Project Canterbury

The Church in Bondage

By R. A. Hilary Knox
Chaplain Fellow of Trinity College Oxford

London: The Society of SS. Peter and Paul, 1914.

Three Sermons on the Church of England in the Past, in the Present, and in the Future

Sermon 2. Elijah's Mantle. The Present.


In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

I do not know whether the sons of the prophets ordinarily had a very exciting life; but it certainly must have been a thrilling moment for them as they stood at Jericho, and waited for Elisha to come back without Elijah. They had taken a certain gloomy satisfaction, earlier in the day, in pointing out to him that he was "going to have his master taken away from his head, and had received a rather short answer, not unnaturally, since he had already had the same thing said to him twice at previous stages on the journey. And now the solitary figure returns, the figure of the prophet's servant, but wearing, still perhaps a little uncomfortably, the mantle of the prophet himself. He comes to the brink of Jordan, and makes the bold experiment. Smiting the waters with the mantle, he cries, "Where is the Lord God of Elijah?" And the old spell still works; the waters fall back, and the passage is made, as before, dryshod.

The Roman Catholics in England, as they watched the progress of the Catholic Revival in our Church, must have experienced somewhat the same feelings. "Look at your Church," they had always been telling us, "with its bare altars and unattended worship. Don't [9/10] you see that God has taken your master from your head? Don't you see what comes of trying to have a Church without a Pope?" And then a handful of men took up the mantle that had fallen from the Church at the Reformation: claimed their rights as priests of God, claimed to say Mass and to hear Confessions and to live sanctified lives in the service of Religion. And the troubled waters fell back this way and that; the dry land appeared, a way without hindrance into the land of promise.

Or, if we may revert to the parable of Naboth's vineyard, our vineyard, the Church of England, seemed at the beginning of Queen Victoria's reign quite hopeless from the point of view of anyone who wanted it to bear fruit. From the Roman Catholics, from the Dissenters, from the unbelievers, there could be but one cry, "Cut it down, why cumbereth it the ground? These three hundred years I come seeking fruit on it, and find none." And those faithful vinedressers of the Oxford Movement could only answer in the sight of God, "Lord, let it alone this century also, till we shall dig it about and dung it; and if it bear fruit, well, and if not, then after that thou shalt cut it down." The greatest of those men, John Henry Newman, and many more since his time, have despaired of the slow growth, and given up the disappointing task. And yet, has it not borne fruit?

I once heard a Bishop say in a public meeting that it was clearly impossible for any change to be made in the services of the Church of England without an Act of Parliament. And the next speaker contented himself with saying: "Within the last fifty years there has been no Act of Parliament (except a miserable Shortened Service Act) altering the services of the Church of England. Can you, my Lord, say that there has been no change in them within the last fifty years?"

Of course our services have changed. Can you imagine Queen Elizabeth, with her coarse oaths, and a great ruff round her neck, coming into St. James' [10/11] this morning for the eight o'clock Mass? She would have wanted to know, I fancy, why the celebrant did not preach a sermon, why he did not pronounce the longer exhortation, why the curates did not make their Communions, why the congregation said Holy, Holy, Holy with the priest, thereby rendering themselves liable to the penalties for brawling in church. Why, in this very service you have witnessed three flagrant illegalities; the insertion of hymns into the service, the reading out of notices, and the preaching of a sermon. Of course our services have always been changing, and always been changing without authority. But since the rise of the Oxford Movement they have been changing, not merely for the convenience of the congregation, but for the honour and glory of God. They have been changing in a definite direction; and if we would study the condition of the Church of England at the present time, we have to ask ourselves the question, Where is it all leading to?

I have always admired the gentleman, renowned for good living, who never opened a tart in the early spring, without pronouncing over it, as a sort of benediction, the words: "Apple, I fear; gooseberry, I hope; rhubarb, I think." And when we prepare to examine the Church of England, by piercing the thin crust of outward uniformity which conceals its full nature from our view, we naturally do so with the words: "Protestant, I fear; Catholic, I hope; High Church, I think." To the casual foreign observer, the religion of England is not the Evangelicalism of St. Andrew's nor the Catholicism of St. James', but a sort of compound of lights and green stoles and bad brass and the Church of England Men's Society, and the Holy Eucharist at eight and Mattins at eleven, and Confession if you happen to feel like it, and doctrine which forgets Paul, and discipline which defies Peter, and devotion which has never heard of Mary. That is, dear brethren, the official religion of the present Church of England.

