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Transmission of Orders

British Isles Genealogy | Critical And Historical Essays, Volume II

The transmission of orders from the Apostles to an English clergyman of the present day must have been through a very great number of intermediate persons. Now, it is probable that no clergyman in the Church of England can trace up his spiritual genealogy from bishop to bishop so far back as the time of the Conquest. There remain many centuries during which the history of the transmission of his orders is buried in utter darkness. And whether he be a priest by succession from the Apostles depends on the question, whether during that long period, some thousands of events took place, any one of which may, without any gross improbability, be supposed not to have taken place. We have not a tittle of evidence for any one of these events. We do not even know the names or countries of the men to whom it is taken for granted that these events happened. We do not know whether the spiritual ancestors of any one of our contemporaries were Spanish or Armenian, Arian or Orthodox. In the utter absence of all particular evidence, we are surely entitled to require that there should be very strong evidence indeed that the strictest regularity was observed in every generation, and that Episcopal functions were exercised by none who were not bishops by succession from the Apostles. But we have no such evidence. In the first place, we have not full and accurate information touching the polity of the Church during the century which followed the persecution of Nero. That, during this period, the overseers of all the little Christian societies scattered through the Roman empire held their spiritual authority by virtue of holy orders derived from the Apostles, cannot be proved by contemporary testimony, or by any testimony which can be regarded as decisive. The question, whether the primitive ecclesiastical constitution bore a greater resemblance to the Anglican or to the Calvinistic model, has been fiercely disputed. It is a question on which men of eminent parts, learning, and piety have differed, and do to this day differ very widely. It is a question on which at least a full half of the ability and erudition of Protestant Europe has ever since the Reformation, been opposed to the Anglican pretensions. Mr. Gladstone himself, we are persuaded, would have the candor to allow that, if no evidence were admitted but that which is furnished by the genuine Christian literature of the first two centuries, judgment would not go in favor of prelacy. And if he looked at the subject as calmly as he would look at a controversy respecting the Roman Comitia or the Anglo-Saxon Witenagemote, he would probably think that the absence of contemporary evidence during so long a period was a defect which later attestations, however numerous, could but very imperfectly supply. It is surely impolitic to rest the doctrines of the English Church on a historical theory which, to ninety-nine Protestants out of a hundred, would seem much more questionable than any of those doctrines. Nor is this all. Extreme obscurity overhangs the history of the middle ages; and the facts which are discernible through that obscurity prove that the Church was exceedingly ill regulated. We read of sees of the highest dignity openly sold, transferred backwards and forwards by popular tumult, bestowed sometimes by a profligate woman on her paramour, sometimes by a warlike baron on a kinsman still a stripling. We read of bishops of ten years old, of bishops of five years old, of many popes who were mere boys, and who rivaled the frantic dissoluteness of Caligula, nay, of a female pope. And though this last story, once believed throughout all Europe, has been disproved by the strict researches of modern criticism, the most discerning of those who reject it have admitted that it is not intrinsically improbable. In our own island, it was the complaint of Alfred that not a single priest south of the Thames, and very few on the north, could read either Latin or English. And this illiterate clergy exercised their ministry amidst a rude and half-heathen population, in which Danish pirates, unchristened, or christened by the hundred on a field of battle, were mingled with a Saxon peasantry scarcely better instructed in religion. The state of Ireland was still worse. "Tota illa per universam Hiberniam dissolutio, ecclesiasticae disciplinae, illa ubique pro consuetudine Christiana saeva subintroducta barbaries," are the expressions of St. Bernard. We are, therefore, at a loss to conceive how any clergyman can feel confident that his orders have come down correctly. Whether he be really a successor of the Apostles depends on an immense number of such contingencies as these; whether, under King Ethelwolf, a stupid priest might not, while baptizing several scores of Danish prisoners who had just made their option between the font and the gallows, inadvertently omit to perform the rite on one of these graceless proselytes; whether, in the seventh century, an impostor, who had never received consecration, might not have passed himself off as a bishop on a rude tribe of Scots; whether a lad of twelve did really, by a ceremony huddled over when he was too drunk to know what he was about, convey the Episcopal character to a lad of ten.

