The Impatience of a Parson

A Blessed Companion Is a Book.

by H. R. L. Sheppard. New York: Doubleday, Doran & Co. 1928. 12mo. xviii + 227 pp. $2.00.
The Impatience of a Parson, by the Reverend H. R. L. Sheppard, is written from within the Church of England. The Church of England has produced among its clergy two distinct types. First, a small group of highly developed scholars, who have adorned its cathedral pulpits and given stability to its Bench of Bishops. Second, a much larger group of parish priests who have given their lesser intellectual attainments and their greater spiritual qualities to the service of the English people in the parishes of that country. In both of these types the Church of England is unexcelled by any Church in Christendom. The parish clergy of England do not, as a rule, run to intellect. While the average cultural standard is high, the intellectual expression is not remarkable. Mr. Sheppard belongs to the second type.
The problem presented by his book— namely, the presence of a Flaming Spirit without the power to give rational guidance—is solved by remembering this fact: a man distinguished in the sphere of personal religion is making an excursion into the strange country of ecclesiasticism. The man of devotion who has worked and preached successfully in a parochial cure now ventures, all intoxicated with the wine of Heaven, into the region where intellectual processes alone are effective. The reader will be caught by the flaming soul of the author, but will be bewildered, if not led astray, by the conclusions of a mind tortured by goodness, yet inconsequent in its processes.
This is a good book. Its greatness lies in its uncompromising acceptance of the Christ ideal, and the eager energy with which it seeks to press this ideal on the religious community. Its error lies in assuming that a Church numbering millions can corporately rise to the highest individual attainment. For Mr. Sheppard’s impatience is with the Church.
The book falls naturally into three parts: first, a proclamation of the ideals of Christianity; secondly, a charge that the Church has failed these ideals; thirdly, a proposed cure.
Readers will be carried into agreement by the eager spirit so hot-footed for Christ. Few will dissent from the statement of what a Christian man should be. Only the emotional, and uncritical, and unhistorically inclined, will agree with the claim on which the integrity of his charge stands or falls. The charge is here: ‘I shall declare my belief that no Church can be actually Christian that corporately expresses values which differ from the outstanding values of Christ’; and again, ‘A Church may not be corporately less Christian than the individual Christian.’
In this second quotation the ‘individual Christian’ is obviously one selected by the author, an ideal Christian. The answer to the statement is that no corporation (least of all a Church numbering millions, of all degrees of culture, intelligence, morality; some royal souls, some picked up from the gutter yesterday) can successfully claim corporately to equal the highest individual in it. The old saying, ’A corporation has no body to kick and no soul to save,’is truer than Mr. Sheppard’s ardent claim. The sum of a corporation’s vices will swamp the virtues of its best member.
In the first quotation the rub lies in Mr. Sheppard’s use of the word ‘differ.’ Does he mean that no Church will differ in degree of Christ-attainment from the Christ Himself? Or does he mean difference in kind? Difference in kind, of course, means abandonment of Christ. But all that is wrong with Christians individually, and Churches generally, lies in the fact, not that they fail to accept Christ’s ideals, but that they follow it too far off; and, being mixed humans, this is inevitable.
The Christian Church has never entirely lived on the plane of Christ, hence ardent souls have arisen, whether Saint Francis, or Savonarola, or Mr. Sheppard, to call it upward. If actual Christattainment were the test, Churdles would have to ‘fence their tables’ against poor souls who need it most, and who are the best justification for its existence and continuance. Actually, there is no Christian nation, there is no perfectly Christian Church; yet, as a matter of fact, the Church is becoming more Christlike, and proportionately the world is becoming more Christian.
The third part of the book, which offers Mr. Sheppard’s cure, is pathetic. Conferences of Christian Churches are passing such resolutions every year. The cure of Christianity by resolutions, which are creditable to the devout heart but singularly vague, leaves us in darkness. Here our Flaming Spirit burnt itself out.