Project Canterbury

The American Episcopal Church Interpreted for English Churchmen

By Arthur Whipple Jenks
Professor of Ecclesiastical History in the General Theological Seminary

London: SPCK, 1919.
New York: Macmillan, 1919.

Chapter VIII. The Inner Life of the American Church

THE really vital matter, after examining the salient points of the history, liturgy, and organization of the American Church, is to inquire: what is its life to-day? how does it reach out and touch the religious life of this nation? what is its influence in proportion to its numerical strength, its attractiveness for those unattached in religion who are looking for a Church home, the fullness of its life in respect to its Catholic heritage, its outlook for the future in face of problems of Church unity and those sure to arise from war conditions? Many or most of these points are conditioned by factors which lie beneath the surface and are not discernible to the casual observer, and not easy to appreciate, except by those who realize that it is true of the Church as a whole, in a nation, in the individual, that its "life is hid with Christ in God". Weaknesses are more likely to be apparent, strength to be hidden. The actual appearance of the Church in any one section, city or country, East or West, is no criterion of its actual strength or weakness.

Inextricable from amongst a multitude, continually being added to, of rival sects and bodies outside the communion of the Catholic Church whose aims are to elevate the moral level of life by earnest ethical and inspirational preaching, elaborate organization for social welfare, the strong effect of personality as a foremost means of producing conviction, and by the emphasizing of some one or two points in setting forth the gospel to the exclusion of all the others, the American Church has never found it easy to persuade men to make the intrinsic worth of the sacramental system the very centre of spiritual life and action. The American people as a whole, all local religions (even Roman Catholic) and nationalities which become naturalized eventually, are emphatically Pelagian, that is, self-reliant in religion as in national life, not admitting the need of supernatural help, and so "instinctively afraid of any teaching in religion which seems to bring God too near". Hence, strong teaching on the Sacraments is liable to fall on very hard ground. The meaning of "salvation" and the need of Baptism as "requisite to salvation," the reality of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit and the insurance and gift of His presence by the laying on of hands in Confirmation, the need of frequent reception of the Sacrament of the Altar, and the supernatural Presence of Christ with His Church, accompanied by strong teaching on worship, as distinct from preaching and good thoughts--all are liable to be catalogued as supernatural, which suggests to most minds superstition, or as a matter of individual choice, or as matters which are "all right if you believe in them". The overwhelming mass of people seems unable to get much further than Christ as an Example Whom they feel it difficult to imitate, and they seem almost incapable of grasping the truth that He has at His disposal the power to enable us to follow Him.

Now, in the midst of such an environment, the sacramental life with its logical adjuncts is sure to find the odds against it in any estimate of the fruits of religion. Yet it is almost a commonplace to many that the distinctive success of the Church is closely related to the number of those who make full use of the sacraments regularly and frequently and with proper preparation therefor. The Holy Eucharist, daily and as the chief act of worship on Sundays and Holy-days, and the use of sacramental confession are the features of Church life and spiritual growth which are of prime significance. Whatever advance is made in these directions constitutes solid growth and deepening. But the number of churches of the American rite where there is a daily Eucharist is very small, considering the extended territory, probably at the utmost only about 125, including the Chapels of Religious Houses and institutions. There are many dioceses where no daily Eucharist is found, and few places outside of large cities where it is maintained. It is still the rare exception, hardly known to the majority of our Church people, thinly-attended, and frequently only stamping the parish in the mind of the community as "advanced". No particular objection is made, no one persecuted for having it. The truth is that the idea of daily services as a normal standard forms practically no part of the life of any body of Christian people. Daily Matins and Evensong, or services of any kind, outside of Lent and special occasions, fare practically the same. Nevertheless, the growth of the daily Eucharist and its evidential value are manifest. The idea is treated as novel, but not without some argument in its favour. The Sunday Eucharist is the rule in the majority of dioceses, towns, and cities, though not well well-attended by the large majority of communicants. The early Eucharist on Sunday is attended with regularity and faithfulness by the very few. The rank and file of communicants never attend at that hour, excepting at Easter and on a few fixed days of local interest. The tyranny of the first Sunday in the month as the only occasion when communicants in large number remain throughout the entire office is still fastened upon American Church life. The late Choral Eucharist on Sunday forenoon and the Missa Solemnis with full ceremonial are not usually found outside of large towns and cities, and even there are uncommon. It cannot be said with accuracy that the restoration of the Holy Eucharist as the chief act of worship has come to be realized widely, though the gains have been solid and made in the face of manifold and great difficulties. Parishes with only a monthly Eucharist, and evening communions, are rarely found. Between the extremes lies the general mean of average Church people who live a feeble sacramental life.

