Project Canterbury

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 IV.

BROOKLYN, Sept. 23, 1871.

MY DEAR BISHOP: In pursuing the subject of these letters, I pass now to consider some of the practical results of these characteristics of the Church.

We have come to a period of great change in the ecclesiastical and religious conditions of Christendom; and it is our duty not merely to study them as interesting contemporaneous history (which, I am afraid, is all that most of us are doing,) but to study these changes in their relations to our Church, and our Church too in its relations to them. Some of course there are, like yourself, who are thoroughly alive to our duty at such a time. Will the General Convention, as a whole, prove to be so? GOD grant it!

For oh, what is this great revolution upon which European Christendom at least, has now fairly entered? Is it merely the loss of a city and province to the Pope, and the resistance of certain German and other ecclesiastics to the new dogma of the Papal Infallibility? I have talked of these things, as you know, with Italian statesmen, and with the loving Hyacinthe and the venerable Doellinger; and they know and see clearly that this is not all. They realize that "these are but parts of His ways:" and that GOD, who permitted the success of Jesuit intrigue and tyranny at the Vatican Council, but brought on it swift destruction at Sedan and Paris, had a mightier purpose in both than has been yet revealed. Oh, my dear Bishop, is it anything less than the redemption of His Church, the healing of the breaches of His people, the restoration of pure, perfect Catholicity to Christendom?

Let us but once believe this, and how all the lately past and the contemporary history of the Church lights up with new meaning. Change--change--there has been and there is everywhere; and greater changes still are yet to come. The very law which was passed for the purpose of settling the future relations between Italy and the Papacy, contains within itself the elements of inevitable future conflict, which, in my opinion, will force Italy on to be the further instrument of GOD in the entire removal from the Church of the Roman Papacy. While I write, the Old Catholic representatives of Germany and Austria, and Switzerland--perhaps of other countries yet--are conferring at Munich upon the definite course to be pursued to attain the thorough reformation of the Catholic Churches of their countries. Are not such things the beginnings of events too mighty to be measured by the experience of ordinary times?

I have said that I believe the religious revolution which is now beginning is the restoration of Catholic unity: and in a former letter, I said that the Catholicity of the future must embrace all the three kinds of Catholicity, perfectly harmonized and fully combined. Roman Catholicism, it has been admitted is, whatever its shortcomings, ecumenically Catholic; and not only so, but it is the most perfect illustration of ecumenical Catholicity on earth. But it is wholly wanting in that true chronological Catholicity which brings primitive doctrine down to us, flowing pure from the fountain head; and it is very deficient also in social Catholicity. Then, according to this conception of the movement, the need of the Roman Catholic churches is to recover their lost chronological and to perfect their social Catholicity, while they retain their hold upon that which is theirs already.

Would the Romanists promote this result by becoming Anglicans? Would the Roman Churches? Clearly not. They would be only exchanging their Catholicity for ours, and their great defects for ours. A great improvement many will say, no doubt--a very great improvement from, our point of view: but surely a greater, were it possible that they should preserve their own real strength while they acquire ours, and that they should remedy their own grave shortcomings without acquiring ours in exchange.

With the one-sided training that they have had for centuries; with the intensely marked characteristics which are distinctively theirs as a Church, and the manner in which their very corruptions are interwoven with those characteristics which constitute their strength, is it probable that they can perfect this great change wholly by mere evolution from herself? Or is it not more in accordance with GOD'S dealings with men, that He has prepared His instrumentality, in co-operation with which, and under the more or less conscious as well as more or less unconscious influence of which, this will be accomplished? It seems to me the latter. And if so, where is the Church best fitted by her example, her experience, her influence if you please, to supply the incentives as well as to guide Roman Catholicism in the recovery of just those elements of Catholicity in which it is most defective? Manifestly the Anglican Church,--the Churches of England and America.

The argument is perfected by looking at the converse side. We have also, as has been confessed, our lessons in Catholicity to learn from Roman Catholicism. If GOD then, in His marvellous providence, deigns to revive in the bosom of the Roman Churches their chronological Catholicity, and also to perfect their social Catholicity by the example and influence of a Church which, however limited in geographical range, has substantially preserved her primitive inheritance; and, however neglectful of the poor, the ignorant, and the outcast, has at all events shown that she does know to address herself to the cultivated and influential classes:--and if He, at the same time, designs to break up our narrow ecclesiastical self-complacency and enlarge the range of our religious sympathies, and teach us to open our arms to the poor and humble, and speak with an utterance that will reach the hearts of every class alike--what more likely, we may reverently ask, than that at the very time when He has first aroused us on either side to a sense of these our respective defects, He should bring us into such direct immediate contact with each other as has never existed between us before?

