Project Canterbury

History of the American Episcopal Church 1600-1915

By the Reverend S. D. McConnell, D.D., D.C.L., LL. D.

Milwaukee: Morehouse Publishing Co., 1934.
London: A. R. Mowbray & Co., 1934.

Part Second. The Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States.

Chapter XIII. Doctrine and Ceremonial

The worth of ritual; the Church idea; civic ritual; the ritualists' contention; Bishop Hopkins's book; the Bishops' Declaration; the Ritual Commission; things forbidden; Dr. De Koven's challenge; the Church's comprehensiveness; the end of controversy.

While statesmen and politicians were busy over the problem of "Reconstruction," ecclesiastics and Church conventions were busy with the "Ritual Controversy." This term, which we use as convenient because it has been so generally applied to the question at issue, is, indeed, misleading. It is inconceivable that devout and earnest Christians and Churchmen should have thought worth while to argue, denounce, struggle, manoeuvre, and pray for or against a little more or less of elaborate form in the conduct of the public worship of God. The contestants on both sides were always careful to declare that they regarded "Ritual," in itself considered, as of very subordinate moment. What, then, was at issue? What saved a controversy which was waged so furiously for a decade, and which divides men's opinions today, from being laughed off the stage? Men do not long continue to be interested in paltry things. Should the Christian Minister be called a priest or a presbyter? Should the Holy Table be called a table or an altar? Should the officiating Minister wear a surplice or a black gown? Should candles be permitted to burn by daylight on or about the altar? Should flowers be allowed in the chancel or about the font? Should anthems be sung or said? These things, in themselves, are allowed to be of no more consequence than the color of a cockade. But, then, the color of a cockade has more than once in the world's history sufficed to inflame a nation. The rival hues of the red and the white rose have served to keep a kingdom at war for generations. What was at issue in the Ritual Controversy? At bottom it was a local phase of that division which is as old as the history of Religion between the Prophet and the Priest. The Sons of Levi and the Sons of the Prophets have ever had a different thought concerning God's ways with men. Only under the pressure of a common peril from the outside do Iddo the Seer and Jeshua the son of Johzadek work together for the building of God's house. For more than two centuries the Protestant doctrine of "Justification by Faith alone" had remained unchallenged in the Church of England. Even the Non-jurors, and the American Churchman of the Seabury and Hobart type, had affirmed it as strenuously as had the Evangelicals. Their reverence for the Sacraments and for the Church's ways was due rather to their love of order and prescription than to any belief that salvation was attained through sacrosanct observances.

But a generation had now grown up within the influence of the Catholic Revival. The very essence of the Oxford Movement was that it claimed for the Church as a divine institution a necessary place and function in the salvation of the individual. The Church, it asserted, is not a society into which men come after they have become Christians, and in which they remain because they are Christians, but is the divinely ordained instrument by which men are made Christians, and its sacraments and ordinances are the means by which their spiritual life is kept from perishing. To those thus persuaded everything connected with the Church takes on a new value and significance. It is not enough for them that public service shall be conducted decently and with decorum. The high and dry propriety in a Connecticut parish church was little less offensive than the pietistic freedom of an Ohio prayer meeting. What they desired was that in everything connected with the Church its supernatural quality should be manifest. The peculiarity of architecture, the bearing of the worshippers, the dress of the officiant, the arrangement of furniture, lights, flowers, incense, music, gesture, tone, all these should conform to and show forth the central thought of the Church as the peculiar dwelling place of God on earth. Ritual was the attempt to express this. Few were clear-sighted enough to discern precisely what was desired or what was threatened, but still fewer were uninfluenced by the movement going forward.

The movement also fell in and marched with a far wider change which had begun to show itself in every department of life among the people. During the Civil War more than three millions of men had learned to wear uniform and to keep step. Civil and military display had grown familiar. Insignia of rank, badges of office, rhythm of procession, flags and banners as symbols of organization, things from which the republican prejudice of ante bellum days had turned away, had now come in. Civil and military ritual are closely related to ecclesiastic. Agitation for cap and gown set in in colleges and universities. Uniforms began to be worn in boys' schools, and by the employees of railways and steamboats, and, a little later on, by the employees of great private firms. A suggestion of similar customs twenty years earlier would have been met with ridicule or indignation. The fact was that the whole nation was growing ritualistic. It was too much to expect, even if one wished it, that the Church should remain uninfluenced.