It is difficult to estimate how wide-spread is the use of sacramental confession. There is open teaching that the privilege is to be had and an increase of priests who are skilled in the spiritual guidance of souls. Along with the extending observance of Quiet Days and the holding of Retreats for lay people, with the emphasis laid upon confession before Confirmation, and the work of chaplains in penitentiaries and houses of refuge, and with the general effect of the observance of Lent and Good Friday to stir up consciousness of sin, the wide extension of the number of those who have made at least a first confession is witnessed to by the combined experience of a large number of priests. One significant fact as to the use of confession is that it is less confined to a particular kind of "Churchmanship" than might be supposed. It is not by any means accurate to say that only "Catholics" or "High Churchmen" use the sacrament of penance. The growth of the appreciation and use of this sacrament is a most encouraging feature of Church life.

The sacrament of Holy Unction is administered in many places at the present time. Some Bishops consecrate the Holy Oil for this purpose regularly. The laity, however, are still in deep ignorance as to the rite, its distinctive grace, and its antiquity. The perversion of this sacrament, by reserving its administration until death is imminent, which is the practice of the Roman Catholic Church in its overwhelming occupation of the religious field, operates against the Church's teaching as to the proper and ancient use of Holy Unction. The Reservation of the Blessed Sacrament for the communicating of the sick has made headway almost purely because of the intrinsic reasonableness of that mode of provision for those who cannot attend the ordinary ministration in the church or who are near to death. Hardly any privilege of the Church makes its way into acceptance so quickly and without controversy as the communicating of the sick with the Reserved Sacrament. The public and continual reservation of the consecrated Elements in such way that the faithful may have access for purposes of worship is not common and its lawfulness is now under debate. It is true, however, that in thirty-seven dioceses Reservation is practised regularly, with the knowledge and quasi-assent of the Bishop in most cases.

Open churches are frequent in cities, and the use made of them by individuals for private prayer is encouraging. The sittings are almost invariably free, only a small number of older parishes retaining the system of rented pews, and few new church buildings continue any such custom. Church architecture and ecclesiastical art are still in their infancy so far as wide appreciation is concerned. The visitor to the United States will find in the cities many church buildings of dignified and correct architectural plan and ornamentation. When one penetrates to the country and newly-populated districts quite another state of things is found. The small country church, of good proportions and sound design, with tasteful if simple adornment, is the rare exception. Usually such are in sad contrast with the village churches of older countries. The explanations are several, the small incomes of parishes and the lack of endowments being among the causes. A few dioceses possess Cathedrals with a foundation of Dean and Chapter, varying in several points from the English Cathedral system. In other cases the Bishop attaches to some large parish Church the status of pro-Cathedral where ordinations and other services arranged by the Bishop are held.

The "institutional parish," that is, a parish highly organized with a number of Guilds, Clubs, and other activities, and a plant of elaborate buildings and parish house equipped with assembly rooms, gymnasium, halls for entertainments and lectures, with the special aim of reaching out to touch the life of the neighbourhood and attract all sorts and conditions of men and women, not primarily for religious purposes but for a general uplift, are not many. Almost all large city and town parishes are provided with such parochial machinery but utilize it on a moderate scale. Wealthy parishes in cities often have mission churches or chapels in some quarter of the neighbourhood where the poorer class of the population can have the ministrations of the Church and their, own parochial activities apart from the parent church and with a separate staff of clergy. Such an arrangement tends to lay the American Church open to the charge of being a "class" Church and snobbish and undemocratic. In other cases there is a most salutary intermingling of rich and poor, educated and uneducated, those who move in different strata of society being in the easiest and most friendly relations of Christians who are members one of another. The institutional Church in America is more than likely to fail in making any deep spiritual impression upon those who are first reached by the creature comforts and the recreations afforded. The permanent stamp of the Church is less likely to be imprinted than in parishes where the immediate aim is to carry people on to become faithful and intelligent communicants of the Church. It is widely admitted that the other type of parish has failed. "Doctor X," remarked a clergyman to the Rector of the largest institutional parish in the United States, "your parish is, I suppose, the biggest thing of the kind in America." "Yes," the Rector is said to have replied, after a moment's hesitation, "and that is all you can say about it." There are no parishes in the American Church comparable on that side to S. John the Divine, Kennington, S. Agatha's, Landport in Fr. Dolling's time, S. Saviour's, Leeds, and hundreds of other well-known English parishes. For the most part institutional parishes in America are under the ecclesiastical auspices that lay less stress upon the Church in its sacramental life and more on elevating the morals than on social service as a primary duty.

