Priestly Fidelity to the Church of Christ.
PREACHED AT THE OPENING OF THE
Seventy-fifth Annual Convention
DIOCESE OF CONNECTICUT,
IN CHRIST CHURCH,
BY THE REV. GURDON S. COIT, D.D.,
RECTOR OF ST. JOHN'S CHURCH, BRIDGEPORT.
I CORINTHIANS, IV. 1, 2. "LET A MAN SO ACCOUNT OF US, AS OF THE MINISTERS OF CHRIST, AND STEWARDS OF THE MYSTERIES OF GOD. MOREOVER, IT IS REQUIRED IN STEWARDS, THAT A MAN BE FOUND FAITHFUL."
THIS declaration of the Great Apostle, teaches us that fidelity is required of the ministers of Christ, and stewards of the mysteries of God: and I therefore propose to make this the subject of discourse, Priestly fidelity to the Church of Christ.
In pursuing this theme, let me be permitted to remark--that, as our mother who bore us, gave us the best nutriment our infancy required, so our mother the Church, can best teach us, in the infancy of our spiritual being, the duties of our priestly office. He is wise, who is not wise above what is written; as he is faithful, who uses well the few or the many talents, committed to him.
Let me then remind you, my brethren; what the Church has declared to be fidelity--on the part of, those, whom she admits, to minister at her altars. As, on all points of Christian duty, so, on every point of Christian [5/6] fidelity, she speaks soberly and advisedly, intelligibly and scripturally.
And now, how does the Church define priestly fidelity to herself?
If the questions addressed to a Deacon, about to be advanced to the second grade of the Priesthood, are carefuly examined, it will be found that he pledges himself to the fulfillment of certain promises, which include, apparently, all the essential and necessary requisites of the Christian Ministry. They may be arranged under two classes--our Personal qualifications, and our Relative Obligations.
I. AS TO OUR QUALIFICATIONS.
We are, first, to give satisfactory evidence that "we think we are called" to the Priestly office. The evidence of others is not alone sufficient, however discriminating, or however favorable. The watchful and wary eye of the experienced Bishop; the keen, but kindly supervision of older priests; the testimony of pious laymen, that our humbler services as deacons, have been edifying to them, and our outward life agreeable to our sacred calling; all this is not sufficient to approve our worthiness of higher honors.
Men are not the discerners of the spirits of other men. The wisest may be deceived by plausible assumptions and counterfeit similitudes of sanctity. Another and a surer testimony is demanded of those who seek the priesthood; and that is, the testimony of their own [6/7] hearts. "Do you," each candidate is asked, "think, in your heart, that you are truly called, according to the will of our Lord Jesus Christ, and according to the canons of this Church, to the order and ministry of the Priesthood?"
No man, then, can offer himself for "the order and ministry of the priesthood" who does not "truly think himself" called thereto; and that he is thus truly called, the honest and deliberate evidence of his own heart must unreservedly be rendered. His own heart must truly testify, first to itself; and then to his Bishop in heaven; and then to the whole Church, that he is called to its ministry.
There--there in the veiled secresy of his own bosom, must he long and seriously weigh the momentous questions: Is it indeed my calling to minister at the holy altar of the church of Christ? Have I the mental, the moral, the spiritual qualifications? Are the motives which prompt me, pure, unselfish, godly? Am I moved by the Holy Ghost to do this? Have I implored His guidance? and have I had His testimony, that my heart is truly set upon my work, by my past experience in the Christian and ministerial life; His testimony that I have loved my duty and done it faithfully, conforming the thoughts and wishes of my soul to my Master's will; my outward life, to my Master's example?
This, in brief, is the testimony, which a man's own heart must have given him, before he may dare to present himself for the priestly office.
 As to the various or the particular modes, by which he may arrive at right conclusions upon this fundamental point, I shall not attempt to enumerate or to refute the fanatic or the ascetic tests, which some employ, or propose for the use of others, by which the testimony of the heart, as to a candidate's spiritual fitness, is to be determined by himself. Suffice it to say, that the most satisfactory evidence that any of us can have, my brethren, that we have a true call to this ministry, which we exercise, is, the evidence of Time. Time, TIME, will tell the story of truth about us all. Time will show whether we have deceived ourselves, and are deceiving the Church, or the contrary. Have we, through the wear and tear of years, amid the ' changes and chances of this mortal life,' maintained the spirit and the purpose, which, in the ardent glow of youthful sincerity, inspired us to do the work of a minister of Christ Jesus? Has it been our sole aim to take heed to ourselves, and to the doctrine we have preached; and to perform the works, which constantly demand the sacrifices incident to our profession, but which, at the same time, contribute most essentially to its enjoyments; for nothing can create a feeling more akin to Christ's, and therefore nothing can more surely win his present favor and his final plaudit, than, like him, and in his name, “going about and doing good."
