Project Canterbury

The First Annual Catholic Congress: Essays and Papers

New Haven, Connecticut, November 3-5, 1925

Philadelphia: Published by the Central Conference of Associated Catholic Priests, 1926.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2011

"What Is the Episcopal Church?"
Of the Order of the Holy Cross

I AM not asked to deal with history, but to speak of things as they are.

Dr. Gavin has told us what the Reformation did to the Church. We are now to deal with the question, What is the Episcopal Church?

It is difficult, in dealing with such a subject, not to be continually influenced by the consciousness of what happened four hundred years ago in the English Reformation. And yet, it would be fatal to the maintenance of any true Catholic outlook for us to view our problems to-day through sixteenth century Reformation spectacles.

Church problems do not always have to be dealt with from the historical point of view. In fact, whenever we attempt to deal with them in that way only, our course almost invariably becomes archeological, doctrinaire and academic, in other words ineffective because impractical. The Catholic Church at large was not radically affected by the English Reformation, and one is tempted to think that so far as the actual solution of immediate every-day problems is concerned, we should make better progress if [36/37] we could blot out of our memory and our self-consciousness, all that occurred in that momentous period of which we have just heard.

We can perhaps find an illustration of what our attitude should be; and of the real relation that the acute problems of the Church in the United States in the twentieth century bear to what happened to the Church in England in the sixteenth century, if you allow me to narrate a recent happening at a gathering of the clergy in Denver, Colorado. The Rev. Father Rahming is a devoted negro priest, a man of ability and education, who has for years prosecuted a fine Catholic work among his people in that city.

"Why is it," he was asked by a middle-of-the-road cleric, "that you colored clergy are always Catholic?" Fr. Rahming possesses in marked degree that sense of humor so characteristic of his race, and he replied, with a twinkle in his eye, "Well, you see, we negro clergy realize that the Reformation was nothing but an Anglo-Saxon incident."

Fr. Rahming spoke a great truth, and if we keep this truth in mind, we shall be able to avoid many perplexities regarding the Church of today in its relation to Catholic unity, both before and after that Anglo-Saxon "incident" of the sixteenth century.

But true as this may be in respect to the practical problem of church life and extension, when we come to ask the question, "What is the Episcopal Church?" it is not possible for us to disassociate ourselves from our historical background. Let us examine, then, what these backgrounds are.

Far back in the dim ages of the past,—no man knows just when—Catholic missionaries operated to the bounds of the then known globe, and founded the [37/38] Church among the savage tribes of Britain on the farthest rim of the world. With many vicissitudes, sometimes prospering, often persecuted, more than once almost obliterated from the land, the Church in Britain kept on her steadfast way, an integral part of the great Catholic Church of Christ throughout the world. She had her local and racial characteristics, just as did the Church in Gaul, the Church in Spain, or the Church in Asia Minor.

At the epoch-making Council of Arles in 314, British Bishops had their thrones; and ecclesiastics from British dioceses assisted in formulating the decrees of the great Council at Ariminum in the year 359.

Through the centuries, the Church in England grew and prospered. With the rest of the western world she fell under the spell of Rome, the old imperial city whose Bishop drew to himself gradually the privileges which in the course of time led to his being acknowledged as the primate of western Christendom.

Then came the great upheaval of the sixteenth century, of which Dr. Gavin has been telling us.

This involved no change in the organization of the Church. The Bishops and clergy went on with their duties without a break. Thomas Cranmer, by the sore judgment of God and the appointment of the Pope, Archbishop of Canterbury, continued to perform the holy functions of his office, and also a good many other functions which were neither holy, nor belonging to the proper sphere of episcopal activity.

The generations merged into centuries, and the life of the Church plowed steadily on. With the settlement of the new world, England began to look beyond the seas. Britain saw the beginnings of Greater [38/39] Britain, and her colonies constituted the beginning of that British Empire which now reaches around the world.

Wherever Englishmen went they took with them the English Church. Under the authority of her home Bishops,—first the rulers of Canterbury, and later the Bishops of London,—in her American colonies the Catholic rites and sacraments were celebrated as they were through the rest of the Catholic world.

With 1776 came the American Revolution and the political break with England, upon which of necessity followed the erection of an American National Church, that which is popularly known amongst us today as the Episcopal Church.

This epoch brought no break in continuity. The separation was analogous to the division of a diocese. When the diocese of Massachusetts, for example, was, many years ago, divided, certain counties in the western part of that state were set off to themselves. They formed their own organization, they elected their own Bishop, and the diocesan administration proceeded under the fundamental law of the Church, independent of the ecclesiastical authority of the old diocese; but the Church in Western Massachusetts was the same as it was in the days before the division.

So was it with the American Church one hundred and forty years ago. It elected its own Bishops, for whom it secured the Apostolical Succession from Scotland and England; it set in motion its own administrative machinery,—but it was the same Church, the same clergy, ministering the same word and sacraments [39/40]  as it was before the erection of the new national organization.

