Project Canterbury

Tomorrow's Faith
By the Rev. John Rathbone Oliver

Milwaukee: Morehouse, 1932.


LET US now face about and look in the opposite theological direction--toward Protestantism.

Here we have no need to examine so-called "conversions"'; for there is no Geneva obsession that can be compared with the obsession of Rome. As a matter of fact, Anglicans do not become Protestants. Those among us who are Protestant-minded have no need to seek their Protestantism outside their own communion. They can find it at home; or at least they think that they can find it there. And the Protestant elements in the Book of Common Prayer do supply a Protestant Anglican with sufficient pabulum to keep his religious life going, if not busy. Nevertheless how an educated and historically trained man can stand up and call himself "a Protestant Episcopalian" is more than I can understand. Of course, he merely means that he has adapted or acquired a certain mental attitude in religious matters. He does not, he cannot, mean that he practises Protestant Episcopalianism as a religion, as a mode of life, and a course of action. His Protestant Episcopalianism is a habit of mind; not of religion. He is no true Protestant because he does not practise the Protestant religion. What he really does is to live in a Catholic atmosphere, receive Catholic sacraments, pray Catholic prayers--and call himself a Protestant. If this satisfies him--well, ours is still supposed to be a free country. But he would understand himself better if he would take the trouble to find out from his really Protestant friends, of whose fellowship he makes so much, just exactly what they themselves think of the Protestant Episcopal Church, and of Anglicans in general. Nothing is more illuminating, even for a Protestant Episcopalian, than to see himself as real Protestants see him.

I have been fortunate beyond my deserts in my close friendships with men and women, with ministers and lay people, belonging to the various "denominations" of Protestantism. I know their clergy rather well. I have addressed many groups of Lutheran ministers; some of the more prominent Methodist pastors of my own city are much more than mere acquaintances; and I have the honor to belong to a club made up of two representatives from the ministry of every "Christian sect." My Anglican colleagues held up their hands in horror because I was willing to accept membership in a group in which I was classed as one of the two members from a certain Protestant denomination. Needless to say, our club has no Roman members. But this same club brings me into contact with men whom I am very glad to know.

Therefore, I think that I have had rather unusual opportunities for becoming familiar with the attitude of the average Protestant toward the Anglican communion. I wish that my Protestant-minded Anglican colleagues knew it as well as I do.

But if you really want to find out what the Methodists or the Congregationalists think of us, you should try to make friends, not with the Protestant clergy of big cities, but with the pastors of small country flocks. What happens when one of their young men decides to become a "member of the Episcopal Church"? Just exactly the same thing that happens when one of our own men "goes to Rome." To the average Protestant there is little difference between Rome and Canterbury. We are "hopeless and crass Medievalists." I have heard and have rejoiced a thousand times in that reproach. Often I feel that the Protestant world knows us and judges us far more accurately than our own few "liberal Churchmen," who seem to have such a disproportionate influence because they have learned to make such a loud noise.

Let me transmit to you a conversation that I have often heard, addressed by some earnest Protestant pastor to a wandering member of his flock, who has "leanings" toward the Episcopal Church:

"My dear boy, you do not realize what you are doing. You come from an honest Protestant home. You grew up in a Protestant atmosphere of honest thinking. And you want to throw in your lot with a group of people who are not even honest about their religion. Look at their Book of Common Prayer. On the title page you will find the word 'Protestant Episcopal.' That is a mere pretense--a mere catchword--to lead the unthinking, the real Protestant, astray. It reminds me of so many unpretentious little shops in our town. On the sign over the door you will see the harmless words, 'Drug Store; Soft Drinks.' But once cross the threshold and what do you find? Perhaps a very occasional soft drink, an unused, out-of-date, soda fountain. But the real business of the place is the selling of hard liquor. It is a speakeasy. Nothing less. Keep out of such dangerous places, my son. Just cast your eye again on this Book of Common Prayer. Read beyond the title page; get past the misleading sign over the door. Is this a Protestant body that talks about priests and bishops? Priests to whom the power to forgive and to retain sin is given at their ordination? Priests that have the power to absolve? And look at this utterly and transparently misleading Office for a Communion Service. Look at all these directions printed in small type, telling 'the priest' just what he is to do, just how he is to act. See, here I have a Roman Catholic altar book. A missal, they call it. The only difference between the two books is that the Romans print their directions in red, while these Episcopalians use black ink for exactly the same thing. They themselves call these directions 'rubrics.' 'Something written or printed in red.' But they print it in black, just in order to mislead unsuspecting Protestants who get panicky whenever they see a Prayer Book printed in more than one color. Finally, read some of this miscalled Communion Service. What is the one word that stands out beyond all others, in the most sacred part of it? The word Sacrifice. It is everywhere. You can't get away from it. And what has a good Protestant like yourself to do with a translation into English of the Catholic Mass with its old superstitious ideas of priesthood and of sacrifice? Don't let them impose on you, my boy. I have heard that there are Episcopalian ministers--their own Prayer Book calls them priests--who insist that they are really Protestants, and want us to believe them. They aren't telling the truth. They can't be. No logical, honest Protestant can say the words of their Communion Service. Either he is pretending to be something that he is not and cannot be, or else he has hypnotized himself and shut his mind to the real meaning of words. Or else--and I fear this last is often true--he masquerades as a Protestant, in the hopes of perverting young men like yourself, while he is really some sort of an Episcopalian Jesuit in disguise. Do not think, my dear boy, that I overstate the case. I can get along well enough with Father Casey, the Roman Catholic priest of our little town, but that Episcopalian rector who calls his church a Protestant church and whose Prayer Book is a book of Catholic ritual and worship, I can't stand him at any price."

