Heckling the Church

A PERUSAL of current literature in reference to the church reveals how much the rage it has become to censure the blunders of organized religion. There are fashions in magazine articles as well as in dress, and the present vogue is, by any means, to drub the church. Recent essays in which, with force and cleverness, both friends and foes have pointedly remarked upon ecclesiastical failures, — how familiar are the titles, ‘The Failure of the Church,’ ‘The Conflict of Religion with the Church,’ ‘Is Modern Organized Christianity a Failure?’ ‘The Ebb of Ecclesiasticism,’ — leave the impression, not only that there are grievous errors to be criticized, but that some people are having rare sport criticizing them.

The ‘candid friend ’ goes about his task, indeed, with that pained, parental countenance which seems to say, ‘This hurts me more than it hurts you’; but subtly in him, as quite obviously in others, one can discern the joy of gunning for game and peppering it with nice precision. How many times have we been told of the laboring men’s convention that hissed the church and cheered Jesus; of the trades-union leader who said, ‘Christ is all right, but damn the church’; of that other proletarian who eclipsed them all in scorn: ‘We used to hate and then we despised the church,’ he said, ‘but now we ignore it.’ How much gayety also has been added to the mirth of nations by the English statesman who remarked, ‘Do not attack the church. Leave it alone. It is the only remaining bulwark against Christianity.’

A consideration, however, is suggested by this last reference, which might well be taken to heart by these voluble critics. That English statesman lived in the eighteenth century. This twisting of the ecclesiastical lion’s tail is not a novelty, and perhaps the hectic insistence that a crisis is upon us, unprecedentedly acute, — ‘We are tottering on the verge of a terrible religious disruption,’ writes one, — would be calmed somewhat, brought to saner poise and more balanced judgment, by a little painstaking reading of history. Behind a vast amount of this current criticism is the implicit and strangely mistaken understanding that the ecclesiastical situation used to be better than it is.

Hugh Latimer’s sermons, for example, from the middle of the sixteenth century, suggest reflections that should give pause to this feverish badgering of the church. Is the unsatisfactory attendance on public worship now decried? Yet one questions how many would resort to Latimer’s appeal in 1548: ‘One of her neighbors met her in the street, and said, “Mistress, whither go ye?” “Marry,” she said, “I am going to St. Thomas of Acres, to the sermon; I could not sleep all this last night and I am going now thither. I never failed of a good nap there.” So,’ adds the bishop, ’I had rather ye should goa-napping to the sermon than not to go at all.’ Are golf and automobiles vaunted now as the successful rivals of the preacher? Yet one questions how many bishops to-day could be reduced, like Latimer in 1549, to facing a locked church, where he had been advertised to preach, and on the steps one villager saying, ‘Sir, this is a busy day with us, we cannot hear you; it is Robin Hood’s day. The parish are gone abroad to gather for Robin Hood. I pray you hinder them not.’ One questions, too, in what more modern terms Latimer could have referred to the matter than those he used: ‘It is no laughing matter, my friends, it is a weeping matter; under the pretense of gathering for Robin Hood, a traitor and a thief, to put out a preacher, to have his office less esteemed, to prefer Robin Hood before the ministration of God’s word.’ Is the subsidizing of the ministry by the subtle influence of great wealth a stinging modern accusation? Then for what magazine would Latimer have written such a paragraph as this about the clergy? ‘They hawk, they hunt, they card, they dice, they pastime in their prelacies with gallant gentlemen, with their dancing minions and with their fresh companions, so that preaching is set aside.’ In a word, is the whole religious situation going to the dogs? Well, so Latimer cried in 1548, ‘ London was never so ill as it is now.’

When, therefore, a college woman after an ample spiritual vacation returns to church attendance and is so undone by it that she writes a magazine article on the ‘doddering of the service’ and the ‘divagation of the sermon,’ our hearts will not utterly sink within us at the evil days to which we have come. Her criticisms may be no extempore complaint, peculiar to a twentieth-century college graduate, but seasoned and perennial from the time a young man fell asleep and toppling from a window broke his neck, listening to the Apostle Paul. Look up Pepys’s Diary, vintage of 1667, to see if it may not be full of comfortable balm. ‘Up and to church alone where a lazy sermon of Mr. Mills,’ is his typical Sunday comment. How modern also such sentiments as these: ‘Much discourse about the bad state of the church, and how the clergy are come to be men of no worth in the world; and as the world do now generally discourse, they must be reformed. . . . Lord Brereton, who, above all books lately wrote, commending the matter and style of a late book called, The Causes of the Decay of Piety, I do resolve at his great commendation to buy it.’ As one continues in this consideration, he begins to perceive the wisdom of even so cynical a disbeliever in progress as the authorof Ecclesiastes: ‘Say not thou, what is the cause that t he former days were better than these! For thou enquirest not wisely concerning this.’

