( Originally Published 1888 )
Churches or societies for the promotion of religious life and thought have always existed in the world, and it is difficult to see how the growth of mankind in knowledge and culture has made them any less necessary today than they have ever been. Our conception of the function of religion may be different from that our fathers held. The Church may no longer regard it as her mission to try to frighten people into the kingdom of heaven with unnatural teachings concerning God and the life to come, but surely man needs as much as ever for the development of his spiritual faculties, the quickening of his conscience, the nurture of his true instincts and perceptions, the pure and gentle ministrations of the unseen spirit, who in all ages has influenced the soul through churches and sacraments and prayers, and whose perpetual mission it is to redeem the world from sordidness and sin by showing it the essential truth its life contains. The Church is the great witness to the truth within man as well as without, and all questions concerning it, historical or otherwise, must therefore be full of interest.
There are two ways of thought regarding the origin of institutions or customs with which we are familiar, and which age or long use has made sacred. One of these ways is to imagine the institution or custom as having come full-fledged into existence in some remote time, under the sanction of some high authority ; the other to regard it as having been slowly evolved out of preexistent conditions or modes. The latter way of thought is that now universally followed in scientific investigation of all sorts, and by the most trustworthy students in every department of research. Just as we trace our own present judgments in matters of thought and practical life back to their crude beginnings in our childish conceptions of things about and things above us, so the modern student has learned that if he would understand them he must trace familiar institutions and rites back to their earliest beginnings.
The introduction of this method into the sphere of religion has wrought great changes in modern theological conceptions, and through-out enlightened Protestantism has released men from slavery to irrational views concerning the visible Church and its symbols or sacraments.
There are few subjects on which so much has been written as the proper organization of the Christian Church. Romanists have written in defence of the Papacy, English and American Churchmen have written in defence of Episcopacy, Presbyterians, Independents, and Methodists have successively argued for their peculiar form of church order. And almost all, in turn, have claimed for themselves an exclusive divine right to exist. Among this medley of opinions, unfortunately, all claiming support from the same passages in the New Testament, and all appealing with equal confidence to apostolic usage, it is no wonder that many a man has given up trying to decide what seemed so perplexing a question, and at last has grown indifferent to all forms of organized Christianity.
Indifference to the Church as an institution is not, however, philosophical or right, any more than indifference to the state and its constitution, for, as there are important philosophical principles involved in all existing theories of government, so there are in all theories of church order and administration.
When a number of men are inspired with common sentiments, the first thing that suggests itself is the idea of organization. Community of feeling quickly draws them together, and besides, united they will be better able to extend their principles among others. The christian Churches of the Apostolic age were formed in obedience to this law of organization, and there is no more reason to suppose that in the beginning God gave express commands concerning them, than that He gave express commands concerning the government of the empire into which Christianity was born. He is the inspirer of true religion and good order everywhere; and He loves " whatsoever is lovely and of good report." Thus we have the right to claim the most divine sanction for whatever Church organization, in the better judgment of mankind, seems to embody most faithfully the true principles of religion and order. Hooker, in his "Ecclesiastical Polity," says: "Church government is a thing which the Church itself constitutes under a Divine authorization to do so." "We must note that he that affirmeth speech to be necessary among all men through-out the world doth not thereby import that all men must necessarily speak one kind of language. Even so the necessity of polity and regimen in all churches may be held, without holding any one certain form to be necessary for them all."
The theory of the church, however, that in the third century, under the influence of Bishop of Carthage, shaped itself for West-ern Christendom, regarded the episcopal order alone as having a right to exist, and sought to limit the working of God's grace to that, appealing to Scripture no less than tradition for its authority. The Presbyterian and Independent Churches of the sixteenth century, disputing the exclusive claims of the mediaeval catholic church, in the same spirit, likewise appealed to Scripture, and so there have come down to our time, besides the Roman Catholic, two distinct and indeed mutually exclusive theories of the church, each building itself on Scripture, and seeking to prove itself the true Apostolic Church. These two views are thus described by Bishop Kip in his " Double Witness of the Church " : " We contend, then, that in accordance with the directions given by our Lord, His Apostles, acting under the direct influence of the Holy Spirit, established a Church having a ministry of three orders, and which has been continued by their successors down to the present time. These three orders were: 1st, the Apostles, called in the following age the Bishops ; 2d, the Presbyters or Elders ; and 3d, the Deacons.
