The Religion of the Plain Man / by Robert Hugh Benson


IV -- Development


THERE is yet one great difficulty to John's mind as he regards the claim of Rome to represent the Catholic Church of CHRIST.

He would express it as follows:

i. "Imagination is as much the gift of GOD as intellect. Now, so far as intellect is concerned, I acknowledge that it is hard to answer the Petrine argument. I understand that, historically, Peter was the first Bishop of Rome, and Pius the last; and I cannot myself answer directly the presumption that Pius has succeeded to the prerogative as well as to the See of Peter; but my imagination, my intuition, my illative sense, steps in and tells me that it is impossible.

"An Anglican said to me the other day that it always seemed to him that if St Paul came back to earth he would find himself at home neither at High Mass in St Peter's nor at Evensong in his own cathedral in London, but in some such place as a Salvation Army shelter. This remark has haunted me. I suppose my friend satisfies himself somehow that, in spite of his feeling, he is right in worshipping at St Paul's; but I am not sure that I am so easily contented with St Peter's.

"For, place side by side the worship, the dogmatic system, the ecclesiastical organization of the Apostolic Church, with that of the present day, and see how utterly unlike one is to the other.

"Look at that elaborate baldachino, those lights, that tabernacle. Observe those three priests at the altar, their antique dress, of which even the cut is regulated by the rubrics; watch their ordered movements, their gestures and postures; listen to the careful singing, the unreal monotone and minor thirds; notice the silence of the people. The whole affair is certainly stately and impressive; but it is a kind of holy drama, a sacred dance; it is utterly unlike the free spontaneous worship of the Primitive Church.

"Look at St Paul in his upper room; notice his fervent reality, his unfettered eloquence; the ease of the people sitting on the floor and window-seats. Observe the way he takes the bread and wine into his hands; hear the simple words; mark the absence of ceremonial, the bare table, the guttering lamp, and the natural movements of the congregation; now this man prays, now that, as the spirit directs.

"Or put Peter and Pius side by side. Peter, the old weather-beaten fisherman, shuffling along the streets of Rome, going down with his lamp into the catacomb, where the faithful are assembled to hear what he has to say; notice the absence of homaae and pomp and circumstance! And then Pius, crowned and robed like a heathen god, going in his sedia gestatoria, with cardinals, chamberlains and monsignori in purple and ermine and scarlet before, an the great fans behind; listen to the roars of the people to the pope-king, the shrilling of the silver trumpets; compare the worldly splendour and show of this with the natural Christian simplicity of that!

"Compare the doctrine of this age and that; put the Ethiopian eunuch's confession, 'I believe that JESUS CHRIST is the Son of GOD,'{1} beside the penny Catechism, with its elaborate statements and deductions and arguments. If the eunuch was a good Catholic,' why did he not have to repeat the Creed of Pope Pius IV before his baptism? If Mrs So-and-So, received into the Church yesterday, was an apostolic Christian, why was not Philip's demand enough?

"Lastly, put the free movement of the early Church beside the highly organized system of the present day, with its dioceses, vicariates, metropolitan sees, missions; put serious-faced Priscilla beside Sister Mary Joseph Aloysius of the Eucharistic Heart of Jesus; plain Timothy beside His Grace the Most Reverend John Archbishop of Mesopotamia. . .

"It is simply ridiculous to say that these are the same! Did St Peter sit for three hours every Saturday afternoon in a carved oak confessional with his office book candle, and purple-stoled cotta? Is it possible to conceive Timothy singing Pontifical High Mass in his cathedral church in Crete, and publishing a plenary indulgence on the feast of the Sacred Stigmata of Saint Maria Angela di Sisto on the usual conditions? . . . No,no!

"I am aware that this argument of the imagination strikes as shrewdly at the Church of England as at the Church of Rome -- for it is just as hard to imagine Titus singing Evensong on G in Ely Cathedral, or St Bartholomew preaching at harvest festival from a pulpit decked with pumpkins -- for the question is (scarcely a question!) Are we not all wrong together? And ought we not to revert honestly to primitive methods if we are going to claim primitive prerogatives?"

