Project Canterbury

Centennial Sermon in St. Ann's Church

By A.N. Littlejohn.

From St. Ann’s Centennial, Brooklyn, April 23, 1887.

New York: Economical Printing Co., 1887.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2009

Lord, thou hast been our refuge from one generation to another.

THIS is a day for congratulations and thanksgivings--congratulations to this Parish--thanksgivings to Almighty God. The record of St. Ann's during the past hundred years of its existence has been read, and all will agree that it is one of conspicuous usefulness and honor. What multitudes among the dead and the living have helped to make it what it is. What prayers, labors, offerings, denials have entered into it. The events are few, the leading facts quickly told, the narrative rounded out by this centennial very brief and simple. No startling, heroic incidents are at hand to awaken romantic feeling, or to kindle fervid enthusiasm. It is merely a story of duty done, of results [29/30] quietly accomplished, of divine gifts and graces which, in the lives and homes of thousands of God's children, have gone to swell the current of spiritual life which, during the century past, has rolled through the ever-widening arteries of this venerable Parish. Today we can recall only the outside of the record. God only knows the inside of it--what it all means or implies--the secret histories of souls that have lived, labored and passed away--the soothed hearts, the bowed wills, the penitent, adoring, redeemed lives that have gone hence to their account. What to us is only the garnered dust of a vanished generation is alive unto Him through Jesus Christ. One by one the individual units have departed: the corporate life that trained and moulded them for the skies--whether that of the Parish, or of the Diocese, or of the Holy Catholic Church abides in the unwasting strength and vitality of Him who "is our refuge from one generation to another."

A century is not a long time in the history of the divine institutions and ordinances of the Church; but certainly it is so in the history of a parish whose organization rests upon convenience and expediency, and has in it, at best, only a derived and subordinate hold on what is unchangeable in the constitution of [30/31] the Body of Christ. The Parish belongs to the things that may be shaken and removed, because it is among the things that are made; but the Church of God is of the things not made by man, and therefore must remain--the undying witness of what is eternal in the purposes of God and in the life of humanity.

The material house of St. Ann's has changed as other things around it have changed; the spiritual house is to-day essentially what it always has been. We are interested in her past, but still more so in her future. Memory does its best work when it acts as the feeder of hope. The foremost question, it seems to me, suggested by this Centennial, is what principles, what methods, what Christian and ecclesiastical policy have made her the power for good she has been, and, to-day, assure us that she will be substantially the power in the future that she has been in the past. Perhaps, I shall best discharge the duty laid upon me on this occasion by answering from my point of view this question.

At the start St. Ann's had the field to herself. She has shared in the activities and profited by the growth which has transformed Brooklyn from an [31/32] obscure village into a city of three-quarters of a million of people. She has had strong and wise men in her pulpit, and equally strong and wise men among her laity. She has attracted to her and developed from within her a vast amount of individual zeal. With few exceptions she has been blessed with unity and peace in her counsels and her practical work. But these things do not adequately account for her history or explain the secret of her beneficent work or of her abounding strength. Nor would these things alone justify us in venturing confident predictions of her future. Clearly she has been guided and governed by principles larger than her own life, and by standards of duty towering above the shifting verdicts of the world, and unaffected by the changing opinions of her own children. These she has followed as guide-posts on her journey, and, at times, as cautionary signals waved before her eyes by the hand of God in the midst of the perils of a generation that has cared less and less to stand in the old paths. They cannot be stated without seeing at once how some of them have sympathized with, and how others of them have contradicted and opposed this or that salient characteristic of the age now past; and how they will do the same in [32/33] time to come. The time-spirit, however some may accept it as their sufficient guide, is not and cannot be such to the Church of God. She belongs to the order of a divine regeneration, not to that of mere human development. She is glad to work with this or any other age when it is loyal to the order which she represents; but she counts herself neither blind nor obsolete--neither luckless nor wretched, when she resists it even unto blood rather than compromise or surrender her Divine Commission.

