THE question of Christian unity has commanded much attention of recent years, and many of the leaders of religious thought in our country and in other parts of the Christian world have given their time and anxious study to its solution. The evils resulting from division are perhaps more acute in our American civilization than elsewhere, and no doubt because the disintegrating process of division has been carried further with us.
More and more our separations are felt to be a grave hinderance to the progress of Christianity at home and abroad. At home the forces of evil are often thoroughly organized and strongly intrenched, while the opposing hosts of the Christian Church are so sadly cut up into discordant factions, unrelated to one another, that their influence is weakened if not paralyzed. This result is most clearly seen in our larger centers of population where attempts at municipal and social reform undertaken by the Church are defeated and come to naught by the failure of Christians to work together.
In the field of temperance reform, social purity, and Christian education, this has been conspicuously the case. We are not speaking just now of the debilitating effect upon organized Christianity in our large cities by the overlapping of churches, their frequent congestion in certain parts and their scarcity in others, all resulting in a hard struggle for existence and a crippling of effort to extend their influence and help to the poor and needy.
But when we leave the large cities and come to the country districts it is there we witness often the utter havoc and spiritual desolation wrought by division. The rural parts of New England offer perhaps the best illustration of how the constant divisions and subdivisions of Churches have at last resulted in leaving many communities without any church at all. There was a time when one village church stood on some commanding site, and, with its well-supported pastor, supplied the spiritual needs of the entire community. As the years passed theological disagreements and doctrinal controversies arose, and factions split off from the parent Church and erected churches of their own. Each new organization gradually sapped the strength of the others, and at last the disintegration reached a stage when it was impossible to support a minister by any one congregation. Thus the community has been spiritually deserted. But not only in New England, but all through the states of the Central, Western, and Southern parts of our country the same multiplication has gone on apace. It is not at all unusual to find eight or ten or twelve Churches struggling hard for a precarious support in towns of a thousand souls or less.
This situation has at last become so acute that nearly all the Protestant bodies in our country organized a few years ago under the corporate name of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America. This body represents, it is claimed, twenty-five or thirty millions of members. It meets every four years. While our Church is not a constituent part of the organization, we co-operate with them along certain lines through our commissions on Christian Unity and Social Service. This great organization has for its object the drawing more nearly together of the Christian forces of our country for the promotion of the cause of religious, moral, and social righteousness. It does not have for its avowed object organic unity, but a spiritual unity of motive, along lines where cordial co-operation can be secured. It is certainly a movement in the right direction, and is a significant index of our time. It ought to result in much good and help to cultivate an atmosphere in which organic or corporate unity can be hopefully considered. It is in the interest of a more fraternal and Christian spirit and a far better understanding between the various bodies which constitute its large and influential membership. One of its objects is to deal with the overlapping of Christian effort, and the over-churching of communities unduly burdened with the care of more religious organization than they can at all decently and adequately support. If the Federal Council is successful in relieving this distressing situation, it will have abundantly justified itself. Already we have heard of combinations having been effected between congregations closely allied in doctrine and practice, thus eliminating from the overburdened towns several churches entirely unnecessary. May this good work go on! There is an enormous opportunity for the application of the law of Christian comity in this process of blending, uniting, and consequent strengthening the things that remain.
Another and perhaps equally hopeful indication of the growth of the spirit of religious cooperation has been the merging into one body of two branches of the Presbyterian Church--namely, the Cumberland with the Old-School Presbyterians. There are rumors that a still further unification is to take place in the reuniting of the Northern Presbyterian with the Southern Presbyterian Church. A similar blending of separated bodies is being contemplated between the Methodist Church, North, and the Methodist Church, South, divided before our Civil War on account of the slavery issue.
In the Protestant world economic reasons will no doubt cause other large combinations in the near future between bodies hitherto kept apart by some slight difference. We mention these readjustments simply as reassuring tokens of the trend toward unity. Even though we should be compelled to admit that, generally speaking, they have been the result of economic pressure, we cannot doubt that God's Holy Spirit has been present in the healing process.
Encouraging as all these indications are, we should despair of the reunion of Christendom were there not present a far higher motive to inspire us to do our utmost to bring it about. We find that motive in the clear expression of the divine purpose in behalf of the unity of Christ's disciples. In the great high-priestly intercession of the Master He prays to His Father that those who shall believe in Him may be united. These are His words: "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." It should be noted in commenting on these words of our Saviour that He conditions the belief of the world in Him, as sent by the Father, on the unity of His disciples; that they may be one, "that the world may believe that thou hast sent me." In the light of these words of Christ how very significant it is that our foreign missionaries in China, Japan, and India are telling us that they find the unhappy divisions of the Christian Church the greatest barrier to the conversion and ingathering of the heathen. Again and again our faithful workers abroad are told that when we settle our differences at home, then, and not till then, will the heathen hear our appeal. Almost in the words of Saint Paul they are asking, Is your Christ divided? Dismayed and confused by our divisions, they pathetically ask: What shall we believe? To which Church among so many shall we give our allegiance?
