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A series of essays in the Episcopal Church


The State of the Church: In Times of Disquietude

The State of the Church: In Times of Disquietude

By The Rt. Rev. William Lawrence
Bishop of Massachusetts, 1893-1927

(Abstracted from the Journal, of the Diocese of Massachusetts, May 1 and 2, 1907) by The Rev. Canon Robert G. Carroon, Archivist of the Diocese of Connecticut

``One of the privileges of the members of an historic Church is that in days of disquietude or doubt our thoughts turn back naturally to the experiences of the Church under similar conditions, and thus we gain confidence and serenity. To such retrospect I have turned again and again during the past year or two; and in closing this Address I ask you to recall with me two or three familiar illustrations, and from them draw, I hope, some helpful conclusions.

We all know well that the Church of any one generation does not practically express the faith in all its fullness and beauty of proportion. Through the changing conditions and movements of though one or another essential truth of the faith is lost sight of by the living interpreters of the Church, although the truths themselves are imbedded in the Creeds and standards of the Church. Later such a forgotten or hidden truth will reappear with energy gathered through repose: the terms of its statement or the form of its appearance is so new and unfamiliar that contemporary interpreters of the Church's life and thought often fail to recognize it, so that the truth has to fight its way upward to recognition through the incrustation of traditional thought and familiar interpretation, and in so doing it sometimes takes such exaggerated or ill-proportioned form as to be really only an imperfect or even heretical phase of the truth. Nevertheless the movement is good, thought the peace of the Church is lost for the time; the truth is being regained and reinterpreted to the life and thought of the day.

Again and again the authorities of the Church have caught that early, perhaps imperfect, expression of the truth, called it heresy, and condemned its interpreters; again and again that which was essential in the truth has taken its place in the living Church, while the crudities and imperfect expressions have been sloughed off.

Glance, for instance, at the condition of the thought of the Church of England before the Tractarian movement. In the rationalism of the 18th Century, the Erastianism of that day and he piety of the Evangelical movement, the clause in the Creed, ``the Holy Catholic Church'' had been, as Dr. Pusey then wrote, lost sight of; the sacramental principle which has always had its place in the historic Church was neglected. From the heart of the Church of England there arose a group of men of learning and piety who were convinced that for her safety, even for her very existence, these two truths must be brought out into the open. Hence the Tractarian movement.

Among that group was one of the most saintly, as well as of the most learned men of his day, Edward Bouverie Pusey, Regius Professor of Hebrew at Oxford, who preached a sermon entitled ``The Holy Eucharist a Comfort to the Penitent,'' in which he suggested the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. It created a storm of criticism. He was proclaimed as false to the standards of the Protestant Church of England, untrue to the faith of Christ, and dishonest in retaining his position. The storm had its effect on the authorities, and without being given a hearing he was inhibited from preaching for two years.

Soon after, another group of young, learned, and devoted men arose, and a movement called ``Rationalistic'' followed. It took shape in a volume called ``Essays and Reviews'' - a series of papers that, in the mind of a great many of the Church of England and of those high in authority, subverted the whole faith. Dr. Pusey himself writing ``of the extent to which the truth has been attacked,'' quoted from the Westminster Review: ``In their ordinary, if not plain sense, there has been discarded the Word of God, the creation, the fall, the redemption, justification, regeneration, and salvation, miracles, inspiration, prophecy, heaven and hell, eternal punishment, a day of judgement, creeds, liturgies and Articles, the truth of Jewish history and of Gospel narrative; a sense of doubt thrown over even the incarnation, the resurrection and ascension, the divinity of the Second Person and the personality of the Third.''

Of these papers the first was written by the young headmaster of Rugby School, Frederick Temple, who later became Archbishop of Canterbury. Bishop Wilberforce, at that time perhaps the strongest spokesman for the Church of England, wrote that none of these men had any right to remain within the Church, and in response to the panic the book was condemned by Convocation. Another Clergyman of the Church of England, Frederick Denison Maurice, expressed in his own rather vague way the same so-called Rationalistic movement. He published an essay on ``Eternal Life and Eternal Death,'' and for it was expelled from his chair in King's College London.

