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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 V.

BALTIMORE, Oct. 4th, 1871.

MY DEAR BISHOP: I venture finally, and with unfeigned respect and deference, to state what conclusions seem to me to result from the principles of my first three and the facts of my fourth letter.

First. That our Church is now called by the providence of GOD to address herself in earnest to the discharge of her part in the work of the restoration of Catholic unity.

Second. That in doing this, it must be, not upon the assumption that she is the absolutely infallible standard of doctrine, worship and polity, for all other Christian fellowships, to which they should be expected to conform themselves; but that she is the trustee of some of the most important elements of that future Catholic unity--elements which it is her sacred trust and present bounden duty to bring forward and, in an humble, loving and faithful spirit, offer to the Christian world; not forgetting, not being ashamed honestly to admit that others have, in like manner, received their trust of Christian truth, their elements of Catholic unity, all of which must be included--all of which are essential to the perfectness of that unity.

In fine, the Church must be willing to turn to her fellow Christians on either side of her, in the spirit of those noble words of the Roman Catholic Mohler--words spoken so prophetically nine and thirty years ago: "Catholics and Protestants," said he, "will, in great multitudes, one day meet and stretch a friendly hand one to the other. Both, conscious of guilt, must exclaim, 'We have all erred; it is the Church only which cannot err: we have all sinned; the Church only is spotless upon earth.'"

Third. If the Church is indeed ready to enter upon a work so holy, it must be with a clear conviction that--where we are met in the same spirit--controversy must now be exchanged for a calm, frank, loving intercourse and an united search for wisdom and truth wherever it may be found, as far more precious than victory. Again, let me borrow another's words, and give a wider application to language used originally of the great religious divisions of Germany. Speaking of Maximilian II. of Bavaria, "He saw," said Dr. Dollinger in 1864, "that the future junction could not be expected in the form of a simple, unaided, mechanical reunion of the divided confessions. It was also clear to him that there could be no thought of a mere absorption of one Church by the other. He thought that it was necessary on both sides to go through with a certain process of purification, and that it must be recognized that each of the two bodies, though in an unequal degree, had to receive good from the other; each had to purify itself from faults and one-sidedness by the help of the other, to fill up gaps in its religious and ecclesiastical life, to heal wounds; and that neither could be expected to give up an actual good which it had proved in life and history. Under these conditions, sooner or later, in the heart of Europe, in Germany, the process of reconciliation and union would go on."

Oh that these words of wisdom could sink into the heart of every Churchman!

Now, my dear Bishop, if the Church were indeed prepared to act upon such principles in all their grand length and breadth, I presume that the chief practical step toward giving effect to them would be the constitution of some such Joint Communions on intercourse with other Christian Churches and Communions as I ventured to propose in the American Quarterly Church Review for July, 1868. Such a Commission, it seems to me, should for actual work be sub-divided into at least two sections--one for intercourse with Foreign Churches with which we are not in present communion, and one for intercourse with Protestant Churches at home.

I must say, frankly, I am convinced that the Church will never fully grapple with the great defects in her Catholicity, where alone they can be remedied, at the root, until she takes some such step as this in all its completeness. Never--never--will she be able to apply to the many practical evils which are now afflicting her--and which lay heavy upon the heart of most of those who have come to this present General Convention--an efficacious, a permanent, a radical remedy, until she admits that she has relations with and duties to all our Christian brethren; (not merely with Italian and German Reformers, but with our Protestant brethren too) and constitutes some such agency to give practical expression to that admission. When the Church learns to economize that great pent-up power within her; when she learns to direct it, calmly, soberly and wisely, to the sacred purposes for which the HOLY SPIRIT has evoked it in the Church; then, and not till then, will she be free from the erratic and onesided strains upon her machinery, which it almost seems to some, endanger her very safety. Shall I be told, in reply, that our overtures would be only met with rebuffs and be regarded either as insulting or as an evidence of weakness? I do not believe it. I have some experience of my own, quite in point so far as one side is concerned. And even as to our Protestant brethren, I think all depends upon the manner in which they are approached. There is great power in Christian love--why do we hesitate to try it?

