Individualism, Sectarianism, Catholicism. A Sermon preached on the Fourth Sunday after Easter, May 19, 1867, in Saint Stephen's Church, Providence, Rhode Island
by the Rev. Morgan Dix, S.T.D.
"Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the LORD shall be a light unto me." MICAH, VII., 8.
THIS is the Spring time of the year, when the flowers appear on earth, and the glory of the field comes back, and Nature sings, awaking from the winter's sleep. It is also the Easter Tide, in which there rings out, far and wide across the world, the Gospel of the Resurrection. At such a time, and amid such omens of reviving strength, and joy, am I to address you in this holy place; you, who are young and strong in hope, bound one to another in the love of the Church, and ready to give the first offering of your days, and the early vigor of life, to her sacred cause, to the glory of GOD, and the welfare of your fellow men. All these things combine to fill the mind with images of awakening and revival; they speak of young blood and quick pulses, of the laying aside of grave clothes, and the starting up from sleep. Hence, it seems a proper time to speak to you of that new life which is flowing through the veins of the Church of Christ; of movements within her frame; of fresh and earnest efforts put forth by her loyal children, such as make the nerves tingle and the spirit thrill. These are days in which it is good to live. The body trembles, not through fear, but through faith and expectation. The Church is growing: she is attaining a popularity which, whether it be or be not desirable, she has not heretofore enjoyed. She is drawing attentive eyes to herself. Very many are uniting with her; thousands are thinking about her, almost persuaded to admit her claims. The aspect of the times is hopeful; the very bitterness with which we are assailed in some quarters shows the rising power, and, therefore, our position is a critical one. There is a great opportunity. The question is how to improve it? and that question furnishes the outline of my subject. I would speak to you of two errors, which we, as a growing Church, must avoid, and of one truth, which we must recognize and love; and in the spirit of which we must act, if we would reap that harvest with which the fields on every hand are white.
We are in the midst of a great movement. As they say, we are making history. We are going out of straight places into a wide one. What was sufficient for the last age, is not sufficient for this. "The bed is shorter than that a man can stretch himself on it, and the covering narrower than that he can wrap himself in it." The movement is onward; it is evident; it alarms many, because they do not understand its cause or its direction; but the calm and collected perceive that it is vital and profound. It is towards a pure and true Catholicism, and it comes, logically and of necessity, from the realization of the fact that the body of which we are members is not a sect but a branch of the Holy Catholic Church. Men who believe that, cannot sit still.
I begin what I have to say by observing that there are among us three leading schools of religious thought, in each of which earnest-minded, sincere, and devout men are living, and conscientiously doing their work. They are the schools of Individualism, of Sectarianism, and of Catholicism. We have, in our own Church, representatives of each. My object is to convince you, if you need to be convinced, that the disciples of the first two schools are not the men whom the Church wants as leaders; that, although zealous and pious, they cannot do much for her; and that if she rise bravely to the work before her, comprehend the idea of her mission, and fulfil her office, it will be under the counsels and guidance of the men of the third school; in other words, that our beloved Church, if she would convert and win the masses, must go to them, not with a poor little theory of pietism, nor with the air of a well-behaved and cautious sect, but in the strength, breadth, and fulness, in the affectionate tenderness, and the open-armed warmth and freedom, of that which she claims to be-a living branch of the grand, old, apostolic Church of all time, the same yesterday, and all days, and even unto the end of the world.
And first, let me speak of Individualism. It is the theory of those who deem that the whole work of redemption and salvation is reduceable to a transaction between two, and only two, factors: the soul and its Saviour. Great is the mystery of godliness, they admit; yet not so great but that it is completed, and finished, and summed up exhaustively, in the conversion and salvation of any individual sinner. A very eminent divine, in the city of New York, has maintained this view in a tractate recently published. The argument is presented with a clearness and force worthy of a better cause. It comes to this: that nothing is necessary, except the proffer of GOD'S saving mercy, through Christ, and its acceptance, by an act of faith, in the promise. That a Church, a priesthood, sacraments, and ordinances, are not essential in any wise; and that nothing but the mental acquiescence must intervene between the Creator and the creature. The instant which beholds the conviction and conversion of any one sinner, sees also the fulfilment of the whole design of GOD in redeeming us; the history of redemption is merely an indefinite extension of such items, added, monotonously, one to another, and every thing else is non-essential and unimportant. This is the theory of so-called "Christian Individualism."
