PUBLISHED AT THE REQUEST OF THE CONVENTION.
JESPER HARDING, PRINTER.
IT may reasonably be permitted in some degree, to qualify the concern with which we contemplate the circumstantial variances and oppositions of sentiment and conduct, always more or less prevalent in the Church, to advert to the existence, even in its first and most favoured day, of the same species of evil, the unavoidable result of the same universal infirmity of our nature. If when the special and extraordinarily endowed emissaries of the Son of God, delivered the message of his truth, brought to the ears of men even from his immediate presence, the due influence of its faith, was thus sometimes interrupted, we are not forbidden to admit the acceptableness in general with which that faith may in any subsequent day be entertained, by men holding it in an erroneous zeal of accidental peculiarity. In all circumstances alike of his condition, the judgment of man, with respect even to things affecting the moral interest of his being, is incapable [3/4] of an entire exemption from the modifying influences of various association. Honest conviction of truth and obligation, and the faithful purpose of obedience, may consist with a tenacity of prejudice and habit, with respect to things not essentially relating to them, to which even the holy and the good may, in a manner unconscious of the evil, be subjected. Under the too uncontrolled power, however, of such prejudice and habit, there is danger of a result of both social and individual conduct, by no means to be regarded with indifference; and the restraint which shall confine and regulate them in subserviency to the interest of religious truth and duty, is of sacred concern and obligation.
The differences, which at Rome were threatening the yet newly organized household of Christ with dishonour and confusion, arose from influences, to which Jewish converts and Gentile had previously been subjected. The meats and days of the Jewish law, or of custom founded in the authority of those who sat in Moses' seat, however worthy they might seem, to such as from the synagogues had joined themselves to the little company of the faithful, to be sacredly regarded, were still peculiarities of hated and despised Judaism, to which it was not easy for those who from among the heathen had adopted the faith of the Gospel, to be reconciled. That the former should at first be reluctant wholly to abandon them, was, however, as natural as that the latter should regard them with disgust or contempt: and that from this contrariety of feeling on the subject of things not essentially religious, some contention should arise, neither honourable to Christianity, nor favourable to the advancement of its yet infant [4/5] and persecuted cause, none can wonder, who know even slightly the nature and history of man. The mild and charitable consideration, with which the Apostle treats these differences, is an effect of the wisdom from above, with which he had become endued; and is an example, from which, in any period, instruction may advantageously be drawn.
It were, however, a misapprehension of the lesson which the sentiments of the Apostle, as placed before us by the tenor of the chapter to which the text belongs, are suited to convey, to suppose him to inculcate the liberality and indulgence which they breathe, with respect to any other than things indifferent in themselves, and which still, for want of any provision duly instituted respecting them, remained things indifferent in fact. There was a rule, we are aware, which a council assembled at Jerusalem had established, respecting meats offered to idols; and whatever may have been the design and scope of that rule, the Apostle, in this epistle, addressed some years after the council which enacted it had been held, to the Christians at Rome, cannot be supposed to require any thing in their conduct on the subject, which would militate with its authority. The meats, as well as the days, with respect to which he inculcates a spirit of reciprocal liberality and allowance, could be such only, concerning which, by the abolition of the Mosaic institutions, there in fact now existed, whatever tenderness of conscience, or whatever scruples of weakness might remain in their favour, no law, even for Jews; and in relation to which the Mosaic law, never of authority for Gentiles, had been superseded by no Christian regulation, to which either they or Jews were required to submit their conduct. [5/6] To matters of sacred obligation whether as to faith or practice, to any thing which either the Scriptures expressly taught, or the common agreement of the Church had instituted for observance, the Apostle must not be understood to enjoin men to be indifferent: and, therefore, most erroneously should we take him as authority for that species of liberality, which would make it unimportant and unworthy of solicitude or effort, what in religion men believe, what counsel or influence they follow, or what they do, provided they be individually pious and sincere. With individual piety and sincerity, the most unscriptural and pernicious error is consistent; and with them for its apology, may be indulged to an extent of general evil, for which no particular excellence of virtue can make amends. There was, moreover, a form of sound words, to which St. Paul attached an importance worthy of all the vigilance and zeal, with which it could be guarded from violation; and