Project Canterbury

The Age and the Issue
A Sermon Preached in Trinity Church, New York

By Shirley C. Hughson
Of the Order of the Holy Cross

West Park, N.Y.: Holy Cross Press, 1923.


This sermon was preached on the evening of May 23rd, 1923, at a service held in Trinity Church, New York, in commemoration of the ninetieth year of the Oxford Movement, under the auspices of the Clerical Union for the Maintenance and Defense of Catholic Principles.


"Building up yourselves on your most holy faith."--Jude 20.

IT IS very fitting, my brethren, that on this ninetieth commemoration of the momentous occasion which marked the beginning of the revival of the Catholic life in the Anglican Church, we should be gathered together in this ancient shrine of Catholic spirit and activity. The name of Trinity Parish recalls memories of Hobart, the greatest Bishop who ever presided over the destinies of America's greatest diocese, and whose powerful influence did as much as that of any one man in the Anglican world to stir the Church to her duty more than a hundred years ago. His sacred dust rests beneath the pavement of this Church.

For the American Church, Trinity Parish enshrines the more recent memory of Morgan Dix, who was, as much as any man of his generation, in the forefront of the Catholic revival in the American Church. It was he who made possible the Religious Life for women in America by acting, we might say, as co-founder, with that venerated woman, Harriet Starr Cannon, in the institution of the Community of St. Mary. Nor did he, or his great predecessor Hobart, lack opportunity of suffering for the Faith for which they stood so staunchly in that iron time in which their lot was cast; and it was the courage of such men as these, and their willingness to suffer, that made it possible for us [3/4] today to enjoy the freedom to worship God according to the standards of the Apostolic Church.

We should be less than gracious, if, in this presence, and in this place, we did not pay our reverence to those whose suffering and steadfastness sowed the seed, in the harvest of which we today are rejoicing.

But it is not my purpose tonight to preach a historical sermon. Stimulating indeed would it be on such an occasion to recall those stormy decades of the nineteenth century when John Keble, that gentle Saint with a heart of fire, was a guiding star through the night of doubt and anguish; when the colossal intellect and learning of Edward Bouverie Pusey were forging weapons for the defense of the Faith which will find place in the Catholic armory as long as the Faith needs to be defended by the sons of the Church; when John Mason Neale, Father Lowder, and Father Mackonochie, amidst the toil and suffering which merited for them the high title of confessors for the Faith, were bearing the healing principles of the truth of God down into the common walks of men.

But we have had many historical sermons of late, and I do not take it as my appointed task tonight to repeat the facts which we all well know, or which can more effectively be learned from the many volumes, easily accessible, which give the history of this great movement, and of the doings of the noble servants of God who laid the foundations upon which we are called to build.

What we can more profitably consider, is the condition of the Church in the days of the fathers of the Oxford Movement, and the condition of the Church in our own time, making such comparisons as may [4/5] enable us to learn from what they did in their generation, how we are to deal with the problems which confront us.

But let us glance first at certain differences between our age and theirs. When John Keble, on the 14th day of July 1833, delivered his famous sermon on, National Apostasy before the Judges of the Assize Court at Oxford, he did not deal with an apostasy which arose from an aggressive propaganda against the revealed truth of God.

He was dealing with a situation of apathy and indifference which has no counterpart in our time and country. It was an apathy which had paralyzed the nerves of the Church's life for a century, until men had forgotten that the spirit of man had ever responded to the thrill of religious zeal. It was what the famous infidel, Thomas Paine, well called "the Age of Reason," a reason whose exercise had "removed God from the human heart to enthrone Him amongst the clouds and the snows of an intellectual Olympus." [WAKEMAN, Introduction to the History of the Church of England, p. 428.]

It was a century when even the most active parishes were content with, three celebrations of the Holy Communion a year, and in many of the less active ones not even once a year did God's people have the opportunity to receive the Bread of Life.

Archbishop Secker, during this period, when Bishop of Oxford, pleaded with his clergy to the effect that he was sure, if they would make a real effort, they might have at least one Communion for their people in the long interval between Whitsunday and Christmas; and from the tone of his pleading it was evident [5/6] that he expected his modest suggestion to bear no fruit, and as a matter of fact it did not.

