The Public Church

Many of the things people say in front of people, though said in public view, are not public discourse but an indecent airing of private acts. It’s like gossipping about people in their presence. Instead of public speech and the virtue of rhetoric, we have self-validating narratives that admit no critique, when interest has shifted from truth to belonging predicated on exclusion of outsiders, from humanity to scapegoating. One might think this would build strong community, but I don’t think this is the same as a real cohesive commonwealth. The twofold name of this behaviour is resentment and tribalism. As Lin Yutang wrote in the 1930s (qtd. by Andrew James Nathan, Chinese Democracy (Berkeley: Univ. of California Press, 1986), 148),

The individual is no longer an individual but an ardent servant of party and clique propaganda who takes orders telling him what to think and what to say. A shortness of temper – a bitterness of opinion – a lack of toleration and incapacity for taking the round view – cheap and self-deceiving patriotism – impatience to save the country with the desire to prevent everyone except oneself and one’s own party from saving China. Writers today are more interested in bombastic nonsense than in self-knowledge, gentle understanding and sweetness and light.

Seeing this disgusting behaviour, people blame rhetoric and withdraw. The problem is, they withdraw deeper into themselves, with no external standards. Lacking external standards, they speak ever more bitterly and ever less clearly in thought. Bitter and confused, they cast even greater blame abroad, as if their salvation lies in the destruction of others. All is a zero-sum game, and they occupy themselves, and the spaces of others, with idle envy, failing to devastate the fortresses they would take down, because they have strength only to destroy themselves.

Have we no common humanity, that we must make others – and ourselves – into demons? no charity, that we must poison one another with wickedness? Can we not rather be moved by human feeling to reason together without casting evil spells? If not, death will open her loins to death, insatiably hungry for nothing, and we shall drown in fire.

And in the Church we think nothing of our thousand schisms. Each wound cut into the Body of Christ, though known by the Head, is blithely ignored by us. My own pain, one thinks, must be greater than that of God’s Son; the sorrows of a man must exceed those of the Son of Man. Shall the tongues of our hearts belie us further? You desire a Divine Service driven by God and not the inventions of man; so do I. You seek to gather the counsel of many; so do I. You dread to make tyrannical prelates; so do I. Shall we then, to address our common concerns, exclude one another’s insights? There’s nothing so foolish as to split and remain apart as we now are for the sake of nothing but a faggot of feuds, be they decades long or centuries long.

That the Church be reunited

I wish at least the Episcopalians and Presbyterians who made no absolute claims of divine right for their own polities[1] could settle on the primitive Ignatian form of episcopacy, allowing for concessions on what wasn’t a simple matter of catholic obedience to the commands of holy Scripture. Even the Independents, unruly as they are, could attend synods as ‘foreign’ delegates and ratify canons in their own congregations (though Acts 16.4 shows that the early church saw no such need). People, we can do this. This can work.

Common confession

Since the Thirty-Nine Articles were the original Reformed confession used in Britain outside of Scotland, the Church in England, Wales and Ireland can start with all who can accept these articles as a valid set of doctrinal parameters. While some at various times have adopted the Irish Articles or the Westminster Confession on top of the Thirty-Nine, the comprehension of the Thirty-Nine holds the greatest promise for reunion.[2] And if any desire, against modern Arminianism, to adopt the Lambeth Articles as part of the terms of ordination, it were well to take only Hooker’s irenic modification:

1. That God hath predestinated certain men, not all men.
2. That the cause moving him hereunto was not the foresight of any virtue in us at all.
3. That to him the number of his elect is definitely known.
4. That it can not be but their sins must condemn them to whom the purpose of his saving mercy doth not extend.
5. That to God’s foreknown elect final continuance of grace is given.
[Art. 6 of the Lambeth series is omitted by Hooker.]
6. [7.] That inward grace whereby to be saved is deservedly not given unto all men.
7. [8.] That no man cometh unto Christ whom God by the inward grace of his Spirit draweth not.
8. [9.] And that it is not in every, no, not in any man’s own mere ability, freedom, and power, to be saved, no man’s salvation being possible without grace. Howbeit, God is no favourer of sloth; and therefore there can be no such absolute decree touching man’s salvation as on our part includeth no necessity of care and travail, but shall certainly take effect, whether we ourselves do wake or sleep.

The omitted article says that a true believer, or one furnished with justifying faith, has a full assurance in this life of his own election, a position with which many are, very reasonably, uncomfortable. Besides being less contentious than the original Lambeth Articles, Hooker’s version also makes careful distinctions, such as the one between outward and inward grace, which are helpful to the Protestant church’s maintenance of seemingly conflicting truths that are held in the catholic faith.