the Church, as he and his companions and fellow-labourers had under the teaching of the Holy Ghost established it, whether as to its doctrine or its discipline, is shown by the whole tenor of his writings, to have been worthy of another concern, than that which would make of its received and recognized members, a multitude coming together, and having nothing in common but the name of Christians. He wrote, we are to be aware, for one yet undivided Church, which, whatever minor disagreements might exist in it, and although in some places harassed by false and wicked pretenders, labouring but for the subversion of its members, was yet continuing in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship; and his counsel is not for brethren yet too widely separated, to have one altar for their sacrifices of prayer and thanksgiving, one common walk of faith, in which all might with no yet high raised middle wall of partition separating them, pursue the end of their calling of God in Christ. [Able and learned commentators have injudiciously remarked on this passage, in a manner too latitudinarian. They would make St. Paul an abettor of both heresy and schism.] For the ministers of Christ, in later ages the afflicting task has, in the course of a certainly wise, however mysterious Providence, been made, to look on differences of a wider kind, and consider how they should reciprocally regard each other's peculiarities, who hold the faith in irreconcilable contrariety of sentiment, on things, which, if not of the first, are yet of high and indispensable importance. "Here let me not be thought to be presumptuously approaching any question, from which our church has chosen, in the spirit of charity and wisdom, to withhold her members. It is not necessary to the purpose of the discourse required for this occasion, that I should bring under your consideration any of the difficulties, seemingly as irremediable as they are important, which still insuperably obstruct the fraternal fellowship in holy things, of all who "profess and call themselves Christians." There are matters enough, on which we may here take counsel of each other, as members of the same household of faith, without entering on any point of the interminable controversy with those on the one hand from whom we are separated, or on the other, those who are separated from us.
They are things in religion indifferent in their own nature, and which for want of any rule or appointment of the Church concerning them, continue to be indifferent [7/8] in fact, to which the counsel and admonitions of the Apostle, before us, relate., Occasion, shall, however, be taken; to extend the reflections to be addressed to you, to things in religion, which lose the character of their own original indifference, in such obligation as may be instituted respecting them by the Church, and by its members recognized, and at least virtually assumed..
The subject has seemed not inappropriate to the occasion, or to the existing state of our institutions; and it shall be faithfully endeavoured to treat it in a manner suitable to both, without transgressing any limit, which deference and delicacy, towards those who peculiarly compose the audience, have imperatively prescribed.
The interest and authority of the Church respecting things in religion indifferent in themselves, and where such things are concerned, the privilege and the duty of its members, as well as the consideration which, as suggested by the text, should enforce the conduct incumbent upon all, are the topics which comprise what it is contemplated to address to you.
It is for us, fathers and brethren of this Convention, as well of the Laity as Clergy, to be entirely agreed at least in this; that the character of indifference can appertain to nothing which has its foundation in divine authority and appointment; that whatever on the testimony of the Scriptures, we have reason to believe that our Lord or his Apostles taught or enjoined, can for us be of no less than an indispensable obligation. It is with the form, and manner, and circumstances of divinely instituted duty, and not with any particular of that duty itself, that we can permit the idea to be [8/9] associated, of a less than sacred and universal necessity. Thus, it is matter of the first necessity, that there be a ministry perpetuated in the Church, according to the pattern which the Apostles in their own day sheaved and transmitted to the ages following. But the great principal point of a duly authorized imposition of hands inviolably preserved "the form and manner of ordering or consecrating," is a subject of mere human authority and judgment. It is of indispensable obligation and necessity, also, "where it may be had," that we become members of the Church of Christ, by baptism in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost: and in like manner, that in perpetual memory of his precious death and sacrifice, we celebrate with bread and wine the memorial of them he commanded us to make; but the ceremonies and devotions, which shall accompany these duties, may be such as human judgment of propriety, convenience, and that which is good to the use of edifying, may variously seem to require. The solemn offices of social prayer and praise, Christian people cannot consider themselves to have an option either to perform or to omit; while of the times, and seasons, and modes of their performance, human discretion may determine.