The serious believer in the function and future of organized religion, therefore, begins to pick up heart, and is inclined to turn upon the bewailers of present ecclesiastical calamity, with their mental background of good old times, and borrowing a little of their own exaggerated ardor, to cry: —

‘What good old times? Good old times, when for the quibble of a text men excommunicated each other, or for a difference about the sacrament made the ground run red with human blood! when James said of the Puritans, “I will make them conform or I will harry them out of the land,” and the Puritans turned the compliment upon the Baptists and the Quakers! Good old times, when the Congregationalists of Massachusetts and the Episcopalians of Virginia were bent on state churches, supported by a public tax, and when as late as 1833 even Lyman Beecher bewailed it as an intolerable disaster that folk of a persuasion other than his own were no more compelled to contribute to his salary! Good old times, when the elders, with a tankard of ale, walked down the aisle in the middle of the sermon, that the preacher might refresh himself before he proceeded with the next two hours of homily; and when in Connecticut a minister in jail for felony had his prison limits extended to take in the brewery which he owned, and where his presence was required for business!

‘Good old times, when no Governor Hughes could claim the allegiance of the people of the churches in his assault on gambling, but when many a church edifice in Greater New York was erected by a lottery! Good old times, when the Edinburgh Conference, the greatest ecumenical gathering in Christendom’s history, would have been a wild impossibility for at least two reasons: that the severed branches of the church were bitterly hostile, not fraternally coöperative, and that the majority of American Protestants were anti-missionary! Good old times, doubtless, when books like Christianity and the Social Crisis, The Social Teaching of Jesus, Jesus Christ and the Social Question, were undreamed of; and Tennyson’s aunt, so his biographer tells us, used rather to weep by the hour over the goodness of God, and say, “ Has he not damned most of my friends? But me, — me he has picked out for eternal salvation, me who am no better than my neighbors!”

‘What good old times? When Dean Swift wrote to Stella, “ I was early in to see the Secretary Bolingbroke, but he was gone to receive the sacrament. Several rakes did the same. It was not for piety, but for employment, according to Act of Parliament ”? When were the good old times? When Sunday, as Ruskin said, cast, its shadow over him three days in advance? When you were fined five dollars in Massachusetts for every church service that you missed? When Jonathan Edwards pictured God holding sinners over a brimstone pit, likely any minute to let go? Or, are these discouraged critics of the modern church thinking of the halcyon days when Calvin said, “The future appals me. I dare not think of it. Unless the Lord descends from heaven, barbarism will engulf us ”?’

That the church meets a crisis today, no one doubts. Shall theology relegate countless laborious tomes to the dust-heap without a struggle, when evolution upsets old premises and compels a readjustment of religion’s basic ideas? Shall not the church, with a small van and a large, straggling rearguard, dawdle along on the forced march toward a new camping-ground, with innumerable shufflings and evasions, petty compromises, blind obscurantisms, and absurd denials ? It has never been otherwise. The pleasantly human and ingenuous custom of theology, as of all other organized systems of thought, has always been to kick a new truth round the block and then welcome it as a long-lost brother.

Said Martin Luther, ‘People gave ear to an upstart astrologer who strove to show that the earth revolves. . . . This fool wishes to reverse the entire science of astronomy; but sacred Scripture tells us that Joshua commanded the sun to stand still, and not the earth.’ Even a century later Father Inchofer exclaimed, ‘The opinion of the earth’s motion is of all heresies the most abominable, the most pernicious, the most scandalous; the immovability of the earth is thrice sacred; argument against the immortality of the soul, the existence of God, and the incarnation, should be tolerated sooner than an argument to prove that the earth moves.’

There never have been any good old times.