Until this theory was expressed in terms, and we saw what was lying in the minds of men, it was hard to understand the indifference of some, to things which we feel to "be of the highest importance. Now, however, all is clear; and we perceive why numbers of our brethren are without one grain of reverence for Councils, Creeds, or Fathers, and regard neither the authority of the Church, nor the traditional beliefs of the nations of the redeemed. These things have no force with them, nor value in their eyes. They regard the Church as a mere concourse of saved units, brought together by a gregarious instinct, or a social appetency, and held loosely in a conglomerate condition, by the feeling of security, or the sense of convenience. As to a father, or a council of fathers, though the man might attest the convictions of all his contemporaries, and the assemblage might represent half, or the whole, of the Christian world, their statements or enactments would be of infinitesimally small importance compared with the question, as to the state of each individual soul present. Upon the grand, though troubled, course of the history of the Holy Catholic Church, the individualist must look as he would on the development of any merely human system; lie may feel a scholarly interest in it, tout to his mind, the only fact of vital importance is, that in every age, and in every land, some individuals, be they more or less in number, have been saved through grace; the history of these elect souls is substantially the history of the Church.
From the influence of this theory, we are comparatively, if not almost wholly, free. It is a quiet, narrow fanaticism, from which the strong Churchly tone of our Book of Common Prayer, and our well-known records, protect us. A school of thinkers, such as these, could hardly exist in the atmosphere of our sacramental offices, our creeds, and our ancient Catholic standards, which express or imply a tone of mind, and a body of convictions, foreign to the individualistic conception of the Gospel. A few, here and there, may have been influenced by respected and admired holders of such opinions; but there is nothing in our system, or our formularies, to help them; and therefore their vitality is feeble. Under these circumstances, it is unnecessary to argue our case, as against Individualism; nor to show what we should be reduced to, if such a spirit guided our counsels or controlled our acts. That theory destroys the Church. It makes her, as for any practical purpose, not merely unnecessary, but impossible; she becomes no more than a nebula, faint, misty, and shapeless; a fatuitous and inorganic concourse of converted atoms. In the quarters in which this theory has been generally held, demoralization has been most rapid, Skepticism and Infidelity have wrought their worst mischief, and Romanism has achieved her greatest success as a repairer of damages. Let the individualistic conception of Christianity once eat into the mind of our Church, and she will go down like a scuttled ship.
The second school of thought is that of Sectarianism. This gives us a higher conception of the scheme of redemption and salvation; it allows that there is something greater in this world than separate and isolated men. But yet there is a vice in this theory, for it practically identifies the work of God and Christ on earth with the fortunes of some one body of religious professors. It may be "our purely evangelical denomination," or "our truly scriptural church," but whatever it is, that part of the great body of Christ, to which a man belongs, expanding as he gazes upon it, at length obscures and eclipses every thing beyond itself, until he comes to think that the truth is there and there only, and that the interests of the Gospel are bound up with the future of that particular denomination, through which he is brought into communion with Christ. There is a strength in the characters which such a conviction forms; but they are one-sided and ill-balanced. The Sectarian is loyal and zealous, yet he does not see the great world, nor consider the mighty course of the centuries since Christ came hither. His loyalty is to the banner of a party, and his zeal savors of envy and contention.
