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Matthew xxiii. 8—10. Be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, who is in heaven. Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ.This record in stone will answer definitively whether pagan Rome paganized Jesus.
[Page 3] Such is Christ’s charter of his Church’s liberties. Such is Christ’s constitution for his kingdom of heaven upon earth:—Freedom, Equality, Brotherhood: the equal brotherhood of a common spiritual nature, common rights, common duties, common hopes, common relations to one Father, even God, and one Master, even Christ; a brotherhood that admits, indeed, of distinctions—distinctions of elder and younger, teacher and taught, giver and receiver—but not of any such distinction as imports command on the one side and obedience on the other. In Christ’s kingdom, all are brethren; fellow-heirs and fellow-servants: and no man can judge his fellow-servant—he may help him, advise him, teach him, but not command, not judge him—for the very reason that he is a fellow-servant, and has his own master to whom he standeth or falleth.
[Page 4] None may claim lordship over a brother’s faith and conscience, none may submit to such lordship, if claimed. The spiritual arrogance of the few, and the spiritual abjectness of the many—each is a violation of Christ’s law of liberty, and each has its own separate and solemn rebuke, in this, the last sermon of the Christian’s Lord.
“Be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren: and call no man your father upon the earth; for one is your Father, who is in heaven: neither be ye called masters; for one is your Master, even Christ.” [Matt 22:8-10.]
One is almost tempted to exclaim—as did a good man of former times, on reading those commandments with promise which so beautifully introduce the Sermon on the Mount— “Blessed Jesus! either these are not thy words, or we are not Christians.”—Where is this Gospel preached? or, if preached, where is it understood and practised?
Where shall we find this liberty? this abstinence from assumption and encroachment? What Christian church practically grants it, even to its own members? even to its own ministers? to say nothing of the yet harder and rarer virtue of granting it to other churches.
Where and when have the teachers of Christianity rebuked the superstitious folly that would bow down and worship them, and taken pains to [page 5] enlighten the ignorance that caused the folly, and declined the perilous investiture with immunities, titles and prerogatives that make distinctions where Christ made none, and repelled the ascription of an ex-officio sanctity, and lived with the taught as brothers with brothers? And where and when have the taught looked upon their teachers, simply as brethren?—better skilled, perhaps, than themselves, by education and study, in the learning illustrative of the records of the faith common to all, (or of course they would not be fit to teach,)—better qualified to set forth that faith in an attractive and convincing form,—elder brethren, perhaps,—but still brethren, men of like parts and passions with themselves, men who have no royal or priestly road to truth, men who have nothing to give their hearers but instruction and moral impulse, who can remit no sins, impart no holy ghost, administer no sacraments which any other Christian might not administer as well, whose instructions have no authority or value apart from their reasonableness, and no likelihood of being reasonable, except according to the care and diligence expended upon them.
Where and when have Christian teachers been contented to be simply teachers, freely speaking what they have freely thought,—and hearers to be simply hearers, neither receiving blindly what is old, [page 6] nor rejecting blindly what is new, but proving all things that they may hold fast that which is good?
The answer to these questions is, unhappily, near at hand, and such as ought to grieve and humble every disciple of Jesus, who loves and honours the Gospel as the charter of the world’s liberties. Christianity is not so understood; is not so practised; is not so preached:—not, with scarcely an exception, by any sect or church of Christians; that is, not consistently, not thoroughly, not by the ruling majority of any sect or church; only partially, occasionally, and by individuals. Christianity has done great things for the world, it has put down many crying evils and mitigated many more, it has produced a noble army of martyrs for truth and righteousness, it has wrought mightily in many a holy life and many a peaceful death,—but it has not answered Christ’s design; to a great extent, and in some most important respects, it has hitherto proved a failure; its grand triumphs are yet to come; it has not purged out that leaven of the Pharisees which is hypocrisy and spiritual assumption, it has not made men brethren, it has not set the world free.
There is as much tyranny over thought and the utterance of thought,—there is as much coarseness and worldliness in the agencies by which a dominant [page 7] sect seeks to perpetuate and fasten its ascendancy,—there is as much confounding of the merest trivialities of opinion and ceremony, the very anise and cummin of theology, with the weightiest matters of the law,—there is as much of the spirit that loves to be called Rabbi, and Master, and Father, in this nineteenth century of Christianity and this land of Protestant Orthodoxy, as there was in the first century, in the mother-country of Pharisees and Pharisaism.