The growth of the factory system, the amazing increase in urban population, the bewildering kaleidoscope of social reconstruction, these and their kin create a crisis. Shall the church, adapted in organization and method to an age of agriculture and domestic manufacture, confused in thought by the left-overs of an exaggerated individualism, go through no spasms in her attempts at readjustment? A few of her sons, the prophets of the new church yet to be, throw themselves into the social mêlée; but the major part of them, as usual, remain within the walls of their little spiritual gymnasia, pulling on the exercisers that are good indeed for raising moral muscle, but are not belted in anywhere to the big business of the world. It has never been otherwise. This modern social crisis is the result of the amazing transformation of the western world from autocratic monarchies to democratic states. Did not the church in that crisis stammer and stutter her way toward a new phrasing of her social creed? After her long aristocratic training of seventeen centuries, with Rome for her nurse and Europe’s kings for tutors, she acted like some Prince Hamlet habituated to the scenery of his royal court, who suddenly finds himself amid the setting of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, with Quince the carpenter, Snug the joiner, Bottom the weaver, and a bellows-mender, a tinker, and a tailor on the stage. Shall he not be tongue-tied, or else most inept and ridiculous, when first he tries to trim his courtly mien and purse his princely lips for democratic speech? So the church hemmed and hawed then, as now, over the difficult business of readaptation. Granted that the new democracy was in part the fruit of the church’s ideal of brotherhood, nevertheless she got on ill with it at first, as to-day she does but slowly adjust herself to the new social spirit. Then, as now, Job’s complaint about the ostrich was applicable: ‘She is hardened against her young ones as though they were not hers.’

There never have been any good old times. The man discouraged now about the church would have been crushed to heart-break in the sixteenth century, and would have been driven insane in the eighteenth. The crisis is here, but the church meets it on her way up, not on her way down. When one considers the assets and stops recounting the liabilities, ceases bemoaning the inevitable ruin of those sections of the church obdurate to new truth and opportunity, and rejoices in the success of the van-guard closest to the flag; when one thinks of the increasing open-mindedness of our theology, t he growing liberality of our interdenominational spirit, the passage from dogmatism to character and service in the church’s emphasis, the amazing growth of the social consciousness motived by religious faith, the unprecedented missionary enthusiasm, the hands reached out from the main body of the church for many special ministries, he wonders to what age he could look to find a man who, rising in our day with a mind able to see and understand, would hesitate to say, —

Yet I doubt not through the ages one increasing purpose runs.
And the thoughts of men are widened with the process of the suns.

Beneath the fashionable criticisms of the church, this other strange assumption lies, that the church’s ills are exclusively her property, sins peculiarly ecclesiastical. Jesus’s sense of the ridiculous was aroused, tinged with a little indignation, by the sight of a man with a beam in his own eye, squinting to pull a mote from his brother’s. This picture with its beautiful hyperbole never has been better done into life than by those men, who, representing other forms of organized endeavor, are possessed with the notion that the church has unique complaints not shared by her self-appointed and critical mediciners. One would suppose, to read the recent articles, that there are special ecclesiastical diseases, traditionalism, formalism, sectarianism, and such like, so peculiarly the distress of the church, that she, being now rather tiresomely heckled concerning them, may not turn and cry, ‘Tu quoque.’ Men shake their heads over the church’s complaints. They grow lugubrious over ecclesiastical blunders. They become ironical about clerical idiosyncrasies. They forget that the problems and distresses of the church are not unique, but universally human foibles and failures, exhibited in every form of organized enterprise, as medicable in the church as elsewhere, and unless men play the coward, to be as resolutely, hopefully, constructively faced there as in medicine or law.

There is the charge of traditionalism, for example. The church turns to the tombs for authority. She does not observe the statute of limitations in her reverence. In what a variety of shapes the accusation lands upon us: that we are Beef-eaters in the clerical Tower of London, long since superannuated, no longer rallying to the country’s colors, but spending our few remaining days guarding the relics of our ancestors; that we are a snowball, rolled down the ages, gathering sticks and stones which now are regarded with the same pious awe as is accorded to the snow itself; that like the railroads we are too narrow in our gauge out of deference to the days of horse-drawn vehicles, so that the ghost of an old cart-horse still trots before our ‘Federal Expresses.’

The obvious truth of this accusation need not be mitigated. Send matches to a savage tribe and they indeed will use them to light their secular fires, but the antique flint and steel will start the sacred altar-flame. Send steel knives to the islands of the sea, and while food may be cut with them, the sacrificial animal will yet be slain with copper. Religion loves the ancient, not the new. She hallows with beautiful associations the long accustomed thing, and is devoted to it. All this is clearest to the leader within the church, not to the critic outside. Within are theories of the atonement, phrased in terms of the feudal system, as much out of place in a democracy as a Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court; within are vast assemblies carried away by a vague reactionary sentiment to sing, ‘The Old Time Religion is Good Enough for Me’; within, as Dr. Forsythe remarks, the chief problem of the modern preacher is ‘ to tell the truth without scaring his grandmother.’

