Sunday 6 May - Festival Matins - Bishop Daniel Sandford

Bishop Daniel Sandford, ‘On Church Communion’ (abridged)

a sermon preached in St John’s Church on the Sunday after its consecration, 1818,

and read at Choral Matins on the Bicentenary, 6 May 2018


Acts, ii. 42. ‘And they continued stedfastly in the Apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers.’

These words contain ‘ensample and admonition’ of great value. For without impropriety, or violence to their meaning, they may be considered as a description of the church communion of the first Christian believers, as it subsisted, in the purest age of our religion, under the immediate inspection and guidance of the Apostles of our blessed Lord. As such, they furnish a very proper subject for my first address to you, since the place wherein we are assembled was dedicated to the service of God.

          The example of these earliest members of the visible Church of Christ, is proposed to you as a model for your own conduct. The consistency and regularity of your course, as members of this church, are matters of great importance. They are of great importance to each of you individually, and to those on whom your example may have influence….

          In the description, therefore, which the sacred historian here gives us of the first Christian communion, we have, 1. Conformity in the same doctrine, the Apostles’ doctrine. 2. Submission to the church government prescribed by the authority of the same Apostles, who acted under the guidance of the Holy Ghost. The Apostles presiding; the elders, or presbyters, under them, instructing and admonishing the people; the deacons officiating in their allotted place; and the laity dwelling in peace and harmony with one another. 3. The administration of the same sacraments; and, 4. The use of the same form of prayers. Such was the practice of our forefathers, in the church of Christ.

          It is my purpose to shew you, as briefly as possible, that in the communion of that portion of the church to which we belong, the example thus set before us by the best and purest ages of Christianity, has been carefully followed.

          In the first place, then, in the authorized confessional of our church, contained in the thirty-nine articles of religion, that doctrine is exhibited which answers the description of the text. It is the doctrine extracted with the most pious diligence, by learned and godly men, from the Holy Scriptures, ‘built upon the foundation of the Apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner stone.’  Without appeal to any human authority, or calling herself by the name of any of the leaders among the sects of men, our church hath been described, and rightly described, to be SCRIPTURAL. Such she is in her Articles, her Creeds, and her Liturgy. And wherein other churches partake with her in this lovely character, ‘we bid them God speed; we wish them good luck in the name of the Lord.’

          Our church continues likewise in the ‘fellowship of the Apostles,’ as the expression has been already explained. Without uncharitable censure of those who differ from us in their notions of church government, and of the qualifications necessary to the right administration of the Holy Sacraments, we faithfully and conscientiously abide by that form of ecclesiastical polity, which we verily believe to have been established by the first inspired rulers of the Christian church. Without any vain and irritating disputations about names and titles, we are content to follow the pattern which we think is evidently propounded in the word of God. This is the claim which we acknowledge, and the example we profess to imitate. We believe that the three orders of our clergy are derived from the model of the church in the New Testament;  and we know, and all who are acquainted with the history of Christianity from the first ages, know as well as we do, that for the first fifteen centuries of the Christian era, there was no regular church in any part of the world that was not so constituted. We thus consider our form of ecclesiastical government such as may be ‘proved by most certain warrant of Holy Scripture,’  and confirmed by the invariable practice of all antiquity. While we abstain, as our Christian profession requires from us, from judging those who do not agree with us on this important subject; while we endeavour to live ‘in the bond of peace’  with other communities of our Christian brethren, who is he that will blame us for ‘holding fast’ the practices which we contemplate as deriving a sacred authority from the Apostles of our blessed Lord and Master?

          We must, indeed, ‘hold them fast,’ if we desire to be consistent and conscientious members of an episcopal church. We must ‘continue stedfastly’ in that which we esteem ‘the fellowship of the Apostles.’ There is a plausible indifference towards the distinguishing characteristics of our communion, against which I think it a duty to warn you. You may be told, in the language used by many, whose motives I am not by any means inclined to impeach, that the mode of church government is a matter of expediency alone. This is, I fear, very dangerous doctrine, and much more likely to produce a careless indifference towards all religious persuasions, than a charitable judgment of those from whose opinions we may think it right to differ. No, my brethren, expediency is a very insufficient plea for separation between Christians. Were the grounds of our separation, in ecclesiastical matters, from the majority of our brethren in this part of the kingdom, no better than those of expediency, our separation would be criminal. But they, as well as we, know that the case is otherwise. Let it be our care, therefore, to abide stedfastly by the communion to which we belong, while we presume not to condemn others, but live in amity and kindness with those ‘by whom we dwell securely.’  Their respect and good opinion we certainly shall not deserve, and are not likely to obtain, by denying or dissembling the principles by which we ought to be distinguished.

