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 94-106

transcribed by Mr. Alexander van Ness Munoz
AD 2000


SOME of the English bishops, with Professor H. Scott Holland, have solemnly warned us that devotion at the tabernacle carries with it serious dangers. These may be summed up thus. There is a danger of regarding Christ as so entirely external to ourselves that we come to think of Him as accessible only at the tabernacle. There is a danger of our devotion ending with Christ, and never rising to the Blessed Trinity. There is a danger of confining Christ's activity to the sacrament, to the exclusion of His reign and rule within the Church. And, finally, there is a danger of forgetting God's fatherhood.

Dangers discerned and declared by such weighty authority no sane man will wish to undervalue. All who care for souls must weigh them well, and see if in fact they are so bound up with the tabernacle as to justify the proposed new rubric.

At the very first sight we perceive that these dangers are all present in the normal English religion, that knows no tabernacle at all.

i. In fact it is a temptation common to mankind to locate God's presence specially in certain spots and to feel freer to act ungodly when absent from them. The whole of that sad thing, a Sunday religion, is due to the triumph of this temptation. And the tabernacle need be no more dangerous than a parish church with sung mattins and an anthem! The logical safeguard is never to pray except interiorly, and to avoid a congregation that is to cease to be human.



true remedy is, of course, a well-instructed mind and a balanced religion. That both are much to be desired in the English Church has recently been confessed by the highest authorities. The abolition of the tabernacle seems not only a very inadequate but an entirely useless means to better things. Balance in the presentation of religion is not so difficult to obtain as people think. Provided that the local church is willing to learn from the customs prevailing elsewhere much can be done to keep things in due proportion. The English Church is, in its average presentation, singularly unbalanced. For, in spite of its verbal sympathy with every known form of Christianity, it still makes the conduct of religious worship the sole concern of a small caste and its chief centre the one Sunday morning mattins. It is in the extreme parties, at either end, that we mostly find less conventional forms of devotion and a laity heart and soul in the details of their management.

The consecration of human life is the problem. In my experience of the tabernacle, which extends now over some twenty-one years, I find reason to believe that it assists us to keep the balance of religious thought and worship.

Balance in speech is a different matter. And I guess that the only knowledge some bishops have of the tabernacle is based on reported sayings of very "intense" souls. Now and again we have heard of complaints that "God has been taken from the Church" when for some reason or another the tabernacle is removed. But intense language of this sort is not normal. Some natures run to exaggeration they are not all on our side. I always connect them in my own mind with certain ladies in one of the most pronouncedly evangelical churches in London. Their hysteria took the form, when I knew the place, of a vase of flowers placed in the pulpit when, and only when, their "dear minister" was to preach to them the way of salvation. And for the language itself I can fall back upon Scripture. "God's blood" is a legitimate phrase with apostolic authority. It is not for every-day use. The hysterical people in question misuse shamefully such lawful modes of speech, but the Catholic Church need not tremble because a few intense souls are, in their petty disappointment, abusing God's gift of speech.

2. Again, every Christian is continually tempted to make Christ's manhood the end of his religion.

It is not only we that worship Christ in the sacrament who are in danger. I venture the proposition that a very large body of average Churchmen) to whom the doctrine of the Godhead is a maze of metaphysics, chiefly aims at some union with our Lord Jesus Christ, and is content with that. These people have a misty knowledge of God somewhere beyond the earth, for the rest they pray to Christ and lean on Him. I will also dare to suggest that quite a. considerable number of the English clergy will be found praying almost entirely to Christ Jesus, outside the liturgy and offices, and will not easily accept the evident truth that the liturgy is directed to God the Father.

Strict evangelicals pray much to the Father, while the liberals cannot pray much to Christ; but the moderate party certainly produces a laity that has very small experience of prayer to the Father, much less to the Blessed Trinity. Personally, I do not feel surprise. God sent us His Christ because otherwise we could not reach Him. At the same time no one can be satisfied till people see God in Christ. It seems, however, hardly worth while to rob a small party of its liberty of worship at the tabernacle just because the Church as a whole mistakes the means for the end. We bishops would do much for true religion did we gather our people for prayer, outside official services, showing them what balanced prayer truly means. And if we would sometimes visit the tabernacle with our flocks we could work wonders in promoting real religion. I doubt if we shall promote God's honour and our people's welfare merely by ordering the tabernacles to be removed. So doing we advance not one inch towards a more balanced view of our relation with God. For myself, I believe the tabernacle can do much to lead men's minds to God, the true end of religion. In the last chapter I alluded to this point when describing a visit to the tabernacle. In any case contemplation of God in Christ is no more difficult before the Blessed Sacrament than before a crucifix, or over the Gospels. In strict fact it is easier, because Jesus is more really and intensely present to the soul, who thus can more easily pass to the Father by Him, according to His promise.

The sacrament is incomplete when thought of apart from the Blessed Trinity, and if properly explained to our people it provides us with a new and living way of weaning them from their present narrow, self-centred search after private blessings. For it is the centre on earth of God's self-revelation, of the whole mystical body of Christ, and of the faithful soul. God, the Church, and I are met together. What better witness can we have to the end of religion, the union of mankind with God?

3. The failure to see Christ reigning and ruling within the Church, as S. John saw Him in His visions, is likewise common to the whole English Church. Englishmen have a very dim notion of the Church at all, except as a society established by the State for the moral welfare of the nation. How, then, shall they see the Priest-King, Jesus, in the very centre of the universal Church? No doubt they have everything to learn yet about the mystical body of the Christ, the episcopate, the priesthood of the laity, and our corporate, sacramental life.

