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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 20

Churches as Organisations for the Spread of Religious Truth. A Sermon

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Churches as Organisations for the Spread of Religious Truth. A Sermon,

On Sunday (April 6), at St. George's Hall, Mr. Voysey took for his text, Dean Stanley's Essays on Church and State, Preface p., xix., "Let it be remembered that one condition necessary for the genuine growth of free and sound opinion in any Church is, that the minority shall have not only the power, but the courage and the will to persevere to the end in publicly denouncing as false what they have declared to be false—in publicly proclaiming as true what they know or believe to be true."

He said—In the course of our remarks on the idea of a Church, we come now to consider Churches and Sects as organizations for the spread of religious truth. All who are interested in religion at all will understand, without any elaborate explanation, the desirableness of some organization to propagate what is in any given age believed to be true. Everyone who holds to certain views or doctrines which, from his observation or experience, he has found to be beneficial to himself and fellow-men is naturally desirous of inducing others to accept his views, and to believe as he believes. So strong is this natural desire that men have given their whole lives to this work, and some have endured great hard ships, and made vast sacrifices to accomplish it. No one can understand this feeling better than we can, who have in some measure been moved by such zeal, and have paid our own little share of sacrifice to the holy cause.

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It seems clear then, that whenever two or three are banded together, either by what they believe to be a discovery of new truth, or the exposure of error, the first thing they will do is to organize some plan of gaining adherents, and of directing the attention of other? to their cherished ideas. From this point of view all Churches and Sects have their fullest justification. They began with one or two individuals, and grew and spread by the simple means of persuasion. The Church of Christ was thus founded by a carpenter and a handful of fishermen, who had a gospel to proclaim. They went from city to city, from country to country, and their words spread like fire among the dry and barren souls who heard their message. Whatever their message may seem to us now, it must have once been needed, or it would never have been embraced. Souls must have been sick and deceased, or they would have needed no physician. Souls must have been starving on husks, or they would not have accepted what was offered to them as the bread of life. But in that very infancy of the Church we see also the justification of sects and divisions. What was one man's meat was another man's poison. Souls not constituted alike, and differently nurtured, could not be all healed by the same drugs, or fed by the same food. Hence arose divisions in the camp, new leaders of new sects, schools of thought sharply distinguished from each other, separate foundations on which a wrangling posterity would rear rival Churches and Creeds. A whole world of thought divided James from Paul, and the so-called pillars of the Church were often compelled to stand apart and to support a different roof. Heretics there were from the very beginning, and were objects of the same odium theologicum, which we find in the 19th century. A perfect and undivided whole, Christendom has never been since that fabled day of Pentecost, when about 120 met with one accord in one place, and when the Church was simply a Communism.

In the region of religious truth, it is impossible that the state of things should be otherwise.

Even in science we find doctors differ, as opinions must ever differ where knowledge is defective. But the difference is clearly traceable to the deficiency of knowledge. Much more than is it to be expected that in religious matters, where our knowledge page 3 is necessarily defective, there will be multifold differences of opinion.

It is more than probable that some little fragment of truth lay at the root of every heresy and every schism. It was essential then that that fragment should be preserved, and should hold its own against the voice of majorities. So the heretic gathers to himself sympathisers, at first only a very few, afterwards more, till at last his fragment of truth becomes planted and safely rooted in the world. To the old Jewish Church in Jerusalem, Jesus Christ was just such a heretic, and his church was at first nothing more than a new Jewish Sect which was everywhere spoken against. Time rolls on, and a church with many divisions is formed; and out of the many divisions, one rises into political power, and imperiously dictates to the rest. This fortunate one calls itself "the Church," and its less fortunate rivals are contemptuously called sects and have to take the old place of inferiority occupied by Jesus and his apostles. In Christendom there were two such powerful divisions, represented by Rome and Constantinople, but not even then were the smaller sects entirely absorbed or silenced. Greatly over-shadowed, no doubt, by the vast branches above them, they still managed to live and to develope afterwards into modern Protestantism and Unitarianism, which together are numerically little behind, if at all behind, the older churches.

Now, I conceive that all these divisions and subdivisions of Christendom were not only inevitable, but eminently desirable, inasmuch as every one of them was due to a heroic struggle for liberty against a dominant tyranny.

