Cato's Letter No. 135

Inquiry into the indelible Character claimed by some of the Clergy.

Thomas Gordon (Saturday, July 6, 1723)

SIR, I have lately given you the genuine meaning of two very nonsensical words, as they are vulgarly understood, those of hereditary right. In this I shall a little animadvert upon two other words in as much use, even the indelible character. This I choose to do, because no small number of ecclesiasticks, and some, as I have heard, of the highest character, dare to assert, that though the late Bishop of Rochester be deprived of his bishoprick, and expelled the kingdom, yet He remains a bishop of the Universal Church, which are some more nonsensical words. Indeed, there is scarce a theological system in the world (legal establishments excepted), but contains almost as many falsehoods as words, and as much nonsense as matter. Give the corrupt priests but some odd, unintelligible, and ill-favoured words, suppose hic haec hoc, trim tram, bow wow, fee fa fum, or any other sound that is utterly void of any rational meanings, they shall instantly find profound mystery in it, and fetch substantial advantages out of it: Nay, when they are got in full possession of the said word, you are damned if you deny it to be sense, and damned if you endeavour to make sense of it.

The indelible character, is one of their beloved phrases, from which they derive great importance and authority; yet it is a palpable contradiction to all common sense. By it they mean a certain invisible faculty, which is peculiar to themselves, of doing certain duties, which they could have done as well before they had it. It is a divine commission, or power, to do that every where, which human powers can hinder them from doing any where. It neither conveys virtue, holiness, nor understanding, and has no visible operation; but authorizes those who are possessed of it to use certain words, and perform certain actions and ceremonies, and act certain motions, all which most other men could pronounce, perform, and act as well as they can, but, they tell us, not with equal effect: But then this effect is no ways visible, nor comprehensible, but through faith, and is far above all human conception.

How then, and by what marks, shall we know that any one has attained to this indelible character? Not from scripture, which is wholly silent about the matter. Not by succession from the apostles, who claimed no such power; as is unanswerably proved in the Independent Whig, nos. 6 and 7. Not from reason, the impossibility of it being there fully shewn in nos. 15. And the wickedness of pretending to it being as fully shewn in nos. 47 and 48. Not from the laws of England, which oblige all clergymen to own, that they receive all jurisdiction and authority whatsoever from the crown, as is demonstratively proved in nos. 13 and 14 and in nos. 49 and 50. It is as undeniably proved there by numerous texts, as well as by the whole bent of scripture, that no one Christian has more power than another, to perform all the offices of Christianity; that the Holy Ghost fell upon all believers alike, and that they had all the power of doing miracles, after they had received it: And I think it is as evident, that none of them have now the power of doing miracles, as this would be with a witness, if a few words pronounced, and few motions performed, should give to any one new qualities and faculties which he had not before. I am sure, if this be a miracle, it is an invisible one, much like that of the popish transubstantiation, where, though we are told, that the bread and wine are changed into flesh and blood, yet to human eyes they appear to be bread and wine still. We are so far from being told in holy writ, that elders, pastors, and teachers (for all priesthood is plainly abolished by our Saviour in any other sense than as all Christians are priests), are always to choose one another; that even an apostle in the first of the Acts is chosen by the congregation, and by the casting of lots.

But these gentlemen are sometimes so modest, as to confess, that holy orders do really convey neither piety, morals, learning, nor increase the natural faculties in any respect: I desire therefore to know of them, what they are good for, unless to declare, that such a man has undertaken to execute an office, and that he has natural or acquired qualifications sufficient to perform it? And this trust is for the most part committed to clergymen, who are presumed best to understand their own trade; and the ceremony which they use to signify that declaration, is laying on of hands, and a form of words prescribed by act of Parliament; which ceremony has obtained the name of consecration and ordination. Now suppose that the law had appointed another form to be executed only by laymen, as by flourishing a sword over his head, and by putting a cap and long gown upon him; would not the same man with the same qualifications, be just as good a pastor? Or suppose that the bishop, who ordained him, through some mistake, had not himself gone through all the operation, would the person ordained have been ever the worse? There is no appearance that our modern operators have any discernment of spirits; if they had, I presume that we should not have had so many Jacobites in holy orders; and ‘tis evident in fact, that whenever the parishes choose their own parsons, they prove at least as good ones as those who are recommended to us by our spiritual fathers. ‘Tis certain that our laws know nothing of this gibberish, but declare laymen capable of all sorts of ecclesiastical jurisdiction; and when the bishops consecrate one another, or ordain priests, they do it ministerially from the crown, and formerly took out a commission from the crown to ordain presbyters. Nay, the King now constitutes bishops in Ireland by commission; and they will be valid bishops, and able to perform all episcopal offices, though they were never consecrated. In Scotland, before the Revolution, they were created by patent, and held their sees only during the good pleasure of the crown.