But not unnecessarily to detain you with any statement of such particulars, I proceed, in pursuance of the purpose stated, to remark, that, even in things in religion, from their nature subject to human provision and disposal, the Church has an interest far from unimportant. It is founded, in general, in their subserviency, as means, to the great end for which the Church was instituted; the perpetual preservation and diffusion [9/10] in the world, of the truth as it is in Jesus, in all its enlightening, sanctifying, and saving influence. As the ends of no merely human association can be effected without the use of some forms and ceremonies of initiation and conformity, which are of discretionary selection, so in the Church there is a necessity for some system of outward order, by which harmony and efficacy of co-operation, in relation to the high objects of its institution, may be maintained. Divided and distracted as the great body of those who name the name of Christ has been permitted to become, yet in this point they may be understood to act on a common principle of well recognized expediency. They who have professed most absolutely to reject forms and modes, are yet found to have them in continual, regular, and even scrupulous observance; and an unwritten liturgy, founded in implied community of sentiment, or in acquiescence in the authority of honoured heads and leaders, yet whose violation or neglect is at least never regarded with insensibility, is made to serve, however inadequately, instead of such as might be otherwise made, the well known common rule of social religious conduct.
If then, on this general ground, the Church has an interest in things in religion in themselves indifferent, that interest, it may be observed more particularly, requires that they be in strictest accordance with the religious truth, of which she is the divinely created witness and keeper. Forms of worship may embody unscriptural sentiment; or the ceremonies and appointments of it may be significative of that, which, truth, in relation to God, his nature, will, and dispensations, as his revelation contains it, either knows not, or [10/11] knows but to condemn and abhor. Certainly, should this be the case, the interest of the Church in these things would be seriously violated, and the object of its institution rather hindered by them than promoted.
It is another particular of the interest of the Church here brought under review, that the things indifferent in themselves, which she uses as means, should be regarded and treated as means only--and not by weak or corrupt perversion, be made themselves the end, the very religion itself, in relation to which they can rightly bear no character but that of circumstance and appendage. It is not a danger to which the frailty of humanity is superior, that an importance and sacredness should sometimes be given to attach to its mere appointed and prescribed modes and outward acts, in which the essential interest of religion may be absorbed and lost; that the mint, anise, and cummin of human requisition, should take precedence of the holiness of heart and action, without which no incense of human homage can go up available or acceptable before God. That where this may happen, the most disgraceful and pernicious wrong is sustained by the Church, who among us must not feel! And that it any where should happen, within the precincts of our own communion, who among us is not ready fervently to deprecate!
The interest of the Church, then, demands, permit me here only once more to remark, that forms of religious order and devotion, in general however necessary, should not be of a character to which such danger may too easily adhere. There is a solemn dignity and a holy decency in the acts and offices of various religious celebration, which are alike necessary to the honour of Divinity, and to the due excitement in the [11/12] human mind, of the awful and animated emotions of pious sensibility. There may, on the other hand, be a vain magnificence and pomp, a gorgeous formality, a multiplicity and train of ceremonies, by which the senses are wrapt in admiration, or occupied in mere entertainment, suited to them, to the preclusion of the possibility of any devout engagement of the thoughts and affections towards God. If by such causes, the disposition to devotion may be so dissipated and distracted as to permit no impression to be made that shall influence and meliorate the heart, so may it also be perverted and corrupted by the injudicious or too absolute requisition of authority, which shall make the stated rite in all the detail of its formalities, of obligation too sacredly and invariably indispensable. Too rigid impositions upon the outer, may, by human weakness, he changed into obligations upon the inner man; and if these rest heavy and oppressive, they alone will be regarded as religion enough; if a license be not sought, through the deceitfulness of the human heart, in their strict performance, for the neglect of all that is spiritually and vitally essential.
