Project Canterbury

The Good News

By Bernard Iddings Bell, D.D.

Milwaukee: Morehouse Publishing, [1921]

Chapter VI. Christ's Kind of a Church

YOU and I belong to that wonderful brotherhood of which we have thought in the preceding chapter. Your parish, your local congregation, is a group within that comradeship. Bigger than the nation is the Church, for it includes all nations. It and it alone can make possible a lasting League of Nations. More precious it is than civilization, for it has helped to make civilization after civilization, and has lasted when, one after another, human sin and folly have destroyed them. It has seen them come and go; and still exists. Are we deserving of membership in a brotherhood like this? Are we and our local group worthy of the blood and woe and pain of all the saints? Are we and is our parish so behaving in this day that in the to-morrows we and it may be looked back on with the gratitude of future generations? In the days to come will men come to our churches as now they flock to the Catacombs and to St. Peter's and to Sta. Sophia and to Canterbury and to Monte Cassino and to Assisi and to the other holy places of the saints, and will they say, "Here lived and worshipped long ago, in the far off twentieth century, great men and noble women and simple priests whose memory is a benediction. This is holy ground forever." And will they humbly ask us, then long since dead, to pray for them that they may be the brave, simple, kindly, calm, heroic souls that we once were?

In the book of the Acts St. Luke gives us the distinguishing marks of the first Church in Jerusalem and of those first Christians. They lived heroic lives. They witnessed mightily for Christ. Men respected them, feared them, persecuted them,--did everything but ignore them. They turned the world upside down. Let us consider what things gave those early Christians their power.

First, we read that they continued in the Apostles' doctrine.

These Apostles had been picked by Jesus Himself, and told definitely just what He wanted done and taught in His name upon the earth. He spent most of the three years of his ministry teaching them, not preaching to great crowds. And just before His Ascension, He spent forty final days instructing them, says St. Luke, "in the things concerning the Kingdom." When He had disappeared, and they had felt great power come on them at Pentecost, at once they started the Church. They started it according to Jesus' instructions. Any other hypothesis is unthinkable. They taught what Jesus had told them to teach. The early Church was content to take their teaching and to follow it, rather than, each man for himself, seeking individually to interpret Christianity, in the recently modem fashion.

Their teaching was simple enough.

First, they taught that a man can save himself only by following the example of the Cross and being willing to lay down his life for his friends.

Second, they taught that to do this was very, very hard for anybody. It is easy to be selfish. The flesh, inherited from the beasts, the world about us, the plausible devil, all bid us live for ourselves. Christ bids us live for others, to deny ourselves, to impoverish ourselves for the welfare of our brethren. That is exceedingly difficult. We can only do it if we have, very really, a consciousness of God's help and friendship.

Third, they taught that God is no vague spiritual aura, hard for human beings like us to understand and grasp. For us He came down and was incarnate,--lived for us, died for us. He is not dead now, but everlastingly lives and comes to us in His Church; touches us in Sacraments,--Baptism, the Laying on of Hands, the Supper of the Lord; hears us when we pray to Him.

Fourth, a man who accepts Him must be baptized and so let Jesus touch Him. This unites him with the Church and with Christ forever.

That in brief, is the Apostles' doctrine. Essentially it was later summed up in what we call the Apostles' Creed, sometime after they all were dead. Still later, when all sorts of mistaken people had attempted to misteach the Faith, it was carefully written down in the Nicene Creed, which was then accepted all over the world as the best expression of what had been the Apostles' teaching, in philosophical terms. [Not long since that fluent novelist, Mr. H. G. Wells,--whose works are very interesting even though, possibly largely because, he apparently thinks while writing and not before writing, and whose productions, like all intuitions, need careful scrutiny before one may put confidence in them--wrote two books largely about this Nicene Creed and the people who formulated it. Of these "God the Invisible King" seems quite honest. "The Soul of a Bishop" is twaddle. I find these have been more largely read than they deserve to be and that from them many people have gained two false impressions of the Nicene fathers. One of these is that the Alexandrians, who were chief in formulating the Symbol, were uneducated ignoramuses, whereas, of course, they were the product of cultured thought in what was then the chief seat of learning of the world. The other idea is that the Creed was crammed down the throat of Christendom by the Emperors. This is a ludicrous twisting of facts. Things were the other way about. The Emperors, most of them openly, almost all of them secretly, were Asians (Unitarians) and fought the Faith as hard as they could.]

