DELIVERED TO THE CLERGY
DIOCESE OF MAINE,
HELD IN ST. STEPHEN'S CHURCH, PORTLAND, JULY 10, 1850.
BY GEORGE BURGESS, D.D.,
PUBLISHED BY VOTE OF THE CONVENTION.
MY REVEREND BRETHREN:
A law of our Church recommends that, as often as once in three years, each of its Bishops should address a public and solemn charge to the clergy of his diocese. The time has arrived when this duty is required of your diocesan; and in choosing the subject of such an address, I am very much guided by those wants which affect us, not merely as ministers of Christ, nor merely as clergymen of the Protestant Episcopal Church, but as called to labor on this most eastern border of our country, and in this youngest of the States of New England. May God grant that whatever shall now be spoken may assist us, in this our place and lot, to commend ourselves to every man's conscience!
We are entrusted with the Gospel of salvation; and, like the great apostle, we must feel ourselves debtors to all to whose hearts it can be brought through our most faithful endeavors. While, then, we go in and out amongst men, and watch with eager interest the effect of our ministrations or of the ministrations of others, the most painful of all reflections is too often irresistible. lit is not that there are not many on the side of the Lord: it is that such mighty multitudes are still unquestionably and utterly on the side of ungodliness. It is not that faith is not found upon earth: it is that unbelief, in so many forms, should still lift itself in defiance. It is not that religion does not welcome some accessions: it is that, in the meanwhile, another generation is rising up, and pressing on, and so small, so very small a proportion of its youthful vigor and its manifold resources, is yielded to the Saviour, and consecrated by the Holy Spirit.
 One simple rock upholds the authority of all the Scriptures alike; the rock of our salvation; the assurance of Him who is the Truth. He bade men search the Scriptures, at a time when the volume of the Scriptures contained, just as now, every book, chapter and verse of the Old Testament. He promised that the Holy Ghost should guide the apostles into all truth, and bring all things which He had told them to their remembrance: under this promise and its fulfilment were the books of the New Testament written; and He, from His throne of glory, confirmed the word, written as well as spoken, by signs following, by the gifts of miracles, of tongues and of all wisdom, and by every attestation of the Holy Spirit. If, in the whole volume of the Bible, there is any part which is not thus covered by the seal of the Lord Jesus Christ, no such exception has been intimated by Himself, when that seal was so broadly set, both to the collective Scriptures of the Old Testament, and to the words of His apostles and of evangelists, the companions of His apostles, which form the Scriptures of the New Testament; and if any Christian would doubt a part without arraigning the whole, the responsibility must be between himself and the Giver of the Bible. But in this the church of Christ has not been permitted to waver. The whole of the Scriptures, except three or four of the smallest of the epistles, were received from the first without a voice of dissent; and the claim of those three or four was soon settled by due inquiry; and, from that day, all churches of all lands have applied without question the decisive language of St Paul, as decisive for the New Testament as for the Old, "all Scripture is given by inspiration."
To maintain in the hearts of our fellowmen this sovereign claim of the Word of God on their implicit confidence and submission, is to preserve to them that which many martyrs died to purchase for them; that which the best of ancient sages would have given all the world to purchase for themselves. For, the Bible, without confidence in the Bible, would be a questionable acquisition. By many who possess the Bible now, when all can obtain it for a price which the poorest laborer can spare from the wages of a day, it is [6/7] neglected in practice, and sometimes contemned in word; and for us it is a great and most necessary task, to exalt its honor, and assert its dominion. It is not enough that it be made accessible, or even read, or even committed to memory. It is not even enough that it be opened and explained and applied. All will avail but little, if that deep and unquestioning reverence be wanting, which sees in the word of God, a record infinitely interesting and instantly conclusive. Such a spirit at once prevents those daring heresies, which contradict the plainest Scriptures, and which are only sustained by a laborious process of perversion, conscious at first, perhaps unconscious at last. It shrinks from that indifference towards the honor and the truth of God, which looks on all religious opinions with a preposterous and profane impartiality. It forbids that scarcely less indifferent assertion, that the Scriptures cannot be understood without such a guidance as may spare the inquirer all labor and all responsibility. It rebukes the ignorant presumption, which, snatching here and there a passage, and careless of its real import, weaves for itself its own favorite delusion. It repulses the suggestion of a deeper sense, running through all at the pleasure of the interpreter, and holding the obvious and natural sense in powerless subordination. A true, profound, adoring reverence for the Scriptures, is a shield against every error that can endanger the simplest; and without this shield, the wisest are not secure.