Each Church or Sect in turn started with the aim of spreading some truth—something which, if not absolutely true, was at all events an improvement on what had gone before it, or on what was prevailing around it. That was its great justification. But as time goes on, flaws are detected in that truth or doctrine with which it started, and then instead of modifying its statements and amending its Creeds, the old Church or Sect holds on more firmly than ever to the ancient half-truth, and refuses to acknowledge it to be error. Consequently the few who have had their eyes open, are either driven out, or they banish themselves, from the old Communion, and start a new Sect with the express object of pro- page 4 testing against the detected flaw, and of proclaiming their own truer views,. In turn, after a lapse of ages, they, too, have to succumb to a new heresy; and if they are so blind and fond as to imitate the follies of the old Church from which they sprang, they must be at length devoured by their own children. This is how Churches are born and how they die; and it is a matter of great interest to ask, Is this process to go on for ever, or are we on the threshold of an entirely new epoch, in which Religious truth will no longer be broken up into fragments and entombed in Churches and Sects?

It is dangerous to prophesy with any tone of certainty, but the time seems to have arrived for a total change in this matter. People are beginning now to see the immense evils of Sectarianism, as well as the still greater evils of dogmatic Churchism. They are growing restless under the tyranny of imposed belief; but they are not willing to add another to the long list of schismatic corporations. Within and without the Churches is constantly heard the cry "Stay where you are. You cannot better yourself, or do any more good to others by secession. If you try to fight your battle for liberty outside instead of within, your foes will be stronger than ever; dogmatism will be more and more impregnable." Now, why is this feeling gaining ground, but because men are firmly convinced that the old state of things is passing away; that soon will come that happy change in which the dogmatism of all Churches and Sects will disappear and the dogmatic spirit be for ever banished. More and more patent every day is the cruelty and the absurdity of binding men to teach and to hold certain religious views; of making contracts with tender and earnest-hearted ministers to bind them never to change their opinions; never to see truth more clearly; never to discover any error in their own Creed. It will be seen how immoral it is to set a man up to teach all the highest truth about God that he can discover, and yet to tell him that he must only come to certain foregone conclusions and preach only within certain prescribed limits.

Churches as organizations for the spread of religious truth cease to be such the first moment that their dogmas interfere with the liberty of thought and speech. So long as they aim at encouraging page 5 their clergy in the search after truth, and in the fearless utterance of what they have found, so long only are they on the side of truth at all, or deserve the affection of mankind. Hitherto, we have had no such Church, except some portion of the Unitarian Church which is not bound by written creeds. Trust-deeds there are in some of their chapels almost fatal to freedom, and at all events so worded as to effectually exclude a minister who thinks as we do. But in the main the Unitarian Church is essentially undogmatic, and it had no charter or creed which justified its treatment of Theodore Parker. If any Unitarian ministers have verged on the confines of Orthodoxy, have idolized Jesus or the Bible, they were not bound to do so by any law or contract. They have been seduced by the wiles of popular superstition, or been unable to shake off the fascination of belonging to the Ancient Church of Christ; they certainly were under no obligation to place themselves or their flocks under any dogmatic fetters.

In principle and theory, if not in practice, the Unitarian Church is an exception to the general rule. All the other Churches and Sects have in them the sure elements of decay, because they are essentially dogmatic. The time, I hope, draws near when men will recognise the fact that religious truth cannot be final; that in its very nature the knowledge of God and of our relation to Him must be defective, and therefore capable of progress and development. And as soon as this is really perceived, it will become apparent that liberty is the first requisite for the progress of our knowledge; that without liberty men will put off as long as possible the dangerous task of thinking, and will never dare to say what they think. Now if you could get a Church organized on this principle of freedom from dogma, you would have a means of spreading religious truth indefinitely more effective than any which have gone before; and possibly such a Church might be imperishable. Wherever it stood among a people who really loved the truth, and were aware of their own ignorance, it would be Catholic and Universal. There would be no ground for dissent, no room for heresy, no attempt at schism. Everyone might think as he pleased, and speak as he pleased; there would be no restrictions whatever upon individual opinion. Such a church would of course require endowments to prevent the present abuses of voluntaryism, for it is just as page 6 necessary to secure the preacher from the tyranny of the pew, as from the tyranny of the dogmas and Creeds. "We have already amongst us the machinery for such an organization. Nothing but an Act of Parliament is wanted to render the present Church of England exactly such a Church as I describe. We have only to abolish the 39 Articles, and three Creeds, and Prayer Book, as legal formularies, and repeal the Act of Uniformity, and henceforth to let every man preach what he believes to be true without fear of any pains and penalties; and we shall then have a Church in which there could be no heresy, no schism, and which, instead of being broken up into Sects, would incorporate all the Sects now standing round her in hostile array. Disestablish the Dogmas and you give liberty; if you give liberty, you give life, and all that would make religious life dear.

