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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8

Absolution and Apostolical Authority

Absolution and Apostolical Authority.

To absolve and Absolution are words to be found in neither Testament. In the Liturgy of the Church of England they occur several times either in the rubrics or in the text. And it is here we find a meaning given to these words not fairly borne out by any Greek or Latin author whose works are ordinarily quoted as of any classical authority. But steering clear of what might have the semblance of pedantry, and of any however brief grammatical disquisition, we would go at once to an ecclesiastical source for an ecclesiastical interpretation. With this intent we turn for the orthodox meaning of absolution to the "Order for the Visitation of the Sick," wherein, after the sick person shall have been moved by the minister to make a special confession of his sins, he is then and there, after profession of repentance and belief, at once absolved by said minister from all his sins, by virtue of some authority alleged to have been divinely trans-mitted. The absolution here is meant to be as plenary as the assumption of its exercise is gratuitous. In the Order for Morning and Evening Prayer the mechanism of the absolution is somewhat different. In the office for the sick, absolution is direct; in the two latter, as well as in the Commination service, it is indirect. Instead of the authoritative "I absolve" of the former, it is the "he absolveth," the "may be absolved" of the latter. In the absence of any satisfactory reason for this singular discrepancy, we shall not, we think, be very wide of the mark if we impute it to a nervousness and reserve on the part of the liturgical compilers. They might on the principle that voluptates commendat rarior usus naturally enough reflect that what might not be too strong for the enervated mind and suffering body in its seeming hour of mortal trial, would be apt to become too hackneyed, stale, and cheap, when bandied about on every ordinary occasion. To some persons the distinctions we notice may appear trivial; but they are not so. There is a great difference between "I absolve" and "he absolveth"—between absolution directly imparted and the merely bare statement of ts efficiency. And none are more aware of this than the clever page 83 fraternity who arrogate to themselves the right of pronouncing it. If the necessity of being fully persuaded about things indifferent is urged by apostolic precept, we may form some guess at their dilemma, who in so grave a matter as that of absolution are often in doubt about the sufficiency of their own credentials. To the candid and conscientious man this is a weighty thought—the being invested with powers he may be in doubt about: in doubt, we mean, as to how far his "learning and godly conversation," his "detestation of Home's damnable doctrines," and "his being inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost" to take Orders, and with them, perhaps, a charge of a hundred a year and the church fees—should ipso facto qualify him for absolving another's sins, when he is fully convinced he has so many of his own. Absolution, if it means anything, means complete not partial release from sin. The penitent enters some sacred precinct, and, after confession of error duly made, is then and there absolved. He is supposed to leave his hinder wallet there, and to quit the place of worship with his soul as smooth and as clean as the palm of his hand—perhaps cleaner.

But here, if we state the matter correctly, in what degree does the Protestant shibboleth differ from the Roman Catholic's else than in the former being to some extent suggestive and covert, while the latter is confident and outspoken. Yet what has been more abused than Romish absolution? What more undutiful and virulent enemy has Rome ever had than the very child of her own loins, who would insist upon her portion of goods, and set up a rival Establishment. But with all this hostility—this having nothing to do with the shop over the way—their tenets are often, as in this instance, one and the same—repudiated per-chance in their integrity from some low and unworthy motive, but invariably and harshly insisted upon when any object is to be accomplished, either in the shape or worldly position or of sordid gain. And here is the stumbling block to many a Protestant priestling. Dwelling on the prestige of a venerable Catholicism like that of Rome, and lingering over its time-honoured memories—sympathising as openly as he dare in its bold maintenance of its dogmata, and in its decisive line of action—strongly prejudiced (from personal egotism or what not) in favour of a faith that prescribes small limit to priestly power, and evinces no hesitation about the value of its own prerogatives the Protestant slaveling of the thirty-nine Articles often looks afar from some mount Nebo of his own on the favoured land he may not set foot in, and timidly asks himself in tones of regret and bitterness of spirit—"Are not the very gleanings of the grapes of Ephraim better than the whole vintage of Abiezer! "But interest lays on him her iron grasp. Home ties bind him with chains of adamant. What is the poor wretch to do? He is looking one way and rowing another, with just mind enough to breed self-torment, but with insufficient to be honest and page 84 single-minded. Unlike the patriarch of the land of Uz, he forgoes his integrity at the appealing look of a fond wife and increasing household, and his deepest and long-cherished convictions are thrown broadcast to the winds, when brought face to face with the stern realities of life. We need not look far for men of this stamp. Their measure has been long taken though they may know it not; affording, as they do, ready examples of saintly dishonesty, and exhibiting by their demure life and conversation the compatibility of orthodoxy with the loosest and most grovelling sense of religion.