          Again, we have the same sacraments which were instituted by our Redeemer as of perpetual observance in His church. We baptize, as our Lord commands, ‘in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.’ ‘the cup of blessing which we bless, is it not the communion of the blood of Christ? The bread which we break, is it not the communion of the body of Christ?’  Within our humble sanctuary we invite our flocks to partake of the same means of grace and salvation, which strengthened and refreshed the souls of the faithful from the beginning; and which will, through God’s mercy in Jesus Christ, continue to support His servants in the course of piety and obedience, till the great day when all shall be gathered unto the Lord, and the church triumphant shall rejoice before the Throne of God.

          Lastly, in conformity with the godly example before us, we assemble here to offer up our prayers and praises, our confessions and supplications and thanksgivings to God the Father, through the mediation of the Son, in the words of a liturgy, scriptural in its language, unexceptionable in its doctrine, animated, fervent, and devout; adapted to all the wants and feelings of the worshippers in the house of God, consecrated by its antiquity, commended to us by its energy and beauty, and in expression, alike removed from coldness on the one hand, and from the extravagance of enthusiasm on the other.

          Such is our church. Pure and scriptural in doctrine; in discipline apostolic; correct in the administration of the sacraments; and provided with a liturgy, which is the admiration of all, even among her adversaries, who are capable of judging its excellence. Within her pale may be found, we trust, ‘the strait and narrow path which leadeth unto life;’  and earnestly must we implore of the Father of Mercies, that her members may walk worthy of the advantages they possess, and the example of primitive truth and piety and order in the model from which her discipline is copied.

These blessings are bestowed on us by Divine Goodness for the best and most valuable purposes. That we labour to improve them to the end which they are designed to answer, is the ‘return’ which God claims for the ‘benefits He hath done unto us.’  Great will be our sin, and dreadful our punishment, if the word which may make us ‘wise unto salvation,’  if the ‘doctrine’ which is ‘according to truth and godliness,’  shall be addressed to unwilling ears and reluctant hearts. The external form of a Christian church, the regularity and order which we enjoy, are of no avail, unless they be accompanied by the recollection and performance of our duties, as belonging to that body, of which Christ, our Lord and Master, is the head. The blessed sacrament of the Lord’s Supper may become the instrument of ‘judgment’ upon us, instead of the strengthening and refreshing of our souls, unless it be attended with the right dispositions, with the faith, and penitence, and hearty resolutions of amendment, and fervent charity, which are requisite to render the outward act acceptable in the sight of Him who judgeth the heart. The prayers in which we join will not be heard, if they be a service of the lips only, if the minds of the worshippers do not accompany the words which they renounce, if the course of their lives do not approve the sincerity with which they solicit the blessings of Divine grace. The services of a regular ministry are vain and empty ceremonies, if the mutual relations of the pastor and his flock be forgotten, and the duties resulting from them neglected. In fine, all the rites and ordinances of the church are sadly abused, unless, through that help which we are encouraged to ask, assured that we shall receive, and commanded to labour to improve, they be attended with the inward and effectual sanctification of the soul.

          I have said here little or nothing which is not perhaps familiar to the minds of those whom I address. But I have said it, because the subject is at all times important, and more especially at this moment. The occasion in which we lately assembled to dedicate this house to the worship of Almighty God, is present to our recollection. At such a season, it is useful and becoming to recall to mind the principles which we profess; to remember how they are established on the word of God, and commended to us by the example of the purest times of our holy faith. It should make us ‘very courageous to keep all the commandments and ordinances of the Lord,’  to look back to those who were first called after the name of Christ, and who ‘continued stedfastly in the doctrine and the fellowship of the Apostles, and in the breaking of the bread, and in the prayers. The same holy God who called them to the knowledge of the truth, is our God and heavenly Father. The same Redeemer, in whom they were sanctified, hath shed His precious blood for us. The same blessed Spirit who strengthened and guided them, is ever ready to bestow His grace and help on us. The same means of knowledge and improvement, in the communion of the church, which the first Christians enjoyed, are vouchsafed to us. May we be enabled so to use them, and so to walk as members of the visible church on earth, that hereafter, for the sake of our Lord and Saviour, we may be found meet for admission into the church which is above, ‘in the city of the living God,’  to whom, with the Son and the Holy Ghost, the ever blessed and adorable Trinity, be ascribed all worship, and honour, and glory, for ever and ever. Amen.