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 11. A Protestant Minister

Preached in a College Chapel

AND OTHER FELL ON GOOD GROUND, AND DID YIELD FRUIT THAT SPRANG UP AND INCREASED; AND BROUGHT FORTH, SOME THIRTY, AND SOME SIXTY, AND SOME AN HUNDRED. These words are written in the eighth verse of the fourth chapter of the holy Gospel according to Mark.

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

It seems only right, when the most widely known, and, what was in his case the same thing, the most widely loved of all old Trinity men, has been laid to his rest during the vacation, that some tribute should be paid to his memory at the earliest possible occasion, in the chapel where he worshipped as an undergraduate. It is nearly a month now since the defiant Crucifix at the head of his funeral procession shocked the mercantile respectability of Holborn and the arrogant modernity of Kingsway. And the papers have told us all we want to know about the life and views of Father Stanton, the fifty [69/70] years' curacy, the dreary slum, the bitter persecution, the Monday evenings when the very Altar steps of St. Alban's Holborn were crowded with people in rags who came to hear him preach. They have told us about his ready wit, the things he said to the people who objected to incense, the people who didn't like his reading his offices on a tram, and wearing his cassock in the streets. They have reminded us of his lucid bursts of epigrammatic common sense which used to cut like a draught through the stuffy atmosphere of theological controversy. "The strength of Protestantism has been its preaching of Christ crucified from the pulpit, the strength of Roman Catholicism has been the representation of Christ crucified in the Blessed Sacrament, and all else is foolishness," "If you people had been born in Spain, you would have been Roman Catholics, if you had been born in Scotland, you would have been Presbyterians," "If Mary isn't in heaven, where is she?" and so on. And the papers have told us, too, about the funeral itself, the huge and reverent crowds that followed it or watched its passing, though I have heard from one who was in the procession that the papers, even the illustrated papers, failed to give any adequate idea either of its numbers or of its reverence. They told us, in awestruck tones, how a year ago there was an offer to make Father Stanton a prebendary. It was like offering a knighthood to Mr. Bernard Shaw.

As a mere matter of ocular demonstration and statistical fact, no one can now doubt that the good seed sown in that life brought forth fruit an hundredfold. And yet that is not the remarkable thing. It is not, that he lived to see the principles for which he fought in a slum parish in the 'sixties spreading triumphantly, as they are still spreading, in every corner of England. It is not that his book of devotions, which was censured in 1906 by a Royal Commission, has already reached a sale of 30,000. It is not even the thousands of souls he touched from the pulpit, the hundreds he guided [70/71] from the Confessional. The fruit he brought forth is rather to be seen in the history of his own life. He went almost straight from Oxford to the Church where he served ever since, the Church of which his Bishop told him, "Mr. Stanton, you must not expect any preferment if you go there," the Church which still advertises, if it needs a curate, for men who "look for no advancement on this side of the grave." He lived there, surrounded by poverty and crime, exposed to all the danger persecution might bring to his health and prospects, and the still worse danger that persecution often brings to the humility and the gentleness of the spiritual life. He died, with his mind still unwarped by prejudice, his head still unturned by popularity, his heart still unsoured by controversy. That was what he did with the seed of religion which was sown or maturing when he worshipped in this Chapel.

Some of us may have a public funeral, but which of us will have a record like that? This is Rogation Sunday, the time to think about sowing. What promise does your life show of its harvesting? Some may bear sixty, some thirty; how many are there in whom the seed will bear no fruit at all? Our Lord Jesus Christ has shown us three different ways in which the seed once sown can be lost; and I can never read this parable about the sower without being reminded, with particular force, of the way in which most English people lose their religion--they mostly do lose it nowadays--especially during the period of life represented by your time at the University.

Some fell by the way side, and the fowls of the air came and devoured it up; in other words, Satan comes as soon as the Word of God has reached the heart, and takes it away. I do not think that there is any reason to suppose our Saviour meant to describe in these words the case of particularly hardened sinners. The point is that they are people who have their hearts cased in a sort of hard crust, like the beaten earth on a field path. [71/72] There are some in whom this is caused by sheer frivolous-ness, souls which have been so long accustomed to burking all serious considerations in their lives, that they shrink from any mention of religion as a bare nerve shrinks from the dentist's forceps; they hide themselves at once behind an attitude of life that says, "Oh, I say, rot, don't get on to that sort of thing." To such a mind, a religious allusion becomes a thing in bad taste, to be avoided, like an indecency, perhaps more than an indecency. The crust which these souls draw round themselves is a habit of mind, and of companionship, into which thoughts of religion are precluded from entering. Or they may be souls suffering from cynicism, an outlook which is convinced that it has nothing to learn from anybody, more particularly, from anyone in a black coat. Its experience of religion is commonly based on the eccentricities of "our parson at home." Or it may be that profound slovenliness of mind which conceals itself under an irritating mask of broad-mindedness. "Yes, I know, I suppose one ought really to worry about these things, only somehow they don't mean much to me. You know, I do admire religious people most awfully. I think Father Stanton did a tremendous lot of good. Only I don't set up to be like that." And so on. This is the death of the soul. I do not mean these are the only possible obstructions to God's word: I have just mentioned those which seem to me to have a most directly moral bearing. Such lives may be lived well or badly under this coating of frivolousness, or cynicism, or slackness: I don't know, and to tell the truth I don't much care. Only I mean God's word will never find a lodgement in them. You might as well sow corn in the Garden Quad.