On turning to the Church in this country, there are those of us who still recall the excitement caused by the speeches of James DeKoven in the General Convention. We now feel deep chagrin at the treatment, which he received in the Church press and the popular sentiment of the time. He was called disloyal to the faith, a misguided interpreter of the teachings of Christ; and because of his convictions he was, when he was elected Bishop of Illinois, refused confirmation. The sentiment continued so strong that he who has lately fallen asleep, the late Bishop of Springfield, was also refused confirmation as Bishop of Illinois. Besides these we may recall the names of many men honored today who were defamed for teaching what they believed to be the truth. There were on the part of thoughtless and smaller men exaggerations, heretical expressions, and all sorts of careless and disproportional interpretations of the standards of the Church and of the Creed. But the common sense and better wisdom of the Church paid little attention to them. No one of these leaders recanted; they all continued to preach and to teach that for which they were condemned, and they were all later recognized as loyal servants of the Church; they are now held in high honor, and we thank God that in spite of popular clamor they stood by the principles of the Church which, long neglected, called for expression, and which enrich the spiritual life and thought of the Church to-day.

Who that is disturbed by the diverse teachings in the Church to-day can help recalling these events?

We now hear the same cries that condemned Pusey and Temple - on the one side the doctrines of the Reformed Church of England are being denied; on the other the Creed is being emptied of its meaning. Men recognized as of clear heads and honorable characters are called dishonest, and devoted Clergymen and laymen of different schools of thought who believe that they are true to the Church, are told that they have no right at her Communion. History is our teacher. Earnest, charitable and thoughtful discussion reveals the essence of the truth in time.

These considerations, I say, give me comfort, and I present them to you, for I well know that in the problems, questions and discussions of the past year or two many of the most devoted servants of the Church, laity and Clergy have been disturbed, pained and disheartened.

Those of us who are older must remember that there is a younger generation coming up whose conception of nature, philosophy, life and Holy Scriptures is different from that of our youth. They will interpret the Bible and the Church's faith from a somewhat different point of view from that of ours, as we interpret them differently from that of our fathers. We believe that ours is a fuller interpretation than that of the past; I am confident that that of the coming generation will be still fuller. We must expect exaggerations, distorted statements, expressions which seem to deny essential truths of the faith. Small men as well as great men will talk, and their voices may now and again sound above the din of discussion. May we not, however, rest confident in these thoughts: - The Creeds of the Church stand to-day , there is no voice, certainly which I have heard, of even the most radical, that has been lifted to demand, or even ask, change in the language of the Creeds. Granted that to the minds of many, certain phrases have been emptied of their meaning; those phrases still stand, and they will stand, and the next generation will repeat them, and through their expression will be revealed a conception of the incarnation of Christ in harmony with the Creeds and in sympathy with the habits of thought of that generation.

The message, therefore, that I give myself, and any other who may choose to hear it, is this: -Trust Christ and His truth; trust the Church; have confidence in the Creeds of the Church; trust in the sincerity of those who from different points of view are trying to hold the coming generation to the Christian Faith; be patient; let no distrust or panic prompt me to call my brother, who sincerely claims that he is a child of the Church, a heretic or a blasphemer; and if the Church's Creeds and standards are allowed to stand untouched, I for one am confident that our children, if they think it worth while to consider the disquietude of these days at all, will look back in gratitude that we had such faith in Christ and His Church as to keep our heads clear, our hearts charitable, and our tempers serene.''

William Lawrence, Bishop of Massachusetts

Address to the Annual Convention of the Diocese

1 May 1907


You are welcome to submit your essays for consideration for this series. Send them to lcrew@newark.rutgers.edu Identify yourself by name, snail address, parish, and other connections to the Episcopal Church. Please encourage others to do the same.

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