Such sentiments the ministers of the word must nourish by displaying it in its majesty, its fulness and its tenderness, as the source of all divine knowledge and all heavenly hope. They must not be content with placing its phrases at the head of their discourses, or adding them to the flow of their periods. From the Scripture they must derive and prove and reinforce their doctrine; from the Scripture, comprehensively surveyed, diligently studied, and out of its own treasures copiously elucidated. It must be to us what it was to Chrysostom and Augustin; what it was to the writers of the homilies; what it was to such preachers as Taylor, or Beveridge, or Doddridge, or Horne, or that wise and pure man who once presided over our church in all eastern [7/8] New England. It must be the very soil from which our discourses shall gather the abundant food which they are to dispense, and even the flowers and foliage, with which the fruit may be wreathed and crowned; for, even the eloquence of the pulpit should be the eloquence of the' Scripture: the eloquence, not so much of scriptural expression merely, as of scriptural thought, scriptural illustration, a scriptural spirit and scriptural richness and energy. Such preachers may very probably attract little applause; but none will win so much respect; none will so move the heart; none will retain their influence so long; none will be so much sought by the awakened and the serious; and none, be sure, my dear brethren, none will so enjoy the testimony of their own conscience, that their speech and their preaching have not been with enticing words of man's wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit. This is reward enough, till they stand before the Son of Palan, and see the harvest of souls.
II. From this first principle of absolute submission to the supreme authority of the revealed word of God, must proceed another principle, by which our ministrations, like our Church, should be characterized. It is the maintenance and presentation of the obvious doctrine of the Scriptures. My brethren, we assume without hesitation that there is such an obvious doctrine. We assume that it is the general doctrine which, in its simplest form, is expressed in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds, and in its more expanded outline spreads itself through our liturgy, articles and offices. We assume it, because, if the Bible be not meant to be less intelligible than the common compositions of upright men, there must be a meaning which shall be obvious; because amongst twenty readers at this day, nineteen are substantially agreed in the general interpretation; and because this interpretation has been essentially the same through all the Christian ages, wherever there has been freedom to read and to interpret. In fact, as to all those things which are peculiar to the Roman communion, the Church of Rome almost entirely relies on a different kind of authority, and does not even assert any distinct scriptural sanction. On the other side, the things in which Protestants differ are of two classes: either such as [8/9] are matters of inference, matters of discipline, matters not clearly decided by Scripture, or not decided as essential; or else such as are evidently questioned from private reasoning and fancy, and not from any real obscurity of the Scriptures themselves. Of the former class are the divisions of judgment on the divine decrees, on the operation of the sacraments, on the constitution of the Church, and on diversities of usage and worship. Concerning some of these topics the word of God is silent: concerning some it may have spoken things hard to be understood: concerning some, it leaves us to our knowledge of Christian antiquity: concerning some, to the fitness of things, as determined by human reason. Of the other class are the divisions on subjects, on which all our knowledge must be drawn from the word of God, and on which the language of that word is explicitly and solemnly decisive. Such are, the cause of the universal sinfulness of man, the terms of salvation, the divinity of the Redeemer, the personality of the Sanctifier, the obligation of the sacraments, the resurrection of the dead, and the retributions of eternity. It is uniformly observed that, where the general doctrine of Christians, on these topics, is assailed, the authority of the Scriptures is not long admitted as simply conclusive, but is just so far abandoned as the denial of that doctrine may require. If, then, it be true, that the immense mass of Christians, of all names, assent to a certain body of truths, as clearly taught by Scripture; that Romanists, on other authority, add other doctrines, without shaking the scriptural authority of these; that Protestants who submit to the supreme authority of the Scriptures, are only divided on topics, on which they own the voice of that authority to be silent, or less audible, and call in the aid of antiquity or of expediency; and that those Protestants alone reject any considerable part of this body of truths, who abandon also the supreme authority of the Scriptures: we may well assume that our own common sense has not deceived us, and that these truths have been to all, as they have been to us, the obvious meaning of the Scriptures. That ecclesiastical system, which, embracing all these truths, shall elsewhere leave a charitable latitude, must be best adapted to the [9/10] preservation and propagation of the pure doctrine of our Saviour, and of brotherly love and unity. Such a system once comprehended all Christians of English lineage. It appeals to the Scriptures; it throws them open to the comparison of all men; and those who have separated from its government and relinquished its ritual cannot but approve its doctrine. Pledged neither to the Augustinian nor to the older theory of election, neither to the high nor to the low theory of the sacraments, neither to the exclusive nor to the comprehensive view of the nature of the church, we can enjoy the communion of saints, while no man judges another, and while that interpretation of the Bible, which alone is binding on us, is that which is obvious to common intelligence. No law of courtesy, no deference to talents, no personal modesty, no principle of charity, requires us to consent that the Bible should be held capable of every possible construction, or to annul the promise that if any man will, in real sincerity and with the sacrifice of pride and worldly desires, but do the will of God, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God. All truth is doubtless precious; but as long as there are honest differences amongst the true followers of the Lamb, there ought to be such differences in His church; for, His church should embrace all His true followers.
