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 XVII. The Recent Past

Commission on Faith and Order; Church Work; Age of Corporate Action; The Modern Priest; Free Church System; The New Social Conscience; Marriage and Divorce; Rights of the Laity; The Church and the Negro; Change of Name; Provincial System; Proportionate Representation.

By the beginning of the new century it had become evident to every one that the "Quadrilateral" was but a brutum fulmen. Church Unity could never be achieved in that way. The Roman Church had already officially denied the validity of our Episcopate. The Protestant Churches could never be brought to any action which would even by inference acknowledge even a suspicion of the sufficiency of their own orders. And it had become plain that this Church would never translate the generous spirit of the Quadrilateral into official action. This, therefore, seemed to be a time to begin the whole matter again.

Accordingly there was created by the General Convention a "Commission on Faith and Order." The avowed purpose of this Commission, which was exceptionally strong in its personnel, was, not to propose terms of reunion, but to seek consultation with representatives of the Christian churches of the world, to ascertain as nearly as possible precisely what each one did really hold to be essential in Doctrine and Discipline; in a word, to strive toward a mutual understanding. To the advances of the Commission practically all the churches of the world responded. Even the Roman Catholics gave at least a civil reply. The whole Christian world was in fact slowly realizing the evils of separation. In every city, town, and village of the land are three times as many places of worship as the needs of the community require. The consequence is rivalry, jealousy, wastefulness, poverty, and impotence. The Commission found the evil recognized and deplored by nearly all. It was still hopefully conferring and corresponding, when the European War turned men's thoughts to other things. But this gave a demonstration on a great scale, to those who could see, that the unity of Christendom when it arrives will be the outcome not of any definitely formulated "Faith" or any well described system of "Order," but of a "Way of Life."

Meanwhile the stream of the Church's life has run in other channels. These have been so many, so diverse, and so interlaced that it is difficult to determine which is the main current. The most the chronicler can do is to point to each one and indicate its present trend. He may also hazard a guess concerning the issue of each.

The first and most important of these may be indicated by the familiar and comprehensive term, "Church Work." The phrase is modern because the thing is modern. The average parish as it is now and as it was forty years ago would scarcely recognize itself. Then it was composed of a group, large or small, of families who had built and who owned their church. Each one either owned or rented outright his "pew." The church was open once a week for services. There was a "Dorcas Society" of women who provided garments for the poor. There was a Sunday school in which the children of the parish were taught the Catechism and the Creed, and were told Bible stories. In a few cases a "Mission School" was maintained at some point remote from the parish church. But the parish had little consciousness of organic life and no consciousness of corporate responsibility. The Minister's duty was thought to be fulfilled when he preached two sermons on Sunday, baptized the children of his own people, administered the Holy Communion once a month, and held service twice a week in Lent. The private Christian thought his duty fulfilled when he confessed his own sins, endeavored to live a sober, righteous, and godly life, and gave an alms to the beggar at his gate.

But a new impulse was moving in society at large which found expression in the Church of England and in this Church first of all Christian bodies. The age of corporations had set in. Individual ownership was giving way to incorporated companies. Individual laborers were combining in labor unions. The individual was coming to count for less and less, and the organization for more and more. It was not alone a quickening of the spirit of altruism among Churchmen, but also that they were moved unconsciously by the spirit of the age. The result has been a transformation of the conception of the Church's function in society. It expressed itself first in organized parochial action for the relief of the poor in its own neighborhood. "Sodalities" and "guilds" were formed, district visitors were appointed, stated meetings were fixed for consultation, plans, and reports. The very word "guild" was new, because the thing for which the word stood was new in the Church. These organized activities grew and multiplied,--for the care of boys, of girls, of working men, communicants' classes, clubs, brotherhoods. Soon it became evident that these must have headquarters convenient and the erection of "Parish Houses" began. Though now deemed part of the ordinary equipment of a parish, and often built before the church itself, hardly one could be found in the country more than fifty years old. They have now come to provide chapels (sometimes), theatres, baths, tennis courts, reading rooms, quarters for baseball clubs and cross-country runners. The result has come about that the conception of the Minister's function has been transformed. He is no longer the preacher, pastor, and shepherd of a flock, but the General Manager of a complex and complicated organization. The qualities which make him efficient and successful are other than those once demanded. This has produced a profound change in the method of his training and equipment. Fortunate is his parish if he can still retain his power to receive his message from God and deliver it persuasively to men from his pulpit. There are those who can do so, but the price of organized efficiency must be paid at the cost of the personal power of the individual.

