POLITY OF THE CHURCH, IN THE GENERAL THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY OF THE
PROTESTANT EPISCOPAL CHURCH IN THE UNITED STATES.
To my respected and beloved Brethren, the Clerical and Lay Members of the Primary Convention of the Diocese of Western New-York.
To none, dear brethren, with more propriety than yourselves, can I dedicate this humble effort to serve your interesting diocese, and the cause of our divine Lord, and of His holy church. Before you were capable of acting in an organized capacity, a number of you as individuals, and other friends and brethren of your diocese, conveyed to me the flattering and gratifying request, that I would open your primary convention with a sermon, and the administration of the Lord's supper. In pursuance of this kind and affectionate request, this discourse was written, under all the necessary disadvantages, however, of being prepared only at intervals, during an extensive and laborious visitation. This fact calls for indulgence, for any marks of haste which its style may evince. You were, however, so good, as unanimously to request its publication. I saw not how I could decline the request, notwithstanding the necessity of throwing myself on the indulgence referred to.
The resolution requesting the publication of the sermon, was far from being the only one which passed your convention, indicative of your great kindness and [iii/iv] affectionate regard, The Journal of that body bear testimony, which, I assure you, goes home to my heart, of the lenient and Christian spirit with which you have received my imperfect ministrations among you. The promptness with which you were pleased to place your diocese under my provisional charge, is a fact which speaks with peculiar emphasis; and the sentiments of affectionate attachment contained in your other resolutions, strengthen your claim upon my lasting gratitude and love. This is true of those resolutions which have a personal bearing. It is more especially so of that which refers to my principles, and the policy which I have deemed it my duty to pursue in my official course. Here, brethren, you touched what are dear to me as the apple of my eye. Those principles and that policy have not ripened into the full maturity with which they are embraced by my understanding, and enshrined in my affections, without much study, long and deep reflection, earnest prayer, and no very limited range of observation of their bearings, their tendencies, and their results. I should not cherish them as I do, nor should I so earnestly commend them to the careful attention, and the practical adoption of your diocese, were I not fully persuaded that they are of God. Devoutly praying that this sermon may be an humble instrument in their favour, I affectionately dedicate it to you; and commending you to the blessings of God's providence and grace, am,
Your devotedly attached friend and pastor,
BENJ. T. ONDERDONK.
This, St. Paul here declares to be the purpose for which the gospel ministry was appointed. The expression is a clear indication of the doctrine, obvious throughout the New Testament, that the edification, whether in soundness of faith, in genuineness of piety, or in purity of morals, whereby the functions of the ministers of Jesus are to promote the real welfare of men in their individual, as well as every social capacity, is appointed to be enjoyed through the medium of the body or church of Christ; and consequently that this body must be kept sound, pure, and efficient, and be made to extend its holy influences over our characters and lives, and over every department of man's intercourse with his fellows, if the spiritual, temporal, and eternal blessings of the gospel are to be enjoyed in the divinely constituted way.
On no occasion, brethren, can these fundamental principles be more naturally, or more profitably considered, than when the ministers and members of that church come to take counsel together for the due ordering of its concerns, for the promotion of its welfare, and the enlarging of its holy operations and influences.
Having had expressed to me from all parts of the new and interesting diocese this day commencing its existence, the desire of my beloved brethren, its clergy and laity, that I should be present with them, and open the proceedings of their first convention, with the sermon usual on such occasions, I knew not how to select a more fitting theme, than that presented to our view by the text, "The edifying of the body of Christ." This, of course, is the great object we should have before us, in all ecclesiastical assemblies and proceedings. Nor can my heart cherish a desire, nor raise to God a prayer, for you, my brethren, the [5/6] members of this convention, more in unison with the momentous responsibilities you are now about to assume, and with the feelings naturally associated with the holy relation which has heretofore existed between us than that the principles, views, and operations, with which you now commence your distinct diocesan career, may be solely governed by a desire to promote the edifying of the body of Christ, its growth, strength, unity, good order, purity, and efficiency, as a body, and the nourishing and cherishing of its members individually, in holiness here, and to everlasting happiness hereafter. To these blessed ends, be sacrificed every counter feeling, motive, and object; and merging all temporal, individual, local, and other partial considerations, in those which look directly to the glory of God, the good of his church, and the spiritual and eternal welfare of his people, give now your solicitous attention, with prayer for his guidance and aid therein, to such a modelling of your incipient diocesan measures, as may give them the impress of that fidelity, in the views that govern them, the motives that urge to them, and their own character, to the one cause of Christ and his church, which will afford to your brethren in all parts of our land, whose affectionate solicitous regards are now turned towards you, the earnest of an efficient agent, in this new and important diocese, in extending the blessed influences of the cause of Christ--the soundness of the faith--the genuineness of the piety, and purity of the morals, of his holy gospel, in their divinely appointed connection with the unity, good order, and prosperity of his church.
