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THOMAS Lord Bishop of OXFORD,
CLERGY of his DIOCESE,
His PRIMARY VISITATION 1738.
very fenfible, that you cannot meet together on this occafion, without making deep reflexions on the lofs, which you have suffered, for the publick good, by the removal of a pastor, whom the experience of fo many years hath taught you to esteem and honour fo highly. It is your farther unhappiness, that he is fucceeded by a perfon, very unequal to the care of this confpicuous and important diocese. But your humanity and your piety will, I doubt not, incline you, both to accept and to affift the endeavours of one, who can assure you, with very great truth, that he is earnestly defirous of being as ufeful to you all, as he can; and seriously concerned for the interefts of religion, and of this church. Would to God there were lefs need of expreffing a concern for them, than there is at prefent!
Men have always complained of their own times: and always with too
much reafon. But though it is natural to think thofe evils the greateft, which we feel ourselves; and therefore mistakes are easily made, in comparing one age with another: yet in this we cannot be mistaken, that an open and profeffed difregard to religion is become, through a variety of unhappy causes, the diftinguishing character of the prefent age; that this evil is grown to a great height in the metropolis of the nation; is daily spreading through every part of it; and, bad in itself as any can be, muft of neceffity bring in most others after it. Indeed it hath already brought in fuch diffolutenefs and contempt of principle in the higher part of the world, and fuch profligate intemperance, and fearleffness of committing crimes, in the lower, as muft, if this torrent of impiety ftop not, become abfolutely fatal. And God knows, far from topping, it receives, through the ill defigns of fome perfons, and the inconfiderate nefs of others, a continual increase. Christianity is now ridiculed and railed at, with very little referve: and the teachers of it, without any at all. Indeed, with respect to us, the rule, which most of our adversaries appear to have fet themselves is, to be, at all adventures, as bitter as they can: and they follow it, not only beyond truth, but beyond probability: afferting the very worst things of us without foundation, and exaggerating every thing without mercy: imputing the faults, and fometimes imaginary faults, of particular perfons to the whole order; and then declaiming against us all promifcuoufly, with fuch wild vehemence, as, in any cafe but ours, they themselves would think, in the highest degree, unjuft and cruel. Or if fometimes a few exceptions are made, they are ufually made only to divide us amongst ourselves; to deceive one part of us, and throw a greater odium upon the other. Still, were these invectives only to affect us perfonally, dear as our reputations are and ought to be to us, the mischief would be small, in comparison of what it is. But the confequence hath been, as it naturally muft, that disregard to us hath greatly increased the difregard to public worship and inftruction: that many are grown prejudiced against religion; many more, indifferent about it and unacquainted with it. And the emiffaries of the Romish church, taking the members of ours at this unhappy disadvantage, have begun to reap great harvests in the field, which hath thus been prepared for them by the labours of those, who would be thought their most irreconcileable enemies.
Yet, however melancholy the view before us appears, we have no reason to be discouraged: for let us take care of our duty, and God will take care of the event. But we have great reafon to think seriously, what our duty on this occafion is; and ftir up each other to the performance of it: that where-ever the guilt of these things may fall, it may not fall on our heads. For it must needs be, that offences come: But wo to that man, by whom the offence cometh (a). Our grief for the decay of religion might be attended with much comfort in regard to ourselves, could we but truly fay, that no faults or infirmities of ours had ever given advantages against it. But though, God be thanked, we are far from being what our adversaries would reprefent us; whofe reproaches perhaps were never less deserved, than now when they are the most violent: yet, it must be owned, we are not by any means, even the beft of us,
(a) Matth. xviii. 7.
what we ought to be. And the prefent ftate of things calls loudly upon us, to correct our mistakes, to fupply our deficiences, and do all we are able for the honour of God, and the happiness of mankind.
If we can be unconcerned now, we have neither piety nor common prudence in us. And if we are concerned in earneft, we fhall be very defirous, both to avoid all wrong methods of fhewing it, and to make use of all right ones.
