The Religion of the Plain Man / by Robert Hugh Benson


I -- General View of English Religion


IT would appear a ludicrous undertaking to attempt to deal with the Catholic Church in six lectures, when we consider the volumes that have been written, the theological learning poured out, the libraries that yet remain to be composed on this enormous fact. But my object, is to deal, not with the Catholic Church as a whole, but rather with some of its aspects as presented to the "plain man." Even so, no more than a bird's-eye view is possible. I say to the" plain man"; because it was to him, after all, that CHRIST came and spoke, for him that He suffered and rose again, for him that He instituted the means of grace, and to him that the Gospel of salvation is sent. The plain man, therefore, and not the professed theologian, must in a sense, be the final arbiter; it is the primary function of the theologian not to theorize and soar, but to interpret, explain and disclose to ordinary men the mysteries of GOD'S revelation.

From the Gospels as well as from history we learn the perils of too much knowledge. It was the "man in the street" who understood our LORD, the doctor of the law who was perplexed and offended; it was the over-confident, over-weighted, over-acute scholar of the middle ages that was condemned by CHRIST'S Vicar; and it was the simple and faithful, even if unlearned, Catholic who has always been approved by the same authority. It is necessary, therefore, to remember that no doctrine can be of explicit faith, no theory be a pivot of salvation; no scheme a condition of redemption, which cannot be -- I do not say understood -- but at least apprehended by the simple folk whom CHRIST died to save. The Faith may be huge and complex; but faith is a single act.

I propose, therefore, in these lectures to deal with my subject from this point of view, and no other; and for this purpose to construct a dummy-figure with the brain of an average man, to endow him with sincerity, fearlessness and a hunger for God, to trace the workings of his mind when confronted with difficulties, to follow the fortunes of his spiritual quest, and to attempt to understand and interpret the reasons that affect his will. And in order to make our attempt practical rather than theoretical, we will place him in England, under average conditions; we will give him no extraordinary opportunities; we will allow him no great capacities beyond that for GOD which all men possess; we will suppose him to have accepted Christianity in general as the highest representative of the mind of GOD, and its Founder as divine; and to desire to know which of its many presentations is the true one. Lastly, for the sake of brevity, we will give him a name, that stands on the one side for one who was dear to our LORD beyond all others, and on the other -- from its very simplicity -- as representing an aggregate of those qualities I have tried to describe. -- His name is John.

I. As he looks out on to the religious world of England to-day, he is at first confounded by the numerous claimants on his belief. As one who has accepted Christianity in the main, he sets aside immediately all those ethical and religious bodies of persons who repudiate that name, and even some of those who claim it. He has nothing to ask of Christian Science, of Mormons, or the Abode of Love; for we must remember that he is but a plain man, uncoloured by fanaticism. Yet still the call that "this is the way, let him walk in it" is sufficiently plural to bewilder him. As he goes down the streets of his native town, awake for the first time to the huge issues of life and eternity, he sees, it may be, half a dozen places of worship, each bearing a different name, and each, presumably, claiming to be the purest well of salvation known to man. He is almost daunted at the beginning of his quest. How is it possible for him, a man who has neither leisure nor learning, and who is sufficiently modest as to his natural infallibility, to distinguish in the chorus the voice that calls him to GOD?

Yet, when he makes his inquiries, talks personally to various divines, and lays before them his troubles, he is greatly reassured by their conversation.

"You must not think," they tell him, "that every denomination proclaims a peculiar faith. It is on minor points only that we differ one from the other. This man prefers one discipline, that another; the hymns of Wesley are pleasant to those who bear his name, antipathetic to others who do not. In the main we are at one; the great truths of Christianity are the same to us all; our witness is on one note though the tone may vary, for we all base our religion upon the written word of GOD; it is here in a book bound between boards; it is accessible to all alike, as is also the free and princely Spirit of GOD who assists each sincere searcher after the Divine and brings him to the truth that makes him free, And, if you wish for proofs of this charity and brotherliness, you can find them in the facts of the time. We have learnt at last that what unites us is greater than what divides us; we are agreed, for example, that Bible religion should be taught in the schools without the peculiar tenets of our various denominations; our ministers and our people meet on the same platform for missionary, social, ethical and devotional work, and for every great spiritual enterprise. Read your Bible, my dear sir, with prayer to GOD, mix with your fellow-men, attend the place of worship of any denomination that finds a place in the Federation of the Free Churches, and you will find that our words are true.