Since the first century, not less, in all probability, than a hundred thousand persons have exercised the functions of bishops. That many of these have not been bishops by apostolically succession is quite certain. Hooker admits that deviations from the general rule have been frequent, and with a boldness worthy of his high and statesmanlike intellect, pronounces them to have been often justifiable. "There may be," says he, "sometimes very just and sufficient reason to allow ordination made without a bishop. Where the Church must needs have some ordained, and neither hath nor can have possibly a bishop to ordain, in case of such necessity the ordinary institution of God hath given oftentimes, and may give place. And therefore we are not simply without exception to urge a lineal descent of power from the Apostles by continued succession of bishops in every effectual ordination." There can be little doubt, we think, that the succession, if it ever existed, has often been interrupted in ways much less respectable. For example, let us suppose, and we are sure that no well-informed person will think the supposition by any means improbable, that, in the third century, a man of no principle and some parts, who has, in the course of a roving and discreditable life, been a catechumen at Antioch, and has there become familiar with Christian usages and doctrines afterwards rambles to Marseilles, where he finds a Christian society, rich, liberal, and simple-hearted. He pretends to be a Christian, attracts notice by his abilities and affected zeal, and is raised to the Episcopal dignity without having ever been baptized. That such an event might happen, nay, was very likely to happen, cannot well be disputed by any one who has read the Life of Peregrinus. The very virtues, indeed, which distinguished the early Christians, seem to have laid them open to those arts which deceived

"Uriel, though Regent of the Sun, and held The sharpest-sighted spirit of all in Heaven."

Now this unbaptized impostor is evidently no successor of the Apostles. He is not even a Christian; and all orders derived through such a pretended bishop are altogether invalid. Do we know enough of the state of the world and of the Church in the third century to be able to say with confidence that there were not at that time twenty such pretended bishops? Every such case makes a break in the apostolically succession.

Now, suppose that a break, such as Hooker admits to have been both common and justifiable, or such as we have supposed to be produced by hypocrisy and cupidity, were found in the chain which connected the Apostles with any of the missionaries who first spread Christianity in the wilder parts of Europe, who can say how extensive the effect of this single break may be? Suppose that St. Patrick, for example, if ever there was such a man, or Theodore of Tarsus, who is said to have consecrated in the seventh century the first bishops of many English sees, had not the true apostolically orders, is it not conceivable that such a circumstance may affect the orders of many clergymen now living? Even if it were possible, which it assuredly is not, to prove that the Church had the apostolically orders in the third century, it would be impossible to prove that those orders were not in the twelfth century so far lost that no ecclesiastic could be certain of the legitimate descent of his own spiritual character. And if this were so, no subsequent precautions could repair the evil.

Chillingworth states the conclusion at which he had arrived on this subject in these very remarkable words: "That of ten thousand probables no one should be false; that of ten thousand requisites, whereof any one may fail, not one should be wanting, this to me is extremely improbable, and even cousin-german to impossible. So that the assurance hereof is like a machine composed of an innumerable multitude of pieces, of which it is strangely unlikely but some will be out of order; and yet, if any one be so, the whole fabric falls of necessity to the ground: and he that shall put them together, and maturely consider all the possible ways of lapsing and nullifying a priesthood in the Church of Rome, will be very inclinable to think that it is a hundred to one, that among a hundred seeming priests, there is not one true one; nay, that it is not a thing very improbable that, amongst those many millions which make up the Romish hierarchy, there are not twenty true." We do not pretend to know to what precise extent the canonists of Oxford agree with those of Rome as to the circumstances which nullify orders. We will not, therefore, go so far as Chillingworth. We only say that we see no satisfactory proof of the fact, that the Church of England possesses the apostolically succession. And, after all, if Mr. Gladstone could prove the apostolically succession, what would the apostolically succession prove? He says that "we have among us the ordained hereditary witnesses of the truth, conveying it to us through an unbroken series from our Lord Jesus Christ and his Apostles." Is this the fact? Is there any doubt that the orders of the Church of England are generally derived from the Church of Rome? Does not the Church of England declare, does not Mr. Gladstone himself admit, that the Church of Rome teaches much error and condemns much truth? And is it not quite clear, that as far as the doctrines of the Church of England differ from those of the Church of Rome, so far the Church of England conveys the truth through a broken series?

