Project Canterbury

An Open Letter to the Rt. Rev. Chauncey B. Brewster, Bishop of Connecticut.

By Newman Smyth.

New Haven: no publisher, 1923.

My dear Bishop Brewster:

I AM taking the liberty of addressing an open letter to you on a matter of grave importance to the clergy and people of both our communions. I do so because shortly I shall have to make to the General Conference of our Congregational Churches in this State some report concerning the issue now confronting us. Before submitting it I desire to make public the substance of it in order that you and your clergy may have opportunity to correct any possible misunderstandings of your position on my part, or to enable me to present with my own report any communication that you may possibly desire to have laid before them. This I would gladly do.

Allow me first to express my own appreciation of your always sympathetic and earnest cooperation in our common purpose and effort for the reunion of the churches. I can merely present in this brief letter the issues which have now come to a point requiring definite decision. For fuller discussion and statement of my own views I must refer to a book prepared by myself and just issued by the Yale Press, entitled “A Story of Church Unity.” As you have kindly permitted me to give to the public any of your letters which I may desire to print, I shall quote from them any statements of determinative significance, passing by any questions of incidental or minor importance.

Under date of April 3d, this year, I wrote to you as follows: “A possible application of the canon (generally known as the Congregational-Episcopal Concordat) has just been brought to my notice, which seems to me like a special providence at just [3/4] this time. . . . Professor R. H. Bainton, whom the late Professor Walker had picked out as his Assistant, of the Yale Divinity School, informs me that it has sometimes been said at their Faculty meetings that it might be desirable to have in their Faculty someone who might be Episcopally ordained, who would represent the Episcopal students and their interests in the Divinity School. This would be desirable also in looking after the religious interests of Episcopal students generally in other departments of the University. Professor Bainton will accept the obligations stated in the canon, I think, to your satisfaction. His influence will be uplifting and of great service in interpreting the highest values of the Christian faith. As he would have his Sundays largely free from other engagements you might find him helpful, especially in ministering to mixed congregations throughout the countryside. I need not urge upon you that an immense service might thus be rendered to the cause we both have so much at heart, if such a practical illustration of Church unity might thus by a definite act be given to the people. I should state that this proposal is made with the full concurrence of Dean Brown of the Yale Divinity School.”

From a subsequent letter from you I was gratified to learn that in regard to the chief requirement of the canon, after an interview with Professor Bainton you could write, “nothing came up which caused me to have doubt about his doctrinal views.”

After you had given it further consideration and had some advices by letter with two other bishops, I was disappointed to hear that difficulties had arisen which would prevent you from now taking action without further light,—which, allow me to say, I devoutly trust may soon be given to you and to us all, not from the flickering of our ecclesiastical candles, but straight and clear from the heavens above.

You gave as a reason for your present refusal to take action that a legal question of canonical authority had been raised, and “that the bishops are under the law.” I quote entirely the following opinion of one of the bishops, which you have sent to me; I withhold however his name for, from what I know from [4/5] his advices to me and his intellectual thoroughness, I should not wish to accept his statement of the difficulty as insuperable until in conference with his Chancellor and legal adviser he should decide that there is now no way out of it. This is his statement of the existing condition: “The difficulty in this case arises however from the fact that the House of Deputies declined to authorize the changes in the Ordination service which action under this canon requires. If no action had been taken by the Convention in regard to this, I should feel myself at liberty to make the changes which the canon calls for. The fact is, however, that action was taken; as you will remember, the matter was discussed in the House of Bishops, we took action authorizing these changes in the Ordination service. Greatly to our surprise, the House of Deputies did not concur in this matter, but rejected it by a very decisive vote. The Convention therefore having effectually refused to authorize these changes I should not feel at liberty to make them and I do not see how we can proceed under the canon.”

There would be no obstacle however to prevent acting in accordance with this canon, if the legal position taken by the Chancellor of New York is sound—and there is no better authority on the law of your Church than Mr. Zabriskie. When the canon was first proposed and a constitutional objection raised by its opponents, he argued that it was constitutional. The friends of it consented to a delay of three years until the next meeting of your convention, in order to remove any possible doubt of it. And now you inform me that the opponents of it have urged the necessity of still another amendment and delay of three years before this simple measure of working agreement can be carried out between men of good will in both communions. You write:

“This morning I have inquired of members of the House of Deputies and learned an argument which had weight there, was that the changes in the Ordinal could not constitutionally be completed at one convention.”

