THE fact that Nonconformity to-day finds itself on the down
grade may be attributed in part to causes which have affected the whole religious world. An accurate diagnosis, however, would reveal weaknesses due to defects peculiar to the bodies sonamed. The chict of these is the absence of dogmatic and definite authority.
Anglicanism clings to a theory of episcopacy which, however faulty, does afford for those who accept it, the possibility of objective sanctions and external unity. The non-conforming bodies. on the contrary. renounced all pretensions to art historic episcopacy and relied on the Bible.
It is obvious, however, that a modernist criticism from which there i.s no appeal save to the judgment of the individual must render this position extremely precarious. Even if the pulpit still assumed that " the Word of God " WU.% final. the pew, affected by The spirit of the times, became increasingly uneasy. A note of uncertainty and a habit of evasion in the preachers confirmed the suspicions already harboured by their hearers.
Instead of the bold and confident preaching which had characterised such as C. H. Spurgeon, there developed a critical and tentative attitude towards the Scriptures and the traditional theology which robbed the preacher of his power. The effect was well described by a well-known Congregational divine. " It is useful at this point," wrote Dr. Forsyth, " to stop for a moment to press the value of the distinction between impression and regeneration, which for the religious public is mainly lost. It is a distinction which becomes very practical in she matter of preaching; inasmuch as the preaching characteristic of our day, fine as it may be, is without due power because it is impressionist rather than iegencrative. It is the servant of religious culture rather than the source of new life."
When, in the opinion of the congregation, the Book could be no longer regarded as are oracle, those whose professional duty it had been to expound it suffered a like fate. Their sermons were expressions of personal opinion, and the attempt to make up for what had been lost by greater learning and a more attractive type of preaching failed. The pulpiteer took his place in the same category as the newspaper prophet and the platform orator. Greater attention to the forms of worship and the introduction of liturgical services might create a religious atmosphere, but this was no compensation for the hard and compelling dogmatism which had been forfeited.
Eloquent vagueness might charm, but, to use Dr. Forsyth's term, it did not " regenerate." And, as the strength of Nonconformity had been in the rostrum, this inability to invoke dogmatic authority was fatal.
" Special Missions"
One of the symptoms which marked the change was the disinclination to rely on those " Special Missions " which had been a feature of Nonconformist life, and had done much to maintain its spiritual fervour and its membership. It is a mistake to regard these as purely emotional. Emotion played its part, as it must always do in religion. but missioners such as the American Evangelists, Moody and Sankey, depended chiefly on a bare, one might almost say an austere, piesentation of what they deemed "Bible Truth." The degradation of this method by later and more eccentric and emotional preachers was both an effect and a cause of the disappearance of this type.
Another symptom is to be found in the decreasing virility of " the Nonconformist Consciehce." Concerning this. a Unitarian writer of some note gave interesting testimony in an article contributed to the Hibbert Journal. " The supreme attraction of Rome," he declared, " is to be found not in its devotions or ceremonialism or the absolutism of its intellectual formulations. It is to be found in its ethical rigorism, in that very sphere which Puritan Protestantism thought to be its own."
The reason for the failure suggested by the words I have italicised is not far to seek. The nineteenth century tried to persuade itself that Christian ethics would not only survive the loss of Christian dogma, but might even profit from it, Cut out the " innovations " of St. Paul and fall back on the " Sermon on the Mount " and all would be well. So argued our fathers. But the event has disproved their theory. It is not strange, therefore, that " the Nonconformist Conscience •' lost its fighting strength and became a somewhat small-minded scold.
Now that we are dealing with this subject, it may be remarked that in tic pioflouncements of Nonconformist leaders on public questions there is frequently observable a charaeteristic which can be described Aiy as provincialism. The cause of this was clearly stated years ago by Matthew Arnold. " What. now." he asked in the Preface to Culture and Anarchy, " can be the reason of this undeniable
Pr 0s mcialism of the English Puritans
and Protestant Nonconformists? .. . Surely the reason is, that the Nonconformist is not in contact with the main current of national life, like the mem ber of an Establishnient. In a matter of such deep and vital concern as religion, this separation from the main current of the national life has peculiar importance."
Lest the reference to the F.stahlishment should be misunderstood, it may be well to add a relevant passage from the same source. " Only two religious disciplines seem exempted, or comparatively exempted, Irom the opelation of the law which appears to forbid the rearing, outside of national Chinches, of men of the highest spiritual significance," he says. "These two are the Roman Catholic and the Jewish. And these, both of them, rest on Establishments, which, though not indeed national, are cosmopolitan."
Conscious that the distinguishing features which could once provide it with a raison d'etre are being lost. Nonconformity turns hopefully to the preaching of what is called " the
Social Gospel." This ethical Christianity applied to public life, it would seem, is to take the place of the dogmatic religion now regarded as unacceptable.
Says the Rev. A. D. Belden, S.D., D.D.. a prominent Congregational minister, in a pamphlet on The New Evangelism and the New Order: " To call upon the modern crowds to subscribe intelligently to the Christian Creeds before co-operating to sweep
away private profit industry and politics, and so put an end to Unemployment, etc., is to waste breath and to sacrifice humanity to ecclesiasticism. The New Evangelism must be much more simple and human than that. It must be a return to the stark and selfevident simplicity and realism of Jesus."
The dropping of theological dogma, it should be noted, is advocated not on the ground that the dogmas are false, only that they arc unacceptable to " the modern crowds." Such compliance with the popular mood, I venture to suggest, indicates spiritual bankruptcy.
Happily, there are signs in presentday Nonconformity of a more robust mood. And with this we shall deal in the next twhich will also be the final) article of the present series.
(To be concluded).
Stanley B. James