Now if John had consulted a theologian, he would have had some facts recalled to his attention which had escaped it. He would have been reminded that, after all, St Peter probably used some of the same words at Mass that Pius uses; that St Paul published an indulgence in his second Epistle to the Corinthians{2} and heard a large number of spiritualists' confessions at Ephesus; and that the said spiritualists certainly made acts of contrition, confession and satisfaction -- for we are expressly told so -- and presumably received absolution;{3} that the homage given to St Peter by the faithful was far in excess of that offered to Pius X, for the shadow of the present Pope has never yet been used for medicinal purposes;{4} that the Ethiopian eunuch underwent a long and careful instruction from the deacon before being admitted to baptism;{5} that the differentiation of orders and functions began immediately after Pentecost{6} -- and so forth.

But John did not consult this theologian.

2. He went for a walk instead on an autumn day; he picked up an acorn and put it in his pocket; he met a child in a perambulator, and he attended some athletic sports. Then he went home again.

Then he took the acorn out of his pocket and began to consider, sitting at his table.

"How remarkable it is," he said to himself, "that so small a thing contains such enormous powers! Normally, if I had not picked this up, it would have sunk into the ground and turned brown; then it would have cracked and put out a white finger. The white finger would have ascended to the light and turned yellow, and then brown again. After a year or so it would have put out one leaf in spring, which would have fallen in the autumn; the next year two leaves, and so on. . . . Even if I put it in the ground now, by the time that Jack's children are old people, there will be an oak large enough to sit under, with branches, leaves and acorns of its own. A crow which would eat this acorn at one mouthful now, could build his nest in fifty years in the tree which it is capable of becoming.

"Or the child that I saw this afternoon, with its dimpled red face, its feeble fingers, its little legs which can kick but not walk, its mouth which can cry but not speak, its will so wholly the slave of circumstance, so pitiably at the mercy of a pin -- that child, if it lives, may grow up into an athlete like those I saw at the sports, with arms and legs of steel, rippling muscles, thin tanned face, a will as tense as a sinew at full stretch.

"Now, if the Church of God was like that, I might be able to understand how Peter could become Pius; one sentence, a catechism; Priscilla, Sister Mary Joseph, etc. But then the Church is nothing of the sort. St Paul tells his friend to 'keep the deposit,'{7} not to add to it; there is in fact an appalling curse in the Book of Revelations against those who do add to God's oracles;{8} we are bidden to keep the faith once delivered to the saints;{9} and to refuse even an angel from heaven if he should preach another gospel than that which Paul delivered.{10} There is not a shadow of evidence" -- and at this John began to turn the leaves of his Bible -- "not the shadow of evidence that the Church is like an acorn or the body of a child. . ."

In ten minutes John is staring at the following texts:

"The kingdom of heaven is like to a grain of mustard-seed, which a man took and sowed in his field: which indeed is the least of all seeds; but when it is grown it. . . becometh a tree, so that the birds of the air come and lodge in the branches there of."{11}

". . .the edifying of the body of CHRIST, . . . till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of GOD, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fullness of CHRIST."{12}

"But this is extraordinary," exclaims John. "Why has no one ever pointed this out to me before? Why has the Church Times always said so much about the 'faith once delivered to the saints,' and so little about these astonishing texts? They change the whole complexion of affairs.

"Here is CHRIST Himself saying, as plainly as words can do it, that the kingdom of heaven will utterly change its appearance from being like a small, round seed, simple in shape and colour and texture, to the semblance of a vast, elaborate, glorious tree, of a thousand surfaces and curves, of innumerable branches, twigs, leaves, fibres and roots; from a seed which a bird can eat, to a tree in which a colony of birds may live.

"Here is St Paul, whom I now remember saying again and again that the Church is the Body of CHRIST,{13} declaring that Body in his days to be as the body of a child, containing indeed the structure of an athlete, his limbs, his possibilities, but not actually expressing them; and that this Body will be gradually 'edified' in the 'unity' -- not 'diversity' -- of 'the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of GOD' until it is full-grown -- until it 'gradually corresponds in fact in its outward appearance and stature with the mind and spirit of CHRIST, which have been in it from the beginning!