(1.) First, then, to go down deepest into the source of St. Ann's growth and power, she has believed and taught with all the energy of a supreme and unfaltering conviction that there is none other Name given under Heaven whereby we may be saved, but the Name of Jesus Christ. And this Christ has been to her not the Christ of the rationalist or of the mystic--not the Christ of the humanitarian or of the evolutionist, not the Christ of the disciple of modern culture, whose religion reaches its consummation in "morality touched by emotion"; nor that of the scientific moralist, who first moralizes religion out of morality, and then moralizes morality into the place of religion; but always with sharply cut outline the Christ [33/34] of the four Gospels and of the Nicene Creed, and so the Christ of Catholic tradition, whose redeeming energy is the life, whose Word is the faith, and whose Sacraments are the precious signs and pledges of His indwelling spirit. However tempted amid the fluctuating drifts of popular belief, whether by speculative ventures promising a new Gospel, or by learned theological nostrums pledging an improved, purified Gospel, she has clung without flinching to the One only Saviour who "Was God manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of Angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into Glory." Will it be said this was simply her duty, and there is no merit in doing so obvious a duty, and therefore no reason for special remark because she has done it? I reply in the hearing of this community--and were it possible, of other communities--have all Christian congregations been equally faithful to the original and unchangeable deposit of truth respecting the Head of the Church and the Redeemer of men? Has there been among us in all cases no wandering, diluted speech on this crucial matter, no eloquent contempt poured upon the ancient doctrines of the Cross, no fires of pulpit genius flashing along [34/35] the tortuous path of heretical denials, or scarcely less heretical explanations of the faith of our fathers? Have no thousands in this and other communities throughout this land had their hold on the atoning sacrifice of the Son of God first clouded, and then shattered by false, but intellectually and rhetorically powerful teachings concerning sin and its doom in the coming world--Christ and his certain intervention in that world to finally save the haters and despisers of His Cross in this world? Has there been no idolatry of men at the expense of what this Church holds and has ever held from the day of the Apostles to be the revealed truth of God which, if a man deny, puts in jeopardy the possibility of his salvation? There may be no merit in what this venerable pulpit has done, and so no praise to be uttered in its behalf, but, at any rate, I am thankful to God that its record in this regard is without blemish--that it offers a worthy example of fidelity to the most solemn of all trusts to the forty and more parishes that have sprung from it in the sixty years behind us.

(2.) Again, St. Ann's, in its teachings and work has assumed as a foundation principle that the Church in all the essentials of its visible organization is [35/36] a Divine Institution--that it was made what it is and ought to be by its eternal Head, and that He provided the means by which in history it shall be kept and perpetuated as He left it. This being so, St. Ann's has never fallen in with the notion that a church can be made or unmade by men, as though it were only a voluntary society of consenting individuals, and dependent for its visible order on the ever-changing accidents of any kind or degree of intellectual, or moral, or social development; nor with the kindred notion that Christianity is at its core only an idea, a force, an influence--a spiritual energy that can become a kingdom or a visibly organized power only as each generation may choose to make it so. I do not propose to argue the point. I mean to do no more than to state a fact, and I do so as in part explanatory of the corporate tone and drift of this Parish since it began a century ago,--of its stability amid changes that have allowed little in religion or in anything else to continue long in one stay, of its wise conservatism in an era of so-called progressive faiths and worships, and of its orderly continuity in the same paths in a day of constantly shifting schemes of Christian activity.

[37] The conceptions of the Church and of Christianity generally to which I have alluded are radically antagonistic. Both cannot be held together. Every believing, working Christian man and woman, every parish must abide by the one or the other. Their choice one way or the other will determine the quality and spirit of what they do. The one gives us the Church as the perpetually organized Body of Christ--as the pillar and ground of the truth--as the unchanging and supreme witness to the meaning of the Holy Scriptures--as the authorized arbiter between conflicting schools of thought and differing types of personal piety whether exceeding or falling short of the Scriptural and Apostolic standard, and finally, as the actual, living Kingdom among men, commissioned of God to speak with authority the message of truth put upon its lips, to discipline the wayward and to repel the incorrigible. The other conception leaves all things afloat, permits every congregation to work out its own definition of truth, construct its own creed, choose its own ministry, frame its own worship, and determine its own conditions of church membership. Nay, in its final outcome, it encourages every man to go to work on the seamless vesture of Christ--a type of the unity of His Church, and, resolving it into its individual threads, to weave a new garment, appropriating or rejecting so much of the old as he pleases. The dividing lines traced by these opposing notions are to-day, perhaps more than any other, the vexation and menace of Christendom. St. Ann's, as part of a larger body--even this whole Branch of the Catholic Church, made her choice between them, and this choice I mean to say has determined her course through the century, and has largely helped to make her what she is in this Diocese and in our American Church.