I said that Individualism, as a theory of the Gospel, has little or no standing among us. Perhaps the very opposite might be said of Sectarianism. It marks us in a special, and sometimes in an offensive, way. We have a great deal of this temper among us; enough to have gained us a hard name among those outside our fold. It is not, however, strange that this should be so; for our religion, when introduced into the North American Colonies, met with a reception which has not been forgotten. The Puritans persecuted us as long as they could; and when we had grown too strong to be dealt with by the civil arm, they continued to assail us with tongue and pen. We were the prelatical, semi-papistical, and aristocratic Church. Our fathers had to contend against this storm of obloquy. They fought for every inch of ground which they occupied, and made their way slowly against odds. Our great divines, such as the noble-hearted Seabury, "Apostle of the New World," after whom your association is named, led no easy lives in. their day. Then, as the Church grew, that controversy arose which your elders remember, and in which they manfully bore their part: that battle for Episcopacy as the divinely constituted regiment of the Church of Christ, and for the Apostolic Succession as the channel of ministerial power. Thus it came about that in later days men thought of the Episcopal Church, for which they had suffered great contradiction, as if there were nothing else worth living for or working for. They held her up as a model to all: they thought the Prayer Book faultless, the services perfect, the whole system complete and entire, lacking nothing. They called on all men everywhere to become "Protestant Episcopalians," and wondered when the invitation was declined. There has been a great deal of this temper among us; there is less of it now; there will be still less by and by. The same strong conviction, the same earnestness, the same faith will remain; but we shall grow in knowledge, as in stature, and will cease to cry that we are the people, and that wisdom will die with us.
For another idea is slowly, but steadily, growing out of the weeds of our loose and ill-regulated thoughts, an idea which will work, though quietly, a revolution through the simple force of truth. We are beginning to see that there are other parts of the world besides the United States of America in which God's work is going on, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit; that there are other races besides the Anglo-Saxon; that ecclesiastical history is worth reading; that there was a time when all Christians everywhere had external communion with each other; and that, but for human faults and sins, the time might come back. Some Americans have thought this country to be, in every respect, the ne plus ultra of excellence.
The cure for that notion is foreign travel, from which men return loving their country not less than before, but more wisely. So, there are those of us who think our Church to be perfection, or, if not perfect, at least to be the one and only pure and uncorrupt communion on earth. That is Sectarianism. By-and-by, if a man will but read and study and think, if he will venture to look out of doors a little, he may begin to revise his opinions; and he will find, perhaps, another idea arising within his spirit, which he must either drive away, or allow to remain, at the risk of its modifying his views in their entire extent. He will form the conception of a visible Kingdom of Christ here on earth, overspreading, or destined to overspread, the globe; enduring from generation to generation; having all truth and authority, all grace and power; indefectible and adapted to all times, places, and men; and he will see that if his own Church is precious, she is precious only because she is an integral part of that Kingdom. He who has this idea within his soul, can hardly tell how it came there, or in what way it grew; but he blesses God for it, knowing that it is a lantern to his feet, and a light unto his paths. He has formed, at length, a practical conception of the Holy Catholic Church. It is not, to him, a local or sectarian organization, nor a body lasting, in a tolerable degree of purity, for some three hundred years after Christ, and then collapsing for twelve hundred more, till restored to life by a Luther and a Calvin; nor a dispersion of individual elect souls known to God only, but not distinguishable by man; nor a little knot of professors of "Evangelical" tenets brought up under some Gamaliel of Geneva, and disputing daily and noisily in the newspapers and meeting-houses; nor an invisible, dreamy, misty, vague shadow, without authority, or power, or discipline, and lacking the organs to utter one articulate sound in the ears of mankind. But he comes to think of the Holy Church in a real, positive, and practical way, as a truth and a fact in this age and in every age, a historic fact, a living tradition, a Body, and no ghost, a Kingdom and a Power, and not an empty name. When this idea has, through God's mercy, penetrated the soul, the sectarian conception dissolves in the glow of holy warmth and fire of joy, while all those relations which the individualistic notion expresses are more than satisfied in the breadth of this magnificent truth. And the man loves his own Church not less than before, but more wisely, as a branch of that great tree, a household of that family, as the inheritor of the common tradition, and a sharer in the mystery of the sacramental life.
It would be useful and interesting to present the argument against Sectarianism. It is not, however, necessary. The history of sects disproves their claim. The very sects themselves grow weary of their exclusiveness. On the sect theory, we should never accomplish much. Its principle is self-will, its fruit is discord. Sectarian Protestantism here, and everywhere, is feeding the hungry mouths of Rationalism and Romanism. Shall this be our history? Shall we take our place as merely one of several respectable denominations, and be content with such consideration as they may share in common? Sooner than do this, let us give up the cause at once, and go where they teach with authority, and not as the Scribes. And yet if we will not address the people as a sect, there is but one thing to do. We must go to them in the power and with the claims of the Holy Catholic Church. Now, let me ask, What will justify us in assuming that position?
