OCTOBER 20, 1895, DURING THE SESSION OF
THE GENERAL CONVENTION.
PRESIDENT OF THE HOUSE OF DEPUTIES.
THE YOUNG CHURCHMAN, CO.
"And Jacob said, Sell me this day thy birthright .... And he sold his birthright unto Jacob."--Gen. xxv. 31, 33.
THE story of the sale of his birthright by Esau has been told for thousands of years since that transaction took place, and must continue to be told while the world shall last. The same thing is done in substance by some one or other every day; to cast away a privilege, on the spur of some trivial temptation, is a thing likely to happen, so long as men have rights peculiarly their own, without the wisdom to see what the loss of those rights 'would involve. Of the innumerable illustrations of my text, I shall select one this evening, referring to our privileges in the branch of Christ's Church in which we are called as heirs of the promises of the Gospel of Christ, and possessors of the grace of the covenant of life and peace.
But, first, a few words about the birthright: let us recall what it was. A privilege, as I said, which went, under the law of primogeniture, to the eldest son. It was his, from his entrance on the stage of this mortal life; his, unless lost by forfeit, to the end of his days. It carried rights, power, and a blessing, which could belong to no one else, and none but he who was to the manner born could enjoy, unless, through his fault, it should be lost to him. As John Henry Newman expressed it:
"His was a great sin, as being a contempt of a special gift of God, a gift which, after his father Isaac, no one in the whole world had but he."
Near to every Christian heart is the problem of the long lost Unity of Christendom. It is, perhaps, the most urgent problem of the hour; no doubt the greatest now pressing upon us for solution. What mind can grasp, what imagination paint in colors too brilliant, the results of a reunion of the scattered divisions of the Army of God? No day should pass without a prayer for that consummation. And yet it is a problem to be studied with fear and trembling. If ever there was a difficult question, this is that question. If ever peril hung upon the flanks of a movement, such peril surrounds us as we feel our way guided by hope. If anywhere a mistake would be disastrous, it would be here. To come together the wrong way would be to incur ills greater than those of the present hour. There is a clear impression in many minds that union based on sentiment, and not on principle, could be but temporary; that the rally must be on a point indicated, not by fervent passion or eager desire, but by reason, reverence, and loyalty to an authority greater than any lodged in men. The reunion of Christendom is the dream of loving, earnest souls; but as soon as a movement, passing from the region of fancy, enters the lines of fact; when ardent wishes are ready to take the form of practical action, things forgotten in our dream recur to the waking thought, and refuse to be put away. Let us, having this great theme in mind, review our position as Churchmen. My words are for us, not for them that are without. Have we a mission in this land? Have we facilities which others do not enjoy? Can we contribute to the solution of this riddle the elements without ·which it can never be read? Have we among the congregations of believers a birthright, involving responsibility, and prescribing a line of action? And if so, would it be possible for us, as Esau did, to sell our birthright? What is that birthright of Churchmen? And in what way might it be bartered and lost? That this dear Church of ours holds a peculiar place in Christendom, can hardly be denied. Let me quote words so familiar that they need not be repeated, yet so forcible that they cannot be repeated too often. They are the often cited words of Count Joseph de Maistre:
''If ever Christians reunite, as all true and sound considerations make it their primary interest to do, it would reasonably appear that the movement must take its rise in the Church of England. .... She is most precious, and may be considered as one of those chemical intermedes which are capable of producing an union between elements apparently dissociable in themselves."
If this be true of the Anglo-Catholic Communion, of which we are a part, it implies that there is something here which is not to be found elsewhere; that we have some special qualifications for the most excellent and blessed work that Christian men could do; that we have advantages, marked and distinctive, in the attempt to end the present trouble in the Household and to draw brethren together in unity. May not these advantages, qualifications, peculiarities, make up, or at least belong to the Birthright of this Church? I think they do; and that this may be said; that we have a Birthright, something descending to us, transmitted, given from the bountiful hand of Another to us the recipients of that inestimable privilege; and that it consists in these things: First, in a clear and authoritative statement of facts revealed to man by God; and next, in the possession of ordinances provided for the transmission of grace from its source outside of us to its place of action within our souls; and next, in the possession of lively oracles, containing, like the Sibylline books in the old fable, things that men need to know for their spiritual health and salvation but cannot discover for themselves; and finally, an administrative and reproductive power, lodged in fallible men in the Apostolic Age and derived from that age to this in a ministerial line. This constitutes our Birthright; and having this, not of ourselves, nor of our own merit, nor by our efforts of any kind, but solely of the goodness of God, and the calling and election of God, we are the native born mediators of reunion. The strangers and pilgrims in this world need light, and grace, and true knowledge, and paternal counsel and help. And in this Church of ours, we have those things:--the lively oracles of the Holy Ghost; the means of spiritual birth, growth, and perfection; the statement of truth, so clear that the child and the wayfaring man, as well as the sage and the prince, may say, in reciting it, "I know whom and what I believe;" the pastoral guidance of men commissioned to represent the Good Shepherd of the Sheep. Raising no question what others have or have not, these four things we have--and not of ourselves. "By the grace of God we are what we are." In the light of that peculiar position let us think together of the past, the present, and what may hereafter be.
