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The Four Theories of
Visible Church Unity

An Address delivered at


Friday, May 14, 1909


Sent pursuant to directions given
by the author before his death



Author of

The Church Idea, The Peace of the Church, A National
Church; Also of A Talisman of Unity, Why Nine Divinity
Schools in Tokyo? Ecclesia Mediatrix, Tract No. 91, and
other fugitive papers on Church Unity.


Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2010

IT is thought by many that the two chief concerns of the Twentieth Century will be the conquest of the air and the conquest of the ether. But this is a mistake. The two chief concerns of the Twentieth Century are not Aeronautics and Wireless Telegraphy; they are International Arbitration and the Unifying of the Christian Church. These two supreme interests are closely allied, tangent, nay, interlocked at many points. It was a united Church which in our motherland created out of a Heptarchy a realm, and it may yet be the achievement of a united Church to transform the vast welter of competing forces we call the world political into a true cosmos, a united system of states and groups of states which shall reproduce on a far larger scale the ancient Christendom.

I shall hardly be expected to grapple with both of these momentous subjects, cognate though they are. In fact, with only a portion of one of them can I undertake to deal, namely, that portion which lies within our own national horizon, the outlook for a United Church of the United States.

Four theories of visible Church Unity are contending among us for the mastery, or, if that is [3/4] too polemic a phrase, let us say seeking to find expression and embodiment. For ease of analysis and clearness of classification, we may name them the Imperial, the Liberal, the Federal and the Constitutional.

By the Imperial, I mean, of course, that theory which insists on the need of a centralized government for the Church, and which lodges supremacy in the person of a single ecclesiastic throned at a definite spot. I desire to speak with respect of a theory which, in full view of the assembled forces of modern criticism, has succeeded in captivating the imagination of a Brownson, a Newman and a Bruntiere. Of converts of this grade of intellect, any Church might well be proud. Moreover, in reckoning with the Roman movement in this country, account must be taken of much good work accomplished in the maintenance of Christian standards of social life. If not for the parochial schools themselves, at least for the self-denying efforts which have called them into being, we may well give God thanks, while, as for the hospitals and protectories which our Roman Catholic brethren have organized and in part maintained, one may speak of them with almost unqualified praise.

As to their directly ecclesiastical work, their [4/5] building, and not only building but filling of churches and cathedrals, convents and monasteries--when I look back upon the New England of my childhood and youth and compare it with the New England of the present, when I observe how, in this capital city of the Puritan regime, John Cotton has been almost as effectually snuffed out as to-day John Calvin in Geneva, I am moved to ask myself, Has all this been without a purpose? Are there no traces here of a providential leading, a divine intent? Has God no need for Roman Catholics in the evolution of the American Church?

Nay, I am disposed to concede still more, for, in the face of the vast and varied immigration of the last forty years, it has to be acknowledged that a Church which, on the score of its historic lineage, can appeal to corners from the greater part of Continental Europe, has a certain advantage over a Church which appeals as ours does, yours and mine, on the score of its having come to this country by the way of England. Year before last, we Episcopalians celebrated at Jamestown, with no little pride, an anniversary which recalled an arrival of English Christians on these shores some seventeen years prior to the landing of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. And when, last year, our Roman Catholic friends [5/6] made great rejoicings over the centenary of the Archdiocese of New York, we smiled contentedly and said to ourselves, "Yes, but we have just been keeping our tercentenary." However, the matter is not one which a mere priority in time can settle. Its general European appeal in contrast with the Anglican's somewhat insular one, does give the Roman communion a certain advantage which cannot be winked out of sight. And yet in the very fact that it is so essentially European, lies, after all, the real weakness of the Roman effort to bring unity to pass among the Christians of America. It was all very well, so long as the earth was supposed to be a circle, to insist upon the value of one single administrative centre; but now that we have discovered the earth to be a globe, London and St. Petersburg, Boston and Chicago, have, on geographical grounds, as good a right to be considered centres as old Rome itself. There is no such thing as a centre to a spherical surface. The human body is not governed from a single nerve-centre, but from several. Why should we expect it to be otherwise with the body mystical?