That faith the Church must hold, if it is to succeed, for it is the thing the Apostles taught, and they were taught by Jesus Himself. Some lesser but well-advertised parts of Christ's Church are veering away from it. They will fail, just as all bodies in ages past which have forsaken it have failed. Every sort of misstatement, half-statement, and warping of the Faith has been seen many times in this world. There are no new heresies. These mistaken cults pass and are forgotten. The Faith remains. It always will remain, because God taught it. The Churches which fail to teach it are lapsing off into the vaguest sort of generalities, which mean almost nothing. Our youth are increasingly unattracted. Nobody cares much. Men and women respond in the long run only to the Faith, because it hits them where they live, it helps them when they are up against real problems, real work, real sorrows, real life, real death.

Some people think that it is medieval to teach the Faith. They think we have outgrown it. How foolish! The Faith is not tied up with changing manners, or changing economics, or changing fashions. It is concerned with things fundamental to all life. How shall a man save himself from futility? How dare a man live an unselfish life? How can a man get vitally in touch with God? Those are the questions the Faith answers; They are questions so fundamental that Peter in the first century, and Athanasius in the fourth century, and Savonarola in the thirteenth century, and Francis Xavier in the seventeenth century, and Wesley in the eighteenth century, and you and I in the twentieth century all find them equally vital. Fashions in clothing and fashions in philosophy come and go. The Faith remains. Do not run with your life problems to some yogi from India, or to some cynical young rationalist, so-called, or to some popular novelist with a new philosophy every year, or to Mary Baker Eddy of Boston, or to any man working out new guesses day by day. Do not think a faith must have been made yesterday to be valuable to you. A nice mess modern people have made 0f industry and international brotherhood and art and life generally. Why should we think them more able to make a religion than the fathers were, or Christ's Apostles? Go to the Church and learn the truth about life from Jesus, as He gave it to the Twelve. Then you will find guidance and peace and strength for your soul. Let your parish church, assisted by you most loyally, go on teaching the Faith once for all delivered to the saints, teaching it calmly and serenely, with a consciousness that she is right with the rightness of Jesus Himself. Then people who are tired of flitting hither and yon, carried about with every wind of doctrine, will thank God for her and for you who helped keep her alive.

They continued in the Apostles' doctrine and in their fellowship.

To these Apostles Jesus had committed the government and preservation of His Brotherhood. In St. Matthew's Gospel the last thing recorded is that Jesus said to the Apostles, "Go ye unto all nations, teaching them and baptizing them, teaching them to observe and do all the things which I have commanded you: and I am with you, always, to the end of the world." Moreover, when you read the Acts, you find that the government of the Church rested with the Apostles. When these Apostles died, as both the Bible and the early history of the Church shows, they laid hands on others and left them to take their places as Apostles and Overseers of the Church. This has gone on to the present day. To-day we call the Apostles "Bishops". Catholic Bishops, whether Roman, Orthodox, or "Episcopalian", all can trace their authority back through laying on of hands to the Apostles themselves.

Some people think it very smart to-day to say that nobody in the least cares whether Bishops are so commissioned or not. If they do not care, they ought to, at least if the security of Christendom is anything to them, for always the Bishops have tried to be exceedingly careful to select and consecrate only such successors as would preserve the essentials of the Faith. If you want to see the practical result of having no Bishops to preserve the simple Faith look at Protestantism all about us. It is rapidly degenerating into individualism, where any man teaches what he wills, where worship is giving way to secularism, where devotions have to be bolstered up with motion pictures and other popular baits. [This does not, of course, apply to all Protestants. It does, however, fairly describe the prevailing tendency, especially in America.] Or look at the Roman Church, which abandoned the Apostles' fellowship and made, or tried to make, all the Apostles subservient to the See of Peter, substituting for the Lord's constitution of the Church an autocratic Papacy. See the growth of superstition, so distressing to the better minds within the Roman Church itself. See the addition of doctrines unheard of by the Apostles, such as the Immaculateness of Mary, to the Faith. Rejection of the constitutional episcopate has brought upon the Christian Church schism, disunity, religious Bolshevism, the discrediting of the Faith. It were well that we remained in fellowship with the Apostles and their spiritual descendants. You may not, if you do, find yourself cheek by jowl with all the giddy modernists; but you will have some foundation on which to build your life, a foundation which will not have to be revised the next time a scientist discovers something, the next time a war breaks forth, the next time some sophomoric young philosopher prematurely finds a publisher, or some disillusioned novelist has a bad dream. Let your parish, aided by you, say, "We have nothing new. We have teaching and methods as old as Christ and yet as modem as that human life which changes in fundamentals not at all from age to age. We have kept it because we have remained in the Apostles' fellowship, subject to their godly restraint if we or our parsons should lose our heads." Then will men say, "Thank God for some force in religion which is still able to function sanely and serenely in the midst of almost universal hysteria."