From the view thus taken of the interest of the Church in these things, it is obvious to infer, that it must have authority respecting them. Their necessity to its objects, involves the necessity of this. If they are to minister to the conservation, in soundness and purity, of the doctrine of Christ, deposited in the Church as its sacred charge, there must be authority in the Church to appoint, adapt, and modify them, as such important use of them may require. It is at the same time manifest, that no provisions which it may ordain can be conducive to this, if they are inconsistent [12/13] with, or contrary to Scripture; its only sure and authoritative guide, whatever else may be auxiliary thereto, to the knowledge of that doctrine. Accordingly, the declaration of our Church on the subject is, "the Church has power to decree rites and ceremonies," "and yet it is not lawful for the Church to ordain any thing that is contrary to God's word written." Either, therefore, what the Scripture expressly warrants, or what is clearly in analogy with what it teaches, or so far at least in analogy with, as not to be contrary to what it teaches, must be that alone which the Church, respecting things indifferent in themselves, but which are conceived to be useful to the ends of religion, can be considered invested with authority to institute and enjoin. No usages at variance with the letter and spirit of Christianity--no mere invention of man, whatever merit of ingenuity or even of piety it might claim, yet incapable of being resolved into the principles of divine truth, as the Gospel exhibits them--no burdensome service, too heavy for the nature of the human mind, or inconsistent with the glad and happy exercise of its affections towards God, can be ever rightly brought, by those who are appointed to set in order its affairs, into the sanctuary of the Lord, where we, my brethren, are pledged to serve him.
And as the Church, the Church it is meant acting by the duly authorized representatives of its various portions,* has authority in things indifferent to appoint [13/14] or decree for observance, what shall seem to it good and useful, but none to ordain even in such things that the Scriptures may forbid, so while she is invested with power to enforce, in some cases, by the penalties of suspension or exclusion from her privileges, her rightful enactments of such a nature, yet in no manner has she authority to enforce, what she had denied to herself the authority to ordain; and the act of any, either judicially or executively administering her government, is either subject to reversal, or is of itself void, which shall exact conformity with indisputably anti-scriptural requisitions. [The author of this discourse is not unaware of the discrepance between this language and that which has been used by standard writers, to describe the authority of the Church in reference to this subject: Such as the rulers of the Church," "the great body of its pastors," &c. [See Taylor's Apology for the Liturgy--Burnet on the 20th Article, &c. &c.] He thinks, however, that while the language he uses in this place, is in accordance with the peculiar character of organization which it has been found expedient to give to the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States, as a collective confederate body, it does not convey any thing in fact materially differing from the received impression of rightful authority, touching matters here under consideration. The laity have their part in deliberation in our General Convention, even on the subject of rites and ceremonies; but they can determine nothing of themselves respecting them and the clerical delegates of one house, and the bishops who compose the other, have hitherto had their claim duly recognized and honoured to discuss and determine on them without interference.] It were an arbitrary authority, however, by which any such exaction could be made: and of arbitrary authority, it is not permitted that there should be here any ground for possible reproach. Within the sphere of our institutions, your preacher knows of nothing of which the reproach can even be insinuated. No. Whatever be the reverent acquiescence which it may be wise and expedient, and even obligatory to render, in some cases, to individual opinion, especially where doubtful construction of written [14/15] [14/15] rules existing, or where the entire silence of such rules, may be an occasion of perplexity, or have seemed to warrant a latitude of action injurious to general unity and order, yet here individual will carries with it no authority. [The author is not unmindful that there is an "obedience," most solemnly pledged on the part of every one admitted to the ministry, to 66 his bishop and other chief ministers, who may have the charge and government over him." This obedience cannot conscientiously be waived; but it is obedience to authority canonically exercised, or in the way of agency and delegation in the Church's behalf. The distinction, it is thought, is plain, between this and obedience required to arbitrary individual will. The officers of the Church, whether bishops or other chief ministers, are themselves amenable to her.] The authority of the Church to decree rites and ceremonies, is that of the many who compose it, duly by their representatives convened: and to the determination of such authority, deference and submission may certainly be rendered with safety and a quiet conscience. Here, indeed, the view which it is at once the most agreeable and satisfactory to take, of the authority of the Church, presents itself, as consisting in the reverence she reasonably claims, and the moral influence of the judgment of many; so much more satisfactorily entitled to our confidence of safety in following its counsel, than that of the individual can be, whatever may be the care with which it may be formed, or the sincerity with which it is entertained. This authority of reverence rightly and reasonably due the Church, must be allowed in a degree sufficient to constrain the judgment and conduct of its members; or we must have a character of association here, which, in the world, could carry with it only contempt, distraction, dishonour, ruin. "Might we not think it more than wonderful," says the admirable Hooker, "that Nature [15/16] should in all communities appoint a predominant judgment, to sway and overrule in so many things; or that God himself should allow so much authority and power unto every poor family, for the ordering of all which are in it; and the city of the living God, which is his Church, be able neither to command, nor yet to forbid any thing, which the weakest shall in that respect, and for her sole authority's sake be bound to obey?" [Eccl. Pol. Book 5. prop. 3.]
