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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 III.

FLORENCE, Aug. 16, 1871.


I come now to speak of that Catholicity wherein lies our chief defect as a Church--geographical or ecumenical Catholicity. This is my special object in thus addressing you, or my Church through you, though I am well aware how far my words must fall short of the importance of my aim, for which I can only hope to provoke from abler minds and more influential pens a more thorough and effective treatment.

We have in our Church a very common--and indeed I cannot help adding, very childish--way of taking our stand, most complacently, upon theories and assumptions, and our controversialists are very apt coolly to set the Roman Catholic Church aside with one of these, closing the whole controversy with the assertion that our Church is Catholic, and she is not. But so far as my observation goes, the Roman Catholic Church is not so easily disposed of.

If that Church is to be regarded as our enemy, is there any wisdom in taking it for granted that she has no real elements of strength: if she is to be regarded as part of the Church Universal of Christ, is not such a course on our part still less wise, and still less Christian? In either case, confronting ourselves as a Church, with her, should we not frankly ask wherein we are weak, really weak, and wherein she is really strong? Much more is it absolutely necessary to do this, if we would comprehend the present ecclesiastical state of Europe, or realize our own relations to the events and the crisis upon which the Church--the whole Church--is now entering.

I have said that in respect to time we are truly Catholic, and Rome is not; and that in respect to class, neither our own nor the Roman Church is truly so. I must add that in respect to geographical Catholicity the advantage is wholly on the side of Rome. It will not do to cry out against such a concession to Rome. Facts cannot be disposed of by outcries: it is too serious a matter now for self-deceit, and this is an enormous fact. It is a fact which underlies our weakness and inefficiency in many respects. It explains many evils which have not been remedied, because they could only be remedied at the root, and the Church has not gone to the root. It is a fact, too, which gives Rome all her real strength as against us, and which has enabled her so long and so stoutly to bear shocks which would otherwise have crushed her.

Generalize away all the details of the contest between us and Rome; and, to a great extent, it resolves itself in principle into a contest as to the relative value of the two kinds of Catholicity--chronological or ecumenical. In that which our Church regards as the essence of Catholicity, Rome is wholly wanting; and we are wholly wanting in that which to the Roman Catholic is the essence of Catholicity. (In fact, the Papacy itself is but the exaggerated embodiment of an unbalanced ecumenical catholicity.) Neglecting or unable on either side clearly to realize that a perfect Catholicity must include both, and each certainly undervaluing, if not entirely ignoring, the real strength of the other, they urge their seemingly antagonistic but really complementary claims. When Rome cites Vincent of Lerins, she emphasizes the ubique and slurs over the semper when we cite him we emphasize the semper and slur over the ubique; and the Anglican, who is individually more keenly alive to the need of geographical Catholicity, goes over to Rome in search of that; while the Romanist, who is more keenly alive to the need of chronological Catholicity, comes over to us in search of this.

And yet our thinkers have often come very nearly in full sight of this distribution of Catholicity. It is not a month since that The Churchman (July 22d) contained the following editorial words:

"The peculiarity of a Church Catholic is that it holds the whole truth, and tolerates each man's capacities for the reception of any part of that truth [social Catholicity], even each age's capacity [chronological Catholicity], and each people's [ecumenical Catholicity]. It sees that GOD'S truths are infinite, and men cannot exhaust them."

Good! But so far as each people, is concerned, there is as yet no room, practically, for such toleration in the Anglican Church, and we are, therefore, so far not Catholic. Let Churchmen, then, be manly and honest enough, when they come forward with that element of Catholicity which our Church does possess, at the same time frankly to realize and to admit that, in another respect, she is utterly wanting--that she is not ecumenically Catholic.

It is not difficult to trace the source of this great defect in our practical Catholicity.

The Anglican Reformation, which redeemed our chronological and so greatly marred our social Catholicity, wholly destroyed our ecumenicity. The conditions under which that Reformation took place gave a restricted, isolated, un-Catholic character to the Church of England. I am not claiming that this could, at that time, or under the circumstances have been avoided. I am not denying that the evil may not have been relatively a great good, or that it may not have been necessary to preserve that Church through some trials which then still awaited her. I am only stating a simple historic fact. The vitality of that Catholicity which the Church of England did retain has brought her down to the present age, and colonized her daughter Churches abroad in every clime, wherever the English language is spoken. But, on the other hand, the vitality of that Catholicity which she lost, brought back the Church of Rome into England, and has secured it a footing in the United States, and in every other country where the Church of England had herself gone. And in England itself what has been to a great extent the marked contrast between these two Churches, is rather the antagonism between what, in this point of view, were not antagonistic, but rather complementary principles. To the Anglican, the Church was chiefly part of the constitution of his country: to the Romanist his country was little more than one of the provinces of his Church. English Erastianism and English Ultramontanism have, indeed, in a great measure, begotten each other.

