An Earlier American Church Union (1936)

An Earlier American Church Union

By Clinton Rogers Woodruff

No place: no publisher, c. 1936.

WE ARE TO HAVE another American Church Union in the American Church. I use the word “another” advisedly, because we have had at least two others before the one announced in THE LIVING CHURCH of June 6, 1936, as continuing, developing, and broadening the Anglo-Catholic Congress. One ACU was listed in the Church Almanac for the late 60s and early 70s of the past century. In 1869 the president was the Rev. Dr. W. F. Morgan; in the Almanac of 1871, Dr. Floyd Jones; the last appearance in the Almanac is in that for 1874 when the presidency was described by a blank.

In 1908 another ACU was organized as a result of the widespread discussion and agitation of the disconcerting Canon 19 (now 23).

The second American Church Union sprang from a little gathering of priests and laymen, met to consider the forming of an organization for the maintenance and defense of the Faith. The English Church Union was then just 50 years old. It had done such a noble work in fighting the battles of the Mother Church, and had been so brilliantly successful in upholding her principles, that it was thought at first that a branch of this Union might render efficient services in this country. But a study of the literature sent over by its secretary quickly showed this to be inadvisable. The problems which confronted the Church of England were widely different from our own. Disestablishment, disendowment, parochial schools, the Deceased Wife’s Sister’s Bill, did not concern us as practical problems, and on the other hand, from many of the dangers which beset us the Church of England was happily free.

Moreover, the English Church Union was too closely identified with a particular party to serve the purpose the founders of the ACU had in mind, namely, to set up a Prayer Book standard to which men of every school of thought could rally, if they accepted the Prayer Book teaching, ex animo, and in the natural sense. Accordingly, while the ACU had the same general purpose as its English namesake, to “defend and maintain unimpaired the doctrine and discipline of the Church,” the work and methods of the two societies ran on parallel, rather than identical, lines.

The aims of the ACU were positive. The first was to spread abroad the knowledge of the Church’s principles, and especially of those doctrines and practices which at the time seemed rather in danger of being forgotten or obscured. Of course, it may be said that this was the duty of the Church at large. This fact, however, did not render the establishment of a Union of this sort any less useful. Efficient work in special lines within the Church is rendered by various societies, brotherhoods, and guilds for devotional and philanthropic purposes. It was pointed out in particular, we have a great missionary organization with numerous auxiliaries for the proclamation of the Gospel, so there might wisely be a corresponding society, equally general, having for its aim the development of the Faith in all its fulness among those who already profess it; matching with its idea of intension the missionary idea of extension.

The second aim of the ACU was equally important: to defend the Church’s Faith against the assaults of heresy. No previous age has been without false teachers, and it would be strange indeed if ours constituted the first exception. On the contrary it is easy to see why our dangers are in all probability greater than those of the past. The rapid progress of science, the popularization of knowledge, the social changes resulting from invention and travel give to the spirit of the age an impatience of antiquity and a love of novelty that challenges rudely the Church’s ancient claims. Those who sincerely desire to have religious thought keep abreast of the time have not always escaped the pitfalls of error. There is no need to impugn the motives of these teachers, since error is destructive whether it proceed from the head or the heart. There is, however, imperative need to meet modern error with a bold and confident restatement of the Faith once for all delivered to the saints. Although “truth is mighty and must prevail, it does not follow on that account that the Faith will take care of itself,” the Union proclaimed, “it will not now. We must earnestly contend, if it is to be preserved among us.” This is the duty of the Church at large, but what is every man’s business is apt to be left undone.

The average priest or layman, reading in the public prints the exploiting of strange and erroneous opinions within the Church, grumbles a little, and—does nothing. Very likely he has neither the time, nor the ability, nor the opportunity to discuss the issue, with the all too frequent result that error is not even challenged. It was here that the ACU thought it might do a useful work, by a public appeal to the standards of the Church. As when through the selfishness or indifference of citizens the laws are left unenforced or administered in the interests of graft or crime, a handful of men animated by public spirit bind themselves into a civic association to insist that these laws shall be observed, so the ACU, in one respect at least, was a Church law enforcement movement.

IT WILL be seen from what has been said that the spirit of the American Church Union was far from one of pessimism. Never for one instant did it fancy that the gates of Hell were prevailing against the Church of Christ. On the contrary, its attitude was one of hopefulness and confidence. Believing that for the past 18 centuries the Church had kept unimpaired her Faith, her Bible, her ministry, her sacraments, believing that these have demonstrated their righteousness and helpfulness through these ages, the American Church Union sought to afford the means of overcoming such difficulties and therefore regarded their preservation as of prime importance.

In the choice of the particular principles which it advocated, the ACU was guided by what it conceived to be the Church’s practical needs. Others might be in themselves of greater importance; those selected seemed in greater danger of becoming obscured. The ACU maintained:

(1) That the Protestant Episcopal Church is an integral part of the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church.

(2) That the Church’s Creeds are to be interpreted and believed as held by the undivided Church.

(3) That, as declared in the preface to the Ordinal, the ministry of the Church has been from the Apostles’ time, threefold; and those only are to execute the functions of this ministry in this Church who have had episcopal consecration or ordination.

(4) That the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are divinely inspired.

(5) That the Church’s Sacraments derive from Christ vital power to confer grace by the operation of the Holy Spirit.

(6) That the marriage tie is indissoluble, as is set forth in the Church’s form of Solemnization of Matrimony.

(7) That persons unconfirmed by a bishop, who are known to be neither ready nor desirous to receive Confirmation, ought not to be admitted to the Holy Communion, nor enrolled as communicants of the Church.

