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Henry Codman Potter



at the COMMEMORATION of the


of the Consecration of


Preached in Grace Church by


Tenth Bishop of New York

Sunday, October 22, 1933

Published at the Request of
Members of the Family, and of
Friends, of Bishop Potter


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

Henry Codman Potter
Seventh Bishop of New York

"A servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ!" TITUS I, verse 1

THIS PARISH of Grace Church, the oldest offshoot from the Mother Parish of Old Trinity, is now, as most fittingly arranged by your Rector, celebrating the one hundred and twenty-fifth year of its life and service.

The history of this Parish, the memory of its great Rectors and of the noble men and women who have been associated with it, the story of its work, and of its influence in the Diocese, in the City, and in the Church at large, will be brought before you in the sermons which are to be preached here during the coming weeks. Today we commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the Consecration of Henry Codman Potter as a Bishop in the Church of God. It is proper that this event should be commemorated here, and in connection with your parochial anniversary, for in this Church the Consecration Service was held, and here, as Rector of this Parish, Dr. Potter spent some of his happiest years and gave some of his noblest service.

Bishop Potter was consecrated in this Church, Bishop Greer in St. Bartholomew's Church, and Bishop Burch here in Grace Church, for the Choir and Crossing of the Cathedral were not yet in use, and so it fell, strangely, to my lot to be the first Bishop of this Diocese consecrated in our Cathedral towards the progress of which both Bishop Potter and Bishop Greer had given such great and heroic effort.

Dr. Potter's administration and leadership of this Parish was indeed a notable one, but at this anniversary of his consecration we are to think of his life and service as Bishop, for twenty-five years, in this Metropolitan Diocese.

It would not be his wish that we should make this commemoration an occasion of personal tribute and honour to him. He has passed beyond these things into the presence of his Lord. But out of the deep and grateful affection that we bear him, and for our encouragement in our work here in the Church on earth, it is right [1/2] that we should think of the life and example of one who, in the words of the Memorial written at the time of his death, "ruled over this Diocese with a spirit so strong and patient, a wisdom so farsighted, and a purpose so enduring", and of whom we may say with truth that he was "a servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ."

As we think of Bishop Potter, the things which come immediately to our minds are his magnanimity of spirit, his breadth of vision, his wide sympathy and true humanness, his fairness and justice, his power of moral indignation against wrong or evil, and his unflinching courage, but behind all these things, and speaking through them, was his living, personal, faith, and his deep spiritual reality.

It is significant that the subject of his first sermon in Grace Church, as Rector, was "A Living Christ the Power of a Living Religion," and that note sounded clear in his utterances, and in his acts, all through his life. Bishop Potter made mistakes at times, as we all do, he was often misunderstood and criticized, as every man must be who bears large responsibilities, but these things did not disturb his spirit nor move him from following the truth as he saw it. As another noble hearted Bishop, David Hummell Greer, his successor in office, wrote of him--"Bishop Potter did not shrink from unpopularity, to those who did not know him he seemed at times to court it. But not so; he was built on larger lines and simply aimed to do and say, faithfully and fearlessly, what he deemed was right, and while ready to listen to reason to show that he was wrong, and quick and frank, when convinced, to acknowledge and to own it, no mere clamor could swerve him from his course." And Bishop Greer adds that the expressions of sorrow and loss at the time of his death came from all classes of people "not because he always tried to please them, or was in agreement with them,--he was too true to himself for that and to his own established convictions--but because they knew, and never for a moment doubted, that with his fine, exceptional gifts he always tried to serve them."