In an humble and affectionate endeavour to be a co-worker with you in so good a purpose, I propose, as our present subject, the edifying of the body or church of Christ.
I do not design entering much into details; but rather calling your attention to some general considerations, which both clergy and laity should continually keep in practical regard, if they would the most truly promote this great end, on the pure principles of the gospel. My reverend brethren will perceive, that the primary application of the subject will be to them. The laity also, however, possess in it a deep interest; inasmuch as it is of the utmost importance that they should be aware of the [6/7] nature, and consequent claims, of the religion and church in whose cause, and not that of any merely temporal or worldly object, they are enlisted, when engaged in any department of their ecclesiastical duties and responsibilities.
The remarks which I have to make, I purpose dividing under the three heads of Gospel Faith, Gospel Order, and Gospel Piety.
In order that the body or church of Christ may be truly edified, those who would be agents to so blessed an end, must give good heed to a practical consideration of various important principles under each of these heads.
With respect to gospel faith, you need not, brethren, that I remind you that the Holy Scriptures only are the source whence it is to be drawn. It is a part, however, of the moral discipline to which our heavenly Father would subject us, that the precepts of his Holy Word, touching both doctrine and practice, are not given in any systematic summary, but are scattered throughout us inspired pages, and to be found in every variety of direct teaching, allegorical enforcement and illustration, historical and biographical narrative, and devotional exercise. Effort, therefore, is to be made, in order to the obtaining of a correct practical view of the full bearing of Holy Writ, on both the faith which we are to cherish, and the religious and moral obedience that we are to render. Consequently, a leading means of religious edification is a constant, careful, thorough study of the Scriptures. They must be well understood in the languages in which they were originally indited; and a correct knowledge should be had of the various connected circumstances of history, geography, customs, governments, and the like, as also of the bearings on their contents of the several departments of natural science.
Let not this view be thought to encumber with too great difficulties the acquisition of that religious knowledge, whereby men are to be built up in the true faith of the gospel, and guided aright in the practice of its holy precepts. The gospel was intended for man, as a being possessed of extensive intellectual and moral powers, and required to consecrate them to holy purposes, and bring them all into subserviency to his spiritual [7/8] interests. The labour necessary in order to the accomplishing of this end, is but what it is reasonable to suppose would be required of such a being as man; the powers of whose mind we cannot imagine to have been given for merely temporal purposes, or to be spent on even the highest and most refined of those objects which have to do merely with his state and being here. It is in harmony with all just apprehensions of divine wisdom, as well as with right views of the true dignity and welfare of an intelligent creature, that a religion designed for the latter, should be such as to call into exercise his intellectual and moral powers, and enlist in its behalf their best and highest operations. Thus, that religion becomes a fitting probation for a moral agent, and under the sanctifying influences of divine grace, a mean of advancement towards that perfection of intellect which, in heaven, will fill every faculty of the soul with knowing, not in part, but even as also we are known, and seeing, not as through a glass darkly, but face to face.
Thus, brethren, if we would promote the true edification of the church, we must cultivate an habitual, close, and extensive study of Holy Scripture, carefully comparing and combining its several parts, and giving good heed to whatever may in any way help to a right understanding of the same.