Our teachers of religion still call themselves priests, and claim a priestly lordship over faith and conscience,—and our people accord the claim in the gross, with here and there a rebellious protest, in the detail, against some of its more odious manifestations,—and our government enforces it by the terrors of law,—and ourselves enforce it by the alternate terrors and blandishments of opinion. In this Protestant and Christian land, this land blessed with a law of which Christianity is part and parcel,—in this age of tolerance and enlightenment, of repeal of penal statutes and desuetude of blasphemy prosecutions,—Christians are not free, Christianity is not a religion of free and equal brotherhood.
What have we lately seen?—A widow's house devoured for the conservation of the protestant faith; the sleeping terrors of popish laws resuscitated, to avenge and repress a fancied [page 8] insult upon our jealous protestantism, We Have Seen A Protestant Inquisition. We have seen a widow torn from her home, to be judicially interrogated “touching her soul’s health.”
Happily, the attempt has failed: it turns out that our protestant faith is not so protestant as we imagined. Prayers for the dead, the unscripturality of which has long been a stock argument against the ancient church from which we have revolted, are now declared, by the highest authority, to be uncondemned by the canons and articles of the Protestant Church of England.
The discovery is singular and interesting; though of small importance compared with other considerations connected with this transaction. For after all it matters little, whether the established church sanction praying for the dead, or not. The opinion on which the practice rests may be erroneous,—though it were well if all religious errors were as little noxious to morality and social peace. But it matters much, that conscience should be free; that they who hold the opinion should be protected in the practice: and it matters more, that this freedom should be based on its true and intelligible grounds, and the principle on which it rests be recognised as a principle, good and valid for all religions and all religionists.
And in this view, while we cannot but rejoice in the deliverance of a poor widow from [page 9] a most cruel and unrighteous persecution, we must not let our satisfaction with the immediate result to the individual, blind us to the enormity of the principles which the whole business involves.
It may be, that affection, now and in all future time, will be indulged with the humble gratification of committing the bliss of its departed loved ones to His care to whom all live. So far it is well. If affection ask the indulgence, it ought to have it; or rather, if affection claim the right, it ought to have it: but it is not well that this right should turn upon a dubious legal argument, and need the guarantee of an ecclesiastical adjudication. It is matter, as between man and man, of moral right, not of church-law, of right, not of favour.
But look at the principles of this procedure, principles which really are part and parcel of the law of the land, and you will see small cause for rejoicing. Think of a body of lawyers—a tribunal only one degree less unfit for the work than a body of ecclesiastics—summoning a fellow-creature before them—a woman—a widow—one of that class of human beings whom Christ always treated with so tender a respect,—to examine her touching her soul's health.
What could they know touching her soul's health? What had they to do with her soul's health?
Suppose her soul were out of health—could they cure it? [page 10] Was that the way to cure it? Is a church-lawsuit medicine to minister to a mind diseased?
Will that cool the fever of passion, or stay the atrophy of dejection, or clear the beclouded vision, or brace the palsied will? Perhaps her soul was diseased; ill at ease; faint and drooping under the anguish of recent bereavement: but was that binding up the broken heart, and giving the oil of joy for mourning?—The health of her soul!
Never yet was a human creature hunted down and worried by ecclesiastics, but the soul's health was the pretext.
Right of Church To Rule Just Assumed
Look at the constitution and rules of this tribunal. Sectarian and exclusive throughout; constituted exclusively of one sect of religionists; ruled exclusively by the laws of that one sect; deciding, by those laws, on matters touching not only the soul's health of an individual, but the political and moral health of a people. There was no question raised, whether the canons of the one dominant sect Ought or ought not to rule the case—the only point was, how did those canons apply.
The appeal was not to Christ and his Apostles, not to justice and common sense—but to fathers of the English Church, bishops and doctors of the century but one before last, Rabbis of the Israel by law established.