But reverting to our more immediate subject, how did such an idea as this of absolution come about and grow into vogue, and what is the authority for its enunciation? It is not our purpose here to enter on any profitless field of discussion. The question of apostolical succession has been argued, as our readers well know, again and again; but always with indefinite results and small satisfaction. Like many another fondly-cherished dogma, volumes have been written about it, only to render the subject more than ever perplexed. Yet, handled as it has been by many and proved by none, it is the only basis after all of absolution. If an apostolically-descended priest has not only the power to remit sins, but has also the power to retain them, we should like to know how the forgiveness of a brother until seventy-times-seven should be made at all dependent on the option of any individual. If we mistake not, human nature is pretty much now what it was more than eighteen centuries back, when—for all the teaching of a considerate and gentle master—even his own personal disciples would call down fire from heaven to consume the harmless Samaritans; or later, when an Emperor of Germany was made to endure indignities and privation at the hands of an insolent pontiff; or much later still, when so many good and exemplary men were relentlessly persecuted and harried by an orthodox hierarchy in the reign of the virgin queen, and thrust out of their cures, beggars on the world. If these recorded instances of sacerdotal malignancy are only a few out of hundreds that might be readily adduced, we shall not rest content to consign such acts to oblivion, or affect to ignore them with the trite and silly remark that such exceptional proceedings as these in no way invalidate the efficacy of the power conferred, more than the unworthiness of a minister hindereth the effect of the sacraments. These little theological stereotypes have nowadays lost their virtue. They are apt to remind us of a once juvenile belief in Jack and the Beanstalk, or in the engaging adventures of Robinson Crusoe. If these latter must be admitted as deceptions, would that the former were half as innocent! But, in as few words as possible, what is this apostolical succession, from which absolution emanates? Prom whom did it spring, and how is it perpetuated? This succession, then, supposes not only the existence of some supernatural page 85 power in the founder of Christianity, but that he also transmitted such power to certain of his followers, who in their turn should delegate it to others, to be by them in succession handed down to all future generations. This, as we take it, is a fair statement of the case. Moreover, beyond the merely being sent out by their master to make converts by river immersion, after his own example and that of the Ethiopian eunuch, so far from any extraordinary powers having been conferred on the more intimate disciples, the inference is strong the other way, both in the doubt expressed by some of these very disciples after the events of the crucifixion, and in the apostles having, after the reported ascension, evidently left the word of God and served tables—that is, they had for some time past been devoting their time—as we gather from the two first verses of Acts vi.—to much more sublunary matters. There is a promise of power, undoubtedly, but no direct appointment, no supernatural authority delegated, no personal trust implied. And as to the deus ex machina that comes out on the stage on the day of Pentecost, we have had too many instances in history of what religious enthusiasm can do when it would compass an object, especially when bolstered up by dreamy and ambiguous prophecy, to attach any credence to these spasmodic revivals, where, under the meretricious impulse of a moment, so many are often deluded enough to countenance what false shame afterwards prevents their impugning. Vespasian's courtiers appear to have faced some similar difficulty without blinking. For when the Emperor, at Alexandria, was urgently solicited by some poor wretches that he would spit and tread on them, to cure one of blindness and another of his crippled condition, he ridiculed the very idea, till he was sagely told by his courtiers "patrati remedii gloriam penes Cæsarem, irriti ludibrium penes miseros fore." Now this was taking a sensible view of the matter; not leaving the question like the service for "Curing the King's Evil" to be not long since surreptitiously withdrawn from the book of Common Prayer that weak minds might stand no chance of being scandalised by the possible inefficiency of the ordeal. Circumstances like these preclude a ready assent to ungrounded pretension. If a Comforter is promised the disciples in lieu of that national re-establishment, they were ever, as we well know, yearning after, it seems strange that nearly five-and-twenty years after some of them should not so much as have heard whether there be any Holy Ghost. Such unlooked for contrarieties tend to invest the question of apostolical authority with grave uncertainty. And if the so-called primary source be open to cavil, then the warranty for its after transmission must be equally so. Why no directly effective prerogatives should have been given to his more immediate followers by their lord and master, may be attributed to his fear of their possibly perpetrating some blunder, as in the case of the unhealed and spirit- page 86 possessed lunatic, whom they were unable to cure because of their imputed unbelief.

