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Conversations on Ritualism
Anonymous [Charles Woodruff Rankin]

New-York: Hurd and Houghton, 1867.

Conversation I.

Rector.—Good-morning, Mr. Brown: you see that I am waiting for you. I received the note you considerately sent to me, informing me of your wish to have some conversation on the subject of Ritualism, and I have kept myself disengaged that we might talk the matter over at our leisure.

Parishioner.—I am obliged to you, Mr. Wilson. I have been very much troubled at some things that I have seen and heard; and remembering how after you have told us that we ought to go to our clergyman for instruction on matters that we did not understand, I took the liberty of writing the note to which you have referred.

Rec.—You acted wisely; I wish that you would always do so. It is too often the case that persons form hasty opinions on matters that they have not looked into; or else take up the crudely formed opinions of other people; or, what is worse still, allow prejudice to influence them in matters of very grave importance, when, if they would only look into such subjects carefully and thoughtfully, or seek information from those who are familiar with them, they would save themselves and their clergyman a great deal of trouble, and perhaps obtain a deeper insight into spiritual truths than they have ever had.

Par.—True. I well remember the relief it was to my mind to hear you explain, as you did to me in private, the sense in which you so often use the word Catholic. Before that explanation I had always supposed that Catholicism meant Romanism; but when you pointed out to me that the peculiarities of the Roman Church were really violations of true Catholicism, and that instead of being really Catholic, she is only a part of the Catholic Church, and a very imperfect and corrupt part too, it removed many difficulties from my mind, and I now enjoy and glory in a word which I used to shrink from whenever I heard it used.

Rec.—I am glad to hear it; let us hope that something of the same kind will result from the candid inquiry you have made concerning Ritualism. I wish you would state to me just what your difficulties are.

Par.—Well, I hardly know how to go about it. I thought before I came to you that I had arranged all I wished to say in a very systematic order, but I really find it difficult to express my ideas clearly on the subject.

Rec.—May it not be that you have not got any very clear ideas on the subject; and that possibly you have become agitated and disturbed without any real cause? I have often known this to be the case in very grave and important matters.

Par.—It may be so. The truth is I have heard so much about Ritualism that I am sick of the word. I can hardly take up a paper in which I do not find something about Ritualism; if I make a call upon a neighbor, I am sure to hear Ritualism brought up. Last Sunday Mr.------ preached a furious sermon against Ritualism, and now I see that some sort of a declaration has appeared from some of the bishops on the subject, so that I am getting bewildered and perplexed. I really do want to know what the word means, and what is the reason of all this uproar which seems so suddenly to have burst upon us.

Rec.—Well, I do not wonder, for if ever there were an illustration of the old saying of a "great cry and little wool," I think we have it here. The whole Church seems to be wide awake for once, and even some of the bishops to have been frightened from their propriety, because one little church in the city of New York has introduced some usages to which they are not accustomed, and our Presiding Bishop has written a little work which presents some truths with which they are not familiar.

Par.—You refer to St. Alban's Church, do you not?

Rec.—I do.

Par.—Have you ever been there?

Rec.—Yes, twice.

Par.—What did you think of the services?

Rec.—I was pleased with some things; though there were some points which seemed to me to be open to exception; but if we go into details of the services at St. Alban's, we will be diverted from a more satisfactory examination of the subject on which you ask for information.

Par.—Excuse me, but I would like to ask a question about this church. Is it not in the Diocese of New York?

Rec.—It is.

Par.—I observe that the Bishop of New York does not appear among the signers of this declaration against Ritualism. Is it not singular that twenty-eight Bishops should unite in a remonstrance against usages which do not obtain in their own dioceses, and only in a single church in a single diocese, and that the Bishop of that diocese is on the spot to interfere, in case there should be any serious infraction of the Church's law?

Rec.—You ask some very grave questions. I cannot undertake to answer them all, or any of them very fully, but I will tell you what I think. I think that these twenty-eight Bishops ought to have read what St. Peter says in his 1st Epistle (chap. 4, verse 15) before signing that paper. Our version of the passage is: "Let none of you suffer as a ... busybody in other men's matters;" and if they had taken the trouble to read the original Greek they would have found it peculiarly applicable to themselves; for St. Peter is speaking of Episcopizing it in the affairs of other people, or, as Canon Wordsworth gives it,—"One who sets himself up as an overseer or censor of what belongs to others; a judge of other men's servants." One would think that our bishops have enough to do in their own dioceses, without meddling with those of their Episcopal brethren.

Par.—Surely they must have forgotten themselves; but will you tell me what importance is to be attached to this declaration?

Rec.—It has no authority whatever. It has no canonical weight. It is not law, neither is it any interpretation of law.