" We contend, also, that there is no instance of ordination recorded in Scripture, as being per-formed by any except the Apostles, or others, as Timothy, or Titus, who had been invested by them with the authority of Bishops ; in other words, that there is no instance anywhere of mere Presbyters ordaining. And we believe that this remained an established rule of the Church, never violated for more than 1500 years, until at the Reformation in the sixteenth century, when some bodies of Christians, who had separated from the Church, proceeded to ordain ministers by the hands of mere priests or Presbyters. We therefore require in those who officiate at our altars that they should be Episcopally ordained—that is, that they should be ordained by some Bishop, who has derived his authority from those Bishops who went be-fore him in the Church in uninterrupted succession since the Apostles' days. This is the doctrine of the Apostolical succession. On the other hand, those who deny the necessity of Episcopal government, assert that the Apostles of the Early Church left no successors—that is, that it is not necessary for ordination to be performed by a Bishop—that there is but one or-der of ministers in the Church, that of Presbyters—and that these have a right, by their own authority, to ordain and admit to the ministry. Such, then, is the dividing line between us, and to decide which view is right and most in accordance with the government of the Primitive Church, we must refer to intimations given in Scripture, and the testimony of History in the earliest ages of our faith."
From this point Bishop Kip, to support his view of the sole divine authority of an episcopal organization of the church, goes on to build, by analogy, an argument from the Jewish Church and its complicated organization, from certain incidental passages in the New Testament, and from early Christian history.
His argument is elaborated with great care, but one feels, as he follows it, that it is hardly more binding on reason than the equally ingenious argument for the sole authority of the papal organization, since it takes almost as much for granted. The chief assumption which underlies all claims, whether of Episcopalians, Presbyterians, or Independents, for the sole di-vine right of a particular form of church order, is that Jesus intended to establish such an or-der to the exclusion of any other. But it seems strange that any one can read the simple story of his life and teachings, and not feel how significant is his silence with regard to the externals of religion ; can find any thing like hierarchical pretensions or aims in those earnest missionary teachers—his first disciples. When Jesus was asked about the external signs of his kingdom, he invariably tried to show men that his kingdom meant the advance of spirituality and faith. When his earliest disciples formed new Christian congregations, they seemed desirous of giving them the simplest and fewest laws necessary for their corporate existence ; when St. Paul spoke sorrowfully about schism, he did it not as the advocate of a theory of the church such as Cyprian and Augustine long afterward held—a theory which limited God's kingdom to a certain external order, and made it a fearful sin to violate that,—but rather as a Christian minister, who saw a community wickedly quarrelling over the most peaceable and sacred truths of religion, and instead of living as brethren in one household of faith, setting up rival households, and so practically denying the most vital principles of the Gospel.
