The Church and Smith
I HAVE recently read in the Atlantic an article dealing with the question, ‘Should Smith go to Church?’ Mr. Nicholson, the author, thinks he should, and then proceeds to show, very pertinently, some reasons why he does not, and suggests some modest changes that might be made in ‘the Church, ’ whereby possibly Smith might be induced to be interested. Perhaps it is too much to expect the author to go further and give some idea why Smith should go to church even if such changes were made; yet the article leaves one wondering whether the chances of ultimately getting Smith would be worth some of the suggested changes; and whether, by some of those changes, the Church might not lose all hope of getting Jones, or Brown, or Robinson.
Now, I am the last to depreciate the importance of getting Smith into the Church. I hope it may be done. But I hope that the return of the prodigal will not be too quickly celebrated by getting him on the vestry, or sending him as a deputy to General Convention. I do not mean to be so impolitic as to imply that there are too many Smiths on vestries and in General Convention. But there are Smiths there undoubtedly, and it is just as certain that Jones, Brown, and Robinson are not there, and will not be there so long as the Church in some way, to a greater or to a less extent, revolves about the unmodified Smithiness of Smith.
Not that Smith should be unclothed, but that he should be clothed upon, if he is to ‘take his true place’ (that is the phrase we poor abject s sometimes actually use) in the Church. Not that Smith should be un-Smithed. Heaven forbid! Certainly, the Church must first go to him, as well as to Jones or Brown, if they are ever to come to her. But why should the Church, having utterly despaired of Jones, who is absorbed in his Socialist club, and Robinson, who is immersed in his science or art, clutch desperately at a vanishing Smith?
I will tell you why. Because of a prevalent habit, among church people, of regarding the support or control of the Smiths to be essential to the Church’s existence — a habit which has never, for several hundred years, been seriously discouraged by the Smiths themselves. Who is Smith? The question is unnecessary. But, to be explicit, Mr. Nicholson will tell us.
‘ Smith now spends his Sunday mornings golfing, or puttering about his garden, or in his club or office, and after his mid-day meal he takes a nap, then loads his family into a motor for a flight countrywards.’
It need not be insisted upon, after this, how essential the Smiths are to the Church. The Church might have gotten along once merely with fishermen and tent-makers, but now — she cannot really afford to lose a Smith. She really must leave the ninety-andnine Joneses and Robinsons, and seek the lost Smith!
How did the Church become so dependent upon the Smiths? Let us remember that the Smith family goes back to a stirring period. They were among the first to be dissatisfied with the Mediaeval Church. They had a noble rage against priestly arrogance and the ignorant superstition of the masses. They were progressive; they chafed under the oppressive laws against usury, and the indiscriminate charity dispensed by the rich monasteries. There was too much public land devoted to raising grain for Englishmen to eat, which might be devoted to raising wool for the foreign markets.
In short, the Smiths yearned for a more spiritual religion; and with royal help, they rose in their might and rescued the Church of England from besotted ignorance and from the unintelligent allegiance of the mob. They removed from her services as much as possible that might jar an educated mind, and from her moral teaching they erased almost everything that might suggest the bearing of religion upon material things. Incidentally they removed some other incumbrances.
It is true, they were still dissatisfied. Many of the Smiths went further, and sought to destroy and reconstruct the Church, so that religion might be yet more purified. Yet let us remember that some of the Smiths championed the Church, and so have earned her undying gratitude for permitting her to exist, side by side with other churches, which served the purpose of chastening her pride and, by competitive pressure, restraining her reactionary tendencies. Out of these conditions, guided by the policies of the Smith family, has developed the present state of organized Christianity in America.
And now the modern Smith, the heir of the Smith religious policy, finds religion too complicated to be interesting. He has inherited the family propensity to simplify and whittle down the Church, but the family ingenuity in spiritual matters has played out. He is content to wait till some master-mind has un-churched the Church sufficiently to suit his taste. Smith must always be the constant; the Church must always be the variant. And so we have the Smiths within the Church cosily making suggestions to bishops and priests how, by tact, statesmanship, and moral courage, they may possibly recover the Smiths who are outside the fold.
For my part, I fear very much that the Smith family will not very long be the centre round which the modern world revolves, and that the Church has a far wider problem than how to get Smith to go to church. The Smiths have grown to dislike creeds and dogmas, and they have reason to, for the family in the past has made a pretty mess of them. Rut the genus homo, speaking generally, has a remarkable capacity for believing. Jones and Robinson are ready to believe that all things are possible; but it is a pretty severe test for their faith in the Church, so long as they see the Smiths there, still ensconced in the churchwarden’s pew, with the air of conscious, though modest and restrained, power.
I am concerned about Jones and Robinson. Of course, I am also concerned about Smith, because I believe there are some surprises awaiting him in the next world. His remoter ancestors decided that Purgatory was a ‘fond thing, vainly invented,’ and his immediate forebears later proceeded, somewhat less wordily but just as effectively, to dispose of Heaven and Hell, so far as they personally were concerned. And now the cry goes up from the Smith family: ‘There is a Smith overboard! Not that it matters to us much, for a Smith can take care of himself anywhere; but it puts the ship in such a sorry plight. Really, we must get rid of some more useless ballast in the shape of creeds and dogmas, and perhaps our brother will consent to be rescued.’
One is tempted to think of Jonah. Yet it would be neither decent nor ‘expedient at this time,’ to heave the rest of the Smiths overboard. After all, they are nearer at hand than Jones and Robinson, and the Church must begin with them, if Jones and Robinson are ever to be reached. And I believe that they can be converted; and that the only possible way to begin their conversion, is to let them see themselves just as they are, and to refuse so far as possible to take their money for church support except under conditions that make it perfectly clear to Jones and Robinson that the Church is emerging from Smith domination.
For Jones and Robinson simply cannot be reached unless it becomes absolutely clear to them that the Smith family, as such, has ceased in any degree to control church policy. And this cannot become clear until the doctrine of the Church loses the ear-mark of Smith simplification, and until the ethics of the Church become downright materialistic, as they were when usury was a mortal sin, and when the theory of absolute private ownership of land was a heresy.