To the surprise of many, this outburst of Church work was presently followed by an alarming decrease of candidates for the Ministry. The Report on the State of the Church to the General Convention in 1895 first called serious attention to the situation. This has been repeated at every General Convention since. Of course this is due to many causes, the doubtfulness concerning doctrine, the scientific spirit of the age, the uncertainty of the Minister's message, the seduction of wealth, and a hundred others. But the one with which the Church is concerned is that the Minister of today is a new kind of creature, never before known in the Church's history, and there is a natural hesitancy about enlisting in its ranks or undertaking its multitudinous and ill defined duties. It may well be expected that the new movement, like all new movements, will in the end reach a more balanced accord with the Church's normal life.

Closely related to the newly awakened activity in Church work was the rise and spread of "The Free Church System." In an earlier day parishes had been formed and maintained by a very simple method. A group of Church people finding themselves living near one another decided to build a church. Each one, for his contribution to the cost, became the owner or the perpetual tenant of a pew. This pew became the church home of himself, his family, his children, and maybe his children's children. When for any cause a family moved away, his pew was rented per annum to another family. The sense of proprietorship or tenant right was as real toward his pew as toward his house. It is true that hospitality was gladly offered to the stranger, but it was as hospitality and not as of right. It must be said that under this system the Church grew with as large a ratio as, and with a firmer stability than, since. The one great virtue of the method was that where a church was needed it was built by the people themselves without thought of appealing to the Church at large, and that churches were not built where they were not needed. Forty years ago nineteen-twentieths of the parishes were of this sort. Now nine-tenths of them are "free churches."

This change has been due largely to two causes, operating simultaneously. In the first it was a practical need. As soon as any rector and parish became touched by the impulse of social service, and began seriously the task of winning and serving the multitude, the question arose as to where to put them when they gathered them together. The pew holder, even if hospitably inclined, often found the guests whom the usher brought to the door of his pew not altogether to his taste. In any case the family idea associated with the pew was disturbed and irritated when strangers were habitually placed to sit between himself and his children. Beside that, the new people whom it was sought to bring in were apt to shy at the church door. They would come freely to a parish house or guild room, but they shrank instinctively from intruding in a pew, just as they would in a parlor.

And this coincided in time with the rise of that feeling which has now spread throughout society, and which in a vague way questions the right of individual ownership in any thing. It may seem a far cry from Henry George and Tolstoi to free churches, but the nexus is a very real one. The life of the world and the life of the Church are far more closely interblended than is generally realized. Whenever a new fashion of thought or emotion comes to prevail in the one it shows itself in the action of the other. Whether the free church policy has been for help or hindrance is not for the historian to decide. The present facts show that the eldest and strongest parishes, chiefly in the East and South, still maintain the old system of pew rental, that their hospitality to strangers has been immensely increased, that they appear to be quite as well filled as are the free churches, and that from them comes almost the whole of the gifts which support missions and also a large proportion of the free churches.

On the other hand, by means of free churches closer touch has been attained with strata of society which would not otherwise have been reached. In any case sober reflection would show that the one method is as legitimate as the other, that no question of principle is really involved, and that practical expediency will in the long run determine whether either of these methods, or some other, will be best for the Church. The newly aroused social conscience of the Church early found itself confronted with the question of Marriage and Divorce. Within the period before us she has felt much, and thought somewhat, upon this perplexing subject. Among all the changes occurring within the last amazing half century, none is more significant than that in the conception of the relation of man and woman in society. This has showed itself preeminently in the slow but steady loosening of the marriage bond. This phenomenon is manifest in a large part of the Christian world. In France, where divorce was theoretically impossible, it has become comparatively common. In England, where it was practically impossible, it has become easy. But it is in the United States that the movement has shown itself in its most rampant form. The increasing multiplicity of divorce was already occupying the attention of economists, jurists, and sociologists when the Church first seriously essayed to deal with it. Theretofore there had been no specific law or canon dealing with the subject. The fundamental law of the Prayer Book rubric which empowers the priest to repel from the Holy Communion "all notorious evil livers" had been deemed sufficient. This discipline was presently decided to be inadequate, and a canon was enacted forbidding the Minister to marry any man or woman who had been divorced from a partner still alive, "except the innocent party in the case of divorce for the cause of adultery." According to the spirit of the Church's immemorial discipline it was left to the priest to discover and pass judgment upon the facts in any such case, subject to an appeal to the Ordinary by any man or woman who felt aggrieved by his decision. But as the matter more and more engrossed the attention of the Church, the regulation of the Minister became increasingly rigorous. Instead of leaving the appeal to the offended man or woman the Minister was commanded to refer each such application for marriage to the Bishop at once for his godly judgment thereupon. Then it was enacted still further that not even the alleged "innocent party" should be remarried by any Minister of this Church until, first, a year had elapsed from the divorce, second, that "evidence touching the facts in the case, including, if practicable, a copy of the Court's Decree and Record, be laid before the Ecclesiastical Authority," third, "that the said Ecclesiastical Court take legal advice thereupon, and declare in writing that the applicant is really the innocent party." Finally it is enacted that the Minister may in his discretion refuse to marry any divorced person whatever if he does not want to.