But the movement within the Church was opposed with a bitterness and intensity of zeal which it is, happily, difficult to realize now. Evangelicals opposed it because it sprang from a conception of the Church and a rationale of Sacraments which was, to their minds, radically false and practically perilous. High Anglicans withstood it because it disturbed the conventional order of the Ecclesiastical household. Conservative Churchmen withstood it because it introduced novelties, and to not a few minds novel truth is no less obnoxious than novel error. Romanists flouted it as a clumsy aping of manners which were to them, being to the manner born, fit and reasonable. Protestants pointed to it with a real or affected horror, and saw in it Episcopacy marching to its logical end. Wits jested at it; theologians argued against it; canonists thundered at it; bishops charged anent it; foolish priests made it ridiculous by their extravagances; and, meanwhile, ritualism steadily advanced. [Church Journal, 1867, p. 140.] No environment was safe. It spread in New York; it invaded Pennsylvania; it appeared in Vermont; it broke out sporadically in Ohio; even the dry air of Connecticut was not fatal to it. No controversy in the whole history of the American Church has caused such an intensity of feeling. For a time it seemed as if no refuge could be found anywhere from the strife of tongues. Brotherly kindness and even Christian Charity seemed to have disappeared. There is little to choose between the methods and temper of its advocates and opponents. The former were filled with the new wine of revived ecclesiasticism, and the latter were alarmed at the breaking up of old customs and dismayed at the presence, in the air, of a spirit which they did not comprehend.

The contention of the so-called ritualists was, from the first, that they were acting within the law of the Church when introducing those acts and methods which were denounced as innovations. Such a contention appeared simply preposterous to old-fashioned Churchmen. When the ritualist went farther and accused them of being themselves habitual law-breakers, they honestly thought that midsummer madness could go no farther. There were two questions concerning acts of ritual: Were they in themselves fitting and desirable? Were they permissible by the law of the Church? The ritualists labored to prove the first; their opponents labored to disprove the second. At first it seemed hardly worth while to disprove it. Could any sane man believe that these things were legal in the American Church--lights on the altar, alb, chasuble, dalmatic, and such like, and of variegated colors; bowings and crossings, the burning of incense, the chrism in Confirmation, the mixed chalice and wafer bread? In 1866 the venerable Dr. Hopkins, Bishop of Vermont, and Presiding Bishop, was moved to take up his parable concerning the matter. In October of that year he issued his book, "The Law of Ritual," which in three months ran through three editions. Bishop Hopkins was a lawyer and a theologian, a man of unquestioned candor and courage, and of exceptional personal character. That he was something of a doctrinaire was rather an advantage than otherwise in enabling him to pass judgment on a burning question in a time of excitement.

The effect of his book upon the Church at large was much that of Balaam's prophesying upon the Moabites. "For Balak said unto Balaam, What hast thou done unto me? I took thee to curse mine enemies, and behold thou hast blessed them altogether." He had conceded the whole case. The law of the Church being what it was--that is, the Canon Law of the Church of England, except upon such points as that law had been specifically set aside or modified--all the disputed points were lawful.

If the situation were as the presiding bishop declared it to be, the opponents of ritualism were left but two things to do. ["The appearance of the Bishop of Vermont's little book is a serious thing, as it opens the door for experiments which are not unlikely to be made in respectable churches, if not in some of the most important seats of the Church's dignity and strength!"--Letter to a Bishop, Arthur Cleaveland Coxe, 1866.] They might either organize the public opinion of the Church so strongly against the incoming movement as to stop it and turn it back; or they might have the law of the Church so changed as to put an end to it by penalties. They essayed to do both in turn.