If it be asked, whether this process of study and investigation is to be expected of every Christian; the answer is obvious, that this cannot be. All are by no means so situated as to allow of it. But all may derive the benefit of it, if it be duly attended to by the church. It is clearly revealed as one of the objects mercifully had in view by our heavenly Father for our good, in the establishment of his ministry, that there may thus be an order of men separated from the various worldly pursuits, in which lie the paths of ordinary duty and usefulness, and devoted to those acquisitions in divine knowledge, whence is to flow that instruction which is to enlighten the world in spiritual things, and give right guidance to those spiritual inquiries, studies, and investigations, for which all, in whatever station of life, have opportunities allowed them by the great and good Disposer of events.
Let it not be objected, that this view of the subject favours [8/9] a humiliating dependence of the common Christian mind, on the guidance and control of that which has better opportunities of study and research. It is in perfect analogy with all God's dealings with our race, that in every department of knowledge there should be a direction given by the greater to the less informed in the principles on which it rests. This, however, by no means involves the necessity of the sacrifice, by the latter, of intellectual and moral action or responsibility. Views and principles deduced by great labour and research may, by the judicious explication of them, be rendered altogether clear and intelligible; and their reception be thus, not the implicit surrendering of judgment, but the yielding of its enlightened and spontaneous consent.
From such principles we deduce the important conclusion, that in order to the true edifying of the church, there must be, in its ministry, that laborious research into the revealed doctrines of the gospel, and that diligent direction of the understanding to a thorough investigation of all their legitimate bearings, connections, and consequences, which, under the faithfully sought direction, illumination, and guidance of the Holy Ghost may enable their lips to keep that knowledge, whence the people may successfully seek wisdom unto salvation.
Among the aids to be used in order to this end, the wise and good, in all periods of Christianity, since its first ages, have been wont to look, with reverent regard and pious confidence, to the generally received opinions of the church in those ages, upon the obviously sound and proper principle, that pending the hallowed influences immediately flowing from the personal ministry of Christ and his Apostles, and of the great and good men whom the Apostles deemed meet to be put in charge of the ministry of the gospel, there cannot be reasonably expected to be found any important error incorporated into the Christian system, as generally received and followed. Very diligently, then, and carefully, should the remains of those ancient times be studied by all who would be rightly guided in their search for that truth, which God has appointed to be sought by a thorough investigation of the true meaning of His inspired word.
 And next to the direct study of primitive Christian antiquity, may be ranked devout and careful heed to that teaching, which has come down to us from those pure ages, through the testimony of the Catholic Church.
It is an interesting fact in sacred history, illustrative of the kind dealings and watchful guardianship towards His church, of God's providence and grace, that when the monstrous mass of heresy, superstition, and ungodliness, which departure from primitive truth and order gathered around the church, alarmed its friends, and bid them nerve their hearts, and rouse their energies for thorough reformation, they found amid this mass the holy and uncorrupted truth of God. It had been shut out, it is true, for ages, from the view of men; but there it was; and in that portion of His earth which subsequent developments show to have been chosen in the wise counsels of Jehovah, for efficiency in intellectual, moral, and spiritual benefit to man, far exceeding that of all the rest, this truth of God, separated from the unholy alloy with which it had been mingled, was embodied into that ecclesiastical system which, in all its essential parts, and many of its most valuable circumstantial features, has been extended to us.
The standard of doctrine afforded by that Liturgy, which we have derived from the Church of England, had not its origin at the Reformation, or any other period more recent than that Christian antiquity, which all well thinking Christians deem worthy of their most reverent regard, as illustrating the genuine influence of evangelical principles.
I would be understood as applying the term standard of doctrine emphatically to our Liturgy; and affectionately and earnestly recommending to my brethren of the clergy and laity, the close study of that inestimable volume, with a view to its exhibitions, illustrations, and enforcing of evangelical doctrine, on the great principles, and practical details, of Christian truth and duly. In this view of it, the Liturgy is favourably distinguished from other documents, which are also a part of our publicly avowed and adopted standards. I refer to the Articles and Homilies. These are not, like the Liturgy, summaries, that have come down to us from pure antiquity, and thus, channels which [10/11] have borne the profession and illustration of the truth as it is in Jesus, to these our days, from those of inspired men, and of those who were taught by them, and of those who lived while yet the holy influences of the personal ministry of these still lingered in the church. They were drawn up at a period of much theological discussion; when divines were much swayed by the influence of imposing systems; when the combatting of Popish and Protestant errors gave a professed controversial form to the greater part of what they preached and wrote; and when, consequently, much of technicality of expression, and not a little of metaphysical nicety of argument, and no small influence of the tendency of the human mind, when combatting one extreme, to run very near the borders of another, presented a marked contrast to the simplicity which so eminently characterizes the scriptural and primitive exhibitions and elucidations of inspired truth, with which the Liturgy is fraught.
