Sermon on 6 October 1876, the day the church re-opened following restoration


SERMON BY THE RIGHT REVD WILLIAM CONNOR MAGEE, LORD BISHOP OF PETERBOROUGH (as reported in the Peterborough Advertiser, 14 October 1876)

At the Church of St Mary the Blessed Virgin, Warmington on 6 October, 1876 – the day the church re-opened following restoration

The Right Rev the Bishop took for his text 1st Corinthians, xil, 31st verse – “But covet earnestly the best gifts, and yet show I unto you a more excellent way”.

These letters of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians, he said, always had a special interest for English Churchmen, and for this reason, - of all the early churches to whom the Apostle’s letters were written, there was perhaps not one other in its condition, spiritual and civil, which so closely resembled our own.  There was much, very much, in the state of Corinth, and much, very much in the Church of Corinth that might find its parallel in England at this precise moment.

The City of Corinth, favourably placed, as they probably all knew, for commerce and maritime enterprise, gathered rapidly into her wealth, and with wealth, luxury, refinement, culture, and the knowledge of the world that commerce brings in its train.  The people of Corinth were wealthy, cultured, refined, and luxurious, and the same might be said to a great extent of the people of this land of England at the present time.  With wealth and luxury the Corinthians had many signs of the degradation and corruption of life which flow from them.  There was those deeds done which made the Apostle grieve and called forth his indignation. 

And in that respect also it might not perhaps be very difficult to trace its likeness in England now.  In the midst of this wealth, and corruption, and luxury, God had placed His Church to be a witness against all that was luxurious, carnal, and evil and a help to all that was good.

This Church of Corinth was a distinguished and highly gifted Church; it was rich not only in the presence of Christ, which had been promised to the Church in all places; not only in power, or the ordinary graces that He has promised to His Church; but in special gifts, such as learning, prophecy, and the power to work miracles, so that she should be able to cope successfully with the pride and power in the world with which she was surrounded.

The Church of Corinth was rich in all wisdom and knowledge, and the Apostle devoted several chapters to describing the miraculous and other gifts possessed by it.  It was a richly endowed Church in this respect.  And was not the Church of England a highly gifted Church?  Not gifted with those miraculous gifts with which the Church of Corinth was endowed, and which had now been withdrawn from the Church because there was no longer need of them, but still highly gifted.  What Church was so powerful in wealth, long tradition, prestige, history and character as the Church of England?  And as they gazed on this parallel, let them take the view which the Apostle took of this Church.  He was filled with anxiety, with doubts, and with fears; although he gave God thanks for these great gifts, he saw that the Church was surrounded with evils, and one of these evils was heresy, and we know that there always would be heresy, and another of these evils was schism.  The Apostle was looking at something far more valuable than these miraculous gifts; he was looking at the more spiritual gifts, looking at the spiritual gifts of graces.  Was the Church of Corinth so rich in grace; was she so faithful in her witness against sin as she ought to have been? Or had the Apostle reason to lament that while surrounded with grievous and carnal sin, she was pulled up instead of mourning for the sin; not dealing with it as she ought to have dealt with it.  A Church rich in all gifts, beginning to feel the infection of worldliness by which it was surrounded, it needed the sternest rebuke to the faithful to her master.

Now wherein laid the fault of this richly gifted and endowed Church.  It was this, that she glorified in her gifts and failed to put them to their proper use.  All these gifts were not ends in themselves, but means to an end – the winning of souls to Christ, that every individual denying ungodliness and worldly lusts, should live soberly, righteously, and godly in this present world.  Now this was the state of the Corinthian Church that she coveted these gifts, set great store on these rich endowments, but she forgot that these were all means to one great end for which God founded her – to bring about purity and holiness in the midst of a godless and unrighteous world.  The Corinthians were proud of their assemblies, of their rare gifts; they could praise the eloquences of him who spoke with tongues, the knowledge of him who wrought miracles; taking keen intellectual pleasure in maintaining their points of difference, making much of their vigour, of their growth in knowledge, of their flourishing church; of all these things they were puffed up, when they should have mourned over the coldness of their love and their zeal, over the laxity of life, and the bitterness of their stripes.

But how was it with ourselves?  Were not we a richly endowed Church, with all our gifts, equivalent to the gifts of the Corinthian Church; and were we free from heresy, and were we untorn by schism; were we mourning, or were we not puffed up, boasting of our religious activity, of the eloquence of this teacher, and the learning of that leader of a party; had we the purity of the church, self denial, holiness, patience, love, all that makes the church glorious, and grace, the distinguished gift, the more excellent way; how was it with regard to these?  Were we puffed up where we should rather mourn, if so it was because we looked upon the means to the end, as the end itself.  It was because we forgot that all these gifts were only the means for making us truly religious.  It was as if no army about to engage in ? difficult and critical competition, spending its time in finding out stores of uniform and large collections of ammunition, standing in self-satisfied peace regarding the arrangements for business but never soiling their uniforms by one drop of blood, nor wielding its weapons in actual warfare. 

