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The Defects in Our Practical Catholicity

Five Letters to the Rt. Rev. Wm. R. Whittingham, D.D., LL.D.,
Considerations respectfully submitted to the members of the General Convention.

By the Reverend William Chauncy Langdon.

New York: American Church Press, 1871.

Letter II.

FLORENCE, August 12, 1871.

MY DEAR BISHOP: In my letter of the 8th inst., I dwelt upon the extent to which a rising Catholic spirit and Catholic principles were, as it seems to me, straining upon the machinery of our Church as never before, threatening serious injury to its working, unless legitimate and sufficient channels are provided for its expansive energies.

Let me add, however, that I think this Catholicity, as a general thing, very vague and undefined, even in the minds of those most under its influence. Catholicity is not an attribute of self-concentrated growth; and it must be confessed that ours is yet, take it for all in all, a very self-concentrated Church, and, so far, a very un-Catholic one. Our Catholicity, such as it is (I appeal to the consciousness of the Church to bear witness to the truth of what I say), is too largely the Catholicity which bears witness to our claims, not one which bears witness to our duties. It is one which increases our devotion to our Church, rather than one which enlarges our conception of the Church's responsibilities. In a word, it is not a Catholicity which is the Christian counterpart of the famous line of Terence--it does not say to us: "I am a Christian; nothing Christian is, therefore, foreign to me."

I have generally noticed that they who seek to vindicate what they call the Catholicity of our Church, think they have done so when they prove our possession of the primitive creeds and of the Apostolic episcopate. There must be many exceptions among minds of larger grasp; but I presume I was myself, in this respect, no unfair representative of the majority of our Clergy, when, for a long time, I never thoroughly realized that the word had a more comprehensive ecclesiastical application.

But since I have been in Europe, I have had my own ideas enlarged by hearing the Catholicity of my Church challenged by those who admitted, as freely as we claimed, both the fidelity of our hold upon the creeds, and the unbroken and valid succession of our episcopate.

If Catholicity be simply the preservation of our historic connection, both in outward form and in inward belief, with the Primitive Church, then indeed it is simply a question of creeds and of the Apostolic succession. But if it be far more than this, something far holier, something which underlies and gives all their value to creeds and episcopates, for which these exist, and of which they are only partial expressions, then have we not failed to grasp the full meaning of our claim?

Such is the Catholicity of the objective school in our Church. But there is another school who define Catholicity to themselves in a manner very different--indeed, precisely the reverse of this--subjectively. With them, Catholicity is simply largeheartedness applied to religious differences and divergencies. There is truth here--precious truth--as in the first definition; but, like that, it is partial and insufficient, and it is far more vague.

Is not Catholicity something more than a feeling--is it not a clear, well-formulated, governing principle in religious life? Is it not something more than the witness of our connection with the past; is it not also our adaptation for the work of the present, and our preparedness for the future? Is it not the Church's humble, far-off reflection of GOD'S all-embracing love? Is it not the very opposite of all that is narrow, and selfish, and limited in religious thought, in religious life, in religious work, and in Christian love? Has it not a largeness of spiritual vision which is not limited by the narrow horizon of which we are ourselves--our Church, our land, our race, our age--the centre? Yes. It possesses the divine power which enables us to look, from what we may reverentially term something of GOD'S point of view, upon Christianity, not as it is spread out around us, but as it is spread out before Him. He that can both feel a clear, well-grounded confidence in his Church, and be, at the same time, thoroughly conscious that it does not necessarily follow that it lies precisely in the centre of this religious planesphere, and immediately under the eye of GOD, is a sound Catholic Churchman.

I am not claiming that I am such a one nor that I have not had my own biasing influences like my brethren. But I can fairly say, that I have sought to cultivate this kind of Catholicity, and that my peculiar experiences have greatly tended to assist my effort.

If there is any truth in what I have thus far urged, Catholicity is of three different kinds, and may be regarded in its relations to time, to class, to nationalities.

For convenience sake, let me call the first, chronological; the second, social; the third, ecumenical Catholicity.