I should be much misunderstood if thought to desire to depredate the Articles and Homilies, as valuable portions of our standards of Christian doctrine; but it is my desire, brethren, to present the Liturgy to your regard, as decidedly superior to them both, as such standard. The design, of course, of the Articles and Homilies, is to present and illustrate Christian truth. This is also, of course, a primary object of the Liturgy; with this important distinction, that the latter, embodying this truth in formularies, existing long before the Articles and Homilies were written, incorporates it with the principles and affections drawn into exercise in our solemn approaches to the throne of grace, and carries it to the foot of that throne, in direct addresses to the high and lofty One, who sits thereon.
Here, then, we have a most serious and responsible practical use of the principles which the Articles and Homilies would enforce, and to which they would be subservient. We have their holy contents, divested of the controversial form in which they present them, and of the technicalities of expression and of argument which this form rendered unavoidable, and presented in that simple appeal to correct feeling and devout affection, which bring it to so near an assimilation to Holy Writ. The Articles and Homilies were intended as a handmaid to the Liturgy; and [11/12] as such, should be received and used. Like all other human compilations, they have among them various points of uncertain meaning and bearing; and many that can be correctly understood only with a reference to the peculiarity of circumstances under which they were framed. Of one thing, however, we may rest well assured. They were never designed to be aught at variance from the Liturgy. The Liturgy, therefore, should be the rule of judging of them; and whenever there is an apparent discrepancy, it should have our unhesitating preference.
My reverend brethren will appreciate the bearing of these remarks, on the great duty of the edifying of the church, which I would affectionately urge upon their faithful and solicitous attention. And to the intelligent laity before me, I would commend the serious study of the Liturgy, as one of their best helps to a right understanding of God's Holy Word.
Before entering on the second head proposed, gospel order, I wish to notice one view of gospel doctrine, which is not unfrequently blended in estimation with mere questions of order. I mean what may be termed the doctrine of the gospel ministry. It may be thus succinctly stated in its general bearing.
Salvation is the free gift of God, extended to men, in its promise in this life, and its glorious consummation in the next, through the merits of our Lord Jesus Christ. Those merits are appointed to be available to us through means and conditions to be performed by us in faith, in the exercise of ability derived from the Holy Ghost. These means and conditions embrace certain religious duties, in the discharge of which, we are to avail ourselves of the functions of men appointed to serve in the ministry of Christ. The persons appertaining to that ministry, are distinguished from their fellow-men, by a commission to that end. Consequently all men are not ministers; but those only who hold that commission. Christ has, of course, established a way in which that commission is to be imparted and preserved, and in which, therefore, men are to have access to the required performance of the means and conditions appointed for their sanctification and salvation. This constituted mode of extending and perpetuating the functions of the Christian ministry, is therefore incorporated into the system of evangelical doctrine. It is [12/13] a part of what we are to believe, in order that we may have the true Christian faith. However connected with this point may be that of ecclesiastical order and polity, the connection is not essential. The spiritual functions of the ministry, in their divinely appointed connection with the means of grace and salvation, may continue through all modifications of church government, and even in the departure herein from what Holy Scripture and ancient authors represent to have been, from the first, retained as having had the appointment and sanction of Christ and his Apostles. The question, in its most important character and bearing, is, not what ministers did Christ appoint to govern his church; but whom did he appoint with authority to convey the ministerial functions?