In the year in which Dr. Pusey was born, it is a matter of historical record that in St. Paul's Cathedral, London, at the one Eucharist celebrated on Easter there were six communions made,--so forgotten and deserted were the altars of God.

Nor on our side of the water were conditions better. Take for example, the great dioceses of Virginia where the Church enjoys such prosperity today. So forlorn was her condition, that in the city of Richmond there was but one Church, and that opened only on the rare Communion Sunday; at other times the little band of the faithful meeting on the Lord's Day for prayers in one of the committee-rooms in the state capitol. When Chief Justice John Marshall was asked for a contribution: towards the founding of the seminary at Alexandria, he gave it with his customary generosity, but said he regarded it as an unkind act to try to induce any young man to enter the Episcopal ministry, so irretrievable did he regard the fortunes of the old Church.

And so joined was Ephraim to his idols of ease and worldliness, that when the effort was made to awaken him to a sense of the awfulness of such apostasy, he turned with persecuting rage upon those who sought to rouse him from his soul-slumber.

We must recall with profound veneration the names of those who, like Tooth and Green in England, languished for months among the criminals in a common jail because, choosing to obey God rather than man, they taught and practised the Faith once delivered to the Saints.

Base indeed should we be if we forgot those in our [6/7] own land who, for the Faith of Christ, bore a burden of attack, the studied iniquity of which astounds us as we look back upon it in the light of after years;--Doane, the elder, whose powerful, courtly, and humble defense against an amazing array of charges, recalls the grace and majesty of St. Paul before the tribunal of Agrippa; Onderdonk, the gentle Bishop and strong champion of Catholic truth, the bitter persistent course of whose enemies brings to mind the persecutors of the same great apostle, who "bound themselves under a curse neither to eat nor to drink until they had slain Paul."

In yonder chapel in enduring marble lies the effigy of this great Bishop, and beside the recumbent figure the sculptor has carved the serpent of slander, as the startling symbol of the verdict with which the calm judgment of history has avenged him of his adversaries.

Trinity Parish never honoured itself more than when it raised that gracious cenotaph as a memorial of the virtues and sufferings of this Confessor,--yea, my brethren, this martyr,--for the Faith of God.

These brief glimpses will convey to us. some definite idea of the perils which the fathers of the Catholic revival were called upon to face, both in England and America. No such conditions confront us today. America is not apathetic concerning religion. On the contrary, men are definitely interested in religion. It was reported from every quarter that last Lent, Holy' Week, and Easter, saw larger congregations in the churches, both Catholic and Protestant, of this city, than had ever been known in the memory of living men.

[8] Recent events have stirred profoundly the depths of men's minds concerning truth, spiritual and supernatural. These things are the common talk of the market-place. When the subject of the latest false teaching in Church pulpits can command a leading editorial in Wall Street's foremost financial journal, and inspires a distinguished artist to put upon his canvas a burning satire of the position achieved by the teacher of these strange doctrines, no man can say that the American people are not interested in things religious.

But let us take care lest we lay too flattering an unction to our souls concerning this matter. The public of our day is interested indeed in things religious, but it by no means follows that it is recognizing and accepting the truth. The Bishop of New York, whose courageous championing, of the Faith ranks him with his great predecessor Hobart, to whom we referred, rebukes one of his clergy for denying the Nicene Creed, and thousands flock to Cathedral Heights to hear his strong and lucid exposition of the Church's Gospel. But, on the other hand, we are told that it required a platoon of police to keep in order the throngs which clamoured to hear the false teaching which had been rebuked.

One is not prepared to think, however, that our American people are like the Athenians of whom St. Luke says, they "spent their time in nothing else but either to tell or to hear some new thing." I do not believe that it is the mere novelty of a situation that attracts them. They may not, for want of instruction, be able to recognize truth and embrace it when they meet it in the market-place. But if this be the case, where lies the fault?