As I read this argument and lay it down, I find myself thinking of the slothful servant, and wondering what constitutional [5/6] difficulties he may have found for putting off what needed to be done in the Lord’s household.

Indeed, having been asked recently by a prominent bishop if I could take the promises in the existing form for the ordering of a priest in the Episcopal Church, I replied I could, if it were distinctly said in a prefatory statement that I could conform to these requirements when I was acting within the jurisdiction of the Episcopal Church. He said, “that would be enough.”

If we must thus drag down a great onward Christian movement into an entangled overgrowth of legal difficulties I cannot refrain from expressing my astonishment that such an act had been taken by the House of Deputies so silently and skillfully that it had escaped the notice even of Mr. Zabriskie, who had presented it in the House of Deputies. From his report to me immediately afterwards he did not so much as mention it as among the amendments worth noticing.

A new question is presented to us by this smothering of our Covenant of peace under a heap of ecclesiastical and legal objections. I can here merely state it without discussing it. Is this indeed, as so presented to us, “the Historic Episcopate”? In the ancient Church the Monarchical Episcopate had power to save the Christian faith, as the crust of the Roman civilization was breaking up; has this Episcopate, Limited—this Episcopate whose distinctive power .of conferring Holy Orders has thus been rendered void,—is this in deed and in fact a constitutional Episcopate, fitted to survive in an age of democracy? Can it be readapted as a means of common participation for all churches in the fellowship of the whole Church? Providentially, while your Convention has thus put you under bonds, which you say you have no power to break, there comes to us from across the sea a call to a united advance of all our Christian forces. In this Appeal to us of the whole Anglican Episcopate no mention at all is made of the Church of England. Above its established order, above all our existing ecclesiastical limitations, the Anglican Bishops saw the vision which led one of them to exclaim, “The great Church arrives.”

While now I must regretfully report to our State Convention [6/7] of Congregational Churches your inability to act in the coordination of a professor in the Yale Divinity School, at the coming meeting of our National Council there will be laid before us for further consideration in all our churches the epochal appeal of the whole Anglican Episcopate for “a new adventure of faith.”

In your last letter to me you intimated that you might possibly bring up Professor Bainton’s application for further consideration at a coming meeting of your Synod. On our part we shall be pleased to keep this case open for any further consideration that you may desire. In doing so we would submit it to you, not merely in your limited power to act as a diocesan Bishop, but on the basis of the larger liberty and higher law of the Universal Episcopate, as thus affirmed in the Rules of Order (Numbers 21-22) of the House of Bishops.

“It shall be competent for the House of Bishops to convene as, or being convened to resolve itself into, a Council of Bishops,—”

“The body known as the Bishops in Council, as an assemblage of Catholic Bishops, and considering and acting upon matters of duty or responsibility resting on them as a portion of the Universal Episcopate, may be convened at any time, suitable notice being given by the presiding Bishop or the Chairman of the House of Bishops.”

In thus appealing to you as a Catholic Bishop I am well aware that the decisive determination of a matter of so far-reaching importance will require of you and of all of us a large measure of the courage and wisdom that comes from love. But the cause of religious education and of our common Christian faith demands of us now its decision. To evade this issue at this time is to decide against it. The readiness of my Congregational brethren to confer with the Bishops’ representatives of the House of Bishops on this urgent practical issue has been already expressed in this extract from “A Call for a Covenant of Church Unity Put Forth on November 30, 1919, by the Commission on Unity of the National Congregational Council:”

“ . . . Such consolidations or combinations of the  [7/8] educational institutions, and their means, of the different churches might be brought about as would prove advantageous for the best education, and fellowship in their studies, of the ministers of the different churches.”

As a member of the Yale Corporation for many years I have been permitted to watch, and sought to promote, the development of Yale College from the limitations of a denominational College to its present undenominational but no less Christian University. It now stands foursquare, like the Holy City of the Book of Revelation, with its gates open on every side for the children of light to pass in. In these days when even in some of your own pulpits ill-trained sensationalists confuse the faith of the people, and in other denominations fearful defenders of the faith sound forth false alarms against scientific inquiries and historical researches on sacred soil, it is no light service which Yale would offer to the people of all the churches, when it would thus complete its own teaching comprehensiveness by welcoming to the Faculty of the Divinity School one whom you yourself might well trust and consecrate. Surely at this present time in our respective communions should we take earnest heed lest we may do despite to what an early Church father called the Holy Spirit of Education.

Sincerely yours,


New Haven, June 5th.

Project Canterbury