"What in the world am I to make of this?. . ."


"I see plainly," says John, "that this will take some thinking over. First of all there is the question as to how I can tell whether the Body of CHRIST has grown as was intended; how I can be certain whether it has not become deformed by poison or accident. Certainly that seems to me unlikely, since it is CHRIST'S Body; but it may be possible. I will set that aside, however, for the present, and consider what growth means and involves before I consider the possibility of accident."

1. First, then, he sees that growth and life are practically identical, or, to be strict, life is the principle of growth, and growth the evidence of life. A statue may be more perfect than a body in grace and proportion, yet it does not grow, and therefore is not alive. A walking, talking doll may simulate life, but it is not alive because it is incapable of growth. Therefore, to compare the Church to a body or a seed, and to deny it the power of growth and expansion, is to utter a contradiction in terms; or perhaps it is better to say that to deny growth to the Church is to rob the metaphors of CHRIST and His apostles of their essential meaning.

"Now," cries John, "is it not a fact that the divines of the Church of England are continually appealing back to the primitive ages? 'Human corruptions,' they say, 'have marred the perfection of the Apostolic Church; articles have been added to the faith by Rome; we must continually be comparing our present system with that of the apostles, and purging it of error. It was this necessity that caused the Reformation; and it is this necessity that still keeps us alert against the insinuation of modern and foreign devotions and beliefs.'

"In other words, for them the Church of CHRIST is a statue carved by the hand of GOD, polished possibly by workmen of the sub-apostolic age, which it is their duty to keep undefiled. Lichens encroach upon it by lapse of time, according to their theory; copes and tiaras, it may be, have been added by human art and ambition; and these must continually be removed. But it is a statue, and not a living body.

"As for the theory that the Church is alive, but reached its full growth about the end of the first, second, fourth or sixth century -- that is simply not worth considering. For these are purely arbitrary points, selected by various parties according to their own idea of perfection. There is not one single objective reason why any one of these periods should be preferred to anyother. It is ridiculous to say that St Paul looked forward to the end of the sixth century as the culmination of the measure of the stature of the fullness of CHRIST. To pretend that he had any such view is indeed to make null the word of GOD by human traditions that have not even common sense to recommend them. Besides, if so, what in the world has it been doing ever since?

"It is as arbitrary as to say that the perfection of a child's growth is reached at the age of fourteen. So long as he continues to grow in strength and stature, so long we must be content to put aside our own views of what perfection should be, and trust GOD's ideal instead."

2. "But how can we know," he next asks himself, "whether it is not growing wrong? I must put aside this main point for the present; but this at least I see -- that, granted that it does grow according to GOD'S plan, it can never reject what has once been part of its structure. -- (In the main I do see that if we cannot trust GOD with the general development of the Church, we cannot trust Him at all. Some say that the physical resurrection of CHRIST was an error subsequent to the purity of the Gospel; and I have really no answer except that I cannot believe that such an error would have been permitted, if I take for granted the revelation ot GOD through JESUS CHRIST at all.)

"But to return. I understand that development must be along the original lines of the nature of the organism. If an oak, after ten years' growth, suddenly rejected roots and walked out of my garden on legs, I should conclude that I had been mistaken as to its oak-nature. It cannot change the laws of its existence; it may throw out branches, but not hands."

John then reflects that it is the reproach of the Church of Rome that she will not change nor eat her words. Like Pilate, what she has written, she has written. She may expound and amplify her statements; she may make explicit what was once only implicit; but the original statement still stands as a summary of its later amplifications.

But the Church of England and the Non-conformist sects follow a different principle. That branch of the tree that once spread its leaves over England had, without the shadow of a doubt, its roots in Rome.

