From earth, in heaven to reign,
He formed One Holy Church to last
Till He should come again.
So age by age, and year by year,
A question often arises which is, in no little degree, perplexing to Christian people. What is the Holy Catholic Church? The words are very often in our mouths; for they are repeated continually in the Creed. What do we mean by them?
The teaching of our Lord about His Kingdom, and the description of the founding of that Kingdom by the Holy Ghost, acting through the Apostles, are the materials out of which the answer must be formed. And it is hoped that the readers of these pages have been led to see this already.
But there are two ways of dealing with this question: first, as an article of faith; and secondly, as a matter of fact. The Church is an object on which faith is exercised; but if faith is laid aside altogether, the facts of the existence of the Church and its rapid extension in our own day still remain to be considered.
We must deal with it first as an article of the faith. "I believe in the Holy Catholic Church." It is an article of faith added to our profession of faith in God, expressing our belief in the reality of the Gospel. It is like saying, in other words, that we believe that what our Lord preached was literally true, and has come to pass. Hereby we declare that the Kingdom which He proclaimed is a real Kingdom, and that we belong to it as His subjects, and share in the salvation which He, the long-promised Messiah, came to bring.
We have already considered the grounds on which this faith is based. We have seen that the Church founded by the Apostles was in reality and truth "The Kingdom of Heaven," which was described beforehand by our Lord in His parables and discourses, and which He declared could not be entered except through a new birth of the Spirit. And we have seen how the Holy Ghost was given according to His promise, first to lead men to accept the good news of salvation through Jesus Christ; then to bring them into His Kingdom, new-born as the children of God; and then to dwell within them and influence their lives, and prepare them for the presence of their Father.
Consequently, in professing our faith in "The Holy Catholic Church," we are simply expressing the belief of Christians, that the good news which He preached has come to pass, that "The Kingdom of Heaven" has been founded; and that we, who profess this belief, have been called to enter it as His subjects, and have been put into the way of salvation, wherein we have a present share in His infinite merits, and a good hope of eternal Life through Him.
The Holy Catholic Church is "The Kingdom of Heaven."
But we have also to deal with the words "The Holy Catholic Church" as referring to a matter of fact. The existence of the Church is a historical fact, which may be traced down through the eighteen centuries from the times of the Apostles to our own. And we cannot realize in any practical manner what the Holy Catholic Church is, without some degree of knowledge of its history. Consequently, we must now proceed to consider what the Church is, by the help of the records which have come down to us.
The history of the Church of Christ during the greater part of the first century is within reach of all, because it is contained in Holy Scripture, in the book of the Acts of the Apostles, and in the Epistles. And this Bible history of the Holy Catholic Church may be divided into two periods; the first, whilst the Church was confined almost exclusively to converts from amongst the Jews, and had hardly extended beyond the limits of Palestine; and the second, when it began to spread amongst the Gentiles, in the heathen countries of Asia and Europe.
During the first period the interest is centred in Jerusalem. On the day of Pentecost the foundation of the Church was laid in Jerusalem, through the conversion of three thousand devout Jews to the faith of Christ. And as the Apostles went on preaching boldly to the Jewish people, that the Lord Jesus whom they had crucified was none other than Messiah, of whom their prophets had foretold all things exactly as they had happened, the rulers laid hold of them, thinking to terrify them into silence. But in vain; for "the number of the disciples multiplied in Jerusalem greatly, and a great company of the priests were obedient to the faith" (Acts vi.7). Then the persecution arose about Stephen, one of the newly-ordained deacons; and the faithful "were scattered throughout the regions of Judaea and Samaria," and they "went everywhere preaching the word" (Acts viii.1, 4). And so the Church began to spread under the Providence of God beyond the limits of Judaea.
Meanwhile we find that the Church was growing into a duly organised body. It was not a collection of Independent congregations, but a Kingdom, ruled by laws and ministers appointed either directly by the King Himself, or under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. And its subjects are spoken of under four divisions; Apostles, Elders, Deacons, and Brethren. And a brief description of these three orders of Ministers and of the general body of brethren will best illustrate the account given in the Acts of the Apostles of what the Holy Catholic Church was like during that period.