Lingering no longer on evidence which each one may easily sift for himself, and without entering on that barren field of controversy, whose very aspect is enough to parch the soul, and to deaden every motive of wholesome curiosity, we would carry the chain one link further and say—if there really exists ground for grave suspicion about the quality of the original grant, and the no less mistiness about its transmission, on what basis can this dogma of a pure and unadulterated descent be established, so as to come down to our clays under the character of an incontrovertible fact? Whether bishop or presbyter ordain, where can they show us any credentials beyond what custom has sanctioned in past ages, possessing, for that very reason in the minds of the orderly, some adventitious claim on respect, in the absence of anything more authentic. But much that may be allowed, need not be believed. The possible claim there may be on our indifferent approval is not all one with self-evident fact. Admitting, however, for the sake of argument, that apostolical succession is true, what church possesses the veritable transmission? If Rome has the veritable deposit, where is that of her apostalised daughter? If the former has little, the latter must have less. Then look at the strange and startling vicissitudes this dogma must have undergone during the reigns of Henry, Edward, Mary and Elizabeth. Now Rome, now Reformed; now this, now that; such bobbing up and down seem absolutely to remind one of your drowsy man nodding in his arm-chair some hot summer's noon, now waking up with a sudden start, now dropping off again with fatigue. Where would Succession be all this time? Between Romanism and Protestantism it must have had some difficulty in holding its own—leave alone bloody Mary's weeding and Bishop Bonner's unchallenged denial of the Protestant Orders—and the hushed up consecration at the Nag's Head. If Gladstone made the matter one of figures, and sought once to prove how not inconsiderable were the probabilities of its being true, we do not find ourselves cordially subscribing to this novel mode of proof. Babbage's machine, if we rightly remember, numerated exactly to one hundred million and one, and then, from some unaccountable reason, went off to one hundred million ten thousand and two. Who shall say there was no flaw in the embryo Premier's mathematics, like that in the calculating machine? In fact the whole affair of Apostolical Succession is a complete muddle, and our only refuge is in the philosophy of the sage of Samosata, who observes—"As for present affairs, I hold them in small account, and as to after ones, they are exceedingly worrying. I mean the general conflagration and destruction of all things. I am sorry for this, but it cannot be helped, for somehow affairs seem to be all jumbled about like lots in a helmet. As for delight and page 87 sorrow, they are one and the same—learning is ignorance—great is small—what is now up, is now down—ever dancing about and shifting in the whirligig of life."

The foundation of any dogma being unsound, the superstructure cannot be of any stability. What a bishop does not himself possess, he cannot well impart either to deacon or to priest. If he inherit by his office no power of plenary absolution, he is unable to convey what he never had. And what is the power? Can he see, touch, taste, smell, or hear it? Does the power go forth from his body like shocks from an electric eel, or does he feel himself foam at the mouth like Virgil's sibyl at the Cumæan cave? By a bishop's being asked thrice, as he will have been at consecration, whether he is fully persuaded of the sufficiency of Holy Scripture, we may reasonably opine that his affirmation as deacon and priest went for nothing, and that there may be less doubt about his loyalty, in the omission of the oath of the Queen's supremacy, than about his orthodoxy. Yet in spite of all this suspicious supervision, a heterodox bishop will, as we have lately had experience, now and then jump the fold and scab the pure merino. To ask a person seriously if he feel himself inwardly moved by the Holy Ghost, seems no less absurd than is the "trusting" recipient's imparting it to a congregation. For a bishop to convey the Holy Ghost to a priest by the joint imposition of his own and presbyter's hands, and to tell him totidem verbis whose sins he forgives they are forgiven, and whose sins he retains they are retained, is only one more instance of what superstition can do, and how custom comes to sanction what is utterly ridiculous. To be sure people are now come to view these and such like proceedings rather as matters of form than cases of conscience. And even the very indifference is becoming irksome to many, from an implied reflection on their own common sense. Let some zealous cleric venture to obtrude his absolutory claims on the man of education in the more genial hours of life, and while he may meet with the respect thought due to his position in society, it will be that, and that only, that secures him from contempt. In what pulpit is Absolution discussed? It is true the subject is now and then glanced at, but very rarely brought openly before an audience. Such remarkable avoidance of this topic, such a gingerness in dealing with it, reminds us of swallows on a summer day skimming over the surface of the water, apparently all but dipping but never really moistening a wing. And so it is here. The bishop may have muttered his Cabala, but the neophyte has never yet found the key to it. If it could be, he thinks he would be even content to be less inspired on the condition of being better loved: not for ever moving about in a false position, scarcely secure from the half-disguised sneers of many who fail recognising any necessary excellency being attached to a black suit, or allowing any undue pretensions as current ground for respect.