The faithful preacher must declare the whole counsel of God; and the thoughtful, studious preacher will enrich his discourses with variety of illustration, and can hardly avoid pouring his doctrine into the mould, more or less distinct, of one or another great system in divinity. But since we are to teach nothing as necessary to salvation which may not be proved by the Scriptures, and since the great end of our labors must be to teach that which is necessary to salvation, it should seem that we are to preach chiefly that which in the Scriptures is obvious; that which all devout and sincere minds must perceive to be the Gospel. If thus we should differ little, in the main tenor of our discourses, from many other Christian teachers, so much the happier for them and for ourselves. The unbeliever will still remain to be convinced; the gainsayer to be resisted; pride, reasoning pride, to be humbled; the ignorant--oh, how numerous a class!--to [10/11] be instructed; the slumberer to be awakened; the indifferent to be moved; the hardened heart to be melted; and these will be tasks sufficient to demand the strongest energy of the highest gifts of every kind, as instruments, and instruments alone, of the mighty power of the Holy Ghost. And if you will note in the Acts of the Apostles those sermons through which such miracles of grace were wrought, you will perceive that what are still the most obvious of all scriptural truths are recorded as the substance of all these sermons.
III. A third principle that should characterize our position, is the steadfast maintenance of the outward visible institutions of our Saviour. I am not speaking of any thing less; not of the sober forms of our ritual, nor of the golden language of our liturgy, nor of the instructive course of our ecclesiastical year, nor of the cautious rules of our discipline. I speak of the institutions of Christ; of His sacraments, and of the visible communion of His people. Be the cause what it may, certain it is that by a numerous portion of surrounding society, these holy institutions are viewed as merely a kind of profession of higher holiness; a profession acceptable if faithful; needless if not absolutely compelled by the strongest feeling; and most dreadful, if followed by any inconsistency of conduct. The rejection of infant baptism by many, its limitation by others, a wide disregard of religious education, an unconscious unbelief; and the greater facility of leaving undone than of doing, have concurred to sever the ties which ought to bind the rising generation to the Christian name and covenant. In maturer years, the variety of religious organizations is made a reason for embracing none. Reaction against errors of past ages, is still so powerful as to impel to depreciation of the most sacred ordinances, as if they were but ceremonies of religion. The attempt to vindicate for some Christian communions a character of unmixed purity which never belonged to any considerable body for any considerable time, has confirmed the opinion that these ordinances might thus be little more than tokens of superior attainment in piety; while the innumerable evidences of sinfulness in those who are called professing Christians, and [11/12] the great army of avowed backsliders, have deterred multitudes from any act involving so dreaded a danger. Who would not hold it wiser to perform what we never promised, than to promise what we may fail to perform; if the performance only be a duty, and the promise but an edifying ceremony? Thus, at length, there is a practical indifference to all things in religion which are outward and visible; an indifference not seldom disguised under the appearance of an excessive exaltation of their sanctity. To be baptized; to be in the actual communion of the church of Christ; to be a constant guest at the table of the Lord; is regarded as an honorable but unnecessary distinction, not as the privilege, the happiness, the spiritual food and nourishment of all who are not lost.
first; fait when they are shunned,
The sacraments are, shunned, they are not long alone. If children are not offered for baptism, we can hardly expect that they will be diligently catechised at home, or that the Sunday School or the catechetical instructions of the pastor will be adequately valued. Family prayer becomes very much confined to those households where the father is a communicant at the Lord's table. For others, too often, even the house of God has scarcely any attractive power, except that which dwells in the eloquence or the originality of the preacher. Through the influence of the very same causes, it is to lie feared that private prayer too often ceases with childhood. At length, men live quite without God in the world, without inward communion with his grace, without even the outward acknowledgement of his power, and calmly declare themselves unworthy to keep His commandments. Still, there is a vague and dim hope of reaching eternal life without participating in the salvation which is in Christ, or of participating in that salvation without compliance with the Christian covenant; and the end is a shadowy unbelief, reducing all characters and all principles to one indifferent hue and level.