2nd. The privilege and the duty of the members of the Church, in reference to the subject before us, are another topic, on which I am briefly to remark. The principle which in all civil legislation is deemed so sacredly important, is not, in ecclesiastical, to be waived: viz. that all who are to be affected by its enactments, should bear their part in the deliberations on which they are founded. The question, whether in the earliest assemblies of ecclesiastical business this principle was recognized, could here but needlessly be taken up; while in reference to it, it will occur to the minds of many present, that although the evidence is wanting which would authorize a confident opinion, as to the degree and manner, in which, in the first ages of Christianity, the immediate expression of the will of all was had, where all were interested, yet there is ample ground for the presumption, that it was in no wise disregarded, that in those ages no difference could be conceived between the interest of one, and all other descriptions of the members of the Church; and that if the voice of any was not heard in its deliberations, they still held their interest secure in the fidelity of those who, alone qualified therefor, were alone [16/17] permitted to dispose in all things the outward order of the Church. Whatever, in subsequent periods, may have been the fact in relation to the principle referred to, it is enough that the Church, where we are members of it, finds herself justified in honouring the right of private judgment, to the utmost that it can claim to be exercised, consistently with her unity, integrity and peace. Here no order of men is denied the privilege of participation, in all proceedings subject to ecclesiastical deliberation; and not an individual of the whole body of those who compose our communion, can be divested of his privilege of this participation. It is the well established right of every member of the Church, whatever be his rank or station in it, to think with freedom, and with freedom to speak, on all things which are matter of legislative provision in our councils. The regulation which the decision of the greater number may make more or less obligatory for all, still remains a subject of free opinion; and the candid and peaceful expression of this, is consistent with the duty by which all are bound together, in a common interest of the Church's harmony and order. No inhibition of private judgment can be here imposed. The exercise of it, in a temper of meekness and of charity, can be imputed to none as an offence against the claims of legitimate authority; nor can the lips of any be closed against the discussion of that, the change or amendment of which, may be desired. "All ecclesiastical laws," says Bishop Taylor, "must be imposed with liberty; not with liberty of the subjects to obey or not to obey, but with the liberty of the whole Church, to change them, or to continue them, to exact or to relax them, to bind or to loose, as may best stand with [17/18] prudence and charity, with the interests of virtue, or the good of the subject." [Duct. Dubit. Book 3. Chap. 4.]
But if thus large is our privilege, brethren, as members of the Church on the subject of things of religious expedience, solemnly important is at the same time our duty. Here, indeed, privilege and duty can scarcely be made subjects of distinct consideration. That which is permitted becomes obligatory, when the omission of it, might facilitate the introduction of what our judgment would strongly disapprove, or its performance aid the disposal of the things of the house of God, in the order most congenial with our persuasion of what is suitable to its honour. It is the obvious duty of every one, according to the ability which is given him, to bring what is fit for it, to the sacred work of the spiritual building, and labour for its completeness, in all the beauty of holiness before God. To guard against the authoritative establishment of that which might minister to idolatry, superstition, heresy or schism, to prevent to the utmost that we may, whatever may dishonour with carnal vain delusion, the sanctuary of that God who must be worshipped in spirit and in truth, or minister more to his dishonour than to that of his glory, which consists in the advancement of pure religion and undefiled, wholesome for the moral state of men on earth, and efficient of their ultimate and everlasting felicity, such is the duty of each who is qualified and authorized therefor, in the sphere which Providence has appointed him. The duty to conform to the institutions of the Church, once settled, is, however, manifest and well ascertained. Nothing can minister more [18/19] than this to the unity of the body, and of the importance of that unity who shall doubt, when the words of its divine head and Lord himself; poured out in prayer in the solemn hour of his approaching passion, are in his remembrance? I pray for them which shall believe on me, through the word of them whom thou hast given me, that they all may be one, as thou Father art in me, and I in thee, that they also may be one in us: that the world may believe that thou hast sent me.
