A Parish Minister's Declaration of Independence

I

To get back again to that hackneyed subject, ‘The Collapse of the Church.’ Obviously the Church is as good as dead and there remains little more to be done aside from the decent obsequies. There is, for the passing Church, the mitigating comfort to be derived from the prediction that the mortality among all other ancient and venerated institutions will be high in the near future. Her going is so timed that she can point the way for a very respectable company of followers, the home, the state, the college, and other outworn cumberers of the ground, which have been stricken down by the epidemic of ‘collapse,’and have nothing more to ask of this world than the opportunity for decent euthanasia.

Meanwhile, ’Who would have thought the old man had so much blood in him? ’ The Church is patently passing away from an incurable and pernicious anæmia. But since this is a lingering death, any number of humane practitioners are ready to shorten the agony by opening for good and all some convenient artery that invites the scalpel of wholesale condemnation. Even so, the Church lingers. Like Browning’s martyr at the stake, the collapsing Church of the present time at least has voice enough to affirm, ‘I was some time a-dying.’

As a matter of plain, ecclesiastical history, there never was a time when the Church was not in collapse. The spiritual specialists have always agreed in their diagnosis. This universal verdict may have induced a certain constitutional hollow-chestedness on the part of the institution which has now become habitual, and may easily be mistaken for an acute, rather than a chronic condition. For when the doctors all agree that the patient is suffering a complete breakdown, he must have more than a superhuman self-confidence if his own posture does not reflect the consensus of expert opinion. He is convinced that they are right, and yet he surprises himself and the wise men by hanging on when, from all the signs, he should be dead and buried. He realizes that he is a physiological monstrosity and a medical scandal, but he cannot help himself. He even finds a certain perverse satisfaction in his innate vitality which cannot be measured by the book. The Church has always had to live, and indeed has succeeded in living for some hundreds of years, in the face of the combined and uniform judgment of the specialists that, from all the symptoms, she should be in her grave.

It is generally understood that the churches are practically empty. No one any longer tries to pretend otherwise. It avails nothing that many city churches are still crowded every Sunday, that many more are half full, and that most of them muster their handful of worshipers. Patently, this is the last flicker before the end. And what are these among so many? The time was when David and Jonathan scaled the rocks Bozez and Seneh, to attack the Philistine single-handed, because, in those days, there was ‘no restraint to the Lord to save by many.’ But modern scholarship can dispose of that archaic temper, since the God of Democracy never does anything without first, counting noses. In the old days it was considered dangerous procedure to number the host. But to-day statistics are the handmaiden of piety, and the figures are against the Church.

Yet empty churches do not seem to be solely a modern phenomenon. Nearly a hundred years ago Wordsworth lamented ‘The Decay of Piety’: —

Oft have I seen, ere Time had ploughed my cheek,
Matrons and sires — who, punctual to the call
Of their loved Church, on fast or festival
Through the long year the house of prayer would seek;
By Christmas snows, by visitation bleak
Of Easter wind unscared, from hut or hall
They came to lowly bench or sculptured stall,
But with one fervor of devotion meek.
I see the places where they once were known,
And ask . . .
Is Ancient Piety forever flown?

That was in 1827. As Francis Thompson says of nineteenth-century England, ‘The east wind has replaced the discipline.’ But at least things are no worse now than they were in Wordsworth’s time, and a hundred years of snow, hail, and stormy vapor have not entirely dissipated ‘the great congregation.’

Altogether, the reputedly empty meeting-houses have been able to gather enough witnesses to embarrass the case for the prosecution, and the suit of Society vs. the Church drags on in the court of common opinion. After all, the major institutions of human society are not so collapsible as they appear to be. They were not fabricated wholesale for emergencies. They were put together by patient hand labor. And they betray, when their framework is investigated, the cunning of the human artificer at his best. They have gone up, like Solomon’s temple, without noise in their building. And he who takes the social contract for wrecking them would do well to allow himself a little margin of time beyond his expectation of completing the job.