(3.) Again, St. Ann's, standing fast upon this fundamental principle of churchly order and life, has been, in another very important regard, what might have been expected--namely, a noteworthy example of loyalty to the power set over her in the Lord, whether bishops, or rectors, or vestries. Not blindly, or with passive servility has she followed their bidding, but rather always in a spirit of intelligent obedience which attests an instinctive, habitual love of peace and unity. She has had her own trials, conflicts, temptations on this side of her life. Opportunities and incitements to dissension and anarchy among the flock have not been wanting. And yet, [38/39] so far as I know (and I have personal knowledge for thirty years), her records are free from all trace of bitterness and alienation. The deadly upas of parish factions has never been allowed to bloom within her precincts. As I turn the leaves of her long history I find no proof of harshness or disloyalty toward any of her Clergy when they ceased to be popular or failed to be as great and wise and strong as pew-holders desired--no evidence of a disposition to set aside or ignore her Bishop as though he were a superfluous wheel in the ecclesiastical machinery--no sign of a wish, far less of any overt act to escape from obligations to the Diocese when they bore heavily on her finances or crossed her favorite plans. As with individuals, so with congregations, it is easy to yield while nothing is asked which it is disagreeable to do. Obedience that costs nothing, trenches upon no decided preference, cuts under no fiat of self-will is a very cheap virtue. Parishes, if they would, in the end, be prosperous, must learn the law of membership in a body larger than themselves--the law of self-surrender to wider currents of life than their own,--of willing submission to a Diocesan Head who is responsible to them only as he is so to the whole [39/40] body of which they are integral parts. In all this St. Ann's, as a whole, has given a healthy example which it is not out of place that I should commend to the notice of congregations who can not yet see that, properly considered, the Diocesan Church has no interests--no power, no life that are not equally theirs; and that themselves can grow only as they help on the growth of the original and only Apostolic unit of ecclesiastical organization--the Diocese with the Bishop at its head.

(4.) But still further, it is to the credit of this venerable Parish, and in some degree accounts for what it is and has been as a working force, that it has always insisted upon the Pastoral as contrasted with the Preaching function of the sacred office. Both, indeed, are essential duties of the Ministry and ought never to be discharged as though either could be in abeyance to the other, and yet it is too often held that this can be done without serious injury. The Gospel Ministry is what it is not in virtue of any one, but of all its gifts, powers, and duties; and it can do its appointed work only as it habitually acts upon this principle. We are told that the same man cannot be pastor and preacher, cannot be much in the homes of his flock, cannot [40/41] teach from house to house, cannot know and be known by the souls committed to him, and at the same time be full and strong in the pulpit. It is idle to argue the question. It is enough to say that the learning and eloquence that must be won at the sacrifice of frequent personal contact with individual souls will be won at too great a cost. The law on this subject is embodied in the noblest of examples. The greatest of teachers and the greatest of pastors were one and the same person, even Jesus Christ--the Chief Shepherd and Bishop of Souls. Neither by precept nor example did He lay any needless or impossible task upon those ordained to represent Him. He taught His Church and His ministers once and forever that men cannot be saved in masses, that one by one they must be brought to the Cross; that ordinarily this must be done by personal contact, by teaching and praying for the individual, by inspirations, consolations, warnings--personal guidance and help--that go out throbbing with the warm, sympathetic, loving pulsation of a self-sacrificing and earnest pastorate. No one can plead Christ's authority or the Church's sanction for any other view of ministerial obligations. From the beginning St. Ann's has insisted upon this view, and richly has she been [41/42] blessed because she has done so. And yet she has never been content with a poorly equipped pulpit. In the last sixty years she has had an Onderdonk--one of the ablest of Scripture expositors; a McIlvaine, one of the ripest of scholars and theologians, as well as one of the most attractive and influential of preachers; a Cutler, whose rare combination of pastoral zeal and pulpit industry is yet a precious tradition among us; a Schenck, whom God has too recently taken from us to make it needful for me to tell you what he was in both these spheres of his active ministry. Brethren of St. Ann's, I believe that your mind is unchanged--that your demand is the same as that of your fathers in the faith and I am happy to believe, also, that you have now one over you in the Lord who has the ability and the desire to meet it, and so to hand on without a break the old and continuous use of this Parish, and thus to keep open and fresh one of the chief sources of her power.