It is no exaggeration to say that the strongest appeal for unity comes to-day from our workers in the foreign missionary field. But the problem itself must be solved with God's help by us at home.
We ask, then, what is our branch of the Church Catholic doing to further this consummation so devoutly to be wished? What has she to offer to a divided Christendom as a basis of reunion? Our Church feels that in the providence of God she has been called upon to occupy a position of great responsibility and unique privilege in her attitude toward this question of Christian unity. Through the grace and mercy of Almighty God we are in possession of a heritage of Scriptural faith and Apostolic order which is destined to play a most important part in the readjustments of the future. This heritage is very far from being our own. We simply have it in trust. We are stewards for God. It belongs, therefore, to all Christians who desire to claim and avail themselves of it. This faith and order are nothing new. They are as old as Christianity, and it is because they come down from the historical past that they are so valuable an asset now. The faith of our Church is proved by an appeal to Holy Scripture, interpreted and set forth in the ancient creeds, those venerable symbols known as the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. The order of the Church is the historical Episcopate locally adapted to the needs of the various national Churches. As to the faith, or creeds, already there is, we rejoice to say, a practical and substantial unanimity of agreement between the great Protestant bodies and ourselves.
Where we differ is in the matter of order, or Church government, and it is around this question that the controversy now centers.
Our Church is popularly known as the Episcopal Church, which means a Church governed by an Episcopus, or Bishop. These Bishops trace their authority and commission back through the Christian centuries to the time of Christ and His Apostles. An unbroken continuity of Bishops has existed from Apostolic times. This Historic Episcopate, as it is called, we have received from our fathers, and are most careful to guard and perpetuate and pass on to those who shall succeed us. The great Roman Catholic and Greek Churches, numbering many millions of Christians, while they at present are separated from each other on the question of the papal supremacy, have preserved with us this succession of Bishops, and hold this Apostolic form of ministry as vital to their existence. It is at least a significant fact that this belief in the historical continuity of the Episcopate, sometimes called Apostolical Succession, is held to-day by the overwhelming majority of the Christian world. Indeed, for the first fifteen hundred years of the Christian era it was universally held and practised. It was not till the Reformation in the sixteenth century that certain bodies broke off from this government by Bishops and established non-Episcopal Churches.
Many of these modern Churches have accomplished a great work both at home and in the missionary field. Our relations with these brethren are of the most fraternal nature, and we are glad to pay tribute to their piety, their learning, and their achievements in the spread of the Gospel. We are not disposed to lay upon them the entire responsibility for having broken away from this bond of historical Christianity. We are conscious that in those ages of controversy and upheaval attendant upon the Reformation we were not without blame. With a more tolerant spirit and a wiser statesmanship the calamity might have been averted. But whatever may be said of the past, we of to-day must be ready to make our contribution toward the restoration of the Church's unity.
More than twenty-five years ago our Church formulated what is known as the quadrilateral overtures. They included as a basis of reunion four things: first, belief in the Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments as containing the word of God; second, the acceptance of the two great Sacraments of Holy Baptism and Holy Communion administered in the words of Christ's institution; third, the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds as a sufficient statement of faith; and, finally, of the adoption of the Historic Episcopate locally applied to the needs of the several national Churches.
This was a forward movement on our part, from which much was confidently expected. Our action was formally ratified and adopted by the Lambeth Conference of 1888, representing the whole Anglican Episcopate throughout the world. While these simple propositions did much to clear the atmosphere and prepare the way for further advance; while they have called forth much correspondence and quickened a lively interest in Christian unity, there, perhaps, their influence ceased. Three years ago our Church appointed a Joint Commission of Bishops, Priests, and Layman on Faith and Order, and instructed it to take into consideration the whole question and to prepare the way for a world-wide conference. To this conference every Church in Christendom is invited which confesses our Lord as God and Saviour. This Commission has already met with much encouragement. Its overtures to the other Christian bodies have resulted in their appointing in nearly every instance similar commissions to confer with our own. Meanwhile, the leaven is surely working. Meetings in behalf of unity are being held in various parts of the country, and a deep interest is being aroused. Above all, thousands of earnest souls are praying for God's guidance and help.
It is a matter for profound congratulation and heartfelt thanks that no longer are our unhappy divisions defended, but that they are clearly seen to be contrary to the divine plan and opposed to the express will and purpose of Christ. Let us, as Churchmen, speak the truth in love, and while contending earnestly for the faith once for all delivered to the Saints, cultivate toward all our Christian brethren such feelings of good will and generous confidence as may result with God's blessing in the unity of spirit and the bond of peace.