Thursday, July 29, 2010

The Church & The Churches

He is risen; he is not here.

— St. Mark 16:6.

Easter is the one day of the year when everyone who calls himself a Christian goes to church, if he ever goes at all. Congregations flock churchward in their Easter best, and the churches themselves are brave with flowers; the preachers for once preach joyful sermons, the singing soars with hallelujahs. After the penitential season of Lent, the long winter night of the Christian year, Easter comes like the dawn —the dawn of the first day of spring.

The No. I Protestant churchman in the U.S. will start the day as a cleric, by celebrating Holy Communion; at the 11 o'clock service he will be sitting in a pew with his family, like any layman.

The way the Most Rev. Henry Knox Sherrill plans to spend Easter bespeaks his position in the Protestant Episcopal Church. As its presiding bishop, he has no diocese of his own. It also bespeaks the present state of Christendom, which he aims—partly and partially—to reunite. For Bishop Sherrill, the president of the National Council of 29 Christian denominations, will worship on Easter as an Episcopalian.

Where Is the Church? Christendom (meaning "all Christians collectively") is split into disunited, sometimes warring, sects and churches, more than 250 in the U.S. alone. Protestants have lived with Christian fragmentation—and rationalized it with Christian doubletalk—for centuries (see box). But it has a way of bringing them up short whenever they confront the concept of "The Church." What is the Christian Church, and where is it?

Roman Catholics have a ready answer. The Church is the Church of Rome, and no other. Protestants cannot answer the question so easily. For them The Church can exist on this earth only as an ideal; its reality is in the future—and in heaven, where it is formed of "the blessed company of all faithful people." But this is not a comfortable concept to many U.S. Protestants, who, as practical, organization-minded men, would rather have the Church, like the Kingdom of Heaven, inhabit this earth.

How to bring that about? Again (if their tremendous premise is accepted), it is the Roman Catholics who have the simple, uncompromising, logical answer: unconditional surrender to Rome. Let all who call themselves Christians submit to the authority of the Roman Church, they say, and the unity of Christendom will thereby be established. And again Protestants cannot agree. The Bible and the conscience of the individual soul, they believe, are higher and more trustworthy authorities than any pontiff, any single church.

In the present century, U.S. Protestants have been increasingly unhappy about themselves. Unhappiest of all were the missionaries, whose work spotlighted the absurdity of the Christian schism ("How can you ask a Chinese in North China to become a Southern Baptist?"). One of the greatest of those missionaries was Episcopal Bishop Charles Brent. At a worldwide missionary conference in Edinburgh in 1910, Bishop Brent conceived the idea that, just as division thrives on ignorance, unity might burgeon with more inter-church understanding.

Towards One Roof. With the help of his own church he eventually (1927) brought Protestant, Anglican and Orthodox leaders together for a conference, to consider their differences in doctrine and interpretation. Cried Bishop Brent at that first meeting:

"In our hearts most of us are devotees of the cult of the incomplete—sectarianism. The Christ in one church often categorically denies the Christ in a neighboring church. It would be ludicrous were it not tragic . . . When Christians accept Christ as supreme, they cannot but walk as companions and friends . . . Let us keep the purpose of unity firm in our hearts, and look upon all Christians as brothers beloved. It is thus by practicing unity we shall gain unity."

Bishop Brent that day expressed what has come to be the U.S. Protestant Idea. Its outward and visible sign has slowly taken shape into something called "the ecumenical movement"—a tongue-twister derived from the Greek word for "the inhabited world," and meaning, in effect, "all Christians under one roof." It is the movement, as one of its leaders put it, from "the Church-as-men-have-conceived-it toward the Church-as-God-intended-it." The ecumenical movement does not proceed like a crusade, with banners and trumpet calls. It has grown with the pace and persistence of natural things—quietly, slowly, following Knes of flow and least resistance, taking opposition points by envelopment rather than frontal assault.