Such a conversation as this represents the attitude of a great many Protestant ministers. And I believe that they are quite right, and entirely justified. They know us often far better than some of us know ourselves.

But other ministers meet the question in the opposite way. And their adjustment is quite as illuminating. If they find that their young people are attracted to Anglican ways, then they determine to give them what they want, but to give it to them at home, in their own churches.

Nothing seems to prove so absolutely the pouring out of God's blessing on the Catholic revival among us as the way in which that same revival has overflowed our own borders and has influenced almost every Protestant body. In some cases this influence ends in real conversions. There is a steady, if often unnoticed, stream of Protestant ministers who, at immense personal sacrifices, make their submission to the Church, take Anglican Orders, and become Catholic priests. The stream would be even stronger if some rich man, overburdened with the money of this world, would create a fund to take care of the Protestant ministers who are anxious to change their allegiance, but who often find insuperable difficulties in the presence of families that have to be supported while they themselves are preparing for Holy Orders in some seminary. I feel sure that almost every Anglican bishop has a list of Protestant ministers who are anxious to "come over to us," but who cannot give up their Protestant pastorates without some financial help to tide them over the years that must elapse before they can be ordained.

Another class of Protestant minister, who cannot or who will not come to the Church, makes the Church come to him. I know that if my maternal grandfather, who was a devout Baptist, should enter today some of the churches of his own denomination, he would be confused and puzzled. "This," he would say, "must be an Episcopal church." I remember during my early childhood how he refused to have green wreathes hung up at Christmas because Christmas was a heathen and a Catholic festival. I remember his dislike to "read prayers"; of any liturgical service. I often wish that he were alive. He would, by this time, have been an Anglican in spite of himself.

It seems almost unthinkable, but nowadays, in Protestant churches, that fifty years ago would not even tolerate an organ, you will find on Christmas Eve a midnight Communion Service--the nearest they can come to a Midnight Mass. On Good Friday thousands of similar congregations are holding a Three Hours service--a Jesuit invention not three centuries old. On Sundays you can take part in a liturgical service so like the Matins of the Book of Common Prayer that you will feel a thrill of uncomfortable surprise; just as if you should suddenly meet a hide-bound Maryland aristocrat at a Y. M. C. A. prayer meeting. The influence of our own communion on Protestant dogma is less marked; yet it is there. You will find young Methodist ministers believing in something very like the doctrine of the Real Presence; and Luther's teaching of consubstantiation is not so very far removed from transubstantia-tion, at least to the modern mind. But most marked is the Anglican influence on Protestant ritual and architecture. Many Methodist churches today have altars instead of holy tables. And candles--lighted ones also; not always lighted at the proper times, but a praiseworthy attempt anyhow. I have even heard of one young minister who wears eucharistic vestments. Think, for a moment, what would have been the result of the introduction in a Methodist church of a vested choir thirty odd years ago! Finally, ask any architect about the changing architecture of modern Protestant churches. [See "American Church Builders" by F. R. Webber in The American Mercury, December, 1930. Especially pp. 467-68.] F. R. Webber says:

"The current phase of our architectural development offers a striking commentary upon the decay of Evangelical Protestantism. Today churches of every (Protestant) denomination are installing real altars, and some of them have conspicuous brass crosses and even candlesticks on them. For the (new) fashion for clerestoried churches with deep chancels has brought about a decided change in liturgical customs as well."

Even more striking is the desire of modern Protestantism to "restore the outlawed confessional." 5 Not, of course, for the sake of any spiritual gift bestowed in priestly absolution, but in order to give the young men and women of today a valid reason for consulting their pastor rather than a wild psychoanalyst about their sexual and mental difficulties. [See "M.D. versus D.D." by John Hyde Preston, the Century Magazine for May, 1929, and "Psychiatry and the Confessional," John Rathbone Oliver, same magazine for July, 1929. Both articles are reprinted in Magazine Article Readings edited by Ernest Brennecke and Donald Lemen Clark, Macmillan Co. New York. 1931, pp. 523-531 and pp. 532-41.]

Unless one is in fairly close touch with modern Protestantism, one does not duly appreciate this persistent shifting of Protestant practice--this re-orienting of Protestant religious life along Catholic lines.

