Project Canterbury

The Third Annual Catholic Congress: Addresses and Papers

Albany, New York, October 25, 26, 27, A.D. 1927

Philadelphia: The Catholic Congress Committee, 1927.

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

The Nature of the Church
Rector of the Church of S. John the Evangelist, Newport, R. I.

"NO MAN liveth to himself and no man dieth to himself." The moment a man admits that he was born into the world as a member of a race or a citizen of a community and must live his life in view of that relationship, sheer individualism stands self-condemned. Without the guarantees, the experience, the limitations of human society, there is little hope for progress in civil life. It is not less true of religion. It is particularly true of our life in Christ. It is the chiefest glory of the Book of Common Prayer that it has never allowed us to forget that our membership in Christ involves membership in a Christian Society which is at once larger and more majestic than the Protestant Episcopal Church; which the Anglican Communion is but a part of; and which it has never repudiated by any official expression of its mind. We are here tonight because we believe that the Episcopal Church can only fulfill its true vocation as a part of the infinitely greater Christian Society; in short, because we believe in the Holy Catholic Church.

Let us go back to the beginning. When "The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us," He took upon Himself all of the obligations which membership in human society involves. He was a member of the Jewish race, [50/51] a subject of the kingdom of Israel, and by birth, practice, and allegiance an adherent to the religion of His people. Our Lord did not come to destroy the old Church, but to be its fulfillment. He did not regard Himself as the founder of a new Church, but rather as the one by whom and through whom the kingdom of Israel should find its divinely appointed destiny in the Kingdom of God. And the idea of a Kingdom of God was deeply imbedded in the Messianic hope. Generations of Israel had longed for the day when the "God of Heaven" would set up a Kingdom which should never be destroyed; when "one like unto a son of man" would come and there be "given unto Him dominion and glory and a Kingdom, that all the peoples, nations and languages should serve Him"; one who would "set up an everlasting dominion which would not pass away" and "a Kingdom which would not be destroyed." Such was the hope of Israel when John, the forerunner, flashes upon the scene saying,—"Repent ye, for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand."

Then, Jesus Christ came. The Kingdom is the burden of His message. He "came into Galilee preaching the good news of God: the time is fulfilled, and the Kingdom of God is at hand." It is the heart of His teaching, the theme of most of His parables, the soul of His effort, as He calls and trains the Apostolic band. Sometimes He presents the Kingdom as intimate, personal, touching the interior life of man, a seed planted in the human heart; sometimes it is the company of the faithful, even though some prove false to their allegiance; sometimes it is a majestic and apocalyptic vision of future glory, when the Will of God shall reign supreme and the righteous shine forth as the sun; but always it is the Gospel of a Kingdom—a message of corporate redemption.

As we read the rest of the story it seems increasingly clear that the Divine Society must seldom have been [51/52] absent from the mind of Christ Jesus. His ministry was not simply the witness of three philanthropic years in the course of which a sweet philosophy of benevolence was left to the race to wend its uncharted way through the fallible minds of men in the centuries to come. Watch the ministry of Jesus Christ draw to a close. He gathers the Apostolic band more closely to Him than ever,—those whom He has called that they might be "sent forth to preach the Kingdom of God." Slowly but surely as the last months pass, first by parable, then by exposition and question, He reveals the fuller import of His character and mission. "Simon—whom do you say that I am?" And Peter answered, "Thou art the Christ, the Son of the Living God." It was the answer that our Lord had been waiting for. "You are indeed a man or Rock, and on the rock of Faith like yours I will build My Church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." Then our Lord institutes the great Gospel Sacraments: Baptism to be the gateway, the new birth into a new life; and on the night before His betrayal, the Eucharist which is to be the means whereby His members are continually to renew their relationship to Him and in Him to each other, in the Divine Fellowship. Then He dies; dies because He would call Himself a King; dies for a universal Kingdom that cut clear across the Jewish nationalism of which it was the true fulfillment; dies for a Kingdom that was to offend the majesty of Imperial Rome. On the third day He rises from the dead. For forty glorious days He teaches the Apostles, "the things concerning the Kingdom of God." He breathes upon them with the Breath of God, committing to His Church the awful power of binding and loosing, that dead souls might for all time be restored, even as He had restored them in the villages and by the roadsides of Palestine. He promises that the earthly manifestation [52/53] of His Kingdom shall be neither lifeless nor unguided. The Holy Spirit—the Spirit of Truth—is to guide them into all truth. The Holy Spirit is to be the Vicar of Christ on earth. He is to testify of Jesus. He is to witness for Christ the King. Then Jesus Christ ascended to heavenly places, that thither we might also ascend; that one day we might behold to the full the majestic glory of His Kingdom. In time and place He withdrew His physical presence that, clothed in our humanity, He might fulfill His promise to be with His Church for all time and in every place.

