neighbour's eye. In this, as in every other respect, God's precept is contrary to man's practice. God says, Judge not others, but judge thyself. Man judges others, but does not judge himself. For this reason, the men most unfit, are the most ready to undertake to judge. There is no check from within; no sense of unfitness; no consciousness of ignorance; no inward sense of sin to counsel charity to others. Every Pharisee has his own publican to enable him to thank God that he is not as other men are.

For these reasons the lessons of one age are applicable also to others. Human nature is human nature still. The Bible tells us what men still are by nature, and what they may become by grace. The very faults of men bear witness to the truth of God. If it be so natural for man to judge his fellow-men, surely it belongs to the nature of God to judge all mankind. And if we must all stand before His judgment-seat, how necessary it is that we should first judge ourselves, that we may not be judged of the Lord. No man ever really judged himself who did not grow thereby more charitable in his judgment of his neighbour.

Popular judgments are uncharitable, because they are based on ignorance and self-conceit. I would refer you to two useful examples in the Acts of the Apostles, in the 19th and 21st chapters. The first is the tumult at Ephesus, the second at Jerusalem. There was no difference in human nature. Gentile and Jew were both alike. Ignorance and self-conceit combined to raise [297/298] the cry, "Great is Diana of the Ephesians." Ignorance and self-conceit were mingled with shrewdness and worldly wisdom in the speech of the town clerk, "Ye men of Ephesus, what man is there that knoweth not how that the city of the Ephesians is a worshipper of the great goddess Diana, and of the image which fell down from Jupiter? Seeing then that these things cannot be spoken against, ye ought to be quiet and to do nothing rashly." In both cases the charges were of the same kind. At Ephesus it was this, "This Paul hath persuaded and turned away much people. Our craft is in danger to be set at nought, and the temple of the great goddess Diana to be despised." At Jerusalem it was this, "Men of Israel, help: This is the man that teacheth all men everywhere against the people, and the law, and this place: and further brought Greeks also into the temple, and hath polluted this holy place." In both places the effect was the same. At Ephesus the whole city was filled with confusion. At Jerusalem the whole city was moved. At Ephesus they rushed with one accord into the theatre, and "some cried one thing, and some another: for the assembly was confused; and the most part knew not wherefore they were come together." At Jerusalem the people ran together, and "some cried one thing, and some another, among the multitude." Gentile and Jew were alike full of wrath. The multitude cried, Away with him. They went about to kill him--some cried one thing and some another. But in this they all agreed, that Paul was to be killed without judge or jury. Even those who knew not wherefore they were come together; had a sort of instinct that wherever there was a riot, there blood must be shed. Scarcely a week before this tumult took place at Jerusalem, a quiet meeting had been held in the same city to receive S. Paul, and to hear his report of the things which God had wrought among the Gentiles by his ministry. The brethren received him gladly, and Paul went in with them unto James, and all the elders were present. They knew that the multitude would hear that Paul had come, that they were all zealous of the law, that their zeal would easily boil up into wrath, and therefore the council begged S. Paul quietly to take steps to show that the stories which they had heard about him were [298/299] nothing, and that he himself was a man walking orderly and keeping the law.

Are there no other cities besides Ephesus and Jerusalem where men run to and fro in the streets, some crying one thing and some another? Is not this the bane of our own city and of our own Church? But there is one point of difference. The Ephesians did not profess to be tolerant of other men's opinions. Neither did the Jews. The Ephesians were bigotted worshippers of Diana. The Jews, with no less bigotry, idolised their Saviourless law. But we boast of our liberality, our toleration, our comprehensiveness, our hatred of dogmatism, our freedom of thought. The fruit of this freedom of thought is ignorance. Who will study the laws of nature, if it be a matter of indifference which he believes to be right? Aristotle or Copernicus, Ptolemy or Sir Isaac Newton. The encouragement to study is the known importance of the thing to be studied; the certainty that if we seek we shall find. In my country men dig gold because it is gold, not because it is a thing indifferent whether we pay gold into the bank, or whether we pay silver; but because an ounce of gold is worth more than a pound of silver. So men will dig for truth because it is truth; and if there were no difference between truth and error, they would not care to dig at all. So all this false liberality, which makes no difference between truth and error, encourages ignorance and engenders self-conceit. And thus the man of the nineteenth century, in spite of his liberality, is as ripe for a tumult and as ready to condemn as the Idolater of Ephesus, or the Pharisee of Jerusalem.

I am open to correction if I say anything untrue; for I come from a great distance, not to judge, but to take counsel with your experience, and to impart to you my own. When I refer to facts it will only be by way of illustration. We have joined in prayer for the increase of Faith, Hope, and Charity. All that I say will be said in a spirit of charity, in the hope that out of all our divisions, God will bring forth peace; in Faith, that Christ will be with His Church alway, and that the gates of Hell will not prevail against it.