Par.—You surprise me. Pray explain your meaning more fully.

Rec.—The only way in which our bishops can act except as the Ordinaries of their respective dioceses, is in their united, corporate, collegiate character as a House of Bishops. Even here they can only express opinions: they cannot define doctrines or make laws. The laws or canons of the Church can only be made by the General Convention, and you know that the House of Bishops is only one part of the General Convention. This declaration of the "twenty-eight" is not the action of the law-making power of the Church; neither is it an authoritative expression of opinion on the subject of which it treats. It is simply a declaration of the individual opinions of the signers. So far as the secret history of it is known, it lacks the dignity which their concurrent action would have given to it, for it seems to have gone circulating around the country, begging for signers, and failing to secure the names of some of those who are confessedly the most learned of our prelates.

Par.—What weight then should it have with those who wish to be informed upon this matter?

Rec.—Simply so much as would be given to the opinions of as many other men; and the value of their opinions would be measured by their knowledge of the subject. It is pretty well understood that but few of our bishops or clergy are well informed with regard to Ritualism, it not having entered very largely into the course of their theological studies; and the low, loose, and irregular usages tolerated in some of our dioceses, show that their practice is on the same level with their learning.

Par.—Well, I am greatly relieved. I was really fearful that some terrible evil was impending over the Church; but it seems to me that the greatest evil is that so many of our bishops could be found who would forget the limits of their Episcopal authority. But you have not told me why the Bishop of New York has not interfered to put down the services at St. Alban's, if they are, as is alleged, in violation of the Church's laws.

Rec.—Well, really, I hardly know how to answer you. I am not in Bishop Potter's confidence; indeed I have but the slightest acquaintance with him; but again I will tell you what I think. The Bishop has the character of being a prudent man; certainly he is familiar with the Scriptures, and he may have read therein something of this kind: "And now I say unto you, Refrain from these men, and let them alone: for if this counsel or this work be of men, it will come to nought: but if it be of God, ye cannot overthrow it, lest haply ye be found even to fight against God." Acts v. 38, 39.

Par.—But stop; was it not Gamaliel, a Pharisee, a doctor of the Jewish law, who gave that counsel, and are we not cautioned very earnestly against Judaizing?

Rec.—True, my friend, but we may sometimes take lessons in common sense as well as in Ritualism, by looking into the old Jewish Church; there is more to be learned there than many of us moderns wot of.

Par.—But still you have not answered one of my questions, Why, if the usages referred to be in violation of law, are they not interdicted?

Rec.—May it not be that they are not violations of law? May it not be that there is no law in the Church in this country, of which they can be violations?

Par.—You surprise me! no law prescribing such important matters as are involved in this discussion!

Rec.—Suppose you examine your Prayer-book and the Canons of the Church, and satisfy yourself upon this matter. You will find in the latter something about candidates for Holy Orders who are lay-readers not assuming the dress appropriate to clergymen; and in the former, you will find a direction for those who are about to be ordained deacons or priests being "decently habited;" and in the Form for the Consecration of Bishops you will find it ordered that the elected bishop must be vested with his rochet, and at a certain part of the service, the bishop elect shall "put on the rest of the Episcopal habit;" but if you can find any thing more than this; if you can find any direction as to what is meant by being "decently habited," or by the rest of "the Episcopal habit," you will greatly oblige me by pointing it out.

Par.—Is it so, then, that there is no written law of our Church on this subject?

Rec.—Even so; whether for evil or for good, even so; I think for good.

Par.—But is there not usage, which becomes a kind of common law to the Church?

Rec.—Again you touch on tender ground. The twenty-eight Bishops go back to the date of the American Revolution, and the introduction of a resident Episcopate in this Church, as the period to whose usages, &c., we must conform ourselves, and yet I doubt if there are a dozen churches in the country where the order of divine service is not in advance of what then obtained; indeed if the subject were not so serious, I can hardly imagine a more amusing scene than the effort to frame our services according to that standard; there are not many parishes even in the dioceses of the signing Bishops where the coldness, bareness, and barrenness of the post-Revolution services would be tolerated.

Par.—But has not a usage grown up since then, which we may regard as a kind of unwritten law to the Church?

