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Building the Old
Waste Places

"And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places;
thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations;
and thou shalt be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of paths to dwell in."
Isaiah lviii: 12.




Preached at the Closing Service in the First Reformed Episcopal
Church, New York City, November 2nd, 1919.





Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2011

Building the Old Waste Places

"And they that shall be of thee shall build the old waste places;
thou shalt raise up the foundations of many generations;
and thou shalt be called the repairer of the breach,
the restorer of paths to dwell in." Isaiah lviii: 12.

Reading these words at this time and in this place will recall to students of the history of this communion a gathering inseparably associated with this parish. It was on the second of December, 1873, that the Right Reverend George David Cummins, founder and first Presiding Bishop of the Reformed Episcopal Church—and, more than that, the first rector of this parish—addressed an assemblage that resolved itself into the First General Council of the Reformed Episcopal Church. He had come out of the parent body, as many of you have done, prompted by a desire to return to the old paths. Some said he had come out to destroy. To this he replied in words of great vigor: "Let not our good be evil spoken of. We have not come to destroy, but to restore; not to pull down, but to reconstruct. We would 'build again the old waste places, raise up the foundations of many generations;' we would 'repair the breach and restore the old paths to dwell in.'"

[4] In the stillness of this Sabbath morning, we read again those prophetic words. They come from the remote past, from that great prophet of the exile, one of the greatest preachers in all history. And they come again from one of our own number, one of the great preachers of his day, whose memory breathes upon us here like a benediction.

These walls, which for two generations have stood a mute testimony to the Gospel of the Risen Lord, are soon to give place to waste. The foundations of those generations are to be laid low. We are parties to the tearing down; we have sanctioned the leveling of the foundations—yet we are not disobedient to the prophetic call. We insist, "We have not come to destroy, but to restore; not to pull down, but to reconstruct." Indeed, "we would build again the old waste places, repair the breach and restore the old paths to dwell in."

These walls enclose hallowed memories. They are monuments to high hopes and splendid aspirations. To some of you this place is sacred with the still-heard echoes of voices long since gone. Here you were brought as children and dedicated in baptism to the service of Christ. Here, as you reached the years of discretion, you solemnly renewed the promises that had been made for you at your baptism. Here some of you vowed that sacred vow which makes of twain one flesh. Here some of us dedicated ourselves to the ministry of the Word. Here one of us, our Bishop, was consecrated to his high and holy office. Within these hallowed walls all the impulses of religion have had their sway and sweep. And now, where to-day we sing praises to the [4/5] Most High God, to-morrow we will await the wrecker's hammer. To-day the organ's peal; to-morrow the sharp note of the chisel.

Yet it is not all regret. We have not come to mourn, but to rejoice. We have not come to destroy, but to restore.

The body dies, but the soul lives. Stones crumble. The church rises from the ruin.

The church is a living thing. It is not merely a building. It is built upon a foundation not laid by hands. The church—the ideal church, the church we love and seek to serve—has been described by Charles Rann Kennedy. Hear the words of his "Manson:"

"I am afraid you may not consider it an altogether substantial concern. It has to be certain in a certain way, under certain conditions. Some people never see it at all. You must understand that it is no dead pile of stones and unmeaning timber. It is a living thing.

"When you enter it, you hear a sound—a sound as of some mighty poem chanted. Listen long enough and you will learn that it is made up of the beating of human hearts, of the nameless music of men's souls—that is, if you have ears.

"If you have eyes, you will presently see the church itself—a looming mystery of shapes and shadows, leaping sheer from floor to dome—the work of no ordinary builder!

"The pillars of it go up like the brawny trunks of heroes; the sweet human flesh of men and women is molded about its bulwarks, strong, impregnable! The terrible spans and arches of it are the joined hands of [5/6] comrades; and up in the heights and spaces there are inscribed the numberless musings of all the dreamers of the world. It is yet building—building and built upon. Sometimes the work goes forward in deep darkness; sometimes in the blinding light; now beneath the burden of unutterable anguish; now to the tune of a great laughter and heroic shouting, like the cry of thunder. Sometimes, in the silence of the night-time, one may hear the tiny hammerings of the comrades at work up in the dome—the comrades who have climbed ahead."

