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Episcopal Prerogative











2 Bible House.


Episcopal Prerogative

IT has been for a long time the pleasant dream of many in our communion that we enjoyed the golden mean between the rule of the Vatican and the dangerous freedom of those outside the Paradise of Episcopal order. But our optimism has been of late somewhat rudely shaken, and in nothing more than by a recent correspondence touching a Church congress. Already quite a skirmish of letters and rejoinders has been seen in the newspapers, and we are now startled by a pastoral charge from the Bishop of our Church in New York. Much has been well said by the defenders of the Congress, and perhaps more has been said by its assailants than they are aware of, to gain it friends among those who love justice or generous freedom. Yet there remains a view of the subject of far more moment than all other arguments. The question before us, in a word, is not whether we are to have a Congress, but whether we are living under absolute Episcopal authority or under constitutional law. This is the question we propose to answer, with all courtesy, but with an honest frankness.

We shall briefly review the plan of the Congress and the remarkable charges against it, as our preface to this [3/4] grave subject. As the writer is one of those on whom the responsibility of the plan rests, he can speak with clearness. It came to pass some months ago that at an association of clergymen an admirable sketch of the Bath Congress was read; and from the interest called forth by it, after some debate, it was judged wise to try the experiment at home. To assure ourselves, however, of the general feeling, a preparatory conference was held, composed of a goodly number of clergy, chosen designedly from differing schools of Church opinion; and such were the dignity and ability of the discussion for two days, as to give the best promise for a larger effort. The plan was, as far as possible, a copy of the English model. A Church Congress, as those know who have attended one, or have read the excellent pamphlet of Mr. Beresford Hope, is the simplest of all organizations, if it can be called an organization at all. It is a voluntary movement, whose proper life is in its freedom from all needless legislation. The Bishop of the diocese is invited, as a point of courtesy, to preside; but beyond this office of chairman he has no duty whatever, and at times an eminent layman has called the assembly. Certain subjects are chosen, and certain speakers, who initiate the debate, which is then free to any within the limits of Christian decorum. No votes are taken; no majority can override the liberty of speech; and no influence can be exerted beyond that of reasonable argument. Such was the plan accepted; and to make the movement as generous and catholic as possible, a large Committee was formed, representing every hue of theological opinion, even to extremes; yet all men of the highest character. The list of vice-presidents was formed in the same way. At a subsequent meeting in New York this Committee arranged the details; and so [4/5] anxious were they to carry out the comprehensive spirit of the plan that essayists and speakers were appointed who were known to have quite opposite views. It was not easy to fix the time, but it was at last resolved to choose the days just before the opening of the Convention, for the plain reason that it is next to impossible to bring together those, who would both feel and inspire interest in such a meeting, at any other season. All the objections since urged by our vehement assailants--as if none beside themselves had been wise enough to conceive them--were fully debated. But the argument already named settled the question; and the only mistake of the Committee was in the belief, that they could trust in the generous faith of their brethren as to the motive that prompted the decision. No plan was ever laid before this Communion more absolutely free from party spirit, or the baseness of church cabal. All promised success; letters were received of heartiest sympathy from Bishops and clergy; when on a sudden there appeared a note from the Bishop of Western New York, in which, as well as in other attacks following it, there is so utter a misrepresentation of the character of this movement as to compel a plain reply. We cannot for a moment suspect the Right Reverend author of a coarser article printed in a Buffalo paper (although some experts have professed to see traces of the same hand); an article which represented this movement as a conspiracy between radicals and ritualists for political ends. No answer beyond the names of the Committee, which are open to the public, is needed to refute such calumny. We shall confine ourselves therefore to the objections urged in his original letter.