Against such fatal delusion, we must maintain, simply and solemnly, that there is no salvation but through the Saviour; and none through Him but for such as turn to the way of obedience; and no obedience but such as embraces [12/13] the habitual use of the means of grace and sanctification. We know that in fulfilling this duty, we may be exposed to: some reproach; and even honest and pious minds will dread lest we should linger too much at the form of godliness. We know that we shall be told of false and unchanged professors, who are found everywhere, and certainly, to all appearance, not least where the observance of Christian ordinances is most regarded as a profession of advanced attainments in religion. But we have other duties, and better duties, than that of mere exclusion. The adversary of souls would be but too well satisfied to see the church so attentive to the scoffs of ungodly men, as to deter the young, the timid, the tranquil in temper, and almost all but those who are awakened in the midst of loud excitement, from drawing near to the sacraments and from confidence in prayer. Let us be careful to explain that all ordinances are but means, and not the end; but let us freely say that the end must be sought through the means; and let us pray, with the Church, that we may both "set forth God's true and lively word, and rightly and duly administer His holy sacraments."
Nor is it to be disguised that the very solemnities of our worship will sometimes be obstacles to our progress. Habits of inattention are, perhaps, to be unlearned. For the easy practice of listening to prayer is to be substituted an active participation. Perhaps, a service of a length proportionate to the greatness of the occasion which assembles us on the Lord's day, is wearisome to the worldly. Variety is missed by those who have been. accustomed to await novelty of manner or language. Those who have wandered freely at will, may dislike the restraints of fixed, solemn, and significant formularies. Many, when they are exhorted at once to call upon God in public worship, to build their family altar, to keep the Lord's day not only negatively but positively holy, to give regular seasons to private meditation and devotion, will exclaim to themselves, that they are not yet prepared to profess so much, and will seem surprised to hear themselves addressed as if they all were really expected to be Christians. Yet, my brethren, our weakness is here our strength; for their conscience, their better judgment and all [13/14] their seriousness of purpose, when any is awakened, are on our side. We must not lower the standard of duty to them as they are, but rather call them to that standard. They know that we are right; in pressing the means of grace and the duties of obedience directly home on all alike, who desire the salvation of their souls; and in the end, they will the more readily seek to go with us, if we abate nothing from the importance, the solemnity, or the obligation of those visible institutions, which, if they have any authority, have that of the King of kings.
IV. One more great principle by which the ministers and members of our Church must be marked, is their acknowledgment and appreciation of the communion which binds together the believers of all times, of all lands, and of both states of being. Few words have been more perverted than the name "catholicity;" and never has it been more perverted than when it has been made to designate exclusiveness. The great idea which it should convey is, that as God has made of one blood all nations to dwell on the face of the earth, and we are all His offspring, so He will have all men to be saved, and to come to the knowledge of the truth; that Christ died for all; that He has redeemed His people out of every kindred and tongue and people and nation; that they are one in Him, many members in one body, by one Spirit, and having one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father. All Christians believe that all Christians have such fellowship; but it may be erroneously beheld, on one side as a matter of mere organic connexion, or on the other as a matter of mere individual feeling. These must be combined: a catholic feeling embraces all who love the Lord Jesus Christ, and the catholic organism embraces all who have been baptized into Christ; and both are hostile to a narrow, miserable spirit of sectarian contention. It is easy to be bigoted or to be lukewarm; easy to condemn in the mass, or not to condemn at all; but it is not easy to attain, exhibit and spread abroad that noble charity which loves the truth and loves all souls, and therefore condemns and yet loves. This is the spirit of catholic communion, and this, we need not fear to say, is the spirit of our communion, if it [14/15] be judged by its principles or even by its history. We recognize the bond, external and internal, between ourselves and the Christians of the Apostles' days; the faithful of all the early ages; the saintly men of even the darkest times; the great and good Reformers; the true servants of God, even amongst those who have cast out our names as evil; the believers who walk even under some cloud of error; and those, still more, who hold like precious faith with us, but under organizations less complete and primitive. The excellency of our Church is, not that it stands apart as a sect claiming to be purer than all others, but that it is in fact the representative of that Church, which once included all Christians of our language and lineage. Having never abandoned that position, it is still the parent, the basis, the bulwark of all their religion, and unites them, through a faith transmitted from the beginning and through sacraments in an equally long succession, to the original fellowship of the Apostles, as well as to all who in every place call upon the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, both theirs and ours.