What you want is the spade. You must get deeper. You want to dig down underneath this dusty, common-place, outlook which the habit of years has trodden in till it is hard and barren, and get at your soul. It isn't easy: probably you gave up long since your Morning [72/73] and Evening prayers, the poor little rake with which you used once to scratch at the surface. It isn't a thing that can be done in a week. It isn't a thing that can be described in five minutes. It means real prayer, prayer which is hard work, which strains you, like digging, because you haven't yet learnt to bow your back; not the sort of prayer you have ever used yet, because it is in the mind, not on the lips. I have no time to say more of it; but I will gladly explain it to anyone in private, and give him such prayers to say.

Perhaps after all it isn't as bad as that. Perhaps the seed only fell on stony ground. The soil was soft enough at the top; no barrier of habit shut you off from its appeal. You came up with some attachment to religion; the beauty of the school chapel, some home influence, a taste for Church music, or for Church ceremonial. But it was only sentiment, and sentiment isn't religion. What was wrong, then? Wasn't it, perhaps, that there were stones underneath the surface: buried sins, old sins it may be half unrepented and quite forgotten? The Word of God could get through your outer crust, but it couldn't pierce that secret barrier. And when the time of trial comes--to some, when they leave school, to some when they leave Oxford--you will fall away, and wither like seed that has no depth of earth.

What you want is the harrow. You must root up those old sins and throw them away; and you can't throw them away without bringing them to the light. You need Confession. Again, the process will not be easy. Not so laborious, perhaps, as the last, but it means giving up that covering of twopenny-halfpenny self-conceit which is often miscalled the Englishman's reserve. In the sight of God and man you must cast those sins at the feet of the crucified Jesus, and implore pardon through his Precious Blood. It may be, such sins are now keeping you from Communion: if they are grievous ones, I pray God they are. In any case, they [73/74] are putting a barrier you know not of between your soul and the seed it was meant for.

Do you still search your heart vainly for the reasons that make the soil so poor? I expect it must be the thorns; the cares of this world, and the desires of other things entering in. You will observe, that whereas the wayside was barren from the first, and the stones were there all the time, the thorns GROW up, and slowly choke the seed; it is a gradual process. And so it is, I believe, with the vast majority of people who lose their religion at Oxford. They lose it gradually from year to year. It would be amusing, if it were not so disheartening, to see the statistical regularity with which more Communions are made in the first year than in the second, and in the second than in the third. And this, not because you lose faith in your religion, but because you lose interest in it. I doubt if one quarter of the irreligion of Oxford is due to anything like honest intellectual doubt. You come up determined to poke your nose into everything, and you poke it into religion among the other things. As you go on you specialize; and unless you happen to specialize in religion, you forget all about it. You go in exclusively for debating societies, or for clothes, or for motor-bicycles--not harmful things as they stand, but all ready to choke the Word of God. It is very nice to have a few poppies in a cornfield, but it doesn't do to let them overgrow the corn. The love of Jesus for your soul is a jealous love, and you can't put it away in a corner.

What you want is the knife. You want to cut back that screen of thorns, if you are to let the sunshine of the presence of God reach your heart, if you are to absorb the supernatural nourishment he gives you in the Sacrament of the Altar. You need to cut down your quite harmless enjoyments, to talk less, to see your friends less, to slope about less. You want to make a rule of life which will make your religious observances, prayer and meditation and the holy Sacrifice [74/75] and Communion, the fixed background of your life. That scheme, not your lecture list, or your engagement list, or your card of fixtures, is to be the indispensable, the unalterable thing: and whatever doesn't fit in with it must be cut down and hacked about till it does. So only will you keep the thorns away from the seed, so only will you reach that singleness of aim and purity of intention which will free your soul for her life's flight. Anyhow, I am sure that is what Father Stanton did. I only ask you to remember him in your preoccupations, when you are in danger of letting the world's thorns grow too rankly; to remember him in your ambitions, when you are letting the world's prizes show too dazzling; and if your prayers are not confined to supplication for the living, to remember him also in your prayers.

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

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