The Bishop has chosen, in his criticism of the proposed Congress, a word of which we have the right to ask an explanation; [5/6] a word used always in common language to imply an illegal and unfair dealing with public affairs. He affirms that "the tendency of the Congress is to act as a lobby, and to operate on our great council in ways unknown to the constitution." It is not on the score of courtesy we notice the phrase, although it may be said that his letter was in reply to a courteous invitation to him to act as a Vice-President, and to read an essay before the Congress. But it may be that the rules of politeness, usually recognized among us, are not thought necessary in one of his high order when dealing with the "other clergy." It is the natural, inevitable, and false meaning which the word bears with it, as touching the character of this movement, of which we justly complain. We ask the Bishop of Western New York, by what right he calls a legitimate assembly of clergy and laymen, invited to confer publicly by a large body of presbyters without distinction of party, a lobby? Does he find anything in the constitution or the laws of the Church to forbid it? Is he the one authorized interpreter of law? It would be quite enough to point, as has been done already in an excellent article by another, to the absence of all party in the formation of the Congress, and the impossibility in its nature of acting as an organization, in order to convince any unprejudiced mind of the absurdity of such a charge. If the character of those composing the Committee, if their generous and manly plan of action, be not enough to shield them from such misrepresentation, we know no difference between the atmosphere of the Christian Church and that of the most vulgar political arena. Nor is it enough for him to shelter himself under the plea that he spoke only of "tendencies," not of the design of the leaders. The phrase implies, if not party craft, at least [6/7] that such a body of clergy has neither wisdom nor strength enough to conduct the movement. It is the argumentum ad invidiam. It seeks to turn attention from the fair judgment of the case by depreciation of the men. There is no sophistry more unworthy of Christian debate. It may be that he did not know those who are the objects of his charge; but if so, it is the more to his discredit that he should have rushed into print without taking pains to inquire whether he were offering an insult or no. We may well ask, whether the use of such weapons does not show too much readiness to adopt the unscrupulous policy which he charges on others? It may be that the Right Reverend letter writer supposes, because he was not consulted, that therefore there could be no such large conference with the sages of the Church as he deems necessary. We beg to disabuse him of his error. We beg frankly to inform him why it was not held best, to seek his counsel, while many others were consulted. It is well known that he is interested in this subject of a Church Congress. Nor is it long since he published an essay, urging what he calls a Constitutional Commission, to sit during the three years' interval between Conventions, and to legislate de omnibus rebus et quibusdem aliis for a church so lamentably short of canons and rubrics. Among the duties of the Commission, one was to create Church Congresses, to choose speakers and subjects, and fix by that admirable law "which altereth not," the conditions of free discussion. Nothing could be safer than this bambino of the Bishop, swathed and bandaged from infancy, and carried lovingly in the arms of its nursing fathers. There could be no danger of lobbying here, unless it may be of that dignified, legal lobbying which belongs to a Commission cutting out all the work for the [7/8] next Convention to patch together. It could not possibly "operate" otherwise than as an opus operatum in the fullest sense. It could never be guilty of free speech, or of a perilous whisper of doubt as to the infallibility of its masters. And can the Bishop of Western New York appreciate our meaning when we hint that there are not a few in this Church, who have very little sympathy with that idea of a Church Congress, and did not therefore care to ask the counsel of its inventor? It is not perhaps strange, if such be his theory of authority, that in his eyes any free or generous meeting of Churchmen, whatever its authors or objects, may be a lobby; but we regret for his own sake that he should have ventured on a charge which only proves his disregard of the just liberties of the whole body.

We need not here examine the second point of this letter, as it is urged more fully in the pamphlet of the Bishop of this diocese, to which we turn. Bishop Coxe affirms that "no Congress for such purpose should be held in any place, without the full concurrence of the local ecclesiastical authority." We shall thoroughly test that claim. But we cannot pass to the further discussion, without noticing with what profound reverence our Right Reverend censor, who does not disguise his charge of lobbying in polite speech when replying to presbyters, comes forward in defence of our Diocesan when the prerogatives of the Episcopate are in question. The Bishop of New York has in one respect written with much more wisdom than his younger brother in office. His letter is in the tone of paternal remonstrance, and it is only in here and there a phrase that a harsher spirit peeps forth, as when he tells us of his amazement that any should "presume" on such a movement without his concurrence. It is such a grave, affectionate [8/9] censure as a master of Harrow or Rugby might utter to a bench of wayward lads of good family. We will only remind the Bishop that there are some of his presbyters whose gray hairs and character hardly place them in the literal rank of children, although it may be, within due limits, a commendable figure of speech. A just respect for the intelligent convictions of such men would be a far truer courtesy than all else. It is with much caution that he speaks of the intrinsic merits of a Church Congress; and he evidently fears it to be a dangerous innovation on the sober ways of our American Church, although it may do in England, if the presiding Bishop have near him a robust clergyman who can "extinguish" all noisy talkers. But the pith of his censure lies in the plea that this plan was conceived and executed without his sanction; and again, that it is an intrusion on the proper business of Convention. We shall, therefore, take up these points. It is due to the Committee as well as to him, to say most emphatically that so far as any right either in law or courtesy is involved, his censure is utterly groundless. Their wish from the first was to act precisely as has been done in England. At the opening of their meeting it was arranged that the Bishop of the diocese should be invited to preside; nor is any blame to be attached to them if in the somewhat complicated business of letter writing, or in his own absence, he should have learned from the hasty note of Bishop Coxe the proposal of a Congress a short time before he received his own formal invitation. But beyond such due and respectful courtesy, the Committee recognized no duty on their part. It was not held necessary that a number of clergymen, quite able to decide as to the expediency of the movement, should ask liberty to meet, or to arrange it at their own discretion. To claim [9/10] this right of personal sanction is to claim for the Episcopate an absolute prerogative, which no law and no right construction of constitutional order will sustain. Had the Congress been proposed in some small town like Buffalo or Albany, the demand would still be unreasonable enough. But that in a vast city like New York, the centre of all communication, the free gathering place of all minds and all activities, the meeting of a body of respectable clergymen for public discussion should be forbidden, unless with the consent of the ordinary, is a stretch of authority which must strike any intelligent reader as somewhat nearer the tone of the prelate who holds his office from the Vatican, than one who belongs to the Protestant Episcopal Church. We say this with calm deliberation. The charge of "presumptuous sin" does not rest on the head of the Committee. We challenge any to lay a finger on the law that gives this diocesan power. Is it an explicit statute? No. Is it an implicit right, vested in the nature of diocesan rule? How and why? The liberty of public speech belongs to every clergyman, save that he must conform to established discipline and worship, and is liable to trial if he transgresses. The same law protects and judges. There is no such prerogative. It is the pure fiction of the prelatical fancy. Nor can the least violation of courtesy be charged on the part of the Christian gentlemen who conducted this business. The very claim of right deprives courtesy of all its meaning. To ask what would be resented as a defiance of Episcopal privilege would be an intrusion; to surrender silently what we hold a precious liberty would be a cowardice. Yet there is a further view, which we should pass by, if the tone of this pamphlet had not compelled it. It would, undoubtedly, have been the cordial wish of the clergy to consult the Bishop, could they have [10/11] looked for any sympathy with their generous plans. But unhappily the attitude maintained in past years by their Diocesan, as to more than one question of free utterance or action, has not been such as to inspire confidence; and if he be aggrieved at this want of it, others perhaps have their griefs also. Confidence is a plant that grows feebly in a chill soil. It is peculiarly a sentiment that needs mutual nourishment; and where it is not found, it is not strange that men are wont to fall back on positive law.