In addition to the series of conferences inspired by Bishop Brent, called "Faith & Order," two other currents of cooperation were set in motion at the Edinburgh Conference. One was the International Missionary Council, which still exists to foster cooperation among Protestant missionaries. The other, known as "Life & Work" and led by Sweden's Archbishop Nathan Soderblom, brought Protestant and Orthodox leaders together to see what they could do about social, economic and political problems.

"Faith & Order" and "Life & Work" flowed together to form the World Council of Churches, which held its first assembly at Amsterdam in 1948. Meanwhile, in various countries around the world, the ecumenical idea was beginning to snowball. In some cases, actual organic unity proved possible. Since 1900, some 30 U.S. denominations have merged into a third as many—notably the Northern and Southern Methodists and the Methodist Protestant Church, whose merger in 1939 made the Methodist Church the largest (currently 8,900,000 members) united Protestant church in the U.S. But the two most ambitious experiments in union took place in other lands. In 1925 Canada's Methodists, Congregationalists and most Presbyterians merged to form the United Church of Canada (membership 800,000). And in India in 1947, the Methodist Church, the South India United Church, and some Anglican dioceses agreed upon a common set of canons and clergy, to form the United Church of South India.

In 1908, 29 non-Roman Catholic churches in the U.S. formed the Federal Council of Churches of Christ in America. Last November the Federal Council dissolved itself into an even more inclusive body, the National Council of Churches.

The National Council of the Churches of Christ in the U.S.A. has already begun the process of shaking down from an organization of organizations into a single, smoothly running church family. (The Federal Council of Churches, with its 27-member church bodies, was just one of the twelve interdenominational agencies* which were combined in the National Council.)

The General Assembly, consisting of 600 lay and clerical delegates of the member denominations, meets every two years to lay down the basic lines of ecumenical strategy. Every two months, a 125-member General Board meets to check progress and make spot decisions. National Council functions are allocated among four divisions—Life & Work, Education, Home Missions and Foreign Missions—and each division is departmentalized. More than 20 other units are set up to serve the divisions in such areas as evangelism, religious liberty, research, public relations, etc.

The National Council reaches out to the grass roots through 875 city, county and state councils, 1,720 councils of church women, and 2,000 local ministers' associations. This is the base of the pyramid, where the National Council will really affect Christian lives.

Why an Episcopalian? At the apex of the pyramid is the National Council's first president, Bishop Sherrill. When the delegates to the National Council's constituting convention elected Bishop Sherrill its first president, they did not pick a veteran wheelhorse of the ecumenical movement. Nor were they singling out one of the sparkplugs of U.S. Protestantism—a barrier-breaking theologian like Reinhold Niebuhr or a hard-hitting polemicist like Methodist Bishop G. Bromley Oxnam. They were simply picking the best man for the job.

He is best partly because of the kind of church he heads. Almost anything anyone could say about the Episcopal Church would be partly true. It is Protestant or Catholic, depending on which of its members you are talking to. Its clergy include some who are embarrassed by most of the Apostles' Creed and others who call themselves "Father," and say Mass every day, with all the liturgy and ritual of a Roman Catholic church.

For such ambivalence the Episcopal Church has been called the "Bridge Church" between Protestantism and Catholicism. As Bishop Sherrill says: "The bridge doesn't seem to have anything to hook on to at present, and a bridge with nothing to hook on to is just up in the air." But if it is not yet a span across the greatest gulf in Christendom, the Episcopalians' latitude may yet provide a few planks to throw across interdenominational ditches.

Why Sherrill? Bishop Sherrill was the best man for the job not only because of his church, but because of the man he is. He is a kind of personification of what every boy's mother wants him to be when he grows up: fairminded, respected, a good mixer, and an unswerving steerer down the middle of the road.