The time was, and not so very long ago--for I, though old and gray-headed, remember it well--when there was an impulse towards our Church, which had its rise in an impression widely felt, that while, outside our pale, things were unsettled and uncertain, within could be found rest, with joy and peace in believing; that the heart that was humble might hope for peace among us if anywhere on earth. This conviction brought to our fold, not a promiscuous throng of converts (for the crowd neither cares for nor wants such things), but higher spirits here and there; men of intelligence, earnest souls, men sick of denial and controversy, longing to be delivered from the perplexity and confusion bred of sectarian independence. I shall not pause to ask what change may have come, or for what men now seek us, or what they now expect to find in our communion; but I must insist that in the days which I remember so well, elect souls were drawn to this Church, not as to a home-hotel for chronic doubt and feeble conviction, where religious dyspeptics might nurse their weakness in valetudinarian comfort, as long as they liked, but as to a place where believers could be found, a place of robust faith, a place where the tired soul could find a creed, and truth, and surcease from the pride and presumption of pretentious doubt and boastful agnosticism. The possession of the birthright was that which then attracted earnest souls to our Church. She had a creed, a primitive liturgy, a whole system of doctrinal and practical theology in her Book of Common Prayer: she was not a hospital for doubters, but a tower of strength for believers. What man, weary of sin, of doubtfulness, of earth, of himself and people in the same plight, whom he could not help and who could not help him, could resist the call to a place where men seemed to know Him whom they believed, to drink of living waters, to be able to read their title clear to an inheritance incorruptible and undefiled and that fadeth not away? That was the old feeling about our Church; that justified the movement towards her. If certitude cannot be had; if the search for truth must always be man's first duty, as if it had not yet been made known, or had been made known in such an ill-judged way that no one can be sure where or what it is; if all sects have sufficient wherewith to feed their constituencies, and the choice between the religions is between one volunteer company, and another more smartly uniformed and better drilled, yet still a volunteer company and no more; what use to make a change? But that was not the view which they took, when I was young, of the claim of the Church and the advantages to be had in her communion. With loving remembrance I think of that stage in her history, when, with her Creed, her Liturgy, her Bible, her Apostolic ministry, her ancient customs, she was the haven of safety, the pillar of faith, the home of peace to many who knew no peace till they found it there. And that was the result of possession of the Birthright; the power, by God's mercy, to be to men what they long for, to give them what they need most; and having thus endeavored to define and illustrate the word, let me speak of the way in which the Birthright, our special privilege, may be sold, given away, lost.
As for this Birthright, it is secured to us by four defences, four bulwarks, on the permanence and stability of which its continued possession depends. Suppose that we take up in order those four articles in our charter as a branch of Christ's Catholic Church: the Word of God, the Creed, the Sacraments, the Ministry. These are not the Birthright, but the defences of the Birthright; to guard them with jealous care is the way to keep the Birthright. To give up any one of them, by way of compromise, would be to make sale of the Birthright to that extent. And I think that our danger as possessors of these defences of the Birthright will at once appear, when we consider precisely what each of these means, and how easily, with the help of a clouded mind and some lubricity of speech, these four things might, ere one knew it, be lost.
