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The Reformers themselves, tenacious as they were of some figments of popery, were, as we have seen, in advance of our times respecting the doctrine of priesthood, and the true character of the Christian ministry. Methodism practically, and almost unconsciously, got nearly hack to the apostolic programme; butrwe, ever and anon, stultify our own history, and propound notions which would nullify half our powers. What, for instance, are we doing with our old and divine "orders" of "exhorters" and "local preachers"—as divine, by the anointing of the Holy Ghost and historical usefulness, as any "order" among us? Well would it be for us to turn back to our glorious history and more glorious Gospel and abide by them.
Not only theoretically but historically the Methodist local ministry presents one of the very best exemplifications of the "priesthood of the people," of lay ministration. It would seem to be the very "desideratum" that other evangelical denominations are seeking, are "feeling after," under the prevailing conviction of the need of better cooperation of the laity with the clergy in the life and work of the Church. It needs, and must have, better recognition among us if we are not to lose disastrously our original power. For years it has been numerically almost twice as strong as the itinerant or "regular" ministry. It comprises a mighty, though mostly latent, force. It might be made a tremendous engine of evangelical power. It once was such, not only in England but in this country. It founded Methodism not only in Nova Scotia, Upper Canada, and New York, but all west of the Alleghanies, and in the West Indies, Australia, and Africa. With such an historical prestige, it is amazing that the Church has allowed it to practically lapse into comparative inefficiency, especially at this moment, when all other evangelical Churches are so eagerly inquiring how they can bring out their lay talents for the evangelical work of the age.
.The usual reasoning on this change in our policy is, we think, quite illogical. The improvement of our regular ministry and of our congregations is certainly no relevant reason for it, for with this improvement has come a correspondent improvement of the materiel out of which to make effective local preachers. The Church is full of advanced laymen— teachers, legislators, lawyers, doctors) &n<i others equally able— whom she should set to work in her service, as she did in her old victorious days. But the very thought of the availability of these forces seems to have almost died out of the denomination in our older fields. Who can deny that there is as wide and urgent a field as ever there has been in our history, for such laborers, in the vast neglected suburbs oi^our great cities, and in our rural districts as well? Could these auxiliaries be worked systematically, they might indeed be redoubled in number without becoming superfluously abundant. Their standard of ability would be as well suited to the standard of intelligence in such fields as ever it was in our earlier history. The whole country needs just such religious workmen; its moral exigencies cry out for them, and the Church could hardly do a better work than to rally them, and inspirit and reorganize them for a new universal campaign.
Their better recognition would be an inestimable advantage to the regular ministry. Many of the latter are overworked, and yet see all around their stations neglected fields going to waste. Could they command licensed lay assistants for these waste places, and, directing their labors, garner their fruits in their Churches, many a feeble station would soon be powerfully reinforced, many a whole region now morally stagnant be awakened to religious inquiry and activity.
There has not been since the apostolic age, we repeat, a more striking example of the "priesthood of the people" than this "local ministry" of Methodism. Methodist history is full, as we have seen, of its achievements. It has pre-eminently been the recruiting service for our "regular" ministry. It is now estimated that the annual demand of our Conferences for recruits amounts to eight hundred. "Very soon,1' says one of our organs, "a thousand a year will be required to keep the itinerant ranks filled and to occupy hew fields of labor." One thing is clear enough, namely, that we cannot expect this great but necessary reinforcement from our theological schools. We must keep up, or rather restore, our old recruiting method by graduating our young men through the orders of licensed "exhorters" and "local preachers" into the traveling ministry. This was our primitive process, and it filled the ranks of the itinerancy with the mightiest men that ever stood in the American pulpit. We need the theological school. We recommend every young candidate to go to it it* he can. But we soberly believe that the day will be disastrous to Methodism when we come to rely exclusively upon our training schools for our ministerial supplies. Let us beware of any such Procrustean policy. It is alike incompatible with the genius and the prospective needs of our cause.
On the ground of the essential parity of the common membership of the Church, these and all other evangelical laborers belong to its common priesthood—to its one great scheme of universal evangelization. They differ in functional degrees and in consequent official dignity, (a comparatively small consideration, however,) but they are all baptized with, and "moved" by, the Holy Ghost to their work—a common work in general, however expediently discriminated in particular. Methodism has made a great historical "testimony" (as the Quakers would call it) on this subject of lay priesthood. Wesley always insisted that his local preachers were essentially laymen; yet the "call" of the Hol}' Spirit was with him their primary claim to authorization as preachers. He went further; he even held that his "regular" or "itinerant" preachers were not "clergymen," in the sense of the Anglican Church. In his latest sermon addressed to them he exhorts them to disclaim any such pretension. He esteemed them a lay ministry ;* yet the conscious "call" of the Spirit was a condition of admission to his Conference. Both local and regular preachers in the American Methodist Church are required to have this "call" before admission to ordination.