Look at the principles allowed and authenticated by the court, [page 11] as to the public cemeteries of this country, and the right of bereaved affection to rear in them memorials to its dead. Those cemeteries are the property of the clergyman of the parish: they belong not to the people of the country, but to a sect; not to the people of the sect even, but to the individual priest. He must say how affection shall, and how it shall not, testify its sorrowing regards. He must intrude himself within that sanctuary of the heart's bitterness which the heart only knoweth, and which a stranger cannot enter without profanation, and say— this may be said or sung at the shrine of its weeping charities, and that may not.—How insulting! how narrow! how unchristian!
Who made that the privilege of a sect and a sect's priests, which should be the common-law right of all? Who made priests and bishops rulers and dividers over us?
Nor is this the only instance of late, in which the dormant powers of the ecclesiastical courts have been awakened, to do the work of a legalized sectarianism.
We have actually seen men sent to gaol for not going to church; for not going to the church in which this very New Testament, whence I have taken the glorious lesson of my text and whence numberless like texts might betaken, is publicly read, week by week;—in one case, for the added [page 12] offence, of omitting to provide wine for the Lord's Supper.
I take no notice, either of the palliative circumstance pleaded on the one hand, that the aggrieved individuals are churchwardens, and, as such, required to give attendance at church by their official duties,— or of the aggravation alleged on the other, that they are dissenters, to whom the worship of the church is objectionable on grounds of conscience. As regards the latter, the case needs no aggravation, and it ought not to be made a dissenting, but a national grievance: as regards the former, if it really be that attendance upon church is legally exigible of any public functionary,—that is the breach of religious liberty. It makes no difference in principle, whether such attendance be exacted of an individual or of a whole parish.
What right have men to require a brother-man to worship God in one way or place rather than in another? or to worship in any way, or any place? How can this be done without making hypocrites of such as are not willing to be martyrs? How must compulsion of this sort vitiate the whole structure of a man's religious character! How hard for him, who worships one week by Act of Parliament, with the fear of ecclesiastical laws and lawyers before his eyes, to worship the next week in spirit and in truth!
What can be the effect of such legislation, [page 13] but to make religion itself hateful? With what feelings, for instance, must that individual regard the Lord's Supper service of the established church, who is now pining in a prison for omitting to furnish the Lord's Table with the materials of sacramental commemoration? Will it ever again be to him a memorial of Christ and Christ's love? a memorial of any thing but insult and wrong? And what is it a memorial of to those, who, while they can resent the loss of it thus cruelly, are so little in earnest about supplying the loss, that they can think of no better means than fining and imprisoning their fellow-citizens.
Other Signs of the Times
There are other signs of the times. We have seen, not long since, a revival, on the part of the Oxford Clergy, with every prospect of extensive support from their brethren throughout the country, of all the obsolete extravagances of the dark ages relative to church authority: which church authority invariably means clerical authority; usually episcopal authority; the authority—not of the whole church, clergy and laity, but—of the clergy over the laity, and of the bishops over the inferior clergy. It is gravely asserted that the present bishops of the present Church of England are the successors of the twelve Apostles of Christ; entitled to all the deference and [page 14] obedience in spiritual things which it is imagined that those apostles exacted, and to a temporal dignity and power likewise, of which it is not imagined that any one of them ever enjoyed or desired a particle.
Such claims never could be urged, with a shadow of success, in face of a people acquainted with the first elements of their Christian rights. This acquaintance, it is much to be regretted, is extremely partial: but still I have little apprehension that this High-Church theology will find extensive or lasting acceptance with a people, who, however defectively informed of some of the simplest truths of Christianity, are too much in love with their natural spiritual liberties, and have too little taste for the abstractions of this sort of disquisition, to make a tame surrender of their common human rights to any theologians in Christendom. There is no way of permanently swaying the mass of our people, but through their common sense and common feelings; and that is quite out of the province of these theological antiquarians.
Any Apostles After the Twelve Who Witnessed Jesus’ Preaching and Resurrection?
But this particular notion of Apostolical Succession—was ever any thing more preposterous? The apostolic office, from its very nature—so far, that is, as there was any thing peculiar in it, any thing that distinguished the Apostles from their fellow Christians—did not admit of succession or successors.