Is it not true, then, that this age, which boasts of its light, [299/300] its freedom, and its tolerance, is still essentially intolerant?--tolerant of error in many forms, but intolerant of everything which appeals to authority, of everything which runs counter to a man's own prejudices or contradicts his opinions? I speak of all alike, I make no distinction. Many of us can remember the time when the name of Methodist, however respected now, was a term of reproach. Honoured names in both our English universities have been thus held up to scorn. At Cambridge, for many years, ignorant and thoughtless men abused as a badge of piety the name of one whom all the resident members of the university afterwards followed to his grave. We need not go back many years to find a parallel for the tumults at Ephesus and Jerusalem. You can remember when the whole city of Exeter was moved because a clergyman preached in a surplice. The riots in S. George's-in-the-East are still more fresh in your memories, and now how heartrending is the state of the Church in South Africa, a house divided against itself--some crying one thing and some another, and all this because one man in high station will not submit to the godly admonition of his brethren, and many support that one man against the almost unanimous voice of the Bishops of their church, not because they approve of his opinions, but because they look upon him as the champion of freedom of thought. There is the idol, and before that idol men offer up in sacrifice the peace of the Church.

I need not multiply painful examples, or ask what provocation was given, or who is to blame. The most charitable conclusion is that which S. Peter suggests--'"I wot that in ignorance they did it." But we must remember that in an age which boasts of its light, it is no longer safe to rely upon the excuse of ignorance. Such things must happen when every man does that which is right in his own eyes. Some say one thing and some another, and the whole Church is confused.

And now, dear brethren, I would ask you from my own Missionary point of view--Are you aware how much these tumults hinder the work of Christ in the distant places of the Earth? The divisions of Christian men are a hindrance to the faith at all times. When I asked a New Zealand chief why he [300/301] refused to become a Christian, he stretched out three fingers and said, "I have come to the cross road, and I see three ways, the English, the Wesleyan, and the Roman. I am sitting down and doubting which road I shall take." He sat at that cross road until a landslip, bursting in a torrent of mud, rushed at night down the mountain side, and overwhelmed him with all his family

But it is far more difficult to explain these divisions in the Church itself. Is God indeed One --is there indeed one Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all? What do these white men mean, when they tell us that one of our clergymen belongs to Apollos, and another to Cephas? Is Christ divided? Such are the hindrances to the Missionary action of our Church, when some say one thing and some another. The appointed evidence is lost. The teachers are not one, and therefore the heathen are slow to believe that Christ has sent them.

With all these troubles disturbing the Church at home, and spreading over the Colonies, and even into the Mission field, men still wonder why Bishops have come from so many parts of the earth to take part in this approaching Conference. For what purpose was that quiet meeting held a Jerusalem but to receive the report of S. Paul's ministry, and to take care that his good should not be evil spoken of, and that even the appearance of evil should be avoided. You surely do not suppose, brethren, that we know not wherefore we are come together. It is strange, indeed, that any one should be ignorant, that when the faith or the peace of the Church is endangered, then, as at Nic├Ža, and at Constantinople, and at Ephesus, and at Chalcedon, the Bishops of the Church are bound to meet together for brotherly counsel, for prayer, and for Communion. In our distant Dioceses, separated one from another by vast tracts of land or sea, some may have said one thing and some another. Even in England there may have been much diversity. Bishops, guided only by their conscientious convictions, may have come to different, even to opposite conclusions. Our people ask us for the one ray of light, single and white as it came from heaven, but we give it to them refracted into many colours, and [301/302] the colours become the badges of party strife, and so the Church is confused. We feel that these things ought not so to be. You look to us for instruction and guidance in doctrine and in worship. So far from carrying out this principle of toleration in things indifferent, you watch every word that a clergyman says, every gesture of his body, even the vestments that he wears; and if he departs one jot or tittle from established custom, men rebel against the innovation. But when the error no longer relates to things indifferent, when the very faith of the Church is undermined, when the Sacraments are despised, when the Word of God is set at nought, then men support the daring heretic as the champion of freedom of thought. In this state of discord in the Church, when the peace of our Jerusalem is thus disturbed, we hold our quiet meeting for counsel, for communion, and for prayer. Our Missionary Bishops, our brethren from America and Scotland, come together, men free from peculiar prejudices, free as the air of the wild mountains on which they preach glad tidings and publish peace. We meet together, not to condemn heretics, but to affirm the faith; not to engender strife but to counsel peace. Our statements of doctrine must be as clear as those which guided and filed the faith of Christians at all the great epochs of the Church. How otherwise can we have in us that mind which was in Christ Jesus, unless we hold fast the faith which was once delivered to the saints? That faith must be affirmed again and again, as need requires, unchanged in its substance and varied in its form, only to meet the heresies which spring up from the seed, which Satan never ceases to sow in the field of Christ. We can make no new declarations of Faith, but if need be we are bound to protest from time to time, against each new heresy, as it is brought into life. The judgment of the Church must be a united voice, for there is but one Lord and one Faith. Faith is one and Truth is one, and therefore there can be neither Faith nor Truth where some speak one thing and some another. And so of worship--I hear that there be divisions among you, and I partly believe it. But what a contradiction is this, that we live in an age of toleration, and yet men cannot tolerate a garment. I know nothing of what is called ritualism, [302/303] otherwise than by report. Our poverty, which constrains us to worship God in the rudest buildings of wood and rushes, effectually prevents us from gorgeous ceremonial and costly vestments. We have already more than we can do, in teaching our scattered flocks how to honour the Sacraments in their simplest outward form, and how to apply them spiritually to their heart's comfort. There may be, as it is alleged, a deep symbolism in the ritual, which has been introduced into some of the churches here; it may be, and I hope it is, a symbolism in agreement with the doctrines of our own beloved Mother Church, but no Missionary clergyman can adopt it, unless he can teach its hidden meaning, and he finds already that it is beyond his power, to teach even the full meaning of the sacramental sign as ordained by Christ Himself. As then in Doctrine, so also in Worship. The Church alone must be the judge. The Church has power to ordain and change its Ceremonies and Rites, and they need not be in all places one and utterly alike. The mind of God was in the Tabernacle, the pattern of which God showed to Moses on the mount. The mind of Christ was in the precious ointment which the woman poured upon His Head, to anoint Him for His burial. The mind of Christ is in the simple hymn sung in the village Church, like that which His little flock sang with Him at His last Passover. The mind of Christ is in the choral song in the full service of the Holy Eucharist, in which the church in the city faintly typifies the song of praise, which angels and saints will sing at the marriage supper of the Lamb.