In the stillness of this Sabbath we hear those tiny hammerings. We glimpse the church—building and built upon. The tiny hammerings, like the still small voice, summon us to our responsibility, to consciousness of our comradeship, to the communion of saints.

Some there are to-day who watched those comrades that have climbed ahead while they were laboring here below. To them a review—brief, as it must be—of the history of their achievement will be refreshing; to others it will be enlightening; to all of us it will prove an inspiration.

This parish, this communion, is the work of no ordinary builder. The parish and the communion grew in inverse order. The vision of the whole was seen before its parts came into being. But this parish, inarticulate at first, is as old as the Reformed Episcopal Church. It was in process of being born while the reform movement was shaping.

In the Diocese of Kentucky your first rector labored as an Assistant Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal [6/7] Church. He had viewed with increasing uneasiness the growth of the Ritualistic Party in his own Church. The Evangelical Alliance, organized to spread the Gospel of Jesus Christ in the terms of the "faith once delivered," interested and engaged him. But its principles were too broad, its impulses too generous—they threatened the prelatical system. And when Bishop Cummins, for striving to contend for that "faith once delivered," found himself under the inhibition of a diocesan bishop—an inhibition politely but firmly phrased—he discovered that he was very near the cross roads. The controversy that followed his inhibition demented the interests of the Evangelicals in the Protestant Episcopal ministry; but it also alienated many who had been friends of Bishop Cummins; and in his own diocese it led to the curtailment of his authority and work. The clergy succeeded in effecting an arrangement which continued the authority of the diocesan even when long absent from his see. Thus Bishop Cummins was unable to register an effective protest against the spread of sacerdotalism, even in Kentucky.

On Sunday, October 12, 1873, Bishop Cummins participated in the joint Communion Service held in Dr. John Hall's church in this city. On the preceding Sunday, the Reverend Doctor R. Payne Smith, Dean of Canterbury, had participated in a similar service. As a result of Dean Smith's participation, a letter of protest appeared in the columns of the New York Tribune, over the signature of the former Anglican Bishop of Zanzibar. This letter, replied to by Bishop Cummins, gave rise to a bitter discussion. [7/8] Bishop Cummins, through his own participation and on account of his ecclesiastical rank, became the storm-center. It is worthy of mention that the controversy which raged only a few years ago was started by the ecclesiastical successor of this same protesting Anglican. For the Kikuyu incident, which was forgotten in the stress of the world war, was a union communion service.

Now let us hear from the devoted helpmeet of the First Presiding Bishop:

"The storm of bitterness had not spent itself when the great and momentous question arose in Bishop Cummins's mind, whether he could remain in a Church where he had been so harshly judged; and where he could not expect anything but censure and disapproval. This thought occupied his mind for many days. He most earnestly sought guidance from his Master. It was a time of deep heart-searching on his part and of close communion with his God. At last the decision was made—light came to him—he saw his way clearly marked out; but he went out of the Church in which he had labored so faithfully twenty-eight years—alone, with nothing definite before him in the future, but knowing that the Lord had guided him. The decision was reached November 9, 1873."

In a letter to Bishop Benjamin Bosworth Smith, his own diocesan and the Presiding Bishop of the Protestant Episcopal Church, Dr. Cummins announced the reasons for his withdrawal:

1. He told of the trial of being called upon to exercise his office in churches where services symbolized and taught doctrines "subversive of the truth as it is in [8/9] Jesus and as maintained by the reformers of the sixteenth century." He said he felt as if he were endorsing their practices by his presence and official acts.

2. He said he had lost all hope that legislative or executive action by the authorities of the Church would eradicate the errors he had pointed out, saying the only true remedy lay in a judicious yet thorough revision of the Prayer Book, and announcing his own intention of returning to the Prayer Book of 1785, sanctioned by Bishop White and recommended for use in the Protestant Episcopal Church.

3. He told of the controversy over his participation in the joint communion service and uttered this ringing declaration: "As I cannot surrender the right and privilege thus to meet my fellow-Christians of other churches around the table of our dear Lord, I must take my place where I can do so without alienating those of my own household of faith."

Following this letter and a refusal to reconsider, Bishop Cummins met with some brethren of the Protestant Episcopal Church, who felt as he did, and out of these conferences grew the Reformed Episcopal Church.