It is an immense relief to John to hear these words, for he need no longer fear that he is called by GOD to decide between claims on which he is deeply ignorant; he thanks his friends, and he goes home with his Bible.

Three months elapse.

2. At the close of his three months he is not so completely at peace as he was at the beginning; for he has found the Bible, approached as a dogmatic work, unsuited to his own capacities. From his friends' words he had half expected to find it to be a code of rules, an ordered creed, a collection of precise maxims and statements. But in fact it is something very different.

There are intricate histories of persons who appear to be of no great or practical importance, of tribes and peoples whose names he cannot even pronounce. There are innumerable stories, some inexpressibly touching, some apparently fantastic, some which have an appearance of half-truth half-fable which he hopes he is not expected to believe. There is a quantity of poetry which he cannot understand, although he draws from its reading a mysterious pleasure that he cannot explain; an abundance of logic of which he cannot apprehend either the premisses or the conclusions; a collection of splendid visions that bewilder him; but above all the history of a life set like a jewel in the midst, so glorious, so pathetic, so triumphant that his hunger for GOD increases tenfold.

But of precise statements of doctrine there are very few. It seems then that he must have an interpreter. "How can I understand," he asks, "except some man should guide me?"

He is a careful and earnest man, and he has made notes in the course of his study; and from these he selects three or four texts that more particularly bewilder him. They appear to him either so plain that he is amazed that his friends do not give greater evidence of their observance, or so deep that they are beyond his understanding altogether; and with these in his hand and his mind alive to impressions, he consults his friends in order.

His first interpreter is the Baptist minister; and to him he puts his four selected questions.

"My dear friend," is the answer, "in this first text, 'Except a man be born of water and of the spirit,' etc.,{1} you have put your finger on a most important matter. That is one of our special tenets. 'Except a man,' says the Gospel, not 'a child.' We are most strict on the matter of what we call believers' baptism. Besides, even if you think that we press the text too hard, how can an unconscious child be affected by such a ceremony?

"With regard to your second point, 'This is My Body,'{2} I answer that this is a beautiful and touching ceremony instituted by our LORD, to teach us the union of believers in Him. We practise this regularly in our church.

"Your third point is another matter altogether. It is doubtful what our LORD meant when He apparently gave a commission to forgive sins.{3} Probably it was no more than a command to preach the saving Gospel through which sins are forgiven. If it was more, it has certainly died with the apostles. You must not take this too literally.

"As respects your fourth point, 'The Word was made Flesh,'{4} this is one of the texts that demonstrate our LORD'S divinity."

The next friend that John approaches is the Salvation Army captain; but he is astonished by the answer he receives. He is told that the last point is indeed most important; that if JESUS be not GOD there can be no remission of sins through His Precious Blood; but that the first three points are wholly unimportant. Sacraments, he is informed, are purely external, arbitrary symbols, that can be varied or abolished as customs change. For baptism the Army has practically substituted the waving of a flag.

The Presbyterian tells him that the first two points and the last are vital; but adds that a properly ordained minister is necessary to the validity of sacraments, contradicting the hint given by the Baptist that every layman is a priest.

The Congregationalist stoutly maintains that ministers are no more than preachers, and that every form of sacerdotalism is contrary to the true Gospel.

The Wesleyan agrees with the Baptist, except on the point of believers' baptism. Children too, he says, are capable of being incorporated into the church.

Finally the Unitarian, who claims to be a Christian in the highest sense, tells John that he is altogether at fault, that he has missed the whole point of the Bible, which is ethical not dogmatic, and still less ceremonial; and he adds the last stone to John's dismay by dismissing his last text altogether as being either the addition of a later hand, or, if not, merely a poetical statement of the supreme humanity of JESUS CHRIST.

At the end of his week's inquiry John returns home convinced completely of one single fact, namely that the Bible is insufficient as a guide to true religion.

A month later he puts his difficulties to a sympathetic friend.