Thus, as we saw the Church in Britain, less than three centuries after our Lord's Ascension, organized under its Bishops and functioning in the power of its Catholic life, so we find the Episcopal Church acting in the power of the same life, functioning as an integral part of the Catholic organism throughout the world. We see her exercising the same Catholic ministry in legitimate succession from the Apostles, and administering the same Sacraments that had come down through the ages in that divine society called the Church, founded among men by Jesus Christ, the Incarnate God, and into which the breath of the God-life was breathed with the coming of the Holy Ghost on Pentecost.

The Century Dictionary defines the word "Protestant" as "an adherent of one of those Christian bodies which are descended from the Reformation of the sixteenth century,"—a most excellent definition. The rapid sketch we have given of the genealogy of the Episcopal Church shows that it is in no sense, nor from any point of view, to be numbered among those Christian bodies "which are descended from the Reformation." It has its roots in the original Apostolic foundation. Its ministry and its formularies are to be traced back to Apostolic beginnings. It is essentially and integrally a part of that original, living, progressive organism, the One Holy Catholic and Apostolic Church, through which the Holy Ghost transmits by means of Sacraments, to the souls of men, the grace and powers of the Sacred Humanity of our Blessed Lord.

[41] As such, the Episcopal Church shares the life and energy of the Catholic Church throughout the world. She has nothing whatsoever to deliver to her people as of Faith beyond what is the common heritage of the Church in all ages and in all lands.

Sometimes we find men who think that the Episcopal Church should maintain some differentiation in her Faith from the rest of Catholic Christendom. We hear such men speaking of what they call "the distinctive teaching" of the Episcopal or Anglican Church. Distinctive from what? The moment the Church in any part of the world sets up as a necessary part of the Faith any tenet which is distinctive from the teaching of the rest of Catholic Church, in that moment that Church becomes heretical in the strict and proper etymological sense of that unpleasant word.

The Episcopal Church has no distinctive doctrines. She holds the faith once delivered to the Saints, with the necessary conclusions from, and corollaries of, that Faith, as interpreted by the Seven Ecumenical Councils of the undivided Church. As is the case with every national Church in every age, she has her distinctive liturgy, her distinctive customs and ceremonies, her distinctive modes of administering her government, but distinctive Faith—Never!

It is quite clear from what we have seen of the origin and history of the Episcopal Church, that there cannot be attributed to her any kinship with "those Christian bodies which are descended from the Reformation of the sixteenth century." She is not Protestant, she is Catholic, and everything except the unfortunate name which has been imposed upon her, gives irrefutable proof of this fact.

[42] Let us test it by the character of her ministry. Consider what happens when a priest of the Roman Catholic Church or of any of the Eastern Orthodox Churches applies to be allowed to minister at our altars. The Bishop to whom the application is made satisfies himself of the man's character and fitness, and of his good faith in making the application. This is all that is necessary. He then at his discretion admits the applicant to minister the Sacraments in this Church without reordination of any kind whatever.

On the other hand, if the most learned and distinguished minister of a Protestant denomination, applies to be admitted to the Episcopal ministry, he must first be confirmed, then received as a postulant for Holy Orders, then as a candidate; he must then be ordained deacon, and afterwards priest. There is no other process by which he can be admitted to the ministry of this Church except the same process which is followed in the case of a undergraduate student who might apply to the Bishop for Holy Orders.

This attitude towards the Protestant minister does not in any sense imply a want of appreciation and whole-hearted acceptance of the facts of his learning, piety, his character and his experience. It means that this Church, true to the Catholic trust reposed in her, regards such a Protestant minister as a layman pure and simple. There is only one valid Christian ministry, and that is the Catholic ministry of the Apostolical Succession which this Church enjoys, and which the Protestant does not have, and, generally speaking, does not want, and declines to receive.

This Episcopal Church, and every officer of it, be he High, Low, or Broad, refuses peremptorily even to [42/43] consider any ministers serving at her altars except those who have this Catholic and Apostolic succession. She does not take this position because she is snobbish. She does not take it because she looks with contempt on any group of people calling themselves by the name of our Lord. God forbid that she should ever be guilty of such an un-Christlike attitude. She takes it because she sincerely believes this principle to be a part of the revelation of God to His Church; she takes it because it is what she has received as a part of the sacred tradition of the Body of Christ, and to that tradition she must stand true.

And this position is one of her marks as an integral part of the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church, the divine society founded by our Lord as the organ through which He speaks and works among men.

Now, I am going to play the role of a mind-reader. I know full well that as we speak thus of the Episcopal Church, there is in the back of your minds the question, Why then, these facts being true, Protestant meaning one who is descended, as from a root and source, from the Reformation,—why in the name of historical truth, and of ordinary common sense, should we be called the "Protestant Episcopal Church"?

Our tradition is Catholic; our succession is apostolical; it is universally acknowledged that we have nothing in common with any of the great Protestant polities and ministries that exist about us; our Sacraments are the God-given, grace-bearing ordinances instituted by Christ Himself. How is it, then, that we should bear the name of Protestant; a name by the way, which is not borne by any other body of non-Roman Christians in America except one or two tiny [43/44] sects whose names you would not know if I were to mention them?

Last Saturday morning twenty-three denominations, all claiming to be Christian, advertised their Sunday services in the New York papers; and this Church of ours was the only one that was advertised by name as a Protestant Church!