We have no evidence that Jesus or the Apostles held or sought to promulgate any exclusive theory of church order or legislation. All over Judea congregations of Jews existed, each with its separate corps of elders, part of whom were appointed to conduct its worship, part to manage its affairs, and whenever one of these synagogue congregations became convinced that Jesus was the Messiah it seems to have taken on a Christian form, without, in any essential particular, changing its constitution. The Apostles or persons appointed by them naturally assumed the general oversight of these new congregations and their elder-ships, especially where they were formed in non-Jewish communities, and thus, so far as can be ascertained, for in the New Testament there is a marked absence of direct statement concerning it, the polity of the early church grew up,—a polity that would seem to have been for the most part accidental rather than deliberately planned, and to have combined some of the features of both Presbyterianism and Independency, but to have contained, at least in germ, the moderate Episcopacy of a later time. We have little accurate knowledge of the growth of the episcopal order during the first three centuries. Certain passages from a letter called the Epistle to the Corinthians, written by Clement of Rome, a fellow-laborer of St. Paul, in the second century, and from the letters of Ignatius, who was martyred about the year 115, and from the writings of Irenaeus, who died at the beginning of the third century, are confidently appealed to by those who desire to trace the episcopal order of the church to Jesus and the Apostles. On the other hand, those who believe in episcopacy as a growth or development, think that the supremacy of the bishop, which is clearly enough to be seen in the Latin Church in the third century, the time of Tertullian and Cyprian, had its origin in simple respect for seniority, and the preeminence naturally accorded chief presbyters or elders in the more important churches. On this disputed point, Dean Milman, in his " History of Christianity " (vol. I., p. 19), has spoken wisely and fairly, and as he has left the question, so we think all fair-minded people should leave it. " The whole of Christendom," he says, " when it emerges out of the obscurity of the first century, appears uniformly governed by certain superiors of each community called ` bishops,' but the origin and extent of this superiority, and the manner in which the Bishop assumed a distinct authority from the inferior presbyters, is one of those difficult questions of Christian history, which, since the Reformation, has been more and more darkened by those fatal enemies to candid and dispassionate enquiry, prejudice and interest."
And again (vol. IL, p. 30): "The manner and the period of the separation of a distinct class, a hierarchy, from the general body of the community, and the progress of the great division between the clergy and the laity, are equally obscure with the primitive constitution of the church. Like the Judaism of the provinces, Christianity (at first) had no sacerdotal order."
Tradition assigns the establishment of episcopacy, at least in Asia Minor, to St. John, and the Latin father Jerome, as quoted by Hooker (" Ecclesiastical Polity," vol. III., book 7, p. 130), says : " Till through instinct of the devil, there grew in the Church factions, and among the people it began to be professed, I am of Paul, I of Apollos, I of Cephas, churches were governed by the common voice of presbyters; but when every one began to reckon those whom he had baptized, his own, and not Christ's, it was decreed in the whole world that one chosen out of the presbyters should be placed above the rest, to whom all the care of the Church should belong, and so all seeds of schism be removed." It is not improbable that in some quarters episcopacy may thus have originated, and that St. John, as tradition says, may have had much to do with the appointment of successors to the Apostles.
But it is clearly impossible to establish the extreme view of Cyprian Or Augustine, that there is "no Church without a bishop " ; and, at least, the difficulties of New Testament interpretation, and the uncertainties of early church history, are far too great to warrant us in telling an inquirer that if he will read for himself he will find the proofs.
What reasons, then, have Episcopalians for their adherence to the Episcopal Church, and on what grounds can they ask people bred under other systems to give it their allegiance ? No Episcopalian can properly tell people that his is the only Church, for we have no sufficient grounds for the belief that either Jesus or his Apostles contemplated a particular form of church organization, never to be abrogated nor changed. Much of the best Christian life for centuries has not been included in the Churches that hold to the Catholic order —that is, that acknowledge bishops ; and the church's only apology for being is the mission she has to make men realize their sonship of God.
The Episcopal or Anglican Church is one of the great Churches of Christendom, her history tracing back to the earliest period of the establishment of Christianity in Britain, her constitution essentially the same as that of the Greek and Roman Churches. But Christianity would have a very hopeless outlook if we were obliged to limit it to either the Greek, the Roman, or the English Church, or to all of them combined, for in both East and West a large part of the Christian population belongs to other churches than these, many of which have no idea of adopting the episcopal order.