Under the influence of a principle so sacredly important, the obligation of keeping inviolate the unity of the Spirit, even that which we may not individually approve, it is of obvious Christian obligation to follow, if conscience does not absolutely forbid; and in a sound and well constituted mind, conscience will forbid conformity to nothing, which is not so manifestly at variance with the paramount obligation of allegiance to the supreme head of the Church, as that all earthly interests and considerations must yield to it the precedence, and must be surrendered rather than it be relinquished, or in any manner compromised. "If you object, that some associations subscribe to such things as you cannot in conscience agree to, I desire you would see that you can plead scripture as well as conscience against it." The rule of obligation seems here by an eminent separatist from a Church, whose rites and ceremonies could in no instance be shown to be unscriptural enough to demand that "the Union and Communion of the Churches" should for them be obstructed, to be well enough expressed. [Baxter.] Whatever has been lawfully settled as to things in themselves indifferent, claims to [19/20] be quietly conformed to, if conscience plainly and unequivocally informed by the Scripture forbid it not. No dissent of opinion, without the concurrence of the deepest persuasion of moral truth and interest in the subject of it, will be adequate ground of other conduct; and such persuasion will be slowly and reluctantly taken up, under circumstances where it must imply a confidence in individual opinion, of which some other source than moral conviction may reasonably be suspected, and, on due self-investigation, could scarcely fail to be discovered.
Having thus long detained you with that, which still is but an outline of an ordinarily uninteresting subject, it is with reluctance that I ask you to accompany me with your attention any further. The consideration, however, which as suggested by the terms of the text, should enforce the conduct incumbent upon all respecting it, needs not occupy us long. "For meat destroy not the work of God." This work of God is either the edification in general of the Church, or the individual sanctification of its members. To this work of God, then, our conduct as to things indifferent, may materially minister. We may by our conduct as to such things, materially obstruct and embarrass it.--Let the matter, then, be duly laid to heart. It is permitted us, Brethren, to be fellow workers with God; fellow workers with him in building up, on earth, a repository of all the blessings of his grace in Jesus Christ, whither all the children of men may come, for the light that lighteneth every man, that cometh into the world; for the price that shall pay the ransom of their souls from death; for the food that shall sustain them through their pilgrimage of travail, and the [20/21] raiment that shall make them meet to stand before God, amidst the light, which, full of glory, eternally surrounds his throne. Yes! It is our privilege to be permitted to prepare for our fellow mortals, a bed of rest immortal; for our fellow sinners a refuge, where the law shall not pursue them with the terrors of its vengeance; for our fellow sufferers of sorrow and of pain, fountains of comfort, as inexhaustible as sure. The Church, in which all things are provided, which the fallen, unhappy condition of our nature can require, God, who, in the infinity of his compassion founded it, with his Eternal Son for its chief corner stone, permits us to help him to build up. To human instrumentality he has committed much of the work of his grace and peace to men; and the Church may stand by the hands of men, adorned with all that is beautiful and precious out of the treasury of heavenly truth, or disfigured with their weak or depraved inventions; the errors of their folly, or the devices of their perverseness--having on its walls no salvation, on its gates no praise. In the Church of God, the place which he has chosen to put his name there, where he has said that he would dwell, to bless and save all who there should come to him that they might have life, we may put darkness for light, and bitterness instead of the sweet savour of pure and holy offerings--and instead of such things as the Spirit will make its instruments of light, and joy, and peace, and consolation, and strength, and all its sanctifying graces, things with which the Spirit of truth and holiness will not permit its influences to be associated; while even with respect to things, which the Spirit of God will not disown, as fit instruments of all its work, we may observe a conduct that [21/22] shall make them utterly