First, there is the Word of God. We hold the Sacred Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the Word of God; not merely to contain a word or words from God, but to be the Word of God, written and legible of all men. True, the Church has not a theory of inspiration; but it is also true that from the beginning she has always held those Scriptures to be inspired: inspired as no other writings are, or ever were, or ever shall be. There is peril along the road on which they go, who, whatever their motives, assail the integrity of the Sacred Scriptures. This is not the place, nor the hour, in which to treat of modern criticisms on the Word of God; but, after reading much of that kind of writing, I fail to find any one who can tell us what of inspiration remains, after the text has been thus ploughed up and laid open to the burning sun. I find men criticising the Bible without reserve and without limit: saying of this book, "It is an Oriental love song;" of that, "It is a novelette composed after the fashion of the old storytellers; "of a third, " It was written long after the events of which it pretends to contain the prophecy;" of another, "It was an invention of priestcraft, a forgery of later days." All this they say: and then, after these charges of fiction, fable, falsehood, imposition, we hear them exclaim: "Nevertheless, we say nothing against the divine preciousness, the heavenly quality of these old records; we venerate, we accept them as Sacred Books." But I have not yet found any satisfactory attempt to harmonize the idea of this want of genuineness, authenticity and truthfulness, with the protestation that the Bible does, notwithstanding, deserve our confidence and love. To fall in with such views; to give up the solemn, perpetual conviction of the Church on the point of the full and unique inspiration of her Holy Books; to admit that they are mere human compositions, fallible like other works of man, and not revelations of the truth of God, appears to me to be selling one part of our Birthright and surrendering one of the most necessary of its defences.
Secondly, the Creed. Let us not say the Creeds, but the Creed, for there is substantially one and only one. The Creed is not a string of words without meaning, or capable of change of meaning with the changing years. It is a statement of facts, in words intended to be so clear and intelligible that they cannot be misunderstood. It is easy to conceal, or change or pervert the sense of a written statement; wherefore immense pains have been taken to make this Creed so clear that no intelligent man can help knowing what it means. That bulwark of the Birthright; how can it be shaken, or beaten down? By retaining the letter, but perverting the sense intended to be conveyed. It is not the words that we care for; but the facts which the words relate. The Virgin Birth of Christ; His true resurrection from the dead; the sole value of the Articles of the Creed which declare these truths lies in this, that they do declare them, and that they cannot be wrested to mean any thing else. To accept a formula is nothing, unless a man accept the statement therein made. The Birthright is the revealed truth about God, Christ, the Church, the duty and the future destiny of the human race; information on these points so clear and full as to segregate them from the condition of open questions. Considering what the Creed was intended to be and is, it would be selling our Birthright, to concede that the Creed can remain the Creed, after the meaning of the Creed has been changed. Union with any body of men, who, though accepting the Creed, accept it as a blank form to be filled in with their own concepts, with meanings which it was not intended to convey, and never has conveyed, and cannot convey save at the expense of the integrity of the speech in which it was first written and has been translated into all tongues of the earth: such union could do no good on either side; they would gain nothing from us; we should lose by that concession.
We have one Bible, we have one Creed. The Creed, apart from its sense, is a blank form and no more.
And next, the Holy Sacraments. What are these? Bare rites, mere figures, empty signs? The words and acts in their ministration: why are those words used? And why are those acts done? Can the terms be separated from the intention with which they were prescribed? The formula of Holy Baptism: shall we consider it as effectual if uttered without belief in Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, without belief in baptism as generally necessary to salvation? The words, "This is My Body, This is My Blood": what efficacy in their utterance if Christ is regarded as a mere man, with no more of the Godhead about Him than other good and great men might have, and "where the Lord's Supper is considered to be a memorial feast only, a ceremony kept up by way of affecting remembrance, and better left off should it cease to edify? The Holy Sacraments have been ever regarded in the Church as powers of the world to come. What value in the form to him who knows not, or denies what it signifies? The use of words, allied from the beginning with the idea of conveyance of spiritual power and grace, the use of such words, divorced from their intent and purpose, what can that avail?
"For who would keep an empty form,
Through which the Spirit breathes no more?"
To let go the inner mystery and meaning of the Sacrament, is to vacate the words, and to annul the ordinance. What would this be but to sell our Birthright?
Finally, in reviewing these bulwarks of the Truth of God, we come to the Ministry. Of this, the power lies in the fact that it is the ordinance of the Lord and not of man. Ministries of late origin, ministries of human origin, have no place here, whatever good purposes they may serve elsewhere. It has recently become the fashion to speak of the Hierarchy of the Church under the descriptive term "Historic." Let there be no concealment of fact, no surrender of claim, under cover of this ambiguous adjective. He sells the Birthright, who, under the cover of any qualifying term, denies that from the Apostles' time there have been the three Orders in the Church, that these are of Divine appointment, that they are essential to the complete organization of the Kingdom of God. Here, as elsewhere, the terms we use exclude as well as establish. Of course, our three-fold Ministry is historic; it has a history; that history is written on tables that cannot be broken, or melted up, or erased. The history of the Episcopate begins with the Twelve Apostles, may be read of all men from that time down, and is in the telling to-day; it is the history of the stewardship of the mysteries of Christ. Other Ministries are historic also, but not in the sense in which this is historic; either this new word expresses the old idea that has been so long in the Church, or it does not. If it does, no need of such a term. If it does not, it calls for immediate explanation, that we may see whether it was intended to level down our Episcopacy and merge it with Ministries of later origin. The history is clear, back to the Apostles' time. Concession on this point might lead to union \vith some sects around us, but it would divide us hopelessly from nine-tenths of the Catholic Church throughout the world; the mess of pottage would be dearly bought at the sacrifice of what has been surely believed among us from the end of the first century to the present hour.