This, then, is the true test of pastoral fidelity, a patient, lift-long adherence to the promises made at [8/9] ordination. This is he, who is moved by the Holy Ghost, not he who promises, but he who performs. He is ' truly called' by the Holy Ghost, who, in the humblest or in the highest sphere assigned him, discharges, according to the measure of his ability, his sacerdotal duties. The light that guides him, may not be the fiery impulse of excitement, the fitful flash of enthusiasm, or some fancied inspiration, burning in a fevered brain; but it will be that serene and steady illumination, which we are told, will ever coruscate around a good man's path, growing brighter and brighter, till it culminates in the perfect glory of the perfect day!
Reading the past, by the light of this test, can we, my brethren, show a clean record? Can we say, that we have been faithful to our priestly vows; that we have done as men, and ministered as priests, as these vows have obligated us? If we have not, let us thank God, that there is yet room for repentance; if others have been delinquent, let us be merciful to their faults, in the humiliating remembrance of our own!
Let us proceed to another necessary personal qualification for the exercise of the Christian priesthood. He, who assumes it, must be a man of prayer, and a man of study.
Is it requisite, before Christian brethren, to enforce the obligation of prayer upon Christian brethren, as a chief means of their strength in performing their duties; in finding light and leading from above; and in obtaining a blessing upon their pastoral and public labors? Yet I may be allowed to put the [9/10] enquiry--Can he be really a man of prayer, who goes through the formal process of kneeling down, and supplicating God to pour the unction of His Holy Spirit upon his discourses and his labors, when, in the first, he is writing for human applause, and in the latter, is contriving for temporal success--a larger salary--or a better parish--or, it may be, a Bishop's mitre!
It is equally unnecessary to press the requirements of the Church upon her presbyters--that they should be men of study--that they should study, above all things else, the "Holy Scriptures," which are the divine fountain of all the light which illumines the path of man through this strange world;--that they should search and interpret them with a childlike and humble spirit; that they should avoid making their mysteries the chief subjects of investigation and discourse; herein following the example of holy Archbishop Leighton, who, to the complaint of his nephew, that “there were many things in the Scriptures which he could not understand," meekly replied, "And many which I cannot!"
The study of the Pastoral Presbyter should be chiefly that of his own heart, and of the hearts of his flock. I do not say that he may not be, nor that he must be, a learned man. It is well for him that he should be so; for he may thus, upon occasion, rebuke the gainsaying, and convince the skeptical; but his work, his main work, at least among us, is, not so much with these, as it is with such as are convinced of the truth of Christian Religion, and help to support it, and intend, some time [10/11] or other, to profess it; but who are deterred by plausible yet unfounded scruples, or are absorbed in the whirl of worldliness, or wrapped in the apathy of indifference. Accordingly it would seem, that the great study of the Presbyter, at the present day, should be how to get at the hearts of his people, whom the true spirit of Christianity has not warmed and illuminated. Let him preach to THEIR HEARTS, in brief appeals, and in the wise, order which the Church prescribes, upon scriptural topics; let him, better still, preach to them day by day, and from house to house, as an ambassador of the Lord Jesus Christ, beseeching them to be reconciled to God, and to comply with his holy will, by fulfilling their baptismal vows, and leading godly lives. Let him do this, and he will find a better result from his labors, than if he had devoted them to the recondite investigations of a costly library, and had condensed them into "fine discourses," and telling pamphlets, and "crack" reviews!
We come to the last of the personal duties of the Priesthood, which the Ordination Service recognizes: self-discipline and domestic government.
Diligence, and such diligence as may fairly be supposed to become a Christian Presbyter, is required of him--to frame his own life, and that of his family, so as to make himself and them, to the extent of his power, "wholesome examples" of piety to the flock of Christ, and to the world around them,
 You can conceive of no more pitiable object, than the man, who, by his own example, belies the doctrines he preaches; whose own passions are ungovernable, when he teaches others to be meek and patient and pure; who is careless of his own conduct, while he expects others to be holy.
