Candlesticks and Catholicity


Sermon preached by the Rev'd N.J.A. Humphrey, Festal Evensong, 5 Easter – 20 April

2008. Text: Romans 5:1-11.

 

      In 1887 Charles Henry Brent, a newly-ordained curate at St. Paul's in Buffalo, was
 
given responsibility for this parish, then St. Andrew's Mission. He immediately got to
 
work making important changes. Father Brent put candles on the altar, celebrated the


Eucharist every Sunday, and wore a chasuble. These 'innovations' were too much for some

to bear, and under a cloud of controversy, he left the diocese after less than a year

at St. Andrew's. Three decades later, the diocese elected Charles Henry Brent its

bishop. I imagine he felt some measure of vindication. Now he could put candlesticks

wherever he wanted!

 

I have to wonder, in fact, whether Bishop Brent had the St. Andrew's candlestick

controversy in mind when in 1926 he preached at the consecration of Dr. E.M. Stires as

Bishop of Long Island. Standing in the pulpit of Saint Thomas Church, Fifth Avenue,

Brent proclaimed,

   
Our light is a light to be set on a candlestick that it may light the whole house.

It is not to be kept safe under a cover where it will be protected from the wind…The

more catholic a church claims to be, the more should it be found in the thick of

things…Catholicity is fearless, never afraid of being snuffed out by contacts with that

which is less catholic. Indeed, catholicity, like freedom, lives and retains its power

by living perilously. Never is any person so safe as when trying to seize an

opportunity which leads into danger. The man and the church who practice catholicity

will do more to bring about understanding and cooperation between the churches than any

one else, as well as learn the meaning of the glorious liberty of the children of God.

[Note 1]



Bishop Brent's words on catholicity are particularly appropriate as we celebrate the

175th anniversary of the beginning of the Oxford Movement, because they get at the very

heart of what Anglo-catholicism is really all about: not candlesticks for candlesticks'

sake, but catholicity for the sake of communion and reconciliation in Christ. I imagine

this was a lesson that Charles Henry Brent only learned over time, as he progressed

from a liturgically-smitten curate (such as I am) to a conflict-tested ecclesiologist

(such as I hope to become).



       For those of you unfamiliar with Charles Henry Brent, he was a missionary bishop in the

Philippines who fought tirelessly against opium trafficking. He was also a committed

ecumenist who chaired the first World Conference on Faith and Order in Lausanne,

Switzerland, in 1927. He accepted election as Bishop of Western New York, having

declined three previous elections in order to remain in the Philippines, but only

returned to Buffalo after serving as Senior Chaplain of the American Expeditionary

Forces in Europe during World War I. [Note 2]



      As a missionary and a military chaplain, Brent learned what it meant to be in foreign

and hostile territory. Candlesticks on altars dimmed in comparison to the burning

conflicts of the opium trade and trench warfare. Yet in Bishop Brent's life and thought

we can detect an overarching concern for unity and fellowship, for love in the midst of

enmity. Surely, the words we heard from Romans chapter five this evening, appointed for

the feast of St. Anselm of Canterbury, must have resonated deep within his soul: 'But

God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us…For

if while we were enemies, we were reconciled to God through the death of his Son, much

more surely, having been reconciled, will we be saved by his life.'


      For Brent, the most concrete expression of reconciliation would be found in working for

the reunion of the divided churches of both East and West. As the Jesuit historian

Eugene C. Bianchi writes in 'The Ecumenical Thought of Bishop Charles Henry Brent,'

Brent believed 'that the unity of the Church in the world was God's will…Brent deemed

the cause of unity vital to all Christian life and thought. He could not understand

those who were idle or indifferent in this cause.' [Note 3]


      At that first World Conference on Faith and Order in 1927, he told the assembly,

It is for conference not controversy that we are called…conference is a measure of

peace; controversy a weapon of war. Conference is self-abasing; controversy exalts

self. Conference in all lowliness strives to understand the viewpoint of others;

controversy to impose its view on all comers. Conference looks for unities; controversy

exaggerates differences… [Note 4]


In short, the spirit of conference might aptly be called the spirit of catholicity.


     Reflecting on these words this past week in preparation for being with you this

evening, I wondered: How well do we contemporary Anglo-catholics actually manifest this

spirit of catholicity? And what about Anglicans in general? If the spirit of

catholicity is the spirit of conference, what are we to say of the Lambeth Conference

this summer - a far smaller and less representative assembly than the first World

Conference on Faith and Order! How can those of us of a catholic disposition who aren't

bishops support our bishops in fulfilling Brent's vision of catholicity? How can we

help to remove the obstacles to unity that our church currently faces?