"I am altogether puzzled," he says. "When I took up my Bible, I soon discovered that I needed some sort of interpreter who would inform me as to what parts of it concerned vital religion. For example, it cannot be necessary to salvation or even to piety to know the history of Maher-shalal-hash-baz.{5} I set down, therefore, a few explicit statements from the New Testament -- statements pronounced in three cases by our LORD Himself, and the fourth concerning His essential nature by His most intimate friend; and I took them for their interpretation to those who had told me that the true religion was built upon the Bible, and that all Protestants were agreed on all vital points. Yet of the six groups whom I so consulted no two agreed on all the points; one dismissed them all, others added information which others again denied.

"Nor can it be said that these points are not vital. If our Blessed LORD thought it worth while to speak so explicitly of ceremonies, it is scarcely decent of His followers to despise them. These points, too, cannot be theoretical; they are the most practical of all; they concern the beginning of the Christian life, its sustenance and its cleansing. They affect, not abstractions, but actions. Each of my friends may be right in his interpretation, but they cannot all be."

"My dear fellow," answers his friend, "you are perfectly right to be dismayed. You have found the need of an authorized interpreter of the Scriptures. It is, as you say, impossible to be an undenominationalist and to retain the Christian faith. The process of this new heresy is that of corrosion; little by little it wears away what has been called the impregnable Rock. If one believes in baptism, another does not; therefore, 'by all that is sacred in that holy word, let us be liberal,' cries the undenominationalist, 'and abolish baptism! It is narrow-minded and bigoted,' he says, 'if not positively uncharitable to hold for vital what my equally learned and holy brother does not!'

"Do you not see, John, that undenominationalism is a state, not a place; it is transitory, not permanent? What is required then, and what GOD in His mercy has provided, is a steady authorized witness and interpreter of the truth of His Scriptures. We must have definite unchanging creeds for the laity, searching articles of religion for the clergy, a liturgy that enshrines the Faith in devotional form. In all else there is change and decay; but it is in the Catholic Church of God of which a branch happens to be established by law in this island that the final authority is to be found. You will find there all that you need; all the essentials of which I have been speaking. She uses the sacraments which CHRIST ordained, and proposes to us the Faith which He revealed. 'Grace and Truth came by JESUS CHRIST.'{6} Grace and truth still continue to flow to us through the channel of the Church of England!"

This eloquence, from the mouth of a sincere and pious man, affects John profoundly; and in a few months' time he has settled down as a communicant member of the Church of England.


John is sincerely happy in his new home. He finds there all that his friend has promised him -- unchanging creeds, the administration of sacraments, and a prayerbook of incomparable English. He is attracted by the decent ceremonial, the culture of his clergy, the music of the choirs, and the beautiful architecture of the church in which he worships.

He also finds there what are to him far more important indications that he has chosen right; he discovers genuine piety among churchmen, sincerity, enthusiasm, a love of GOD, and self-denial. He sees communities of men and women who have given up all to serve JESUS CHRIST more perfectly; clergy and ladies labouring among the poor; vast and generous benefactions to church objects. It appears to him that in a hundred ways GOD has set His seal upon the Church of England. He has caused her to increase and multiply; she has branches in at least all English-speaking lands as well as missions to the heathen. On the one side she is wealthy and respected; on the other she is devoted and genuinely religious.

I. His first doubt as to her divine vocation arises from a sermon that he attends in an university church. As he sits there one Sunday he is amazed to hear the preacher, who is an eminent dignitary and scholar declare plainly (if words mean anything) that the corporal resurrection of CHRIST is not in its literal sense an article of the faith. He further hears that the Church of England is not committed to the Virgin Birth of the SON of GOD in such a manner that the laity and even the clergy may not disbelieve it if they will.

He expects, of course, that some notice will be taken of the sermon by authorities; but beyond the contradiction of it by the bishop in whose diocese the preacher ministers, in a sermon preached a few weeks later, nothing takes place. There is discontent among John's friends, some murmurs, a protest; and the matter drops.

John succeeds in keeping his dismay to himself; but on hearing another dignitary of his Church propose a change of pulpits with his Nonconformist brethren in the ministry, and state, almost explicitly, that episcopal ordination is no more than a party custom, he can no longer keep his difficulties quiet. He consults, therefore, a clerical friend of wide sympathies, but belonging to the High Church party; and receives the following answer:

"You must not be dismayed, my dear sir; you must remember that men are but men; and these, above all, Englishmen who will have liberty at all costs. I agree with you that it is terribly sad that our bishops take no action; that it is scandalous that such doctrines should be impugned; but I always tell myself, and I tell you the same, that we are not concerned with what this or that man may say; -- we are concerned only with what the Church herself says explicitly in her creeds, her prayerbook and her articles."

