The Best Mode of Working a Parish
Considered in a Course of Lectures Delivered in Denver Cathedral, January and February, 1888,
and in Some Sermons Prepared for Various Occasions.
Romans xvi, 12: Salute Tryphena and Tryphosa who labor in the Lord. Salute the beloved Persis which labored much in the Lord.
WE hear much in these days about woman's rights. It is time to begin the discussion of woman's duties. It is only in exceptional cases in this country that the rights of all classes are not guaranteed and secured. It is not uncommon to find both individuals and classes neglecting imperative duties. The most effectual way to obtain our rights is to fulfil all our obligations. And the consequence of neglecting duties is the forfeiture of rights. These principles are not peculiar in their application, either to men or women.
The Church of Christ has elevated woman to a high sphere of duty and responsibility, and has thus restored to her her rights. That her social position in Christian lands is not what it has been, and still is, in heathen countries, is due, without question, to the religion of Jesus Christ. So far as she had any ministry in connection with religion among the heathen, it was one that only served to degrade her. We make only this very moderate statement, [186/187] without further reference to the abominations attendant upon the services of women in the Temples of ancient Idolatry.
In the Jewish dispensation, her membership of the Church, though recognized as real, was rather involved in that of men, than conferred expressly and independently. Still women were treated with gentleness and often with reverence; and many among them attained to the highest eminence by their talents and piety. But it was reserved for Christianity to exalt woman to the high rank she now enjoys in the Church and in society. Our Lord found among women the most ardent and faithful disciples, and the most efficient in ministering to His wants. The Son of God, in becoming Incarnate, was born of a woman. Thus was conferred upon womanhood the highest honor and a transcendent glory. She whom all men should call blessed,--she who was so highly favored, is properly the type of what woman in Christ should seek to become. No privilege could be greater than to belong to that sex, upon which the Mother of our Lord and God conferred such distinction. Observe the confidence our Lord reposed in women and the fidelity of their ministrations. The names of the Marys and others are as imperishable as those of the Apostles. As often remarked, holy women were "last at the Cross and first at the Sepulchre" on Easter morning. Holy women were part of the Church which waited for the promise of the Father, the coming of the Holy Ghost, [187/188] the Comforter. The gifts of the Spirit descended upon women, and not upon men only. They equally shared in the Church's Baptism and Eucharistic Feast. They were ministered unto, and themselves fulfilled a ministry. It was the widows of the Helenistic portion of the Church at Jerusalem, that gave occasion to the appointment of the Seven Deacons. And that there were Deaconesses in the Apostolic Church is scarcely more doubtful than that there were Deacons. S. Paul says, writing to the Romans, "I commend unto you Phebe, our Sister, which is a servant (Greek, a Deaconess) of the Church which is at Cenchrea." She was evidently a person of much consideration. S. Paul recommends her at greater length than any others; "that ye receive her in the Lord as becometh Saints, and that ye assist her in whatsoever business she hath need of you, for she hath been a succourer of many and of me also." In S. Paul's first Epistle to Timothy a literal translation of the Greek would seem to show, and in this agree the best ancient and modern interpreters--that where we read of the wives of Deacons, the meaning is really, female Deacons. "Even so must the women Deaconesses be grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things." As in the Gospels, the Marys, Joannas, Susannas, ministered unto the Lord of their substance, so in the Acts, the example is followed by godly women, like Dorcas, who was "full of good works and also of alms deeds which she did;" and Priscilla, the wife of Aquila [188/189] the Jew of Pontus, who assisted her husband in expounding the way of God more perfectly to Apollos, the eloquent teacher of the Corinthians. There was also a recognized class of widows, and somewhat later, of virgins, who had their regular functions and duties, and received, as such, the support of the faithful.
That Deaconesses were an Order in the Post Apostolic Church is proved by abundant witnesses. Pliny the younger, Governor of Bythinia, writing to the Emperor Trajan, at the beginning of the second century, speaks of two Deaconesses of whom he sought to prove, by torture, the truth concerning those strange confessions of the Christians: "that they were wont on a stated day to meet before the dawn, and repeat among themselves, in alternate measure, a hymn to Christ as God, and by their vow to bind themselves, not to the committing of any crime, but against theft and robbery and adultery, and breach of faith and denial of trust, after which it was their custom to depart and again to meet for the purpose of taking food,"--probably to celebrate the Lord's Supper. The Apostolic Constitutions which are evidence of the customs of the Church from the latter part of the third century, recognize the female Diaconate, as do S. Chrysostom and other Fathers at a later period. Many Deaconesses are mentioned by name and their successful labors in the conversion of souls specially commemorated. [On this whole subject, see Bingham's Antiquities of the Christian Church. Also the useful little work of Mr. Ludlow, on "Woman's Work in the Church."]