Certain of the Oxford colleges are built of a very soft limestone, dug from hard by, which weathers rapidly. After an odd century or two at the mercy of the raw air of the upper Thames valley, the fabric of these colleges looks to be in a state of imminent collapse. Two American women, wandering around Oxford not long since, ventured into one of these shabby sepulchres of ’lost causes,’ pushed their unabashed way up a stair in the back quad, and opened a door. They saw before them a much alive and entirely contemporary-looking boy, sprawled out in his basket chair before a cheerful fire, filling the room with pipe-smoke and his brains with the Nicomachean Ethics. ‘We beg your pardon, we did n’t know that these ruins were inhabited.’ For the benefit of those emancipated investigators who look upon the Church as the home of a lost cause, it is worth while merely to say that the ruins are still inhabited.

II

There is, however, one distinctively modern aspect of the situation, altogether apart from the perennial Decay of Piety, which is in a fair way to depopulate the ruins for good and all. This particular aspect of the manysided ‘Problem of the Church’ bears the mark of our own time, has already become a sore daily perplexity to the ministry, and is fast becoming a conscious grievance on the part of the congregation.

Let us approach the problem by way of illustration. There was once upon a time a very romantic institution known as the Christian Year. This arrangement of the calendar, arbitrary, artificial, perhaps, but always suggestive, was devised to express a certain cyclic tendency in human nature, the desire to get back or come round again to some of the major items of t hought and conduct. There was Ember Day — what a romantic name! — and Maundy Thursday — what an intriguing title! There were Innocents’ Day and All Souls’ Day. There were Advent and Holy Week and Whitsunday.

But this scheme of things has long since been superseded by another Christian Year, which every minister has come to recognize. He sits down at his desk on Monday morning to try to recover a little of the lost grace of ' recollection.’ Next Sunday is Epiphany, so much is clear in the near future. ‘Recollected’ to this tentative degree, he begins opening his morning mail. From an important-looking envelope he takes out a legal-sized document, an impressive piece of printer’s art. (Mental note: That would be good paper for my church calendar if we could afford it — watermark shows ‘Capitalist Bond, Heavy Deckle.’ But we can’t afford printing like that!) The document announces that next Sunday has been appointed to be observed in all the churches as Nation-Wide Anti-Trichinosis Sunday. The Secretary of some department in Washington lends his sanction. A Minor Canon adds that the opportunity of the Church is plain. Inside the folder are pictures. Item: one trichina, very lifelike and sinister. Item: victim of trichinosis, obvious ennui. Item: our agent in Lone Ridge, Ford car and infected hogs in background. Item: cured patient, alert and aggressive. The last page announces that parcel-post will bring cards allowing members of the congregation to enlist in the great modern crusade: annual dues, $1; sustaining membership, $25; life membership, $100. It is confidently anticipated that at least two or three of the congregation will join as life members, and that there will be a very general response to the appeal for annual dues. Cards are to be returned to — and so forth. There often follows an appropriate Bible text, counseling sacrifice, as a last succulent morsel of bait for the ecclesiastical mind.

The minister, whose business it is not to ignore any means by which mankind may be bettered, begins to see that Epiphany is after all an anachronism, that the great modern world has got beyond that. Trichinæ have the obvious advantage of contemporaneity. Trichina it shall be. The plot thickens, however, as the opening of the mail goes on. Five letters farther is a statement that next Sunday has been appointed to be observed by all the churches in behalf of the Relief of the War-Devastated Districts of Upper Senegambia. Very prominent names in the business and ecclesiastical world appear on this letter-head: well-known bankers and prominent churchmen, with a smattering of the humaner radicals. More pictures of atrocities and plague victims. Obviously the need in Senegambia is as great as in Lone Ridge. The minister wishes to think internationally, and now leans to the war-victims, to avoid the charge of provincialism by concentrating upon the American trichina. Perhaps it could be shown that Upper Senegambia is devastated by trichinæ. The victims in both cases look rather alike in the pictures. In that case the task would be made simpler, and the collection could be equally divided.

But there seems to have been some lack of ‘coöperation’ — fine upstanding modern word, that! — on the part of these agencies. The perplexed minister lets his problem simmer until mid-week, and then finally decides that he will preach a regular Epiphany Sermon on the Manifestation of Jesus to the Wise Men of To-day. He does this, not in a moment of petulance or distraction, but discreetly and advisedly, on the sober conviction that, in the long run, he will do both these causes more practical good by trying to make men understand the Mind of Christ, than by discussing the causes, symptoms, and cure of trichinosis, or by getting mired in the political misfortunes of Senegambia.