Such is our outline of the situation of our Church, and such our view of the defences of the central rallying point for a divided Christendom. The four-fold band cannot be broken without bringing the whole edifice down upon our heads. A Bible, truly the word of God; a Creed, plain and easy to understand in its statements of fact; Sacraments, living and life-giving; a Ministry traceable back to the Apostles' time: these are the defences of a system which gives sonship in God, the knowledge of Himself and ourselves, the rights guaranteed under the new covenant in Christ. It is possible by a little word-jugglery to throw all this away: it would be easy to form alliances with men, who would agree to accept the four propositions, reserving the right to make of them as little as they please. I can imagine men professing a mighty veneration for the Sacred Scriptures, but considering them as a collection of ancient monographs, full of faults, errors and mistakes, open to free comment, criticism and correction, and inspired in no other sense than that in which the Sacred books of the heathen, and even some masterpieces of later literature, are inspired. I can imagine men, who would accept the Creed, not however in the sense in which it was set forth in the General Councils and has been always understood, but rather as a pliable formula, into which any one may read whatever notion of his own he thinks to be true. I can imagine men who, agreeing to accept and use the Sacramental formulas, have no belief in the Sacraments as ministered in this Church, and perhaps consider the venerable phrases as free masons'signs, social passwords, relics of a system passing away. I can imagine men submitting to Episcopal ordination, but, as it were, under protest, and with the caveat that their act shall not be construed as reflecting on other ministries deemed by them to be equally valid. Of such men beware; and of entangling alliances with them; lest we be found in the train of a funeral of one more hope of the Christian world.
Again, I beg you to remember that these four are the defences of the Birthright, rather than the Birthright itself. If we propose them to others, it is because we believe that we have them from God, and because we feel that their acceptance or rejection is the test of readiness to submit to the ordinance of God. No gift of God can be duly enjoyed till a man makes surrender of himself and submits to some power not himself. It is the law ever in life; it is above all the law in our religious life; obedience to authority is the condition precedent to the enjoyment of the gift of Christ. To quote the words of Canon Body:
"A Catholicism which is not characterized by obedience to constituted authority is merely pseudo-Catholicism, and tin-true."
When you shall see in the bodies around us a disposition to renounce what is their own, and unite with us on the principle of surrender to the law, the order, the dogmatic teaching of the Catholic Church, then (but not till then) look up and lift up your heads, for the redemption draweth nigh.
I said, at the outset, that the Reunion of Christendom should be and is the desire of every faithful and true heart; but that it is a subject beset, not only with difficulties, but with unspeakable risks and dangers. We cannot long for it too earnestly, we cannot pray for it too frequently; but take heed, in whatever we do, in a practical way, that no wrong step be taken. The statement was made at Lambeth that there are four points on which agreement must be reached. It was a great thing to say that. The logical mind of the age sees that the Bishops were right, and that these four are the hinges on which the door must open and shut. But is not that subtle mind now studying how to find a way to keep the four points in the letter, but to evade their force; how to say: We accept the Lambeth proposals, but we do not intend to yield one iota of that system which they were framed to exclude? Make your statements of agenda and credenda as simple as you can; but look for attempts at ingenious evasion by men impressed sufficiently to admire them, but not moved to take them ex animo in the sense they bear. Better that the Lambeth declaration had never been made, than that it should merely add to the number of platforms which have fallen to pieces; of altar slabs on which the truth has been immolated, to please the multitude. We pray for a real Unity, not one which begins in compromise, and must end either in fresh disruption, or in total indifference to principle and the denial that there is any authority above us or here which men should reverence and obey.