To the first order of Ministers -- the Apostles and their successors -- our Blessed Lord had committed His authority to found and extend His Kingdom. For to "the eleven Disciples" the commission was given, "Go ye and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost; teaching them to observe all things, whatsoever I have commanded you." And then these words were added, showing that the commission was to be handed on by them to successive Apostles for ever: "And lo! I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world" (S. Matt. xxviii.16-20). And we find that, as years passed on, the Apostles ordained others to take their places; to assist them during their lifetime in the various countries and cities where converts had been made, and to succeed them when they were gone. The duties of these chief Ministers are clearly described in the Epistles, which we possess to two of them, viz. Timothy and Titus; being such as the Apostles themselves fulfilled, and including the general oversight of all teaching, and matters of order, and the ordaining of Elders and Deacons, as S. Paul sums them up to Titus: "For this cause left I thee in Crete, that thou shouldest set in order the things that are wanting, and ordain Elders in every city" (Titus i.5). And in the first ages of the Church the number of such overseers or Bishops was very large; every chief city having one to rule over the Church in that place, and to keep up the unity with the whole body.
We come now to the second order of Ministers, the Elders. When the numbers of the faithful increased, it is clear that the Apostles by themselves would be unable to instruct them in the things commanded by the Lord (S. Matt. xxviii.20); and we conclude that Elders were appointed at once to assist them -- probably from amongst the seventy disciples sent out by our Lord (S. Luke x.1) -- because, when mention is made of them, S. Luke seems to take for granted that his readers will know who they are. The first mention of Elders in the Church at Jerusalem is in connection with the alms sent by the Christians at Antioch, to relieve their poor brethren in the capital: "They sent it to the Elders by the hands of Barnabas and Saul" (Acts xi.30). Elders are mentioned again as taking part with the Apostles in the first Council at Jerusalem, when "The Apostles and Elders came together to consider of the matter" (Acts xv.6). And it is made quite clear that Elders were regarded as a necessary order of Ministers in the Church of Christ, by the account given of the return of S. Paul and S. Barnabas from their first missionary journey: "They returned again to Lystra, and to Iconium, and Antioch, and when they had ordained them Elders in every Church, they commended them to the Lord" (Acts xiv.21-23). Their office was to take charge of the different congregations or Churches in the various towns and villages, very much as is still the duty of the second order of Ministers in the Church. We may learn this from the words of S. Paul during his last journey to Jerusalem. Having landed at Miletus, "He sent to Ephesus, and called the Elders of the Church;" and when they were come he reminded them what his teaching had been, and then charged them thus: "Take heed therefore unto yourselves, and to all the flock over the which the Holy Ghost hath made you overseers, to feed the Church of God, which He hath purchased with His own blood" (Acts xx.17-28).
The appointment of the third order of Ministers -- the Deacons -- was at first for a special object; to take the management of the distribution of daily necessaries to the widows and needy (Acts vi.1-6). But, from the first, the spiritual gifts bestowed upon them were exercised in the more distinctly spiritual work of preaching. Thus Stephen's "faith and power" (Acts vi, vii) stirred up the first persecution; and Philip, another of the first Deacons, by his faithful preaching brought about the conversion of the Samaritans (Acts viii.5-14), and then laid the first stone in the foundation of the Ethiopian Church (Acts viii.26-38).
Thus from the first beginning of "The Kingdom of Heaven" we find the three orders or classes of Ministers, which have been ever since in the Holy Catholic Church. Apostles and Bishops bearing the Lord's commission to which the promise of His presence was attached; Elders or Priests having charge of congregations, as Pastors, to feed, instruct, and lead; and Deacons having special oversight of the relief of the poor, but also using their talents to preach as God gave unto them.
The position and life of "The Brethren" are set forth with equal clearness. As soon as a man was induced, by the leading of the Holy Spirit, to profess his belief in Jesus the crucified -- as being Messiah, the Son of God, our Saviour -- he was baptized according to the Lord's instructions to the Apostles (S. Matt. xxviii.19). He was thus enrolled amongst the subjects of "The Kingdom of Heaven," who were commonly spoken of as "Believers" or "The faithful," as "The Brethren," and as "Saints." In this way multitudes were brought into the Church on the day of Pentecost (Acts ii.41); thus Philip admitted the people of Samaria (Acts viii.12), and the Ethiopian officer of Queen Candace (Acts viii.36-38). Thus S. Peter admitted the Gentile Cornelius, his hesitation to do so having been first removed by the manifest descent upon him of the Holy Ghost (Acts x.47, 48); and thus S. Paul and S. Barnabas continually admitted converts in their missionary journeys. It does not appear that the Apostles themselves baptized; but they directed the act to be administered by an attendant. Thus S. Paul took John Mark with him as his "minister" on his first journey (Acts xiii.5), and on other journeys Silas and Timothy and others. When Cornelius and his friends were baptized, we do not read that S. Peter baptized them, but "he commanded them to be baptized in the name of the Lord" (Acts x.48); and S. Paul expresses his thankfulness that only a few individuals could say that they had been baptized by him in person, "lest any should say that I had baptized in my own name" (1 Cor. i.14-17).