Henry Knox Sherrill was born 60 years ago in Brooklyn. His businessman father died when he was ten, and his devoutly Episcopalian mother kept him close to the church. "Hank" Sherrill went to boarding school at Hotchkiss and then, at 16, to Yale. By his junior year, he had decided to enter the ministry. One of Sherril's greatest influences at Yale, as well as throughout his life, was Presbyterian Dr. Henry Sloane Coffin, one of America's most unity-minded churchmen.

During his three years at Episcopal Theological Seminary in Cambridge, Mass., says Sherrill, "I began to find my feet." Seminary friends remember him as a high-spirited young man with winning ways and a good game of tennis. But World War I taught him more than the seminary. After three years as an assistant pastor at Boston's Trinity Church, he was appointed chaplain of Base Hospital 6 at Talence, France. Here the 26-year-old pastor became a man in a hurry. During the 1918 influenza epidemic, he says, "I talked to practically no one who wasn't dying." He also discovered that "man is incurably religious. In 18 months, among the thousands of men at whose bedsides I prayed, there was only one who did not seem to feel that it had done him good."

Back home, popular young Minister Sherrill went from strength to strength among the properest Bostonians. His first parish, the Church of Our Saviour, was in the tony suburb of Brookline. Sherrill's predecessor had been an old man; Sherrill's live-wire preaching brought a dramatic increase in the Sunday turnout. There he met pretty Barbara Harris, daughter of a prosperous Brookline businessman. By taking her to baseball games in the afternoons, Sherrill managed to court her without giving the parish gossips a chance. They were married in 1921, now have a son in the ministry and two others preparing for it at Episcopal Theological.

In 1923, at the age of only 32, Sherrill was awarded Boston's richest Episcopal parish—squat, medieval-looking Trinity Church in Copley Square. From the pulpit once filled by the great Phillips Brooks, he began to crowd Trinity with Harvard undergraduates as well as Back Bay Brahmins. Sherrill's preaching, says Trinity's former senior warden, Alexander Whiteside, is not spellbinding, but "it's pretty damned good. He always gives you something to take home . . . He's the most sensible and sane man I have ever known. When the Russian crisis began to look serious last year, I said to myself: 'There are just two men I want to hear on Russia—Winston Churchill and Henry Sherrill.' "

The new rector proved equally gifted as a fundraiser, upped Trinity's average annual contribution to the national church to $30,000-$35,000 — one of the largest of any Episcopal parish in the country.

Sherrill's deepest and most consequential friendship ripened still further at Trinity. Massachusetts' blue-blooded Bishop William Lawrence was one of the most influential men in Massachusetts, and his feeling for the up & coming young Sherrill was almost paternal. When Sherrill was elected Bishop of Massachusetts in 1930 (after surprisingly turning down the important bishopric of Pennsylvania two years before), Bishop Lawrence got the news at a meeting of the Harvard Corporation. Leaving the meeting at once, he accompanied Sherrill to the convention meeting at St. Paul's.

Sherrill, the youngest man (39) to be come Bishop of Massachusetts, was elected on the first ballot. The confidence in him proved well-founded. As an administrator he was a model of unruffled efficiency; in coping with complex and incendiary human relations, he never started an unintentional fire. A staunch broad-churchman himself, he bent over back wards to mollify the Anglo-Catholics. He encouraged both laymen and ministers to come to him with their personal problems, and made it a rule (which he still follows) to insure their privacy, by opening his own mail every morning. He avoided church politics like the plague, and his solid middle ground on all issues often seems to him like a kind of orneryness. "I always react against my environ ment," he says. "When I'm with an extreme Protestant, I tend to be more Catholic than normally; when I'm talking to an Anglo-Catholic, I begin to sound like a Protestant."

When the time came for the Episcopalians to elect a new presiding bishop* to replace the retiring Henry St. George Tucker, Sherrill was the obvious choice, was elected unanimously.