Rec.—Thank God, there has been a marvelous improvement in every thing connected with the Church's work since that time, and her worship and Ritual have shared in the improvement; but who are they to say "Thus far shalt thou go and no farther"? It strikes me that sensible men would reason thus: The Church's work at home and abroad has grown most wonderfully, and her Ritual and worship have kept pace with the improvement; while there has been a grand increase of the diocesan and missionary Episcopate, there has been a corresponding increase in the beauties and refinements of the public worship of the sanctuary: the two seem to have grown together, as might naturally be expected; the vigor and earnestness of the Church's life manifesting itself, not only in the enlargement of her frame-work and development of her organic power, but likewise in clothing herself anew with the beauty of holiness, so that while our Zion hath awakened and "put on her strength," she hath at the same time put on, in like measure, "her beautiful garments;" and if this has been her experience in the past, I am at a loss to see why it should not be in the future. At least I cannot understand how they who would confine us to the Revolutionary period of our history in the matter of Ritual, should be unwilling to be themselves confined to the same period in other matters of more importance. But if the Church be a living organism, we must expect that with the unfolding of her latent powers, there will be likewise an unfolding of the outward and visible forms in which those powers abide; and if worship be the grand embodiment of the Church's life, then we must expect that in all that pertains thereto there will be an advancement every way beyond the period of our Revolutionary forefathers, or even beyond our own.

Par.—You think then that our present Ritual is not to be regarded as the ultimate standard to which the worship of the Church in this country should be conformed.

Rec.—I am not aware that there is any "present Ritual" which has the slightest claim to be so regarded. I have known in my short experience of such a diversity of usages in our different dioceses, and even in different parishes in the same diocese, as must forbid any thing like an appeal to "present usage" as the standard of uniformity. I have known of chancels arranged at least in half a dozen different ways; and of churches which have had their chancels arranged in two or three different ways within ten years; and every different arrangement of chancels necessitates a different ritual. In some parishes even now the surplice is unknown. In some the surplice is used for preaching; in others the academic gown is the preaching vestment. I have seen, I suppose, at least six different ways of cutting the surplice. In some parishes the Ante-Communion Service is read at the Holy Table; in others, at the reading-desk. I have heard Morning and Evening Service read at the altar, at the chancel-rail, and at a prayer-desk. In some churches the Bishop has come in, placed his coat, hat, and whip on the communion-table, and without any vestment at all, gone into the reading-desk or pulpit, and officiated. I have seen, after the Holy Communion in some churches, the communicants kneeling to receive the remaining elements; and in others I have seen the men come forward and stand and talk, while they were eating and drinking the same; in others the consecrated wine is preserved until the next Communion. I have seen in some churches the sacred vessels carefully cleansed before their removal from the chancel, and have even seen a devout layman (God bless him) carefully gather up and reverently consume any particle of bread that might have fallen on the chancel-rail, or floor; while in others the clergyman leaves the consecrated bread and wine on the Holy Table to be disposed of by the sexton, and never troubles himself about their being reverently consumed, or even thinks of cleansing the paten and chalice. I have seen the sexton go into the chancel in the midst of a convention in his work-day clothes, while the services were going on, and arrange the bread and wine upon the altar. I have known the Litany to be said in the morning, at noon, and at night, and even to be used on every other day than those appointed by the Church. I have known in some churches the Prayer-book to be mutilated or entirely laid aside, and extemporaneous services to be substituted for its prescribed order. In some churches, even now, chanting is a novelty, while once it was a novelty in all the churches. Here we have quartet singing, there we have congregational music, and in another place we have surpliced choirs. In some dioceses the deacon is permitted to wear the stole over both shoulders; in others it is forbidden; while in but one, so far as I know, is the primitive custom of wearing it on the left shoulder practiced. In some churches the service is simply read, in others it is monotoned, and in others it is entirely choral. This list might be very greatly enlarged, but you will see that it is simply impossible to appeal to any "present usage" as a standard of uniformity.

Par.—You bewilder me; I came to you expecting to have some light thrown upon this vexed question, and I seem to be farther from a solution of my difficulties than ever. No written law! no acknowledged and authoritative usage! Why, what will become of us?

Rec.—Do not be disturbed, my friend. The Church has gotten along very well without either written law or authoritative usage for a long while, and unless some hasty or intemperate legislation be forced upon her, she will continue to do well. The jacket and pants of a boy do not fit, and are not very seemly for the man; and yet as the boy grows upward into manhood, he finds clothes to fit him. You cannot put a cast-iron frame around the sapling and expect it to thrive; neither can you make a pattern after which all its leaves must be fashioned. Remember that the Church must be treated with as much charity as you would treat a boy or a tree; it is a living thing, and living things will grow, and as they grow they have a way of clothing themselves with drapery which befits them. Thus has the Church grown and adorned herself from the beginning, and thus may she continue to grow and adorn herself hereafter. But yet we have not fairly met and answered your first question, What is Ritualism? You must come and spend an hour or two with me again, when we will talk more directly on the subject; in the mean time you can think over what you have heard this morning.

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