What did our Lord leave behind Him? Not a book, not a record of His life and work, not a creed, but a fellowship of men and women under the leadership of His Apostles who were bound to each other by a common allegiance to Him, and a victorious faith in His triumphant Resurrection. It was to this fellowship that the overwhelming baptism of the Spirit came at Pentecost; an experience so overwhelming that even wind and fire could but inadequately describe it. Immediately the little Church possessed a divine sense of mission, she regarded herself as the fulfillment of the Old Covenant. She possessed a new cohesion—a new unity—more absolute than anything the prophets had even dreamed of. That which was racial now became Catholic, knowing no barriers of race, or caste, or nation. St. Paul spent his whole life tearing down the old barriers. To him the Church is no mere organization or humanly instituted society for social uplift; but a new race, a spirit-guided organism, possessing the very principle of Divine Life; the very Body of Christ; and a Fellowship of the twice-born sons of God. St. Peter's description is no less august: "Ye are an elect race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession."

The Holy Spirit came to sanctify the Divine Fellowship; [53/54] to be the earnest of future guidance; the divine and personal influence which was to inspire all future development. Henceforth it is the work of the Holy Spirit. From the Apostolate of our Lord's appointment, He evolves the threefold Catholic Ministry of Bishops, Priests and Deacons. Then, from the triumphant faith of those whose "eyes had seen, whose ears had heard, and whose hands handled of the Word of Life," He slowly guides the development of the Catholic Creeds that "the things most surely believed" among the original disciples might be further defined to protect the integrity of the original experience, and that the Catholic Faith might be transmitted to future generations. Again, the Spirit guides the Church in the gradual formation of the Canon of Holy Scripture, enabling her to separate the true from the false in her selection from the multitude of sacred writings which began to appear. Ultimately the Holy Scriptures are become the witness of her own faith; the confirmation of her own Gospel; the testimony of her own Divine life. Thus, the Christian Society grew and expanded in the early centuries and always under the guidance of the Spirit. The development of the Church does not mean that new doctrine was set forth or new principles enunciated. All that she teaches in the second century or the tenth, or the sixteenth, or the nineteenth century is there by implication in the original deposit of "the faith once delivered to the Saints."

In the early centuries, the Divine Society was always regarded as one. It was a majestic unity. For St. Paul, the Bride of Christ must needs share the very nature of God Himself. "There is one body and one Spirit even as ye are called in one hope of your calling, one Lord, one faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of us all, who is above all and through all and in you all." "Break a bough off from a tree," says St. Cyprian at a later [54/55] date, "and the fruit upon it will be unable to mature itself; cut off a stream from the fountain head and it will presently dry up. There is one Head, one source, one mother, rich in the successive generation of her offspring; from her we have our birth, our nourishment, our very breath." Subsequent generations have proven Cyprian's contention. Not only in the sixteenth century, but in every age sects that have departed from the unity of the Fellowship have sooner or later withered and died. The unity of the Church was made manifest in the unity of the Episcopate; the unified corporate authority of the Bishops "in continuous succession from the Apostles through those to whom the Apostles gave power to transmit." Wherever the Bishop was, there was the Catholic Church. "Let that be held to be a valid Eucharist," writes St. Ignatius, "which is under the Bishop or to whom he shall commit it." Obviously, for St. Ignatius, it appears to have been the Episcopate rather than the Holy Apostolic See of Rome which constituted the center of unity. "And," he continues, "apart from the Bishop it is not lawful either to baptize or to hold an agape: but whatever he shall approve is to be accounted acceptable to God." Apparently St. Ignatius could not conceive of Baptism as lawfully administered apart from the organic life of that one Church, of which the corporate Episcopate was a divinely established credential.

Thus far we have been looking to our origins. We have gone back to the beginning. That is important particularly in view of modern problems,—problems that must ultimately be faced at Malines, or Lausanne, or in Albany. But, right or wrong, the average man is not interested in what St. Ignatius thought in the second century and, I seem to remember someone saying, "the average man has had some claim upon our consideration, since the day Christ died for him." If he is a Christian, [55/56] in any sense of the term, he is interested in that fact; and the moment he confesses his disgust because so many conflicting voices claim to speak in the name of his Saviour, he is unconsciously confessing his interest in the nature of the Church.

There are four aspects of the Nature of the Church to which I would call your attention. Thus far, I have tried to show you that all of them existed, at least by implication, not only in the Gospel story, but in the actual experience of the Apostolic church. The Church is an Act of the Divine Will; The Extension of the Divine Life; The Source of the Divine Truth; and The Visible Representative of the Kingdom of God on Earth.

