BY THE REV. DR. MANNING
THE CHURCH OF THE ASCENSION,
MOUNT VERNON, NEW YORK
TO A CONGREGATION OF COMBINED MEN’S CLUBS
FEBRUARY 4th, 1912
The Great Commission
A monthly publication of
The Cathedral League of the Diocese of New York
Volume 1, Number 5, March 1912
Part of the sixth verse of the first chapter of the Second Epistle of St. Paul to St. Timothy: "Stir up the Gift of God that is in thee."
I FEEL it a happiness and a privilege to be here tonight and to have the opportunity of saying a few words to this congregation, and I want to speak of two or three of the things that are needed in order that our laypeople—perhaps I may say especially our laymen, as I was asked to address myself especially to the men—may make their full contribution to the life and power of the Church.
Now, I think, perhaps, the prescription that is most often given to a layman who wants to take more interest, and who feels that he wants to have a more real part in the life of the Church, is that he should get to work and do something; become a member of some society, become an usher, perhaps, or take some part in the work of the Sunday-school, or become a vestryman or something of that sort. This prescription, like most prescriptions, contains something that is wholesome, but it does not fully meet the case.
If our laymen in the Church are to be deeply and seriously interested, and are to maintain their interest, there is something needed that is deeper and more fundamental than that, and I am inclined to think that the first thing needed for our men generally, if they are to make their full contribution to the life and the work of the Church, is that they should more adequately and fully inform themselves as to the things of their religion. I am not speaking especially to this congregation when I say that—I think it applies to all congregations—I think that one of the things that we most need, to bring up the level of interest and of devotion and of earnest work, is what, perhaps, I may venture to call a higher standard of Christian intelligence in the Church.
I believe that there is a real danger of the work of the Church becoming poor and shallow and too much on the surface and too much taken up with mere bustle and energy and outward activity. I wish I could state as strongly as I believe it deserves to be stated the absurdity and the folly—yes, I may use a still stronger word and say the presumption—of any of us supposing that we can hold our place in the life of God's Church and bear our true part in it, and have our true part in its life and its work, without that growth in knowledge, that renewal of mind, that refreshment of soul and spirit, that can come in only one way, and that is by the right kind of reading.
Now that is an exceedingly simple thing, and yet how many of us do, in any adequate measure at all, read and think about the things of our religion? If people would read and think more, we should hear much less of that strange notion that we do hear of sometimes, that it does not make much difference, or that it is, at any rate, comparatively unimportant what a man believes if he only leads a decent and respectable life. There is such an idea as that abroad in the minds of a great many men. There are people, and many of them, who think that we can in some way get hold of the spirit of the Christian religion without having anything to do with its forms and its dogmas; and it is, some of them think, a rather noble thing to rise above forms and dogmas.
I wish I could devote my whole time to-night to that single thought, to try to expose the utter crudity and folly of such a thought. It does not bear the least serious analysis, yet you will find lots of people deluded with it. Why? Because they do not really think about it at all. Creed is nothing, they tell us, character is everything. Yes, it is one of the half-truths that do delude people if they do not think carefully and fully enough about their religion. Character is everything, that is the truth of it; character is everything, and it is the Christian religion that has taught us that. But character is always based on creed of some sort; creed positive or creed negative, creed true or creed false; whatever it is that a man really believes, his character is the outcome of that, and a man cannot help believing something. The only man who cannot believe anything is the man who has no brain to believe with, and it is only a question whether a man shall have a true creed or a false creed, an adequate basis for his life and character, or an inadequate basis for his life and character.
People talk sometimes as if the Christian religion were being endangered by modern thought. The real danger is not in modern thought, but in modern lack of thought, and one of the greatest needs is that people—men and women—shall, in justice to their religion, at least take the trouble to read and inform themselves and understand something of the power of that truth which has been revealed to us Christians.
And another thing that is needed if our laypeople are to make their full contribution to the life and power of the Church is that the Church must ask a great deal more from them in the way of spiritual living. The Church needs to ask from her men a much higher level of spiritual attainment, a much deeper development of personal religion, a much higher standard of Christian life.
This I am sure we shall all agree is true, that if any soul is to know anything at all about spiritual things, if it is to know anything at all about the meaning of spiritual life, it must enter into that life through prayer, through growth in prayer. It ought not to be necessary even to say this to any congregation of Christian people, but it is necessary to say it to almost all congregations of Christian people, for I believe there are very many of those who are prominently identified with the work of the Church, actively engaged in its affairs, regular attendants at its worship to whom prayer does not mean at all what it ought to mean in the life of any real Christian.
I believe that what a great many of us need is to break away from convention and formality. Of course, we need the forms to help us, as a sort of support to our spiritual life, but it is easy for us to depend too much upon the forms and to rely too wholly upon them, and I think there are a great many people to whom it would be a new experience to get down on their knees and offer up to God in their own simple words the needs and the desires and the aspirations and the hopes that they really feel; and unless there is that element in our praying, that element of the real, simple expression of the needs and desires of our own souls, our prayers do not mean much and they cannot carry far nor bring much life into our souls, and unless there is that quality in our private prayers and private devotions, it is not likely that our public prayers will mean much to us.
