Monday, July 23, 2007

The Church of Saints and Sinners

I came across this passage from Richard Field (1561-1616) not long after General Convention 2003. It struck me then, as it still does today, as a needed corrective to the exclusionary, ideological extremes of both the far-Left and the far-Right.

Field served as chaplain to both Elizabeth I and James I. He was a participant in the Hampton Court Conference in 1604. He served as Dean of Gloucester (1609). His major work is Of the Church Five Books (1606-1610). "This work was an apology for the Church of England based on a number of marks of historical as well as doctrinal continuity with the Early Church, and may stand alongside Hooker's Lawes as a statement of a more 'Catholic' (although strongly anti-Roman) conception of the Reformed English Church" [Love's Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness, compiled by Geoffrey Rowell, Kenneth Stevenson, & Rowan Williams (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 133].

Written during a time of conflict in Church and society, here's what Field wrote about the membership of "the Church of God":

There are, and have always been, some, who, possessed with a false opinion of absolute sanctity, and spotless righteousness, reject the societies and companies of them in whom any imperfection may be found; which was the furious zeal of the Pelagians in old time, and the Anabaptists in our time. Others there are, which, though they proceed not so far, yet deny those societies of Christians to be the true Churches of God, wherein the severity of discipline is so far neglected, that wicked men are suffered and tolerated without due and condign punishment. These, while they seem to hate the wicked, and fly from their company for fear of contagion, do schismatically rent, and inconsiderately divide themselves from the body of God’s Church, and forsake the fellowship of the good, through immoderate hate of the wicked.

But these do dangerously and damnably err; the first in that they dream of heavenly perfection to be found amongst men on earth, when as contrariwise the prophet Isaiah pronounceth, that ‘ all our righteousness is like the polluted and filthy rags of a menstruous woman.’ And David desireth of Almighty God, that he will ‘not enter into judgment with him, for that in his no flesh shall be justified:’ and Augustine denounceth a woe against our greatest perfections, if God do straitly look upon them.

The latter, though they do not require absolute and spotless perfection in them that are in and of the Church, yet think it not possible that wicked ones should be found in so happy and blessed a society: not remembering that the Church of God is compared to ‘a net, that gathereth into it all sorts of fishes, great and small, good and bad,’ which are not separated one from another, till they be cast out upon the shore; that it is like ‘a field sown with good seed wherein the envious man soweth tares’; like ‘a floor, wherein wheat and chaff are mingled together;’ like the ‘ark of Noah, wherein cursed Cham was as well preserved from drowning as blessed Sem.’

But they will say, there may be hypocrites, who, for that their wickedness is not known, cannot be separated from them, who in sincerity serve and worship God; but if their wickedness break forth, that men may take notice of it, either they are presently reformed, or by the censures of the Church cut off from the rest; which course, if it be not so holden, but that wicked ones without due punishment be suffered in the midst of God’s people, those societies wherein so great negligence is found, cease to be the true Churches of God, and we may, and must, divide ourselves from them. This was the error of the Donatists in former times, and is the error of certain proud and arrogant sectaries in our time. But if the Church of God remained in Corinth, where there were ‘divisions, sects, emulations, contentions, and quarrels;’ ‘and going to law one with another for every trifle, and that under the infidels;’ where that ‘wickedness was tolerated and winked at, which is execrable to the very heathens’; where ‘Paul’s name and credit was despitefully called into question, whome they should have honoured as a father’; where ‘the resurrection of the dead (which is the life of Christianity) was with great scorn denied;’ who dare deny those societies to be the Churches of God, wherein the tenth part of these horrible evils and abuses is not to be found?

We see then the difference between the turbulent disposition of these men, and the mild affection of the Apostles of Christ, who writing to the Corinthians, and well knowing to how many evils and faults they were subject, yet doth not thunder out against them the dreadful sentence of anathema, exclude them from the kingdom of Christ, or make a division and separation from them, but calleth them the Church of Christ and society of saints. What would these men have done, if they had lived amongst the Galatians, who so far adulterated the Gospel of Christ, that the apostle pronounceth, that ‘they were bewitched;’ and if they still persisted in circumcision, and the works of the law with Christ, the ‘were fallen from grace, and Christ could profit them nothing;’ whom yet the apostle acknowledgeth to be the Church of God, writing ‘to the Church which is at Galatia?’

[Quoted in Love's Redeeming Work, pp. 135-136.]

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