But he is scarcely less to be pitied, who, though he may be able to curb himself, is unable to control his household; who seeks to convert strangers to godliness, when his own family are godless; suffering them to lead effeminate, selfish, useless, sottish, unholy lives, while he wields the discipline of the family of Christ, and enunciates the awful Oracles of the Temple of God! God save him from the doom of Eli!
II. But let us, now, in the second place, glance at our relative obligations, as they are enumerated in the Ordinal.
The first duty which a candidate for the priesthood therein pledges himself to perform, is--Fidelity to the Doctrines, the Sacraments, and the Discipline of the Church in which he seeks authority to minister.
I point you, my brethren, to a wide field of discussion, when I mention such formidable topics of theology as these. Do not apprehend that I am about to invite you to traverse it. In such explorations, I should be a docile follower, not a leader of the van, or a burning and shining light.
 It is not in the nature of these great themes, that I would aspire to instruct you; I seek simply to remind you that Fidelity to the Doctrines, the Sacraments, the Discipline of the Church, is indispensable on the part of those who assume the priesthood, if they would redeem their solemn vows. The true, honest, enlightened priest will give the most faithful diligence to minister the doctrines, sacraments, discipline of Christ, "as the Lord hath commanded, and as His Church hath received the same." He will be neither a Doctrinarian, nor a Sacramentarian, nor a Disciplinarian; not an abstractionist, a formalist, or a martinet. He will not exalt doctrine, to the exclusion of sacraments, nor make the reception of sacraments the end, and not a means of salvation. Above all, he will not denounce, or regard with personal hostility, those who seem inclined to exaggerated views on either side, concerning the comparative efficacy of doctrines and sacraments. He will endeavor, like an adroit artist, so to throw upon them both the undivided and unclouded beams of celestial truth, as to bring them out, in their due proportions, and to fasten them, with photographic accuracy, upon the people committed to his care and charge. In discerning Christian truth, he may err with his "mind's eye," but he must never err in the judgment of his heart. His understanding may take distorted views of Christian verities, but he should never be wanting in charity to them whose vision of truth is more expansive or more limited than his own. [13/14] Woe to him who harps upon a single doctrine, till the sweet music of salvation by faith alone, palls even upon the ear of piety! Woe to him who veils the supreme efficacy of the blood of Christ, to do away sin, beneath sacramentary and ecclesiological frivolities! But a worse woe betides either advocates, if their theological opinions and predilections warp and taint and embitter their religious affections to the Church and to one another!
In studying and teaching the doctrines of the Church, and in administering her sacraments and discipline, the priest may congratulate himself, that he is provided with infallible guides. He is referred to the Holy Scriptures, as the supreme sources of saving truth; and he is required to plight his troth, that he is "persuaded, that they contain all doctrine, necessary to eternal salvation." He must avow his determination to teach nothing as necessary to that salvation, which "may not be concluded and proved by the Scripture."
And as to what that Scripture does actually teach, as to the points in hand, he is not forlornly abandoned to private interpretation and individual independence. He disengages himself from these sloughs, when he promises to minister the doctrines and the sacraments and the discipline of Christ--”as this Church has received the same."
He has the Church for his conductress amid the labyrinthine difficulties of conflicting theories; the Church, [14/15] in her services, ordinances, rubrics, articles, creeds; and with these to lead him, if he mistakes and blunders, God have mercy on his stupidity; but can he have mercy for his dishonesty, if he dispenses false teaching under such guidance! If he strikes on sunken rocks, with such plain sailing before him; if he makes shipwreck of the faith, when the Pharos blazes on his sight?
The Prayer-Book, my brethren, in its plain, natural, common sense, is the best, the only interpreter of the Scripture, which the sworn priest of the Church can trust: and he, who does not adhere to it, in honest, hearty love, is perfidious and disloyal to his priestly vows.
I envy no man in the priesthood of the Church, whether Bishop, Priest, or Deacon, who makes it his "study" to interpret its essential teachings, in a non-natural sense. The labors of those, who exhaust their genius and squander their time in proving that the Scriptures do not teach the doctrine of future retribution, and whose highest achievement in Biblical learning is, denying the divine claims of the Lord, who bought them with his "most precious blood," seem to me a Liliputian task, compared with theirs, who would trim the Catholic doctrines of the Church, to the vagrant and fitful breezes of popular and sectarian applause. The classic fable is the best illustration of their futile efforts to "popularize" the Church, by any distortion of its doctrines, by any disparagement of its [15/16] sacraments, by any infringement of its discipline. Their efforts, however huge or persistive, can not succeed. They may toil, till the "crack of doom," but they can never roll the stone of Sisyphus to the top of the mountain!