Up to this point, in so far as the Church's legislation is concerned, it was all plain sailing. It came within the province of Clerical Discipline, and there was no gainsaying it. But when it came to the discipline of the laity the case took on another complexion. It was an indefeasible right of the layman that he could not be excommunicated for any cause except "notorious evil living." But Marriage and Divorce is both a civil and an ecclesiastical cause. Can a man or woman be pronounced by the Church "a notorious evil liver" for an act which the State warrants, and to which it has been a party? The failure to realize this fundamental difficulty probably explains the failure of the Church to reach a satisfactory judgment in the matter. Here, as not infrequently, the General Convention assumed the possession of power to "bind and loose" without considering that the individual citizen in the Kingdom has rights which cannot be safely ignored. When the English State made it lawful, as it had previously been unlawful, for a man to marry his deceased wife's sister, the English Church's Minister was forbidden to excommunicate him for doing so. Until some way is found to adjust the diverse moralities of the Church and the State no permanent legislation upon this subject is likely to be reached by either. But the evil, which both in different degrees recognize, is so menacing that one may well believe that he who writes the history of the Church fifty years hence will record its abatement.

No problem of the Church has been more perplexing than that of the Negroes. At the close of the Civil War there were in the country about four millions of them. Since then they have multiplied to about eleven millions,--about one-ninth of the population. They are racially a "religious" people, but with a religion of the emotions and the imagination rather than of conduct. Before the War they were generally accounted members of some church, usually the one to which their master was attached. In the Northern cities there were perhaps half a dozen parishes composed almost exclusively of mulattoes. The ordinary Negro was seldom seen in these churches, and was scarcely welcomed,--for there are many "color lines" beside the one which divides white from black. But the great mass of them were adrift as sheep without a shepherd.

The Church was anxious to shepherd them, but did not know how. The sane and natural policy would have been to deal with them as a peculiar race, different from the mass of the population. By nature and tradition English Christianity was foreign and largely unintelligible to them. Its order, liturgy, hymns, and temper were alien to them. If they were to be reached effectively these facts were to be recognized. Such a policy was indeed urged by some of the most sagacious and statesmanlike men in the Church. The great Bishop Whittingham of Maryland proposed a well digested plan. It was substantially based upon the same principle to which Booker Washington has so tenaciously adhered. Its virtue was that it looked at facts as they were. He proposed, in substance, that a Bishop should be consecrated and set apart for the race, that he should be confined to no territorial boundaries, that within wide limits he should be left a free hand as to ritual, discipline, and methods. It was believed that thus could be formed a large African Episcopal Church, linked for the time being to the Church through its Bishop. The Negroes were all at sea ecclesiastically. They needed of all things those which the Church could furnish, the order and restraint of the Church's spirit. But they needed these things fitted to their own idiosyncrasies of nature and disposition.

But doctrinaires and sentimentalists would have none of it. Such ill applied phrases as "all are equal in Christ," "no color line in the Church," carried the day. Instead, the attempt was undertaken to make Episcopalian Negroes. Wherever the attempt has been successful in any considerable way it has brought its own embarrassments. In Northern dioceses where colored parishes were so few as to be negligible it passed unnoticed. The two races there lived habitually so separate and untouched by each other that no question of color arose. But in the dioceses of the South, where the Negroes are, the difficulty was insuperable. In many places the colored population equalled, and in some exceeded, the white. But between the two peoples a social chasm yawned which could not be bridged or passed. The fond notion still obtained that, in State and Church alike, citizenship had no essential relation with social status, that men could stand upon the same level as citizens, while in every thing else each gave his fealty to his own class.

