VERY REVEREND WILFORD L. ROBBINS, D.D.,
PUBLISHED BY ORDER OF THE STANDING COMMITTEE
A. G. SHERWOOD & Co., PRINTERS, NEW YORK.
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012
At a special meeting of the Board of Trustees, held April 16, 1903, the Very Rev. Wilford L. Robbins, D.D., Dean of All Saints' Cathedral, Albany, was duly elected Dean of the General Theological Seminary. Dr. Robbins accepted the election, and entered on his duties August 1 of the same year. The Standing Committee of the Seminary determined that there should be a formal installation of the new Dean at a public service to be held in the Chapel of the Seminary, and appointed a committee to take charge of the proceedings, of which the Rev. Morgan Dix, D.D., was chairman. In accordance with the arrangement made by this committee, the Bishop of New York, the Bishop of Long Island, the Bishop Coadjutor of Pennsylvania, the Standing Committee of the Seminary, the newly elected Dean, the professors and instructors of the Seminary with several of the clergy met in the library, on the Feast of St. Michael and All Angels, and proceeded in procession to the Chapel, where the following Order of Service was observed.
Order of Service
Processional Hymn 311 "Ancient of Days."
Our Father, &c.
Direct us, O Lord.
The Grace of our Lord, &c.
The Presentation of the newly elected Dean by the Standing Committee,
through the chairman, the Rev. Morgan Dix, D.D.
The Reception by the Right Reverend, the Bishop of New York,
with delivery of the Keys and the Holy Gospels.
The Installation, the Standing Committee conducting the Dean to his proper stall.
The Service proceeded as follows:
Psalms xx., cxxxviii. and cxxxiii.
The Lord be with you.
And with thy spirit.
Let us pray.
Our Father, &c.
V. O Lord, save Thy servant.
R. Who putteth his trust in Thee.
V. Be Thou to him a strong tower.
R. From the face of the enemy.
V. Let not the enemy prevail against him.
R. Nor the son of wickedness approach to hurt him.
V. Remember Thy congregation.
R. Which Thou hast purchased and redeemed of old.
V. Turn us again, O Lord God of hosts.
R. Show the light of Thy countenance and we shall be whole.
Let us Pray.
O God, by whose command the order of all time runs its course: look graciously upon this Thy servant, whom Thou hast been pleased to call to the headship in this School of the Prophets; and that his service may be acceptable unto Thee, do Thou mercifully preserve in him the manifold gifts of Thy grace. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
O God, Who art the unsearchable abyss of peace, the ineffable sea of love and the fountain of blessings, Who sendest peace to those that receive it: Open to us this day the river of Thy love, refreshing and purifying our souls with plenteous streams from the riches of Thy grace. Bless Thy servants assembled in this place for holy discipline and instruction in Thy law. Enkindle in them the fire of Thy love; sow in them Thy fear; strengthen their weakness by Thy power; make them able and faithful ministers and preachers of the Everlasting Gospel; and bind them closely to Thee and to each other in the unity of the Church. And this we ask for Jesus Christ's sake. Amen.
O God, Who art One and True, we humbly beseech Thee that the Catholic Faith, which is acceptable to Thee, may continue for ever in us all. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Lord bless us and keep us. The Lord make His face to shine upon us, and be gracious unto us. The Lord lift up His countenance upon us, and give us peace, both now and evermore. Amen.
Then followed the Order for the Holy Communion, and the Dean delivered his Installation Address after the Nicene Creed as follows:
Every spoken word involves its own peculiar danger. We must speak, for thus does truth find for itself expression; but we speak at our peril. It is manifest that it takes two, at least, to secure the integrity of truth-telling; not only must there be honest lips to utter the truth, but intelligent and unprejudiced ears to hear it. The most sincere utterance is liable to perversion; it can be twisted into a lie by both stupidity and wilfulness—until at times the citadel of silence seems the only refuge from the ingenious misunderstandings of man. But these difficulties and dangers are incident to all human intercourse, and we can take to ourselves comfort, in that God is on the side of truth, and that through all the stammering, inadequate words which are uttered, through all the blundering misapprehensions, somehow truth is in the end imparted, and builds for itself a fair outward form and structure in the manifold speech of man with man.