That office was, specifically and essentially, the bearing witness to a fact; to the fact of Christ's resurrection. You will see this very instructively illustrated in the account given in the first chapter of the book of Acts, of the election of a new apostle in the room of Judas. We read in the twenty-first and twenty-second verses of that chapter, the following remarkable words. “Wherefore”—it is Peter who speaks— “of these men who have companied with us all the time that the Lord Jesus went in and out among us, beginning from the baptism of John, unto that same day that he was taken up from us, must one be ordained”—or appointed— “TO BE A WITNESS WITH US OF HIS RESURRECTION.”
You see from this, that the apostles' idea of their own office was extremely simple: that office was, to bear witness to Christ's resurrection. And their conception of the qualification for it corresponded with this idea of its nature: that qualification was, such a personal and familiar companionship with their Master, throughout his ministry, as would authenticate and justify a testimony to his resurrection:— so that, from the very nature of the office, it admitted of no succession; it was essentially incommunicable, beyond the then generation of living witnesses.
The special and distinctive work of an apostle was, to be a [page 16] witness of the resurrection of Jesus [authenticated upon their witness to Jesus’ teachings in the flesh]: and consequently, there have been no apostles—no successors to the apostles—since the death of the last surviving disciple, who had seen his risen Lord, face to face [and who heard Jesus’ teachings while Jesus was in the flesh].
After this, it is scarcely worth while asking how this supposed succession is deduced, through what channels the spiritual pedigree is traceable, and where are the signs of this modern apostleship; inquiries, every one of which must be satisfactorily answered before the claims of our hierarchy can be admitted,— every one of which, however, so far as we are concerned, is superseded by the very simple consideration just suggested.
I say the less upon this subject, because I am quite unable to view it with the anxiety felt by many wise and good men. The pretensions of the new apostles may impose upon some few of the merely learned, who venerate church-antiquity more than reason and Scripture,—but they can take no effective hold of the public mind in the present day. We shall meet them, not with folios of theological disquisition, but with the simple utterance of our incredulous amazement: Jesus We Know, And Paul We Know; But Who Are Ye?
Would, my brethren, that there were among us more successors of the apostles! Would that we were all successors of those great and good men; their successors, [page 17] in that best and noblest sense of the term, in which alone succession can be predicable of the apostleship; successors to their spirit, their love to God and Christ and man, their zeal for truth, their faith in truth, their martyr-heroism in duty; sharers with them in the true Holy Spirit, the spirit of holiness, the spirit of truth that leadeth into truth.
The poorest of the poor that hear me may be as true and good successors to the fishermen of Galilee, as the wisest and best of England’s mitred hierarchs.
The Established Church does not give freedom to her own clergy. A domineering, dictatorial spirit seems the master-spring of the whole machinery. Every movement of individuality, in the direction of theology, whether aimed at the reform of opinion or the reform of worship, is promptly repressed by the crushing weight of authority; authority professedly based on the dream of the apostolical succession, but enforced by that which the humbler clergy know too well is not a dream—the harsh realities of ecclesiastical law, with deprivation and penury in the background. A recent instance of this, in our own neighborhood, is still fresh in the public memory, and has not yet spent its force upon public opinion. The lesson has gone forth to the world, in a particularly impressive and [page 18] intelligible form, that the parochial clergy of the established church are not the brethren of their episcopal superiors, but their servants; and that comfort and reputation in their office—to say nothing of the chances of promotion—are to be measured henceforth by their subserviency to their bishops.
Nor is this all. If the inferior clergy, individually, are ruled by the bishops,—collectively, they rule the bishops.
We shall not soon forget the very instructive spectacle, of two of the most eminent and respected prelates of the establishment being publicly castigated by the censorious criticism of their own clergy, for an act which I would say does them honour, only that it was so extremely simple and natural that the mildest language of laudation must appear exaggerated,—called upon for a formal explanation by the offended and alarmed conservators of episcopal orthodoxy,—and giving that explanation, with a deference, a courtesy, and an anxious conciliation of prejudices they must have scorned, which, to a dissenter at least, appear remarkably out of place.
[Page 19] I make no apology, my hearers, for having taken up your time with this subject, though I confess it is by no means an agreeable one. It is not often that I think it necessary to ask your attention to the passing topics of the day, but these are matters which must interest all whom Christianity itself interests. The evils on which I have taken occasion to comment, as they have their root and origin in certain gross misconceptions of Christianity, are curable only by the exhibition of Christianity as it truly is; and it is every Christian's duty to make such a stand as his position and opportunities enable him, for that Spiritual Equality which is our religion's crowning glory.