 But it is not our purpose to pursue this subject into patristic history, nor to show the position of Deaconesses, widows, sisters, or virgins in the several periods of the Church. Our object is rather to notice some of the hints the writers of the New Testament give us, of woman's work in the Church, and to point out the work and ministry she is now called upon to enter, and some of the modes in which she may discharge it.
Some evidence that an Order of Deaconesses existed in the Apostolic Church has been presented, and also that there was a class of widows with a recognized ministry in the service of God. The fact warrants an inference of the highest importance. As the ministry of Apostle-Bishops, Priests and Deacons did not exclude the active work of all the brethren, but, on the contrary, supposed and required it, so the female Diaconate was not the "exceptional monopoly of woman's work and functions." After Phebe, the Deaconess, S. Paul makes mention of "Mary, who bestowed much labor on us;" of "Tryphena and Tryphosa, who labor in the Lord," and "the beloved Persis, who "labored much in the Lord;" and in another Epistle, of "those women who labored with me in the Gospel." Nor is it said that Dorcas or Priscilla were Deaconesses. All these faithful women probably did the work which was equally the duty and privilege of all the women in the Church of Christ.
It is evident from these brief Scripture references that [190/191] women have a most important sphere and work in the Church. It is also clear that, if Apostolic precedent is to have any weight; if, what the Apostles instituted or sanctioned, guided as they were by the Lord's instructions and the inspiration of the Holy Spirit in their action as well as in their teaching, is to be followed implicitly as the law for all after ages--a vital principle in all Churches of Apostolic foundation and a Catholic history--there should be in every age and in every part of the Church regularly appointed Deaconesses or Sisters, for the same work for which such an Order was originally found necessary; just as was undoubtedly the case for several centuries, before the extravagant notion of an inherent superiority in a life of virginity gave rise to the supposed angelic life, espousal to Christ, and nuns and nunneries, enforced vows, and all the abuses of female monasticism.
The attempted restoration of this Order in the reformed Catholic Church is more than justified. Indeed, this is the imperative duty of every branch of the Church, which claims the Bible as interpreted by the Church in the past ages, as its rule of faith and practice. And the success of every effort in this direction is only what might be expected. The inference cannot be set aside, that it is the will of Christ that His Church should be served by the ministry of Deaconesses or Sisters, as well as of Deacons and other Orders. And now that the work which the Church is called to do is pressing upon us, and we are [191/192] waking up to a sense of its magnitude and of the need of more laborers, and the faithful are everywhere searching for the best instrumentalities and methods, by the study of Holy Scripture and the example of the primitive ages of Faith and of most successful labor, there can hardly be a doubt that we shall soon have the primitive Diaconate revived and restored among us; we shall have Deaconesses under this or some other name, as that of Sisters, successfully laboring in every Parish, in the schools of the Church, and in hospitals, homes and asylums, for all classes of the afflicted. We shall have teaching Deaconesses or Sisters for our Parish schools, which will by and by be seen to be necessary, not for a salary, but with the assurance of the Church's support and care through life. We shall have Deaconesses or Sisters regularly employed in winning to Christ both men and women, and imparting primary instruction, and ministering to the sick and needy under the care and maintenance of the Church. The sanction given to this office and work of women in the Church of England, and by the General Convention of the American Church, is one of the most hopeful of the signs of the times. It gives us hope that the thorough working out of a principle of the Gospel so generally recognized, cannot be long delayed.
But our Scripture data would not be fully satisfied even with such results. Besides the Deaconesses, "grave, not slanderers, sober, faithful in all things;" besides those, [192/193] like, "Phebe, the Deaconess which is of the Church at Cenchrea," there must be many laborers in the Lord, and helpers to the ministry, like Tryphena and Tryphosa, and the beloved Persis; like the holy women whose gentle ministries cheered the life of the Lord on earth; like Dorcas, "full of good works and alms deeds;" like Priscilla, who could assist in expounding the Scriptures in the rich fullness of their meaning to those less perfectly instructed. As all men are pledged to a personal work for Christ when they are sealed with the sign of the Cross, and when the Holy Ghost is given in the laying on of hands, so must the earne responsibilities be realized by women in general, in the Christian community. There must be no drones in the hive. There must be no idle hangers-on about the Christian camp, no useless members of the Body.
