The Bishop’s Anniversary
By Reginald Heber Weller
From The Church Times: The Official Organ of the Diocese of Milwaukee, Whole No. 307, Vol. XXVI, No. 7, Milwaukee, Wis. March 1916.
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012
The Right Reverend William Walter Webb D.D., M.A., Sc.B.
Sixth Bishop of Milwaukee
As one looks back over the events of the few days of the last week in February, he cannot but regret that history preserves the record of so very few such occasions, for many which of necessity cannot long be remembered are vital points in the life of any institution. Those who celebrated the tenth anniversary of the consecration of Bishop Webb can never forget that day, though to the next generation it may be no more than a bare memory.
BISHOP WELLER’S SERMON
Jude 3. “Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write unto you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write unto you, and exhort you that ye should earnestly contend for the faith which was once delivered unto the saints.”
The fundamental fact of the Christian religion, the greatest of all the things that have happened in the history of the human race or in this world of creation, is the Incarnation of God. God, the Eternal Son, came down from heaven, and by the operation of the Holy Ghost in the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary, wrapped about Himself the human body and the human soul. On this earth He walked with human feet and touched with human hands; he heard through human ears and saw through human eyes; he spoke through human lips, thought with a human brain and loved with a human heart. But all the glory of the Life here on earth is sometimes forgotten, because we do not realize this stupendous fact; that, too, it is an eternal fact, and that the tremendous work which He took upon Himself, when he assumed our human nature, is still going on in the earth.—He himself the center of it all, and all proceeding from Him.
I think the greatest error that could possibly be made would be to read the Gospels or to consider any portion of the Christian faith or the Christian life, and let the fact of the Incarnation go for a moment out of our consciousness. It is God of Whom, and of Whose work, we are reading and thinking.
This is particularly true when one thinks of the Sacraments. Take those great words with which our Lord ordained his apostles to the priesthood, when he said: “This is My Body. This is My Blood of the new Covenant.” If you listen to these words as though they were the words of a man, you must water them down or explain them away in some sort of metaphor. But if they are the words of God, who dares say that they must not be understood exactly as they come to us from Him? So it is, too, when we think of miracles. One of the great difficulties about the Christian religion of which we are constantly told to-day, is the fact that the Gospel is so full of miracles. We are told that they are a stumbling block; that they did not happen because, as a matter of fact, miracles cannot be. And, my dear friends, if you are thinking of our Lord as only a man, there is, I take it, no answer to the problem that arises; one is lost, somewhere, in the haziness of the unknown. But if one considers that it is God Himself in our nature Who works them, then miracles, instead of being a difficulty, instantly become the greatest help. The marvel, the stumbling block, the difficulty would be that there were no miracles, that His whole Life should not be overflowing with wonders, since he is God.
And, my friends, this problem does not extend merely to questions such as these. It touches the Church herself. I often wonder about those who read the New Testament narratives and yet say that our Lord did not found a Church. It is a remarkable fact that everyone feels the need of a Church, that the world cannot get along without one; and yet many find it impossible to believe that our Lord did what they themselves find it necessary to do in order to have any religion at all. They deny to our Lord the ability to do what they have done. Possibly they have not heard that our Lord, as he stood there by the Sea of Galilee, called Andrew and Peter from their fishing nets, James and John from their father Zebedee, Matthew the publican from the place where he sat collecting taxes—with the simple words “Follow me.” And how, little by little, he gathered around them the body of His Church, the earthly material out of which He would create it. Out of these he chose twelve whom he called apostles, and to them gave the greatest commission ever given to man; gave it not once only, but at three different times. There was that first commission when He washed the feet of the disciples—a thing they well understood; again when he said, “Do This;” and finally when he breathed on them, and soon after sent them forth to baptize and to teach. Then it was that He completed a commission to last, not for one generation, but to the end of the world.
There is no possible understanding of these great acts which does not involve in them the institution we call the Catholic Church, the new, the living Creation. It is true that it has, as when He made it, matter; the material substance of this world is in it. But it is also full of life, and that life is the life of the Incarnate God. The Church is not, as men are constantly supposing, merely imitating Christ; but Christ is living in the Church, working in the Church, speaking and acting through the Church. That is its great function. “Yet not I, but Christ dwelleth in me.” And to this Church He gave the Faith.
It is a marvelous thing when one looks back over the history of the world, and thinks of the records of the past that are lost, of the great writings that have perished from the face of the earth, to find those wonderful books that are yet one Book; not “books” because they are bound together, but because they treat of the same subject, and have the same Author. It is wonderful to think how they have come down to us from the darkness and the tumult of the past with that remarkably perfect picture of the Life of God on earth. They contain the Faith. But that Faith is not only in the Bible—it was in the Church before it was in the Bible. Holy Church did not get the Faith from the Bible, but—I say with all reverence—the Bible got it from the Church, that is, from God in the Church. If you study carefully you will find that every particle of Faith is enshrined there.