There are, however, certain occasions when truth-telling, in simple fashion, becomes exceptionally difficult. It may be that traditional associations of time and place threaten the fine balance of disinterestedness which alone ensures perfect sincerity. It is easy to lose complete purity of intention when certain things are expected, when a form of speech has the right of prescription, when to diverge from custom might open one to the charge of impertinence or audacity. Almost unconsciously, under such circumstances, one is tempted to drift down the line of least resistance, and say not so much what he believes to be true, as what he feels that the occasion demands.
Am I wrong in classing the Inaugural Address among these [7/8] critically difficult experiences, when it is peculiarly easy to speak by rote rather than utter the truth from the heart? This is not to cast slight on a time-honoured custom. No one will deny that it has a dignity and fitness of its own, which entirely justify its retention. It is appropriate that, at the beginning of some work of high responsibility, the chosen leader should attempt to strike the key-note of his administration of the trust committed to him. It is natural that the constituency most nearly interested should await some word of assurance. It may even seem likely that the man himself, touched by something of a prophetic ardour, will long to unburden his soul. But there are countervailing considerations. The current sets rather strongly toward dreamland at such a time. The eye is gazing out into the unknown future, and visions form themselves, under the impulse of an unrestrained fancy, without very much regard to the prosaic substratum of facts upon which a true idealism is always grounded. Fancy sketches of an impossible perfection may be entertaining, but they are rarely profitable. The changes have often been rung on the antithesis between realizing the ideal and idealizing the real. The allurements of an alliterative phrase are frequently misleading, but in this case there is sound philosophy in the rhetorical contrast. It is a cheap idealism that dreams of a goal abstractly perfect, and the attempt to conform the actual thereto is full of discouragement, and inevitably ends in failure. Abstract perfection does not exist, it is a figment of the human understanding, the barren product of logical reason invading a sphere which does not belong to it. God is the All-Perfect, and in God the real and the ideal are one; God reveals Himself in and through facts; and by facing facts, reading in them the richness of their divine content, tracing there the purposes of eternal wisdom, we discover, through the enlightenment of the Spirit, what we ought to be and ought to do—and therefore what by God's grace we can become and can accomplish. We will start then with facts, and if visions ere long haunt us, at least they shall be such as arise naturally out of the practical conditions of a work-a-day world.
The Seminary’s Future Will Grow out of its Past.
Again, an Institution like the General Seminary has a life of its own, and a life-history. That life and history are too complex and subtly intricate to be understood easily and quickly. Its future will of necessity grow out of its past. New influences will enter in, for better or for worse; life implies growth, and growth means change. But the continuity of life is a deeper and more essential characteristic than those marks of transition which are superficially the more striking. It savours, to my mind, of presumption that a man should glibly summarize the purpose and possibilities of a venerable Institution, by virtue merely of an official relationship of recent origin. It were perhaps more consonant with the proprieties, if this must needs be the character of an Inaugural Address, that it should be postponed for ten years. Then experience would have made him part and parcel of the Institution, and maturer knowledge might stamp his words with weight and significance.
Of course, a flash of genius can work a miracle, there is no definable limit to its insight, it attempts the seemingly impossible and achieves it, defying all rules. But for most of us the safer course is to adhere to that law of common sense, which bids men to let their speech wait on experience, and to ground their plans for the future on the broad premise of an accurate knowledge of present conditions.
Therefore I cannot present to you any definite policy for the coming years. A sound policy cannot be primarily theoretical, it must be practical. That is, it must grow day by day under the impact of the day's needs. It is not a dead thing, thought out in the study, learned by rote, finished mechanically once for all. It must palpitate with life, be quick in adaptiveness, it must expand and grow, as plants and trees and all living things grow. If it is too neat in its perfection at the outset, this virtually stamps it with failure, for it spells unreality. We may even go further—consistency itself, in the narrower sense, may prove a handicap. The aphorism that "consistency is the bugbear of weak minds," is perhaps dangerously paradoxical. [9/10] There is a sense, of course, in which consistency is of the very essence of all sanity. Reason and Love are the infinitely consistent principles which underlie all truly spiritual life. But their manifestations are as various as the circumstances under which they are exercised; they rise above all trammels of hide-bound logic; if they cannot reach their end by one road, they travel to it by another. And it is certainly possible to pay a kind of idolatrous homage to a notional consistency, until one becomes himself the slave of rule, instead of making rules his trusty servitors.
