Project Canterbury

Pastoral Letter Issued by the House of Bishops Assembled in General Convention in Boston, September 19, 1952.

no place: no publisher, 1952.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2008


Once again we have met in the household of faith, to make our common plans and to gain strength from one another. We have met with thankful hearts, thankful for the unity which it has pleased God to establish among us, thankful for the work which lies ahead of us to do. Chiefly we are minded to give thanks for the renewed assurance that where we do our part, boldly and confidently, in straight-forward discipleship, God does not fail to give the increase. There is evidence of this on every hand. From one diocese after another come notable reports of adult confirmations, conversions, in numbers greater than ever recorded. Where the Church speaks thoughtfully and deeply, the world hears as, at least in our time, it has never heard before.

We note with thanksgiving the great numbers, especially of mature men, who now offer themselves for the ministry of the Church. There are not yet enough to meet the needs of our unprecedented expansion, and not enough of them are the sons of our own families; yet they are testimony to the power of God to call men through a Church which is clear and sharp in its witness to its faith. Again, we hear on all sides of the increasingly forthright discipleship of our lay people. In our day a man or a woman is not likely to profess the Christian faith unless he means business by it. We give thanks for all this. The Episcopal Church has never known a time when the work to be done was as clearly seen as it is now, or when there was greater evidence of the grace of God to fulfill what we begin in faith.

We feel also that with the thanksgiving there is and should be not a little disquiet and penitence. Many of our people ask themselves sincerely why, for all the millions of faithful Christians the world over, for all the centuries of witness, the power of Christianity has seemed sometimes to count for so little. Knowing as we do the power and truth of God, we wonder why the world seems so often unaffected and unmoved by Him. With half a world in rebellion against a faith which should have been a blessing to them, with nations living in fear and suspicion where God's peace should prevail, with man's best and most admirable skills turned to means of destruction, we are troubled to know what account we may give of our stewardship.

It does not answer the question simply to say that we wish the world were not like this, or to condemn the secular world for not being Christian. The Kingdom of God is not made out of dreams and wishes; the Kingdom comes only where the King's will is done. Therefore it is not enough simply to be superficially thankful or easily sorry. Self-examination and penitence are the sure doors of hope.

2. For what are we chiefly called to examine ourselves? In our time God expects at least these two things of His Church: that we shall discern the signs of the times, and that we shall bear clear and loyal witness in our generation. These we have not always done. We have not seen deeply enough the real needs and situation of men; we have not demonstrated the distinctive character of Christian discipleship. To the degree that we have failed, the world has dismissed us and our faith with a shrug. We are passed by as irrelevant people, pleasant and well-meaning, whose God is optional, whose faith has no bearing, one way or the other, on the real structure and meaning of life; and the world has gone about its work as if it made no difference whether there were a God or not.

Indeed, when we Christians act as if God were no more than the private concern of a trivial and unconverted Church, then the world is quite right in regarding Him as optional. In truth, what is really happening is what happens whenever God's Church fails him: He gets His work done by strangers who do not yield him praise.

The secular world is Judgment; first of all God's judgment on a Church which has not sought to understand His will clearly, nor to follow Him on His way. We must then, first of all, accept the judgment in penitence, and set about our task with the faith and hope which only penitence can give.


What are the signs of the times which God expects us to discern? One is surely the unprecedented search for unity, both in the divided world and in the divided Church. The world sets about its task with the best means it has; and we pray God's blessing on those means, imperfect as they are. It is right that nations seek stronger and more enduring unity, and find the way to put behind them old and now meaningless nationalisms. For all the blessings which national life has brought us, the conception of absolute national sovereignty is an anachronism. In the words of a resolution of this Convention, "The only possible pathway to world peace lies through collective security." Indeed, with all thoughtful citizens, we pledge our support to the United Nations organization, and hope for its future development into a world federation open to all peoples, and capable of maintaining the peace.

But the world well says to us, Physician, heal thyself. With what power can a Church, complacent in its divisions, speak to a world which knows that division means death? What account can we give to God, Who gave us at the beginning a society where there was "neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free," Who gave us unity, that we might give it to the world? What account can we give now of that stewardship?

God does not expect us to be unfaithful to truth, nor does He ask that honest differences of conviction be compromised. Convictions are the surest pathway to truth; and history cannot be undone in a minute. But God does expect us to be unwavering and sincere in our own search for unity. We must refuse to accept as a final goal anything less than that His people shall be one, as the Son is with the Father. He expects us to discern the signs of the times; and the first of them is man's urgent and terrible need to be one.


A second sign is the prodigious restlessness of multitudes on this earth who, in time past, have counted for little in human affairs, who now relentlessly work and fight for a wider freedom and a greater dignity than life has ever given them. This is the prime political reality of our time.

It may be that they are seeking more than man can ever fully have; it may be that they often choose bitter means which in the end will only cheat them of their hope; the fact of the awakening and struggle remains, in every part of the world; and it ill becomes those whom Christ called the "leaven in the lump" to be insensitive to the ferment around us. It is God's gift that men and women everywhere, beating against racial and national walls, should refuse to take for granted the unfair and arbitrary fortunes of history. Christians should be instant to hear and answer the protest against injustice and exploitation and discrimination, not because we idly pretend to pass judgment on history, but because it is of God that men should resent injustice.