And it would, moreover, be not only a nobler, but, probably, a safer course than to be content with the fulfilment of one part alone of this our bounden duty. Such intercourse as I am here proposing--may I be pardoned for adding, such intercourse as I have myself enjoyed with European Roman Catholics--carried on simultaneously, by one and the same official agency (though necessarily through different sections), with both classes of our. Christian brethren, would be more likely to guard us from a one-sided and distorted policy; and, for myself, I cannot but believe that the Church would have a far calmer confidence in an agency which should thus address itself to this whole work, than in one which was appointed only for a single part of it.

Premising this, that it may not be supposed that my further more detailed suggestions are regarded by me as, by any means, covering the entire ground, I shall now confine myself to the discussion of that portion of the field with which I have been privileged to be more immediately connected.

The General Convention will probably be asked--even if it does nothing more--to recognize the fact that GOD has, as I have said, already brought us into the direct presence of, nay, into relations to, the great European movement, which is seeking the restoration of perfect Catholicity to the Catholic Churches of Germany and Italy, and to act upon the recognition of the fact. The Church must either--

1. Turn her back upon this whole movement, withdrawing her official representatives and prohibiting all other her indirect representatives, her European chaplains and her clergy, and her members travelling abroad, from having anything further to do with it: or she must

2. Leave the whole subject to take care of itself, and every one who feels disposed to do so, to represent her, in such a crisis, as his own learning, wisdom and discretion may suggest: or she must

3. Recognize this state of things as constituting a very grave and solemn responsibility, and one requiring her to take the whole work of representing her under her own immediate and direct control; and to provide for the discharge of so delicate and important a trust in a manner commensurate with the gravity of the issues involved.

I cannot doubt but that the very statement of the first and second of the above alternatives is the sufficient confutation of either. And yet to do nothing will be to adopt the second. I trust then, that the Convention will recognize the necessity of adopting the third. If so, the nature of the practical evils pointed out in my last letter indicate the general nature of the needful remedies.

They are, I believe, the following:

That provision should be made, first, that all those who represent our Church in Europe, in whatever way, should derive their authority solely from some such responsible home appointment as would secure a scrupulous care in their selections; and, second, that some such ecclesiastical jurisdiction should be extended over them as would be able efficiently, not only to watch over and control them individually, but also to secure harmony and unity in their influence and action.

I have already pointed out how utterly false are the assumptions upon which is based the present Canon concerning Foreign Churches. That Canon should, in my opinion, be at once repealed, as having wholly failed to secure its avowed objects and as having served to create and protect a state of things entirely repugnant to its spirit.

Then the appointment of all our representatives in Europe should be vested in some such a Standing Committee or Commission as I have just suggested, with the approval of the Episcopal authority exercising jurisdiction. Such a Committee at home would be able to select and secure to all our European fields, either permanently or in succession, such men as would represent the Church most favorably and most faithfully in all their influences, direct or indirect, upon those who now watch us so keenly from without. It is well known that the Church of Russia permits none but picked men to appear in her name in the presence of foreign Churches and among foreign people. It is well known that the Church of England now guards even her summer chaplaincies by entrusting the selection and appointment of the incumbents to the Committee of some one of her great Societies. It is well known that when the American and Foreign Christian Union send out to Europe a Presbyterian or a Methodist minister, they take care to select men of whom they may be proud. Is our Church the only body of Christians which is utterly indifferent to the manner in which she is represented under such circumstances, or to the judgments which may be formed of her by foreign Christians at a time like this?

I cannot and I do not believe it; and I cannot believe that she will any longer leave the responsible privilege of representing her abroad in a condition in which the pettiest of the lately extinguished German principalities would have been ashamed to have left its petty little worldly diplomacy.

But this field also needs oversight and unity.

At present the nominal jurisdiction is distributed about in several hands; practically, there is almost none at all, and under the present circumstances there cannot be.

As to the Chaplains, they are partly under the nominal jurisdiction of the Bishops of the Dioceses in which they have their canonical residence and partly under that of the Presiding Bishop. As to the more direct representatives, they are partly under the jurisdiction of their respective Committees--i.e., one under the Foreign Committee of the Board of Missions, another under that of a semi-official Commission, &c.--and partly under that of their respective Diocesans as above. At present the nominal jurisdiction and the right to influence and, directly or indirectly, to control the policy pursued by our representatives in Europe, is divided between five or six distinct and independent authorities.