The effect of this characteristic of the Church of England was, that her very missionary work took a political form. She did not send out her missionaries to the heathen, because CHRIST said, "Go ye into all the world and preach the Gospel to every creature." She sent her clergy out with her colonists, primarily to provide for them; and their labors were extended to the heathen as adjuncts of those colonists. The work has been grandly done, if it did start off in a one-sided direction--but that is a thoroughly English characteristic. They do more wise work and more good work in an unphilosophical way, than any people on earth.

As Wesleyanism was, in part, a protest against the want of social Catholicity, so the Oxford movement, as it is called, began a reaction against the want of ecumenical Catholicity; and although little improvement has been affected in the organization, a very great change is taking place in the spirit of the English Church. The Anglo-Continental Society is a standing witness to this change; and just in proportion as English Churchmen grow more and more ecumenically catholic, that Society seems to approach more and more the status of. a recognized quasi-official agency of the Church. The remaining defect of English Churchmanship is, that though it interests itself far more than formerly in foreign Christianity, and recognizes the fact that it has relations with other Churches, it does not yet (as it seems to me) grasp with precision the exact nature of those relations, and still regards the Church of England too much as an absolute standard.

We, in America, did not, indeed, inherit the established condition of our Mother Church; but we certainly did inherit a great deal of this Erastian spirit. Dissevered from the Government and self-governing, this spirit did not of course show itself in the same way; but our ecclesiastical thoughts and ideas have worked very largely in secular and political grooves. The evidences of this are the territorial rather than the See principle of the Episcopate; the indentification of Diocesan and State boundaries, and the difficulty there has been in breaking through these arrangements, where there is not the slightest necessary connection between the State and the Diocese.

In respect to our Missions, the same defect has been shown as in the history of English Missions. When 1835 aroused a missionary spirit in the Church, it took effect chiefly in following our own colonists to the West, and our interest in Missions to the Indians has grown out of their connection with our pioneers, precisely as the English Missions to the Hindoos grew out of their connection with their Oriental Empire. Almost our whole energies ever since have been expended on our Domestic Missions.

Our Foreign Missions, on the contrary, have always languished. Why? Because the soul of a Chinaman or an African was esteemed less important in itself, or because the evangelization of these countries was less important to the world? Not at all; but because of our lack of an ecumenically catholic spirit. We have had, as a Church, no warm interest in the spread of the Gospel thoroughly outside of ourselves; and, as in respect to the principle from which it springs, so, too, in respect to the result, we contrast most unfavorably with Rome. Indeed, we have less of this kind of Missionary spirit than some of our Protestant brethren by our side; notably, the Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists. But the most thoroughly Missionary body in Christendom is the Church of Rome; and it is because she is far the most ecumenically catholic.

We are, alas! as I have already said, a selfish, self-concentrated Church; and we regard Christianity a little too much in respect to its relations with ourselves, instead of ourselves in our relative place in the total of Christianity. Nothing but the most entire ignorance, or the most utter indifference to the religious opinions of all other races and Churches outside of our own land, can explain our adoption and our adhesion to an official name which implies to them the explicit renunciation, on the part of our Church, of those very principles of evangelical truth and apostolical order which we consider fundamental. The issues of the Nineteenth Century are of more practical importance to us now than those of the Sixteenth Century, and our name as a Church should indicate the position which we claim in the present, rather than our relations to the past.

I have not spoken thus frankly, my dear Bishop, because I do not love my Church--of that you will have no doubt; but because of the depth and earnestness of my love. But I do not love my own Church first, and all the rest of Christendom because of and in proportion as it approximates to it. I love the whole Church Universal--which alone is the Bride of CHRIST--first of all; and my own Church, because I sincerely believe that she is, take her for all in all, the nearest approximation to the primitive ideal of what the whole Church once was, and what, I humbly trust and firmly believe, she will one day be again.

I must leave what I have yet more to add for still another letter, and remain, my dear Bishop,

Faithfully yours,


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