In October, 1866, the House of Bishops met in New York for certain special business. The question of Ritualism was discussed at length, and a Committee was appointed to propose a Declaration upon the subject. The moving spirit, and the Secretary of the Committee, was the Bishop of Western New York. It seems to have been hoped by the Bishops that a formal expression of opinion by them could be weighty enough to stop a movement which they disapproved, but which each in his own diocese was not bold enough to confront officially. This hope, to which that House has fondly clung at many junctures, failed here as always. Their hesitation betrayed itself in the very tenor of the Declaration. In its preamble they disavowed official character for their action. "Whereas, at a meeting of the House of Bishops held in the month of October the subject of ritualism was brought to the notice of the House and considered with great unanimity, and

Whereas, on account of the absence of a number of the Right Rev. members of the House, and the fact that the House was not sitting as a coordinate branch of the General Convention of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, it was regarded as inexpedient to proceed to any formal action, and

Whereas, it was nevertheless regarded as highly desirable that an expression of opinion on the part of the Episcopate of this Church should be given in respect to ritualistic innovations; Therefore the undersigned Bishops, reserving each for himself his right as Ordinary of his own Diocese ... do unite in the following Declaration." [The signers were Smith of Kentucky, McIlvaine and Bedell of Ohio, Kemper of Wisconsin, McCoskrey of Michigan, Lee of Delaware, Johns of Virginia, Eastburn of Massachusetts, Chase of New Hampshire, Upfold of Indiana, Payne of Africa, Williams of Connecticut, Davis of South Carolina, Kip of California, Lee of Iowa, Clark of Rhode Island, Whipple of Minnesota, Talbot of Indiana, Wilmer of Alabama, Vail of Kansas, Coxe of Western New York, Clarkson of Nebraska, Randall of Colorado, Kerfoot of Pittsburg, Williams of China, Curios of Kentucky, Armitage of Wisconsin.]

The Declaration, which is lengthy, consists of an argument, a conclusion, and an instance. The argument is that every national Church has the power to decree finally, and without reference to any other national Church, everything which pertains to its own Doctrine, Discipline, and Worship; that this Church has done so, with the result that the ceremonies, rites, and worship thus established, ordained, and set forth in the Book of Common Prayer are the sole law of this Church. The conclusion, rather hinted at than expressed, is that no rite, fashion, ceremony, or position not specifically commanded by rubric is lawful. The instances noted of such illegal innovations are: "The use of incense, and the burning of lights in the order of the Holy Communion; reverences to the Holy Table or to the Elements placed thereon; the adoption of clerical habits hitherto unknown." Finally, as a tub to a whale, was appended the notification that, "we include in these censures all departures from the laws, rubrics and settled order of the Church by defect as well as by excess of observance." It was presently seen that the Declaration was but a brutum fulmen. Its premises were not historically defensible; its conclusion was inconsequential; its instances were badly chosen. In any case the people against whom it was addressed were neither in the mood nor of the temper to be influenced by the unsolicited advice of a score of individual Bishops, some of whom they regarded as indocti, some as time-serving, and some as malignant. If Ritualism could be stayed it could only be by express statute in that case made and provided. Advice, counsel, remonstrance were of no avail. Still less where it was evident to all that the counsellors were almost without exception men who had themselves been carried more or less from their old positions, and, having fetched up at various points of advance, demanded that every one else should stand at the precise point where he had come to rest.