The life of "The Brethren," after baptism, is also described with much distinctness, in a few words which seem to have been recorded once for all of the first converts, in formal terms which should be applicable to all others: "They continued stedfastly in the Apostles' doctrine, and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers" (Acts ii.42). And the four particulars thus stated seem to include all the duties of the Christian life. Their stedfast attention to "The Apostles' doctrine" implies that they accepted their testimony as the truth necessary for salvation. Their holding to "the fellowship" or communion, implies their unity with the Apostles, and with one another. Their continual observance of "The breaking of bread" implies the high position at once given to the ordinance of the Holy Communion, instituted by the Lord Himself as the bond of the New Covenant, in place of the sacrifices of the blood of beasts under the Old Covenant. And their habitual joining in "The prayers," implies that the assembling of Christians for common worship was practised from the first.
Such was the life of the first subjects of "The Kingdom of Heaven." And this record of it in Holy Scripture sets it forth as the pattern for all future generations. It is true that the infant Church was not perfect, and, had it been so, it would not have corresponded with the description which our Lord had given of it in His Parables; but the leaven was at work upon the hearts of the believers, and the result was manifest in their lives.
After about ten years had thus passed, during which the Church was being gradually developed as the Kingdom of Messiah in Judaea and Samaria, the second period of its history, as recorded in the Bible, began. And henceforth Antioch became a fresh centre of interest and activity, in consequence of the ordination of S. Paul and S. Barnabas as Apostles. "There were in the Church that was at Antioch certain prophets and teachers. As they ministered to the Lord and fasted, the Holy Ghost said, Separate me Barnabas and Saul for the work whereunto I have called them. And when they had fasted and prayed, and laid their hands on them, they sent them away. So they being sent forth by the Holy Ghost, sailed to Cyprus" (Acts xiii.1-4). Thus began the first missionary journey into heathen lands. And from Cyprus the good news of "The Kingdom of Heaven" spread to Asia Minor, where in the course of years the seven branches of the Church were founded to which was addressed the Book of the Revelation, vouchsafed to the aged Apostle S. John (Rev. i.4). From Asia the Church extended into Europe, the Apostles being called thither by the vision at Troas of the "man of Macedonia saying, Come over unto Macedonia and help us" (Acts xvi.9). The first victories of the Cross in Europe were gained at Philippi and Thessalonica, and thence the good news passed on to Greece, and the rich city of Corinth became the Apostle Paul's headquarters for "a year and six months," the Lord having "much people" there (Acts xviii.10, 11). From Greece the Gospel spread to Rome, the capital of the ancient world. So that we learn from Holy Scripture, that, within the lifetime of the Apostles, the mustard-seed of the Gospel had sprung up and grown into a tree, whose branches overshadowed well nigh the whole of the then civilised world, as it was known to the Romans.
The answer to the question, What is the Holy Catholic Church? is thus provided for us in the Bible, whether we regard it as an article of the faith, or as a matter of historical fact. The Holy Catholic Church is "The Kingdom of Heaven," which was described beforehand by our Lord in His parables, which was set up on the Day of Pentecost, and then gradually developed into an organised body, under laws and ministers duly ordained by the Lord Himself, or under the guidance of the Holy Ghost; and which then spread from one land to another through the exertions of the holy Apostles. The Holy Catholic Church is that Kingdom whose founding is described, and whose history is commenced, in Holy Scripture.
But the history of the Church is only commenced in Holy Scripture, and for a full explanation of the Holy Catholic Church, regarded as a historical fact, we need to have this history continued down to our own days. Within the limits of this little book, nothing but a very brief outline of the history of the Church is possible. But without doubt every Christian in this country ought to have such a general knowledge of this history, as will enable him to understand clearly how the Church of England of to-day is united with the Church of Apostolic times.