We do well to reject, immediately and unconditionally, the persuasive half-truths of atheistic materialism. They are illusions as far as they are sincere at all; and can only end by destroying man himself. But they speak to real needs; and those who propose them are often more willing than we to share the injustices and misery which their brothers suffer. We, who should be the first to know that we are what our brothers are, too often act and speak as if these protests were no concern of ours. Too often, again, we fail to read the signs of the times, or see that God is working His purposes out, using what rod of His anger He will.


Still another sign, of greatest import, is the vast power which technical skill and the richness of the earth and the fathomless curiosity and inventiveness of man have made available to us. No man can tell what is impossible for us to do. The answers even to the immemorial problems of poverty and sickness and age seem to lie almost within our grasp.

That well-nigh incredible increase in power is not easy to fit into our inherited ways of life. It does not readily respond to our traditional moral controls. It has outrun the familiar Christian answers. Indeed they seem sometimes hopelessly irrelevant to the actual choices we are daily obliged to make.

We still speak of the dignity of work or of a man's vocation, for instance, when, for the great majority of men in industrial plants, those words seem to have little meaning. There may be dignity in our work, and God may really call us to do it; but it no longer suffices simply to use the words. So do we still speak of charity in a world which now imagines that its technical power and political ingenuity have somehow made charity obsolete. We still speak of freedom to a generation which hardly dares any more to believe that freedom means anything or is worth fighting for.

It is no wonder that we are a homesick generation, seeking to recapture a lost simplicity in life. We almost wish we did not know as much as we do. Like the scientists waiting for the first atomic explosion, we are torn between our expectation that the experiment would work and our prayer that by some miracle, it would fail, and we be set free from the problems it creates.

Nowhere is this uncertainty more apparent than in the plain choices of right and wrong. We have seen, with greatest pain and concern, a glowing carelessness with truth and ruthless disregard for honor, often even in the public life of the nation itself. Expediency and compromise seem to be master to many of our people. This is not simply human wickedness. It is that; but it also reflects deeper uncertainties, as to whether the ancient absolutes have any meaning in a world which knows so much about how to manage and contrive. Many a boy or girl, when most ready to be faced with great and fundamental moral issues, learns instead, in the market place or on the radio, that it is outmoded to believe in virtue or manliness any more. It is no wonder that he comes to believe that all truth is relative, and that the eternal fight to be free and true is really an illusion.

Yet with all the moral uncertainties and the uneasiness of spirit which our immense new powers awaken, still they are of God. The secular world and its skills is God's world. The problems and dilemmas with which our new powers confront us are part of our discipleship. God has answers for them, if we will but ask the right questions, in faith, and with honest minds. How often men have said to preachers that in our sermons we do not answer the questions which people really ask, or that we seem to talk about a different world than the one they know! We do well to ask whether we have discerned this sign aright.

4. What is the distinctive witness God expects us to bear? How shall we bear it?

Where we fail, we do so in taking the Church as an end instead of as a means; in forgetting that it is the one group in society which exists mainly for the sake of those who do not belong to it. A Church which concentrates on its own existence is doomed from the start. It will never see beyond itself. A Church which speaks of nothing except religion in the narrow, technical sense, has no mission to the secular world.


God is concerned, in this world, that "earth shall be fair and all its people one." That is His will, and the first concern of the Church and of true religion. The Church is a colony of that fairer and truer world, established on the frontier of this world. God has the right to expect of us that we hold ourselves to the standards of that truer world, and speak boldly as we ought to speak of what its demands and promises are.

It is then our first duty to expect the best and highest from ourselves. We must not say that we are better people than our brothers. "There is none right nor good save one, that is God." But we must say, and say it without hesitation, that the disciple who commits himself to God and loyally and bravely tries to follow Him, has a different life to live. His family will show the difference, in the heightening of its loyalties and its common joy. A sense of vocation will touch and bless us all in families, with sons and daughters eager to welcome that ministry to which God may call them.

In our own personal discipline there will be a deeper sense of stewardship. Little or much, time, money, abilities, they are God's gifts and sacramental signs and means of His love. We will learn how to be masters of those gifts by making them serve God and man. This is true stewardship and true freedom. If we are ready to give more of ourselves, so will we be ready to expect greater things from God.


Against the divided world again, the distinctive life of the disciple will be apparent. We will be more and more dissatisfied with lip-service to the cause of Christian unity, knowing that nothing is wholly real which is not local, taking the initiative among our own neighbors and in our own communities to act together in all matters save those on which our cardinal convictions compel us to act separately.

We will take a greater responsibility toward the wider disunity of mankind. As Christian citizens we will know that the world needs immense new freedom and courage to take the steps which lie ahead, and we will know that such freedom and courage cannot co-exist with fear. Therefore, we will be quick to do our duty when we vote and speak, to remember that God still reigns, that it is His world, and that our peace lies in His will. We will remember that the Christian citizen prays as well as votes; and we will help translate man's universal longing for peace into specific acts and seasons of prayer, most of all for those who choose to be our enemies.

Last of all, the disciple will remember his children, and will work and pray that they may inherit a world better for his discipleship. He will seek for them a world of principle, not of expediency. He will hope that they may expect the greatest things from their marriage and their home, knowing that the world expects too little. He will work that the unanswered questions of our society may be clearer for them, and they better trained to answer them. He will live so as to encourage them to believe in duty and in freedom, knowing that those are the most precious gifts life can ever give them.

With thanksgiving, then, for what God has done among us, with penitence because we have not always seen what He wills us to see, with hope in what He will yet lead us to see and to do, and with eagerness to take up the unfinished work of creation in which we are partners with God, "Be ye stedfast, unmoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, forasmuch as ye know that your labor is not in vain in the Lord."

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