His punishment tarrieth not. It cometh like the Assyrian. These causes keep tab on him. They write him off the great books of life which they keep at their headquarters. The report is passed on to other agencies, that he is out of touch with modern life, that he is merely an impractical dreamer who cannot be counted on to help when the fighting is hard. The cause went up to do battle for the Lord and he stopped in Meroz. He has his taste of the curse on Meroz. Various members of his own parish, who are specially interested in the trichina or Senegambia or some other Holy Day in the modern Christian Year, begin to feel that rumor is true. Altogether he begins to realize that the world is determined to write him down a renegade, and to adjust himself to that situation.

This is not rhetoric. It is hardly satire. It is merely a free paraphrase of the everlasting problem of the modern minister. The thing had gained great headway and vogue before the war. Even then, the laziest minister in Christendom did not have to stoop to buy his sermons ready written from that wholesale homiletics factory somewhere out West. He could get them all free in outline from the ‘causes.’ With the war there was hardly a Sunday when his way was not made plain before him, either by actual officials or by civilian philanthropies. The Draft, the Bond Issues, the Food Conservation, the Welfare Agencies — all of them claimed his instant service, week by week. He was given very little opportunity to reflect himself, or to ask others to reflect, that there are certain humane and catholic aspects of the character of Jesus which in history have somehow outlasted all wars and rumors of wars.

He was somewhat startled to find that the great world of affairs took him so seriously. Obviously, what he said still had some influence, and it seemed to be taken for granted that he spoke to more men and women than the ‘ruin hypothesis’ implied. But he never had time to think that contradiction through. After the war his denominations, singly or collectively, having been illuminated as to the true function of the modern minister, descended upon him with programmes for millions which, ten years ago, both he and they would have thought impossible. His leaders were certainly right to try to conserve the deeper moral lessons of the war. They were right as to the need of the world and the opportunity of the Church. But somehow, in the process he found himself depersonalized. He had ceased to be a prophet and a pastor and had become simply a middleman. The modern world of organized philanthropy and ecclesiasticism had elected him salesman for its countless causes. All he had to do was to follow instructions. The thing culminated in the spring of 1920, when the Interchurch Movement relieved him of all further personal responsibility by outlining his whole half-year for him. He was to pray in January, exhort in February, convert in March, and collect in April and May. Somehow, he broke down under the strain. His life had become too wooden. And he has been thinking his whole status over once again.

He has had time for a little sober reflection as to what the rest of his days are going to be if the process goes on indefinitely, and he yields the major point of his independence. Obviously, there will be no need for men to go to theological schools in the future, if this is what the Christian ministry is to become. Young men had much better take a couple of correspondence courses, one from the man with the magnetic index finger who can make him a persuasive speaker, the other from some brisk, up-to-the-minute school of salesmanship.

But this prospect calls for a revised conception of the ministry. And its compensations are not those which he has associated with his past liberty of prophesying and his cure of souls. He sees himself as a kind of permanent beater for unending drives. He it is who, week by week, must hound the now attenuated and gun-shy giver into the open, where the causes may pot away with both barrels and bag their budgets. The beater has none of the sport. And he will be more than human if he does not come to have a certain perverse sympathy for the flock in the covert assigned to him. At least, he is perfectly clear that he cannot see them all killed off before his eyes, but must allow a ‘righteous remnant’ to survive and breed, during the brief season closed to causes, — say in Lent, — against next season’s need.