(5.) Again, nothing is more worthy of notice--nothing has done more to preserve the vitality and to advance the beneficence of St. Ann's than her unceasing solicitude and her ample provisions for the Christian nurture of the lambs of the fold. In all her history she has never been without a [42/43] well-appointed and flourishing Sunday-school. This has always been one of the favorite fields of labor for her noble band of lay helpers. The training of the children who are to follow us in the rudiments of Christian knowledge and in the elementary duties of the Christian vocation as this Church, like a wise and loving mother, has woven them together into organic completeness, in her Catechism, and her Sacred year, and her wonderful Liturgy--what interest can be more important--more pressing than this, especially in this age, whether regard be had to the future of the Church, or the future of Society and the Republic. Surely you need no exhortation from me to hold fast your precious legacy of customs, of traditions, of Christian obligation on this subject. As little need I remind you of the sad drift of this generation touching the proper education and discipline of the young. Of a truth, speaking generally, our joints are loosening here, and the heritage that has come to us from our fathers is in peril. How and why it is so is too large a theme to enter upon in this connection. Ah, as our Lord said of old to Peter, and put it to him as the supreme test of his love for his Master, so say I to you--"Feed my lambs." Whatever else you may neglect, spare no pains, no [43/44] labor, no time needful for this. Make it sure that your children shall have loyal hearts, disciplined wills, trained and sensitive consciences, as well as what the world calls culture, and the sharpened brains which the average man asks for and admires as a condition of success in this bustling, feverish, money-getting, pleasure-seeking generation. One school with Christ in it is of more moment than a hundred schools with Christ out of them.

(6.) It only remains that I mention without comment three more notable features of the record which have told powerfully upon the spiritual life as well as temporal prosperity of St. Ann's, viz: her constant and generous support of Christian missions, her unfailing charity to Christ's poor and needy, and finally, the great departure of recent days, which crowns and completes the whole--the abolition of all private ownership in this House of God, and the opening of its doors to all comers, trusting for the support of its ministrations to the voluntary offerings of God's people laid upon the altar as part of the worship due to Him.

We thank God for the record as made up today. It is one of dignity, usefulness and fidelity. I have indicated some of the things which have made [44/45] you what you are. The past is secure. As to your future we cannot doubt what it will be, if you shall be true to your past. No wisdom nor wit of man can improve upon the principles and aims that have governed you. They are the unchanging and imperishable guides set up by God himself. One way or another they are adhered to by all congregations that are happy and prosperous. There are and there can be no two roads to travel. There is one that leads unto life, and there is another that leads unto death. God's law as interpreted by the experience of the Christian ages is perfectly clear on this point. The Lord is a sure refuge only as we do His will.

Brethren of St. Ann's, with the congratulations and thanksgivings of your Bishop on this occasion mingle those of all this goodly array of the representatives of the forty Congregations in this county, lighted and warmed by the fire which, one by one, in the long procession of years they have taken from your altar. Freely they concede to you the primacy that comes of age and dignity, and maternal love. Great is your honor. God grant that you may bear it worthily, and bring forth the peaceable fruits of righteousness which shall be the theme of praise when another Centennial shall call together for a like celebration your children's children.

Project Canterbury