So was it with the uniform of the church and the appliances for war which she possessed.  In themselves these were useless unless they were stained with the results of actual warfare.  It was well that these weapons should abound, but not well that they should be unused; it was well that the church’s weapons should be jagged and her uniforms stained with blood, and well that she should be ready to shed her life blood in her master’s cause.

The fault of the Corinthian Church was that she did not rightly use these weapons, and how does the Apostle deal with them?  He might have done, as many other reformers have done since then, he might have disparaged these gifts.  He might have said, “Of what use is it that you should have these gifts, there is something far better than these, the end which these are meant to lead you to, the spirit of life; learn to do without them, grace is the great thing needed for the church, and as for these gifts the less you have of them the better.”

How often had that been done, how many in their zeal for reform would deprive the church of her special gifts.  “She has misused her wealth,” they would say, “Sweep it away, and as for the learned clergy let us have no more of them, but let us have simple earnest men with the Gospel in their hearts.  The rich treasures of art, of music, of sculpture, and adornment, have been misused, have been kept for devotion rather than promoting it; away with these, let us have the honest simplicity, better a man knelt in a barn than this.”

How often had such arguments been repeated, but did St Paul so deal with the Church of Corinth.  No, he told them to covet earnestly the best gifts.  He did not counsel them to cast away a single gift, but bid them earnestly desire them.  He would not have them lose one of them, not one miracle – “covet earnestly the best gifts” – and why?  Because the Apostle knew that these gifts were means to an end, and as such were not to be despised.  “But I show you a more excellent way,”  There was something more excellent than the means, and that was the end.  Something more excellent than wealth, knowledge, intellectual endowment, art, and science, and that was the presence of the Spirit of the living God indwelling in the hearts of men – faith, hope and charity, all these other gifts were rare and exceptional, they were God’s heritage, the true Catholic heritage of God’s Catholic Church.  He did not despise gifts, but he preferred graces.

And so the Bishops of the Church in our day would say in the spirit of the Apostle, as Christian Englishmen and members of England’s Church, covet and prize most strongly every one of the exceptional gifts God has bestowed.  There was not one too many for the great work which the Church of God had to perform.  Let her covet earnestly the gift of a learned clergy, and of skill to confound the errors that assailed the Church.  Let them not condemn the mere material wealth or prestige in the nation that God had given to the Church, for it was given her that she might the more efficiently do her master’s work.  Let them extend and improve every one of these advantages that the church possessed remembering that they were given her the better to serve her Lord, and that she might walk in that more excellent way of which the Apostle spoke.  As they prized those gifts let them love and thank those who gave them, and to those who had given of their wealth for the restoration of that church, let them be very thankful.  Let them give thanks to God who in ages long gone by had made beautiful the piety and love of those who had built that house to his honour.  Let them be thankful for the traditions that gathered round their house of prayer, for there was in their structures as they contemplated them, a history in every stone. Let them be thankful for everyone of these things, for each was a tendril round the hearts of Englishmen more closely binding them to their English Church.  Let them be thankful for the gifts of the restorers of that church, for the wealth and for the skill that had accomplished it.  And then if God’s good gift to them, which was a means to an end, should ever be made an end in itself, if they should be proud of their architecture, if they should be proud of possessing one of the most beautiful churches in the diocese, beautifully restored, and be satisfied with it, and forget that that church was the place for them to pray in, the true glory of the house being in the fact that it was God’s house, and because it was God’s house that it had been so beautified, let them remember the more excellent way.  Let them remember that that place was for winning souls for Christ, and each Sunday after Sunday as they came there would be either a help to them to glory or a witness against them for their condemnation.  It would rest with them whether those gifts to them would be helps or hindrances.

A man might worship as unacceptably in a barn as in a cathedral, and also as acceptably.  In that church all beautiful and glorious, and lavish in adornment, it was only beautiful even in an architectural point of view, to a true artist, as it expressed the emotions of the heart as it helped the Christian man to the higher spiritual life.  So it appeared that the lesson they gathered from the Apostle’s teaching was not to join in the vulgar outcry against wealth and beauty of architecture, or the grace of colour and adornment, but rather that all these things were precious and exceedingly useful.  They brought with them grave responsibilities, as did all God’s gifts, that they should be rightly used, and rightly used let them give God thanks for them earnestly coveting them as a means to the more excellent way.

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