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.

Sermon 5. The Forward Movement

Preached on the Feast of St. Alban the Martyr


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

The history of religious persecution is throughout the history of a conflict between the Church and the State. It is not one religious body or one religious system persecuting another; it is the state, a secular body, persecuting a religious body, the Church. The [33/34] first martyr of the Christian era--we keep his feast at this time, St. John Baptist--died in defence of an ecclesiastical marriage law, in defiance of a king. For three hundred years after his death the State was the avowed enemy of the Church and the practice of our holy Religion was a treasonable offence. It was at the end of those three hundred years of persecution that Saint Alban, whom we commemorate to-day, was executed by the civil authorities. Almost immediately after that, exactly sixteen hundred years ago, the Roman Empire became Christian, and a long peace was restored to the Church. But it was a peace disturbed by constant wrangling, in which England had more than her share; England had her confessors, like St. Anselm, her martyrs, like St. Thomas k Becket. And then, at the time of the Reformation, a little over twelve hundred years after the death of our patron St. Alban, the Church in England was brought under the power of the State, and the dying voice that was raised in protest was that of Blessed John Fisher, Bishop of Rochester, who was also martyred on this very day, June 22, 1535, because he dared to uplift his voice against the incestuous marriage of Henry VIII, as John Baptist had uplifted his voice against the incestuous marriage of Herod Antipas. From that tyranny of the State over the Church, after nearly four hundred years more, we are only just recovering.

It is always a struggle, not between one religion and another, or one man and another, but between the kingdoms of this world and the kingdom of the Christ. It is not that Smith persecutes Jones, or Brown persecutes Robinson, but that the State, which consists of Smith, Brown, Jones, and Robinson, persecutes the Church, which consists of Smith and Jones. Hence it is that the Gospel of Christ brings a sword; hence it is that a man's foes are they of his own household; we are all trying to be Christians and citizens at once, and the quarrel is for ever recurring. And I can never read the history of this old quarrel between Church and State which is [34/35] recorded in the Book of Nehemiah, as we are reading it now in our daily lessons, without being reminded of our present situation in this Church and State of England.

For we, like the Jews, have been in captivity all these four hundred years. We have seen our altars cast down, their treasures despoiled, their services for the most part discontinued. Like Nehemiah, Keble and Pusey and the leaders of the Catholic Revival came with a mandate to bring back the exiles and rebuild the walls that were broken down; and they found only a remnant of God's chosen people willing to help them. They too had reason to complain, when they saw the state of the Church, "The strength of the bearers of burdens is decayed, and there is much rubbish, so that we are not able to build the wall." There was, and there still is, much rubbish about in the Church of England. And it was not merely a question of rebuilding; they had to reckon with enemies without; for just as Sanballat the Horonite and Tobiah the Ammonite threatened and dismayed the rebuilders of Jerusalem, so our rebuilders were threatened on all sides. Sanballat raged against them in Parliament, and Tobiah scowled at them from the Privy Council. Nehemiah was told by his enemies, "It is reported among the heathen, and Gashmu saith it, that thou and the Jews think to rebel"; we, too, have been reminded by frequent letters from modern Gashmus in the daily Press that we are disloyal, and have no right to remain in the Church of England. And we reply to these attacks, as Nehemiah replied to the messengers of Sanballat: "I am doing a great work, and I cannot come down." But still we are plagued by the criticism of those without, who would like to be members of our Church without submitting to any qualifications for membership; and like the old Jews we are forced to work with the trowel in one hand and the spear in the other, to build with the sword girded by our sides. We have to be fighting Christians.

[36] There are those in our own ranks who are content to daub the wall with untempered mortar, and cry "Peace, Peace," when there is no peace. We find, as Nehemiah found, that the work is great and large, and we are separated upon the wall, one far from another'; a Church here and a Church there fighting for Catholic privileges, and nothing but indifference and compromise in the wide spaces between them And we too need, from time to time, the call of the trumpet to rally us to the defence of the Church.