It is not necessary for the present purpose, to defend, or even exhibit, the process of proof by which our standards arrive at the conclusion that, according to Christ's appointment, authority to exercise the functions of his ministry must be derived from the first of the three orders in which he constituted that ministry; which chief order, existing originally m the persons of the Apostles, and by them communicated to their companions and successors, who ordained others to the same grade, has thus been handed down to our day, furnishing that channel of ministerial ordination through which only authority can be received for the lawful exercise of the ministerial functions.
This summary of the teaching of our standards on this important point, contains what may be termed the doctrine of episcopacy. It is to be distinguished from the view of episcopacy as a mere form of government; and is that view of it which raises it to the important rank of an essential of the Christian church, as Christ established it, and as it is our duty to regard and embrace it. It constitutes a distinction from the sects around us, not in a mere matter of external order, and consequent comparative unimportance; but in a point conscientiously deemed to be an integral part of that gospel religion which we are bound to receive in such wise as it is set forth in Holy Writ. The edification of the church, therefore, in the full system of evangelical faith, requires that due attention be given to this doctrine of the ministry.
 The thorough embracing of this doctrine, with an especial reference to its bearing on the essential point of Christian unity, is intimately connected with giving their merited attention to the variety of particulars connected with the important subject of gospel order.
The ministry is a divinely constituted bond of-Christian unity, which man may not dissolve nor weaken. It is the appointed medium through which communion is to be maintained with the Father of Spirits, and the soul be fitted, by the divine blessing on its functions, through the sanctifying influences of the living faith of the gospel, for the end of that faith, even its everlasting salvation. In all, therefore, that we do for the promotion of this great end, in reference both to ourselves and our fellow-men, we should have respect unto the ministry of Christ; humbly and faithfully seeking its holy functions in our own behalf, and striving, in all proper and practicable ways, to extend them to others. The order in which God has connected the spreading of his religion, and the advancement of his people through holiness here to everlasting happiness hereafter, with the services of his ministry, should not be infringed by us; but we should in all things recognise the union established by him between that ministry, and the promoting of his glory, and of the spiritual and eternal interests of his people.
The divinely ordered ministry thus constituting an essential bond by which Christians should labour together, for their own and others' edification and salvation, they should also give due heed to all those well ordered arrangements, whereby the functions of the ministry may be facilitated, and rendered the more effectual, in the accomplishment of their high and holy purposes. And it is but an appeal to the modest and deferential principles, which are a part of the character of the truly good man, to add, that humble regard should be paid to the decisions herein of the constituted authorities of the church. Their prescriptions for the due and orderly exercise of ministerial functions should be conscientiously observed, and made the rule of operation in all efforts to extend more widely the blessed influences of those functions. And for as much as the inherent value and binding obligation of the essential principles of our holy faith, give proportioned importance [14/15] to all minor prescriptions which tend to their preservation in their integrity, and to the more effectual securing of their favourable influences, this importance should be duly estimated, and allowed its full bearing on all principles and operations connected with the discharge of the religious duties of the members of the church, and with their efforts to extend its borders.
In the practical application of this principle, we should mete the value and importance of the various prescriptions of the church for the due ordering of the functions of the ministry, not only by their inherent excellence and usefulness, but also in their connection each with the whole--with a well ordered system and aggregate of means of influence and usefulness, of commending religion to favourable regard, and of winning for it the approval of the judgment, the interest of the sensibilities, and the cordial adoption of the affections.
The Christian minister or Christian man, who has grace to look beyond mere forms to the truths which they embody, the spirit which they are wont to foster, and the holy practical influences which they may exert, will not be driven by all the misapprehension or misrepresentation which it may engender, from devout attachment, for conscience sake, to the holy provisions of the church for the due ordering of divine things, and from the constant and even solicitous conformity therewith of his own attention to those things, and his efforts for bringing them to the notice and practical regard of his fellow-men. The solemn obligation to this end, which every minister assumes on entering on his holy functions, cannot, in propriety, be viewed either as an arbitrary requirement of the church, or a mere politic device for giving unity and efficiency to a sect; but as an important means of securing fidelity to those high interests of the evangelical system, which God has committed to the charge of his holy ministry.