It is interesting to observe that our Roman Catholic brethren are themselves awaking to the absolute necessity of more nationalism on their part, if they would win this people to their [6/7] allegiance; and it is becoming increasingly common to hear them speak of their communion as "the American Church." Can it become that? Hardly, I answer, unless the absolutism of the Roman Curia can first be broken up. That is a task to be accomplished, if at all, on the other side of the sea. The alleged rock of Peter cannot be dynamited from this distance. The shells will not reach.

We have next to consider the Liberal theory. This is in as marked contrast with the Imperial theory as it is possible to conceive. If Imperialism would pound us into Unity, Liberalism would vaporize us into it, the result a cloud. Clouds are beautiful, but they do no work. It is the limited, not the escape steam that counts. Basing itself upon two dogmas and only two,--the Fatherhood of God and the Brotherhood of Man, the Liberal Movement proposes that religious people get rid of their differences by simply ignoring them. That the two articles of faith which I have named stand just as much in need of proof as any other dogmas whatsoever, I shall not stay to urge. We will suppose, for our present purpose, that they are self-evident truths and generally accepted as such. Will they suffice alone and by themselves to hold people together in a visible unity? There are many [7/8] sanguine enough to answer the question in the affirmative, many who hold that the organization or organism (call it what you will) known as the State, furnishes in itself all the visible unity needed, if only the men, women and children who compose the State can be penetrated and possessed by a filial feeling towards a Heavenly Father and a brotherly feeling towards all the members of our race. It must be borne in mind that this eager longing (for it is an eager longing) for a purely theistic and humanistic Church is not confined to Christian areas. It has the backing of liberal Judaism and of enlightened Mohammedanism. It is by no means a negligible quantity in the general problem. Readers of the HIBBERT JOURNAL (and they are an increasing constituency) will recall two highly significant and deeply interesting articles in the current number, one of them entitled Credo, a most eloquent setting forth of a form of absolute religion which, as the author fondly hopes, will enable men of good-will everywhere to be devout and devoted, with no help from such encumbrances as written records and sacramental rites; the other, entitled Islam the Religion of Common Sense, urging men to be content with such unity as a belief in God and in the wisdom of his ways affords. It is conceivable that such [8/9] is the ultimate goal towards which the religious mind of America is moving; it is conceivable that the time approaches when the Church and the State, socialistic or other, will be one, and the State the one. It may be that some scheme of Monism is destined to replace our present Dualism. It may be that the days come when the cross is to be superseded as a symbol by the flag, and all sacraments other than civic ones are to fall into disuse. It may be,--I can only say, I do not think it.

We pass to the Federal theory. Let us acknowledge, without a moment's hesitation, the immense advance upon old-time notions of what constitutes ecclesiastical well-being in this country evidenced by the movement recently set on foot to effect a union, on treaty terms, of the various Christian denominations of the land. The assembling in Philadelphia, last December, of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, was a memorable event, and the volume which chronicles the sayings and doings of the Council so assembled is an epoch-making volume. God forbid that I should say a word in disparagement of this great movement, which embraces in its sweep some twelve or thirteen millions of communicant Christians. To speak contemptuously of such a co-operative effort as [9/10] that, betokens a small soul as well as a cold heart. But would Federation, however skillfully mapped out on paper, prove a workable scheme? Is any Church Unity a real Church Unity unless it carries with it governmental self-consistency? Are thirty denominations really any closer to one another for having been glued together at the edges? Must not the lines of union continually threaten to become lines of fracture? If to these questions it be replied,-- "Ah, but what we are aiming at is only a union of hearts," the rejoinder suggests itself, "We have that already, and are more likely to preserve it than we shall be if we endeavor to mingle forms of polity which, from their very nature, refuse to coalesce. Alliance is not necessarily unity."

It remains to touch briefly upon the last of the four theories of visible Church Unity hinted at when I began, the Constitutional theory. This theory contemplates a Church which segregates certain essential principles of belief and polity, and agrees to recognize these as the permanent bases or corner-stones of ecclesiastical unity. These essentials are counted constitutional, all else statutory and changeable. It is always in order that the tent-cords be lengthened, so long as the tent-pole stays put. The Constitutional theory recognizes, moreover, the divine rights [10/11] of the assembly of the faithful. Representative government was born with the Christian Church, and until it is returned to in good earnest by the whole body, Roman and Protestant, Eastern and Western, we cannot hope to see come to pass that reconcilement of the Church and Democracy for which we long. The Vatican decrees of 1870, reduced representation to a minimum, almost to zero. Janus, whoever he may have been, was right, and showed true foresight when he named his book The Pope and the Council. There was a contest under the dome of St. Peter's, and the pope won. Constitutionalism, be it frankly acknowledged, contemplates nothing less than a merger, but a merger in which the rights of all parties are conserved. It means unity by contribution, not unity by subtraction. Its unity will be the unity of a tree, biological not mechanical. Or, if the temple illustration be insisted on, then such a house as is not made with hands, built up of stones that live.