That the founders, lay and clerical, of the Church of England, corrected all that required correction in the doctrines of the Church of Rome, and nothing more, may be quite true. But we never can admit the circumstance that the Church of England possesses the apostolically succession as a proof that she is thus perfect. No stream can rise higher than its fountain. The succession of ministers in the Church of England, derived as it is through the Church of Rome, can never prove more for the Church of England than it proves for the Church of Rome. But this is not all. The Arian Churches which once predominated in the kingdoms of the Ostrogoths, the Visigoths, the Burgundians, the Vandals, and the Lombards, were all Episcopal Churches, and all had a fairer claim than that of England to the apostolically succession, as being much nearer to the apostolically times. In the East, the Greek Church, which is at variance on points of faith with all the Western Churches, has an equal claim to this succession. The Nestorian, the Eutychian, the Jacobite Churches, all heretical, all condemned by councils, of which even Protestant divines have generally spoken with respect, had an equal claim to the apostolically succession. Now if, of teachers having apostolically orders, a vast majority have taught much error, if a large proportion have taught deadly heresy, if on the other hand, as Mr. Gladstone himself admits, Churches not having apostolically orders, that of Scotland for example, have been nearer to the standard of orthodoxy than the majority of teachers who have had apostolically orders, how can he possibly call upon us to submit our private judgment to the authority of a Church on the ground that she has these orders?

Mr. Gladstone dwells much on the importance of unity in doctrine. Unity he tells us, is essential to truth. And this is most unquestionable. But when he goes on to tell us that this unity is the characteristic of the Church of England, that she is one in body and in spirit, we are compelled to differ from him widely. The apostolically succession she may or may not have. But unity she most certainly has not, and never has had. It is a matter of perfect notoriety, that her formularies are framed in such a manner as to admit to her highest offices men who differ from each other more widely than a very high Churchman differs from a Catholic, or a very low Churchman from a Presbyterian; and that the general leaning of the Church, with respect to some important questions, has been sometimes one way and sometimes another. Take, for example, the questions agitated between the Calvinists and the Arminians. Do we find in the Church of England, with respect to those questions, that unity which is essential to truth? Was it ever found in the Church? Is it not certain that, at the end of the sixteenth century, the rulers of the Church held doctrines as Calvinistic as ever were held by any Cameronian, and not only held them, but persecuted every body who did not hold them? And is it not equally certain, that the rulers of the Church have, in very recent times, considered Calvinism as a disqualification for high preferment, if not for holy orders? Look at the questions which Archbishop Whitgift propounded to Barret, questions framed in the very spirit of William Huntington, S. S.1 And then look at the eighty-seven questions which Bishop Marsh, within our own memory, propounded to candidates for ordination. We should be loth to say that either of these celebrated prelates had intruded himself into a Church whose doctrines he abhorred, and that he deserved to be stripped of his gown. Yet it is quite certain that one or other of them must have been very greatly in error. John Wesley again, and Cowper's friend, John Newton, were both Presbyters of this Church. Both were men of ability. Both we believe to have been men of rigid integrity, men who would not have subscribed a Confession of Faith which they disbelieved for the richest bishopric in the empire. Yet, on the subject of predestination, Newton was strongly attached to doctrines which Wesley designated as "blasphemy, which might make the ears of a Christian to tingle." Indeed it will not be disputed that the clergy of the Established Church are divided as to these questions, and that her formularies are not found practically to exclude even scrupulously honest men of both sides from her altars. It is notorious that some of her most distinguished rulers think this latitude a good thing, and would be sorry to see it restricted in favor of either opinion. And herein we most cordially agree with them. But what becomes of the unity of the Church, and of that truth to which unity is essential? Mr. Gladstone tells us that the Regium Donum was given originally to orthodox Presbyterian ministers, but that part of it is now received by their heterodox successors. "This," he says, "serves to illustrate the difficulty in which governments entangle themselves, when they covenant with arbitrary systems of opinions, and not with the Church alone. The opinion passes away, but the gift remains." But is it not clear, that if a strong Supralapsarian had, under Whitgift's primacy, left a large estate at the disposal of the bishops for ecclesiastical purposes, in the hope that the rulers of the Church would abide by Whitgift's theology, he would really have been giving his substance for the support of doctrines which he detested? The opinion would have passed away, and the gift would have remained.