[9] This question launches at every man appointed to witness for divine truth, a tremendous and overwhelming challenge. Nay, my brethren, more than a challenge, it is an indictment to which every one of us is called upon to plead "Guilty," or "Not Guilty," in the forum of his own conscience.

The inspired Word declares that "God hath made of one blood all nations of men for to dwell on all the face of the earth, and hath determined the times before appointed, and the bounds of their habitation,"--and for what purpose?--"in order that they should seek the Lord, if haply they might feel after Him and find Him" (Acts 17: 27). Men are seeking the Lord. They know not for what they hunger, but it is for the Bread of Life which alone can satisfy the craving of their souls.

What are the terms and the measure of our obligation in this matter? Those of us who are ordained to be ministers of God's Word and Sacraments, find our duty outlined for us in clear language which recalls one of the most solemn moments of our life.

We knelt before the altar, and the question was asked us, "Will you be ready with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's Word; and to use both public and private monitions and exhortations, as well to the sick as to. the whole, within your cures, as need shall require, and occasion shall be given?"

And we, in the presence of God and the Church, made answer, "I will, the Lord being my helper."

Here we have two distinct obligations which every [9/10] priest at his ordination voluntarily took upon himself; the first, to use all endeavor "to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines" and second, to be instant in season and out of season to teach the Faith, as this Church hath received the same, to every soul committed to his spiritual and pastoral care.

Let us consider these in the order in which the Church herself presents them. First, therefore, in regard to defending the Church from erroneous and strange doctrine.

What is the best method of defense, the most effective course for repelling, and expelling, error from the Church? It is undoubtedly the direct and positive teaching of the facts of the Faith.. In most cases this is best done by presenting simple, concrete, unargued statements of what is the revealed truth of God. "Thus saith the Lord," will carry with it a weight that will often be wanting to the most skillfully wrought argument, and in many cases will bring conviction, whereas, the controversial presentation of truth will, too often, suggest doubt and produce perplexity.

This is why we at this time need religious literature, which will give the complete but simple facts of the Faith without even a hint that anybody ever lived who thought or believed anything to the contrary. This literature needs to be put up in small parcels, so that men and women will be encouraged to read it. Booklets containing simple, sprightly statements of the meaning of the Apostles' Creed, the Lord's Prayer, the Seven Sacraments, should be placed in the hands of every communicant of the Church with an [10/11] invitation to come to the rector, should any questions arise, and discuss the issue involved.

And such discussions should be diverted from controversial grooves. Many of us clergy, because we have had controversial training, imagine that this is the way to teach the truth; but as a matter of fact, most of the people with whom we come in contact, have not theological background enough to know what we are talking about when we use polemical methods.

But they do desire to know what God has revealed, and to be led out of the jungle of religious opinion and speculation into the clear light and knowledge of the Faith once delivered to the Saints. If we would but teach in season, out of season, never losing an opportunity to sow the seed of truth, in a single generation our people would be so fortified against error by the divine grace, as well as intellectually, that their psychological attitude towards the truth would be such that there would be no place left amongst us either for error in religion or viciousness in life.

My brethren of the laity who are here perhaps have noted, that I addressed myself a few minutes ago to those who were ordained to the ministry of the sanctuary. I wish now to say a word to you lay-folk who, as baptized souls, belong to the priesthood of our Lord Jesus Christ in your particular place and sphere, as the priest of the altar does in his peculiar office.

The propagation of the Faith is not outside of the sphere of your ministry. One of the most dangerous heresies of our time is that which declares that the layman has no part in the spread of the truth of God. Not so does the divine Revelation instruct us. Almost [11/12] the very final word spoken by our glorified Lord from Heaven to His servant John when that aged Apostle received the apocalyptic vision on Patmos, were the words, "The Spirit and the Bride say, Come. And let him that heareth say, Come."

You have heard and have heeded the divine word. See that you lock it not up in your own heart, but send it forth, that through you others may learn of the love of God in which you rejoice, and of the Faith that makes you strong.

But to replace or forestall error by carefully inculcated truth is not always sufficient. How about the condition where doctrine contrary to the word of God has definitely entered into the holy place, and is being actively propagated?