Time is too limited to recount the successive steps in the establishment of the new communion. But a reference must be made to that gathering in the hall of the Young Men's Christian Association, already alluded to, when, under the temporary presidency of Benjamin Aycrigg, the Declaration of Principles was read, a platform broad enough for actual unity of effort and not merely that high-sounding, yet elusive, intangible and phantasmagoric "unity of understanding."

[10] This declaration affirms the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments to be the very Word of God and the sole rule of faith and practice.

It affirms a belief in the Apostles' Creed; in the Divine institution of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper; and in the doctrines of grace substantially as they are set forth in the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion.

It declares the Episcopacy to be an ancient and desirable form of church polity, but not of divine right.

It retains the liturgy, but not as imperative nor as repressive in prayer. It accepts the Book of Common Prayer—that is, the Book of 1785—reserving the right to alter, abridge, enlarge or amend, providing that the substance of the faith be kept entire.

So much for the positive notes. It condemns and "rejects as contrary to God's Word:"

1. That the Church exists in only one form of polity.

2. That Christian ministers are priests in any sense other than that all believers are a royal priesthood.

3. That the Lord's Table is an altar on which the oblation of the Body and Blood of Christ is offered anew.

4. That the presence of Christ in the Lord's Supper is a presence in the elements of bread and wine.

5. That regeneration is inseparably connected with Baptism.

From Bishop Cummins's address to that inaugural Council we may take a few more passages: "And one in heart, in spirit and in faith with our fathers, who at the very beginning of the existence of this nation sought to mold and fashion the ecclesiastical polity which they [10/11] had inherited from the reformed Church of England, by a judicious and thorough revision of the Book of Common Prayer, we return to their position and claim to be the old and true Protestant Episcopalians of the days immediately succeeding the American Revolution. And through those our ancestors we claim an unbroken historical connection, through the Church of England, with the Church of Christ from the earliest Christian era."

"This, then, is our attitude towards our brethren of the Protestant Episcopal Church. We are not schismatic (no one can be a schismatic who does not deny the faith); we are not disorganizers; we are restorers of the old, repairers of the breach, reformers."

"We regard our movement only as a step towards the closer union of all Evangelical Christendom. For this we shall labor and pray. We gladly acknowledge the validity of the ministerial orders of our brethren whom God has sent into His vineyard and whose labors He has accepted and blessed. We shall invite all ministers of evangelical churches to occupy our pulpits and to take part in our services."

All of this detail, as it concerns the formation of the denomination and not of this individual parish, you may regard as extraneous. But, as was said at the outset, the future of this communion and of this parish were interwoven. May you, then, pardon me one more allusion to the beginning of this reform movement of which we are only a part. The New York Tribune, which had printed the original protest against the principle [11/12] involved in the union communion service, subsequently printed a letter from a presbyter of the Protestant Episcopal Church containing these words: "It has been reserved to our day to witness the spectacle of a Protestant Episcopal Bishop voluntarily resigning for conscience sake the position, honors and emoluments attaching to prelatic rank, to aid in restoring to the churches of Christ a primitive episcopate and a scriptural liturgy purified from erroneous rites and phrases. Bishop Cummins is the first Protestant Episcopal Bishop since the days of Edward VI who has renounced the 'yoke of bondage' which has so long fettered the Episcopate, to become partaker of the 'full liberty of the Gospel.'"

You have seen, now, how the denomination came into being.

The next step was to organize the several parishes that were to make up the body of the Church.

Devoted Christians had been meeting under the leadership of Bishop Cummins in the old Steinway Hall, and on Sunday, February 15, 1874, Bishop Cummins announced that steps were contemplated for the incorporation of the First Reformed Episcopal Church in New York City. He invited all those who were interested to remain after the service. The congregation was organized tentatively and a special committee was named to meet the following evening and discuss ways and means. At this meeting it was decided to recommend the incorporation of the society under the laws of the State of New York relative to religious corporations as embodied in the laws of 1813 and thereafter.

On the following Sunday a formal call was read for [12/13] a meeting to be held on March 9 in Steinway Hall. At this meeting the by-laws of the society—and they form a very interesting document—were read and approved with certain amendments and abridgements. In this day and generation, it is worthy of mention that the right of women to share in the government of this parish was recognized from the start. A parenthetic note describing those eligible to vote says "male and female."