But we must pass to the second point in this letter. The Bishop claims that the time of Convention is most objectionable for the Congress. There is room in the constitutional body for "quite as much discussion" as is needful. Such a meeting will be "overborne by a crowd of excited and declamatory spirits;" and the Chairman who should interpose would be "in danger of being stigmatized by some newspaper correspondent as an obstructionist!" Last of all, it will be "repudiated by a large portion of our conservative and candid Churchmen." Such objections may be summed in a word. They are the argument of his fears, not drawn from any just view of the movement. They may be urged against every movement, and the result would be stagnation. If the Episcopal Church be wholly lacking in intelligence and self-restraint; if its Convention be so weak a body that it fears the discussion of any topics outside its walls by a gathering of respectable clergy; if, finally, the majority of "conservative and candid Churchmen" be fully persuaded that the only policy to keep the discordant fragments together be to bind us in chains of iron,--the opinion of the Bishop is undoubtedly wise. It might then be best to adopt the admirable plan of Bishop Coxe, and give us a Congress by constitutional commission, which should cajole the Church with the name of free discussion. But we confess [11/12] we had not supposed that our Right Reverend Father had quite so low an estimate of the character of our Church, or at least would so frankly have expressed it. Nay, we should go much farther in the case. If this be in sooth the state of things, we should have sad doubts if the Episcopal Church were worth saving at all. A triennial show of Convention, a painful attempt at keeping up the semblance of constitutional law, would then be a needless illusion. Far better vote at the next session for an Infallible Pontiff, and dismiss the Church sine die. But it is simply because we have a sovereign faith that there is some wisdom and virtue left among us, that we believe in the excellence of a Congress. We do not fail in our respect for Convention, when we say that a body holden only once in three years, carrying the load of gathered legislation, cannot have such room for full discussion of the questions to-day pressing on the mind and conscience of all, that it need be jealous of free speech. If any of our legislators partake this jealousy, it would prove their unfitness to be representatives of the Church. No! we have no such fear. Instead of an opposition, the Congress will be a helper to the Convention. Its influence can be only that of reasonable argument. Nor are we so doubtful of the character of our clergy as to believe that an assembly of scholars and gentlemen cannot keep the peace, without even the aid of that robust clerical "extinguisher," whom the Bishop looks on as the forlorn hope of the Chairman. And if, finally, the judgment of our Diocesan be true, if "our conservative and candid Churchmen" fear this movement, it is time indeed for us to be asking, what is the state of the Church, when its members are so skeptical of its sober education, its boasted conservatism, nay, its intelligence or decency, that they dare not trust it without a straight waistcoat? [12/13] A despotism needs no parliament. A constitutional government needs always the free utterance of the people; and to protect its health by stifling this, is simply to kill it.