It is true, there are broad lines of policy imposed by the very nature of the Institution. These are of obligation, and the will of the individual has but to conform. For instance, the General Seminary stands as representative of the whole Church. This bars out, once and for all, the intrusion of partisanship into its government or its instruction. Exaggeration or abatement of the Church's teaching, in the interests of particular schools of thought, are plainly out of place, as well as the display of idiosyncrasies of taste in matters of form and ceremony. It is not to be hoped, indeed, that any man shall so do away with all personal accent that he becomes the mere embodiment of an average, reflecting indifferently the multitudinous opinions which find a home in the Church. He would cease to be a man and become an automaton, and a very perplexing one at that. But there is such a thing as fairness and catholicity of temper; and it is possible to be sympathetically comprehensive, and to avoid extravagance; and here lies the plain path of duty in the General Seminary of the Church. But beyond these general principles, the statement of details of policy, as I have already said, is undesirable. These must formulate themselves under the pressure of daily practice, governed by the canon of common sense. They are not things to be talked about, but to be done.
I invite your attention, then, for a few moments, to thoughts which have a vital relation indeed to the theme of Theological Education, but which do not demand any intimate acquaintance with a special institution, and are universal rather than local in their interest.
Theological Education Must Be Saved from Just Reproach.
 Theological Seminaries have rather a bad name. They stand more or less, in the popular mind, for what is doctrinaire and unpractical, out of touch with everyday doings and real life. They are regarded, for the most part, as venerable survivals, interesting archaeologically, but strangely inadequate to the needs of this present day and generation. This disrespectful estimate would hardly be worth mentioning if it were merely the ad captandum judgment of the man of the world. It might then be ignored as the creation of ignorance and prejudice. But, on the contrary, experience proves that something approximating to this judgment has an ugly habit of appearing among really intelligent and earnest men within the Church, loyally religious men, who are in the thick of the battle for righteousness. And many among the clergy, distinguished for sound judgment and ability, imply by word and act that Theological education, as at present conducted, is a necessary evil, if you will, but something the sooner over with the better. One of the ablest clergymen of this city said to me, not long since, that, after years of residence in New York, he had never even seen the Seminary buildings—it evidently was not the kind of place that interested him.
It is generally worth while to ponder the lesson conveyed by the most unfair and captious criticism. If we are simply irritated by its harshness, we not only endanger our equanimity, but we are bound to lose any possible benefit which might otherwise accrue to us from seeing ourselves through the eyes of others. There is a germ of truth in this hostile judgment concerning Theological education. All too often the fact that the Seminary is to fit men for life, at life's intensest centre, has been overlaid and forgotten in blind devotion to traditional methods. Religion is central among human interests, and must always remain so. No shifting phases of scientific and philosophic thought can, in any measure, do away with this fundamental fact of human nature. Whatever men may say, however rashly they may deny in words belief in God and divine things—every deeper joy and sorrow, every striving of the [11/12] mind after truth, every aspiration of the heart toward righteousness, every act of loving service, is weaving the warp and woof of a religious experience. You can no more divorce the historic process, be it the life of nation or individual, from God, than you can divorce light from the sun, or rend asunder concave and convex. The intellectual life of the race, the movements of social progress, the personal affections which bind men into unity, these are integral to the spiritual nature and environment of man, which is the stuff out of which religion is made. Hence the priest is not the professor of some abstract lore, which men may take or leave as they will. If he be, in any true sense, a religious leader, he is, by the very meaning of the term, closer to all the vital interests of the world than other men. He must himself live more intensely than they, for through the work which is laid upon him he touches life at more points; he is called to deeper experiences and higher interpretations in his endeavour, with Christ-like sympathy, to succour his fellows. This is the task for which the Seminary is to fit him, and if this primary aim be lost sight of, amidst the multiplicity of scholastic pursuits, the Seminary in so far fails of its true function and cumbers the ground. How to do this work is the problem; but that it must be done, if we are to save Theological education from just reproach, is self-evident.