There is no " radicalism " (in the bad sense of the term) in the foregoing ideas; they are the old truth, and the truth that must yet come forth all over Christendom if the world is to be saved. They are compatible, perfectly, with the highest system of order and responsibility, especially with our own Church order. What Methodism should always aim at, next to purity, is the freest possible activity, regulated by systematic order and responsibility. It has had a great theological mission in the world; its history may yet show that it has a greater ecclesiastical one. Contrary to the traditions of the National Church,
* In hia original epitaph, in City Road Chapel, he was honored as Founder of the Methodist "Lay Ministry;" but the phrase was afterward changed to "Itinerant Ministry."
contrary to the prejudices of his own education, Wesley did, we insist, practically recognize the Lutheran and apostolic doctrine, of the priesthood of the people. Methodism was founded by «* that fact, and could not otherwise have been founded. Methodists, throughout the world, should hold fast to the momentous fact, as one of the most notable lessons of their history.
Secondly. We infer from the subject the universal obligation of Christian labor, and the identity of the principle of, its responsibility among all classes of Christian men.
As above stated and guarded, the doctrine of the priesthood of the people appears, we think, clear enough; but where in Christendom is it vividly and practically recognized? And yet, who does not perceive that it is the best, the only legitimate, solution of the problem of lay responsibility in Church life and labor; that, if luminously brought out in the pulpits of Protestantism, it would evoke the energies of the Church, as in a general resurrection from the dead; that our present vague, if not merely casual, lay activity, with hardly any distinct recognition of conscience in it, but rather a self-flattering substitution of "benevolence" for conscience, would soon take on the power and majesty of duty, of conscience, of a divine and indefeasible priestly commission?
Our men of " business " should learn that they have no more right to use their talents and success for merely selfish advantage than the pastors within their altars, the city missionaries who may be starving on their stinted contributions, or the evangelists whom they send to the ends of the earth, have to be equally selfish. Learning this, they would change the whole condition of the religious world, and in doing so they would, as we have shown, but restore primitive Christianity, reviving the original idea of the Church that all men who by regeneration have entered the kingdom of God have come out from the world, and must live, work, and. if need be, die, for the interests of that kingdom; that whatever difference of function, or mode of work, there may be, as between pastor and layman, and whatever difference in the degree of their responsibility, there is no difference in the principle of that responsibility; that it is universal; that the one talent will be held accountable as well as the two or five; that it was in the Divine Master's great lesson not the man of superiority, nor he of mediocrity, but he of inferiority—he of the one talent, rather than of the two or five—who was lost and cast into "outer darkness." A universal consciousness of common responsibility—of common priestly consecration to the one great mission of the Church, the salvation of the world— working always and every-where; self-denial and self-sacrifice, even unto death, for the common cause: this was the spirit of the original Church. This, inspired by the Spirit from on high, enabled its fishermen, peasants, and publicans to , come forth from the obscure Galilean villages and the humble "upper chambers" of Jerusalem to establish a world-wide realm while the Jewish State was sinking around them in its last decay; its quarrymen and slaves to come forth from the Roman Catacombs to confront the throne of the Caesars and humble around its altars the senate, the schools, the armies, and the multitudinous populations of the empire of the world. The same working, self-denying spirit must pervade the Church again if ever it is to accomplish its appointed mission throughout the earth. Its secular men must understand that they are sacerdotal as well as secular—that though in the world, they are not of it. They are "not their own," but are "bought with a price," and should therefore "glorify God in their bodies and in their spirits, which are God's." Driving the plow, wielding the ax, or mingling in the throngs of the mart, they should remember that they bear a divine commission, and, while "providing for those of their own house," should consecrate their gains and their whole life as a ministration of the common priesthood. In no age and in no land has this duty been more urgent than it is among us in this New World, and here, if anywhere, should be revived in power the primitive "policy of Christianity. Our country has now an area of more than four and a half millions of territory—nearly a million more than all Europe. What a geographical field has the American Church, then, here in its own immediate homework! The Christianization of all Europe was not so grand a mission to the primitive Church. We are building up a moral empire which, by its better auspices and its wider relations to all the world, promises to be more important in the future of history than Europe has been in the past.