unprofitable and vain--nay, that shall make them an abomination in his sight. In whatsoever we do, then, as to such things, as those to which reference has been had, let the love of Christ constrain us, to do all to the glory of God. The appeal of the Apostle, in the text, is to no other effect. For meat destroy not the work of God. Injure not the Church in any of its high and important interests, nor hurt the souls of men, by any thing which, touching things of mere expediency, you do. To whom, then, does such an appeal address itself? Certainly to all, whatever be their rank or condition in the Church, whatever be the relation they may bear to it. Yes, to all of us alike it speaks, saying, Seek not to impose on each other, things, which the religion of the Gospel sanctions not, or which at least cannot be reconciled with its principles, or which may not be profitable to edification. The work of God demands not to be forwarded, cannot be forwarded, by your unwise or unholy mixture of other materials, with that which his Spirit has provided; and bring what else you will to it, but that which will bear the trial of his word, it can but impede and mar for a season, that to which, though he may permit men to dishonour it, God has set his hand, and of which he has said, "I will work, and who shall hinder it." Ultimately, indeed, the glory of God must be seen inscribed every where on all his Church; for "then cometh the end, when Christ shall have put down all rule, and all authority and power:" "and the Lord shall reign for ever in the holy Jerusalem, whose streets are of pure gold, even as it were transparent glass; into which shall in no wise enter any thing that defileth, neither whatsoever worketh [22/23] abomination, or maketh a lie: but they which are written in the Lamb's book of life." But of the dishonour it may in the mean time sustain by the hands of men, be ye, brethren, not partakers. Of the damage which the interests of truth and immortality may receive, because of the perversion of the one, and a false dependence on things by which the other cannot be profited, let us bear none of the reproach.
And if we admit the obligation to injure not the work of God in his Church, by scripturally inadmissible requisitions, let not the scarcely less obvious demand here made on us by the Apostle, be overlooked, to destroy not, or at least injure and embarrass not, the interests of truth and holiness in the Church, by an unnecessary warmth of zeal, concerning things which are intrinsically unessential. Here the admonition of St. James peculiarly applies, when he says, "the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God." Such things may enlist a zeal which is too impassioned for the honour of the name of Christ; and on the one hand may be urged, and on the other be resisted, in a manner which shall seriously impair that work of God, which consists in the love, which is the first and most valued fruit of faith. Unholy passions may unconsciously here mingle their influence with better principles of conduct, and God be dishonoured even by that which we deem to be zeal for God. "Be we careful," says St. Augustine, in reference to this very subject, "that by our contention, we bring not a cloud over Charity, that shall eclipse its brightness."
May not the work of God, too, in the Church, whether it be that of general or particular edification, be injuriously affected by our attaching an importance to [23/24] dissent in opinion from that which our brethren may have generally approved--and the Church established, sufficient to justify a corresponding dissentient conduct? As no work of man can be perfect, no provisions of the Church, of the kind we have had under consideration, can be of so various and infinite adaptation, as the infinite diversity of human sentiment and feeling might demand; and if our peculiar sentiment and feeling is not satisfied, yet so long as Christ is not dishonoured, it is obviously better that the right of private judgment be surrendered to the claims of an authority which we are bound to honour, than that the example of disregard of authority be given, by which the unity of the body of Christ may be impaired, and even the moral influence of that authority, as to the essential principles of truth, be deprived of its restraint. It is dangerous to our obligations as members of the visible Church of God, and certainly they are obligations which cannot rest lightly on us, to indulge indifference as to that which its approved and acknowledged authority has enjoined; and every instance of unnecessary digression from the course by it prescribed, may be deemed worthy to be regarded with a concern as painful as it is reasonable.