It may seem a worthlessly vague generalization, but I know of no better statement of the reformation which is needed than this: the Seminary must itself be brought into closer touch with life. Every department must, by one path or another, arrive at a practical goal, and teach, directly or indirectly, the application of its theories to the crying needs of men. If this be taken as casting slight on pure scholarship, as lending its weight to the crude desire to avoid all work which has no immediate bearing on future parochial activity, I have simply failed to make my thought clear. What we need is not less scholarship but more. The niceties of linguistic training in Hebrew and Greek may be as practical as instruction in Pastoral Care or Homiletics. The cui bono of the small boy, objecting to the hardship of his classics, is the most unpractical of pleas. [12/13] And so, on and up in every grade of education, the shirking of hard intellectual exercise militates against the faithful doing of any duty or the successful exercise of any faculty. But life is the end, not theory; and to forget this truth means sure disaster.
Perhaps all this may be made plainer if we analyze a little more closely just what is meant by saying that the priest, to be effective in his work, worthily to fulfil his function, must live more intensely than other men.
Thorough-Going, Critical Scholarship a Supreme Need.
Intellectually the present age is predominantly critical and sceptical. Like all generalized statements, this can be contravened by very plausible arguments. The pendulum of reaction is always swinging from scepticism to superstition and back again. It is often a fine line only which separates between the exaggerations of ingenious criticism and credulity. Great waves of fanatical belief have swept over the modern world, until it almost seems at times as though the predominant characteristic of the age were rather a morbid appetite for the occult and the mystical. But this does not invalidate our original contention. The marvellous advance of thought in the last century is largely indebted to the sceptical method; this is now almost universally recognized as a necessary preliminary of philosophic thought, clearing the ground of prepossessions and false assumptions. It is to the most searching criticism, scientific, historical, literary, that we owe some of the most valuable acquisitions in the field of knowledge. The temper thus generated has become a commonplace of the world's intellectual life. It is not peculiar to the scholar; in cruder fashion, it belongs equally to the man in the street. A curious, eagerly-questioning attitude of mind prevails, conjoined with a vaguely agnostic quiescence as regards ultimate truths. Anyone who takes the trouble to get beneath the surface of men's opinions, their tolerant outward conformity in matters religious, must have been startled to discover the extent to which the average layman is content to leave doctrine undefined and to neglect [13/14] discipline as a work of pure supererogation. Meanwhile his real creed too often consists in the sophism that, where so much is mysterious and uncertain, it cannot be a man's duty to come to any definite conclusions. It is because the priest, in many cases, knows nothing of this aspect of modern life, and cares less, that he fails so conspicuously to reach the hearts and lives of men. Men tolerate him, perhaps like him in his place, but they ignore him in all questions intellectual, social and moral which touch them most intimately. They never received help from him, and they never expect to. Now, it is quite open to us to inveigh against the whole intellectual drift of the present day; we may deprecate its irreverence, lament over the faithlessness of this generation. It may even be our duty at times to utter a fervent protest. But meanwhile the condition exists, and if we are to meet the crisis and retain our religious leadership, sympathy will prove more efficacious than invective; above all else we must understand the modern mind, or we are helpless to render assistance and lead men on to faith. Herein consists the supreme need of a thorough-going critical scholarship in our Seminary training, and a manly facing of every difficulty raised by modern thought. It may be more or less dreary work; it certainly is work beset with peculiar and subtle dangers. Many a school of Theological learning has been shipwrecked on the rock of an ambitious desire to be abreast of the most recent results of modern criticism. There are students, even in a Theological Seminary, whose general culture is at that point where a little learning is a dangerous thing. If Seminary training beguiles a man into the belief that he can feed the flock committed to him on critical theories, or that the average congregation is thirsting for the latest results of German scholarship, it has done him irreparable injury. But it remains true that until a man has himself faced a difficulty, he cannot help his brother who has fallen into the same difficulty. Nothing is more needed to-day in a religious teacher than candour and courage. Fairness in giving the counter-argument its full weight, confidence that truth is strong enough to take care of itself—he who is thus equipped is sure of a respectful hearing. [14/15] What men long for is a leader who knows more than they know, knows it more thoroughly and more accurately, who has faced honestly the doubts and confusions incident to modern thought and won his way through them to a virile faith. Such a leader they will follow, for he can help them, and no other can. If it seem like over-emphasis to lay such stress on thorough-going acquaintance with the special problems which trouble the modern mind, at least this much is true beyond a peradventure. It is time that we have done with the timorous policy which bids us shut our eyes to facts lest they prove prejudicial to God—that temper which leads religious men at times to act as though ignorance safeguarded divine truth better than knowledge. God is the truth: no grosser travesty of reverence ever entered the heart of man than to indulge in intellectual insincerities and shifty arguments to the glory of God and the furtherance of His Kingdom.