A parallel train of reasoning at once also presents itself in connection with the equally important and, I am sorry to say, almost equally neglected question of the relations which ought to exist between us and our Protestant brethren. I do not lose sight of this, and it should never be lost sight of; but I cannot produce it here, for these letters have already reached inordinate length, and my immediate purpose lies only in one direction.

To return then to my argument. For many years GOD has been slowly preparing the Roman Catholic Churches of Europe for the changes which are now coming upon them. And then as the crisis has approached, He brought them and us face to face as we have never been brought before. He brought Romanism into England and America, to teach us what strength there could be, in despite of such great defects, in those elements of Catholicity in which we arc wanting, and which we have undervalued; and He has made use of our willingness to provide at least for ourselves and for our children, whatever became of others; and thus led us on, English and Americans alike, to provide chapels and religious ministrations for our brethren and our children in the midst of Roman Catholic observers and thinkers. In itself this was a duty, and a blessing has rested upon the human purpose: but GOD'S purpose in this was higher and holier far, and we knew it not at first--for we were not capable of recognizing it as GOD'S.

I have spoken thus far of the Anglican Churches as a whole, and of their mission in the midst of the slowly approaching changes in the Roman Catholic, as though no distinction were to be made between our Mother Church of England and our own in this connection. I must, however, frankly claim that, if GOD has given to us in common to be His instrument in this mission, He has, at present, and in some respects, peculiarly fitted the American rather than the English Church for this instrumentality. And I say this the more freely, in that I have freely urged it in conversation with English friends and for reasons which they appreciate as fully as we could ourselves:

1. Because they can take no step in this direction as a Church officially, on account of their relations with the State, and for want of any agency qualified to speak or act authoritatively for the Church.

2. Because it is precisely in relation to those features of our Church which are not yet common to us with the Church of England--self government and organic lay cooperation--that the interest of liberal Roman Catholics is often first aroused and their respect for us as a Church first awakened.

Now, granting the substantial correctness of all these views, and looking the fact full in the face that while there are changes going on in our own Church making us more truly Catholic in every sense, there is a mighty revolution going on in at least certain of the Roman Catholic Churches of Europe, we know not how widely it may spread, a revolution in the sense of perfecting or recovering their Catholicity in those very respects in which we are strong--how is our Church prepared to fulfil her work?

The American Episcopal Church is now represented, in the midst of these great changes, by seven different representatives; the Rev. Rectors of the Churches at Paris, Rome, Florence and Dresden, and those who are charged with the missions at Athens, Florence and Lisbon.

I call them all deliberately representatives; for, although most of these are there primarily--that is, so far as human intentions go--to minister to American travellers and residents abroad, yet they cannot but be drawn, more or less, into a representative position. Consciously or not, willingly or unwillingly, for good or for evil, they have, and they must have, every one, their influence upon the intensely aroused and observant state of the Churches around them; and the character of their religious influence upon their own countrymen residing or travelling in the midst of these changes, has its indirect but important influence also. Americans travelling in Europe do not realize this. I know it.

My dear Bishop, you know the truth of what I am thus urging. I have no words to give expression to one half I feel. May I not, through you, plead with my Church seriously to consider the condition in which she has left this duty, privilege, trust, responsibility of representing her in such a field and at such a time? I shall speak with perfect frankness, for I am pretty sure I speak more or less for my brethren in Europe; and I shall come myself within the range of all my own strictures. I speak from my own experience as the first rector of Grace Church, Rome, (and therefore the second European chaplain of the church), as well as the Secretary of the Italian Commission.

First of the Chaplaincies:

Of these we have four at present--at Paris, at Rome, at Florence, and at Dresden; but there are other cities where such chaplains are greatly needed, and where such inducements--for usefulness or for pleasure--are offered as will probably ere long lead clergy to go there, for the one reason or the other.

The Canon which provides for a recognition of these Churches assumes that the establishment of such a chapel originates with the resident American Episcopalians, and that they should be left to exercise the right of choosing their own Rector. In practice it is precisely the reverse. The clergyman desiring, from whatever motive, to establish such a church, goes to such a city, finds out those disposed to co-operate with him, and proceeds to open his chapel or organize his church. Either indirectly, by his choice of co-workers, or directly, he selects his vestry, and then they elect him their Rector. Those vestrymen may be wise and godly Churchmen, or they may be men who know nothing and care less about the Church or for religion--it depends upon the character of the clergyman. As the Canon now stands, therefore, any clergyman of our Church whatever, be he never so unfit, theologically or morally, who chooses to go to any yet unoccupied field, and can there find three persons who, from whatever motive, will co-operate with him, and as "one Warden and two Vestrymen," join him in making an application to the Presiding Bishop, can establish himself and his chapel as the exclusive representatives of this Church, and can take his part in this European movement in such official capacity.

