The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 8
The Church Catechism
The Church Catechism.
The expression "crammed with catechism" is enough to raise a prejudice against a process of instruction but little recommended by its general results; and it is not to be wondered at that the Church Catechism should be regarded with especial objection by many people to whom it stands, in their ignorance of it, as the typo of hard theological cramming. Even in the Church of England there must be thousands who bear prejudice against it as the plague of many a grievous hour of their childhood. Retaining the impressions of those days, they care no more to investigate the meaning of what was then most unmeaning than to peruse again the meagre sentences of their Latin Delectus. Yet let an impartial reader take up this brief compendium of Christian doctrine and duty, and he will acknowledge that after being vexed with the broils and litigations of the modern church, it is most refreshing to turn to this catholic page, in which there is not found one uncharitable word against other men's belief, nor a single expression that might make religion repulsive.page 113
For the information of those who have not "learned all that is here appointed for them to learn," it may be stated that the Church Catechism is divided into two sections, wholly different in character. The first section, the composition of which is attributed to Cranmer and Ridley, treats of the Covenant of Baptism, the Creed, the Ten Commandments, and the Lord's Prayer. The second section, prepared in the reign of James I. by Dr. Overall, Bishop of Norwich, explains the nature and efficacy of the Sacraments of Baptism and the Lord's Supper. The difference in the tone of the two portions is equivalent to the difference between the hearty plainness of the early Reformation and the word-mongering taste which the later Church acquired through the influence of Geneva.
Whatever objection may be taken to the catechetical method of instruction, it is certain that the few questions in the Church Catechism are delightfully spontaneous and real. One would think that the writer had improvised the little dialogue as an example of quiet, pious talk between a pastor and some godly youth. There is a kindly humour at the very opening where, in answer to the question, What is your name? the generic cognomen of the catechumen is feigned to be, not A or B, formal and prosaic, some typical Adam standing for all who come after, but N or M, warm from the very centre of the alphabet. In three modest questions, the pastor next draws from his young friend an account of his having been baptised, of the benefits he gained thereby, of the vows which his good sponsors then under-took for him, and of his manly desire to relieve them now of their responsibility. In these answers, which we need not quote, how unobtrusive is the scheme of a good life as here set forth by the patriarchs of the Reformation. There is an outer world, not described, but to be vaguely thought of as a grandeur-loving, bubble-seeking, frivolous and wicked world where into each of us is born. By the pious arms of loving friends, we, N or M, are carried to some sacred house, where the baptismal water sprinkled on us separates us by a mysterious efficacy from the fortunes of that outer world, and gives us part and lot in all the blessings granted by God to the fold of Christ. Our sponsors promise for us, and as we grow they teach us, to renounce the devil and his works, the pomps and vanities of the wicked world, and the sinful lusts of the flesh. When we come to years of discretion and power we take these vows upon ourselves, and in reply to the inquiry whether we do not feel bound to fulfil them, say "Yes verily, and by God's help so I will. And I heartily thank our heavenly Father, that he hath called me to this state of salvation, through Jesus Christ our Saviour. And I pray unto God to give me his grace that I may continue in the same unto my life's end." Do we ever hear young people speak in such fashion? No. Yet this is not a cant put into their mouths. It is what many of them feel at the generous season of their lives. page 114 It is the modest language of pious hope and high purpose, very different from the reply we should expect to hear from an evangelical young man of to-day.
Yet notwithstanding its superiority over modern theories of the religious life in its catholic reserve and sense of direct, personal obligation to God, there are two errors in the teaching of the Catechism which prevent us from accepting it as a doctrine for these days. The special virtue attributed to baptism is one error; the circumvallation of a Church within the world is another. Perhaps the idea that salvation by the Ark prefigured baptism suggested the connected idea of separation and snug safety within the boundaries of the Church, and such ideas would accord with the general desire for security engendered by the fear of man and the dread of nature in the old times of lawlessness and ignorance. But the progress of Society has altered our conceptions. We cannot now imagine a Church distinct from the world such as existed in apostolic days, and as the ecclesiastical mind of three centuries back believed, or tried to make believe, existed then. As a consequence, we cannot imagine how baptism can make or unmake. We see around us daily some who were baptised, and others unbaptised, between whom certainly there is no corresponding difference of spiritual attainment and habit such as ought to be noticeable, in a sufficiently wide area of observation, if any efficacy attended the ceremony. As an impressive inaugural rite in the case of adults, or as a solemn influence on the hearts of parents in the case of infants, there is a value in baptism, but not an effect of the kind assumed in the Catechism, where it is said to make us members of Christ, children of God, and inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven. Such as baptism is said to make us, we assuredly are, or may become, without it. Otherwise (and this is an appeal to those whom such references affect) we should not expect to read that "Jesus himself baptised not, but his disciples," and that Paul was glad for certain reasons he had baptised so few converts at Corinth.