But, brethren, there is a great practical end to which all these considerations should lead, and to which they will lead, if they are duly governed and controlled by evangelical principles and views. It is an end inseparably connected with the true happiness and welfare of our race, and which, addressing itself to each one's individual conscience, would direct, control, and [15/16] stamp with its own impress, each one's character and life. This end is gospel piety,--edification in which is the great object of all faith, and of all the rules and measures whereby the due order of the church is to be sustained.
In forming our estimate of gospel piety, we must adopt uncompromisingly the gospel requisitions, touching alike the principles, views, and motives that should govern us, and the religious and moral precepts to which we should yield obedience. True piety, we should bear in mind, has its seat in the heart. Its affections, dispositions, tempers, and passions, must be purified, and rightly directed, and thoroughly controlled, by the renewing and sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit.
Disinterestedness is a cardinal trait of gospel piety. It must merge all selfish considerations in the one absorbing view of promoting the glory of God, the great interests of the gospel, the good of fellow-men, and the welfare, in time and through eternity, of one's own soul.
True piety knows no other rule of action, than implicit obedience to the will of God; whether that will requires the right governing of the heart, humble belief of the truths of God's word, the discharge of moral duties, or the observance of religious rites and exercises.
True gospel faith lies at the foundation of genuine piety; and this is a willing surrendry, both of the intellect to the reception, and of the affections to the adopting, of the principles and truths revealed from heaven.
These, brethren, are the great outlines of that gospel piety which the ministers of Jesus must explain, urge, and enforce, if they would truly edify the body of Christ; and which the members of His church must adopt, as the perpetual guide of their characters and lives, if they would experience that edification which will give them the true enjoyment of their religion here, and prepare them, through Christ's merits, for its blessed rewards hereafter.
Beloved brethren, the members of this convention, I have endeavoured to suggest to you, with all plainness, certain principles and views connected with a just appreciation, and the due influence, of gospel doctrine, gospel order, and gospel piety. Let [16/17] me affectionately exhort you to remember that the advancement of these is the great object which you should ever have in view, in all the deliberations and acts of the ecclesiastical organization this day to be formed. May God give you grace so effectually to remember this, that in the good spirit, the pious designs, and the well ordered proceedings, of this Primary Convention, you may establish such a precedent for your own following, and that of your successors in all future time, as they should establish who have the fear of God before their eyes; who remember that His glory, the interests of His kingdom, and the spiritual and eternal welfare of themselves and their fellow-men, are deeply concerned; and who give its due import to the tremendous responsibility thus lying upon them.
When I look back to the wonderful guidance which we have had from the good hand of our God, through all the measures connected with the great revolution in the diocese of New-York, which is this day to be consummated, and consider how, by the restraining and controlling influences of His grace, we have been carried through difference of feeling, of views, of wishes, and even of principle, with so much Christian spirit, and in a manner so indicative of influences over us, which never could have had their origin in the frail and fallen mind of man, my first emotion is one connected with scriptural precept, "Rejoice with trembling."
We are hereby involved in a responsibility, that should fill us with the deepest concern, lest we fail in duly laying to heart and improving the call thus given us for suitable returns of gratitude and love, such as will appear in our lives, in what we are and what we do, as individual Christians, and in our counsels and acts as associated members of the church. God grant us all His grace duly to improve His inestimable blessings! And may that grace, dear brethren, be especially vouchsafed to you, in the fulfilment of the momentous trust about to devolve upon you, as one of the largest and most influential councils of our portion of the Catholic Church.
And now that my pastoral relation to you has ceased, and I probably see many of you for the last time in this world, my heart dictates more than my tongue can speak. The recollection [17/18] of the hours spent with you and your beloved families, will always keep alive in my breast the most tenderly grateful sense of the incessant tokens of your kindness and affection. But there will also be a mournful accompaniment--an unfeigned consciousness of my having fallen far short of what I should have done for your spiritual and eternal good. Pray yc to God for me, brethren, that this may not be laid to my charge; and O, let me not be mistaken in the hope of your giving me full credit for the most heartfelt sincerity, and let me beg you to convey to your families assurances of the sincerity with which I commend you all unto God's gracious mercy and protection. The Lord bless you and keep you! The Lord make His face to shine upon you, and be gracious unto you! The Lord lift up His countenance upon you, and give you peace, both now and evermore!