"I cannot understand," cries John, impatiently, "what Anglicans mean who declare that the Church of Anselm and Augustine was not Roman Catholic.' Every bishop consecrated in the fifteenth century swore in the most solemn manner that he drew his spiritual, ecclesiastical and temporal prerogatives from the Pope. The Pope was prayed for in every Mass -- until his name was deliberately scratched out by the Reformers; it was to him that the final appeal lay. If the pre-Reformation Church in England was not Roman Catholic, the Church of Spain is not Roman Catholic now; and words cease to bear any meaning!"

He considers then that this collection of Christians, which, in the phrase of some of them, is a branch of the Catholic Church, has developed legs and walked away; or, if they prefer it, has been severed somehow from the roots that still stand, where they always did, in Rome. It certainly does not stand where it did; for it is really foolish to assert that the Church of England stood perfectly still in the sixteenth century, and that the entire remainder of Western Christendom with one consent moved from it. Such a paradox amounts to the statement that the Reformation did not take place in England at all, but that a violent schism rent the rest of Christendom, Rome included, from the Apostolic roots, at precisely the date at which historians place the hallucination hitherto called the "Reformation!"

"Such a paradox," he reflects, "can only be paralleled by the comment of the Popish priest who sat in the gallery at a Church Defence meeting: 'I understand it at last,' he whispered to a friend; 'the Church of England was Protestant until the Reformation, and has been Catholic ever since!"'

But this is not all. Numerous other points, such as Purgatory with its corollaries of Masses for the dead, the propitiation offered for the quick and the dead by the priest in the Sacrifice of the Mass, invocation of saints, transubstantiation, and so forth, once were parts of the doctrine of the Church of England. Then for a long period these points were not only disbelieved, but loudly assailed by the spiritual descendants of Cranmer and Ridley. Even now, in spite of the Oxford Movement, it is doubtful whether any of the diocesan bishops, or more than one in ten thousand of the laity, believe them now. In brief, then, things that had once been part of the tree, and still are part of what claims to be the only and original tree, were definitely rejected in England as accretions and additions. GOD then, according to the Anglican theory, has permitted His oak to throw out leaves of hazel (or, shall we say, deadly nightshade?); He has allowed the mystical Body of His Son, fairer than the children of men,{14} of whose natural Body not one bone was broken,{15} to become the distorted body of a cripple and a hunchback; and it is not merely pierced and torn, it is beaten out of all semblance to a man. And, most astounding of all, He has reserved the privilege of pruning His unnatural tree, and making straight the deformed limbs of JESUS CHRIST, to a small section of a small body of Christians towards the close of the nineteenth century. . .

Such, briefly stated, is the claim of those who name themselves Anglo-Catholics: while for the rest of their communion, the metaphor of the tree with all that it involves, is rejected root, branch, leaves, fruit and twig, from beginning to end, from top to bottom.

3. 'Yet," he reflects, "there is another serious accusation brought against the Roman Church. What of all those foreign bodies that she has incorporated into her system? What of incense, once offered to heathen emperors? Transubstantiation, a fragment of an exploded human philosophy; canonization, once under the name of deification used for declaring members of the imperial family divine; the Religious life, once practised by the vestals -- and all the rest? Have we not here an evident proof that the development theory is impossible and suicidal? Such expansion is not development of an original nature, it is the assimilation of new external things."

"Exactly," cries the Catholic voice in his heart, beginning now to wax louder than ever, "we confess frankly that we assimilate exterior things: but so do the acorn and the child. Those masses of matter did not, literally speaking, reside in the acorn, but they passed through, transfigured from death to life by its energy, from the soil that lay round about. As the acorn has its instinct for what it can assimilate, choosing this chemical and rejecting that pebble; so the divine seed, sown in the world at Pentecost, has ever since been passing through itself those things proper for its growth and expansion. Yet each such substance must, as it were, be cognate to something within the acorn, unhostile to what it will meet with there, for we cannot add to the deposit of faith, we can only express it more fully. With every assimilated particle, as it mounts glorified in the air, there must go the oak-nature with it that has transformed it. Anus complained that a new phrase was added to the old Creed when CHRIST was called 'of one substance with the Father.' 'You are adding to the faith,' he cried. 'Last year it was enough that I should call JESUS divine, now it seems I must call Him Homoousios: it is I, then, who am the old Catholic, it is you who are innovators and heretics.' 'It is not so,' answered the Church. 'I incorporate the Greek word to express myself more fully; as an acorn incorporates earth to declare the glorious life that is hid within itself; as one day I may declare Mary immaculate, and the Pope infallible. First the seed, then the fibre, then the sapling, then the tree.'