I would that we should all learn to look at these things, and at others of a like nature which may follow in their train, not with the listless unconcern of mere spectators—if we understand and feel our religion, we cannot be mere spectators—nor again, with the eager, worldly interest of mere politicians or mere dissenters,—but as Christians; with a Christian concern for the equal spiritual rights of every human being, and a Christian zeal for the assertion and protection of those rights by every means, legal and moral, that Providence has entrusted to our stewardship.
The contest now going forward in the religious world is not a mere contest of party with party, [page 20] or sect with sect, or creed with creed,—though we are all too apt to make it such; it is a contest of the simplest practical principles of our common Christianity, with some enormous practical perversions of them,—a contest of the noblest rights of man with his worst wrongs,— a contest of the principle that gave us our Protestantism, with the principle that built the Inquisition: the question is, whether the human mind shall go on, or stand still; whether Religion shall be the common right of all, or the monopoly of a few, the peculium of priests, or the inheritance of a people; whether we are to be all equal in brotherhood, as Christ left us, or whether Scribes and Pharisees who tell us that they sit in Moses’ seat, shall bind on us what burdens they will.
On such a contest no good man can look with indifference; no Christian church can look on it with indifference, for it goes to the very root of the principles on which all church-union rests.
It is our privilege, my brethren, to be united together upon principles which, whatever our practical forgetfulness of them, involve not one single breach of the spiritual rights of man. We call no man Rabbi. We give no man the lordship over our faith. We are equal among ourselves, we are equal as regards other churches and other sects. We do not borrow our opinions, we do not borrow [page 21] our modes of worship, from our fellow-creatures,—though it is matter of rejoicing with us that the opinions we deem to be rational, and the worship we feel to be spiritual, are participated in by many Christians and Christian churches, with whom we count it a happiness to be associated in the fellowship of a common faith.
But we recognize no right in a sect, or in the leaders of a sect, to think for us; we arrogate no right to think for others.
We are free and equal among ourselves. You ascribe not to your ministers any official, artificial sanctity—you give them not one iota of authority, temporal or spiritual. I trust you never will. But you give us more. You give us freedom. You give us the free use of our own minds, and free access to your minds. And we give you in return—what no other price could purchase of us—our real, honest thoughts on all matters within the range of the office you invest us with, leaving it to you to judge whether those thoughts be right or wrong,—assured that, whether or not you think with us, we have, and ever shall have, your kind and candid appreciation of every effort to disseminate truth and righteousness.
Is this an inefficient spiritual agency? Will such a mode of administering the gospel not evangelize the world? Will not the voluntary efforts of voluntary unions of Christian [page 22] men, to provide instruction and moral impulse, not for themselves and their families only, but for those who need them more and feel the need less,—will not these carry forward Christian truth and virtue? Do we want establishments, and hierarchies, and tithes, and ecclesiastical courts?
To say that we do, is to say that we want a new Christianity; that the old is old, and worn out; that Christ did not make provision for the wants of our day; that there is not that, in his simple teachings and beautiful life, which, of itself, will so work on and in the Heart of the World, as that the world through him may be saved.
No, men and brethren, Christianity is not worn out; will not wear out. We do not want a new gospel. We want the old gospel to be preached and practised with a new energy and earnestness. We want a new perception and setting forth of its everlasting truths, a new out-pouring upon us all of its spirit of liberty and love, We want not to have Rabbis, and masters, and fathers upon earth—we want a true, living devotedness to our Master and our Father in heaven. We want not more sacraments, more priests, more bishops, more cathedral churches—we want more faith, more hope, more love. We want not government patronage, but popular intelligence and virtue. We want not the dominance of a sect, though it were our own— [page 23] but the sway of the Christianity common, more or less, to all sects, the Christianity that is known by its fruits.
We would not fasten the creed of this generation, though it were the creed of Apostles, on the blind belief of the next—we would leave to the Reason of the next, the legacy of our own free thoughts and free institutions.
PRINCE, PRINTER, BRIDPORT.