Project Canterbury

William McGarvey and the Open Pulpit
An Intimate History of a Celibate Movement in the Episcopal Church,
and of Its Collapse, 1870-1908.

By Edward Hawks
Priest of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia

Philadelphia: The Dolphin Press, 1935.


NO ATTEMPT is made in the following pages to write a biography of the late Monsignor William I. McGarvey. Of his early life very little is known even by those who were his closest friends. Of his last years the record only concerns the routine duties of a Catholic priest which have no relation to this narrative. It may be inferred from his habitual silence as to his origin, his boyhood, and everything of a strictly personal nature, that he did not wish that these matters should be discussed. It was nevertheless his desire, expressed on a certain day in July 1922, and repeated a few months before his fast-approaching death, that the story of the religious movement with which his name has always been associated should be told. In asking me to tell it, he gave me, on those occasions, some papers which he thought might be useful. These were found to consist of several scrapbooks and of some fragments of unfinished essays. Everything else of a literary character had either been already destroyed, or has since been lost.

I remember the shyness with which he approached the subject of his request. He broached the matter, during one of the short stays that I made with him at the Rectory of the Holy Infancy, Bethlehem, Pa. On arriving I noticed with alarm the mortal inroads manifested in his appearance. Although he did not speak of this, he was evidently aware of it; and found it difficult to sustain his customary cheerfulness. There was a sense of uneasiness in our conversation which increased after dinner when we sat alone in his study. At last he blurted out the thoughts which were disturbing him.

It was in the nature of a confession. He accused himself of a sensitive reserve which had cramped his activities. He admitted that he had neglected to do one thing that he now felt that he ought to have done; and that was to write a sequel to the tracts which he had published before he became a Catholic. Fourteen years had passed and he had never fully explained to those who had a right to know, the reasons for his leaving the Episcopal Church. I gathered from his words, that he had shrunk from controversy and its possible bitterness. Perhaps he had carried his hesitation too far? His pen, which had been so facile in the defence of his Anglo-Catholic ideals and hopes, had hardly produced one line in defence of his Catholic convictions. He had tried to think that this hesitation was acceptable to his ecclesiastical superiors; that it was the best course for a neophyte to pursue; that silence was the fitting companion to obedience. He had, however, lately come to believe that the task had really been set aside more from weariness, and lack of interest, than from any higher motive. He simply could not bring himself to rummage in his memories, or stir up a past enthusiasm. For him Anglicanism was a dead subject. "Let the dead bury the dead." He often said this to us. In the saying of it the time had slipped away and now it was too late: would I do what he had left undone?

There is reason to believe that this silence of William McGarvey concerning his conversion was not at first deliberate. There is some evidence amongst his earlier papers to show that he had made several attempts to write his apologia. There is also a belief that he labored for a long time on a MS. which he afterwards decided to destroy. It is said that he destroyed it on the advice of a priest in whom he reposed his trust. He would easily have been persuaded to take this advice, as it accorded with his hatred of publicity; and it would have been a relief to him to avoid giving offence to several lifelong friends (now dead) whose conversion he never ceased to await. He might have felt that they would be alienated by what honesty would compel him to say; so, perhaps, he was glad to find support in his desire not to say it.

After his death there remained alive for some years others connected with the Open Pulpit Movement who were likewise as adverse to notoriety as was William McGarvey. Until their death I had an excuse for my long delay in fulfilling a promise. This delay might have stretched into complete silence had it not been for misrepresentation. Several references to the part William McGarvey took in the crisis of 1907-8 have appeared in print. There is the likelihood of there being more. The conversion of so many clergymen of the Episcopal Church to Rome under the influence of a definite chain of causes could hardly remain unrecorded for long. To correct misstatements that have been made, and to anticipate others, this somewhat tardy response to a dying request is now attempted.

To understand the situation that confronted the Anglo-Catholic Party in the Episcopal Church during the years 1907-8 it is necessary to describe the events that led to it. It is necessary also to explain why certain clergymen then reacted so violently to what now seems a matter of so little importance. This will increase the size of the book but it will add to its interest and, I hope, its value. The attempt will therefore be made to trace the formation of a group of sincere men who were united in mind and heart by the strength of an ideal which possessed them for many years, and to show how unexpectedly this ideal was shattered.

The event which shattered the ideal was the amending of the Canon Law of the Episcopal Church by the General Convention held in Richmond, Va., in the fall of 1907. It was the accomplishment of a long projected undertaking, and not the result of precipitation and mass enthusiasm. By the amendment it became possible for anyone, who called himself a Christian, to preach from the pulpits of the Episcopal Church. There were restrictions, as shall be shown, but the principle was established legally. The pulpits were opened in theory and in fact. They were opened with the definite purpose of encouraging intercommunion between the various non-Catholic sects. Had there been no such purpose in the minds of the promoters of the movement there would have been no legislation. The legislation remains and the pulpits are therefore still open. Why, it may be asked, does this legislation now seem so harmless? Could it have really been revolutionary if it is now so seldom spoken of? Why did McGarvey and his associates attach so much importance to something that others were able to accept?

The ready answer is that William McGarvey and those associated with him were either honestly panic-stricken, or less honestly disposed to have themselves regarded as panic-stricken. This answer is not satisfactory. One has only to turn to the file of the Church newspapers of the current date to see that the seriousness of the situation was fully realized by everyone whose judgment was worthy of consideration. The crisis cannot be explained by regarding it as a temporary clash of party feeling. The new legislation had an intrinsic importance. It had abiding values. The attempt to ignore this fact or to explain it away cannot change its purpose. If Episcopalians have become reconciled to the change in legislation, this is either because it is agreeable to them, or because they have adopted an attitude of indifference to all legislation.