But of course you will say, "That is not final, any more [11/12] than the Reformation Settlement; we are gradually getting beyond it; even our Bishops allow us more latitude." That is quite true. I should imagine that most Bishops of our Church would, if they had to foreshadow a Utopia for it, allow for a Choral Eucharist, celebrated in balloon-like chasubles, and guarded prayers intimating that the faithful departed are perhaps not quite so well off, at present, as they hope to be some day; and processions of inconceivable length, provided that they are going nowhere in particular and carrying nothing with them: and Reservation of the Most Holy Sacrament, provided it is reserved in a disused coal-hole under the infants' Sunday School. The ideal Church, possessed of these privileges, would naturally be anxious to impart them to the heathen, and would therefore be quickened with a new zeal for Foreign Missions; it would take an intelligent interest in social problems, and be a standing witness to the British public on behalf of purity and righteousness.

That is an ideal for the Church. And yet it is not an ideal, for it means nothing. It has no guiding principle or theory to account for its own existence. It is simply a new compromise, designed, like the Reformation compromise, to keep the peace between rival schools of theology, to suit the requirements of a Church which is conscious of having two nations in its womb. It is another makeshift, which would become law to-morrow if we were not an established Church. They would try to screw St. Andrew's up to the standard I have indicated, but they would also try to screw St. James' down to it. Now, is that what we are making for?

It is not. But that is what a great many of our Bishops, a great many of our official clergy, and, I am afraid, a great many of those who call themselves Catholics among the priests of our Church, are in reality working for. That is the Paradise which they have prefigured for themselves. But there may always be a serpent in any paradise. Is there nothing in this one, with all its liberty, all its enlightenment, all its determination [12/13] to be abreast of the times, nothing which threatens to mar its happiness and disturb its peace?

The Church of England has to fight a very insidious enemy, which we may call, for practical purposes, by the name of modernism. It is quite true that we are not the only sect which has to face this problem; it is presenting itself with at least equal urgency to the Nonconformist bodies and to the Roman Catholics. But the Roman Catholics have no reason to be afraid of it, because their formularies are sufficiently clear, and their discipline sufficiently strong, to crush it out wherever it arises. And the Nonconformists have no reason to be afraid of it, because, in practice at any rate, their formularies are so wide, and their discipline so unimportant, that they have no need to crush it. If a Roman Catholic says that Jesus Christ was not born of a Virgin, he can be convicted of heresy at once, and is so convicted. If a Nonconformist says the same, what does it matter to his congregation? He can still preach Christian morality, and promote a spirit of general brotherliness, and nobody is likely to call him to account for his doctrinal irregularities. But if a clergyman of our Church preaches such unorthodox views, the case is different. Nobody can doubt that he is formally heretical, for he denies an article of our creed. But how are his ecclesiastical superiors to silence him? They cannot have recourse to setting the law in motion, for they have determined, as I tried to point out last Sunday, not to regard themselves as police-officials of the State. They cannot appeal to him, in the interests of the peace of the Church, to hold his tongue, for he believes that he is capable of showing up a disastrous error, and no honest man in such circumstances can make terms with his conscience.

As the result of this difficulty, heresy is spreading all round us, none the less dangerous because it is couched in guarded language and put forth with a sincere desire to arrive at the truth. It must grow. For the old Evangelicals could appeal to the Bible as their authority; [13/14] and the Roman Catholics have always been able to appeal to the traditions of our holy Mother the Church. But the Church of England, as such, has nothing to appeal to. How can we pretend to appeal to Church tradition, when we have cut ourselves off from the main stream of it, and any exposition of it must needs be a raking up of old dead documents, instead of obedience to a living voice? And how can we pretend to appeal to the Bible, when the Bible is for every man's private interpretation, and not expounded by authority? The Reformation compromise was based on an infallible certainty, that of the literal inspiration of the Bible; but the new compromise does not claim to believe in that, and is therefore powerless in the face of modernist theology.