The Catholic Church is not a voluntary association of like-minded persons. She is not a collection of iron filings attracted to a common magnet. She is an act of the Divine Will. She is a living organism, and only God can produce life. She came into existence because of an act of the Divine Will—an act by which God and man came together—an act done once and for all it is true,—yet vital for all time, continually renewed, represented, continued, extended in the mediatorial office of the Body of Christ. The Body of Christ is the Body of Christ precisely because it is the embodiment and extension of the Divine Life. He was born in Bethlehem, that we might be born again into the new life—His life, in the fellowship of the twice-born sons of God. All that He once did in time, He now does in eternity, through His Body, the Church. By her indwelling power of the Holy Spirit, He calls little children as once He called them to His side in Galilee. The New Birth is the beginning, the portal. We must be baptized into the death of Him if we would be born into the life of Him. The Bishop lays his hands upon those who are to receive the gifts of the Spirit. The same thing happens that happened [56/57] nineteen centuries ago when a risen and ascended Lord bade the Apostles send Peter and John to confirm the converts of Samaria. We make our confessions—receive absolution. The same thing happens that happened long ago when a poor woman, caught in the act, was sent on her way rejoicing by Him who still "hath power on earth to forgive sins." A Bishop is consecrated or a priest ordained. Again Jesus breathes upon His Apostles; again He lays His hands upon them; again He sends them forth to preach the Kingdom and, in the Church, to be the ministers and guardians of His Risen Life. Here let me say that in many of our current discussions of unity we often seem to misrepresent our ultimate purpose. Our primary aim is not the Apostolic Succession or the threefold ministry. It is the Divine organism. We believe in the Apostolic Succession and the threefold ministry, because we know that the Catholic ministry thus described secures as it always has secured the identity of the living organism, but the organic Church is the goal.

Again, there is that characteristic action which lies at the heart of the life of the Church. The Eucharist focuses all of the mysteries of our Redemption. All that Jesus Christ once was, He is for all time in the Eucharist. All that He said and did, He says and does today. The little Body that lay in the straw; the wounded Body that was nailed to the cross; the risen Body that burst the doors of the tomb; the glorified Body that represents the Church in heavenly places is sacramentally present on our altars that, in His Mystical Body, His members may continually renew their relationship not only to Him, but to each other.

"Oh, but you are localizing God," we are told. We do not fear that taunt. Is it not precisely because we believe in universal immanence of the Divine life, that we [57/58] can believe that, in time and place, the Son of God was "incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man"? Is it not because we can believe that the Divine Spirit was immanent in the civilizations of Greece, Rome and Babylon, in all the paganisms of the past, in the religions of Mithras, Isis, Moloch and Baal; that we can believe that He was present in a particular sense in Israel, guiding a chosen people unto the great day "when the fullness of time was come," and "God sent forth His Son"? It is because the Holy Spirit is everywhere working through every group of God-seekers, that it is possible for us to believe that in a peculiar sense, He is the Divine Guide and Mentor of the Catholic Church. If an ancient writer could represent Jesus Christ as saying: "Split the wood and ye shall find me, lift the stone and I am there," he was only quoting One who, because He could have said that, can also make the simple elements of bread and wine the channels whereby, under the conditions of time and space, He comes to His Church in a peculiar and unique sense to save and sanctify His own.

If the Church be an act of the Divine Will for the extension of the Divine Life it is her natural and supernatural function to guard the truth about it. Jesus Christ "taught as one having authority and not as the scribes." He commissioned His Spirit-bearing Body to teach—to witness. The sphere of the Church's witness to the truth covers the field of faith and morals. Her revelation does not claim to cover the ground of science, or of history. She teaches us that God is the Creator of all and man the crown of God's creation; but she leaves to man with his divinely implanted and insatiable curiosity to find out, if he can, how long it took, and how He did it. She has no quarrel with science or with reason as such, but she knows their limitations—for she [58/59] knows human nature. But in the realm of faith and morals she speaks with authority, for she is the Spirit-guided Body of Christ. It is not that the Holy Spirit forces dogma upon the Church in a mechanical and arbitrary manner. The Creeds were not made in a moment. It is rather that when the Church has thought through her problems and difficulties, He has guided and still guides her corporate thought. Christians in any age may gather erroneous opinions from their environment. At one time most of her Bishops were Arians, at another time many of them were Deists; but the corporate witness of the whole Body prevailed, for the thinking of the whole Body was guided by the Spirit. It is on this ground that we accept the Creeds, and the decisions of the great Councils that were subsequently ratified by the whole Body in Creed, or liturgy or practice. Is it not on this ground that Anglo-Catholics make their appeal to the common consent of the great Churches of the East and the West, and deny the right of any part of that Church, Anglican, Roman, or Orthodox, to depart from the faith of the Spirit-guided whole? Only a Church that speaks with authority can become a spiritual democracy; a home for all kinds and conditions of men. The Church is not an aristocracy of the mentally qualified or of the spiritually-minded elect, but the true home of scholars and unlettered peasants, of careless boys and giggling girls, and little children.