Our only justification must be in an appeal to history. We make it fearlessly, believing that it sustains our claim. History shows that there is, and has been from the beginning, a visible Kingdom of Christ in this world, and that our communion forms a part thereof. Our religious system does not date from the time when the American Colonies became a nation, nor from that earlier day when its pioneers came from England, and landed on these shores. It does not date, in England, from the reign of Henry VIII. We trace it back, century by century, to the time when the Christian faith was preached in Britain. Our ministry is not a new thing-a self-originated line; it has come through Archi-episcopal prelates from remote ages. Our Prayer-book was not composed by Bishop Seabury and Bishop White, nor by English Bishops in the 16th century; nor was it a mere collection of forms which struck the fancy of the compilers. It has a very remote origin, and a history of its own-a history apart from which the volume cannot be appreciated, nor understood, nor rightly used. Regard her as you will, our Church is no new institution. Her lineage is not brief, her ancestry is very ancient. She has a story, a chronology, traditions as old as those of any Church on earth, save those of Jerusalem and Antioch. Inwoven through our system are cords which bind us to the past, and link our fortunes to those of the historic Kingdom of Christ. It is the perception of these truths which is making men more hopeful, while they think what is to be done, and what means we have of doing it.
The knowledge has long been theoretical among us; it is becoming practical, though slowly, and by degrees. The prejudices to be overcome are awful. A true Catholic conception of the Church involves a sympathy with the whole body; therefore the very first sign of deep conviction must be movement toward the realization of organic unity. Such a movement began among us some years ago. Its object was a freer intercourse with the Church of England. Even that was opposed, and stoutly-almost angrily. They said that there was no need of seeking religious alliances with a foreign Church; that no good would come of it; that we should do better apart. But the desire was a true one, and the wish was fulfilled. We have a joyful, and all but unrestrained, communion with the Anglo-Saxon branches of the Reformed Catholic Church; and next September, at Lambeth, a Council of English, American, Scottish, and Colonial Bishops will assemble to deliberate on the affairs of a communion which they regard as essentially one. Scarcely has this great victory over the spirit of seclusion and separation been gained, when another movement makes itself felt-a movement which may appear all but desperate, but which indicates at least the growth of the spirit of Christian love, and a belief in the future re-union of Christendom. I refer, of course, to the steps which have been taken towards opening communication with the Oriental, Greek, and Russian branches of the Holy Catholic Church. Those efforts have met, at home, with opposition. They have been regarded with bitter hostility, but negotiations proceed, and the desire deepens. Be the result what it may, the evidence is clear that a powerful spirit is active among us. Its indications are: the dropping of party terms, the laying aside old prejudices, the distaste for rancorous controversy, the willingness to see good in others, the admission that we are not absolutely perfect. Just when this tone and spirit are needed in the Church, by God's grace and inspiration they appear. Men arise, who show ns where to draw the line between the essential and the non-essential; who rightly estimate the strength of our position, and are not blind to its weak points; who, fair and just, are ready to give credit to others, and admit their own defects. These are the men to follow: broad of view, strong in the faith, humble; not the men to "agitate" about a vestment, or a colored stole, or a pair of lighted candles; not the men to cry treason at every one who asks leave to differ from Calvin and Luther; not men who think it is doing God the best possible service to be inveighing against Ritualism or the Eirenicon: but they are men who aim, in all their studies, labors, and prayers, to reach, if the Lord will guide them, a central position, at which all Catholics of every name may meet in unity of belief and practice, arid in the bond of peace, and who are ready to lay aside all that hinders such a consummation, or, at least, to hold their own principles in such manner as to give none offence. Such a school of large-hearted and candid men is growing in the Church: it is the great hope for the future.
