Project Canterbury

The Open Pulpit
By the Rt. Rev. A. C. A. Hall, D. D.
Bishop of Vermont

Reprinted from
The American Church Monthly, May, 1919
[8 page pamphlet]

transcribed by Melissa Hunsberger
AD 2003

The question of the Open Pulpit is again forced upon us. Of late years we have, alas! Become accustomed in New York to what looks like ostentatious flouting of the church's law on all sorts of points, without at any rate any public rebuke by the diocesan authorities; but the action of the bishop in arranging for ministers of different religious bodies, none of them in communion with this Church, to make addresses in his cathedral on the several days of Holy Week, is a distinct challenge to the Church, as was the action of the Bishop of Massachusetts last summer in the matter of the Cambridge Conference Communion. If such action by leading Bishops is tacitly allowed, or not authoritatively repudiated, the Episcopal Church will be practically committed to a policy which will forfeit the allegiance of many of her most devoted children.

Unhappily the example set in New York, or conspicuously illustrated there, is according to report being followed in a good many other places and dioceses, and is apparently favored by some whose approval or consent would not have been thought likely.

It is difficult for some of us to remain calm in view of what is being done; but let us try to consider the matter dispassionately, with the various pleas that are urged on behalf of this Open policy.

I. Appeal is made by some to the Prophetic and so-called Charismatic ministry in the early Christian Church. The nature and position of the Prophetic office, as set forth for instance in The Didache, has been amply discussed of late, in particular by Dr. Armitage Robinson in the volume of Essays on the Early History of the Church and Ministry edited by Dr. Swete, and reviewed in the American Church Monthly for October last. It is unnecessary here to say more than that, whatever was the position of the Prophets, two things are clear: (1) where they were present their ministrations were not limited; they celebrated the liturgy and generally presided in the assemblies of the faithful, taking precedence of the settled and local ministry. If the Use of the Cathedral of St. John the Divine is based on the recognition of distinguished Presbyterian, Congregational and Methodist ministers as charismatic prophets, these authorities, or one of them, should displace the Bishop at the Easter or Maundy Thursday Eucharist, and not be restricted to addressing the congregation at afternoon services. (2) The Prophets were not visitors from outside the communion in which they ministered, belonging to external bodies, with varying forms of belief and practice; they belonged to the same household of faith, enforcing the accepted faith with special fervor and demonstration of the Spirit.

II. Apart from what may perhaps be considered antiquarian considerations concerning technical "Prophets," preaching, it is said, is not a distinctly priestly function. Perhaps not; the example of St. Stephen and Friars would point that way. But in our ordinal it is the Priest who is solemnly commissioned to be "a faithful Dispenser of the Word of God" as well as "of his holy Sacraments." The Priest is, under the Bishop, the ordinary teacher and instructor of the people committed to this spiritual charge. He may call in the assistance of others, for whose teaching in a general way he will remain responsible. Deacons and laymen who have been allowed at different time and under varying regulation to preach, were always in communion with the Church, and subject to its discipline. Our Lay Readers must be communicants of the Church, licensed by the Bishop, acting under this direction or that of a Priest having jurisdiction in the place, and they are only authorized to deliver sermons or addresses of their own if, after instruction and examination, they are specially licensed thereto. The question before us is of inviting men who are professedly and officially representatives of religious bodies organized in separation from the Church, from which on principle they conscientiously differ. Apart from the question of "commission" there is the requirement that those who teach and speak in the church's name should be "tried and examined" by her authorities. And if it is said that of course the Bishop of New York would invite to the Cathedral pulpit only eminent representatives of so-called orthodox religious bodies, exercising himself a responsible selection, what guarantee is there that in this or that other dioceses or community the same sort of selection would be exercised, or would be possible? If "ministers of other denominations" may, as such, be admitted to preach in our congregations, where shall a line be drawn without danger at least of affront to ministers or denominations?

III. It has been pleaded that we are greatly indebted to the writings of ministers not of our communion, that our clergy largely use their books-commentaries, sermons, etc.--in their preparation for preaching; why not then allow the men themselves to speak to us? Surely the fallacy is obvious. We may helpfully and gratefully make use of such material. But the responsibility for its use rests with the preacher, who is bound by his promise of conformity to the Church's doctrine, discipline and worship. He must sift the material and choose what he considers fitting. Some clergymen may be greatly helped, in their own lives and in their preaching, by the sermons and devotional writings of Roman Catholic authors. But they would be reckoned bound to omit from their borrowing what was distinctly Romish, and not to teach, for instance, as of faith the immaculate conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary, nor to urge the advantages of indulgences. Nor would an Eastern enthusiast be entitled to preach against the Filioque in the creed. The principle of discrimination and selection then is recognized in the use of material borrowed from those who are not subject to our obligations or restrictions. But ministers who are invited to come to deliver their own message cannot, and certainly should not, be expected to leave out the distinctive parts of their message, those points of belief or practice for which their communions particularly stand-unless they too have given up all definite and real belief in their tenets!