For his part, 'When Bishop Brent turned his attention to obstacles in the path toward

union,' Bianchi writes, 'one theme recurred constantly: sectarianism…which he termed

'the cult of the incomplete.' For Brent, the truly catholic mind was rare; most

Christians were devotees of the cult of the incomplete.' [Note 5]


     According to Brent, there was 'no graver offense than to use a Catholic garment to hide

a sectarian heart.' Or, as he proclaimed in one sermon, 'Churches must be ready to die

before they are worthy to live. We hug our tenets because they are ours, and we reject

the tenets of others because they are theirs. We look at the brand on this or that

embodiment of truth rather than at the embodiment.' [Note 6]


In that word 'embodiment' we can find a clue to the link between church unity and the

centrality of the Incarnation in Brent's thought. Brent writes,


The Incarnation means nearness - the nearness of strength to weakness, of wisdom to

ignorance, of wealth to poverty, of purity to uncleanness, of God to man. Those

churches which claim the highest lineage and the largest deposit of moral and spiritual

wealth must be leaders in committing themselves unequivocally and irrevocably to the

principle of the Incarnation, for our Lord's great disappointment of a divided Church

is to be done away. [Note 7]



      Nearly eight decades after Bishop Brent uttered these prophetic words, the ecumenical

situation has not much improved. What is worse, Anglicanism now faces a crisis of

internal unity, and some of the strongest proponents of separatism or secessionism dare

to call themselves Anglo-catholics. I am here this evening to tell you one simple

thing: whether liberal or conservative, you cannot be truly catholic if you are not

willing to suffer for the sake of reconciliation.



     To commend suffering is easier said than done. For my part, I shrink from pain. My

wife, were she here, would tell you I am a real wimp - a paper cut will put me out of

commission for at least a day and a half. And I won't shut up about how much it stings,

either! I have a low tolerance for physical pain. Nevertheless, I can with some measure

of integrity commend suffering for the sake of reconciliation because this is the way

of the Cross, the way of true discipleship. It is not suffering for suffering's sake,

but so that we can share in Christ's work of drawing the world into God's saving

embrace.


      If we embrace suffering for the sake of reconciliation, we can, as Paul in Romans 5

puts it, 'boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and

endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint

us, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has

been given to us.'


      'Endurance produces character, and character produces hope.' Endurance - now there's

something I find lacking in our church today. If the situation in the Anglican

Communion at times seems hopeless, perhaps it is because we are lacking in endurance,

without which hope is impossible. We will always be in conflict over something or

other, but if we can endure, we will find that hope naturally - even supernaturally -

follows.


       As Bianchi writes, Bishop Brent 'held that constructive loyalty to one's own communion

would contribute to the reunion of the churches. Allegiance to one's own church often

demands positive criticism, and a willingness to call in question familiar patterns of

thought and action.' [Note 8] What timely words to remember. Loyalty and allegiance to

communion do not entail any compromise of the truth or of the passionate search for

justice - rather, they comprise a way of life that leads to the discovery of deeper

truth and greater justice. To be catholic is to desire unity, and to desire unity is

never a compromise position. Rather, it is the embracing of the Cross and of the

purpose of the Christian life and the very mission of the Church: to restore all things

to God and to each other in Christ.


      In closing, on this note of mission, I was reminded of one of the collects for Morning

Prayer, composed by - guess who? - Charles Henry Brent! Let us pray:

    Lord Jesus Christ, who didst stretch out thine arms of love on the hard wood of the

cross that everyone might come within the reach of thy saving embrace: So clothe us in

thy Spirit that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those who do not know

thee to the knowledge and love of thee; for the honor of thy Name. Amen. [Note 9]




1 'The Authority of Christ,' emphases added, in Best Sermons 1926, ed. Joseph Fort
Newton, New York: Harcourt, Brace & Co., 1926. Found online.
2 'Charles Henry Brent,' Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2000, New York: Church Publishing
Incorporated, 2001.
3 'Charles Henry Brent,' Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2000, New York: Church Publishing
Incorporated, 2001.
4 Ibid.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid.
7 Ibid.
8 Ibid.
9 'Charles Henry Brent,' Lesser Feasts and Fasts 2000, New York: Church Publishing
Incorporated, 2001.