THE visible Church of Christ is a congregation of faithful men, in which the pure word of God is preached, and the sacraments are duly administered according to Christ's ordinance in all those things that of necessity are requisite to the same.
This definition, which we find in our Book of Common Prayer, contains implicitly all the marks of the primitive and Apostolic Church. But in order to grasp its full meaning in the light of the developments of the present day it is important to dwell somewhat in detail upon the words used. Indeed, they are so full of meaning and raise so many questions that we shall find it most interesting and instructive to explain and elaborate the significance of the terms used.
As members of the old historic Church to which we belong, we call ourselves Churchmen. What is a Churchman? Webster's Dictionary defines a Churchman as an Episcopalian, as distinguished from a Presbyterian or Congregationalist. The Century Dictionary defines a Churchman as a member of the Episcopal, as distinguished from a member of any other Church. It is an interesting and significant fact that our branch of the Church Catholic has thus pre-empted the word Churchman, and it has been freely accorded to us by all the dictionaries and by the accepted usage of the English language as our own characteristic and descriptive word. The members of no other religious body call themselves Churchmen.
Saint Peter, speaking by inspiration of God, tells us to be ready always to give an answer to every man who asks us a reason for the hope that is in us. What reason can we give, then, for being Churchmen? There are those who tell us that it does not make any difference to what Church you belong. They tell us that we are all aiming for the same place, we are all going to the same Heaven, and that it does not matter what particular road we take. One man likes the hill road, another the valley road, and still another the river road. They tell us that, inasmuch as there are scores of Churches into which our American Christianity is divided, a man has the same right to choose his Church as to select his political party. Moreover, if at any time he gets tired of his Church, or disagrees with his brethren about some doctrine or practice, he and others like-minded with himself can separate from that particular Church and form another which will better express what he believes. To this theory we Churchmen answer most emphatically, "No." With us it is wholly incredible that a Church can thus be made by man, for we know only the "Church of the living God, the ground and the pillar of the truth." It was once for all established on this earth by one greater than man. Jesus Christ, its divine Founder, declared, "On this rock [the rock of faith in His divinity] I build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it." As it was thus founded by our Lord, so it is kept alive and made vital by the Holy Spirit, which animates it and guides it into all truth. The Church created by the express word of its divine Founder, and not a man-made affair, comes from above, and not from below. The Church is the body of Christ. It is one, and not many. In the Creed we are taught to say, "We believe in one Catholic and Apostolic Church." Saint Paul says we are baptized into one body, the Church. He asks, "Is Christ divided?" The Church is Catholic. The word Catholic means universal.
This Church, this divine society, was founded by Jesus Christ, Himself, on the foundation of the Apostles and Prophets, He Himself being the head corner-stone. He commissioned the twelve Apostles the first Bishops of the Church, to go into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature. To separate ourselves from this divine society which Christ founded we Churchmen should regard as a grievous sin, unthinkable to one who knows what the Church is, and clearly contrary to the express will of our Divine Saviour.
The great Apostle to the Gentiles exhorts us to endeavor to keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace. He reminds us that there is one body and one spirit, even as we are called in one hope of our calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all, and through all, and in us all.
It is in startling contrast to this oneness of the body of Christ, as so strongly set forth in the New Testament, that we find to-day Christian people divided into so many Churches, and the forces of Christianity, which should present a solid front to the common enemy, broken up and weakened by such diversity of opinion as to what constitutes the essential truth of the Gospel. In our own country, and throughout the Christian world, some of these Churches are numerically strong, and they reckon among their numbers thousands of conscientious, Godly, and zealous Disciples of our Lord, who set us a fine example of noble Christian self-sacrifice and missionary zeal. Among these Churches we count a great host of our dear friends and relatives. They are knit and tied to us by many ties, social, religious, and charitable. We are grateful to God for whatever measure of His grace He has bestowed upon them, and for all the good they have been able to accomplish in the world. We love them as sincere believers in our common Lord and Saviour. For them as individuals we cherish an affectionate and reverent esteem. We know that they are not only honest in their convictions, but often more devoted lovers of God than many among ourselves.