1. It is the first which preserves the Church from receiving the dominating impress--from acquiring the exclusive characteristics of any single age or period. Such Catholicity contemplates the Church, flowing on from age to age, as some broad river, receiving indeed the tributary streams of every generation, but yet itself one unbroken flood from that first silent stream whose path and whose gentle flow were first traced by the finger of GOD, a-down the widening valley of time toward the ocean of eternity. No age can claim such a Church, as no district on its banks can claim the noble flood that laves its shores, and which brings the mountain treasures of far-off countries above, not to them only, but also to other people far below.

But sects and denominations are the product of some given ago or period. It may be for a briefer or a longer period--a single generation or a succession of centuries; but they are distinguished from the Catholic Church in that they spring from the peculiar circumstances of an age--they exist for that age--they do their work in that age--and they disappear with that age. And so far as the necessity for them be a real one--and so far as their work is GOD'S work--the cause of their existence is very generally the shortcoming of the Catholic Church, whose duty it was to have adapted its Catholic trust to all the needs and necessities of that age, and which did not do it. This may be and ought to be freely confessed; and we have no right to point the finger of hasty condemnation at any body of Christians who are faithfully endeavoring to perform a single duty we have left undone. And yet the fact remains, that the one is Catholic in spite of its errors, and the other, in this point of view, is not catholic, however faithfully it fulfils the neglected work of the Church, and however great a reproach that fidelity be to us.

Now, it is this kind of Catholicity, this chronological Catholicity which alone seems to be generally appreciated, as if it were the whole; when, ill truth, however important, it is only one phase of Catholicity. It is in vindication of our claim to having received this Catholicity that we point to, and lay stress upon, our unbroken Apostolic episcopate, and our faithful adherence to the primitive creeds, and that noblest evidence of such a heritage, our Liturgy, the product of no single age, but of all Christian history. It is to preserve and develop and impress others with this Catholicity of ours that we study and quote the Fathers and wield the grand dictum of Vincent of Lerins.

Now, my dear Bishop, I need scarcely say to you that I believe that, in this point of view, ours is the most Catholic Church in Christendom; that is, that it preserves the creeds and the episcopate more nearly in their primitive purity and purpose than any other portion of the Church. There is, I conceive, no doubt whatever about it. It is our fortress, our inexpugnable fortress, as a Church; and I believe the Anglican Communion holds in trust, for the Catholic Church of the future, this chronological Catholicity.

I have had, indeed, and I would have, no difficulty in convincing candid Christian men among the liberal Roman Catholics of Italy and Germany--whenever, that is, there is opportunity for a fair examination of the facts--that we have, in substance, faithfully preserved and illustrated this chronological Catholicity. They have frankly admitted again and again that in this respect, we were more Catholic than their own Church.

And there would, I believe, be as little difficulty--if the precise points to be proved, as simple questions of facts, be once clearly understood--in convincing a fair-minded non-episcopal Protestant of the same facts.

But neither the one nor the other are as much impressed by this conviction as we expect, because this Catholicity does not really, as we are accustomed to feel, cover the whole ground; and from the very nature of the case, they do not set the same relative value upon it that we do. The one or the other might consistently admit all we claim under this head, and yet remain unconverted to us, simply because his very conception of Catholicity is different.

2. There is, then, a totally different kind of Catholicity--that which preserves the Church from receiving the special or distinctive impress of any social class or classes.

The mediaeval Church, with all its acknowledged defects and corruptions, was, take it for all in all, a fair illustration of social Catholicity. It was, it is true, not so much that it was indentified alike with all classes as that it kept impartially independent of all, and with tolerable impartiality sought to influence all. I am too little acquainted with the Eastern Church, to speak with any confidence; but I am inclined to think that this Church has best preserved to the present time this kind of Catholicity. As at all events, since the Reformation, it has largely disappeared in the Western Church. Almost every body of Christians in Western Christendom is, in practice, more or less the Church of a class.

The Church of England, certainly, when, at the Reformation, she redeemed her chronological, lost, or at least very greatly impaired, her social Catholicity. Becoming a State Church, she came far too exclusively under the direct control of the State; and in a nation where the aristocratic element has so predominated in the State government, the popular element wholly disappeared from that of the Church, and the popular characteristics of the Church with it. Thus it became the Church of the nobility and landed gentry, and of the more cultivated classes,--providing, indeed, for the humblest, but providing for them rather as dependants upon the former; and thus was called into existence that dissent which has long supplied its place for those. middle classes which the Church had almost ignored.