I hope, then, that you know as well as we, why the Bishops of the Church have come together. It is to do what S. James and the elders did at Jerusalem, to hear how the work of God advances in distant lands. It is to prevent all occasions of offence. It is to seek in united prayer and in Holy Communion for those gifts of grace which are the answers to prayer and the fruits of communion, for the increase of faith, hope, and charity--faith to discern more clearly the mind of Jesus; hope to sustain us and you in these troubled times; charity to bind us together in the unity of the Spirit and the bond of peace. We know the danger we are in by our unhappy divisions. We have come to try, by God's blessing, to remove whatever hinders us from [303/304] godly union and concord. Those who say we have come to do nothing can have little knowledge of the Church, or of the work which Christ has given to Her to do. Those who say that we shall fail, may he assured that if we fail now we shall try again. Some hope that we may fail, because they have no love for religion and little faith in Christ. God, we are sure, will not suffer them to triumph. But you all, brethren, will pray for us that God will give us the spirit of counsel, that no unbecoming word may break the harmony of our meeting, that we may ever keep in view the one object for which we meet--to restore peace where now there is no peace; that we may give to troubled minds a resting-place upon the declared faith of the Church as opposed to heresy; that we may assign to each form of worship its own due measure of outward ceremony; that our own decisions may no longer conflict one with another, and the trumpet no longer give an uncertain sound; and that our Church, thus united in itself, may go forth in the strength of her ever living and ever present Lord spreading forth her arms even to the ends of the earth, and enduring to the end of the world.

One more thought and then I have done. When I first saw the plan of this octave of services, I feared lest it should favour the common error of coming to church to hear preachers. That four and twenty elders, gathered from so many parts of the earth, should preach in this church in eight days, was a plan so new and untried, that those who had some doubts of the effect may well ask for pardon. The fear might well be, that some would say one thing, and some another; that the city would be confused: men leaving their own churches and their own houses, and that the most part of those that assembled here would not know wherefore they were come together. For if men do not come to Church to pray and to trust for an answer to their prayers, to the assurance that Christ will be with them there, most certainly they know not why they come. If the service which begins with prayer be not ended by Communion, of what value can the sermon be? You have seen congregations hanging upon the words of the preacher, as if they drank in new life and wisdom from his lips, and then as soon as the voice of the man has ceased, nine out of every ten turn their backs upon the [304/305] Holy Sacrament, forgetting the voice which still speaks to them from Heaven, "Were there not ten cleansed, but where are the nine?" But all these doubts have been removed by the proof which this octave has afforded, that many have valued these services as a season of real communion with Christ and with His Church throughout the world. You have heard and have received gladly the echoes which have come back to you of that sound which has gone into all the earth, and those words which have gone into the ends of the world. But you have not trusted to any word of men, even though they spoke as the oracles of God and as ambassadors of Christ, but to the inward and spiritual grace, to the indwelling and ever present spirit, to the one full, perfect, and all-sufficient sacrifice offered up for you by the ever blessed Son of God. You have felt His presence in your prayers; you have seen Him by faith by the breaking of bread; your hearts have burned within you; your worship fitly joined together and compacted with that which every joint supplieth, with Prayer and Praise, Confession and Absolution, the Word of God, and the blessed Sacrament, has given increase to your body of which Christ is the living Head. May you grow up into Him in all things, increasing in faith, in hope, and above all in charity.

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