Two of Bishop Potter's official acts may be cited, from among many others, as illustrating his breadth of view and his fearlessness in performing his duty as he saw it; one of these acts was his sanction of the Order of the Holy Cross and his officially receiving the profession of the Reverend James O. S. Huntington as the first member of this Monastic Order, the other was his action in receiving the Reverend Dr. Briggs from the Presbyterian Ministry and [2/3] ordaining him to the priesthood in this Church. Each of these acts caused great excitement at the time, and brought down upon the Bishop severe, and public, criticism. But it was soon realized, and as we now look back we can see clearly, that each one of them was not only right and wise in itself but was precisely what was required of a Bishop with a true view of his office as Chief Shepherd not of a party but of the whole Church. And none of the direful predictions which were made in regard to these acts have found fulfilment. Dr. Briggs, with his great scholarship and his wide vision, was to the end of his life a champion of orthodoxy; Father Huntington is today one of our most beloved spiritual leaders revered by men of all parties in the Church, and the Order of the Holy Cross is a great and recognized centre of spiritual life and influence among us.

There was in Bishop Potter no spirit of petty partisanship, he was the Bishop of the whole Diocese and was ready to uphold truth wherever he saw it, but along with his breadth and sympathy and true Catholic comprehensiveness, he held an unfailing loyalty to the Faith and Order of the Church as set forth in the Book of Common Prayer and in the Church's own official formularies. "Authority and reason," he said, "order and freedom, spirit and form, this is the true definition of the Catholic Church, and of the churchmanship which our times want." Not once but many times he spoke strong, clear, words on the subject of faithfulness in the Church, and of loyalty to ordination vows, distinguishing, of course, between the obligations of the laity, and the obligations of the clergy who are the Church's appointed and commissioned teachers admitted to their office on the condition that they believe, and will teach, the Faith of the Church. "It is impossible," he wrote, "in the minds of people who hold fast to the principles of common honesty, to respect either the consistency, or integrity, of one who eats the Church's bread, accepts the Church's dignities, enjoys the Church's honours, and impugns the Church's Faith. If he must assail her beliefs, then the dictate of ordinary uprightness would plainly seem to be that he must, first of all, withdraw from a fellowship to whose fundamental beliefs he cannot assent." Greatly as he deplored any such necessity Bishop Potter did not hesitate to exercise discipline if it was clear that his duty as a Bishop demanded this of him, but he knew that our chief need in the Church is not more discipline but more of the spirit of love for the Church and for each other in the fellowship of Jesus Christ, that we need not so much new [3/4] methods as simpler and more personal faith, that our great need is to come nearer to the Lord Jesus Himself that we may have power to bring others near to Him.

Bishop Potter knew that the Church is not here to express the beliefs of the modern man but to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ that the modern man may believe and be saved. He held to the Divine Truths of the Gospel and the Church not under constraint, nor compulsion, but because they expressed the Truth of Christ and of God which he believed with all the strength of his clear mind and with the deepest conviction of his soul. I wish that the volume of his Charges to this Diocese published under the title "Law and Loyalty" might be re-read today all over the Church.

One of the great and chief notes of Bishop Potter's Episcopate, and of his whole Ministry, was his witness for public, civic, and social righteousness, his keen interest in all that related to the life and welfare of the City and its people, and his deep sympathy with the under-privileged and the oppressed. With far seeing vision he spoke of the day, which seems now to be nearer, when men in Industry and Commerce will ask themselves, as he expressed it, "not primarily what considerations of profit and dividends, but what considerations of justice and humanity, are involved." "No Christian man," he declared, "can innocently be indifferent to the interests of working men and women." He saw what many are now beginning to see more clearly that all our problems, industrial and economic, national and international, are at bottom spiritual problems. He had before him always the vision of a City in which the people of all kinds, and of all religious affiliations, should be intent upon the realization of the City of God in the character, the health, the happiness, and the just opportunity of all the citizens. He has been called, and with fine appropriateness, the Citizen Bishop. When occasion called for it he did not hesitate to speak out against evil or wrong doing. He was patient, and wise in often refraining from utterance, but there was never any doubt as to where he stood when important issues arose.