But caution, permit me only further to remark, may be as reasonably considered necessary, against the injury to the Church, in its vital interests, which may come of a too rigid construction and enforcement of the duty of that compliance with her requisitions, as to things in their nature indifferent, on which the Church in general presumes. As there is danger of too little, so there may, let it be conceded, be danger of too much reverence for things in themselves of secondary [24/25] necessity and obligation; and as on the one hand we may injure the unity of the body of Christ, by provoking the displeasure of some brethren, or weakening in the minds of others the claims of an authority which all are bound to reverence and strengthen; so may we, on the other, put the same sacred interest to hazard, by an erroneous imputation of relaxed or careless sensibility to obligation. Let me not be understood, I pray you, brethren, to plead for a license and latitude which would make nothing of outward order obligatory; or that would admit of a wilful, wanton, capricious departure from the course of prescribed observance; or substitute for that which is duly ordained, any thing which individual judgment may prefer. There is no allowance necessary or desirable, but that of entertaining the obligation of duty with respect to these things, with more or less strictness, as circumstances variously affecting the formation of religious character and habits, may, unavoidably, and without fault of individual integrity of purpose, have occasioned. The imputation of a wilful misunderstanding of the language of the Church in her appointments, and a purposed, conscious disregard of it, I would reject, in behalf of the whole body of the ministry especially, as that which is utterly inadmissible. It could in no instance consist with moral integrity; and should not be alleged, but as the ground of canonical discipline, extending its object further than to the correction of mere impropriety. And surely, any thing which admits not of such allegation, may be reasonably considered worthy of the Charity which hopeth all things, and will perseveringly endure the necessity of persuading men of error--error, which, however seemingly unimportant in particular instances, cannot [25/26] but more and more propagate and multiply itself, to the disgraceful marring of the unity to which all alike are pledged, by sanctions the most sacredly inviolable.
Brethren, I will now dismiss your attention, which I cannot but have wearied. The apology which may seem due for the introduction here of the reflections which have been offered, and in the presence of those whose superiority in years is the least of considerations so much better entitling them to the office of counsellors and monitors of their brethren, will be admitted, I trust, in the deep and anxious concern for the character and condition of our Institutions, with which I have come to the duty which has been assigned me. Venerating these institutions with an affection to which experience is continually giving new strength and ardour, and sensitively alive to all that may affect their honour or their good, I have uttered nothing which such principles have not dictated, or at least seemed to me entirely to authorize. Scarcely sensible of the imperfection of their excellency, I would not presume to assert that, none exists; but whatever be their imperfection, there is not, I am strongly confident, an individual present, who can deem it important enough to be permitted to be the occasion of any unfriendly diversity of sentiment, or any reciprocal opposition of conduct, inevitably productive of evil obviously more to be deprecated than its continued existence. The glory of God demands, and with a force which cannot but penetrate every heart, that we be one with each other, even as Christ has commanded us to be one with him; that no root of bitterness springing up furnish the fatal infusion, by which the faith shall be held in utter deadliness to all, that is holy, and good, and [26/27] acceptable in his sight, to whom all hearts are open, and who will not have human passions and prejudices substituted for the offering he has commanded. As a Church, we occupy an eminence in Protestant Christendom, where we cannot but be vigilantly observed; and we have much to do to sustain the high claim which our indisputably apostolic descent has given us. Oh let not our fair and honourable inheritance be spoiled in our possession! Should we embarrass the work of God, of which we see so much before us to be done? Should we not, that that work be not hindered, labour solicitously, and by every willing sacrifice of accidental peculiarity of individual sentiment and sensibility, for the peace of our Jerusalem? The characteristics of our day, let us be duly mindful, are real for the diffusion of the doctrine of Christ, and a proud infidelity, that looks with supercilious scorn on all those works of love, which have this for their end. The former will:,ave no place among us if the love of Christ reign not predominant in our affections, putting all minor things under its power; casting down every selfish, proud, uncharitable feeling, and bringing all into captivity to the one magnanimous purpose of advancing the moral interest and the eternal happiness of men. The latter would find a subject of triumph, in any circumstances, which should shew us, with all our justly boasted advantages, marked with a tenacity of superstitious devotion, to things unessential in their nature on the one hand, or, of which there is, perhaps, more danger--let me not speak it with offence--a contentious sensibility to ill conceived and erroneously asserted rights of conscience on the other. May neither of these, brethren, ever be our reproach; and may He, by whose Spirit the whole [27/28] body of the Church is governed and sanctified, so preside over our proceedings, as to direct and bless them all to his glory, not on the present only, but all future occasions, when those, who now, with the most painful anxiety act with you, shall have long been asleep in Jesus, and at rest from their labours in the grave.