They might do worse than begin at the tabernacle. For there, at any rate, they might learn to see Jesus crowned with honour and glory, discover something of His relation to God above and mankind round about, and meditate on the purpose served by His Body and Blood, and lose themselves in surrender to His service. A wise teacher, with carefully selected prayers and meditations, would not find it impossible to show such an one Jesus, the High-Priest and King ; Jesus the Bridegroom and Head of the Church; Jesus the ascended Man and ever-present Saviour of souls. And, this lesson learned) he would guide his pupils to Him whom the Lord Jesus reveals, God the Blessed Trinity.

Indeed, the state of religion in England seems to justify some such attempt.

It is certain no English bishop of this generation has yet tried a method such as this; it is certain that normal methods have, on the whole, failed. Some priests, who really do love God and their people at least as much as do the bishops, claim that this method has been known to answer. Cannot the bishops allow it a fair trial? Do they not see that, if it fails, it will be cast away by the people themselves? For you may keep a large multitude outwardly loyal to a form of religion that makes very small demands on them. They will consent to Sunday worship on such terms. But a religion that includes the tabernacle is a real burden, unless it be based in love. If, then, it fail to lead a man to God, his eternal rest, he will himself desert it.

The bishops will be wise, therefore, if they leave devotion at the tabernacle to the laity. If it be of God, no bishops can stop it. If it do not lead to God, no true man will continue to use it.

4. The last danger against which we are warned is the loss of the sense of God's fatherhood. So far as I understand the warning, remote as I am now from current literature, the tabernacle may come to minister to a small-minded view of the Christian brotherhood and God's fatherhood.

Now individualism and parochialism are common diseases of the soul, Christian and pagan. I doubt not that they flourish in some whose devotion at the tabernacle is beyond reproach as regards its warmth. But they flourish as richly in those who have never seen a tabernacle and cannot describe a pyx I In fact, they pursue us all, like germs of some pestilence that is in the air.

None the less, the tabernacle may be a most powerful antidote both to individualism and parochialism. If only it were acknowledged as our stepping-stone to the Supernatural plane I For on that plane the only realities are God, Christ's manhood, and creation united therewith. Is this narrow? Is this individualistic? Is this parochial? If ever England become truly democratic, her people of one heart and one mind; if ever caste shall die and cash lose its bastard power ; if ever God really be dominant in our social and commercial life, English Churchmen will be found worshipping the Blessed Trinity, in and through Jesus, before the tabernacle. Why? Because they will not be content till religion and life are seen as one.

5. Once more and lastly. These dangers to which attention has been drawn, and many more of like nature, will always attend religious worship and human thought.

The true remedy for them all is, however, at our call. It is the Christian religion fully practised, and applied to our social life.

The weakness of the English Church prevents both the one and the other, to the great loss of the sense of fatherhood and fellowship.

In the Catholic religion of our Lord Jesus Christ, He and all His children, in one fellowship, are self-offered to the one Father in the Eucharistic Liturgy; self-offered in the movement of divine love which passes from God by way of man back into God Himself.

Yet this liturgy is not fully recognized by the English Church as the very necessary centre of its corporate worship. And most often, when such an advance is advocated, the notion of the offering is concealed. It would shock the main party of the Church to be called to sacrifice! In Holy Communion Christ the Eternal Son raises us, as a family, in Himself, into the very life of God the Father, through the Holy Ghost, and the fellowship lives in Him. Yet English Churchmen have a record for not communicating that is shocking! Nor does the official Church, as a rule, impress on the laity this meaning of communion. In general, communion is set forth as a private action, touching our individual sanctification only. While the recognized difference of social class in any one congregation makes the corporate meaning of communion unintelligible.

And at the tabernacle we perceive the same fatherhood, the same destiny, and the very centre of the same brotherhood. Yet the official Church interferes to forbid our access thereto!

Is it not strange this fearful hiding away of the very truth, for lack of which we are perishing?

Let us deny ourselves ceremonial richness, let us refrain from additional rites, if only the Church will, with one voice, proclaim the sacrifice and the sacrament in the terms of fatherhood, Christ's manhood, and our mystical fellowship with one another in God.

But there still remains the application of religion to life.

For, no matter what the religious devotion is, be it communion, prayer-meeting, Bible reading, or visit at the tabernacle, if the life be wrong, without fellowship or brotherly service, the soul's exercise will be to the brotherhood's loss, and to God's dishonour. Holy Communion is abused far more often than the tabernacle; and the abuse is a thousand times more evil.

It is the duty of the official Church not to forbid our devotions, but to purify them by correcting our morals. For we shall not attain the true sense of God's fatherhood and our mutual brotherhood in any other way. We shall not learn these lessons from theological lectures alone, much less shall we attain them by refraining from this devotion or that. They will become ours just in the measure that the Church as a whole awakens to her true nature and consents to live by the laws of her essential being. Coercion against the tabernacle will avail nothing.

If coercion be necessary, because of our forgetfulness of God's fatherhood, and of Christ's indwelling presence, let the bishops issue laws that really meet the case. Let them, for example, deal boldly with every Churchman, rich or poor, who hides the divine fatherhood by fostering class-distinction and by commercial self-assertion; by his friendship with, or patronage of, those who oppress the poor or exploit the coloured race; or by any other action against the commonwealth. In fact, let them make the official Church a living witness to the divine fatherhood, and to the brotherhood of the ascended Christ. For the rest, let them leave God's children to speak with Him as they will.

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