Indeed, the examples we have cited, and the plain teaching of the Apostles, justifies the employment of the services of Christian women in any and every way in which experience has found or may find it available, as Sisters of Mercy, nursing the sick, caring for the poor, winning the neglected to the Church of Christ, teaching in schools, conducting men's Bible classes and mothers' meetings, Bible reading, tract distribution and parochial visitation. There is every reason derived from Scripture and from experience, why all women in the Church should engage in these good works, so far as they have time and opportunity. There is every [193/194] reason why those who are qualified, or by training can-acquire the qualifications, and who are not hindered by family ties or other necessary duties, should devote themselves to such works of love and mercy for definite periods under the support and guidance of the Church. Surely we must not yield to a vulgar and unreasoning prejudice against the work which is required by the binding and perpetual vow of Christian profession. If the Christian woman, anxious to serve her Lord in His Church, finds that she can give a day each week to His exclusive work without neglect of the duties of her state of life, why may she not pledge this to Him in a fixed resolve for such time as her circumstances shall remain the same? If she is free from home cares and duties, so that for any period she would feel justified in an engagement for teaching or secular labor, why may she not, with equal safety, pledge to the Church her services for the same time under like conditions? It is an absurd prejudice, foolish beyond measure and to the last degree harmful, that would restrain a woman from a pledge of work for Christ on stated days, or for a stated time, longer or shorter, under the express condition of a release of the obligation, should any providential change of circumstances make such release desirable. The catholic work of the Church cannot be done as it ought, without the aid of women; for history and experience show that without such aid it never was done fully. And this work must not be spasmodic. It must [194/195] be given as we give ourselves to Christ, ungrudgingly and without reserve. It must be so given that it can be relied on, and organized into practical efficiency.
We must add a word on the social influence of women in the Church, which is absolutely necessary to the success of a Parish. If the Communion of Saints is to be more than a doctrine of the Creed; if it is to be realized practically, so far as it relates to the members of the Church militant in their mutual relations, in social intercourse, in the fellowship of all classes who are brought together and made one in Christ, the ministry of godly women will be found essential. What would society be without the gentle, refining, elevating influence of woman? The Church is a society. Its worship is social. All within it stand in intimate social relations. All should be interested in one another. All are to be mutually helpful. The privileges and blessings of the Gospel are to be enjoyed in common. Not only in public worship, but in frequent meetings for social intercourse, for promoting mutual acquaintance, for healthful recreations and social pleasures of a refining and elevating character, should all the members of a Parish be brought together for the development and exercise of the social instincts and sympathies which the Creator has implanted, and which are essential to a vigorous and healthful Church life. But what would be the value of such assemblies and such intercourse without the presence and influence of woman, [195/196] formed and endowed; as she is by nature, to be the mistress of society, to give guidance, tone and character to social intercourse? Here, then, there is a department of work in which the cause of Christ may be served in a manner the most effectual, in which all good women may have a share.
We conclude with the obvious remark, that if all women in the Church would but renounce "the pomps and vanities" of the world, the engrossments of dress and fashion, and the absorbing pleasures of those who are dead while they live; if they would but leave all to follow Christ, according to their vow, and realize their relations to all who are in Christ and all for whom He died, especially the poor, the careless and uncared for, the hardened and the wretched; and if they would let their love for Christ become an active principle constraining their efforts, and would minister to men as a service to Himself: what hard impenitence is there that they might not soften, what coldness and indifference that they might not dispel, what sorrows that they might not soothe, and sufferings alleviate, and thereby win the objects of their interest to faith, and love, and truth, and duty, by their unselfishness, their tender sympathy, and their love and devotion; making them respectable, because respecting themselves, and putting them in the way of honor among men, and of the higher dignity of a position of usefulness in the Church of God. If all women would but begin to [196/197] enter upon their "vocation and ministry" as Christians, and would thus learn the power for good with which they are intrusted, instead of prating about their rights, which no right-minded person disputes, how would they not become ennobled in character and exalted in position, and how surely would the way be opened for all the organized services of women which the Church so imperatively requires. It is a cause of thankfulness that there are so many who realize their mission. May their number speedily increase!