It soon became clear that the theory would not work in the State, and its embarrassment soon appeared in the Church. If the colored people were gathered in any large numbers, and organized into parishes, would these parishes be received into union with the diocesan convention? If so, how long before their votes would preponderate? If not, with what face invite them to the Church? It did not take long for the colored family to discover that they were not wanted in the ecclesiastical family any more than they were in the social family. Unlike Booker Washington's appeal, that of the Church did not reach to their race consciousness and respect. Temporary expedients in the way of "Colored Convocations" within the diocese were tried, but with scant success. The General Convention persistently boggled at the suggestion of a separate organization on the basis of race. When it finally became clear that no real progress was being made, a final makeshift was tried in the form of Suffragan Bishops, with special view to special work among the Negroes. This plan really acknowledged the principle of race segregation, but proposed to confine its operation within the diocese. The plan was disingenuous and the offspring of timidity. It failed entirely of the purpose for which it was ostensibly devised. No Suffragan has thus far been appointed in the South, but on the other hand the nondescript official has begun to multiply in the North,--where the Negroes are not. The net result of fifty years' deliberation and work has been a practical failure to make any considerable impression upon the colored mass. A few colored congregations gathered from the most forward of the race, and with preponderatingly white blood in their veins, live unobtrusively in the Church, but they are a negligible percentage of the eleven millions. The failure has not been due to lack of goodwill or earnest purpose, but to that ineradicable habit of this Church to be governed by sentiment instead of reality.

During the same period repeated attempts have been made to have the Church's legal title changed from "Protestant Episcopal" to something else. The motive of the agitation was to get rid of the adjective "Protestant." It was urged that the word was both superfluous and misleading, that the true status of the Church is not that of protest but of secure assertion, that the day of protest is long past, that the title is an embarrassment and offense in any possible rapprochement with the Catholic branches of the historic Church, that it tacitly aligns this Church with a system of doctrine and a manner of ecclesiastical life which are not really hers.

On the other hand it is urged that the name has been an honored possession for a century and a quarter, that the Church is far closer akin to the Protestant than to the Catholic side of Christianity, that to drop the name or change it would be to estrange us hopelessly from that portion of the Christian world which is nearest us, that the proposed change of name really imports a change of the thing to something else which to many is abhorrent. The agitation has waxed and waned, but upon the whole has gained ground. Its mere discussion has kept the idea before the Church, so that the strangeness of the proposition has largely worn away. From being regarded as "a monster of hideous mien" it has passed through the phases of pity and endurance, and may finally be embraced.

For a good while the Church has been concerned with two radical changes in her organization, one adopted and the other strongly urged, the "Provincial System," and "Proportionate Representation." From the organization of the Church up to 1913 the governing and legislative body was the General Convention, constituted by representations from each diocese. Between this general assembly and the diocese there was no intermediate council or court. But the growth of the Church, the multiplication of her interests, the extension into so many and so sundered missionary fields, at last brought to the General Convention such a mass of agenda that it became overburdened. Therefore in 1913 a set of intermediate parliaments was created. To these Provincial Councils is to be referred a mass of causes in the first instance, and a class of work which heretofore has occupied the General Convention itself.

In the proportion in which each diocese is represented in the General Convention a strange solecism has existed from the beginning. Regardless of the respective size or numbers of the constituent dioceses each one has the same number of representatives and the same vote. When the Constitution was originally adopted every diocese was conterminous with a State. Indeed it regarded itself as an independent State Church. As it was in the case of the Federal Constitution, the only terms upon which each State would enter into the general government was that of absolute equality with every other one. In forming the United States this reluctance was overcome by allowing equal representation in the Senate with a proportionate representation in the House.

But the dioceses in the several States refused to come into union except upon harder terms. So long as each diocese remained conterminous with a State, and while the idea of state autonomy remained powerful, the absurdity of the system was little noticed. But after the Civil War, when the State Rights idea began to decline, and when each State began to be divided into two or more dioceses, the inequitableness and the practical evils of the situation became more and more palpable. But it was difficult to correct. It is easier to grant powers than to recall them. It was but human nature, even Christian human nature, for the smaller dioceses to oppose the surrender of constitutional rights. Nevertheless the common sense and the innate justice of the Church presses more and more, making this the most vital matter concerning the present and the future of the Church.

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