Dear Brethren and Friends, in inviting a stranger to preach to you, you take a risk. He may not say what you would like best to hear; but you must pardon him, if that be the case, and consider that a man is likely to speak about what lies nearest to his heart. That must be my excuse, if any be needed. I speak to you of matters of paramount importance: they concern you. You are an association of Churchmen, of young men, united in the cause of our Holy Mother. You have your life before you; the best of the day is in front. Every man was sent into this world for some object, which explains his existence and appearance here. Our work, in this age and in this country, is to win souls for Christ through the instrumentality of the Church. To that end we must assert and defend her true Catholicity, for there is no other ground on which to set up a higher claim for her than that which any sect might make. Individualistic and Sectarian conceptions are the bane of modern and popular religious thought. These we must put away, utterly and entirely; nor argue and act on the principles which accord with them. Whatever truth may lie under the rubbish in each of those systems, we must respect and hold. We may honour the Individualist for those strong convictions of his-the salt of his otherwise corrupt scheme-concerning the union between the soul and his Saviour, and the need of watchfulness and care, of conscientiousness and sincerity, in maintaining that blessed relationship; while we may learn, from the Sectarian, lessons of devotion to the cause of the Church, and loyalty to our household of faith. But to try to convert the world on their principles, or on any but those which merit the name of Catholic, is to throw time, and means, and energy, and life itself, away.
Let us study the present and the past. What lessons do they teach! What correctives do they afford of pride and prejudice and passion! Look at the present. Regard the course of this world. Behold the dismal effects of religious dissension. What can it avail to perpetuate the strife? Or look at the past: go to the historians of the Church, to the Fathers, to the records of her councils: read through, or pray through, her Liturgies: take note of the order of her service, and the ornaments thereof: consider her disciplinary and sacramental system: meditate on the lives of her bishops, doctors, confessors, and saints. Is all this nothing to us? Are we then a new race, and is ours a modern religion, diverse from all that went before? Should the habit of our minds be contempt for everything outside our own ring, and supreme self-satisfaction in our specialties? I know well that there are men, earnest, devout, and sincere, whose voices are still for war; who, as soon as ever anyone dare speak of peace, though he were among the wisest and most saintly of his day, make them ready to battle, denounce the mere disposition to enquire for a common ground for Christians in the face of a scoffing, scorning world, and misrepresent the motives of those who seek it. I know that there are good men who regard nearly the whole body of Christians now on earth, as well as those who have lived and died in Catholic communion for the past 1,500 years, as being, or having been, corrupt in faith, depraved in taste, perverted in principles, and all blind, wrong, and astray; and who think that pure and undefiled religion cannot be found outside of those denominations which they style "Evangelical." I know that there are pious men who show such alarm about little matters of ritual and decoration, as betokens a kind of monomania on the subject.
But we are to learn, not from them, but from guides worthy of a following. We look at the present and the past: we find the cure for the evils of the former in the recovery of the powerful faith and strict, calm discipline of the latter. Individualism and Sectarianism, throned in high places, or a-foot in the busy crowd, will do their best to withhold from the thirsty lips the salutary chalice of a purer and older draught, and dash it to the earth. Individualism will conjure us to ignore every question but that of our own special salvation, or that of the persons whom we may influence. Sectarianism will insist that "the truth as it is in Jesus," is what they read in some modern body of divinity, or utter on the crazy platform of some Evangelical Alliance. To listen to their accents at a time like this, and take their statements in preference to the steady voice of Catholic tradition, would be as wise as it, in the heaviest of a storm at sea, a man should think to guide his ship, by taking counsel, not of compass or chart, or weather-glass-not of the perpetual ordinances of the stars above him, nor of the aspect of the heavens, but of the discordant and screaming sea-gulls which are blown about him in the wind.
