Ralph Adams Cram on the General Convention (1916)

To the Editor of The Living Church:[1]

We are called at this time, and through this War of Wars, to reëstimate our philosophies, to test by newly revealed criteria many dogmas and formulae held for long to be axiomatic, to scrutinize anew many institutions, methods, long accepted principles, that we may see how they stand the touchstone of revealing events. Government, education, economics, society, industrial civilization, all must submit themselves to the new and mordant tests, and more than all—for us at least—must the Church come under the same testing.

As Sir Thomas Browne says, “But the long habit of living indisposeth us for dying,” and so the long habit of peace indisposeth us for action, hence spontaneous movement towards analytical scrutiny is as hard for us as a prompt reaction to new and catastrophic stimuli. Still, the question forces itself on us: did the Church, there in England, here in America, rise buoyantly, or even tediously, to her anomalous and appalling opportunities? And again, is she taking thought now, not only of the novel conditions opening before her but also of those even more startling and challenging conditions that must confront society when peace has been reëstablished and the long, hard era of readjustment and regeneration opens before?

Has the Church made herself the spiritual leader of the people in this most grievous testing of souls, has she sloughed off old prejudices, old habits born of inertia and of jealousy, has she discarded the narrow shibboleths of faction, the rallying cries of partisanship, and, with a single view to the healing and saving of souls, given herself over to the one labor of meeting the heart-breaking appeals of a world almost in its death agony?

These questions are pertinent on the eve of General Convention. No assemblage of the shepherds of the flock of Christ and of its representatives has ever come together in this country under such conditions as hold at this moment. If the time of Convention is given over to the sole consideration of the old divisive issues that served their turn during a dead peace; if we are to hear nothing but Panama, the Open Pulpit, the curbing of monastic orders, the disloyalty of Catholic Churchmen, the heretical tendencies of Broad Churchmen, the Protestantism of Low Churchmen, has not the Church in America failed of her opportunity, and if she fails now, under the greatest test and ordeal of five centuries, will not her candlestick be removed?

I plead as a layman, for the lifting of every discussion in General Convention, and of the Convention itself, to a level of charity and Apostolic zeal and truly Catholic constructiveness. Unless the Church can take back into its hands the spiritual leadership partly surrendered and partly wrested from it, then the case of society is hopeless, and those conditions which made the war will continue until descent ends in the abyss of another Dark Ages. The trial by fire that is on all the nations is not withheld from the Church: will she meet this trial and come through it, not only unscathed but purged and regenerated?

The great question to-day is how, already, has the Church met the test and how shall she meet it in the future? Has she stood fearlessly for righteousness before the concentrated materialism of the last two years, here in America, and without regard to policy or profit: has the English Church done the same? And if not, why? New needs of the soul have fought their way through tears and agony to cry aloud for help and fortitude and consolation: how have these been met in England where a nation is at the same time bowed in desolation and exalted by the consciousness of immortal sacrifice?

It is for us to find the answer to these questions. If they are the answer of failure we must know this for our warning; if of success, then for our guidance. I hope that not only may General Convention be transformed into a great and fearless inquiry into the state of the Church, but that, as a detail, a small commission of bishops, clergy, and laity may be sent at once to Great Britain to study there the methods the Church is following in adapting herself to these anomalous conditions. If one has a right to judge, there seems to have been conspicuous failure in some cases, conspicuous success in others.

We should know of both, for from both we may learn. What have such bishops as London to say, bishops who have been at the front and lived with the men in the trenches, and who have also been at home and have seen the heart of a nation at the point of breaking, saved only from this by the consciousness of a glorious renunciation and sacrifice? What has Fr. Carey to say, back from his chaplain’s duty on the ships of the North Seas—and Fr. Figgis and Fr. Waggett, and Dr. Campbell? There is a vast amount of testimony to be had for the asking, and a great and constructive lesson to be learned from it all—learned, and applied as well.

In any case, let the next General Convention take its place as the Great Synod that forgot for a time the contests and the bickerings of peace, and met in Apostolic temper to meet the universal challenge of a world at war.


Boston, September 12, 1916.

[1] The Living Church (Milwaukee), September 30, 1916, pp. 771-772.

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Filed under Anglo-Catholicism, Bibliography, Episcopal Church history

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