If there be no longer a key to the Church, but any can enter or depart at will, it is obvious that subsequent ceremonies can have in themselves little virtue. When the very act that makes a potential Christian can be dispensed with (if the act of baptism may be inoffensively spoken of thus), surely all other institutions may be dispensed with or varied as may best assist the spiritual life. The theory of baptism as an essential means, and of the Select Church as the special repository, of grace was fittingly held, and without reservation, by the men of Cranmer's day, and was therefore appropriately introduced into the Catechism. But it is contrary to the growing faith of the present era in the direct communication of the Divine Spirit with the human soul to suppose that such a theory can long continue to be held, or taught when not held. The sudden page 115 success of ritualism may induce some of us to think that a belief in the spiritual privileges of a visible church is reviving; but those take a limited view who compare party with party in the ecclesiastical world, losing sight of the scattered myriads of religious men outside that world, daily increasing in numbers, who do not believe in leading an exclusive life to gain an exclusive heaven.
Looking then generously at the position of N or M, let him give heed to the questioning of his venerable friend. He is asked to rehearse the articles of his belief, and in reply repeats the Apostle's Creed, deducing from it as its chief lesson the doctrine of the Trinity, and the respective offices of the persons of the Trinity as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. To doubt the tenets of this creed is to doubt the universal faith of orthodox Christendom; notwithstanding which, it may be allowable to doubt whether the meaning of each item is distinctly appreciated by the millions who repeat it every Sunday. In any case it is a better, as being a briefer, statement than its amplifications in the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds; but the very existence of these latter testifies to the difficulty felt by clever men in ancient times in coming to a plain understanding of so simple a creed as the original one. Can there be less difficulty in modern times for ordinary men whose embarrassed intellects find no assistance either in science or in the new freedom of interpretation? possibly the reverse. The modern may explain his own belief as best he can, and vindicate the general utility of creeds in embalming truths that have lost their life. We will not challenge N or M for rehearsing a creed which, in his own way, he no doubt believed. Let him go on.
His godfathers and godmothers had promised for him that he should keep God's Commandments; he is asked how many there be. He answers, Ten, and repeats the Ten Commandments from 20th chapter of Exodus. Though a religious sceptic may think that where reasons and motives are assigned in this catalogue they are not the highest which might be given, yet, sceptical to whatever extent he may be, he cannot deny the greatest value in these commandments historically to the world or presently to the individual. It has been objected that they are negative, and enjoin duty by an inference; but the inference is so obvious that one need not cavil at their form, the more especially if we consider, what is often overlooked, that it would not be possible to express moral laws of so large a scope in a positive form. The negative, Thou shalt not steal, is a more distinct command than its positive, Thou shalt be honest. Brevity, which is essential to good law, is to be obtained by a sweeping prohibition, which overrides a thousand affirmations. A pencil stroke, small as may be, upon a broad white sheet, makes more conspicuous by its negation the whole surface which it contradicts. There may be offences which the Ten Commandments only indirectly touch. There page 116 may be a higher service of love, which asks what is enjoined by the spirit, not what is forbidden by the letter; yet the greater must include the less, and so far as its laws are based on the absolute right, to that extent must the Decalogue be included in every higher rule of duty. Let us rejoice that N or M has learned it by rote, if not by heart, for he may in after years become evangelical or ritualistic, and it may do him good, in the days when his piety shall be only sentimental or picturesque, to have the voice of Sinai in his ears in his daily business and his social walk.
When the stigma of "mere morality" is cast upon Christians who are not orthodox—an equivalent merely for Christians who are in the minority—we do not know where better they could lay hands upon a defence than in the exposition next given by N or M of the duty to one's neighbour, a corollary from what is known as the second table of the Law. There are many to whom this exposition is "familiar as a household word;" probably it is as much regarded. There are many who have never heard it, who should borrow a Book of Common Prayer and read it. It is unmistakeable piety, goodness, and good sense. There may be a difficulty now-a-days as to the canon of passive obedience, but this can be glided over, and the injunction to "order myself lowly and reverently to all my betters" may cause a smile. Though truly "my betters" may have a grander significance than the writer meant, in which newer sense a seasonable humility might often be a grace in most of us. The repetition of the Lord's Prayer, and a short running explanation of it closes the Shorter Catechism, and here our notice comes to an end too.
In speaking favorably as we have done of a production of the sixteenth century, we have not forgotten that the kindly-tempered author must have had a belief in many things, some of them probably harsh enough, which his judgment or his heart would not compel upon the tender mind. Happy were it for the childhood of church-going Christendom now if it were vexed with no more irrational teaching than this unpretentious text book sets forth. Far removed as its conception of Christianity may be from the catholic views of the liberal churches of the present day, it is equally far removed from the poor literalism and ungenial temper of prevailing orthodoxy. The ideal Church as pictured in the Catechism, arises before the eye of our imagination, limited in knowledge, shut up within itself, yet trusting in God and doing its duty as it knew how; while the actual modern Church, with revelations of Science streaming upon it continually, and every evidence guiding to a simpler faith, a deeper trust, an enlarged work, is making its creeds more fantastic, its ceremonies more artificial, and is multiplying, in things of the sense and in things of the spirit, the obstacles to the coming of the one great Kingdom.