Confronted by these four competing theories, the Imperial, the Liberal, the Federal, the Constitutional, what shall we say of the outlook for a visible Church Unity in these United States? This, at least, we may affirm and affirm with confidence, that that outlook was never one-half so cheerful as it is to-day. The sect principle as [11/12] such is discredited. The Church no longer glories in its shame. But what is our special responsibility as Episcopalians with respect to the whole movement? for movement rather than speculation it has become. Our special responsibility, I conceive, is that of educating our own selves into a more just conception of what really constitutes Unity than we have hitherto grasped. As Anglicans we have never wholly liberated ourselves from the shackles of the Act of Uniformity. I have no wish to pose as a Cassandra, but this prophecy I venture, That unless she learns to see her calling and to see it soon, the Episcopal Church in this country will be in great danger, humanly speaking, of being bruised and badly bruised between the upper millstone of the Roman domination and the nether millstone of Protestant Federation. If we would persuade our brethren on either hand that the via media is indeed the more excellent way, we must prove to them by actions as well as by words that it is a road wide enough to accommodate without crowding all who hold the Catholic faith as contained in the primitive creeds, however profoundly they may differ among themselves as to the methods of the transmission of divine grace or as to the philosophy of Holy Orders.

[13] Let us understand and acknowledge that the actual getting together is the main thing, if only we can accomplish that blessed end without sacrifice of principle. Once together, we shall, depend upon it, be mighty careful not to fall apart. But if we go on insisting that those who are willing to recognize the episcopate as the centre of governmental unity shall also accept it as the sole depository of divine grace, if we go on insisting that those who accept the Sacraments ordained by Christ shall adopt and adhere to one single ritual out of the hundreds which, in the long history of Liturgics, have been evolved for the administration of those Sacraments, we may indeed continue to maintain our corporate existence, even as the Nonjurors of Scotland and the Jansenists of Holland maintained theirs, but our hope of ever becoming for America the Church of the Reconciliation will have been blasted.

I say frankly that, if I believed the Petrine claims to be the true interpretation of the Petrine texts, and if I could accept ex animo the dogma of 1870, I would abandon all Anglican methods as a mere daubing with untempered mortar, and would trust to the virtues of Roman cement to hold together the living stones of the American Church.

On the other hand, if I believed that a federation [13/14] of Imperialism, Monarchy, Democracy and Socialism, were a possible and practicable form of polity, I would abandon the Church of my childhood and of my mature life to-morrow, and, under the guidance of the Federal Council of the Churches of Christ in America, would go out like Abraham in search of another country and a better.

But believing, as I honestly do, that the Church which this assembly more or less adequately represents holds, in Dr. Newman Smyth's phrase, the key to the situation, if only she could be persuaded to use it, I turn neither to the right hand nor to the left, but keep to the middle of the road.

It so happens that it lacks just three days of being forty-four years since, here in Boston, in the old Trinity Church on Summer Street, long since destroyed, at the invitation of an organization known as the Massachusetts Church Union, long since dissolved, I preached a Sermon on the subject assigned to me this morning. It was my first Sermon on Church Unity. I have preached many since. By the courtesy of the Society, the Sermon was published under the title of AMERICAN CATHOLICITY. A tattered copy of the pamphlet is still in my possession. Looking it over, the other day, [14/15] in anticipation of this discussion, I came upon the following sentence:

"Allow me to suggest three prominent characteristics by which a truly National Church in this country would be known. Let us term them the conditions of American Catholicity. They are these: a simple creed, a varied worship, a generous polity."

For these principles I have, during the four and forty years, through evil report and through good report, contended and by them I stand, strengthened by the ancient watchword,

"Hope on, hope ever."

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