Some of Bishop Potter's utterances on civic and public matters were so notable that they stirred the interest of the whole Country and are still vividly remembered. One of these was his sermon in old St. Paul's Chapel, at the Centennial of the Inauguration of George Washington as President, when, in the presence of the President of the United States, of members of the Cabinet, [4/5] and of a most distinguished and representative assemblage, he called attention in calm and courteous language, but with entire plainness of speech, to evils well known to all which were bringing discredit upon the National Administration and injuring the life of our Country. That sermon has never been forgotten. It was spoken of generally as recalling the words of Nathan to David--"Thou art the man." Letters innumerable of approval and disapproval poured in upon the Bishop. Carl Schurz wrote to him "The more the newspaper discussion on your Centennial sermon spreads, and the longer it continues, the more are you to be thanked for the brave and strong words with which you pointed out the contrast between the principles followed by Washington and those governing the 'practical politicians' of our days. We have celebrated the Centennial in vain if that is not understood. You and the Country are to be congratulated upon the zeal with which your critics draw popular attention to it." And so wrote many others.

Another of his great utterances of this character was his letter to Mayor Van Wyck, in the days of Richard Croker. In grave but burning words he protested against the infamous conditions, bringing unspeakable wrongs upon the poorer people of our City, which had been brought to his knowledge, and demanded that these conditions be remedied. "The situation which confronts us in this Metropolis of America," he wrote, "is one of common and open notoriety." It is "a burning shame to any decent and civilized community and an intolerable outrage upon those whom it especially and preeminently concerns." "Nowhere else on earth, I verily believe, certainly not in any civilized or Christian community, does there exist such a situation as defiles and dishonours New York today." And a few days later, in a sermon, he said "Nobody who has any realization of this great and grave situation will fail to discharge his or her obligations. Somewhere you men and women have a place in this movement. Find that place and then, with the strength of God, put your shoulder to the wheel."

Those words of Bishop Potter's have an all too familiar sound, they cannot but speak to us of the conditions in our City Government which confront us at this moment. It is not necessary for me to rehearse the facts. The shameful conditions have been clearly exposed by Judge Seabury's investigation and are known to all. The dishonorable judges, the betrayal of justice in our Courts, the swollen and unexplained bank accounts, the flight of witnesses, the overwhelming evidence of corruption in many of [5/6] our City Departments, are not forgotten. The financial consequences of this corruption have proved disastrous, but still more serious is its moral and spiritual effect upon the life of our community. And the one chief cause of these intolerable and gravely menacing conditions has been, and is, the connection of our City Administration with party politics. We all know this. And yet an effort is now being made to hand our City Administration over to another, similar, political machine. What gain will it be for this City if one political machine is replaced by another which represents the same methods, includes many of the same men, and will be used for the same ends? The cause of honest government will not be helped by a continuance of the base alliance between Politics and our City's Business. National Politics ought not to have been brought into any connection with our Municipal Election. We know from experience that the only influence of National Politics on Municipal Government is a debasing and corrupting one. Whether a man is a Democrat or a Republican has no more to do with his fitness for office in our City Government than the colour of his eyes, or of his hair. What we need is men who are qualified and capable and who will do their work honestly and faithfully. "Practical Politicians," as a class, have no such purpose. Their ideal, as we know only too well, is to work for the machine, to provide for their friends, and to enrich themselves. Surely the honest men and women of this City who work for their living have had enough of the shameless corruption and thieving of partisan municipal government. I hope that on November 7th our voters will go to the polls realizing that in this election the one all important question is this--Shall our City Government now be cut loose from the corrupting domination of a political machine, or shall it not? The answer to that question affects the welfare of every man, woman, and child in New York. If we are now to put an end to political patronage and to the spending of the taxpayers' money for partisan purposes, we must have a City Administration that is non-partisan.

One other matter I must mention for it would be impossible to speak of Bishop Potter's life and work without referring to the Cathedral, in which he took such intense interest, and to which he gave so largely of his time and strength. He did not initiate the Cathedral project, he inherited it from his great and revered predecessor Bishop Horatio Potter, but it fell to him to commence, and to carry forward, the realization of this immense undertaking.