But even if it were all concentrated in the hands of one single person--a Bishop having Diocesan duty at home--it could be little more than merely nominal. This jurisdiction must, under these circumstances, be administered--whether by the Presiding Bishop or by some other selected and commissioned by him--by one having absorbing prior claims upon his time, upon his thoughts, upon his attention; claims immediately at hand, claims pressing directly upon him; and, therefore, only in the odds and ends, as it were, of time and opportunities left him by other exhausting duties: it must be administered without that entire familiarity with all the facts and detailed materials of a judgment which can only be acquired by long and careful study on the ground; with but a superficial knowledge of the character of the men under him and almost none at all of the foreigners most concerned; or--it must be let alone.

But it was proposed at the last General Convention that the Bishop in charge should make a visitation to all these European stations during each three-year period. Can you not understand what to me seems the sad satire of this proposal? The simple fact that this could be considered a solution of this great need, is the most startling evidence of the utter impossibility, for any one not wholly given up to the patient study of this field, to realize what it is, its difficulties, its complex interests, its responsibilities, and oh, its power for good.

You, my dear Bishop, will freely acquit me of the slightest want of respect for the Episcopal office or for those who have heretofore held the canonical jurisdiction over this foreign field, in thus frankly expressing the convictions of my personal experience. The more unexceptionable the hands in which this trust has been heretofore reposed, the stronger is the force of the argument from experience which I urge. There is not a Bishop in the Church who could efficiently add this European jurisdiction to prior Diocesan claims at home. There is not one who could preserve it from, the perils to which I have referred, without such an intimate acquaintance with the field as cannot be acquired either from afar off or in the brief opportunities afforded a mere traveller.

I do not speak for myself alone. I speak substantially the convictions of others of my brethren both officially resident in Europe and otherwise familiarly acquainted with the field. The fact is proved by the number and weight of the many signatures attached to the fruitless petition for such an Episcopate which was presented to the last General Convention. We have, in various ways, plead for such an immediate jurisdiction year after year; and the Church, which so warmly reproaches our Mother Church for her long refusal to send an Episcopate to our colonial fathers, does not realize that she is pursuing the same policy in. turn towards her children.

Shall I be rebuked for speaking so decidedly? I cannot help it. There is no one in the Church who has studied this subject longer, over a wider range, more intently or with better means and opportunities of judging; and this fact constitutes my responsibility. I dare not but say what I have said: it were treachery at such a time as this. If my words fall into the ground and die, resultlessly--I shall have discharged my trust.

The Church can provide for this want, it seems to me, only in one of these ways:

1. To set aside and consecrate some one exclusively for this charge--the care and oversight of our whole European field; who, as Delegate Bishop or Commissary Bishop, or with some such title, would not even seem to be intruding upon the rights and jurisdiction of any European Episcopate; and who should hold to the various representatives of the Church upon the European Continent, relations pretty much the same as those already entrusted to the Bishop of Gibraltar over portions, and perhaps about to be entrusted to a Bishop of Heligoland, over the rest of the English chaplains and chaplaincies and other agencies in the same field.

2. To detail some one of the present Bench of Bishops to whom this foreign jurisdiction should be entrusted, and who, at the same time, should be relieved from his present home duties for a term of years, not less than from one General Convention to another, so that he may remain in Europe and give himself wholly to the charge of that field, unimpeded by the prior obligations of a more immediate jurisdiction here.

The choice between these two courses depends, from my mere practical point of view, chiefly on the personal question--whether the man best fitted for a charge so important, so critical and so peculiar, can be found among the Bishops or among the Presbyters of the Church.

3. To issue a commission to a Commissary, who, without Episcopal orders, might nevertheless be clothed with delegated authority and jurisdiction over this field--such Commissary being of course not a mere visitor to Europe, but one specially set apart for this trust.

Of this plan I, for my part, can only say that it would be better than nothing. It would perhaps avoid some technical objections which might be brought against either of the others; but it would be open to all the practical objections and would, by no means, be so efficient a provision for the needs of this field.

With this, my dear Bishop, I commit my plea to you and to the Church--the work itself and all its needs to GOD.

I have spoken words wrung from a deep, deep sense of need: a sense of need wrought out of the daily burden and experience of years. I have spoken frankly--for I feel strongly and I feel that it is my duty to speak as I have done. If in doing so, I have seemed to have failed in the least in the dutiful respect due to the General Convention or the authorities of the Church set over me in the LORD, you will, I know, be well assured that it has been only seeming; and my Church will, I trust, pardon it,

for my sacred purpose' sake.

Affectionately your son in the Ministry of CHRIST.


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