Public worship, the beautiful worship of the Church, our common worship, after all, rests back on the private personal devotions of the individual. It is designed for and intended for those who come to it prepared by the genuineness and the simplicity and the childlikeness of their own personal lives of prayer, their own personal petitions offered up to the throne of God; and when people come to the public worship of the Church and find little in it, it is not because there is little in it, but because there is little in them of the movement and the power of the Spirit of God, Who does move in us whenever we are simple and real and genuine in our relations with Him.
Now, another thing: If we are to make our real contribution, the contribution which every one of us ought to be making to the life and power of the Church, it is very necessary that we should have before our minds the true meaning of what the duty and responsibility of the Church is. It would be impossible to overstate the need of a great awakening in the Church to what we call her social duty. I rejoice from my heart that the Church is awaking to that duty, and we know how much there is on every hand for her to do to discharge it; but great and immeasurable as is the Church's social responsibility, it is important for us to realize that it is not the Church's only duty, and that it is not her first duty. The very power of the Church to do her social duty lies in the fact, and in her realization of the fact, that she stands for something infinitely more than this; for this, but also for something infinitely more.
The mission of the Church is first and far beyond all other things to speak to men of God, to bear His message to them, to bring them into relationship and into fellowship with Him. The Church stands in this world charged with the august duty of proclaiming to the world that the supreme fact in the life of every single man is the fact of that man's relationship to God and of all that he owes to God; and we do not help men when we allow them to forget that, or to put something else, no matter how good it may be, in the place of that. We help men most, we help them to be truest to themselves and to each other, we do our best social work when we help them to be true to God and to feel their relationship to Him, when we say to them as our Lord said to them and still says to them, "Thou shalt love the Lord, thy God. This is the first and great Commandment."
And, second, It is the great mission and duty of the Church to help men to know God as he reveals Himself to us in Jesus Christ, the only Lord and Saviour, the Way of the Truth and the Life, in Whom and by Whom alone men may find salvation. It is the mission of the Church by Word and Sacrament, by grace and power from above, to bring men to live in realized, conscious fellowship with Him. We do not help men by seeing how little we can ask them to believe. We need to make far greater demands upon the faith of men. That is what our Lord did; He did not win men by asking them to believe little. He won them by asking them to believe much, by asking them to believe in Him and put their trust in Him as the Way, the Truth and the Life. Christianity is not a vague sentiment in favor of goodness. It is not a kindly interest in philanthropy, or a mere creedless philosophy. Christianity is a personal trust in a personal Saviour and Lord, and if the Prayer Book speaks the truth we are brought into full and living relationship with Him in the sacramental life of the Church.
One other thing: It is the mission of the Church to speak to men of the place in their lives that belongs to worship. If the words of our Lord are true, worship is not a mere secondary thing and cannot take such a place in the life of any Christian. If what our Lord says is true, worship is the first and supreme duty of every living soul, and that is only to say that the first place in our lives belongs to God, and that He will have that place or we shall lose Him from our lives in any true and living sense; and the Church needs to tell men to-day, lovingly but fearlessly and faithfully, that any man who loses worship from his life is not only losing the highest and noblest experience that a soul can have on this earth, but is also falling short of the meaning of his existence here and dishonoring God instead of honoring Him and acknowledging Him; and wherever the Church fails to plainly and fearlessly and fully proclaim this she is failing in her duty, she is not delivering her full message to men, and she is lacking in true power and true strength.
So it all comes to this, dear brethren, that the thing which we need, if we are to make our real contribution as members of Christ here on earth, is to have before us some adequate and sufficient vision of the glory and truth of Jesus Christ, the glory and the truth and the power of that religion, of which we have been made the trustees, not to hold it for ourselves, but to manifest it and show it forth through our own lives; and we need not have any fears for the Christian religion, the only fear is for ourselves and for our pitiful failure to rise to our opportunities.
We hear men speak as though the Christian religion were on trial before men and as though, should it fail to find popular acceptance, it would now be judged and found wanting. These men mistake the situation; the Christian religion is not on trial before the modern world, the modern world is on trial before the Christian religion.
It is said that on a certain occasion a visitor went into one of the great picture galleries in Europe and, after looking around for some time, he said to the attendant in charge, "I don't think very much of your old masterpieces; they don't make much impression on me." The man looked at him a few moments and said: "Sir, the place of these pictures has long ago been settled; these pictures are not on trial before our visitors, but our visitors are on trial before these pictures."
That is the position you and I are in and the position the world is in to-day before the truth of the religion of our Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ.
May God open our eyes to the truth and glory of it and enable us to see at least a little of that which in His mercy and grace He has made known to us.