Common labour

Having a common confession of faith as a foundation, while perhaps keeping other documents on top of this foundation to clarify and expand it as needed, the various congregations so united would be freer to pursue closer communion and coöperate more in their ministries.

The first order of unity is that the churches should join in common prayer. For many years now the basis of unity in prayer has been ‘free prayer’ – that is, extempore prayer – which undoubtedly favours the Independent manner as the norm. To many Episcopalians, though extempore prayer be an important part of life, it’s an unacceptable conclusion that the churches should be wanting in a common rule of prayer. Few now, I think, would feel such an antipathy to the Book of Common Prayer as to call it ‘an unperfect book, culled and picked out of that Popish dunghill, the Portuise and Mass-book, full of all abominations’. Its doctrine is sound, its piety clear: few could call its use displeasing to God. As a standard and an exemplary text even to Independents, therefore, whether followed exactly or allowing substitutions, its use builds up the Church, and around it can grow a great custom of heartfelt prayer that leads to holy action.

The important isn’t that the prayer book be scrupulously followed to the letter but that it embody in print, for edifying discipline, the living common prayer of the Church, which follows the basic order and content of the undivided Church’s public worship. The prayer book as a formulary admits of regional and local expressions of common prayer that are faithful to the thought and the spirit of what the selfsame prayer book gives. If all the clergy of the united churches are trained to understand the logic and the spirit of how the prayer book arranges common prayer, the firm but gentle counsel of wise bishops, protecting the Church, will prove a help and not a hindrance to the gospel. In this way, loving concord and abhorring heresy and schism, the churches can put the prayer book to its fullest use.

When the churches are growing together in common prayer, their convergence one to another in Christ will resemble that of loving brethren, or a husband and a wife, who retain their individual identities but also learn to discuss opposing opinions peacefully in order to remain one in spirit and purpose (同心同意). This can only enhance the Church’s witness among the pagans.

United in common prayer, the erstwhile Episcopalians and Presbyterians could also be one in formal discipline according to Archbishop Ussher’s proposed reduction of episcopacy, to which I’ve given my support before, as did Richard Baxter in his day. It seems clear to me, since episcopacy was uncontested from Ignatius to the centuries afterward, that changes should reform rather than abolish it, calling it to principled models that tend to the peace of the Church. Equally clear is that neglected discipline will foster the parasitic growth of liberalism in the Church, for which reason discipline is crucial to any unity built on agreement in essential doctrine.

As suggested earlier, even Independents can take part in unity of discipline, though I had rather they joined it fully.[3] If an Independent congregation faces the threat of schism, its need for counsel is hard to dispute. A synod headed by a bishop, even if its decisions needed to be ratified – what comes to mind is the legal theory of nullification – could save many a congregation from splitting, and the settlement could have the consent of all. When a congregation officially embraces or countenances heresy, moreover, a synod can censure the offenders and respond to the problem in a lawful manner.

All this would be to the Church’s good, respecting both the well-being of the saints and the conversion of the world to the life of our Lord. And to a godly society, I think, there is no good objection.


[1] I hope that this number is small, now that hard-line followers of Beza and Melville, as regards polity, are few even among the Presbyterians, but clericalists in the Anglican churches insist on unchurching all those not ruled by pastors who have received ordination at the hands of diocesan bishops.

[2] Even the Westminster Confession doesn’t conflict with episcopacy, but some may find it overly exacting; its differences with the Savoy Declaration, on the other side, are also relatively small, though I judge it clearly the superior of the two. Also worthy of note, regarding the tradition of the Church of England, is that it may be of benefit in our own time to restore the three articles out of the Forty-Two that have been struck from the Thirty-Nine.

[3] The case of Baptists is considerably more difficult, since the divergence lies not only in polity but also in a part of doctrine that concerns many matters. The instability of the Baptist position lies in its attempt to straddle the fence between Protestant and Anabaptist ecclesiology and political theory, which strongly affects the judgement of who is and who isn’t to be treated as a Christian. Having originated in the English Separatist movement, the Baptists are historically related to Reformed churches, but much of their political theory is essentially Anabaptist and sectarian. Articulating the difference between Protestant and Anabaptist doctrine will require discussion of how to define covenant, whether that be by consociation, as described by Althusius, or by voluntary association, as the Anabaptists would have it.


One response to “The Public Church

  1. Pingback: Community, Not Subculture | Cogito, Credo, Petam

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