The Dogmatic Stability of the Catholic Church.
The safeguard of Theological education, under the strain of this great task of criticism, which is laid upon it, consists in the dogmatic stability of the Catholic Church—the Faith once for all delivered to the Saints. It need hardly be said that the critical method is always in danger of leading to intellectual presumption and a false individualism. When the critical spirit becomes dominant, it tends to barren negations, and religion, which is positive and constructive, starves. But there is danger on the other side. A dogmatic spirit, unless finely tempered, reverently safeguarded, leads to the mere stereotyped formula and an empty conventionalism. The world in its unrest, in its endless search for truth and its intellectual weariness, is longing for the constructive word which rings out with certitude. It will hearken when it hears such a word, and will heed its monition. But the certitude must be genuine, the fruit of the heart's conviction; professions of certitude, true only from the lips outward, are but a stone when the child craves bread.
"The Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only-begotten of the [15/16] Father, full of grace and truth." Here is the rock amidst all the shifting sands of men's opinions. And Catholic doctrine, developed in all its beautiful exactitude of definition, under the guidance of the Spirit of Truth, is but the further explication of this one supreme fact of Revelation. That this body of doctrine should become the most intimate possession of mind and heart is of the first importance in fitting a priest for his work. This it is which he must minister to men, would he really serve them. The critical training, the hard struggle with doubt, the battling with the most formidable difficulties honestly and fearlessly—this but clears the ground. This is, in a sense, the negative preparation, though as a help to intelligent sympathy it almost deserves a worthier designation. But this is all absolutely futile as fitting a man for religious leadership, until the positive content of the Gospel has taken possession of him, the great affirmation, the love of God in Jesus Christ. And that love comes home with the most convincing power, brings intellectual satisfaction as well as spiritual peace, when the fair-ordered harmony of the doctrine and discipline of the Church reinforces and interprets the divine message.
What is it that can bring these two poles, as it were, of Theological education into a living unity? We have but three short years, for the most part, in which to equip a man for his mission. At least, the technical part of his education must be cramped within this space. The true priest, of course, never ends his Theological training while life lasts. But the time allowed in the Seminary is brief, and the lesson to be learned is long and hard. At first, moreover, there seems to be a certain incompatibility in the two modes of teaching, which must still be pursued side by side. Can the critical and the constructive spirit live at peace one with the other? Will not one prove the stronger, and more or less overshadow its rival? Can either have free play, be treated with perfect fairness, be generously developed, when both are crowded into so narrow a compass? It would be a hopeless task, I believe, if the problem were exclusively intellectual. But the intellect plays but a subsidiary part in any true and adequate Theological education. The [16/17] solution of the difficulty lies in this, that pre-eminent above all other factors in preparation for priestly work rises the activity of the spirit. I shrink from the ordinary phrase descriptive of this aspect of Seminary discipline—"the devotional life." For the word "devotion" seems to imply that it is a matter distinctively of forms and practices of worship. These must have an important place assigned to them, of course; but the activity of the spirit, of which I speak, is as broad and deep as life itself. Any tendency to divide sharply between intellectual and spiritual exercises, as though they must needs exist in separate compartments of the student's life, and each be jealously guarded against possible encroachments of the other, seems to me to involve a confusion of thought which seriously obscures the truth. The fact is, that only through the fire of the Spirit can divine truth be infused into the heart at all. The essence of religion consists in interpreting all things spiritually. This was the secret of Hebrew prophecy. The whole of life was viewed in God; all things were sacred because of their place in the moral order of God's eternal Righteousness. And Hebrew prophecy, which finds its consummation in the character and life of Jesus Christ, remains till the end of time the type of all true religion.