By quite common consent and for evident reasons work in prisons, penitentiaries and hospitals and other institutions of a related nature is far more likely to be entrusted to the clergy of the Church than to Dissenting ministers, with the proviso that the Roman Catholics are cared for by their own clergy. Accordingly, in every large city one finds a staff of clergy assigned specifically to that field of work. Peculiar opportunities are thus continually afforded to minister the medicines of the physician of souls to those who are in need first of having the conscience touched and then the ministry of reconciliation employed, and the soul set in the path of life. Also, the Church has special helpfulness for the patients, physicians and nurses in hospitals. Quite out of proportion to the number of clergy and communicants of the American Church is the amount of work of this character entrusted to its care. That which is a commonplace in other countries must be emphasized in the case we are describing, because it is one of several explanations why the "Episcopal Church" is more widely known than number and distribution would lead one to expect. It is recognized that this Church has special power and comfort for the sick, the sinful, and the sad.

Every form of development of Church life that characterizes the Church in England is to be found in the United States. Communities of men and women, living under the three-fold vow in the Religious Life, have been established and at work in America for nearly half a century. The Society of St. John the Evangelist, founded by Father E. M. Benson, included among its co-founders some American Priests and has furnished several of the professed members of the Society down to the present time. The Society has now a provincial house in Boston, and a Novitiate in Cambridge, Massachusetts, the seat of Harvard College, thus reproducing certain features of its early days when it began its work in close touch with the University of Oxford. The Order of the Holy Cross, for men, is an American Order in its inception and has been founded for nearly forty years. Its monastery is at West Park, on the banks of the Hudson River, seventy miles north of New York City. It maintains other houses and work in Tennessee and in Connecticut. The number of communities for women, is large. Some are affiliated communities from English Orders, e.g. the Sisters of S. John Baptist, All Saints', and S. Margaret. Others were founded in the United States and include the Sisters of S. Mary and the Sisters of the Nativity. Their activities extend to schools, hospitals, parishes, and rescue work, and into departments of ecclesiastical art. Several schools for the training of Deaconesses also have been founded of late years.

Many English organisations for the emphasizing of some aspect of Church doctrine and practice have affiliated branches on the other side of the Atlantic. The Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, the Guild of All Souls, the Guild of the Love of God, the Guild of the Holy Ghost the Comforter, and the Society of S. Charles the Martyr are included among them.

On the other hand, the American Church has developed one organization on a large scale which has been introduced into England, the Brotherhood of S. Andrew, "an organization for the spread of Christ's Kingdom among men". The Girls Friendly Society in America and the Women's Auxiliary are potent factors in the inner life and work of the American Church, the latter undertaking and carrying through successfully many projects on a large scale in aid of the Missionary work of the Church.

An aspect of life in the American Church which impresses visitors, but is not self-explanatory, is the position of ceremonial in the adornment and services of the Church. Bitter controversies have taken place, as has been noted in the earlier chapters, but these are now well-nigh unheard of. The Cross on the Altar and carried in procession, the Altar Lights, Eucharistic Vestments, and minor adjuncts, have all practically passed into the category of matters which are allowable, their introduction and use being conditioned in some degree by the attitude of the Bishop of the diocese, and somewhat dependent upon their acceptance by the local congregation or the predilection of the incumbent, but no longer likely to become a ground for ecclesiastical discipline. The "north-end" position in celebrating at the Altar is all but unknown. Copes, Incense, and Holy Water, are to be found to some extent, reredoses whose niches are filled with statues, figures of the Blessed Virgin and Lady-Chapels, are more or less common. Certain parish Churches have a service of extreme elaborateness. Adoration and Benediction are services publicly announced in a few instances. There seems to be no definite line drawn in ceremonial matters. This is partly explained by the absence of any general law in the matter, the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer affording almost nothing relating to such adjuncts, the Ornaments Rubric being absent from the Prayer Book, and the so-called "Anti-ritual canon," to which reference has been made, having been repealed. It is not necessary to obtain a "faculty" before placing a reredos or a window or a rood-screen in a church building, from an official who is charged by Church and State with supervision over such matters. Consequently the individual priest and congregation are in the main left to carry out their wishes on-their own initiative.