Brethren, we have been saying, ever since we learned our Creed, "I believe in the Holy Catholic Church." We have said this every time we have assembled together, and at countless times besides. What do the words mean? Or what do we mean, when we repeat them? And there are men, Bishops, Priests, laymen, Apostles, Elders, brethren, who glory in the name, and say, again and again, that they are members of the Holy Catholic Church. "Ye shall know them by their fruits." On many lips, the words are but an empty profession: they take their Mother's name in vain. That name implies the essential, organic unity of all Christians. He takes it in vain, who means by it only so much of Christendom as he thinks to be in the right. Better not to use it at all than to put on it the modern gloss of spiritual pride and assumption of superiority to all that is or ever was before our day. What should be thought of the man whose thoughts ran thus: "I call myself a Catholic, and I believe in the Holy Catholic Church. But I do not sympathize with the 170,000,000 of Romanists in the world; for they are all idolaters, and abominable, and corrupt-the brood of Antichrist. Nor do I sympathize with the 76,000,000 of the Greek, the Russian, the Oriental Churches; for they are as bad as the Romanists almost, image worshippers, degraded, unspiritual. Nor do I sympathize with Tractarians, or Puseyites, or Ritualists; for they are unconverted men, and "traitors, and worse than either Greek or Roman, as false to the Holy Protestant Church. I do not sympathize with Mediaeval Christianity; for it was all darkness and superstition. I do not begin to sympathize with anything till I get as far back as the third century, and then I proceed cautiously, reading all things even there by the light of my Lutheran or Calvinistic lamp. Thus I have but faint sympathies from A.D. 33 to A.D. 300, and none from A.D. 300 to A.D. 1520, and none since A.D. 1520 except with the leaders and followers of the Protestant Reformation. Still, I am a Catholic; and I believe in 'One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church!'" O bitter satire upon a noble name! O amazing collapse of magnanimous pretensions! To call one's self by the title which pre-eminently bespeaks breadth of view, largeness of heart, charity, faith, unselfishness, and yet to be the disciple of a school of thought which was. founded, as it were but yesterday, and to judge worse of a man for wearing a bit of embroidery, or bowing at the name of Jesus, or lighting a candle in his chancel, than if he denied the necessity of Episcopacy, or the grace of Holy Baptism, or the reality of his own priesthood!
Brethren, these are critical times. Under the joint pressure of Skepticism and Infidelity on the one side, and of noisy agitation of religionists on the other, we are being forced into a choice of alternatives. The question is proposed to the men of this age, whether they will have as their Religion a system full of supernatural mysteries, with a true priesthood and a true sacrifice, with sacraments and divine rights, and a long history reaching back, far back, and being to its disciples an authority, a law, and a guide; or whether they will have a scheme of moral precepts, of intellectual abstractions, and emotional sensations, reducible to a mere mental act as its one essential point, and insisting on no outward organization, form, or order, as necessary in religion. This is the choice: I tremble to think of the consequence, if we should speak on these subjects with uncertain voice. Men will ask, by and by, which of these schemes has been, all along, in general outline, the same, and which is late; which of them was born of the will of God, long ago, and which, in latter days, came out of the obscurity where it was engendered of the will of man. I tremble to think what will happen, if we do not present, at the moment of decision, a true, broad, clear, full Catholicity to the people who will have, at last, who must have, something better than the world giveth. This is what our Church can do. She is free from Roman errors; and though she be tainted with the corruptions of specific Protestantism, yet they are not offensively presented, nor do they, as things stand now, seriously compromise her apostolic position. She is not perfect; she bears the marks of former abuse; she has lost some of her own inherited treasure; in some respects her witness is not so clear as it was. But in the main she is dear and precious, because she is one with the great Body of Christ, of all place, of all time. Again and again have I said, what now I repeat, that in her Communion one has advantages, nowhere else enjoyed, for leading a life equally guiltless of the sins of Rome on the one side, and Geneva on the other. This is the reason why we should be loyal to her: not because we love Protestantism, not because we adore Episcopalianism, but because we believe her to be a true and living branch of that great Church which the Lord founded, which His Apostles built, which Satan has troubled and divided, which still lives Toy force of the eternal promise, "PORTÆ INFERI NON PRÆVALEBUNT ADVERSUS EAM," which shall as surely come together and be one again, as God's word is sure to stand. It is better to live and die for a cause like this, although misunderstood and suspected in consequence, than to bask in the sunshine of popularity, while pushing forward objects applauded of men but destined to ultimate defeat. The triumph of mortal schemes, though it be showy, is fleeting. But the victory of the Lord, though long delayed, will be complete. "Behold the days come, saith the LORD, that the plowman shall overtake the reaper, and the treader of grapes him that soweth seed; and the mountains shall drop sweet wine, and all the hills shall melt. And I will bring again the captivity of my people of Israel, and they shall build the waste cities and inhabit them; and they shall plant vineyards, and drink the wine thereof; they shall also make gardens, and eat the fruit of them. And I will plant them upon their land, and they shall no more be pulled up out of their land which I have given them, saith the LORD thy GOD."