III

Why does not the Average Man go to church? Being a teacher in a theological school as well as a parish minister, I sent out spies into the great and wicked world last year to get an answer to this question. Effectively disguised in mufti, they approached the Average Man and asked him for an honest answer. They came back to the camp and reported with surprising unanimity that, among other things, the Average Man was getting tired of going to church to worship God and being offered the trichina and Senegambia as a substitute. One Average Man said quite bluntly that fourteen Sundays at the height of the season had been wholly taken up in his church by the presentation of fourteen different denominational and social causes, and that he found his inclination to go to church suffering a sea change. Not that trichinosis and Senegambia were ‘dead hypotheses’ to him. He took an interest in these and all other similar moral opportunities. But their name was legion; and any selection of them for the purposes of public worship was arbitrary. He felt as if the parts were getting in the way of the whole. The trouble with his moral and spiritual life was just that he could not see the wood for the trees. And the Church, so far from giving him the total perspective and helping him unify his life, was merely adding to his confusion and distraction. The Average Man was not quite certain what he wanted when he went to church, but he knew it was something which should have in it the element of contrast. He wanted a suggestion of the everlasting otherness of life which real religion always intimates. He believed that all the fine, unselfish, organized altruisms which abound in every city, and claim the support of Church people, were aspects of twentieth-century Christianity. He did not understand a Christianity which was so far removed from this world that it called these activities secular. He believed that modern religion is as wide as every honest effort to help the world. But he was getting mired in detail. He was losing the power to say ‘God’ in connection with them all.

He seemed to remember something to the same effect in Saint Augustine’s Confessions. ‘What do I love, when I love my God?’ asks Augustine, ‘I questioned the earth, and it said, “I am not He.” I questioned the sea and the depths, and they replied, “We are not thy God; seek above us.” I questioned the blowing winds, and the whole air with its inhabitants replied, “Anaximenes is wrong; I am not God.” I questioned the heavens, sun, moon, stars: “Neither are we,” say they, “the God whom you seek.”'

All these were aspects of God, but religion, as the Average Man saw it, was just the power to say ‘God,’where the rest of the world said Nature, Justice, Duty, Peace, Social Service, Foreign Missions. And it seemed to him as he reflected upon it, that the Church was missing its chance to help him say that thing. He listened in the shell of modern being, and he heard the roar of the sea of life, with its manifold activities. What he missed in the method and temper of the modern Church was the constant suggestion of a ‘central peace subsisting at the heart of endless agitation.’

If the Church is anything more than the pious sanction for interests and causes which every right-minded man is interested in, if it is anything more than the rubber stamp of Christian approval of all our philanthropies, it is the place and comradeship, not where rival causes jostle one another for the attention of a constituency, but where all sorts and conditions of men doing the diversified religious work of the modern world may be made to feel their profound spiritual community of interest and aim. The Church is at the crossroads to-day, not in the sense that she must arbitrarily elect the road that leads to Sonegambia, to the exclusion of all other roads, but in the profounder sense that she stands, or ought to stand, at the point where the sincere and patient minister to the trichina evil may meet and share with his brother who bears the sorrows of Senegambia upon his heart the common quality of faith and courage which inspires all profound and concrete religion in action.

The parish minister of to-day claims, therefore, the right to interpret his relation to causes philanthropic, political, industrial, denominational, in the large. He sees his people become restive under the rapid fire of drives to which they have been subjected in the years immediately past. He does not put it all down to their lethargy or selfishness. He knows them better than that. He knows that all of them are generous, that most of them are enlisted in the regular support of many causes which have come home to them with immediacy, and that many of them are giving to the point of sacrifice and beyond. But leaving finances at one side, he feels the peril of a dwindling congregation as the result of the intrusion of all this machinery into the foreground of their minds. They come to church in the patient, and often dumb, hope that they may find bread for a hunger at the heart of them; but, in accordance with the new Christian year and t he pressure of authority or popular opinion, he has to offer them a stone in the way of one more programme to be explained and ‘set up.’ They are very patient under it all. But the Average Man is thinking of serving an ultimatum on the minister. And the minister, being only a middleman, can merely pass this ultimatum along to those ‘higher up.’

The modern parish minister, in all charity and with abundant good-will, is about to serve notice on all parties concerned that he must be allowed to preach religion, in something of its totality, week by week, or else the denominations and the philanthropies must look for some other kind of man to do their job.