Now let us consider what is the meaning of the word bishop, and wherein his office consists. It is a power or jurisdiction given to do certain actions within a certain district, which district is limited by human laws; and he must not execute his power in any other bishop’s district, under the penalty of schism, and human punishment. Now what is this jurisdiction? It is a power to name a lay-chancellor if he pleases, who is to enquire after and punish certain carnal crimes, without consulting or taking any notice of the bishop himself, who constituted him; and excommunication is the legal process which he is to use, and the punishment which he is to inflict. The bishop has, moreover, a power to examine into the qualifications of those who desire to be admitted into orders, and to admit them, or reject them, as he finds them capable, or incapable; and after they are admitted, to inspect into their behaviour, in some respects, and to punish them according to stated laws. Now what is this priestly office? It is to read prayers, appointed by act of Parliament, publickly to the congregation; to read aloud certain chapters out of the Bible, appointed by publick authority to be read on particular days; to pick out a text or two every Sunday, and harangue upon it to the people; to administer the sacraments by a form of words prescribed by law, to visit the sick, exhort and rebuke, and to take the tithes. The bishop besides is to be a lord of Parliament, to have one or more thousands per annum, and to bless people when they are upon their knees.

Now what part of all this may not be as well executed, by what ceremony soever the person officiating be appointed, or if he be appointed without any ceremony at all? May not a bishop constitute a lay-chancellor to hear smutty causes, and to excommunicate the guilty, till they buy themselves out of purgatory again for a sum of money? Cannot this layman equally enquire into the capacities of those who were candidates for the priesthood, as they call it, and deprive or otherwise punish them as the law directs? Might not he equally sit in the House of Lords, and vote for the just prerogatives of the crown, and the good of the Church; make the most of his revenues (only for the sake of his successor), and say “God bless you” to any one who will ask it upon his knees? Might not a private man, though a bishop’s hand had never touched his periwig, read aloud the publick prayers and the chapters for the day, when he can read at all, without any new inspiration; talk half an hour or more about the meaning of a plain text; exhort his parishioners to be good churchmen; rail at and revile dissenters; read the legal form of baptism, and sprinkle an infant; carry about the bread and wine to the communicants; repeat the words appointed in the Common Prayer Book to be said on that occasion; gather in tithes very carefully, and put any one into the spiritual court that does not pay them?

Now, what is deprivation, but by publick authority to hinder them from doing these things; that is to take away the power that it has given them? I think it is agreed by them all, that some of these powers might to taken away, namely, that of the bishops being members of the upper house, with their baronies and revenues, their lordships, their dignities, their spiritual courts, their legal jurisdiction within their former districts; but still, it seems they remain good bishops of the Universal Church; which character is indelible, and can never be taken away. But what they mean by the Universal Church, I cannot guess, unless they mean all Christian countries, or all countries where there are Christians: And then it seems that bishops may ordain presbyters, and bishops and presbyters both may preach and pray, give the sacraments, and excommunicate, wherever there are any Christians; and if the words Universal Church will extend to those who are no Christians, then they may do these things through the whole world. But how will this agree with another orthodox opinion, holden I think by them all, that no bishop can execute his office in another’s diocese, and no priest in another’s parish, against consent, without being guilty of schism? And here almost all Christendom is cut off from their ecclesiastical jurisdiction at once, and a good part of Turkey too, the Christians there having all bishops (such as they are): So that they are reduced to execute this universal power only in partibus infidelium; and methinks, since sovereign authority is every where the same, Mahometan or pagan princes should have as much power to hinder any one from conferring offices in his dominions, as Christian princes have to confine him to a small limit, and to hinder him every where else; for no more power is necessary to one than to the other.

But to shew that I am in charity with these gentlemen, and willing to agree with them as far as I can admit, that no government, either Christian, Mahometan, or pagan, has any authority to hinder a good man from doing his duty to God; from saying his prayers, and reading the scriptures publickly; from exhorting his brethren, from giving or receiving the sacraments, or from avoiding ill company; which last is all that is meant in scripture, by what we call excommunication: All which offices, or rather duties, every Christian is empowered by the gospel to execute. And as the clergy have been called upon oftener than once already to shew from scripture, or reason, that these duties, or any of them, are appointed by God, to be performed by any set or order of men whatsoever, independent of other Christians; so I call upon them again to shew it, and I expect that they will introduce plain and direct texts, or, at least, as much evidence as they would pay five shillings upon any other occasion. And if they cannot do this, as I shall presume they cannot, till the contrary appears; then all this artificial cant must pass for juggling, hypocrisy, and priestcraft.