Our attitude toward all who love our Lord in sincerity should be kindly and considerate. Moreover, we should remember for our comfort that while our Saviour was still on earth one of His Disciples said to him, "Master, we saw one casting out devils in Thy name, and he followeth not us; and we forbade him because he followeth not us"; but Jesus said, "Forbid him not, for he that is not against us is on our side." So we feel that our brethren of other Churches, who are casting out devils in the name of Christ, are not against us, but in their way are accomplishing much good. If Saint Paul could say with reference to some of the preaching which was not according to his views: "What then? Notwithstanding every way, whether in pretense or truth, Christ is preached: and I therein do rejoice, yea, and will rejoice," surely we Churchmen ought to be broad-minded enough to recognize the good work of other Christian bodies outside the communion and fellowship of our own Church.
In this connection there are other considerations to be borne in mind. One is, that our religious convictions are almost entirely determined, in God's Providence, by our birth, parentage, and environment. People inherit their religious views, and they are often the more cherished because they are received from our ancestors. We should be deeply grateful that God has brought us into the communion of His Holy Church, in view of the fact that thousands of people from no fault of their own have never had the opportunity of knowing for what the Church stands.
Again, many of the religious bodies which broke off from our historic and Apostolic Church at the time of the Reformation and thereafter did so because at that period our Church did not have the grace to extend to them that spirit of Christlike toleration and brotherly love required to preserve the unity of spirit in the bond of peace. In other words, while divisions took place, we have not always been free from blame. If our Church did not actually cause division, it may at least be held responsible for such an attitude toward those who differ from us as to have made separation seem to them justifiable in the exercise of their liberty.
We are now living, let us thank God, in an age of far greater religious toleration and breadth. Many of the reasons, theological and otherwise, that once caused division, no longer exist, and under the influence of the Holy Spirit all Christian people can now cherish toward one another greater charity, and can make allowances for the differences which exist. In the atmosphere of this more enlightened spirit, all who love our Lord and are endeavoring to serve Him are going to know one another better. Moreover, the conditions which now prevail make the hope of the reunion of Christendom far more reasonable than hitherto. Our own Church, with its Scriptural faith and Apostolic order, has a unique opportunity of manifesting to the world the ancient landmarks. It is our privilege to bear our witness to the faith once delivered to the saints, and, realizing the precious heritage committed to our trust, to loyally commend to others the blessings we have received.
Thus, speaking the truth in love, we may hasten that day when the dissevered fragments of the once united body of Christ may be brought together into one fold, under one Shepherd.
Meanwhile it is a cause of profoundest gratitude, that the leaders of religious thought in all the Churches are now realizing as never before the wrong and weakness of division, and are praying constantly for the unity of God's people throughout the world.
This is a great missionary age, and the non-Christian nations, such as China and India, Japan and Africa, by means of modern methods of intercommunication, are being brought to our very doors. As the Gospel is being carried to the millions of our fellow-men who have never known its life-giving message, the Christian workers are learning that our unhappy divisions are the greatest hindrance to the conquest of the world for Christ. The heathen nations are taunting us with our differences. They are practically saying to us, "When you Christians can agree, it will then be time for us to heed your invitation, and believe in the Christ you preach."
So both at home and abroad we are met on every hand by the overwhelming necessity of Christian unity. Indeed, that unity has become the condition of our conquest of the world for Christ. We Christians must get together. On what basis can reunion ever come about if not on the foundation of the old faith and order, which for fifteen hundred years presented a united front to the world? Only as we unite can that great high priestly prayer of our divine Founder be realized. "That they all may be one, as thou, Father, art in Me and I in Thee. That they also may be one in us. That the world may believe that Thou hast sent Me."