He would make perfectly clear what he means by these words. He would assure every social agency in modern society that he regards its efforts as a valid and essential part of the total religious work of our time. He counts none of them secular in the sense that it is outside the moral need and duty of the day. His attitude is not one of indifference, but of concern for the whole body of organized and efficient altruism. But he must affirm that these causes have now become so numerous, and their fields of activity so specialized, that no one of them can effectively monopolize the religious spirit, or offer itself as a modern equivalent for the total idea of God. He would remind some of them that they seem to him to be drifting in this direction. He sometimes feels a touch of fanaticism and bigotry about their attitude toward him, his church, and the world at large. They do not realize that the last caller who left his study and the next to come are both advocates of causes as worthy as that which has the carpet for the moment, and that the minister’s task is not to distract seekers after God by a multiplicity of modern attributes of God, but to try to help men to something like the total vision. In short, the minister’s task is not to cry aloud or to peddle at the cross-roads the wares of any one or half-dozen worthy philanthropies, but to help all who pass the place where he stands to realize that ‘One is your Father and all ye are brethren.’

Having said this, the parish minister would go on to say that this position, to his mind, does not mean retiring again to some innocuous generalities, known as ‘the pure gospel.’ He holds out no hope to those who, for selfish reasons, would like to see the return of the happy days when the Church confined itself to religion and did not meddle with business and politics. A disgruntled parishioner of Newman’s once objected that the Cardinal’s preaching was interfering with the way he did business. ‘Sir,’ said Newman, ‘it is the business of the Church to interfere with people.’ The parish minister sees the Church as Newman saw it. But his interference with the world is a kind of total interference with its tempers and spirits, an effort to combat and convert irreligious points of view, rather than a hasty attempt to arbitrate every concrete dilemma which comes along. If the parish minister of to-day claims for himself the right to preach religion as he sees it, in its totality, that religion will not be some harmless platitude or remote speculation: it will be the sum of the fundamental tempers which must enter into the making of a religious society. He merely serves notice on the world of affairs that, when he says religion, he does not mean some pale, private piety, but that he has in mind Saint Paul’s description of Christianity as ‘dynamite,’ in that he is thinking about a society which nothing short of some revolution of worldly points of view will ever achieve.

Finally, the parish minister would invite those who manage the affairs of his denomination to take long views of his task and theirs. They are his representatives. He has been at times a poor constituent. He admires their fine courage in seeing a world far broader than his bailiwick. But he sometimes feels that there is too much Platonism and too little Aristotelianism about them when they approach him and his people. It is hard for them to get their vision focused as they look at the single parish and its minister. They find it relatively easy to assess the parish so much and turn the job over to him to complete. He would remind them that he cannot cry ‘Wolf’ indefinitely. His rhetoric is limited; the sentimental touch wears out; at last he falls back upon an appeal for personal loyalty to himself.

But that process has its end, and beyond he cannot go. Moreover, he would say to his denominational representatives quite candidly that he can no more substitute the World Movement of our Denomination for the idea of God, than he can substitute the trichina or Senegambia. And that is what, at times, it seems to him that he is expected to do. Organizing teams, and appointing captains by their tens and hundreds, and fine-tooth-combing the parish once more is not necessarily having a religious experience; and the parish minister is on the ragged edge of concluding that about the quickest way to undercut the whole support of the Church-at-Large is to let its programmes and machinery get into the foreground and stay there. For men will not permanently, or even long, accept as a substitute for the public worship of God a congregational committee meeting on Sunday morning to discuss in detail the blue-print plans of the New Jerusalem.

The parish minister insists upon some restoration of his ancient liberty of prophesying, not because he is indifferent, or wishes his church to be indifferent, to any and all of these claims on time, thought, service, and money, but because he feels the danger of religious short-sightedness, and even of fanaticism, in the urgent clamor of these many voices. He believes that, if men can be helped to true and adequate ideas of God, godly men, to whom the task comes immediately home, will dispose of trichinosis in due time, and will maintain all other valid causes outside the Church and inside. But he fears that, if men lose the idea of God, and forget how to practise the Presence of God, the trichinæ will multiply and the sects will indeed collapse, because the ruins will have been emptied for good and all, as the result of a fundamentally short-sighted conception both of the Christian Church and of the Parish Ministry.

Oh, if we draw a circle premature,
Heedless of far gain,
Greedy for quick returns of profit, sure Had is our bargain.

It is against that bad bargain, into which it seems to him the causes and agencies have been threatening to drive him, that the parish minister is trying to warn the world and to fortify himself.