John objects that the preachers who have offended him themselves profess obedience to the said creeds and prayerbook; but that they put a wholly false interpretation upon them.

"You have said it," answers his friend; "'a wholly false interpretation.' The creeds are clear enough, as you confess. In other words, the Church of England as a whole is orthodox; it is only her individual ministers who are unfaithful. That, then, is the bishops' affair; not yours or even mine."

John is not wholly satisfied with this talk of schools of thought; it seems to him that the divine whom he has consulted is more latitudinarian than he professes; but for the present his doubts are quieted.

Upon hearing, however, a few months later, two sermons on consecutive Sundays -- one declaring the Sacrament of Penance to be a divine institution, necessary for the forgiveness of mortal sins committed since baptism; and the other denouncing it as a blasphemous fable, invented by power-loving priests, clean contrary to the pure Gospel of CHRIST -- his difficulties reassert themselves, and he makes a journey to London to lay them before a well-known authority, eminent for his piety, his learning and his self-denial.

2. "Where," he begins, "is the witness of the Church of England of which I have heard so much? I understood that she spoke clearly on disputed points; and it certainly appears to me that she is clear enough on these matters which puzzle me -- at least her prayer-book is explicit. How, then, is it possible that her ministers are not silenced when they denounce the faith she proposes to our belief?"

The clergyman smiled.

"You are on the wrong lines, sir," he answered. "You must not take a narrow insular view of the Church of England. She is not an individual, she is but a member of a body; or, in technical language, she consists here of two provinces of the Catholic Church. I am a priest, and you a layman, of the Catholic Church as a whole. It is to that that we must look for guidance. As you say, the provinces in this island are sufficiently orthodox in the formularies which they use to allow us to be in communion with them; but it is to the Undivided Church, supernaturally one all over the world, that we owe allegiance."

John inquires whether the Church of Rome is part of the Catholic Church, and is informed that it is -- and by far the most important part; she is bolder in her confessions of faith -- possibly even too bold in her detailed treatment of certain doctrines; but, at any rate, far more efficient in her proclamation of them. It is her ceremonial that should be the guide of English clergy; her devotional and theological books that they should study. In one point only is she certainly unorthodox, and that is in her claim that all must of necessity pay their allegiance to the Pope of Rome.

John passes over this last point, for it is strange to him; and recurs once more to his difficulty with regard to the sermons he has just heard.

"My dear sir," answers his friend, "you cannot be more grieved than I am; but I assure you that is comparatively unimportant. Hold fast to the fact that you are a Catholic, incorporated and sustained in the Church's supernatural life by CHRIST's own sacraments. The gates of hell cannot prevail against her. Remember that you have been set here by GOD's providence to defend a difficult outpost; maintain your own personal faith and courage by frequenting those same sacraments; and look for guidance, not to the conflicting cries of individual preachers, but to the voice of GOD Himself, proclaiming, through the mouth of the whole Catholic Church, the truths of revelation."

Once more John is uplifted and helped by such words, and returns home confident in his position, and inspired by the thought that he is a Catholic in a larger sense than he had dreamed, set by GOD in an honourable and difficult post.

3. The following summer he takes his family to France, and, as he has been directed to do by his adviser, attends Mass in the Roman Catholic church. But he is not content with this: since he is a Catholic, he has right to sacraments here as in England, and on Saturday evening presents himself at the confessional.

Before he has uttered many sentences, the priest's voice demands whether he is a Catholic. John, after a moment's hesitation, answers in all sincerity that he is; but the priest is not satisfied: Is he a Roman Catholic? Is he in communion with the Pope of Rome?

No, answers John; he is an English Catholic, in communion with Canterbury and York; he is a member of that branch which GOD has established in England.

The priest, understanding his good faith, explains to him gently that he is unable to give him absolution; this Englishman is not a Catholic in the Catholic sense of the word; and, on being, pressed, confesses that no Catholic priest in France, Germany, Italy, Spain, Mexico -- not in the whole world, can give absolution to any man who is not under obedience to, and in open communion with, the Pope of Rome; and John, after protesting against these uncatholic terms of communion; leaves the church.