The history of the further extension of the Church of Christ is contained in the writings of various Christian authors whose books have been preserved to us. Some few of these, such as Polycarp and Clemens of Rome, were contemporaries with the Apostles, and were ordained by them. These were followed by Justin Martyr -- who in his "Apologies on behalf of the Christians" gives a full account of their manner of life, and worship, and ordinances -- and Irenaeus, and Clemens of Alexandria, who lived between A.D.120 and A.D.200. Of the next or third century, we have many books by Tertullian, Origen and Cyprian, giving full accounts of the faith and laws of the Christians, their social life and their worship. And in the fourth century, the historian Eusebius wrote his History of the Church from the days of our Lord down to the reign of Constantine, the first Christian Emperor; and many of the great theologians and defenders of the faith flourished, whose names may well be "household words" with Christians of all ages, such as Athanasius, Ambrose, Jerome, Chrysostom, and Augustine.
From these or other ancient authors we learn that Christianity rapidly spread to the northern parts of Africa, to which country many of them belonged; to France, and to Britain, where there was a scattered British Church whilst the Romans still held the country.
In course of time, the two great capitals of the Roman Empire naturally assumed the chief importance in the history of the Church; and Rome became the chief see of the Western or Latin-speaking Church, and Constantinople of the Eastern or Greek-speaking Church. And from that time forward, down to the Reformation period, the history of the Church is contained in numberless writings of successive authors, in the decrees of Popes, in the records of the great monastic orders, in the works of the Schoolmen, and in the chronicles of the various historians. And last, though not least, we find it imperishably recorded in the cathedrals, and abbeys, and parish churches, which tell of the inventive genius and taste and skill of our pious fathers in the middle ages.
But our interest naturally attaches itself chiefly to our own country, and to the records we possess of the Church of England. The Roman troops were withdrawn from Britain about the end of the fourth century; and in the course of the next two hundred years, the various tribes of heathen Saxons who invaded our shores overcame the resistance of the Britons and settled in England; and, by their victorious advance, the few that survived of the British Christians were driven to take refuge in the mountains of Wales and the western counties. Toward the close of the sixth century the attention of Gregory the Great, the good and zealous Bishop or Pope of Rome, was called to the heathen condition of Saxon England; and A.D.597 Augustine was sent over with a band of clergy to convert the Saxons. He landed in Kent, converted Ethelbert the king, and became first Archbishop of Canterbury. Shortly afterwards Celtic missionaries -- Aidan, Chad, and others -- pushed southwards, converting Northumbria and the Midlands; others landed in the southern counties; and the English people grew into power as a Christian nation.
As years passed on, the Bishops, or Popes, of Rome usurped to themselves an ever-increasing authority, which was the cause of many contests between them and successive kings of England; and at the same time many abuses grew up and superstitious practices were mingled with the simple belief of purer ages, and a gradual decay of true spiritual religion set in. At length in the sixteenth century the English Church asserted its right to reform abuses under its own Archbishops and Bishops. Then the Reformation period began. The Pope of Rome endeavoured to resist the movement, and to maintain his authority; and upon the people of England refusing to submit to his unreasonable and unbearable claims, the rupture between the Church of Rome and the Church of England resulted.
The position thus taken by the Church of England must be clearly understood.
During the Middle Ages the various Churches of the west of Europe were gradually brought to acknowledge the supremacy of the Popes or Bishops of Rome. So that the Pope was able to exercise an authority over all these Churches. Hitherto learning had been confined to a very few. But now, through the invention of printing, the knowledge of Holy Scripture was rapidly extending; and people were finding not only that the claims of the Pope were without foundation, but also that many of the ceremonies and practices, to which they were accustomed, were superstitious and wrong.
This then was the work of the Reformation -- to free the Church of England from the unreasonable claims of the Papal Supremacy; and to bring back the faith and worship of the people into harmony with the writings of the ancient Fathers of the Church.
The result was that new services were compiled in English out of the old Latin books, which the people had been unable to understand; and much that was superstitious was omitted. But the changes were introduced gradually, and as the people were prepared to accept them. The same Parish Clergy, in most cases, ministered as before, only according to the new forms; the Churches were used by the same worshippers; the same Creeds were repeated. For the Reformation touched not the ancient Catholic Faith. It only removed the modern ceremonies and superstitious beliefs which had been added to it.
Like all great human efforts, the Reformation was not unmixed with evil; but, at the same time, the blessings gained by our country were very great. And if other countries had succeeded in reforming abuses, in a similar manner, no doubt the Church of Christ would have gained great influence for good, not only in Europe, but also throughout the world. But the power, which the Church of Rome had usurped to herself, was too valuable to be parted with. The Pope denounced the Reformation, and broke off all communion with our Church and nation.