If we will take some of their words for it, there are many things very strange and extraordinary in this divine trust. It may be given here below, but cannot be taken away again; for then it would not be indelible. It is a power to execute ecclesiastical jurisdiction or duty through the whole earth, yet may be confined to dioceses, or parishes. No human authority can hinder those who are possessed of it from executing it; yet their persons may be imprisoned, or put to death, and so be wholly disabled from executing it. They may be rendered incapable of performing it by diseases, by drunkenness, gluttony, and laziness; but not by murder, robbery, treason, blasphemy, or atheism. Non-execution, or wrong execution, is no forfeiture. It is the most tender and important of all trusts; yet no crimes, how heinous or black soever, will disqualify a man from holding and executing it. Whoever has once got it, can never part with it, but carries it with him to the block and the gallows; but whether it there leaves him, authors are silent, or uncertain.

It can be given by one of them to another only by the motion of the hand, but not by act of Parliament, and the consent of the States of a great kingdom, though the head of the church be one of them; yet it must be given according to the command of that one, and by a form of words enacted by all three. Whoever has it, must have a call from the Holy Ghost, yet must be examined whether he have common natural qualifications. When he has heard this call, and his qualifications are found sufficient, he need not execute what he is called to, but may hire another to do it for him; which other must not execute it neither, unless he has an human diocese, or an human parish, or is employed by those who have.

Is not this pretty jargon, worthy to be made an article of faith? Though it has had the ill luck not to get in amongst the rest; and, what is worse, some of the rest directly contradict it.

The same invisible faculty makes him, who is possessed of it, neither wiser nor better; yet he is to be much more respected, and his authority to be much more regarded, provided he be zealous for the notions which are orthodox for the time being; otherwise you may abuse him as much as you please, whether he be Most Reverend, Right Reverend, or only plain Reverend; and you need not then have any reverence at all for him, though the indelible character stick just where it did before. You must know that this indelible character came down by an uninterrupted succession from the apostles; but then it being wholly invisible, and making no alteration in the outward or inward man, there is some difficulty, and we are often at a loss to know who has it. The most common, outward and visible signs are a broad-brimmed hat, a long black gown, and a band; though others hold a cloak, with a cape to it, to be a better criterion. But what will become of us, if some heretick should have formerly usurped these holy garments, without having passed through all the precedent ceremony and operation? What if he should have happened to have consecrated and ordained a great many others, such as have continued the succession? Then, alas! the whole chain of succession may have been broken, never to be pieced again by human skill; and we can never know who amongst us are regular Christians, or in a regular way of salvation. Some are so wicked as to say, that this was the case of many of our Protestant bishops at the Reformation. Which God forbid!

Nay, what is worse, the orthodox differ amongst themselves about what requisites are necessary to continue this line of succession. Many have affirmed, that the Holy Ghost would not inhabit a heretick, a schismatick, a simoniack, or an atheist: And some have went so far, as to assert, that a Christian bishop ought to be a Christian. Now it is certain, that there have been many bishops and popes too, who did not believe one word about Jesus Christ; and if this be a disqualification, then the Lord have mercy upon those who have pretended to receive orders from them, or under them, and upon those who received the sacraments only by succession from such.

Others have ventured to affirm, that no greater power was necessary to take away orders than to give them. If so, the Pope and Church of Rome have taken away all our orders from us, and excommunicated us all to a man. Then too a question will arise, whether any one, who is wholly turned out of the Church, can be a bishop of the Church! If not, all our bench of bishops are gone at once: for we all know that the Church of Rome is a true church; and if the clergy have any authority from scripture, all the ecclesiastical authority in the world was against the first reformers, and they were all excommunicated together. They had certainly no power to separate themselves from the Church of Rome, but what every man in the world ever had, has now, and ever will have, to separate from any church which he thinks to be erroneous, and to disown all ecclesiastical authority, which does not take its force from the laws of the country which he lives under; and then it is only civil authority. I desire of the gentlemen, who have always shewn themselves very happy at distinctions, to clear up those matters to us, that we may know whether we be Christians or not, and in the ordinary way of salvation.

G I am, &c.

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