This serious defect in her social Catholicity we have inherited from the Church of England. It has entailed upon us our pew system, which shuts out the poor or sends them off to churches built expressly for them. It has entailed upon us a false, standard of pulpit eloquence--the learned discussion that addresses. the cultivated intellect rather than the plain, forcible exposition and bringing home of GOD'S truth which addresses every sinner, or helps every humble Christian, of whatever class of life. It, for a long time, destroyed the missionary spirit of the Church, and has even yet greatly dulled our conception of the twofold work of every parish. It has entailed upon us an inflexible liturgy, admirable for the Church of a class, but wholly unadapted to the needs of a Catholic Church, which should be as fully prepared for the brief and pointed Service read from a cart to a band of emigrants, or under a tree to the rough toilers of the hamlet, as for the Cathedral services, of Westminster, or the full-choired, Worship of Old Trinity.

When I have entered some old Lombard cathedral, or smaller country parish church, here in Italy--unpewed and open as the air of GOD'S heaven, where neither rank nor wealth could buy any exclusive privileges; when I have seen the proud Italian noble--nay, the purpled prelate himself--and the poorest peasant kneel alike on the worn stone floor, or take seats to hear the same preacher, side by side on the same coarse wicker chairs or open benches; when I have realized the variety of services provided for all kinds of classes and occasions; when I have heard the Jesuit fathers or the Dominican preachers pouring out their exhortations as though they were intensely in earnest, and in language that every one understood, I have felt that, in these respects, there was more of social Catholicity in the Church of Rome than in my own Church. And sometimes, when some honest priest has come to me, in the spirit of John's messengers, and asked of our Catholicity--quoting our LORD'S own test, "And to the poor the Gospel is preached"--I have blushed and my heart has ached. I gazed in memory and imagination upon sonic fashionable city congregation of my Church at home, and then upon those gathered round me hero; and confessed to myself that (waiving the comparison of the ministrations themselves) such as they were, the ministrations and teachings of the Church of Rome were more faithfully provided for the poor, than our purer teachings are by us.

But I am not disposed to concede too much to Romanism under the head of social Catholicity. With some exceptions--the inheritance of old habits--she too is practically the Church of a class, as we have been. She has alienated the cultivated as we have shut out the humbler classes. She is not more Catholic in this respect than we; but modern Romanism in Italy, like Methodism at home, is our complement and reproach; and until we can provide for, win and gather in those who constitute their strength, we have no right when comparing our Church with either the one or the other--to occupy ourselves exclusively with our own Catholicity and their defects.

But, thank GOD, the Church is every year becoming more and more alive to the defects in her social Catholicity; and both in England and the United States, is becoming less and less the Church of a class. The Wesleyans have provoked, and the Ritualists have led our Mother Church to a more conscientious devotion to the poor and to the outcast--to the "publicans and sinners" of to-day--for the simple reason that they have the same needs as we, and that CHRIST died for them as He did for us. Let us thank the Ritualists for this, although they have been very undiscriminating in their attempts to learn from the Church of Rome. Within my own ministry, moreover, the free Church principle has advanced rapidly--sometimes, indeed, more rapidly than wisely--and I sometimes think that the present agitation for one kind of modification of the Prayer Book, may, at least, succeed in breaking up the feeling that there is nothing more needed in the way of rendering our Liturgy more elastic, and that it may thus lead to results more important than those specifically in view.

I will not dwell further on this point. The defects in our social Catholicity have been, and are ever becoming more and more widely recognized and honestly confessed; and our beloved Church promises to become hereafter less and less the Church of a class. Never, until she does so, will the needed protest of Methodism disappear; and when she fairly am) thoroughly addresses herself to the remedy of these defects, I, for one, have good hope that Methodism will realize that the Church is her complement as truly as she is that of the Church--and will reunite with us to secure the realization of a Catholicity better far than the divided capabilities of either.

Leaving the consideration of what I have termed ecumenical Catholicity for another letter, believe me, my dear Bishop, faithfully yours,


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