"It is my glory then," cries the Church to the amazed ears of John; "it is my glory that I make dead things to live. I take the dead music of the Jews, and it blossoms in flowers of plainsong; I catch up the dying language of a Latin people, and I make it live, when to all others it has been long dead; it thrives in my liturgy, it generates new words in my theology, it glows on the lips of my preachers, it is the tongue in which my foreign priests communicate with me and with one another. At Pentecost the miracle that showed the wisdom of GOD was that men of one language spoke many;{16} in the twentieth century after Pentecost my miracle is that men of many languages speak one.

"I sweep up the debased architecture of the Roman Empire, and out of it I build my basilicas. I seize to myself the dying philosophy of Aristotle, and recreate it alive to make my meaning plain. I am ready, as I have always been, to take the ephemeral things of men, their dress, their methods, their modes of thought, and to use them, if it suits my purpose, for the manifestation of my divine lite.

"The whole world lies about my roots, and I suck out of every country and age what befits my energy of life.

"For I am more than the oak and the mustard-tree: I am the very Vine of GOD, brought out of Egypt long ago.{17} My seed fell in a ball of fire with the sound of wind;{18} and from that moment I have lived indeed. I thrust my white shoots in the darkness of the catacombs, and forced my way through the cracks of Caesar's falling palaces; my early grapes were trodden under foot. rent by the wild boar in the amphitheatre,{19} spoilt by little foxes,{20} crushed in the wine-press of rack and prison; I am blown upon by every wind that blows, by calumny and criticism from the north, by passion and fury in the south and west. I am pruned year by year with sharp knives forged in death and hell, yet grasped by the hand of the Father who is my husbandman.{21} And yet I live, and shall live, till my Beloved comes down to taste the fruits of the garden. . .{22}

"For I am planted by the river of salvation, watered by the tears and blood of saints, breathed upon by the spirit of GOD who alone can make the spices to flow forth.{23} More than that, I am mystically one with my Beloved already; it is His Heart's blood that flows in my veins; His strength that sustains me; for He is the Vine, my boughs are His branches;{24} and I am nothing save in Him and them. It is for this cause then that I spring up indomitable; that I stretch my boughs to the river, and my branches to the sea,{25} that my shadow is in all lands; that the wild birds lodge in my branches, the dove and the eagle together; that the fierce beasts couch beside my roots, the wolf beside the lamb, and the leopard by the kid.{26} It is for this that I am older than the centuries, younger than yesterday, eternal, undying and divine."

John shuts his Bible, and falls to prayer.

{1} Acts viii, 37.

{2} Cf. 2 Cor. ii, 6-10.

{3} Cf. Acts xix, 18, 19.

{4} Cf. Acts v, 15.

{5} Acts viii, 35.

{6} Acts vi, 1-6.

{7} Cf. 1 Tim. vi, 20, etc.

{8} Cf. Rev. xxii, 18.

{9} Cf. Jude 3.

{10} Cf. Gal. i, 8, 9.

{11} Matt. xiii, 31, 32.

{12} Eph. iv, 12, 13.

{13} Cf. Eph. ii, 16; i, 22, 23, etc.

{14} Ps. xiv, 3.

{15} John xix, 36.

{16} Cf. Acts ii, 8.

{17} Cf. Ps. lxxx, 8.

{18} Cf. Acts ii, 1-4.

{19} Cf. Ps. lxxx, 13.

{20} Cf. Cant. Cant. ii, 15.

{21} Cf. John xv, 1.

{22} Cf. Cant. Cant. vi, 2-11.

{23} Cf. Cant. Cant. iv, 16.

{24} Cf. John xv, 5, etc.

{25} Cf. Ps. lxxx, ii.

{26} Cf. Isa. xi, 6.

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