The methods adopted by the ACU were twofold. The first, spiritual, by the use of prayer and preaching. These, though more important, need no comment. Of the second, the material means, a few words may be said. As opportunity was afforded and as means permitted, tracts were published bearing upon the Union’s principles. The Union aimed however at being more than a tract repository. While the tracts were at the disposal of all who chose to purchase them at a low figure, it endeavored by a free use of the mails to place them in the hands of individuals where they seemed likely to be most needed and to do the most good.

[These were issued in large quantities, especially in non-Catholic territory. In the series were: The American Church Union: Its Origin, Organization, Aims, Principles, Methods, and Work, by the Rev. Elliot White; Canon Nineteen: What It Is, How We Got It, and How It Works; Union or Unity? by the Very Rev. Dr. Frank L. Vernon, Dean of St. Luke’s Cathedral, Portland, Me.; Protestant Episcopal, An Appreciation, by F. C. Morehouse; Unity and the Change of Name, by the Rev. M. M. Benton; Why Protestant, by the Rev. G. Woolsey Hodge; The Reconciliation of the Schools of Thought, by Dean Vernon; Why Not Our True Name? by W. A. Buchanan; What Is a Catholic? by the Rev. Elliot White; Confirmation, by the Rev. Louis T. Scofield. There were sundry doctrinal leaflets and sermons and sundry pamphlets, one of which dealt in a comprehensive way with the Change of Name controversy.]

FROM THIS survey of the organization, purpose, and principles of the Union one can gain a fair idea of what the Union aimed to do and did do “for the maintenance and defense, of the doctrine, discipline, and worship of the Church.”

From the very beginning of the movement, the Rev. Elliot White, then rector of Grace Church, Newark, and later rector of St. Mark’s Church, Philadelphia, and Dean of the Cathedral at Fond du Lac, was the devoted, effective, and efficient secretary. The writer had the honor to be president. For a full decade the Union earnestly sought to carry on, and as was said in one of its letters to its members written toward the end of its career: “The American Church Union was organized at a period of great unrest in the Church incident to the effort to use Canon 19 as a means of opening the pulpit of the Church and betraying the stewardship reposed in her. We are persuaded that the ACU played a helpful part in bringing about a solution of that distressing problem.”

During the discussion about the question of the change of name the Union again played an interesting part in bringing men of divers views and activities into cooperation toward a definite end. Its activities in this connection were most interesting and useful. At some future time I hope to tell the story involving, as it did, a Church-wide correspondence with our bishops of that period and prominent lay and clerical leaders.

In its decennial letter to its members the Union declared that the problems revolving around the Canon 19 discussion might be regarded as settled, certainly for this generation.

Those revolving around the discussion of the change of the name had temporarily been laid aside. In fact the Union had done little active work since the preceding General Convention, partly because of the fact that the secretary, having been called to a new and much more difficult work, had not been able to devote the time and attention he previously did. Moreover, there was a feeling it was just as wise to stand aside for a while and study the situation rather than rush forward without a well-formulated policy. As a result of the consideration which had been given to the whole problem during this period of inactivity, the officers submitted to the members of the Union for their thoughtful and prayerful consideration the following suggestions:

The American Church Union should definitely endeavor to bring into closer affiliation and more harmonious cooperation the various societies and organizations now existing for the propagation of the Catholic Faith. This suggestion does not involve the discontinuance of the separate management of these several organizations for they should continue to exist unfettered, but each should be represented in the Council of the American Catholic Union and that body should serve as a means of making the work of each organization familiar to those in the others and of bringing all into harmony in a definite forward movement.

The ACU should be prepared at all times to stand by sound Churchmen, whether bishops or priests, in difficulties. In the past those who have fought a good fight for the Faith have all too frequently done it single-handed. Those who are valiantly fighting for the cause should be made to feel that they have the whole body of the Faithful back of them. The American Church Union should promote the welfare of Church schools and colleges.

Public popular lectures and meetings to discuss Church policies should be organized at appropriate times and places and lecturers and preachers secured.

Certain abuses in the Church should be consistently and persistently attacked—e.g., the abuse of the vestry system; candidating for vacant cures; and the entrenchments of latitudinarianism in Church order and doctrine.

There should be a systematic effort made to secure for the Holy Eucharist its proper place in the services of the Church as the chief act of worship.

To bring the Catholic parishes into touch with the social movement and to show thoroughly that this movement cannot succeed without the religion of the Incarnation and Sacraments. It was not possible to undertake all of these activities at the same time. Nevertheless, these suggestions represented a program toward which Churchmen could and should work.

This was a program of far reaching significance and is as pertinent and as much needed now as it was then. No doubt the new ACU will adopt it as a part of its splendid program. There was one feature of the work of the earlier Union that the new one plans to follow and that is the throwing open of its doors and its board of management to the laity. The great influence of the English Church Union is in large measure due to the active participation of laymen, whose ministry has up to the present been largely overlooked by the present generation of Catholic clergy.

Late in the second decade of the present century, the officers of the Union felt that a new society could do the work more effectively; and so it took steps to wind up its affairs and pass on the light to a new body, which was christened the Churchman’s Alliance. The continuity of the work was for the time being effected by the selection of the Union’s president as the presiding officer, but he was, on account of the pressure of other duties, unable to continue in that office for any considerable length of time. That body, however, did not survive for many years, although it succeeded in interesting a number of active men who have since made substantial contributions to the Catholic cause in the Church. We wish its successor a longer and equally successful career.

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