Even the Reformed Episcopalians when they went out from us fifty years ago, on the ground that we were saturated with sacerdotalism, took good care to leave the name "Protestant" behind them.

Since this question is in our minds, let us say a word about the name Protestant, and the name Catholic.

To us westerners, accustomed always to think of the term Catholic as being the descriptive adjective which above all others, best declares the nature of the true Church, it has seemed to be the one name for which we should contend.

But let us examine the word a little more critically from the sober standpoint of history. As we look back through the ages, we find that the word Catholic, while always employed as one of the terms,—although only one,—by which the character of the Church is set forth, was never used as a formal title of the Church until after the Reformation, when it became necessary to use some distinctive popular name to differentiate the Church which adhered to the Roman obedience from those which withdrew from that obedience.

The term chosen by the adherents of the Pope was that of Catholic. They might quite as well have chosen the word Apostolic or the word Holy, for we must keep in mind that in the Nicene Creed the word Catholic is not in any sense more crucial, more sacred, or [44/45] of any greater value, than the words Apostolic and Holy.

Furthermore, we find that nowhere in the great Eastern Churches is Catholic used as a title. On the contrary, if you ask a Russian or Greek Christian if he is a Catholic, he will reply with vigorous emphasis, "I am not a Catholic, I am an Orthodox."

As a plain matter of history, the word Catholic, in its present use by our Roman friends, is a modern and novel thing, wholly post-Reformation. It can be found here and there amongst the writings of some of the North African Fathers, but it was used only occasionally and casually, and seems to have been entirely dropped as soon as the occasion for some local differentiation passed.

During the Church's nineteen centuries it was not made a test-word until about three hundred and fifty years ago, when it became,—note this well,—a test, not of orthodoxy primarily, but rather of papal allegiance, an allegiance in those days quite as much political as it was religious.

It was never a test-word in the West before the Reformation; it never has been, and is not today, a test-word in the East. These are not opinions I am expressing. They are the simple facts of history.

In times past there have been those in the Church, who unless they were able to secure the exact nomenclature upon which they had set their hearts, were content to go on for an indefinite period of time branded before the world with the name Protestant, the wearing of which brand prevents the Church from bearing that full witness for which our Lord sent her into the world. There has seemed to appear [45/46] in certain quarters a greater anxiety to bring in the name Catholic than to put away the name Protestant.

There has been of late a great and happy reaction against this attitude. In the General Convention in Cincinnati fifteen years ago, a long, vigorous campaign to change the name of the Church came to its climax by the House of Deputies failing by only one vote to declare for the elimination of the word Protestant, making the official name of the Church coincide with the name by which she is popularly known,—the Episcopal Church.

Two weeks ago in the Convention at New Orleans, a distinguished lay deputy from a diocese not especially identified with the Catholic advance, made a gallant fight to substitute the word "American" for "Protestant" wherever the latter word appeared in the name of the Church in the Prayer Book. Had the proposal been made earlier, in the session, it is not unlikely that it would have meet with substantial favour, if not carried by an actual majority. This subject is almost certain to be in the forefront at the Convention in Washington three years hence, and the result will depend largely on the attitude assumed by Catholics in the meantime.

In clearing the Church of misunderstanding and misrepresentation, is it not the wise thing for us to meet half-way those who have the same aim as ourselves, even though they may not in every instance be able to co-operate with the exact method which we may believe to be best?

The term Episcopal is that by which we are universally known, and under that name we are recognized by all intelligent observers as being fundamentally different from the Protestantism that seethes about [46/47] us. The word itself is Catholic and Apostolic in all its connotations.

And after all, names in human language, as a rule, bear in the popular mind, the meaning we place upon them; and no sensible man is disturbed at being misunderstood by ignorant people. The Orthodox Eastern Christian is not perturbed in his mind because when he declares himself to be an Orthodox, some ignoramus from Philadelphia thinks he is an Orthodox Quaker, or a dweller on the east side of New York takes him to be an Orthodox Jew.

In its proper connotation the word Episcopal is Catholic and Apostolic, and it cannot be more misused and misunderstood than has been the word Catholic itself. There are in the United States today, so far as I have been able to count, seven independent Churches bearing the official title Catholic. I confess that, while claiming ownership in the word, as the sects cannot claim it, I have just the least sense of shrinking from adopting a name which will, I believe, be more likely to identify us in the popular mind with certain wretched little sects, than with the Church of God throughout the world. We have to explain away "Protestant" now; I am not keen about spending the rest of my life explaining that I am not an Irvingite or an adherent of Arnold Matthew.

Wherever it is rightly defined, the name Episcopal carries with it every implication of Apostolic Faith, Apostolic ministry, Apostolic Sacraments, Apostolic life.

But whatever name we may think the Church should bear in order that her nature and origin be made plain, the one thing we must seek, is the elimination of the [47/48] title Protestant. What is to be substituted in its stead is not the vital question. The primary and vital thing is first to give all our energies to ridding ourselves of a name which gives a categorical denial to every principle upon which the Church builds her life and her work.

Project Canterbury