Therefore, why waste effort in holding out the hand of an over-hospitable fellowship to pan-Protestantism? Protestants are coming to us. Why go to them? They are not like prodigal sons who have to be met while they are yet a great way off. Those honest Protestants who are really in search of definite, permanent religious faith and practice must come to us, sooner or later, because they will soon have no other place to go.

Many Anglicans are averse to making "overtures" to pan-Protestantism, because they are, quite naturally, afraid that the Anglican communion might be tempted to renounce, for the sake of a false unity, some parts of her Catholic inheritance and the things that establish her chief reason for existence. Infinitely stronger are the historical and economic reasons for maintaining strictly our Anglican position, without making any irreparable sacrifices in the hope of persuading Presbyterian ministers to accept Episcopal ordination or of leading the entire Methodist body into the unity of the Catholic Church.

For Protestantism--the struggle of pulpit against altar--is a lost cause; a res judicata. At present it maintains its hold on the rising generation in two ways: either by imitating Anglican and Catholic tradition in worship, or else by pushing religion into a subordinate place and making the church subservient to the parish hall and to social activities. One may measure the weakness of its hold by the feverish, heart-breaking activity of its parochial or social agencies--its teas, its fairs, its young people's dances, its outings, even its Life Adjustment Clinics and free medical advice. Without all these adventitious agencies the churches would be empty--of young people, anyway. Often and often I have spoken at young people's meetings, held before the regular evening service in some Protestant church, and have noticed that scarcely a single person, present at this meeting, went up after it to attend the service in the church itself. The two principles on which Protestantism was built have been completely overthrown. It was built on the inherent power of each individual to find out the right religion for himself, the right of private judgment, and on the existence of an Infallible Book. The infallibility of the Bible has disappeared as a dogma among thinking Christians. For no book can be infallible except there be behind it some living, divinely guided organization that interprets and explains. The average educated Protestant has had to lose his faith in the Infallible Book. And with our growing knowledge of the human mind and of human personalities people have been forced to deny the inherent ability of every human mind to find for itself the one true faith. The infallibility of private judgment has gone with the Infallible Book.

But economically also, Protestantism is a lost cause. It has allied itself intimately with our existing economic system. It does not need the lectures of a learned professor of Sociology to tell us that our present system is doomed. It cannot last very much longer. No one knows what will take its place. But go it will, and Protestantism will go with it. The modern working man knows this well enough. He has seen, time and time again, the Protestant churches of his community standing side by side with the employers during many a disastrous strike. The employers, and the parsons have generally won. But they are on the losing side just the same. One hates to drag in the Prohibition question. But it was and is a distinctly Protestant thing. Few Catholic-minded men have a decent word to say for it. It owes its genesis to the job-owning, job-giving class of employers, backed by the most powerful of the Protestant denominations. Its failure is one of the letters in the message for Protestantism given in the handwriting on the wall, that is standing out clearer and clearer every day.

In the face of all this it is comforting to realize that among Anglicans there is a constantly growing antagonism to the present unjust, unsocial, economic system. Such organizations as the Church League for Industrial Democracy, the School of Christian Social Ethics, and other similar groups in England, show only too clearly in what direction Anglicans are looking.

I repeat, Protestantism is a res judicata. It is unescapably allied, as a system, with the economic system that is rapidly disintegrating, and that brings us, with every day, nearer and nearer to some marked period of change and readjustment. Protestantism is faced toward the past. When the "Dies Rerum Novarum" dawns, it will go, it will disintegrate, together with the stalk on which it once grew. Keeping always in view the realization of this coming change, our only possible attitude towards Protestantism is a persistent Confessio Fidei Catholicae, that is faced towards the future.

In a really Protestant atmosphere an Anglican is even less at home than he would be inside of the walls of Rome itself. For the atmosphere of the Protestant building, begun not so many hundreds of years ago, is foreign to the Anglican mind. Besides, this same building is ready to fall, for the ground on which it stands, the props that hold it up, are falling away more and more.

I am not criticizing or trying to say unkind, unfriendly things. I am trying to say what I believe to be the truth. And because of these things that I believe to be true, I cannot help feeling that all such Protestant elements as still persist here and there in the faith and practice of the Anglican communion are handicaps for the future; they are all strange accretions--hall marks, scars of a past disaster--linking us to a system that has no really deep historical background, that has less and less objective reason for existence, and that is bound, sooner or later, to disappear together with the un-Christian economic system with which it is so inseparably intertwined.

The period that historians miscall the Reformation is something to be forgotten as soon as possible--like some severe illness, during which the patient's body has been invaded by a foreign micro-organism that multiplied in his blood until the vital forces were able to rouse up their microbe-devouring leucocythes and gradually destroy the invader. Such a patient may bear, all this life, the healed scars of his illness. So the Anglican communion, the ancient Ecclesia Anglicana, may always carry some "re" or "de"-formation stigmata. But people, who have an illness like this, acquire what physicians call immunity. They are protected from another attack. The Anglican Church will never see another Reformation. From that, at least, she is safe.

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