And the early Church remained in the Breaking of Bread and the Prayers, Communion and a pietistic twist with a text and a peroration,--Prayer.

Have you noticed how all about us there seems to be a tendency to estimate a Church by every standard except that of worship People for a time used to flock to hear each startling religious orator who emerged. Ask people still, why they go to such and such a Church, and most of them will reply, "Because Dr. So and So is such a great preacher." Queer, these "great preachers" of the nineteenth century. They emerged, flashed across the spiritual heavens like comets,--and disappeared again. Men have forgotten them. Their fireworks, their thrilling mannerisms, their clevernesses, their ingenious ways of lecturing about everything under Heaven and giving their lectures they did not help men's souls very much. That is why people today are very wary of sermons and sermonizers. Our fathers may have been sermon tasters, but we have become mere sermon nibblers. Most of us resent sermons. We found that the men in camp almost invariably did,--not because they did not wish to know about their souls and God and their duties and the way to get help to do them, but because most sermons told little or nothing about such things as these. People used to go a great deal to church, because of the sermon. Now they mostly stay home, because of the sermon.

When sermons lost their power, many churches turned, not back to the Faith and devotions, but rather to "social service." Up went enormous parish houses and settlements under the eaves of the old church buildings, used for clubs and societies and kindergartens and sodalities and all that sort of thing. Behold! "The institutional church"! Well, that is failing too. After all you cannot much save souls, in the stress of real life, through afternoon teas and smokers and billiards. The state, the cities, commenced to do these things, too. Small parks and municipal playgrounds grew up. Lodges for men supplanted the church men's clubs. Women's clubs and suffrage clubs and so on took the place of the guilds and sodalities. These agencies did these things just as well as the churches, and often better, cheaper, and without the divisions due to a riven Christendom. Then people began to say, "If the function of the Church is purely to do these things, and other organizations do them better, why bother with the churches?" And so the institutional church has positively hurt religion, definitely helped to discredit it; and nobody knows it better than some of the splendid people who gave their best years and their generous assistance in a desire to institutionalize the Church. You see how greatly we have forgotten that the only legitimate function of the Church is to lead men's souls t0 God for strength, forgiveness, comfort, power, from Him.

Well, then, let us make no mistake about the Church to which we belong or may sometime belong. Its fundamental aim is to bring men to God and God to men. We can trust the men and women who find God through the Church to go out for themselves and find their brothers. We can trust them to serve through other agencies than the Church itself. We wish them to be able to minister through the Y. M. C. A. and the Y. W. C. A. and through civic and suffrage organizations and through clubs and through Rotaries, through the Masons and Odd Fellows and the K. P.'s, through the Rebekahs and the Eastern Star, through the Associated Charities and the settlements, through politics and business and "society", through schools and colleges, through homes and family activities. They will find fields for loving their brethren without our guidance, thank God.

We may therefore spend all our time and al4 our money and all our brains and all our energy in the Church in leading men and women and little children to Jesus our God. Thus we may have it said by the people who pass our doors, "There is St. Blank's, a real house of God, and a real temple to Jesus. Its priest is a humble shepherd of souls, a minister more than a round-collared administrator. Its doors are ever open for prayer and devotion. Its people love it because there they find comfort in sorrow, sanctity in joy. Their children are christened there. Their marriages are blessed there. Their dead are from it committed to their rest. Their sins are brought there and confessed. Their weakness there is strengthened. And every Sunday you may see them going there, and often on week-days, too,--with their wives and their children,--to kneel before the altar, to break the bread as Christ commanded, and to receive His touch. Yes, St. Blank's is a real Church. Its pulpit is no lecture stump. Its purpose is not buzzing social activity. Its people use it for the Breaking of the Bread and the Prayers."

"They continued in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship and in the breaking of Bread and the Prayers, praising God and having favor with the people." In these four things, doctrine, fellowship, communion, prayers, we strike straight through the centuries to Jesus, confessing Him with lives as well as lips, and touching thus that rock on which He built His Church, against which the gates of Hell can never prevail.

Can our parishes be and do this most glorious thing, so that God shall smile upon them and men shall call them blessed? That depends upon our understanding that this is what they ought to be and do; and upon our investing our life, our wealth, our presence, our time, our ability, our energy, to making our devotion REAL.

Project Canterbury