The trouble is not that the charge of traditionalism is untrue, but that the charge should be supposed uniquely to concern the church. What profession is it that vaunts its motto, ‘Stand by the precedents,’ aye, and lives up to it with a consistency that often neither considerations of humanity nor dictates of common sense can overcome? When the church is in danger of too lax a liberality, she can learn of the law a traditionalism that makes a constitution a paddock instead of a road, a fetish instead of a guide, and that often welcomes one precedent five hundred years old rather than a dozen arguments of to-day. Surely, it is the religious and philanthropic men who are beseeching the lawyers, for the sake of pity, in an age of machine industry, to drop the fellowservant theory of employers’ liability, fitted only to an age of domestic apprenticeship. The moral sentiment of the people now most bitterly rebels against the intricate and futile technicality of a legal procedure so tiresome, superannuated, expensive, and unjust, that some Dickens could well write another Bleak House against our modern American chancery. When a case long tried and well settled is carried to an appeal because the stenographer left out the word ‘the’ before the word ‘State’ in the indictment, although the meaning was not altered one iota, that is law! When the church does the same, it is ritualism! When in a twentiethcentury New York hotel the rights of a guest come in question, and the case is finally decided on the precedent, of an English judge under Edward VI, that is law! When bishops do that, it is bigotry! Whereas the simple facts are that conservatism, hugging even old forms from which the life has gone, is a universal human safeguard, liable to dangerous perversions, and that no organization ever yet succeeded in reaping the benefits without undergoing the perils of that instinct which clings to the ancient until the new has more than proved itself. The church is dangerously reactionary, but the young man who avoids the ministry and goes to the law to escape the tyranny of precedent, has leaped out of the fryingpan to no purpose. The church is pitiably traditional, but then, as the old Spanish proverb says, ‘They boil beans all over the world.’

The same line of thought holds true when one hears the church heckled because of its sectarianism. One would suppose, from reading the magazines, that divisiveness is a peculiar ecclesiastical evil, a baneful growth indigenous to churchly soil. That there should be thirteen different brands of Baptists, all the way from ‘Old-TwoSeed-in-the-Spirit-Predestinarians’ up, and twelve styles of Presbyterians, and seventeen fashions in Methodism; that sects should be distinguished from one another by such holy matters as disbelief in wearing buttons and a penchant for hooks and eyes instead; that little villages where every consideration of efficiency, economy, and fraternity dictates a single church, should be split up into a dozen congregations where wretchedly paid ministers weakly dispense what some one has called ‘supernatural ventriloquism’; all this offers a mark for ridicule too obvious to be missed. The church may not resent what so richly she deserves. She is putting new hymns into her servicebooks and she cannot too loudly sing them: —

Gather us in. Thou Love that fillest all,
Gather our rival faiths within Thy fold;
Rend each man’s temple veil and bid it fall,
That we may know that Thou hast been of old;
Gather us in!
Gather us in, we worship only Thee.
In many names we stretch a common hand,
In diverse forms a common soul we see,
In many ships we seek one spirit land;
Gather us in!

While the church, however, may well be ashamed of her petty schisms she need not be discouraged as though she faced a problem peculiar to herself. Are not the bristling boundaries of European states, horridly ready for war, the world’s gigantic specimen of sectarian folly? The anatomy of the soul is infinitely delicate, its healing how mysterious! Surely the body will offer clearer ground for agreement, and ministries to its good health need not bear party names. But what with allopathy, homoeopathy, osteopathy; what with schools of health from vegetarianism to Fletcherizing, and quacks innumerable, one finds it difficult to see how medical sectarianism could be carried much further. In one of our unusually intelligent communities many prominent citizens have been endeavoring for years to persuade allopaths and homoeopaths to use the same hospital. Denominational loyalty in medicine here also has proved too strong; two hospitals are now required. ‘If the Presbyterians want a new church,’ wrote one of the allopaths, ‘they do not ask the Baptists to violate their convictions!’ So do medical and theological sectarianism manifest alike the same elemental human trait. Indeed, when good, round, controversial language is desired, let a man no longer listen to a Christian talking of his brethren in another fold. We are as meek as lambs; in a score of coöperations we stick closer than brothers. But let him listen to one school of medicine talking of another, when united enterprise is anyhow suggested. One can imagine that the days may come when a father shall speak thus to his son: ‘The phrase “Theologicum odium,” my boy, refers to the hatred that used to be aroused in religious controversy, and is best illustrated in our times by the way the allopaths regard the homoeopaths!'