Bishop Sherrill's religion has always been profoundly personal rather than theo logical. "The appeal of Christ to one's life is the thing that originally caught me, rather than the Church. At Yale and before, it was Christ's appeal to the individual that attracted me." Unlike some bishops, Sherrill might have been happy in a small parish. His abilities have carried him up and away from the grass-roots lives and problems of his fellowmen, but he has done his best to compensate for his bureaucratic isolation.

Wherever he goes, it is the association with laymen — often almost pathetically brief — that he savors most. His rather sad face lights up when he talks about the Pullman porter who came back three cars "to shake hands with my presiding bishop." As a chairman of the General Commission on Army and Navy Chaplains during World War II, he repeatedly went out of his way to make personal visits to the families of men he had met overseas.

"The real job is to be a pastor to people," he said recently. "No one ought to look forward to an administrative position.

It is a trial to be out of touch as far as I am . . ." Sherrill works full time at the Manhattan headquarters of the Episcopal Church.

When he is not on the road (last month he spent 13 nights in sleeping cars on a tour of National Council centers), he com mutes each morning from Seabury House — a Greenwich, Conn, estate which he persuaded the Episcopal Church to buy and turn into an informal country headquarters for conferences.

What Can Machinery Do? The National Council of Churches needs nothing so much today as Bishop Sherrill's skill in human relations. He and other church leaders are well aware of the possibility that the ecumenical movement may stumble to its knees under the sheer weight of the National Council's bureaucracy. "The most immediate danger," he says, "is that (the organization may be so complex and diffuse that it may turn into a machine operating without the life of the spirit.

The real task is to make the spirit live in this complicated machinery."

There is also the problem of keeping the churchgoers of the U.S. abreast of their leadership. Says Sherrill: "At the moment, the ecumenical movement is too much a movement of the leaders rather than the rank & file. The National Council is stronger than the state councils, which are stronger than the local councils, which are stronger than the ministerial associations. The important thing at first is to get all the agencies to feel that they are members of one team."

In Bishop Sherrill's new ecumenical team there are new denominational faces, and this may be a major harbinger of hope. Writes Union Theological Seminary President Henry Pitney Van Dusen in the current issue of his seminary's Quarterly Review: "The early development of all the ecumenical movements was very largely the handiwork of 'ecumenical enthusiasts' ('ecumaniacs,' someone has called them) . . . With the domestication of these ecumenical bodies within the churches, their places are being taken by denominational officers. The 'ecumaniacs' are giving place to 'ecclesiastical wheel-horses' . . ."

The new organization, as Sherrill and its veteran boss, ubiquitous, tireless General Secretary Samuel McCrea Cavert, are well aware, is not only bigger than ever before, but has a bigger opportunity, and a greater challenge. When the ecumenical movement was getting started, Christianity was suffering from doldrums as well as division. The scientific and secular optimism of the 19th Century seemed to have superseded the faith of our fathers; the future belonged to man, and man was the measure of it. Now things are different.

There is widespread evidence in the U.S. today of a renewed yearning for the Christian life: young men picking the seminaries, joining religious orders; intellectuals going back to religion instead of back to the land; religious books standing high on the bestseller lists; church membership rising. Do these wavelike evidences show the beginnings of a tide, or are they simply an isolated wave?

There are equally widespread and even more incontrovertible evidences throughout the world of a new, anti-Christian faith that is moving against the very basis of Christianity. Soon—perhaps in the next 10 or 15 years—Christianity will be faced with one of the greatest crises in its long history.

How will Christianity—how will the Christian churches—meet the crisis? The answer, in large part, will depend on Bishop Sherrill and his Christian cohorts. If their united Christian effort can meet and master the challenge, Christendom may experience a rebirth of life and light that will mark an age in history.

-Most of them were originally set up to coordinate the work in a specific field—foreign missions, home missions, religious education, women's groups, foreign relief, etc. -Who presides over the House of Bishops, consecrates new bishops, and heads the National Council of the Episcopal Church.

Source: TIME

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