Complaining of our fuperiors for thofe evils, which perhaps they cannot prevent; or complaining of them with difrefpect, for what we may apprehend they could prevent, would both be undutiful and imprudent conduct: would give our adverfaries joy, and do our caufe harm. Indeed to beg earnestly of God, that he would direct the hearts of those, who prefide over the public welfare; and humbly to represent to them, on all fit occafions, the declining state of religion, the importance and the means of preferving it; these things are unquestionable duties. But then we must always approve ourselves, at the fame time, confcientiously loyal both in word and deed; reafonable in our expectations; fincerely grateful for the protection, which we are affured of enjoying; and duly fenfible, that every thing of value to us, in this world, depends on the fupport of that government, under which we now live. We cannot be good men, if we are bad fubjects: and we are not wife men, if we permit ourselves to be fufpected of it.
A fecond proper caution is, That to fpeak unfavourably of liberty, religious or civil, inftead of carefully diftinguishing both from the many abuses of them, which we daily fee; or to encourage any other restraints on either, than public utility makes evidently needful; can only ferve to increase that jealousy, which being in former ages grounded too well, hath been most induftriously heightened, when there never was fo little pretence of ground for it; that the claims of the clergy are hurtful to the rights of mankind. It concerns us greatly to remove fo dangerous a prejudice against us as this: not by renouncing those powers, which the Gospel hath given us; for we are bound to affert them: but by convincing the world, that they are perfectly innocent; and avoiding all appearance of affuming what we have no right to: by fhewing our abhorrence of tyranny, especially over the confciences of men; and fatiffying them fully, if poffible, that we preach not ourselves, but Chrift Jefus, the Lord; and ourselves, their fervants for his fake (b). Then, with refpect to the privileges, that we derive from human authority: as, on the one hand, receding from any of them without caufe is only inviting fresh encroachments, and giving needlefs advantages to fuch as will be fure to lose none: fo, on the other, ftraining them too far is the likelieft way to destroy them all at once: and both our usefulness and our fecurity depend very much, on our appearing plainly to defire nothing inconfiftent with the common good; to have the trucft concern for all reafonable liberty, and to be zealous only againft licentiousness and confufion.
Thirdly, If we fhould be tempted to oppofe profanenefs, by encouraging the oppofite extreme of fuperftition: this alfo would be unjuftifiable in itself; would have bad effects upon as many as we might mif
lead; and give great opportunities to all that should see them mifled, either of accufing religion, or expofing us, as corrupters of religion. Not that we are to give up inconfiderately, whatever fome perfons are pleased to charge with fuperftition: for there would be no end of conceffions at that rate: but only to avoid encouraging any thing, that can be justly charged with it; and then we shall ftand upon fure ground. For nothing can be more unjust, than those imputations of it, which our adversaries are so fond of throwing, fome upon Chriftianity itself, others on the doctrine and worship of that church, of which, through God's merciful Providence, we have the happiness to be members.
Another very pernicious error would be, if we fhould think to ferve our caufe by intemperate warmth in it. Chriftian zeal indeed is a duty, that never was more needful, and never less shewn. But paffion will do no good. If expressed against those, who are indifferent about religion, it will turn them into enemies: if against the enemies of religion, it will make them yet more vehement enemies. Befides, the extravagant things, that men say and attempt against us and cur profeffion, are not always defigned injuries; but frequently the effects of mifrepresentations, and prejudices, that have imperceptibly taken hold on perfons, who otherwife mean tolerably well. Now mildness to fuch as thefe, is but juftice and to all others, it is prudence. Railing is the province which our adverfaries have chosen : and let us leave it to them. For whatever fuccefs they may meet with that way, as indeed they excel in it, we shall mcet with none: but only make the spirit of Chriftianity be misunderftood and ill spoken of, by our own want of it. Therefore, how injuribufly foever we may be treated, let us return neither injurious nor harsh treatment for it: nor endeavour to mark out those persons for objects of popular hatred, who are ever fo unwearied in labouring to make us fo. Yet, at the fame time we must never court irreligious men by wrong compliances; never contribute to increase their power of doing harm; never defert our duty, either for fear of them, or favour from them. But then let us defend both religion and ourselves, with that fairness and decency, as well as courage, which becomes our function: acknowledge ingenuously whatever can be alledged against us with truth, only claiming equitable allowances; and where charges are untrue, yet ufe mild expoftulations, not reproaches; and try to fhame our oppofers by the reasonablenefs of what we fay, rather than exafperate them by the vehemence of it. They indeed have little caufe either to complain or to triumph, if under fuch grofs provocations as they give, our temper fometimes fails: but we have great cause to do our utmost, that it fail not.