This scheme may seem to many a pure chimœra. But whether it be worth anything or not, the fact remains that peoples' eyes are opening, not merely to the absurdity of this or that particular doctrine, but to the injuriousness of enforcing any doctrines at all on priests or people as dogmatic truths. It is becoming more and more manifest that religion itself is suffering from the incumbent mass of Creed under which it is being stifled; that in consequence of it, many have come to think there is but little alternative between a superstition that is offensive to the intellect, and a scepticism which is painful to the heart. Under existing circumstances, a man with the greatest genius for religious thought and religious expression, if fettered by dogmas, is no more than a child pinned to its mother's apron, and is only allowed the limited freedom of an imbecile.

I will, on another occasion, pursue this subject more into detail; at present I would urge upon you the immense importance of our devoting much thought to the whole question of Churches; what they were, what they are, and what they may become. Many persons have made up their minds on the political course which should be adopted in regard to the Church of England; and I fear many have done so without due regard to the different aspects of the case. It is very certain that things cannot and must not be allowed to remain as they are. It is patent to all, that the establishment of any particular set of dogmas not universally page 7 believed is a gigantic injustice, as well as a most formidable hindrance to the progress of truth. The internecine war between the leading parties in the Church, and the clamour from without raised by those who desire to reduce the social prestige of the Church to the level of the Sects, unmistakeably foretell the doom of the present system. Some change must be made. But on the other hand, the evils of rivalry among the sects are innumerable. Sects are only Churches on a smaller scale, with all their miserable fetters, and none of their comparative freedom. The voluntary system more and more tends to make the office of a religious teacher a mercenary one, and is quite as fatal to integrity as the fetters of creeds and articles. Between the alternatives of leaving things as they are and of reducing the Church of England to the level of the Sects, there is a third alternative by which dogmatic tyranny and sectarian strife may be slain in one blow. And it is to this scheme that I wish for a few Sundays to direct your attention. The Church of England is far too wide and powerful an organisation to be destroyed by disestablishment; it would only be made ten times more imperious and arrogant than she is to-day; you might cripple her purse and curtail her dignities, and close many of her Churches; but you would only find at last that you had thereby added to her priestly power, and put fresh weapons of spiritual oppression into her hands. At present, she is simply the creature of Parliament, and the House of Commons can control her behaviour, and dictate to her at their will. Bishops, priests, and deacons are all now under the thumb of the people, and nothing but this State-control prevents a perfect deluge of Ecclesiasticism. Make the Church independent of the State and you might as well surrender yourselves at once to the Pope of Rome; for the Church's dictates are regarded as above all law. Keep the Church bound by the national will and you may have a very good servant, but you cannot have a very bad master.

In the Church of England, we have at all events, a magnificent organization, compared with which her present defects are almost trifling. The organization is altogether independent of her doctrine. Her doctrine is accidental. It has been already changed from Romanism to Protestantism, and an act of Parliament could release her from both, She might still remain a Church and yet page 8 have no written creed; but then she would be the Church of the nation, and no longer a hatred and envied Sect. At all events, these are questions in which we have a vital interest, and it would be suicidal indeed to turn our backs upon them, and leave the enemies of truth and liberty to settle them as they please.

If, as we believe, our opinions are the truest yet known, and our principles the most sound, we may be sure that the nation at large will one clay embrace them. Let it be our care then that no fatal step be taken which would close the door to their progress for at least another century, and render tenfold more difficult the healing of strifes and divisions.

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