The position of William McGarvey has been misunderstood. For him the Open Pulpit legislation was something more than an unfortunate and easily remedied mistake. The extent of its acceptance was not, for him, its real importance. That many bishops treated it as a dead letter, and that few Protestant ministers cared to accept its privileges, had little or nothing to do with his arguments. For him it was a revelation of the fundamental inconsistency of Anglicanism. It was something pivotal in an inevitable development. He analyzed its nature and foretold its eventual results. He ventured to prophesy what has since been abundantly fulfilled. He did not assert that Anglicanism was departing from its moorings, but rather that it was demonstrating its lack of moorings. He did say, however, that it was departing from its denominational traditions, and in doing so showed its lack of fundamental principles. It matters little that the Open Pulpit is now seldom entered: that it may be entered is the essential thing. It was the utter failure of the bishops at Richmond (including those who called themselves Anglo-Catholic) to see the inconsistency of opening the pulpits of an infallible Church to heretics, that revealed to McGarvey the futility of his own position as a teacher of truth. It was the strange contention made by Episcopalians that an Open Pulpit is agreeable to Catholic tradition which helped to clear his vision. It was a constant remark with him that the legislation of Richmond was a hole in the wall that enabled him to see how he was imprisoned in a false system.

The prophecy made by McGarvey in the Tracts that he published at the time of his leaving the Episcopal Church has been remarkably fulfilled. He did not, of course, suppose that the new legislation would lessen the liberty of those Anglicans who held Catholic views. On the contrary, he knew that it would give them greater freedom than they yet enjoyed. What it would do, would be to make impossible the exclusive claim of the Anglo-Catholics to represent true Anglicanism. The most that they could now expect was toleration (greatly extended) for themselves which they would now be compelled to give to others. Toleration was not the object that William McGarvey sought. What he and his associates strove for was the complete victory of what they considered to be the truth. Unless their Anglo-Catholicism was the true expression of Anglicanism, it was useless. It was their purpose to drive out of the Episcopal Church by constitutional means the errors that Lutheranism and Calvinism had brought in. The Open Pulpit legislation tolled the knell to such hopes. It was the outcome of a growing philosophy of Comprehensiveness. It was subversive of any standard of orthodoxy. It rejected authority in favor of empirical subjectivism. It was not without cogency that the year 1907 saw the condemnation of Modernism by the Pope. The General Convention of the same year intended that the new legislation should be a challenge to Christendom.

Since 1907, Comprehensiveness, as a theory of arriving at unity, has grown to be a dogma with Protestants generally, and with most Anglicans, including many who have adopted some of the beliefs and practices of the Catholic Church. Anglican clergymen have cleared the way for comprehensive reunion by denying the Divinity of Christ, His Virgin Birth, md His bodily Resurrection. In doing so they have aroused less objection than did the Open Pulpit amendment itself. The Anglican Church as a whole, and the Anglo-Catholic Party as a powerful factor in it, have increasingly subscribed to a policy of live and let live. With the least struggle offered by any of the Protestant denominations they have yielded to the entrance of Liberalism, now called Modernism. Whilst other religious bodies are still striving to free themselves from this deadly infection, the Episcopal Church has passed through its period of inoculation with only slight reactions, and has shown itself to be living in comparative health. The once violent contentions between "High" and "Low" Church theorists are growing weaker. The Church magazines have all adopted an attitude of generous neutrality. And why not? Liberalism must be at least outwardly liberal. If a man is free to deny the articles of the Apostles' Creed, he may well allow his brother to wear a chasuble or swing a censer.

The silence that surrounds the acceptance of the Open Pulpit is ominous. Quite recently an English Dean, in exact accordance with the legislation of 1907, invited Unitarians to preach in a cathedral pulpit. There was little comment from the church papers in England and America. The protest of a distinguished layman, Lord Hugh Cecil, who took upon himself the office of rebuking those who gave and defended the invitations, has been generally regarded as impertinent. Most Anglicans dislike anything that savors of exclusive Christianity. From the ranks of the Anglo-Catholics, however, we might have looked for indignant protests. They were strangely lacking.

To McGarvey the pulpit was a sacred place. It was by means of it that the principles of the Oxford Movement were first propagated. In those days it was the symbol of the infallibility of God's Word. It has now become a laboratory for experimentation. There seems to be a complete failure to appreciate the supreme importance, in the chronological order, of preaching the Gospel. It must precede the administration of the Sacraments. To keep the pulpit open and the altar closed is a strange contradiction, for if a preacher does not have the true doctrine of the Sacraments he cannot preach the true Gospel. Of this contradiction the non-Anglican ministers are fully aware. They will not accept the implied insult that they may preach in churches where they have neither the right to receive communion nor to be recognized as truly ordained clergymen. They logically reply to all invitations to Reunion that they will only cooperate in a definite manner when they can do so on equal terms. The commission to administer the Word and Sacraments is single and inseparable. There are no genuine supporters of the Open Pulpit who do not believe that this attitude on the part of the ministers is dignified and correct. These men said so in 1907 when they admitted that they were only driving an opening wedge into Anglican conservatism. They will never cease their endeavors until the Open Altar follows the Open Pulpit. In a sense the Open Altar has already become a fact. [The last Lambeth Conference allowed mutual communions to take place under certain conditions in missionary jurisdictions.] Both are inconsistent with a Divine Revelation, and one is not more inconsistent than the other. William McGarvey saw this in 1908. It is the only satisfactory explanation of his actions.

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