There is in the Church today an attitude of marked timidity concerning what are commonly called heresy trials. One cannot but feel that much of this has arisen from an unworthy fear of the results of forcing the issue. There are undoubtedly amongst us men who are afraid of what in vulgar parlance may be called a "show-down."

It is argued that convictions for heresy may drive out not only erroneous and strange doctrines, but may cause the withdrawal from the Church of many men of blameless life, and of much influence in the world for good, who are unable to renew their allegiance to the Nicene Faith.

In response to this last point, two things are to, be remembered: First, that no principle of any kind can have actual existence save in relation to a person, and that, therefore, neither truth nor error in religion can have any existence apart from a person.

[13] It is, in the last analysis, a metaphysical impossibility to correct heresy within the Church, or to cast heresy out of the Church, except by dealing directly with those persons who hold the heresy. Arianism was not dealt with save in the persons of Arius and his followers, nor could it have been dealt with in any other way.

The second point we are to keep in mind, is that the strength of the Church has never lain in the numbers, or the worldly influence, of her members. Rather is the contrary the case. It was a saying of Father Benson, who was perhaps the greatest spiritual leader we possessed in the second generation of the Catholic revival, that if the Church could find again twelve really poor and truly apostolic men she would be able again to convert the world. Gideon went out to war with thirty and two thousand warriors, but the victory could not be gained with these, but only with the three hundred who met the test by which God separated them for His work.

Likewise today in the struggle on behalf of that Catholic truth which alone can prepare men for eternal life with God, victory over the spiritual Midian can be achieved, not by might nor by power, as the world counts it, but by the stern maintenance of that revelation which Incarnate God delivered to the Saints, and which He sealed with His own Precious Blood. If it be necessary in order to secure the revealed facts of the Faith, for the Church to make even such an elimination as that made by Gideon, for her to hesitate would be for her to prove recreant to her trust.

But, on the other hand, it must never be forgotten that the Church of God has never been a heresy-hunting [13/14] agency. As we look back over her history, we find that she has ever been patient with false teaching, and even with undoubted denials of her fundamental Faith.

The reason of this is clear. The Church is an organism which the Holy Ghost repeatedly compares to the human body. Now we know that the human constitution has the power, through its ordinary processes of life, of casting out those things which are hurtful to it. I find myself fevered and in pain. I know that some poison has been absorbed into my system; but I do not in panic rush to the hospital, and demand desperate treatment. I go quietly to rest and on the morrow I find the pain and fever have passed. The ordinary organic processes of my body have neutralized or cast out the poison.

So is it with the Church of the living God which is the Body of Christ. The poisonous virus of unbelief and heresy may enter in through some of her ignorant, or perhaps unworthy, members, but because she is the Body of Christ, she is able, and constantly does, through the ordinary, silent and hidden processes of her divine life., correct or expel those things which would do hurt to the Truth of which she is the trustee and interpreter.

But with the human body, the poison may, on certain occasions, become so virulent, or be present in such dangerous quantity, that a major operation may be necessary to the safety of the body.

So again it is with the Body of Christ. The annals of the early Church are largely books of the wars of the Lord against hydra-headed heresy, much of which her discipline ignored; but again and again she was [14/15] constrained by the guiding Spirit to deal directly not only with the heresy, but with those who propagated it.

The question which we from time to time must bring before our conscience and judgment, as they may be enlightened by the Holy Ghost, is whether such an occasion has arisen. We leave it to those whom God has set in authority over us to decide this issue at the present moment, and we loyally and whole-heartedly pledge ourselves to accept the judgment they may render.

But, on this occasion, as we are commemorating the labours and sufferings of those who counted not their life dear in the conflict for the Faith, jet us take a brief survey of the recent past.

We all know that twenty-five years ago it was almost an unheard-of thing for an authorized minister of this Church to question any article of the Creed. Today it is not unusual to find men denying the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection of our Lord, and practically the entire miraculous element in Christianity.