This, my brethren, is what Christian men, when they perceive it, cannot but honor. This, amidst all which they may mistake in us, and all which we may mourn, this is felt to be as it ought; and where but the least conception of this position exists, it is acknowledged that we do not come into any community only to add one sect and opinion more. It must be our part to take care that we do not descend from this elevation to those unprofitable conflicts for which a temptation may be too easily furnished by our local and numerical weakness. Could our advancement be promoted through uncharitable strife alone, it were better to leave this broad and noble soil to others. But indeed we desire only the extension of the kingdom of Christ; and it can be extended only by speaking the truth in love. We are not compelled to suppress the sentiment which draws us towards other Christians, whom we hope to meet in glory. They cannot demand that we should abandon one sacred conviction of our conscience, or violate at all the wise regulations and settled customs of our ecclesiastical system. But the spirit of godly union and concord must bind our hearts to those of all good [15/16] men, and constrain us to rejoice that "Christ is preached," and especially that He is preached "of good will." The very same principles which compel us to cling always to our common altars and to repudiate separation from the apostolic organization as justifiable only in the extremest contingencies; the very same principles which make us delight to pray and praise with one voice as well as heart; the very same principles must inspire towards all a large-hearted piety and catholic charity. In such a religion, men will recognize the religion which they need, and which no sect, as such, can ever adequately embody and display. For, a sect is founded upon some separate principle, and exists by the mere force of division; while it is the essential nature of the Christian church and the Christian spirit to abide in the unity of love. Let the same love make us ready to every good work which may adorn our common faith; and while you thus show forth the Gospel, be sure that the excellence of the Church will not be hidden. All prejudices must be disarmed, when, as in its worship and its order, so in its temper and its fruits, it shines forth with the beauty of holiness.
I have thus endeavored, my brethren, to place before you four great characteristics, which the Church, its ministers and its members, should conspicuously present, like an unfurled standard, to a community like that of which we are citizens. They are, as we have seen, the supreme and infallible authority of the Scriptures; the plain and obvious doctrine of these Scriptures; the faithful observance of the sacraments and ordinances of Christ; and the union and communion of all His people. Beyond these characteristics, why should we need or desire to be distinguished by any peculiar features? The episcopal system of organization and the liturgical system of worship have always been united with these characteristics, and are the means through which they are exhibited and preserved. If these characteristics are thus maintained, it should then seem to be the highest praise that the Church, holding, teaching and practising all which is absolutely requisite or strongly desirable for the conversion, edification and salvation of souls, has left the rest to individual liberty. When we are told that such a church embraces and may [16/17] embrace all kinds of Christians, we can but reply that such was the design of the church of Christ; and surely, to have and to require peculiar doctrines which are justly disputable would be a wrong and a calamity.
For such a church, we cannot doubt, many hearts are longing; for such an union of apostolic authority, scriptural truth and comprehensive charity; without having access to its entrance, perhaps without accurate knowledge of its existence. These principles are at this moment a part of the religion of wise and serious Christians of whatever denomination; and the mass of such would rejoice to see the wall of sectarian separation prostrate. The time will probably come when such feelings will extensively speak; when even the consequences of manifold division will enforce the necessity of reconsidering the grounds on which the unity of the Spirit has been broken. Should that time arrive, may our Church be found standing in its lot, adorned with such truth and moderation in its doctrine, such order and harmony in its polity, and such purity and zeal in its practice, that it may be misapprehended no more!But whatever may be the final result of that state of belief and of unbelief which we witness in society around us, it is certain that these principles are those of the word of God, and therefore, if firmly, candidly and meekly sustained, must bear with them a blessing in full proportion to their influence. All that we do, my dear brethren, as ministers of the Church, in conformity with its real spirit, and in humble reliance on its Lord, is done for His kingdom, can serve no other cause, and therefore should be undertaken with confidence, and accomplished with perseverance and with gladness. In the morning sow we our seed, rejoicing to know that while, as our first work, we do, in common with all good men and faithful heralds of the Gospel, win souls to Christ and heaven, we are also, all the while, planting that which must flourish even on earth, after the transient distinctions of sects and of parties shall have been buried together.