Another relative test of Priestly fidelity is, opposition to Error.
The faithful Priest must "be ready, with all diligence, to banish from the Church, all erroneous and strange doctrines, contrary to God's word."
The mode in which the true doctrines of the Church may be ascertained, has just been pointed out, namely, by the Scriptures, interpreted by the Prayer-Book. Error, therefore, which he can fairly prove to be error, out of the Scriptures, thus interpreted, he is pledged, most strenuously, but most charitably to oppose. I say, most charitably, for permit me to remark, that there is one thing, which, as far as our personal piety is concerned, is of more consequence to the observed, than great jealousy for Christian truth. I mean, the temper of mind with which we defend it, and seek to conquer opposition to it. Defend the teachings and the institutions of Christ, with any other than the Spirit of Christ, and you wage a hopeless warfare for Him; and your claims to His approval are more desperate still.
The spirit of controversy, my brethren, is the curse [16/17] of the Church. It makes her the scorn of the world. The spirit of controversy is the spirit of Satan, for "the Devil" contended with the "arch-angel" of Heaven. The secular papers of our country glory in the boast, that Christians conduct their disputes with less decorum than those who wrestle on the dirty arena of politics, for the honors of office and the spoils of power. They are laughed at, publicly, by the enemies of Christian truth; they are wept for secretly, by the lovers of Christian peace. Even when setting up our highest claims, as a true branch of the Catholic Church, may we not be spending more strength in internal dissensions, than we are exerting in aggressive and united assaults upon the kingdom of Satan, Sin, and Schism? May we not be fighting one another, in the streets of the city of our God, when Titus is thundering at the gates of its Temple?
Be it our aim, my brethren, to practise the plain principle of Christian duty, that, however glaring the errors of our Christian brethren, we can never bring them to a better mind, unless we differ in the spirit of love. Let us learn that it is the essence of that most detestable vice of Christians--bigotry, to hate those whom we deem to be in deadly error, while we neglect to convert them to the truth, alike, by the force of our arguments, and the amenity of our manners!
Another relative duty of the Catholic Priest is, not only to cultivate a love of peace and order in his own [17/18] heart; but to maintain the spirit of peace and quietness and love among all Christian people, especially among those committed to his charge.
His first duty, in this respect, is to his own flock. Christian unity, Christian courtesy, Christian love between them, he must sedulously promote, for their good, for his own comfort, for the honor of the Church and its best prosperity. He can almost invariably effect this, if he places a due estimate on the value of Christian peace, and sets about promoting' it in the spirit of his Master. He must bear much, in his own person, with meekness and patience, and, above all, in speechless silence, which, if revealed and resented, would rend the body of Christ in sunder; he must bear much with others; for even the best involve one another in difficulties, which might easily be rectified, if each side did not betray unhallowed tempers, and aim at selfish ends.
It is one of the most delicate offices of the Priest, to heal dissensions and reconcile jealousies; but he can do so, by no better means than by following his Master's rule, being "wise as a serpent and harmless as a dove."
But He, who, instead of setting forward peace, quietness and love, sows the deadly seeds of discord in the bosoms of his own brethren; he who plants the illstarred standard of partisanship in the Church, which should be at unity in itself; he, who saying the same creeds, praying the same prayers, administering the [18/19] same sacraments, hesitates not unblushingly to proclaim that He preaches and teaches "a pure gospel, while others do not--I will not say--pardon his audacity, out of pity for his ignorance, or contempt for his malice! but I will say, he violates a priestly vow, which binds him to promote, to his utmost capacity--quietness, peace, and love among the flock of Christ! Slanderer of his own brethren! Traitor to his mother the Church, his unfraternal, matricidal deeds will surely return to brand and curse him! You may see him, for a little while, riding on the crest of the wave, but "again a little while," he will lie, weltering and foundered in the trough of the sea!
But observe, my brethren, that the priestly promise we are considering, holds us to the duty it inculcates, in regard to "all Christian people."