It is treated as a commonplace by most of the theologians of Oxford, that Jesus Christ, while he was on earth, was not possessed of complete divine knowledge; that his theological ideas, consequently, were deeply affected by the popular Jewish theology of his day; and that he thought the world would come to an end within the lifetime of his own Apostles. Now, if that is true, what he said about judgment, and heaven, and hell, and the necessity of believing his words, may have been a piece of ignorant fanaticism on his part; there may be not a word of truth in it. Then where are we going to get our doctrinal theology from? What is to become of the Creeds, and above all of the Athanasian Creed? How long will it be before the Church of England loses its faith?

And again, if Jesus Christ thought the world was coming to an end almost immediately after his death, it is absurd, so the modern theologians assure us, to suppose that he ever meant to found a Church. The Church was only an organization invented by the Apostles, and the triple hierarchy of Bishops, priests, and deacons, probably arose in the Church even later. Now, if that is so, is it not a monstrous piece of un-charity that we repel the Nonconformists from our Altars, and refuse to recognize their ministry, if the only [14/15] quarrel we have with them is a quarrel about a matter of mere ecclesiastical discipline? Then how long will it be before the Church of England ceases to value its orders?

Thirdly, if Jesus Christ did not possess complete divine knowledge, how do we know that we can trust him when he says, "Whoso marrieth her that is divorced committeth adultery" ? May it not have been some fad, some private eccentricity of the prophet of Galilee? If we once lose confidence in that divine voice, shall we not begin to listen with more attention to the cry of the problem novel and the halfpenny newspaper for a system of easy divorce, and unquestioned right of remarriage? Then how long will it be before the Church of England ceases to affirm the sanctity of the marriage tie?

It is rash, and it is rather easy as a rule, to indulge in the luxury of prophesying. But it is without any sense of uncertainty or hesitation that I prophesy this: if the Church of England cannot find, within the next fifty years, some authority for itself which can claim, as a matter of divine right, and not of administrative convenience, to interpret the Scriptures and expel heresy from its borders, then, humanly speaking, in fifty years' time it will be a Church to which you and I will find it impossible to belong. It may be that, like the State Church in Prussia, it will be in a condition of doctrinal uncertainty in which it can no longer assert the Divinity of our Blessed Lord. It may be that it will have so lost its faith in the first principles of Church government as to be forced to admit the Nonconformists to communion on their own terms. It may be that it will have yielded to the cry of modern humanitarianism, and be no longer concerned to safeguard the sanctity of marriage. It doesn't very much matter which--doctrine, or discipline, or morals; whenever it happens that the Athanasian Creed, or the Confirmation Rubric, or the theory that the tie of holy matrimony is indissoluble, disappears [15/16] from the formularies of the Church of England, then every honest Catholic will have to disappear from it too.

I believe--I should not be standing here if I did not believe--that there is another way. What that way is I hope to suggest next Sunday in speaking of the future of the Church of England. What I am protesting against at the present moment is the idea that if we would only trust the Bishops, if we would only consent, in the interests of peace, to drop this and to put up with that, to distrust all practices and devotions which are specifically Western in their origin, and to conform as far as possible to what, from the very meagre evidence at our disposal, we can definitely ascertain to have been customary in the first four centuries after Christ, we could, in a few years' time, turn ourselves into a Church which would be Christ's idea of a Church, which could say to the Christian Churches of the East and the West, "We are right and you are both wrong." As the Churches of Hierusalem and Alexandria have erred, so the Church of Rome hath erred, in matters concerning the faith. Very likely. But the point about the Church of Canterbury is that it has never even pretended to be right. It does not regard itself as anything more than a working compromise, suited to the needs of the age which produced it. It is not from any doubt of his piety, his learning, or his statesmanship, that we decline to give the Archbishop of Canterbury the position of a patriarch; it is simply because the position itself is one which we have no power and no claim to bestow.

May God give to all of us, and to those whom he has appointed to be rulers in his Church, through the mantle of his spirit which he has left to our sundered communion, such grace to pass through the waters of this troublesome world, that at the last we may cross over safe to our heavenly country.

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen.

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