In the General Convention of 1868 a Committee of five Bishops [Bishops Lee of Delaware, Williams, Clark, Odenheimer, Kerfoot.] was appointed to consider and report to the next Convention "Whether any additional provision for Uniformity by canon or otherwise is practicable and expedient." When the next General Convention met in Baltimore in 1871, this committee reported to the House of Bishops that in their judgment such legislation was not only practicable and expedient, but was imperatively and immediately necessary. "Unless something is done, and done soon, in the interest of uniformity the diversities of use now obtaining bid fair to equal if they do not exceed those which at the period of the Anglican Reformation were regarded as an evil to be removed. They occasion confusion, trouble and perplexity, among our people, and these evils must increase as their causes are multiplied." They recommend, therefore, [Gen. Con. Journal, 1871, p. 599.] that the following things shall be expressly prohibited by canon: the use of incense; a crucifix in any part of the Church; carrying a cross in procession in the Church; the use of ornamental lights on the altar; the elevation of the elements in the Holy Communion; the mixed chalice; ablutions of the priest's hands or of the vessels in the presence of the congregation; bowings, crossings, genuflections, reverences; bowing down before or kissing the Holy Table; celebration of the Holy Communion by bishop or priest alone; choral service without the consent of the vestry or contrary to the prohibition of the Bishop; the wearing of a surplice which does not reach down to the ankles by any chorister. They recommend, farther, that canonical provision be made touching the dress of ministers officiating in the congregation, to the effect that the only lawful, official dress shall be, for the bishop, the present episcopal robes, for all ministers a white surplice, a black or white stole, a black cassock not reaching below the ankles, a black gown, and bands, and that when expediency or health demands it, the university cap may be used. When the report was presented the House of Bishops resolved that, "in view of the gravity of the subject," they were not prepared to act upon it without it being first considered by a joint Committee of the two houses, and asked that a Committee of the House of Deputies should be appointed by ballot for that purpose. [Gen. Con. Journal, 1871, p. 267.] The Joint Committee thus asked for was created, with Bishop Whittingham of Maryland at the head of the Bishops, and Dr. Mead of Connecticut at the head of the Deputies. During a debate which extended over two weeks the specific list of "innovations" which the Committee of Bishops had advised to be prohibited dropped out of sight. Their original recommendations were definitely brought to a vote in the House of Deputies, under the leadership of Dr. Mead of Connecticut and Dr. Goodwin of Pennsylvania, and were defeated by a small but sufficient majority. Their defeat was due to the memorable words spoken at the last moment of the debate by the Rev. James de Koven of Wisconsin. His utterance simply made any repressive canon about ritual impossible without rending the Church. It had been falsely assumed all along that the question at issue was one of ceremonial, whereas, in fact, it was one of doctrine. "The objection which I have to this canon or any other like it," said Dr. de Koven, "is that it bears upon (disputed) doctrine, and seems to settle it in one direction. Now, questions of doctrine should not be settled by any canon which does not bear directly upon doctrine. If people teach false doctrine they should be tried and punished according to that canon. I wish now to give any in this house the opportunity to present me for false doctrine if he wishes, and in order to do so I will use language which I will explain presently. I believe in 'the real actual presence of our Lord under the form of Bread and Wine upon our altars. I myself adore, and if necessary or my duty, teach my people to adore Christ present in the elements under the form of bread and wine.' I use these words because they are a bald statement of the Real Presence. But I use them for another reason; they are adjudicated words. They are words which, used by a divine of the Church of England, have been tried in the highest ecclesiastical court of England, and have been decided by that court to come within the limits of the truth allowed in the Church of England. Sir Robert Philemore has decided that if he should pronounce these words wrong he should be passing judgement, he should be passing sentence, upon a long roll of illustrious divines who have adorned our universities and fought the good fight of our Church, from Ridley to Keble, from the divine whom the cross at Oxford commemorates to the divine in whose honor that University has just finished her last College."

There was nothing more to be said. If holding and teaching the doctrine was unlawful, then common manliness and honor demanded the presentment of Dr. de Koven, and those who agreed with him, for heresy. If the doctrine was permissible, then the ceremonial that symbolized it was, a fortiori, permissible. The question at issue was the comprehensiveness of the Church. Was it broad enough to contain within it the priest and the prophet? At that time the priest asked only for standing ground and living room. He did not dream of controlling the organization or of denouncing the prophet for looseness of doctrine. He won his victory because he had the logic on his side, and, what was of more consequence, he saved the Church from herself.

The House of Bishops and the champions of Protestantism in the lower house were let down easy by the practically unanimous adoption of a vague resolution that, "This Convention hereby expresses its decided condemnation of all ceremonies, observances and practices which are fitted to express a doctrine foreign to the authorized standards of the Church." The ritual controversy was ended. A new lot of pamphlets and editorial articles were harvested and added to the pile of the same sort [have not thought it well to accumulate references or footnotes to that mass of controversial literature concerning "Ritualism" which was produced between 1865 and 1875. Neither its temper nor its intrinsic value was fitted to save it from the oblivion into which it has properly fallen.] of literature which previous years had produced, and have been forgotten altogether. Ceremonial which had its root in sentimentalism or aesthetics died a natural death. The sense of humor among Americans is too strong to allow that sort of folly to endure. But the Church had vindicated once again her comprehensiveness. There is a place within her for those who hold to the sacrarnental theory of the Ministry and the supernatural theory of the Sacraments. They are at liberty to teach and to symbolize their belief, provided they do not denounce or try to proscribe their more numerous brethren who do not agree with them.

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