In the United States a large proportion of the clergy of the Episcopal Church have been bred wholly, or in part, in other communions, and to her laity there are accessions continually, from the surrounding churches. It was recently stated that, in the last twenty years, the number of communicants in the Episcopal Church in the United States had grown from 161,224 to 398,098, and the number of dioceses and jurisdictions from 34 to 65, and much of this growth, at least in the number of communicants, has been in the older States, and in places where Calvinism once prevailed. But it is clearly not true that changes from Calvinism, or Unitarianism, are commonly the result of a conviction that the Episcopal Church is the only true church. There are other sufficient reasons for such changes without supposing the adoption of so groundless a theory as this. The Episcopal Church has advantages which some others do not possess; she has a history that goes back continuously to the establishment of religion in Britain in the second century. She has a liturgy that, in the so-called Protestant world, for dignity and spirituality, has no parallel. She is catholic, not only, according to the earliest usage of that word, in that she recognizes herself as part of the great Christian family, and feels in herself the thrills of all true life, but also in the later meaning of the word, where-by it stood for that part of the Christian world which recognized the episcopal order, and to whose keeping, through the Middle Ages, were entrusted the rich treasures of tradition that have come down to us. She has a doctrine of apostolic succession which keeps her from de-generating into mere voluntaryism. But this doctrine of apostolic succession does not mean that, in some magical way, special grace is conveyed by the touch of a bishop's hands, but rather that the Church recognizes herself as a continuous body, whose threefold order has never been broken as far back as church history can be traced.' An Independent Church can make itself at any time, without reference to what has gone before. The Episcopal Church has a permanent external order and authority, which she transmits from age to age. Thus she is able to bring into modern civilization, with its unsettled conditions, its comparative newness and crudeness, an element of stability and permanence that such a civilization greatly needs. A pastor of one of the leading Unitarian Churches of the Eastern States said lately, on his return from a trip through some of the newer parts of the West, that he had never felt so strongly the value of the Episcopal Church as when he had found it, with its orderly and beautiful service, in rude and rough places on the frontier. It was, he said, the only bit of refined civilization they had. This is not true of other parts of the country, yet there can be little doubt that it is from a conviction that she, of all churches, is best equipped for the work of advancing a higher type of Christian civilization, that so many men turn from other churches to her doors.
A few years ago, when the Calvinistic churches were more hide-bound than now, people used to look with wonder on the differences of opinion that existed within the Episcopal Church, and some gave her, a little in derision, the epithet of the " Roomy Church." But, of late, the sneer has died away, and there are few who do not now feel that her breadth is one thing that shows her fitness to be the spiritual home of the human brotherhood. She is not a school of philosophy, but the nursery of the instincts of worship, and of pure and earnest life.
Her terms of admission are not found in articles of faith, but rather in the recognition of the native obligations of the soul to truth and virtue. She gathers the tempted to her altars and gives them strength, the doubting and gives them faith, the sorrowing and gives them consolation, and none are too weak, too doubting, or too sad to find a welcome in her fold. So in the future as in the past it would seem that her progress must keep pace with the growth of thought and culture.
To sum up what we have said : churches were first established in obedience to the instinct that bids men of like sentiments unite. They were established for the promotion of the moral and spiritual-that is, the whole welfare of mankind. They were meant to help men realize the divine sonhood, the universal brotherhood, and amid the fleeting conditions of this human life to give the soul a firmer grasp on that which never changes. The laws of their polity were the divine principles that are given for the establishment of good government everywhere, the principles of catholicity and permanence. These conditions the Episcopal Church, in her constitution, fully realizes, and it is the continual aim of all large-minded men within her fold to keep her true to her divine mission—to teach men morality and faith, and to unite them in a large and rational way for the promotion of the truths that save society and lift mankind nearer to God.
In opposition to the sectarian principle that men have a right to make churches on the basis of individual opinions, she declares that no church can properly be made except on the basis of fundamental moral and spiritual truth, and that in such a church many individual opinions must necessarily exist.
In the modern Christian world she stands for unity and permanence.
Into her thought of unity come past, present, and future. Her fellowship is with true souls of all times :
" The saints above and those below
Her permanence is the witness to the unchanging life of God, and the eternal supremacy in the universe of His kingdom of law and love.