[7] It is interesting to note that in Bishop Potter's time, some fifty years ago, there was exactly the same sort of discussion that we hear occasionally today as to whether the Cathedral can properly be regarded, and referred to in its Constitution, as a House of Prayer for all people. The answer was then, as it still is, that the Cathedral is intended to be used, and is used, with the fullest degree of comprehensiveness that is consistent with the principles, and the canons, of the Protestant Episcopal Church. The Cathedral is in literal fact a House of Prayer for all People as no ordinary Church can be. Any parish church, or local Church, has a congregation of its own which belongs there and has prior rights in the building. The Cathedral has no such congregation of its own. It keeps no list of members, no register of communicants. It has no parochial organization. It is the Church of the whole Diocese and of all others who wish to pray and worship in it. Its doors are open, and its seats are free, to all, whatever their faith, or race, or color.

As to the preaching in the Cathedral, Ministers of other Churches are frequently invited to preach at special services, which is in accordance with the canons of the Episcopal Church, and leading Ministers of different Communions preach from the Cathedral pulpit every year.

Bishop Potter felt most deeply not only the importance but the necessity of the Cathedral in this great City and Diocese. Preaching on this subject, he said, "We are told that new problems confront us in America at this hour, and the building of Cathedrals will not help them. This is a practical age, and its evils await a direct and practical solution. We want the college, we want the hospital, we want the reformatory, we want the creche and the orphanage, the trades school and the trained nurse, the hygienic lectures and the free library, the school of arts and the refuge for the aged, but we do not want the Cathedral. I venture to submit," Bishop Potter said, "that we want, a great deal more than we want any or all of them, the spirit that inspires and originates them." "This spirit," he declared, "is not the enthusiasm of humanity" but by all the witnesses of experience "the enthusiasm of religion. And this is kindled in the honour of God." "I maintain," he said, "that that structure which stands for influences so potent and so divine cannot be too stately, too spacious or imperial, and most surely cannot be an anachronism in any age or in any land." "We want,"--he said on another occasion--"there are many who are strongly persuaded [7/8] that we want in this great and busy centre of a nation's life, a sanctuary worthy of a great people's deepest faith. That trust in God which kept alive our fathers' courage, heroism and rectitude, needs today some nobler visible expression--expression commensurate, in one word, with that material prosperity which we have reached as a people owning its dependence upon God and upon His blessing on our undertaking." "Such a building," he said, "would of necessity, under our present conditions, require to be administered by the Church under whose control it would be reared but its welcome would be for all men of whatever fellowship and its influence would be felt in the interests of our common Christianity throughout the whole land." Such was Bishop Potter's ideal of the Cathedral. He carried far forward the work for the erection of this mighty Temple of God and his name will be forever identified with it. I may say here that in all its history no two individuals have done more for the Cathedral undertaking than Bishop Henry Codman Potter and another noble and beloved Rector of this Parish, Dr. William Reed Huntington. Bishop Potter desired most earnestly to see the opening of the Choir and Crossing, but he was called to his reward before this portion of the great edifice was ready for use.

Men think of Bishop Potter as the able administrator, the great citizen, the fearless leader in public causes, the wise and far seeing statesman, and he was all of these, but he was more than all of them; before and above all else he was "a servant of God, and an apostle of Jesus Christ." He was the humble and believing Christian, the bold and fearless preacher of the Gospel, the true and faithful pastor of souls, the friend, and counsellor, and father, of his clergy.

Back of all his words and acts there lay his own deep, personal, living, faith. It was this which was the foundation of his life, and it was this which made him so true, and trusted, and beloved, a Chief Pastor. His clergy did not on all occasions agree with his views, it was far from his mind to expect or to desire this, but they always believed in him and were sure of his sincerity, his justice, and his generous, large-hearted sympathy.

The Memorial to him, written by Dr. Huntington, gave thanks for the life of Henry Codman Potter, "true prophet, true priest, and true Bishop," and it is so that we think of him today, and lift up our hearts in fellowship with him still, in that other life of perfect service where he now is.

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