On the other hand, the ceremonial and the ornaments are liable to be developed without regard to the canons of ecclesiastical good taste or the usage established by custom long ago, and to degenerate into bad individualism. The divergence is not as to the relative authority of the Sarum or Roman Use, but of personal likes and dislikes, or sentimentalism, or "fads". Grotesque and unchurchly are many of the arrangements found in American churches, unliturgical and unpractical the services and customs. That which is making a better standard of propriety in such matters probable is the experience gained by clergy and laity in their visits and sojourns in England and on the Continent where the best in architecture and art, and the greatest dignity in worship, may be observed.

While there is such wide freedom in ceremonial and ritual, the same rule works in quite the opposite direction. Churches may be bare and Altars hardly decent, services slovenly and celebrants careless and irreverent, to a degree painful in the extreme. The individual responsible may claim that there are no rules laid down, no custom that can claim obedience. It is true that the widest latitude prevails, for instance, with regard to the manner of celebrating the Holy Eucharist. The free and easy attitude taken towards the whole question of the conduct of services and the arrangements of the interior of churches, while allowing the reverent, well-trained and well-read priest to maintain services of devotional warmth and liturgical correctness, removes all check upon the careless and irreverent. Behind practice, however, stands doctrine, and as the latter is more clearly taught, grasped, and appreciated, the former will be brought under control. In many respects America is still a young nation with a good deal of crudeness yet in evidence.

An interesting subject frequently advanced and discussed is the influence of the American Church with its Catholic heritage upon the enormous mass of dissenters which surround it. To the superficial observer the influence seems non-existent. They go on their courses with a sweep that ignores the Episcopal Church in their midst. But there is another side to the situation. The Church is often attacked, ridiculed, snubbed, hated, but seldom patronized. The calm dignity with which the thorough Churchman goes his own way with his order of festival and fast, his order of services, his definite practice in regard to marriage questions, his sacramental acts, commands in the end not only respect but intense interest. The other bodies are not slow to appreciate some of the Church's customs, the Christian Year, the Lenten season, Holy Week and Easter, the desirability of a norm of faith and practice. The Church is having a profound effect on the religious bodies around it. The rationale of her ways appeals to the minds of the devout and reverent. These bodies do not learn much from one another but they do learn a good deal from the Church.

Far more important, however, is it to watch and interpret the steady tide of individuals leaving their old affiliation and coming into the full communion of the Church. There is an attraction. In some cases, the attractiveness proceeds from a sense of worship, objective, warm, inspiring, answering to the needs of the imagination. In the midst of the barren Puritanism which characterised New England in and since colonial days the Church raises a standard that appeals to the craving of the soul for the surroundings which help to lift up the heart. Again, the definite teaching of the Creeds makes an appeal, where separated bodies have gradually and inevitably let first one positive truth after another slip away, until the residuum is as cold and barren intellectually as the place of worship materially. Again, the assurance of the Church meets the need of the individual who is weary of drifting and longs for a rock of firmness. Drawn by these and other considerations, as the priest discovers from his acquaintance with people, a steady stream comes on into the home of the Church. The Church is recruited from outside its flock as much as from within. Confirmation classes in town and country present continually the phenomenon of but a few coming to renew their baptismal vows taken in the Church, but many who have come from other religious homes. Roman Catholics, Methodists, Lutherans, Congregationalists, and Unitarians, may all be found presented to the Bishop for the laying on of hands. If properly prepared and instructed in Church principles so that they come with conviction, if carefully shepherded after confirmation, these converts become as a rule Churchmen of strong loyalty. A further result of this movement into the Church is that young men who have fought out their spiritual and intellectual difficulties and have found their highest needs provided for, will again and again find a further vocation to the Priesthood. The ranks of the American clergy are recruited to a surprising extent from this class. In the largest theological Seminary of the American Church the statistics of religious affiliation usually show that not less than forty per cent, of those offering themselves for the Ministry were brought up outside the full communion of the Church.

It is because of its positive theology in the midst of negations that the Episcopal Church in the United States becomes a centre and rallying-point in such movements as those towards Christian Unity. It has an historic ministry, it has a sacramental system, it does place Holy Scripture in its place of honour, and it does possess accredited statements of revealed truth. Hence it can reach out in all directions and point to definite and authoritative statements. The Eastern Church, when its immigrant members are face to face with the overwhelming strength of the Roman communion, finds in the American Church another Church that is Catholic and yet does not admit the papal claims. Should the Episcopal communion begin to waver and quibble and to speak with uncertain voice, its prestige would wane and disappear. Until then it continues providentially a centre of recourse.