There is something attractive in the eager and enthusiastic fashion in which some men approach this question; in the proposal to throw down at once all the bars and fences, and rush together into one struggling crowd of ecstatic holiday keepers, dancing and singing, and making merry, and crying out, "Behold, the millenium! Christians are one at last!" So there is something attractive and fascinating in Esau, the man who bartered that privilege of his at the bidding of a passionate natural desire. He was a bold, frank man; fond of the world and life; heedless of spiritual things. His temper was disclosed in the light esteem at which he held the gifts and promises of God, when it was a question between them and the desire of his flesh and his own heart. It has been ever thus; it will be so to the end of time; there will always be those who admire independence of action and are restive under the restraints of an old religion. The spirit of Esau may grow in the Church; if so, the danger will also grow, of taking some rash step, of making some awful mistake, while reason and the-spirit of obedience were in temporary suspension. Our safety lies in a habitual desire for the things unseen, in a settled conviction that they are to be realized by communion with the unseen. Possession of the birthright depends on what Esau does not seem to have had: a keen perception, a full faith in things invisible, passing light and understanding, a soul in sympathy with the mystery and wonder of the spiritual world. Unlike that elder son of Isaac, whose long and bitter cry of despair still rings in our ears as we read the story of his fatal error and its consequences, we must cultivate the spirit of reverence, of religious awe, of loyalty to the Father's promise, of mistrust of man and the promise of the world. Doubt not that it is coming: the day when the Lord shall build up Zion, and when His glory shall appear; but in God's name, and in the name of a suffering household, do not hinder the coming of that day by devices of your own invention to hasten its arrival. The most effective opponents of Christian unity to-day are those who eagerly throw a flimsy structure across the flood and tempt us to risk our lives upon it in an effort to reach the longed for shore.
Brethren, may I frankly state a conviction? It is this, that one of the needs of the hour is a fuller grasp, a clearer view of God's gifts to us in this Church of our love; a jealous watchfulness, a vigilance, bespeaking the full valuation of our heritage. What we have goes together, as one whole. Is it the modern habit of differentiating, the passion for specializing, the method of subdivision and distribution under separate heads, that has led some to think, or talk as if they thought, that our possessions in the Church can be itemized, and made over to others' hands, for some valuable consideration, leaving us none the poorer by the transaction? Suppose it to be suggested, that if some set of men outside our lines could be induced to accept from us a Creed, and a Bible, and certain sacramental formulas, and an instalment of the grace of Episcopacy, we might safely make over these to them, without asking what they will do with them? Surely these treasures of the ancestral house should not be thrown over the hedge, and left unguarded, undefended, in the hands of persons alien to our spirit and unconverted to our ways. Surely it cannot be right to say to some congregation or group of congregations: "Here is a Bible, and here is a Creed, and here are certain prescribed words of ancient use, and here is a pass-ticket, duly signed, showing the transmission of Episcopal ordination: take these, retaining your independence, your resistance to authority, your contempt for councils and traditions, your dislike of dogma, and all your peculiar fads; but now we are one with you and you with us, because we have let go so much of our treasure and you have it to use, or misuse, at your pleasure." This does not seem to me a defensible proceeding. The Word of God, the old Creed, the Sacramental formulas, the transmitted ministerial office, live only in the body, not apart from it. They live in that large, that vast System, liturgical, doctrinal, institutional, in which they have their seat; apart from it might they not die, as to any good derivable from them by self-willed individuals, in larger or smaller numbers? The heart of a man, if torn from his side, will not go on beating by itself; its place is under his ribs; wrenched thence, it dies, and he dies of the operation. So those sacred things of ours, being of the Kingdom, live in the Kingdom; they maintain its life, and it gives them their vital status. On reciprocal play as by systole and diastole, the vital functions are maintained. Such thoughts about our treasure, its uses, and the conditions to its safety, come forcibly into the mind as we read how Esau sold his birthright, retaining a temporal power and a secular position, while he lost the one thing which was his as heir of an immortal promise such as this world cannot give.
There are things greatly to be longed for, which cannot be hurried;--which, if we try to hurry them, elude our best efforts. There are high and noble ends which, if a man attempt to attain the wrong way, will never be reached, and will destroy him who so pursues. If, by God's grace, this Church is in a position to mediate the union of the scattered flocks, it must be--it can only be--because we have something apt to that end which no one else has. That is our heritage. We did not confer it on ourselves; we may not glory in it; we came into it by transmission from those who went before. Rightly to use it for the proper end, is salvation for ourselves; wrongly to use, is to make ourselves weak and helpless like other men.
I have thus spoken of one application of this subject. It comes with no less force to each man in his spiritual experience and inner life. But the principle is one, whether the scale be wide or narrow. He who is true to his birthright, as one Christian man, fighting the enemy in his own heart, and holding fast the law of God, will see more clearly the duty of the larger day. He that is faithful in the least, is faithful, also, in the greatest things. He who has learned the value of the privilege, tracing the line of duty in his own soul, will see it in the cloudy time, when system strives with system, and when the stars rise and set as the kingdoms of this world ascend, and pass, and as the Kingdom of God moves on towards triumph and perpetual rest.