He has discovered, therefore, by the time that he returns to England that the theory held by his latest spiritual adviser is repudiated by the rest of the Church with which he claims a supernatural union, and he pays him a visit to demand a further explanation.

It is then that he receives a full exposition of what has been called "geographical Christianity."

The Church, he is informed once more, is in many lands. In England its lawful member is called the Church of England; in France, it is the Church of France, though incidentally united to the see of Rome. Yet it is the same Church here as there; the same faith, the same sacraments.

"How is it the same faith?" asks John, "when in France Catholics believe that union with the Pope is essential and in England they do not?"

"That is not a vital point," answers his friend; "the Roman Catholics have added to the faith in that matter. We must agree to differ."

A memory comes up like an echo from the past. Has not John heard that talk before? Was it not precisely that which his undenominational acquaintances said of such things as Baptism and Communion? And is it any more possible to say of this, than of those, that it is not vital?

"Then who is to decide?" he cried.

"The Catholic Church," answered the clergyman.

"But that is begging the question," answered John, in a flash of illumination. "It is precisely that which has to be decided: the point is, what is the Catholic Church? For I see the necessity of having one!"

The clergyman smiled again.

"It is a matter of faith," he said, -- "of conviction."

But John interrupted him.

"Will you tell me," he said, "a little about the Roman Catholics? I feel bound to ask that."

When John went away that evening, he was more puzzled than ever. It seemed that the Roman Catholics were dangerous people; their priests not altogether trust-worthy; their people unintellectual and uncultured. It appeared, too, that there was something which his friend called "glamour" about them, in spite of his admiration for them. Men were dazzled and stupefied by their worship, the atmosphere of their churches, the splendour of their ritual.

And yet he felt that he could not but inquire.

First, it was impossible to treat them like a small sect. There were between five and six millions of them in England, and about two hundred and fifty millions of them in the whole world.

Secondly, it appeared that they were of a startling unanimity in the matters of faith -- so startling that it was called "rigid and iron uniformity," and that, in spite of the fact that they consisted of every race, nation, character, language and colour under the sun. Schools of thought seemed practically non-existent. And John was weary by now of being told that flat contradictions were but aspects of one truth.

Thirdly, it seemed to John that if authority did not lie here, it lay nowhere.

"It may be all true," he said to himself, "all that I have heard to-night. It may be that they have added to the faith, that they are untrustworthy, falsifiers of history, persecutors, implacable, schismatic. I know that I do not like their customs, their mumblings of the Communion service, their innumerable ceremonies, their formalism, their irreverence, the appearance of their priests, the dirt in their churches. I do not like them at all. Yet I cannot neglect to inquire what they have to say for themselves. It certainly seems to me that they claim monstrous privileges for their Pope; in fact they seem to set him on the very throne of GOD, as St Paul said they would.{7} Yet it seems to me also that, so far as I have inquired, there is no help anywhere else. I have found the Bible insufficient as a dogmatic treatise; and the undenominationalists deceptive in their claim to interpret it. The Church of England bears no clearer witness, for she has no living voice to expound the meaning of her own formularies when they are disputed by her ministers -- or, at any rate, she does not raise it.

"Geographical Christianity is simply incomprehensible to me. I am no scholar, it is true, but yet I believe that CHRIST came to teach me truth as well as to scholars. I do not understand how what is Catholic in France is heretical in England. And, therefore, it appears to me that unless there is somewhere an authority commissioned by GOD to tell me what to do and believe, an authority which can silence her servants when they attack her pronouncements, an authority which possesses and uses her voice to answer new fancies or corroborate new discoveries -- unless there is this somewhere, the Christian religion appears to me to be little less than mockery. I am bidden to believe, but am not informed by GOD what to believe.

"I must, therefore, look into this new matter; I must read the Gospels again with the Roman claims in my mind; I cannot set aside two hundred and fifty millions of Christians who are united, when my friends are disunited, as unworthy of attention.

"Lastly, also, it is of course just barely possible -- though exceedingly unlikely -- that there is more in these claims than I have hitherto been led to believe. Just possibly they may be true!"

{1} John iii, 5.

{2} Matt. xxvi, 26.

{3} John xx, 23.

{4} John i, 14.

{5} Isa. viii, 1.

{6} John i, 17.

{7} 2 Thess. ii, 3, 4.

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