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Shunning division here below,
That each in charity may grow,
Till join'd by Christian fellowship and love,
I proceed now, Sir, by way of appendix to this letter, to bring the subject of Church communion and schism into one collected point of view; that I may, if possible, leave a more consistent idea upon your mind, than you at present appear to possess upon it. After what was said on this subject in my book, I had flattered myself that no addition to it had been necessary. The nature and constitution of the Christian Church having been clearly pointed out, the reader, it was presumed, could be at no loss to know where to find it; for a visible society, under a regular and publicly appointed government, is not a thing that can be hid in a corner. Having found the Church, the reader must still be less at a loss to know what was meant by schism, or unwarrantable separation from it; because he must know the difference between being a member of a certain visible society, and not being a member of it. The confusion which has generally been introduced into this subject, has chiefly arisen from an attempt to argue from false premises, by a substitution of the invisible for the visible Church; by exchanging a society, of which, from its outward and visible form of government, we are enabled to form a judgment; for that or which, from its invisible nature, we can form little or no judgment at all. To such a confusion, I am inclined to think, your imperfect ideas upon this subject may be attributed. Most of the quotations
you have brought forward, if I mistake not, apply to the invisible Church; and, therefore, do not immediately belong to the matter in hand.
The "Guide to the Church" professed to treat (not of that society which is invisible, and known only to God, but) of that which has been made known to man, for the purpose of his being a mem ber, and as such, being governed by the rules of it; not about an idea to which we are incapable of giving form or substance, but about an actual reality existing in a settled form before our eyes; and for an attention to which, as a Divine institution, all Christians must one day be accountable.
For Christians to discriminate, therefore, in this case, seems essential not only to their acquiring a proper notion of the Christian Church; but, what is of still greater importance, to their discharging their duty toward it. Should it please God, that in these days of general ignorance in Church matters, I may prove in any degree instrumental in promoting so desired an object, I should think I had not altogether lived in vain. To heal divisions in a Church, and displease none that make them, are two such works of charity as can scarce consist together. I could wish, if it were possible, to effect both; for my hearty desire to God for my brethren is, that they may be saved: at the same time I feel conscious of a disposition to think charitably, and to give offence to no man. Should, therefore, our sentiments upon the ensuing subject not coincide, allow me to hope, that you will not suffer yourself to run away with such ideas as are connected with Pope, Cardinal, ecclesiastical excision, or wholesale
damnation, ideas which appeared to haunt you at the time you were writing your book; for, if you will take the trouble to examine the sources from whence I have drawn my information, you will be abundantly convinced, that the doctrine delivered by me on the present subject, is of a much older date than Popery.
The unity of the Christian Church was the doctrine of Jesus Christ: it was consequently the doctrine of his Apostles; and was moreover the uniform doctrine of the Church for 1500 years. As I bear you record, that you have a zeal for God, I have therefore only to beseech you, in the language of St. Paul, "to hear me patiently."
It will be allowed, on all hands, that a Church, or ecclesiastical society, the members of which are united to God and to one another, by a divine covenant, has been formed in the world: and it will, it is presumed, be as generally allowed, that God only can make or constitute a Church. The Church so constituted is called by the Apostle "the body of Christ," and the Christians the members of that body. From whence it follows, that there can be but one body or Church of Christ. Though the Church of Christ, therefore, may be divided into several branches or particular Churches, as from distance of place and circumstances must be the case; yet it cannot be divided into distinct and separate Churches, unconnected and independent of each other; for this would destroy the unity of the Church. The unity of the Church then is formed by that bond of communion, which, in consequence 1 Cor. xii. 27.
* Acts xxvi. 3.
of that Divine covenant which is common to all its members, consolidates, as it were, all the several scattered parts or branches of the Christian Church into one connected body, under the title of the Catholic Church of Christ.
To be in the Church communion, therefore, signifies to be a member of the Church or body of Christ; which, however dispersed, is but one all the world over; in consequence of which, the Christian communicates, as circumstances may require, with any branch of the Christian Church, in whatever quarter it may be situated.
From hence the true notion of a separate Church, or separate communion, in which the sin of schism consists, may be clearly understood. For, though many allow that there is such a sin as schism, and appear sensible of the enormity of it, they yet take such pains to avoid the charge of its being brought against themselves, that, in their description of what is to be understood by a separation from the Church, they so confound the subject, as that neither they themselves, nor any one else, shall understand what it is.
But if, according to the premises, “there is but one Church and one communion, of which all true Christians, and Christian Churches are, and ought to be, members;" then those Churches which are not members of each other, are separate Churches.
"Where there are two Churches which are not members of each other, there is a schism, though they agree in every thing else, but in one communion; for there is a division of the body of Christ:
and where Churches own each other's communion, as members of the same body, there is no schism; though they are as distant from each other as East and West."* Whenever, therefore, there is a new Church, or a society of Christians calling themselves a Church, gathered out of a Church already constituted and regularly established, and formed into a distinct and separate society; this, by dividing Christian communion, makes a notorious schism. The application of this position to the case of all those different societies of Christians; who separate from the established Church in this country, is left to yourself. My object is only to state clearly the nature of schism, as it was understood by the primitive Church, and as it is now understood by our own Church; which consists (to make use of primitive language) in setting up altar against altar; by which, in consequence of that bond of communion, by which the Church of Christ was designed to be held together, being broken, Christians are divided from each other.
Having thus briefly laid before you the true meaning of these important words, Church communion and schism, I turn to page 179 of your publication, where you have given me a long extract from the writings of a Dr. Edwards, who, if he be the same Dr. Edwards who has been mentioned in a former part of this letter, was, (what, I am sorry to say, sometimes happens to be the case) a dissenter in principle, though a churchman by profession. The
*See "Resolution of some Cases of Conscience, which respect Church Communion, by Dr. Sherlocke, in London Cases, vol. i. page 60.