Now, as there can be no question but that there are Christian people in the world, besides those who are ministers and members of the Church to which we belong, it is plain that this duty must be exercised towards them all; and, my brethren, it can be exercised without the slightest compromise of principle. We can treat all who differ from us with personal courtesy and personal gentleness, and thus fulfill the "royal law" of love; and as long as we maintain the purity of our own doctrines and practices, we need not trouble and chafe ourselves about the imperfections of theirs. Where the Church is silent concerning the false [19/20] doctrines and the wrong practices of others, we may well afford to be silent also. She has pronounced no harsh judgment on the errors in doctrine or in polity, of such as have dissented from her standards in times past, or in times present. Why should not we be equally circumspect--charitable--still? The positive course she prescribes to us, in our ordination vows, is one of devotion to active duty within our own fold; observing peace and personal good will and social friendship towards all Christian people without her pale. What should we wish for more? What more can we do? How can we do less? Who, when he finishes his course, may not thank God, with all his heart, that he has been able to do as much? that he had kept to that which in this respect he promised; that he had been
Among the faithless,"
to this and kindred promises; all which, however simple in their form and expression, comprehend, as you will the more clearly see, the more closely you examine them, the essence of that fidelity which the minister of the Church owes to the Church, and to Him who is Head over all, blessed forevermore!
The last relative duty which is required of the Presbyter, in his ordination vows, is reverent obedience to the Bishop, the supreme ecclesiastical authority of the Church on earth, and to the Canonical authority associated with him.
 But upon this point of priestly fidelity it is not necessary to dwell. It is fully understood; because the duties and obligations that bind Presbyter and Bishop together are so plainly defined, that neither need misapprehend, and neither may safely disregard them. That a loyal son of the Church should ever be tempted to do else than reverently obey the divinely constituted authority of the Church, is a thing inconceivable. “He," said even JOHN CALVIN, “who will not obey a good Bishop, let him be anathema!" To rebel against constituted authorities, whether in Church or State, is a sin of the most formidable nature, in the sight of God. His Word contains no severer curses, than those which are therein denounced upon such as "despise dominion and speak evil of dignities." They are "spots in the feast of Christian Charity," curdling the very milk of human kindness; they are "clouds without water," which distill no wholesome dews upon the garden of the Lord; they are the “raging waves of the sea," who toss and vex the ark of salvation; the “wandering stars," whose lurid flashes bewilder and disturb it; "to whom is reserved the blackness of darkness forever!"
But let it be remembered, that reverent as should be the obedience which a Presbyter owes to the Ecclesiastical authorities of the Church, it is not an abject, cringing, unlimited subservience, which he pledges himself to render. It is their "godly admonitions" which he vows to follow; it is their "godly judgments" [21/22] he engages to submit to. If he can fairly prove that their judgments and admonitions are not "GODLY," he can no doubt find means to vindicate himself from injustice and oppression. But, thank God, my brethren, we are in no danger in this respect.
Such, my brethren, is an imperfect, but, as far as it goes, not, perhaps, an unfaithful analysis of the obligations of a Priest of the Church, as the Church herself has defined them. I leave what has been said with my brethren hi the priesthood, without farther comment; but grant me a parting word with the laity.
You may ask me, how the laity are interested in the subject of priestly fidelity to the Church?
Suffer me to answer, that you are deeply interested in it. You are bound to know what your chosen minister is bound to teach and to do, in the administration of your spiritual affairs. You should be familiar with all you have a right to expect of him; and you should also understand the limits which your claims upon him are not to be permitted to exceed.
The laity sometimes exact too much of their pastors; they sometimes misjudge them; they sometimes prescribe them duties which they have no right to demand; they lay on them heavy burdens, the weight of which they will not help them to bear, by the slight aid of a lifted finger.
Of men--of men like themselves--of mere men--of weak, and suffering, and sorrowful men--they expect [22/23] incessant and exhausting services of the most important nature, and most difficult to be performed; at the hazard of health and of life; and with the sacrifice of their best years: and yet, often remunerating them at the lowest possible figure!
Nov then, I say, that to correct all mistakes on this subject, of what you have a prerogative to demand of a Priest of the Church, you have only to scrutinize the vows which he makes when he becomes one. Try him by the record which contains his vows--the prayer-book; and believe me, the more you study it, the better Churchmen and the better Christians you will become. Try him by this standard. You have a full privilege to do so. It is your right; it is your duty. Examine well the promises and pledges he makes, when he receives authority to minister among you. Hold him to them; but do not let him go beyond them. And if he falls behind them, if he is faithless to them, you have an unquestionable right to condemn him; and for the rectification of all his wrong-doings, you may fearlessly appeal to the means of redress which the Church has amply provided.But judge him even by the standard which she has established; judge him, as you hope to be judged yourselves--mercifully; remembering that the most faithful are imperfect and remiss; and the most immaculate, frail--erring--human!