This is only a single instance. What wide differences of opinion respecting the operation of the sacraments are held by bishops, doctors, presbyters of the Church of England, all men who have conscientiously declared their assent to her articles, all men who are, according to Mr. Gladstone, ordained hereditary witnesses of the truth, all men whose voices make up what, he tells us, is the voice of true and reasonable authority! Here, again, the Church has not unity; and as unity is the essential condition of truth, the Church has not the truth.

Nay, take the very question which we are discussing with Mr. Gladstone. To what extent does the Church of England allow of the right of private judgment? What degree of authority does she claim for herself in virtue of the apostolically succession of her ministers? Mr. Gladstone, a very able and a very honest man, takes a view of this matter widely differing from the view taken by others whom he will admit to be as able and as honest as himself. People who altogether dissent from him on this subject eat the bread of the Church, preach in her pulpits, dispense her sacraments, confer her orders, and carry on that apostolically succession, the nature and importance of which, according to him, they do not comprehend. Is this unity? Is this truth?

It will be observed that we are not putting cases of dishonest men who, for the sake of lucre, falsely pretend to believe in the doctrines of an establishment. We are putting cases of men as upright as ever lived, differing on theological questions of the highest importance and avowing that difference, are yet priests and prelates of the same church. We therefore say, that on some points which Mr. Gladstone himself thinks of vital importance, the Church has either not spoken at all, or, what is for all practical purposes the same thing, has not spoken in language to be understood even by honest and sagacious divines. The religion of the Church of England is so far from exhibiting that unity of doctrine which Mr. Gladstone represents as her distinguishing glory, that it is, in fact, a bundle of religious systems without number. It comprises the religious system of Bishop Tomline, and the religious system of John Newton, and all the religious systems which lie between them. It comprises the religious system of Mr. Newman, and the religious system of the Archbishop of Dublin, and all the religious systems which lie between them. All these different opinions are held, avowed, preached, printed, within the pale of the Church, by men of unquestioned integrity and understanding.

Do we make this diversity a topic of reproach to the Church of England? Far from it. We would oppose with all our power every attempt to narrow her basis? Would to God that, a hundred and fifty years ago, a good king and a good primate had possessed the power as well as the will to widen it! It was a noble enterprise, worthy of William and of Tillotson. But what becomes of all Mr. Gladstone's eloquent exhortations to unity? Is it not mere mockery to attach so much importance to unity in form and name, where there is so little in substance, to shudder at the thought of two Churches in alliance with one State, and to endure with patience the spectacle of a hundred sects battling within one Church? And is it not clear that Mr. Gladstone is bound, on all his own principles, to abandon the defense of a Church in which unity is not found? Is it not clear that he is bound to divide the House of Commons against every grant of money which may be proposed for the clergy of the Established Church in the colonies? He objects to the vote for Maynooth, because it is monstrous to pay one man to teach truth, and another to denounce that truth as falsehood. But it is a mere chance whether any sum which he votes for the English Church in any colony will go to the maintenance of an Arminian or a Calvinist, of a man like Mr. Froude, or of a man like Dr. Arnold. It is a mere chance, therefore, whether it will go to support a teacher of truth, or one who will denounce that truth as falsehood.