In the place of our finite experience in the things of God the Body of Christ offers us nineteen centuries of the experience of her children. She teaches us her Creed and then bids us seek its deeper meaning by prayer and meditation and careful thought. She guides us in the measured judgments of her saints and her sages, and in the turmoil of modern doubt and pagan onslaught, she bids us to remember that she has weathered greater storms [59/60] than these. She will not allow herself to be disturbed by those provincialisms in the sphere of time, called Fundamentalism or Modernism. She knows that the Modernism of the sixteenth century is the Fundamentalism of today, and that the Church of tomorrow will study the Modernism of today as we study the weary heresies of the past, which she has left lifeless and prostrate on the highway of history. She is not fearful in the face of controversy, for she knows that many a time the spirit within her has overruled the ills of it, by forging in its fire the mightiest weapons of her witness; but she never allows us to forget that no individual, however wise or spiritual he may seem, be he priest or prelate, pope or peasant, may be for himself or for her, the ultimate measure of the truth.

Finally, the Catholic Church is the divinely chosen representative of the Kingdom of God and the primary instrument of its sway. We have, I hope, covered enough of the Gospel record to illustrate the fact that the Life of our Lord was in both word and act the witness of an irrevocably corporate redemption. There are undoubtedly two aspects of this witness which may not be passed by without considering their relationship one to the other. They are the Kingdom of God and the Catholic Church.

When we consider this relationship, we find that Catholic thought is somewhat divided. There have been those who have regarded the Church and the Kingdom as interchangeable terms. Whatever is said about the Kingdom of God or of Heaven in the Gospels, they have been ready to say about the Church. While this point of view would appear to have the advantage in the matter of tradition, it would seem that modern scholarship is more at home in the conviction that the Church and the Kingdom may not be thus completely identified. The Church does not appear upon the scene until the apostacy [60/61] of the Jewish Church is almost an accomplished fact. The rejection of the Messiah involved the rejection of His Messianic Kingdom and it involved the establishment of a covenanted society which was to be the heir of the promises made to the Jewish Church, the visible, tangible representative of the Kingdom of God on earth, and the primary instrument of its sway.

I think we may be thankful that it is the second point of view which has gained all but general acceptance among Anglo-Catholic scholars today. It lays a heavy responsibility upon us, but it does not derogate from the dignity and high calling of the Church. She is not only the covenanted sphere whereby the people of God are one day to attain the full vision of the glory of the Kingdom, but her vocation is also to be that ceaseless energy which must proclaim the dignity of that human nature which her Divine Lord took upon Himself and carried back to heavenly places. The Sacred Humanity of Jesus Christ is our Humanity. The Church, by virtue of her sacramental character, claims the right to denounce as blasphemous all that debases it, oppresses it, or denies to it the physical surroundings necessary for its fulfillment.

The cynic may laugh at Utopian dreams if he chooses, but if there be such a thing as human progress, they have been the stuff of which it has been made since long before the children of Israel started on their journey seeking a promised land that flowed with milk and honey. The Catholic Church on earth has two great longings which time and thought have blended,—one of a heavenly city where she will one day share the radiance of her Lord, and one of a great day "when the earth shall be full of the glory of God as the waters cover the sea."

But we live in a dying world, brethren; it has always been a dying world since the very dawn of history. It [61/62] is a world not only of dying men, but of dying philosophies, dying hopes, dying civilizations. It is because men have known that death is the hallmark of the world, that they have tried to tell us that the Church will die. But she will not. She is the one promise of life that the dying world possesses. She is in the world but not of it, for she is supernatural; she came down out of heaven as a bride adorned for her husband. A dying world said the Church would die, when her King died on the cross. A dying world said the Church would die, when the Roman Empire haled her saints and prophets before governors and kings for His Name's sake. A dying world said the Church would die, when Luther, Calvin, Zwingli and Knox tore her children from her bosom in the political row between pope and princes which we call the Reformation. A dying world said she would die, when the covetous bigamist who was King of England robbed her of her treasures and of the chiefest of them, her liberties. A dying world said she would die, when the French Revolution enthroned the Goddess of Reason on the altar of Notre Dame. A dying world said she would die, when Lenin emblazoned the motto—Religion is the opium of the people—over the doors of the Kremlin. But the Bride of Christ will live. As with her risen Lord, she hurls down the barriers of death; she will continue to minister the whole of His Risen Life to the whole of man. She will break down the hatreds that separate class from class, race from race, nation from nation. She is the true Red International—for her garments are red with the blood of a King who still cometh from Edom, with dyed garments out of Bozrah; her heart is still aflame with the fire of Pentecost.

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