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REVEREND AND BELOVED BRETHREN,-
The course of time has again brought round the term at which it becomes my duty to stir up your pure minds by way of remembrance of the things which concern us especially as ministers of Christ. From the rich abundance that presents itself out of which to choose the theme, while thus employed, I have little difficulty in making a selection on this occasion.
Circumstances affecting the present condition of our branch of the Church, require of us all a more than usually close attention to the provisions for unity and consistency in doctrine, by which our responsibility to God and man is affected, and our conduct in the ministry must be regulated. There is, in many quarters, an uneasiness (not, unhappily, without some show of ground) that requires plain and clear exhibitions of our real condition in respect of the safeguards for purity of doctrine and uniformity of discipline and worship, by which soundness in faith and incorruptness in practice are to be preserved among us.
In more than one direction there have been movements tending to destroy our confidence in each other, and still more, our reliance in the bonds by which we are kept together in concord and united action. Organised associations to affect the teaching and worship of the Church are formed or spoken of, and novel interpretations of the terms of membership and office in her communion are connected with them. Double meanings are propounded for her Catechism and Articles, and loose constructions claimed both for them and for the Prayer Book. Ministers may be found fraternising with one or other of the forms of schism that surround us, and asserting for their appearance in the mass-house or the meeting-house, the plea, so popular and so plausible, of the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free. Contemplated changes may be heard of, directly involved in public declarations about remaining traces of Popery in our Offices, or directly aimed at in'secret whisperings against the ultra-protestantism of the reformers, by whom those offices were compiled. For such efforts to undermine or batter down the goodly fabric of which God hath made us inheritors and keepers, full allowance is demanded, under loud protests against the intolerance which would rebuke or
These signs of the time are evil, it must be owned. But there is one hopeful feature in the case.
The tendencies to unrest and outbreak are not all in one direction. They oppose each other. They feed each other, doubtless, for a while, by such opposition, while each charges the errors and extravagancies of the other upon the truth and right that lie between them. But in the end, their counterbalancing and mutually destructive influences must result advantageously for the doctrine, discipline and worship which either of them, unopposed, might weaken and lay waste.
Now their common object of attack is authority and rule.
Not that there is an avowed intention to destroy, or even set aside, the authority and rule existing in the Church. A more effectual assault is carried on by demonstrating its incompetence, its uselessness, its inconsistency with the privilege of Churchmanship, or the attainments of spiritually-minded Christians. The Church has no rulers, say they, but its laws. Its laws are too narrow to be Catholic; or, they are too formal to be Evangelical. They must admit of extension. To put a strict construction on them, and enforce it, is narrowminded and intolerant They must be administered consistently with the largest liberty.
Now it is an old and noted device of men desiring, to overthrow established authority and substitute their own, to cry out against intolerance. They are friends of liberty, they say. They seek, they claim, they mean to establish the widest liberty - liberty for all — liberty diffusive, indifferent, equal, universal.
But liberty may be universally diffused and equal to all, without a difference, and yet not be liberty from every thing, for every thing, to every thing. Such liberty would be anarchy, and wild, chaotic license. Such liberty the reformers of every age are careful to disavow as not their object. In so doing, they do well: for if they did it not, they might have some followers, truly, but such, and in such proportion to the bulk of the community, as would leave their case in hopeless feebleness and contempt.
Yet the disavowal of an effort to establish liberty in its widest sense, reduces the question between reformers and the authorities against which they wage their war, to one of mere degree. There has never existed a human tyranny so complete, as to leave no liberty, in any respect, to its miserable subjects. The nearest approach to a complete tyranny, that which combines pretensions to spiritual power with the possession of the temporal, has never, even in the dynasties of the mediæval Popes or of the Caliphs of Islam, attained to such mastery of man, in his social, intellectual and religious being, as to fetter all his movements, or exercise control over every faculty.
At any time, then, in any system, in which change is called for under the name of liberty, there is a certain degree of liberty in possession : and at the same time, those who call for more are not desirous to obtain itnay, are not willing to suffer it to be claimed-beyond a certain degree. Limits have been fixed, and they are desirous to fix new limits. The question between the agitator and the authority is, whose limit is the right one ? not, shall there be a limit? It is not liberty absolutely that is called for, but liberty within a certain line. The struggle is, who shall fix that line ?
If the line to be fixed were always a simple boundary in one direction, it would be comparatively easy to settle the question at issue, and proportionably difficult to mystify it with fallacies and cunning trick of policy. But it is not so.
The limits to be ascertained lie all around a circle, or rather on the peripheries of a multitude of
more or less coincident circles, of which both centres and circumferences are often difficult of discovery and discernment.
Thus designing men, or men deluded by their vain imaginations of their own rectitude of intention and conduct, but really slaves of prejudice, find their advantage. They call for liberty, that is, new, broader limits of liberty; and so doing, point in one direction, and show the reasons for shifting the limit in that direction : but do they propose to gain that broader limit by widening the whole circle, or series of circles, in every other direction, equally ? or by shifting the centre of an unwidened circle in that one direction?
On the answer to this question, which many of them have not asked themselves, and which most of those who have, do not like to have put to them by others, depends the character of their pretensions to be “ friends of liberty.”
On it, again, depends, in no small degree, the decision of the point at issue, both as right and as expedient. It might be clearly right to move to a certain point in one direction, and as clearly wrong to do it by a motion extending equally in all other directions. It might be perfectly expedient to allow an extension of liberty, around all the periphery of a circle, and utterly inexpedient and unjust to grant it at one point only.
To apply these remarks to our own case. Two classes of brethren among us are striving to obliterate if they can, to change if they may, the limits of the