This argument seems to us at once to dispose of all that part of Mr. Gladstone's book which respects grants of public money to dissenting bodies. All such grants he condemns. But surely, if it be wrong to give the money of the public for the support of those who teach any false doctrine, it is wrong to give that money for the support of the ministers of the Established Church. For it is quite certain that, whether Calvin or Arminius be in the right, whether Laud or Burnet be in the right, a great deal of false doctrine is taught by the ministers of the Established Church. If it be said that the points on which the clergy of the Church of England differ ought to be passed over, for the sake of the many important points on which they agree, why may not the same argument be maintained with respect to the other sects which hold, in common with the Church of England, the fundamental doctrines of Christianity? The principle that a ruler is bound in conscience to propagate religious truth, and to propagate no religious doctrine which is untrue, is abandoned as soon as it is admitted that a gentleman of Mr. Gladstone's opinions may lawfully vote the public money to a chaplain whose opinions are those of Paley or of Simeon. The whole question then becomes one of degree. Of course no individual and no government can justifiably propagate error for the sake of propagating error. But both individuals and governments must work with such machinery as they have; and no human machinery is to be found which will impart truth without some alloy of error. We have shown irrefragably, as we think, that the Church of England does not afford such a machinery. The question then is this; with what degree of imperfection in our machinery must we put up? And to this question we do not see how any general answer can be given. We must be guided by circumstances. It would, for example, be very criminal in a Protestant to contribute to the sending of Jesuit missionaries among a Protestant population. But we do not conceive that a Protestant would be to blame for giving assistance to Jesuit missionaries who might be engaged in converting the Siamese to Christianity. That tares are mixed with the wheat is matter of regret; but it is better that wheat and tares should grow together than that the promise of the year should be blighted.

Mr. Gladstone, we see with deep regret, censures the British Government in India for distributing a small sum among the Catholic priests who minister to the spiritual wants of our Irish soldiers. Now, let us put a case to him. A Protestant gentleman is attended by a Catholic servant, in a part of the country where there is no Catholic congregation within many miles. The servant is taken ill, and is given over. He desires, in great trouble of mind, to receive the last sacraments of his Church. His master sends off a messenger in a chaise and four, with orders to bring a confessor from a town at a considerable distance. Here a Protestant lays out money for the purpose of causing religious instruction and consolation to be given by a Catholic priest. Has he committed a sin? Has he not acted like a good master and a good Christian? Would Mr. Gladstone accuse him of "laxity of religious principle," of "confounding truth with falsehood," of "considering the support of religion as a boon to an individual, not as a homage to truth?" But how if this servant had, for the sake of his master, undertaken a journey which removed him from the place where he might easily have obtained religious attendance? How if his death were occasioned by a wound received in defending his master? Should we not then say that the master had only fulfilled a sacred obligation of duty? Now, Mr. Gladstone himself owns that "nobody can think that the personality of the State is more stringent, or entails stronger obligations, than that of the individual." How then stands the case of the Indian Government? Here is a poor fellow enlisted in Clare or Kerry, sent over fifteen thousand miles of sea, quartered in a depressing and pestilential climate. He fights for the Government; he conquers for it; he is wounded; he is laid on his pallet, withering away with fever, under that terrible sun, without a friend near him. He pines for the consolations of that religion which, neglected perhaps in the season of health and vigor, now comes back to his mind, associated with all the overpowering recollections of his earlier days, and of the home which he is never to see again. And because the State for which he dies sends a priest of his own faith to stand at his bedside, and to tell him, in language which at once commands his love and confidence, of the common Father, of the common Redeemer, of the common hope of immortality, because the State for which he dies does not abandon him in his last moments to the care of heathen attendants, or employ a chaplain of a different creed to vex his departing spirit with a controversy about the Council of Trent, Mr. Gladstone finds that India presents "a melancholy picture," and that there is "a large allowance of false principle" in the system pursued there. Most earnestly do we hope that our remarks may induce Mr. Gladstone to reconsider this part of his work, and may prevent him from expressing in that high assembly, in which he must always be heard with attention, opinions so unworthy of his character.