But we shall say no more of these objections; for, important as the subject is, there is a far weightier one forced on us. The question, we repeat, is not whether we shall have a Church Congress, but whether we are living under absolute government or constitutional law; whether the authority of a Bishop may extend at his pleasure beyond any and every written canon, as a lex non scripta for our implicit obedience; whether the clergy of this Church have the most elementary right that belongs to all men in a commonwealth, of public, well-ordered discussion? It is certainly a very critical issue. Nor can it be put by on any plea of conservative or loyal feeling. There have been cases before, where some color of law might disguise an infringement on our freedom, but we do not fear to say that there has been no instance where the plainest of rights has been more openly invaded. It involves the whole principle of our government. We need not here quarrel over any theory of the Episcopate. If indeed there were any argument which might stagger an ardent believer in the divine perpetuity of the order, in spite of all citations from the Apostolic Fathers to Cyprian, it is the moral evidence furnished by itself in too many examples of history, and repeated in just such claims as we consider at this hour, of its inevitable drift toward the assumption of personal power.

"Are these your gods? sure they look strangely human."

But if we held the view of its staunchest defenders, it would not alter the present case. This Church of America is one of constitutional law. We have indeed our devotees [13/14] who are beginning to broach anew the old notion, that there is what is called an inherent authority in the Episcopacy. as the fons ac origo of order, and that therefore there is no right save what has been ceded by it to the body. But there is one plain answer to all these absurdities. There is no decree, no canon, no custom, no precedent of the whole past binding on this Church, save in so far as it has been received and fixed by its own positive law. The attempt of some of our writers on canon law to find a shadow of such authority is an overturn of every fixed landmark. Pretended Catholic usage, early English statutes may please our antiquaries of the advanced school, but they have no jot of force beyond our constitution. By this the rights and duties of the Bishop are defined with as strict precision as those of the least presbyter or deacon or layman. There is given to him the executive office in his diocese within due limits. There is given him a right of pastoral counsel; but, by the nature of such a right, it must depend to a great degree on the wisdom with which he exercises this general privilege. To suppose that under this relation of Chief Pastor he can dictate in cases where the law is silent, and yet more, set aside the plainest rights of the clergy, is simply to open the door to any despotism. No constitutional system could subsist for an hour with such an omnivorous prerogative. There is the same inherent power in the divine office of presbyter as of Bishop; and law recognizes each as sacred within its fixed bounds. It is our glory, as Churchmen, that we can claim this "regulated liberty," in Burke's phrase, alike against the license of a mob and against the license of untamed authority. It is our just boast, not that we have an office of Bishops, but that in our form of government we maintain constitutional order.

[15] Such is the law of our Church; and in its name we utter our clear protest against this invasion of it. We cannot and we dare not avoid the responsibility. If there be an instance in which a constitutional law demands defence, it is surely here. There can be no right which a wise Bishop should be more careful not to assail than that of intelligent discussion; it should be his wish to foster it; his conviction that his own hold on the confidence of all good men will largely depend on such generous action. But when this right is openly denied, when it is even denied with a tone of majestic threatening, it becomes a breach of privilege too flagrant to be concealed. No talk of loyalty can hide it. Submission becomes in such a case cowardice. But the matter is still more serious here. It has been told us by the Bishop of New York that he has corresponded with a number of his brethren, and that many of them are more positive in their defence of his ground than himself. Is it so? Is it so, indeed? It becomes then a grave duty to ask, What shall the Church do, if her Chief Pastors take on themselves this authority? We are not of those who have felt strong sympathy with the Reformed Episcopal Church; but we say very soberly to our prelates, that if they wish to swell the ranks of the new body, they cannot do it more triumphantly than by such claims as these. Let us not underrate the critical character of the issue. What is it less than the assumption of an irresponsible power above law? We talk of the falsehood of Ultramontanism; and the Bishop of Western New York has written an eloquent epistle to Pope Pius, which doubtless struck terror into the heart of the whole Curia; but what is his position less in this matter than a mimicry of the same omnipotence; a mimicry weak indeed in its real power, yet as [15/16] loud in its pretentions? Are we to come to this, that sober men cannot see the difference between law and such claims? Unhappy Church! torn with strifes that reach to the very foundation, yet so ignorant of its own disease that it still believes in the old policy of indifference! Unhappy Church! where manhood is called disloyalty, and intelligent action is banished as dangerous to its peace! It is full time for us to know whether this be our condition or not. We accept the issue willingly. If we cannot hope for an Episcopate, which has so noble a conception of its high office as to be the defender of law instead of its own prerogative, it remains for us to protect ourselves. It may be there are many blind enough not to see the crisis, and more timid enough to dread the task of unselfish duty; but we will not believe that they represent the body of this great Communion; and we may as well to-day meet the question which has been thrust on us, as wait till it be too late for the safety of the Church.

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