Also at this meeting Bishop Cummins was elected rector. His service was to be numbered only in days, for, on the advice of his physician, he submitted his resignation, which was accepted on March 21. Thus your rector's distinguished predecessor—first distinguished predecessor—served only twelve days.

On April 19 the Vestry tendered a call to the Rev. Dr. William T. Sabine, rector of the Church of the Atonement. He was a pronounced evangelical, a strong controversialist, a brilliant preacher; withal, a Christian gentleman and a devoted pastor. Dr. Sabine accepted the call, with the understanding that he was to preach his first sermon as rector on May 3, 1874. In his letter of acceptance he said: "May our counsels be characterized by wisdom and harmony; our plans be pursued with constancy, zeal and self-sacrifice; and our efforts be successful in advancing the glory of our Divine Saviour and in promoting a simple, scriptural worship, and the preaching of a pure Gospel among our fellow-men. May the Lord direct us in all our doings with His most gracious favor and further us with His continual help."

The detailed story of Dr. Sabine's rectorship and of his episcopate must be left for another occasion. [13/14] It must suffice to say that, under his pastoral care, the little community of Christians grew in grace and applied themselves to their task of helping to further the coming of the Kingdom. Under his leadership the church was built and freed of debt. Under his leadership the influence of this parish extended to the farthest reaches of our work. He gave the best that was in him, and he moved other men to the ministry of Christ. So his own ministry continues, not alone among those who knew and loved him, but by those who even now are reached and affected by those who knew and loved him. Physically frail, his zeal for the Gospel took a heavy toll. But he ministered to this congregation for thirty-three years; and when the call came for him to be consecrated to the larger duties of the Episcopate, he responded, though strongly urged against such a step by those who knew how wearing the demands would be.

In Dr. Sabine's pastorate, in the building of the church and the cementing of ties that still are unbroken, some great names were disclosed. It would be unfair to mention any without mentioning all. Men and women alike gave of their substance and of their energy. It is like reading a romance to study the record of their self-sacrifice. Let us think of these men and women and "look to the rock whence we are hewn and to the hole of the pit whence we are digged."

When, finally, Dr. Sabine surrendered the burden, the church faced a crisis. It was realized that the conditions demanded a strong man. Many weary months were spent in the effort to find such a man. Finally a call was extended to Dr. Charles Hamilton Coon, who [14/15] assumed his pastorate in October, 1908. A few months later he died.

So once again the church found itself in quest of a leader. The choice rested upon Dr. William Dubose Stevens. This consummation, of which to-day's gathering is an anticipation, was a promise held out to him. For the neighborhood had changed and the old building, so fraught with precious memories, was found to be unsuited to such church effort as seemed to be demanded. This consummation was delayed, year in and year out, because of a depression in the realty market. In the meantime, Dr. Stevens served the parish faithfully and well. He was eager to begin the new task.

Then came the war. You know the rest. It is too recent a memory to need refreshing now. But we must say this, that the impress of his sacrifice makes all of us examine ourselves and demand of ourselves to know whether we are as consecrated as was he, whether we are as ready as was he, whether we are capable, as was he, of that love of which the Christ said, "Greater love hath no man than this."

The voices of the past call to us. This is a solemn hour. It is an hour of reconsecration.

If the church be a living thing; if we have ears to hear and eyes to behold; if we can hear that music of the beating of human hearts—and the tiny hammerings; if we can join hands with those of the comrades that have climbed ahead; if we can twine our flesh about its bulwarks, strong, impregnable—we shall rejoice in a new opportunity for service and sacrifice. We shall [15/16] exclaim with truth, "We have not met to destroy, but to restore; not to pull down, but to reconstruct. We would build again the waste places and raise up the foundations of many generations.

In this hour of new beginnings, may your rector turn back the pages of your parish history and read, as if the writing were his own:

"May our counsels be characterized by wisdom and harmony; our plans be pursued with constancy, zeal and self-sacrifice; and our efforts be successful in advancing the glory of our Divine Saviour, and in promoting a simple scriptural worship, and the preaching of a pure Gospel among our fellow-men. May the Lord direct us in all our doings with His most gracious favor and further us with His continual help."

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