'TV) the defence of the Church--not to Church X defence. It is a monstrous thing that nothing can unite the Church of England as a whole except a matter like the Welsh Church Bill; that we can rally round nothing except the proceeds. For us Catholics there are better things to fight for than that. We have to build a wall round our Church; the wall of Christian doctrine that will defy the heretic; the wall of Christian discipline that will exclude the impenitent sinner. Sanballat and Tobiah are always asking us, "Why build a wall at all? Or, if you must build a wall, why build one that will shut you in at the expense of shutting other people out? Couldn't you manage to build one that would include everybody in the world as well as yourselves?" We might perhaps answer that it would be a very curious kind of wall. But all we need to answer is, that we are not building a wall of our own pattern and designing; we are simply rebuilding the places that lie waste, along the line of the old foundation, which is the Church of God, and rests upon the great corner-stone, Jesus Christ. They have pulled down our altars, and now they call us innovators because we are trying to restore them. They have taken away Mary's dowry, and then they call us dishonest because we are trying to give it back to her.

You and I and each of us, dear brethren, are engaged in building that wall; and each one has only a little bit, such a little bit, to work upon. Just the [36/37] desperate effort to keep our own life up to the line, in spite of all the failures and the reluctance of our cross-grained nature. Just the little help our wavering intercessions can give in furthering God's purpose; just the feeble argument our lives can lend to the faith of a neighbour in a shop or an office or a factory--little enough to boast of in all conscience. And all the time--that is the bitterest part of it--we have to keep the spear in the other hand, the sword buckled to our side. Ah, how we could build, if it wasn't for that obstruction; if it wasn't for the perpetual air of controversy that surrounds us, for the necessity of differing from our neighbours, and fasting when they are feasting, and holding aloof from the schismatical worship that is virtue in them, but would be treasonable in us. Christ is not come to send peace, but a sword; and a man's foes are they of his own household.

It is not open persecution that we fear so much now; not the uneasy protests of Parliament, or the blustering of Church dignitaries. We are right up against the bed-rock of stolid, British indifference, the petulant cry of, "Why can't you leave us alone?" We have to fight, not the State, but the nation--a nation which has lost its hold of first truths and its love for clear issues, which has had its morality sapped by sentiment, thinks of Christian purity in the light of the Cinema, and Christian marriage in the light of the problem play; a nation which has forgotten how to worship God, and suggests instead that somehow, vaguely, we all ought to do something to make somebody happier. What wonder that Christianity seems to such an age stern, and harsh, and bitter; that we ourselves should become a little stern, a little harsh, a little bitter, in face of the continual struggle against the spirit of the age that is now part of our Christian vocation? It is so easy to become unspiritual in the service of God.

[38] Lest we should become hard and unspiritual, we must see to it that all those privileges of devotion which our Church has won back at such cost are being used, and used to the full. We have got back the daily offering of the holy Mass, just as it used to be before the Reformation: have we really got back the daily attendance at holy Mass, as it used to be before the Reformation? We have recovered the idea of frequent Communion: is it certain that we have recovered the practice of frequent Communions? Once more on our Altars the Sacred Heart of Jesus beats in the Tabernacle, as he waits to receive the adoration of the faithful: are the faithful always there to adore him? Surely from us, to whom much has been given, much will be required: will it, I mean, be unjust if the Recording Angel asks you at your final reckoning: "Oh, you came from one of the Pollock Churches; how is it that you didn't go to Mass more "? If all these things were worth fighting for, then they are worth living by; you can't afford to have a Sunday-at-eleven-o'clock religion at Saint Alban's, you would be like misers, who have hoarded up spiritual treasures at great pains, and then find you don't know how to use them.

Let us then pray to our blessed patron Saint Alban that through his intercession the Catholic churches that are dedicated in his name all over England, St. Alban's Holborn, St. Alban's Fulham, St. Alban's Teddington, St. Alban's Oxford, St. Alban's Birmingham, St. Alban's Nottingham, St. Alban's Manchester, may prove to be, not only the ramparts and outworks of the Christian warfare, but glowing centres of ever-deepening spiritual life. And let us pray also, that the wall may never cease building, till the Church for which he died, and Blessed John Fisher died, be restored to its place in the scheme of a united Christendom, waiting faithfully for the coming from above of the New Jerusalem, which is not builded with hands.

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

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