But while this is the true position of this branch of the Catholic Church, it must be admitted that at the present moment there is reason for considerable disquietude. The American Church is surrounded by rationalism, and by religious bodies that have drifted into a rationalistic theology. Little by little their hold has been loosened upon the verities of the Christian Revelation, the deity of Christ, the full doctrine of the Incarnation, the bodily Resurrection, the divine personality of the Holy Spirit, and His presence in the Church, in a word, upon the supernatural altogether. American Church theology has not been able to withstand entirely the dangerous environment. A strong and growing body of priests and lay people, even of Bishops, take the rationalistic position and teach continually such principles as overthrow the Faith. For that they substitute many alluring and specious principles--of broadminded-ness, of social service, of sympathy, of the authority and decisiveness of modern theology. Under this system the doctrine of man's weakness and sin, his dependence upon God, disappears. The nation itself, given to materialism, flushed with success, eager to avoid all disagreeable things, finds in this maimed gospel a religious sedative. People in general are not conscious of the need, at every step, of God, of sacraments, of authority. The Church may need them, is their attitude, but they do not need the Church.

It is this school of thought and teaching that is strong and aggressive at the present moment. It has the popular ear. It sounds a popular note. There is no open breach with the Church but there is a danger of a practical break. Just now there is a good deal to uphold the contention that in close association, under the same outward government, with the same service-book and formularies, two sections are working side by side, with essential differences held individually, and with the constant menace of open rupture. It is well that all parts of the Anglican communion should know one another's weaknesses. The American Church is entering and passing through such a phase of experience as inevitably must be faced.

What may be said to be an historic weakness in the American Church is the lack of a long-established tradition in matters of her own life and method. Every crisis that arises brings the necessity of trying experiments and resorting to expedients. There are few precedents that can be applied to new cases. English precedent is likely to fail because the State has no part in deciding issues for the Church. Should attention turn to some other portion of the Church, the papal contentions or utterly different circumstances prevent the drawing of inferences. The Protestant world around frankly solves new problems by abandoning old principles. The American Church is making and must make its tradition, which gradually will act as a steadying force.

In concluding this subject, of the inner life of the American Church, it seems imperative to point out clearly, at the risk of being accused of presumption, why the Church in the United States, actually at such a disadvantage in comparison with the other religious forces that often combine against it, still continues to loom up as "a city set on a hill". Appended to this history are statistics and graphic illustrations which will present to ,the eye the extraordinary situation. There is not a single State in which Episcopalians show up in strength; many in which the American Church is simply classed with "all others". The traveller might journey for hours at a time or for hundreds of miles without seeing a single town where there is a parish or congregation of the American Church. He does find States where the Roman Catholics completely swamp all other religions; other States where the same is true of the Methodists, the Baptists, the Lutherans, and the Mormons (the Latter-Day Saints). The very sections where the Church began historically are sections where it is now completely overshadowed. It cannot claim many brilliant preachers or scholars. Its wealth is no greater than that of many others. It has convulsions and disputes which are made quite public. It does not exploit some one great point of Christian truth and stand or fall with that. It gets no help or prestige from the State.

The two outstanding considerations which suggest at least the reason for this strength out of weakness, though most certainly they are not exhaustive, are:--

1. The American Church is strongly Anglo-Saxon. That means that, amid the confusion of nationalities in religion as in everything else in American national life, a certain poise and restraint, neither inertness nor lack of initiative, which the Anglo-Saxon temperament continually exhibits, characterizes the Church which is inextricably intertwined with the Anglo-Saxon race wherever found.

2. It is Catholic, unqualifiedly Catholic, not papal, nor Eastern, nor Western, excepting in the un-ecclesiastical application of the term to the Western hemisphere. It is the Catholic Church of Anglo-Saxon derivation in the independent atmosphere of America.

Interpreted in accordance with the environment where it finds itself at work by force of circumstances the Church Catholic of English derivation in the United States may be compared to a clear-toned bell heard amidst the jangle and discord of the 186 religious bodies in American life. It does not overwhelm by its thunderous strength nor is it so faint that it is drowned by the sounds around it. It does not give out the high-pitched note of extreme radicalism, nor the jarring tone of novelty, nor the harsh, irritating note of Puritan Pelagianism, but a strong, true dominant note which many turn to and others cherish as the keynote of the fullness of Christian life.

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