We have now said almost all that we think it necessary to say respecting Mr. Gladstone's theory. And perhaps it would be safest for us to stop here. It is much easier to pull down than to build up. Yet, that we may give Mr. Gladstone his revenge, we will state concisely our own views respecting the alliance of Church and State.

We set out in company with Warburton, and remain with him pretty sociably till we come to his contract; a contract which Mr. Gladstone very properly designates as a fiction. We consider the primary end of Government as a purely temporal end, the protection of the persons and property of men.

We think that Government, like every other contrivance of human wisdom, from the highest to the lowest, is likely to answer its main end best when it is constructed with a single view to that end. Mr. Gladstone, who loves Plato, will not quarrel with us for illustrating our proposition, after Plato's fashion, from the most familiar objects. Take cutlery, for example. A blade which is designed both to shave and to carve, will certainly not shave so well as a razor, or carve so well as a carving-knife. An academy of painting, which should also be a bank, would, in all probability, exhibit very bad pictures and discount very bad bills. A gas company, which should also be an infant school society, would, we apprehend, light the streets ill, and teach the children ill. On this principle, we think that Government should be organized solely with a view to its main end; and that no part of its efficiency for that end should be sacrificed in order to promote any other end however excellent.

But does it follow from hence that Governments ought never to pursue any end other than their main end? In no wise. Though it is desirable that every institution should have a main end, and should be so formed as to be in the highest degree efficient for that main end; yet if, without any sacrifice of its efficiency for that end, it can pursue any other good end, it ought to do so. Thus, the end for which a hospital is built is the relief of the sick, not the beautifying of the street. To sacrifice the health of the sick to splendor of architectural effect, to place the building in a bad air only that it may present a more commanding front to a great public place, to make the wards hotter or cooler than they ought to be, in order that the columns and windows of the exterior may please the passers-by would be monstrous. But if, without any sacrifice of the chief object, the hospital can be made an ornament to the metropolis, it would be absurd not to make it so.

In the same manner, if a Government can, without any sacrifice of its main end, promote any other good work, it ought to do so. The encouragement of the fine arts, for example, is by no means the main end of Government; and it would be absurd, in constituting a Government, to bestow a thought on the question, whether it would be a Government likely to train Raphaels or Domenichinos. But it by no means follows that it is improper for a Government to form a national gallery of pictures. The same may be said of patronage bestowed on learned men, of the publication of archives, of the collecting of libraries, menageries, plants, fossils, antiques, of journeys and voyages for purposes of geographical discovery or astronomical observation. It is not for these ends that Government is constituted. But it may well happen that a Government may have at its command resources which will enable it, without any injury to its main end, to pursue these collateral ends far more effectually than any individual or any voluntary association could do. If so, Government ought to pursue these collateral ends.

It is still more evidently the duty of Government to promote, always in subordination to its main end, everything which is useful as a means for the attaining of that main end. The improvement of steam navigation, for example, is by no means a primary object of Government. But as steam vessels are useful for the purpose of national defense, and for the purpose of facilitating intercourse between distant provinces, and of thereby consolidating the force of the empire, it may be the bounden duty of Government to encourage ingenious men to perfect an invention which so directly tends to make the State more efficient for its great primary end.

Now on both these grounds, the instruction of the people may with propriety engage the care of the Government. That the people should be well educated, is in itself a good thing; and the State ought therefore to promote this object, if it can do so without any sacrifice of its primary object. The education of the people, conducted on those principles of morality which are common to all the forms of Christianity, is highly valuable as a means of promoting the main object for which Government exists, and is on this ground well deserving the attention of rulers. We will not at present go into the general question of education; but will confine our remarks to the subject which is more immediately before us, namely, the religious instruction of the people.

1 One question was, whether God had from eternity reprobated certain persons; and why? The answer which contented the Archbishop was "Affirmative, et quia voluit."

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Critical And Historical Essays, Volume II, Thomas Babbington Macaulay, 1843

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