And if undue severity of speech must be forborn towards profeffed enemies; much more to thofe, who may, for aught we know, design themfelves for friends. Indeed, when it is evident, that men only put on a pretence of wishing well to Chriftianity, or the teachers of it; and, whilft they affect to charge us with uncharitablenefs for questioning their fincerity, would defpife us for believing them: there we must be allowed to fee what plainly appears; and to speak of them, both as adversaries, and unfair ones. Or when doctrines, whatever the intention of propagating them be, are inconfiftent either with the whole or any part of our religion; it is no uncharitablenefs, but our duty, to lay open the
falfhood and the danger of them. Nay, fuppofing only the legal establifhment of religion, or some branch of it be attacked; yet the attempt may both be injurious enough to us, and detrimental enough to the public, to deferve a vigorous oppofition. But to fhew paffion and bitterness in any of thefe cafes; to take pleasure in making men's mistakes or defigns thought worse than they are; to judge harfhly of them with refpect to another world, or expofe them to ill ufage in this; to refufe them due allowances for human infirmity, or be more backward to own their merits, than to fee their faults: fuch behaviour, instead of promoting truth, will prejudice the world against it; will give unbelievers dreadful advantages, and for ever prevent that union amongst Christians, which would procure us, above all things, the esteem of men, and the bleffing of God.
From these improper methods of fupporting religion, let us now proceed to the proper ones. And they will naturally fall under the general heads of our inftructions and our lives.
Giving inftructions requires knowledge. And therefore, as a competent degree of it is juftly expected of perfons, before they enter into holy orders fo, when they enter, the care of making a continual progress in it is folemnly promised by them, and covenanted for with them. What
be a very good beginning, is by no means a fufficient stock to go on with; and even that will leffen, if no pains be taken to increase it. Continued application then is a duty of importance. Perfons of lower abilities and attainments are in danger, without it, of being useless and defpifed: and they, who fet out with greater advantages, are bound to endeavour at doing, in proportion, greater services to the church of God. Without exception therefore, all who are engaged in fo ferious an employment as ours, if they have any regard either to their duty or their character, must take care, not to be more remarkable for their diverfions, than their ftudies; nor indolently to trifle their time away, inftead of employing it to good purposes. And though most parts of learning will be useful to us, and all parts ornamental; yet we must be sure to remember, what we have been folemnly admonished of, that no attention to any thing elfe, ought ever to draw us away from the pursuit of fuch knowledge, as is properly theological. For to excel in other things, and be deficient in that, cannot but caft a grievous reflection; either on us, for not ftudying what we profefs; or on our profeffion, as having little in it worth ftudying. Our principal bufinefs therefore muft be, to obtain a thorough acquaintance with the Chriftian faith: first the grounds, then the doctrines of it. And the previous qualifications for attempting this are, a due knowledge of the rules of right reasoning, and of the moral and religious truths which nature teaches; of the state of the world in its earlier ages, and in that when Chriftianity firft appeared. These preparations being made, the great thing requifite in the next place is a diligent fearch into the holy Scripture. For there it is, that both the authentic fyftem of our belief, and the chief evidence for it, are exhibited to our view. Scripture therefore, above all things, the Infidel endeavours to ridicule; the mistaken Chriftian, to wreft in fupport of his errors: and if we defire, either to confute them, or to fatisfy ourselves; our only way muft be, to understand it well. For