In every realm where a popular indictment is found against the church, the fault, called by some ecclesiastical name, is still the common human folly from which no organization ever yet escaped. Even in that most bitter and monstrous charge against the movement founded by Jesus, that preachers fawn and policies are pliant before the subsidizing power of wealth, who without sin shall cast the first stone? Shall the lawyer? But Governor Woodrow’ Wilson rightly expresses, in a recent address, his apprehension, because it is increasingly difficult to find, for the bench, men from the bar who by their associations with corporate wealth have not lost all understanding of the people’s needs. Who is bought up today for the service of wealth against commonwealth if not lawyers? Shall the editors press the charge, as though clear-eyed they saw the church’s mote? But their news is trimmed and clipped, suppressed and twisted as the advertisers and the owners say, and they notoriously write as they are paid rather than as they think. Professor E. A. Ross has well marshaled the facts in the Atlantic Monthly for March, 1910, to show that the American press to-day is the outstanding illustration of the saying, ‘He who pays the piper calls the tune.’ Shameful and incongruous it surely is, that this and other charges should be true in some degree of the Christian church; but this consolation at least she has, this assurance, that her problem is a common difficulty — to be solved in her as elsewhere by undiscourageable patience; that she can turn to every one of her accusers, whatsoever form of organized life they represent, and say, ‘You’re another!’

That this answer solves no problems is evident, but negatively it clears the ground for the positive attitude which the progressive leaders of the church to-day are taking. We may put words into their mouths that surely will not misrepresent them. ‘The basal question,’so they say, ‘is not the superficial up or down of contemporary ecclesiastical success. The basal matter is the unescapable presence of religion as a dominant element in human life. In that we assuredly believe. For weal or woe men are religious, and this motive power which puts a “ Deusvult ” behind conduct, this interpretative insight that insists on seeing eternal values in life, is so penetrative and controlling that its intelligent development, its spiritual purification, its moral direction, are still the deepest concerns of man. Religion may do anything, from creating an Inquisition with its excruciating martyrdoms to breathing a saving charity that makes men cry, “The God that answereth by orphanages, let him be God!” Can the same fountain send forth sweet water and bitter? Yet religion does it. For all life is somehow motived by visions of God, and upon their vagueness or clarity, their superstition or intelligence, their hopelessness or joy, their moral perversion or their social wholesomeness, depend human interests more deep than are concerned in commerce or in war.’

‘How can it be thought,’ so the new church within the ancient churches asks, ‘that such an inevitable and ubiquitous phase of life may be unorganized? The spirit will somehow insist upon a body. Shall equity avoid creating courts and codes, or the desire for health issue in no schools of medicine? Destructive criticism of the courts justly arouses public indignation, because courts are inevitable, and inevitable problems are not to be met with heckling, but with patient and constructive labor. So the church, too, is an unescapable problem. We know the unsatisfactoriness of her present forms, born every one of them out of historical condit ions in which no living man can have the slightest practical interest to-day. We know the petty dogmatisms, the mean divisiveness,the querulous femininity, the base sycophancy, that have too often qualified her spirit, until strong young men shun the pulpits, and of the laity a local village paper says in an illuminating sentence, “The Episcopalians and their husbands enjoyed a pleasant luncheon.” We know that whole sect ions of the church to-day are doomed already, caught in eddies by the shore, oblivious of the main stream, and whirling round and round until they rot. Yet these very faults and failures, which the church shares with all human institutions, just because they accompany humanity’s inevitable attempt to organize the religious life, are for us calls to help, flags for rallying, signals that men are needed. Shall we despair of organized equity because even supreme courts fall into folly? The folly of the courts is rather the signal for a rejuvenated citizenship. Can we do otherwise with the unescapable problem of the church? Church or no church is not the alternative; the question is, since there must be some sort of church, what sort shall we have? The ills of the church are to religious patriots a summons to churchmanship.’

So to-day the new church within the churches is speaking. The spirit there evinced is more full of hope than all the failures are of discouragement. The last ten years have seen a reformation in American Protestanism greater than the most sanguine could have dreamed. Like the Jews rebuilding the walls of their sacred city, multiplying hands are at work upon the unescapable task of organized religion. It must be half-breed Samaritans who now, as then, heckling the builders with gibes and missiles, compel them to work with a trowel in one hand and a sword in the other.

Just one sort of man has the right to criticize and to be heard — the man who has earned the right by making some positive contribution himself to this inevitable and superlatively important problem.