What then became the position of the Church of England? We have seen how the unity of the various branches of the Church was provided for by our Lord, through the Apostles and Bishops, to whom He entrusted His commission to extend His Kingdom. And by the Providence of God the unity of the Church of England with the Holy Catholic Church has been maintained, notwithstanding this unhappy schism between us and the Church of Rome. Our Archbishops and Bishops still exert as before an indisputable authority, as the officers of the King of "The Kingdom of Heaven;" and having fellowship with them, we know that we are in the same position as the first members of the Church, who "continued stedfastly in the Apostles' doctrine and fellowship" (Acts ii.42). Nothing but time separates us from the Apostles and the early Church of Christ. What was necessary for the first subjects of "The Kingdom of Heaven" we enjoy. What they were taught to believe, we believe. What they were led to hope for, we hope for likewise. The promise of our Lord to His Apostles, "Lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world" (S. Matt. xxviii.20), includes our Bishops, with all the other successors of the Apostles from that day until now.
To the question, What is the Holy Catholic Church? the answer must be given, It is "The Kingdom of Heaven" -- the Kingdom of Messiah -- which, according to His own prediction, has spread from land to land through all the world. And when we speak of the Church of England, we speak of that branch of the one great spiritual Kingdom which was founded, under God's Providence, in our own land, in ancient times, and which includes ourselves. For Bishop has followed Bishop, and the Gospel has been preached, and subjects have been brought into the Kingdom of Christ, in this favoured land of England, from one generation to another, from the very beginning of our national life until our own day.
 The word "Catholic" is the Greek for "Universal," and expresses the truth that the Church of Christ is open to, and embraces, all the nations of the world; because the Kingdom of Messiah was not to be restricted to one nation, but was intended to spread over the whole earth. And, consequently, the word also expresses the essential unity of the Church, because there can be but one Church which is purposed to include the whole race of man.
 See the marginal note in a reference Bible.
 The word "Elders" is in the Greek Presbyteroi, from which comes "Presbyter," and from the shortened form "Prester," which was once in use, comes our present English form "Priest." The use of this word "Priest" to translate the word Hiereus, which is the name in the Greek of the Jewish Minister, and the mistaken idea that the sacrifices he offered were propitiatory in the sense that they "could take away sin" (Heb. x.4), have caused much misunderstanding of the word, and prejudice against it, which the knowledge of its meaning removes.
 In the course of the ninth century a very serious dispute raged between the Eastern and Western Church. The Greeks had often before protested against the pretensions of the Popes of Rome, and now they complained that the Latins had introduced the word "Filioque," meaning "and the Son," into the article of the Creed respecting the procession of the Holy Ghost. The Nicene Creed, as drawn up in the original Greek, contains only these words, "proceeding from the Father." The Latin Church added "and the Son," without the authority of a General Council. And though the contest seems to have been about words, rather than any difference of doctrine, at last, after a dispute of many years, it ended in the schism between the Church of Constantinople and the Church of Rome -- between the East and the West -- which has never been healed.
 See Archbishop Trench's Lectures on Medieval Church History.
 He must not be confused with the great theologian, Augustine, Bishop of Hippo in Africa, who was mentioned above (page 137), and who lived two hundred years before.
 It need hardly be said that it is a great mistake to use the term "Catholic" as if it were the exclusive right of the members of the Church of Rome. On the contrary, they have no standing-ground in England at all; and fall into the number of schismatics here, because they refuse to hold communion with the branch of the Holy Catholic Church in this land.
 The Holy Catholic Church may be considered to be divided -- speaking generally -- into three great divisions. The Eastern, or Greek-speaking Church; the Roman, or Latin-speaking Church; the Anglican, or English-speaking Church. And now, by the Providence of God, we can see that a mighty responsibility has been laid upon our own branch of "The Kingdom of Heaven." We feel sure that with the marvellous spread of the English nation, the Church of Christ ought to have spread with equal rapidity; and past neglect, especially with respect to the great colonies founded in past generations in America, brings us much to answer for. Yet we may take courage when we think how the English-speaking branch of the Holy Catholic Church has spread in recent times. North America, Canada, and the West Indies; Australia, New Zealand, and many islands of the sea; South Africa; India, China, and Japan, all bear witness that the good news of the Kingdom has been scattered, far and wide, by English-speaking agents of the great King. And our Archbishop of Canterbury is the acknowledged centre of as wide a sphere of spiritual energy as the Pope himself.