Project Canterbury

God With Us:
The Meaning of the Tabernacle

by Frank Weston, D.D.
Bishop of Zanzibar

[London and Milwaukee: Mowbray and Morehouse, 1920. 135pp]
pp 117-121


WE must now face an entirely different line of argument, and then our task will be finished.

We are told by other bishops that the devotion of the tabernacle is an innovation, and must therefore be wrong. And the Orthodox Eastern Church is called as a decisive witness against it. The East does not innovate, and will make no terms with those who do.

I. For myself, I cannot accept this objection, nor can I bring myself to bow in this matter to the authority of the East. And with reason. First, I ask, Is there any innovation more startling than that, in days long past, of the Mass of the pre-sanctified?

Here we have a new use of the Blessed Sacrament far beyond anything the tabernacle signifies; and even far beyond benediction with the sacrament. The tabernacled sacrament we adore, and with it men are sometimes blessed. But here we actually offer to God, as our memorial of Christ's passion, a liturgy in which there is no fulfilment of the Christ's own command. We substitute Communion for the Mass, in very truth. And to this innovation on Christ's own institution the Orthodox East has set the seal, not of its approval only, but of its most frequent practice during many centuries.

Speaking for myself, therefore, I must rule out of the court of my conscience all evidence against innovation summoned from the East. She is a bad witness! But I may justly claim her on my own side, where indeed she becomes a witness good beyond my hopes.

2. Secondly, the Church, as a whole, has always behaved towards the sacraments as one having authority. She has wisely treated them as part and parcel of her own outward form, and has ordered their use according to her need. This is so commonly admitted that no evidence is required. But if any man be disposed to deny it, let him study first the history of absolution, or of non-communicating attendance, in the Church. He will speedily mend his thoughts.

3. And thirdly, the English Church has innovated upon ancient practice herself in matters of great importance.

In common with the whole Western Church she deliberately keeps back from infants and young children the bread of life. She refuses the grace of Confirmation to children under the age of thirteen or fourteen, unless individual bishops can be moved to make exceptions to the common practice. She makes Unction of the Sick as difficult to obtain as she possibly can. In these three points she claims what God's mind and purpose for His people is. Can it, then, honestly be said that, in allowing me to say my prayers before the sacrament, reserved for the sick, she would be making an innovation in a degree unheard of in her own history? If a Church can dare forbid the reception of Christ's sacrament by any under the age of thirteen, or thereabouts, it might go as far as tolerating devotion at the tabernacle. If not, let confession be made that the prohibition is not really based on a reverent dread of innovation.

Thus, on the whole, honesty and candour require us to admit that devotion at the tabernacle must be allowed, or forbidden, entirely on its merits.

4. My aim has been to set forth the worth of the devotion, and its true place in the spiritual life.

It is not really a fair argument against the devotion that certain theologians in the past made strange and unbalanced doctrines of the real presence. For private devotions rarely owe much to theological dissertations, and have a way of ignoring academic distinctions. In any case, the devotion is alive and can be directed aright: the theologians are dead.

Nor does it matter that the devotion is of comparatively late development. How could the Christ and His living family experience what growing Europe experienced without showing some new expressions of mutual relationship? Could the whole of Europe be subject to mediaeval development and the Church remain untouched? We are continually exhorted by those who, at home, are pillars that we must heartily welcome the special contribution each country brings to Christ and His Church. We are to welcome China, India, Japan, and Africa. And we are implored to lay aside our modern British onefoot rule, and refrain from measuring the meanings under which other races know God in Christ.

But when we are found to be sympathetically making our own a very special contribution of the Western Church, to which our own forefathers brought their share, we are, by those very same pillars, held to stand rebuked. Why? I think, because the modern British foot-rule has been applied, contrary to the exhortation they address to us.

It is my earnest prayer and my hope that the English bishops will reconsider the subject of devotion at the tabernacle, and leave to their children the freedom with which God has made them free.

I have written out of an experience of twenty-one years' residence near a tabernacle, during twenty of which the chapel has been next to my official lodging. And I feel sure that there are many others of like experience, whose spiritual character will carry weight where mine must fail. Will not the bishops listen to us who speak what we have seen, and testify what we know?

In any case, let all be done to His honour who, on the throne of His glory and in the most holy sacrament of the altar, is God, blessed for evermore.

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