IV. But it is said, Whether you like it or not, a canon (once notorious as number nineteen, but now changed in enumeration to twenty) expressly provides that on Special Occasions Christian men, who are not ministers of this Church, may be allowed by the Bishop to make addresses in the Church. Whether an ordinary Sunday forenoon service can be honestly reckoned a "Special Occasion" in the meaning of the canon, or a Good Friday afternoon, may be left to the judgment of ordinary persons. The phrase in the context would naturally be interpreted as referring to a gathering in the church, not for the regular worship, but for some great charitable or educational or civic purpose, or for an historical commemoration, when an expert, apart from any question of his ecclesiastical affiliation or status, might be invited to make an address, like Sir Herbert Tree and Sir Johnston Forbes-Robertson at the Shakespeare Ter-centenary in the New York Cathedral.


V. The precedent of the War is invoked, and the disregard of ecclesiastical lines in camp and at the front. About this two remarks may be made. (1) Under actual conditions this was unavoidable with army and navy chaplains appointed by the State in some supposed proportion to the number of soldiers and sailors belonging to different religious bodies. Are anomalies of necessity submitted to under military rule to be voluntarily introduced into our settled ecclesiastical usage?

(2) The war precedent (like the appeal to the states of "Prophets") would go a good deal further than some perceive or probably intend. We recollect reading in the papers of the dedication of a building intended for religious and recreational purposes at a camp not far from New York, at which all sorts of chaplains and ministers officiated (perhaps under military orders), the rector of Trinity Church being sandwiched in between a Roman Catholic priest and a Jewish rabbi, who gave the benediction. Are there not commissioned, or any rate appointed, chaplains from among Christian Scientists and Mormons? Are we prepared to accept the leadership of the largest body or of the senior minister in a community? Again, where can a line be drawn?

VI. There is the Cry of Despair. Something must be done. The need is so great for Christians to get together in the face of formidable and determined foes to Christian faith and Christian life. We have talked too long about reunion. By some action we must shew that we are really in earnest in our professed desire for union. But what is it we are in earnest about? Is it not world-wide reunion of the whole of Christendom? Are we to be content with anything short of this, with mere Federation instead of reunion (as a plan), or with the union of Protestant or Evangelical Churches (as marking its extent)?

Let us be clear that so far from a Federation of Evangelical Churches being a step towards the reunion of the whole of Christendom, it would indefinitely postpone the realization of the better and bigger hope, and would quite definitely rule out the Episcopal or Anglican Church (if this were included in the Federation) from its boasted position of mediation between the historical and the reformed communions. It is all very well to welcome to our churches with respectful greetings Eastern prelates; but we can no more expect them than Latin authorities to enter into serious negotiations with us if they see that we throw in our lot with Protestants and practically repudiate the necessity of an apostolic commission. Our plans and invitations for a World Conference for the discussion of questions concerning Faith and Order that now divide Christendom are doomed to disappointment, if in anticipation of these discussions we stir up fresh trouble by opening our pulpits to preachers of various denominations, and by eccentric devices for the ordination of men who shall behalf within and half without the Church, owning a sort of allegiance to a Bishop whose authority is not recognized by those to whom they minister. It is in the interest of real unity that we put aside these makeshifts, which are bound to cause divisions among ourselves and to hinder, not help, reunion on the wider scale.

VII. I may be that some feel the above and like excuses to be unnecessary, though perhaps useful. The Open Pulpit is the means which they take to assert their principle of ministerial equality, that the "organization" of Christian Churches is a mere matter of convenience, preference, or historical association, that the Protestant Episcopal is one among several sister Protestant Churches, rather more highly organized than other, while with considerably freer interpretation and laxer enforcement of its standards. This may be the conscious or subconscious motive impelling some advocates of these irregularities. (This word does still apply.) They are determined in practice to impose this interpretation upon our formularies, and (however kindly and gently) to render a Catholic position untenable. Very well, let this be clearly understood, and we shall know where to take our places. We will contend for what we believe to be the truth. But we are not all of us individualists. We have insisted on this or that rule or doctrine because it was the teaching of the Church, not because it represented our opinion. There are numerous and devoted members of the Episcopal Church who will not be contented with Pan-Protestantism, nor be able to retain allegiance to a Church which has belied its own professions, and broken away from historical Christianity. Systems which speak with authority (though it be exaggerated), and which enforce discipline (even if sometimes harshly) will attract those who are repelled by unprincipled laxity. Others, whose knowledge and conscience would not permit subscription to the creed of Pius IV, and who recognize that Anglican laxity does not justify Papal claims, may find themselves and to others) to resign responsible positions of authority, if the Church is whose name they would teach and rule fails them or negatives their witness.

Speaking thus plainly, and with a full sense of responsibility for his words, the writer cannot in frankness refrain from an appeal to Churchmen who would in general agree with what has been said, to consider their own policy and to abstain, at any cost of personal preference, from lines of action which are also, if not equally, inconsistent with our existing standards of doctrine, discipline and worship (to which we in Holy Orders have promised conformity). It is the vagaries and claims for absolute toleration, or license, on both or on all sides which render it extraordinarily difficult for those in authority to restrain plain departures from the Church's law, and which furnish a reply to complaints concerning these violations. A policy of drift is encouraged, allowing every man to do and teach what he conscientiously thinks he may. This forfeits allegiance within, and exposes us quite naturally to ridicule and scorn from without.

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