The Priestly Life.
Plainly this supreme lesson, the life of the spirit in fellowship with God, cannot be taught by formal methods in the lecture-room, or imparted by the mere multiplication of religious services. The class-room has its share, devotional exercises have theirs, in fostering the spirit of prophecy. But the great educative principle lies deeper in the mysterious depths of the corporate life of the Institution as a whole. The Spirit within the wheels—who shall attempt to define with exactness the whence and the whither of this movement of the divine? Every word uttered in the course of daily instruction, every prayer and psalm of praise of the daily office, every look and word of the casual social intercourse of Seminary life, has its influence in forming the character of the great Personality, so to speak, which is chief Instructor, under God, of the men who seek here [17/18] their training for the priestly life. I will not linger over the awful sense of responsibility which this entails upon the individual. Membership in a body—be it the Church, the Body of Christ, or the State, with its own divine functions, or an Institution of learning stamped with an individuality influential in the lives of all who come into contact with it—is awful in its splendour of opportunity, and its corresponding potentiality of evil. But in and through this corporate life the student learns his great lesson of spirituality, in so far as the teaching thereof is delegated by God to any human agency.
And the man who has learned this lesson may well be fearless in the searching light of the most rigorous scientific and critical investigation. The needs of the spirit are imperative; the experiences of the spirit in its daily walk with God are a bed-rock of fact upon which the structure of all auxiliary knowledge must be erected. The reverence and humility thus fostered guard him effectually from rash conclusions; and the intensity of his God-consciousness brings all facts into a true perspective. If faith be strong enough—not the dogged determination to believe what we will, but the abandonment of the spirit in a complete consecration to Righteousness—there can be no such thing as danger in the boldest search after the truth.
And so the dogmatic teaching, which forms of necessity so large a part in the Seminary curriculum, is similarly safeguarded. Dogma is only, in the first instance, experience defined and justified. And its purpose is that the spirit shall reinterpret it in terms of life. Religious dogma as mere abstract theory is as dead as any other abstraction; if it be this and nothing more, it is just as valuable as an algebraic equation, and has no deeper moral significance. "That which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the Word of life"—here lay the germ of Catholic doctrine. And every nicest Theological distinction has its justification in that it leads on and up, if spiritually assimilated, to this mountain-top of fellowship with God. When men are spiritually alive, there is no danger of their being over-weighted with technicalities of Theological learning, or of their losing [18/19] spontaneity by the rigour of devotional rule. Clear thinking, sound scholarship, practical efficiency—these were never more sorely needed than to-day. Too much emphasis cannot be laid on their acquirement. There is small room in the world for the illogical man, the ignorant and the incompetent. But with the priest these are but the body, so to speak, formed by God out of the dust of the earth, fair to look upon, pregnant with forecasts of usefulness, but helpless as stock or stone, until God, who is Spirit, breathes into it the breath of life, and man becomes a living soul.
The priestly life—this is what we are here to cultivate in ourselves, and in the students committed to our charge. The phrase has gathered to itself venerable associations in the course of the Christian ages; vast accretions of rules and formulas have overlaid it. Bitter controversies have for some taken all sweetness from the name; while for others it has become the watchword rousing to enthusiastic polemic and party strife. We are to redeem it from abuse, raise it to the height which justly belongs to it, as reflecting the High-priestly work of Jesus Christ. He has told us what is its essential characteristic—"I am among you as one that serves." But do not construe "service" narrowly. The service rendered by Jesus Christ Himself was, above all else, the divine beauty of His life, the transcendent holiness of His character. He Himself is the Gospel. And so with us, as we follow falteringly, and at a great distance, in His footsteps. Would we lead the priestly life, we must first of all be men, strong, loyal and true. Our spirits must be possessed by the Spirit of God, wholly consecrated to the service of Righteousness.