This statement may surprise some: but it is a literal fact. Every one of the present European chapels was established substantially in this way. If we include our first chapel at Florence, which was only maintained one season, there have been five such chapels; and, with the single exception of that in Paris, I have been concerned in the starting of every one of them. I know, therefore, what I say; and I repeat that the facts are exactly the reverse of the theory on which the Canon is based.

The fact that the Church has had reason, take it for all in all, to be grateful for what has been done, should not shut her eyes to the dangers to which she is exposed. Such positions offer great inducements to earnest and godly men, as fields of singular usefulness; and on one who realizes their power and influence for good--radiating and expanding influence--they lay a heavy burden of solemn responsibility. But they also offer great attractions of a very different kind to a very different class of men--a reasonable support, many charms of art, music, and society, an enviable social standing, the opportunity of making useful acquaintances among travellers, and--to those to whom it is important--almost entire immunity. The resident Episcopalians may or may not be connected with this chapel: the chaplain is independent of them. He depends largely and can depend wholly upon the travellers, a flowing tide who have little opportunity of knowing anything of the man; they are glad to find their Church's Services, thank the chaplain, offer their subscription, and pass on, and others come in their place. There is no one to oversee--no one who can oversee; and with outwardly good manners and some tact, any man forced to leave his country to avoid the consequences of insubordination, false doctrine, or immoral life, could find, many attractive spots in Europe where he could thus establish himself as the official representative of our Church, live upon American travellers, misrepresent or even disgrace ns among the Europeans around him, and set the Church's discipline practically at defiance. She did not appoint him, she cannot control and she cannot remove him. The Church of England has been, as we know, through pretty much the same experience, in far less critical times, and was forced, for very decency's sake, to provide for and prevent such scandals. Thank God, that such a sketch is as yet only a possible future in our own experience; but it is perfectly possible, and if our European field be left in its present condition, likely some day to be verified.

As regards those who are more directly sent to Europeans themselves--as in the case of our Greek, Italian and Portugese Missions--the case is not so bad. These representatives do not, like the Chaplains, select and appoint themselves. They are, at least, appointed by some responsible Committee at home. But when they get to their posts, they enjoy almost an equal immunity, in some respects even more. I will speak for myself. It would be a very easy thing for me to go on with my work year after year without furnishing m y brother clergy or other travelling fellow-countrymen any means of coming into direct contact with that work, or of forming a really independent judgment of it or of my conduct of it. I could give them such information as I saw fit; and even assuming nothing worse than ignorance and incompetency on my part, send them back with erroneous accounts of my position or my work. People are apt generally to regard the information which is brought back from the ground as conclusive. Yet the report of what I had told one man in Florence would he really worth no more than what I also had written another in New York. And if my Committee or my Bishop had thus no independent means of testing my statements, I might keep the Church year after year in as utter ignorance, or as fatally misinformed concerning the state of things around me, or concerning the mode in which I was representing or misrepresenting my Church, as my conscience would permit. Is this a condition in which the Church ought to leave her foreign representatives?

The Church did not, of course, deliberately organize her European field in such a way. The trouble is, that it has never-been organized at all; indeed, the Church has not really recognized the fact that there was such a field. She has been far too un-Catholic and self-concentrated to foresee or to appreciate the fact that she had or ever would have any such relations towards European Churches; and God, by His providence, has involved her in those relations in His own way, and is now forcing her to consider the necessity of reorganizing and regulating them.

The Church has now seven foreign diplomatic, representatives with the possibility of just as many more as may be disposed to appoint themselves to similar positions. Each and every one, to the precise extent to which he sees fit to avail himself of his opportunities; each and every one according to just the measure of learning or ignorance, of wisdom or folly, of piety or worldliness, which may be his--whatever be his ecclesiastical moderation or his ecclesiastical extravagance--is able to speak or act for the Church, and to represent her officially; and every one independently of and perhaps at cross-purposes with every other in the midst of such an ecclesiastical crisis as the European Continent is probably about to witness.

What a position for a Christian Church like ours to be placed in at such a time?

In one more and a final letter I shall venture to point out what my practical experience of the field suggests as the only efficient remedy for evils such as these.

Faithfully yours,


Project Canterbury