To the Church, then, has been committed the Faith. And it is our duty to teach that Faith, whether men will hear or whether they will forebear. Our responsibility is that of a witness, and an unspeakable crime is committed when the witness stand is perverted. There, and there alone, do men take solemn oaths. And the Church is a witness on this earth. Now and then someone comes in and says: “We do not want any dogmas. We are tired of dogmas.” How strange it is that such an objection to dogma has come into men’s minds! For what is dogma but the Gospel put into scientific forms of thought so that men may have the Light to guide them, and may know that when they read the Gospel they are reading about God and not about a prophet? Without dogma the Church would be a jellyfish; she would have no backbone, would be a shapeless mass incapable of anything whatever. And yet it is that to which men are always trying to reduce Holy Church. I sat in a train, the other day, opposite a very intelligent man and woman. In the course of conversation they began telling me how broad they were, and how they loved Christian people, and were not narrow. And as they went on I found that their whole conception of the Christian religion was so hazy that, as a matter of fact, they did not know anything about it. They were broad, very broad; but shallow, very shallow.
Now there is something remarkable about truth. Truth is always as hard as flint, and you cannot bow it out of court. It is not possible to eliminate truth without destroying it. And the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” is the truth for which the Church stands and which she teaches just as strongly as she can. If you want to call us narrow, call us narrow! It means that we are not on the broad way that leadeth to destruction, but on the narrow road that leads to life. If we have the Christian religion, we have it in solemn trust and with an awful responsibility. It is ours for God, and it is ours for humanity. Under no conditions may we water it down or wipe it out, or make it include what it did not originally include. There is no such thing as the development of the Christian religion in its deep and essential meaning. The doctrine of development may be held by the modernists of Rome or of Protestantism, but to the man that holds that the Faith was “once for all delivered to the saints” it is an everlasting, an eternal, an indestructible Gospel. What is new is not true, and what is true is not new.
There is a tendency to-day which prompts men to say to us: “Let us all get together and forget all differences in doctrine, in faith, in sacramental life. Let us all get together and put these things behind us, and see what we, in our human strength, can do in an effort to be the Atlas which carries the world.” Poor little pygmies! Study the world as it was before the Church came into it, and see what our Atlas was like!
A crisis has been coming for a long time. Thoughtful men have watched it and known that it is at hand. In spite of such great men as the Bishop of Oxford and the Bishop of Zanzibar, one hardly knows how the problem is working out. Here, only a little while ago, it presented itself strongly to us in connection with our Board of Missions and the Panama Conference. And the cry comes to us “Why cannot we all join hands, why cannot we lay aside our sacramental life, and the wonderful commission of the historic episcopate; why cannot we lay aside the stumbling blocks of faith—the Faith which is so hard that it separates men?” I answer: because in God’s name all we are here for is “the faith once for all delivered to the saints.” We do not care about converting the world to a non-sacramental religion; we do not care to convert the world to a religion that leaves out the living, organic, sacramental presence, among us, of the Incarnate God. That is the reason.
Now, this does not mean that we fail to recognize the good we see about us. It does not mean that we are unaware of the good people who are interested in the work of their Creator. It only means that amid all the subterfuges and the struggles of human life the duty of Holy Church is to hold high the banner before men and to show clearly and definitely that “there is no other name under heaven given among men, whereby we may be saved.” That is narrow, I know; but it is broad enough to carry God’s Church through the ages and, at last, into the kingdom of the Blessed.
And this I say, my friends, because it is the anniversary of the Consecration to the Episcopate of your Bishop. Down through all the ages, the primary purpose of the Bishop’s office is just this which I have been trying to tell you: to bear witness. “Ye shall be witnesses unto Me.” Through Him comes the testimony of the ages. The historic episcopate is historic in a sense in which nothing human is historic. Compared to it the oldest dynasties of Europe are as the light to the child of the day. It is to last unto the end of the world; it is indestructible; it is true, because God is in it. The primary office of the Bishop is the conservation, the preservation, the teaching of the faith once for all delivered to the saints. And without unity of faith there can be no unity of life.
In a very dark moment a few months ago, I heard a statement that delighted my soul. I asked one of the strongest intellects in the American Church where to go with a very difficult problem, where I could find a theologian upon whom I could depend. He said: “There are two men in America. One is the Rev. Dr. So and So, and the other is the Bishop of Milwaukee.” If one wants to know what the faith is, let him ask an expert: he wants an expert in matters of science and philosophy and in all other lines of thinking and doing. Why not seek the expert in religion?
It is a splendid thing to know that here in Wisconsin we have, as one whose duty it is to defend the faith once for all delivered to the saints, an expert—one who knows so well that the Christian religion without the whole Faith is not worth living for. Thank God, in him we have a guide, a leader who knows the Faith! Trust him and rely on him,—in so doing you will find a shepherd who goes before his sheep, leading them on. Follow him lovingly and devotedly, and as the years pass by—God grant that he may have many of them here in this Cathedral—his people will know the glory of the religion of the Incarnate God. God grant that when you and I lie down at last to die, it will be with a certain faith in the Catholic Church, and with the life of the Incarnate flowing into us through the sacraments—the channels of the grace of God.