Furthermore, there are large numbers of men who while not themselves denying the fact of the Virgin Birth of Christ, yet declare it is not a necessary part of the Christian belief. These men teach this from the pulpits of the Church, in spite of the fact that from the beginning the Church has declared, both in her inspired Scriptures and in her Creeds, that a belief in the historical fact that Jesus Christ was born of a mother who was a virgin, without the interposition of a human father, is a part, and a necessary part, of the Christian religion.

It is just as definite a denial of a fundamental point of that Faith to say that a belief in the Virgin Birth [15/16] is not necessary, as it is to say, "I deny that Christ was born of a Virgin." In either case, and in one as much as in the other, the unanimous voice of the universal Church is declared to have spoken falsely.

The difficulty is that so often men look at these truths, not from the divine, which should always be the starting point, but from the human point of view. Seeking to reduce all things, and all events, to terms of human reason, they look at the Mysteries of the Faith from a theological and philosophical, and often even from a biological standpoint.

The question is not whether the Mystery of the Virgin Birth can be justified from the viewpoint of reason, but whether it is an historical fact.

Did it, or did it not, happen? Did God the eternal Son at a certain moment in time take Human Nature of the Virgin Mary, or did He not?

And are we willing to accept the evidence produced by the Church in proof of that fact? After we have accepted these truths as facts, we can afford to deal with them freely, theologically or philosophically, and it is right and proper that we should do so; but if we put it the other way round, in a very little while we shall be sailing in perilous waters, and shipwreck will be made of our faith.

Furthermore, my brethren, these heresies are organized and endowed; they have the support of some of the most influential and distinguished men, both of the clergy and of the laity; the wealth of the richest age of the richest nation the world has ever known, is being expended with lavish hand for the propagation of these denials of the religion of our Lord Christ.

The effect of this work goes far and goes deep. It [16/17] is tainting the very springs from which the future generation of Christians is to draw its knowledge of the Faith. Not many weeks ago, we are told, thirty-one students of the General Theological Seminary, nearly one-third of its entire enrollment, formally signed a paper commending the attitude of "The Churchman" in the late unhappy controversy concerning the opinions of Dr. Grant, the distinguished leader of the Broad Church party in this country.

My brethren of the Clerical Union, has the time come when we should stake everything in order to cleanse as well as to defend the Church?

That we are face to face with a serious condition is undoubtedly true. We are living in a period of crisis. But what period, indeed what year, or what day, of the Church's history or of any Christian's life, has not been a time of crisis? When has the Faith not been under attack, when have souls not been in peril of being led off into the by-ways of error?

The fact that we realize the critical condition of our times, should react upon our wills and our emotions, only to stimulate us to obey the apostolic injunction to contend earnestly for the Faith once delivered to the Saints.

And let us have in mind one truth,--that the man who loses heart in this conflict is the man who is losing faith in God. Wrong may triumph for a season, but we have the sure word of God that in the end the truth must and will prevail. And God, in His compassion for our weakness, has added to His promise the external witness of what the Catholic revival has achieved.

Look back upon these ninety glorious years that [17/18] have passed since Keble stood in St. Mary's, Oxford, and sounded that trumpet-call which still reverberates through the world.

We see a Church which has received a renewed Baptism of fire and of the Holy Ghost. Where altar fires had long been quenched, throughout the Anglican world thousands of priests with consecrated zeal and devotion are offering daily the Holy Sacrifice.

Where a half century ago not a dozen altars were honoured by the continual sacramental Presence of God Incarnate, today there is scarcely a diocese where our churches are not the shrines of the Blessed Sacrament for the sustenance and devotion of God's people.

He who today grows faint-hearted concerning the Catholic life of the Church, thereby shows himself to be mentally incapable of drawing a logical conclusion from the plain facts of history.

Let us then look up and lift up our heads. Whatever failures the past may record, the future is ours, if we put our confidence in Him who said, "Be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."

He offers us no worldly reward, but hunger and thirst, toil and labour, forced marches, battles, death,--a splendid guerdon for the soldier whose heart is strong in the Lord and in the power of His might.

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