From Heaven or from Men?




George Tyrrell (1861-1909) was a Roman Catholic priest, expelled from the Jesuit Order and later excommunicated by the Roman authorities in 1907 for his so-called "modernist errors". And yet he loved the Church and spent his too-short life struggling to clarify what Catholicism might mean in a world which had moved beyond the bureaucratic "certainties" of the Counter-Reformation era. As Gregory Baum has written,

Tyrrell proposed a new vision of Catholicism, the universal religion, indeed a religion of tradition, dogma, and authority, but one that was alive, ever renewed through the religious experiences of the people, a dynamic movement that could respond creatively to the challenge of the modern age. Tyrrell believed that living Catholicism could be at one and the same time faithful to the ancient tradition and open to the intellectual aspirations of modernity . . . He tried to show that Catholicism was a living reality, the bearer of divine revelation through history, a cosmic religion, the sacramental key to the mystery of the universe, alive through the religious experiences and religious practice of the people, and -- in this modern age -- open to historical scholarship and critical analysis.
Although Tyrrell was neither an Anglican nor a Socialist (his political sympathies were unabashedly Tory), this vision of his found a ready welcome among many of the Anglo-Catholic Socialists described in these pages, and his personal courage and devotion to truth served as an inspiration in their own battles with ecclesiastical authority. Father Dolling counted him a friend, and Conrad Noel, according to Robert Woodifield, wrote in the margin of his copy of Through Scylla and Charybdis, "This true Catholicism Tyrrell hoped would be appreciated in the R.C. Church. Its authorities expelled him for preaching it."

It may be said that much of what George Tyrrell hoped for in this essay has been accomplished in the Roman Catholic Communion by the Second Vatican Council and is old hat among Anglicans. But it's not at all clear that the present Pope has really gotten the message, and there are more than a few in the Anglican Communion who haven't a clue.

- - Ted M.


From Heaven or from Men?

from George Tyrrell's Through Scylla and Charybdis, or the old theology and the new. London, Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907.

For all who believe in institutional Christianity in any form, the problem of Church-authority, its nature, its extent, its limits, is one that presses more acutely every day, and does not seem to be nearing its solution. It has been rudely solved in the past, sometimes to the utter destruction of individual liberty, sometimes to the practical annihilation of law and order, occasionally by compromises which offered up consistency on the altar of expediency . . .

For the occasion I will use the word "priesthood" widely as the equivalent of all ecclesiastical authority. It is this conception of "priesthood" in its widest sense which I wish to examine, and more particularly that perversion of it known as "sacerdotalism."

The priest is an official who has received power and authority to teach and govern the religious community, and to administer its sacred rites. From whence has he received this power, from Heaven or of men? In one sense, from Heaven and not of men; in another, of men and not from Heaven. And for whom has he received it? Plainly not for himself, not for his own profit or aggrandisement, but for the community. He is the "servant of the servants of God."

"Sacerdotalism" corrupts and perverts this conception of priesthood in two respects. First of all, in the more vulgar and obvious way of regarding the sheep as purely ministerial to the ease and dignity of the shepherd. In this form the perversion is easily detected and universally reprehended.priest But it lurks more subtly and perniciously in the notion that the whole ecclesiastical apparatus and system is something which exists for its own sake and not merely and purely as an instrument for the spiritual service of those who support it. We do not escape egotism by ministering, however selflessly, to the egotism of the corporation or caste or trade union to which we ourselves belong. There is "sacerdotalism" in forgetting that the Sabbath and the whole Law is made for man, and not man for the Sabbath or for the Law; that the sacraments are for man, and not man for the sacraments; that the priest is for the layman and not the layman for the priest. The "son of man" (ie. man) is lord even of the Sabbath. He who put all things else under his feet and at his service, last of all ordained even the Sabbath for man's rest and refreshment, to be his servant, not his tyrant. Man is therefore master and lord of the Sabbath, the Law, the Church, the Sacraments, the Priesthood. The sacerdotalism which forgets this has, of course, its direct counterpart in the abusive conception of civil and political office as being ends in themselves. The human mind is so easily and so absorbingly interested in the mechanism of government that it rarely criticises the machine itself by the supreme criticism of utility and productiveness. Now and then it wakes from its wondering ecstasy to the world of plain fact, and asks: What, after all is said and done, after all this clanking and grinding and spinning of cumbrous wheels, what has become of "the man in the street," of some millions of neglected units for which all this Stately or Churchly apparatus is supposed to exist? In this sense Sacerdotalism is Bureaucracy in the Church; Bureaucracy is Sacerdotalism in the State.

But in the second place, the legitimate idea of priesthood may be perverted by a false conception of the source from which, the channel through which, the priest derives an authority to teach, rule, and minister, which in a true sense is divine and supernatural. However immoral in many of its consequences, this error is not necessarily the fruit of immorality, of the egotism of individuals or corporations, but derives from that more or less pictorial and imaginative way of representing truth which is proper to religion as distinct from philosophy. The immanental aspect of God can never be that of popular religion, which necessarily addresses itself to the imagination, and speaks of things divine in terms of things human and easily visualized. For such a religion, God, the source of all power and authority, stands entirely outside of, and above, the creature. He guides and governs the race and the unit only from without. not also from within. Heaven is His throne, Earth is His footstool. From His dwelling on high He looks down upon the wide world outspread at His feet, and through the ministry of ascending and descending angels He rules as a king over his subjects, a shepherd over his flock, being in no sense identified with that which He rules.

We know how authority is imagined in this scheme and how easily the symbol or parable is mistaken for the truth which it symbolizes. To the priest or the ruler, as to his delegate or vice regent on earth, this external God imparts a measure of His own spirit -- a spirit of wisdom, a spirit of power, a spirit in all cases conceived somewhat materialistically and even impersonally . . . In a word, he is the delegate of a purely transcendent, not of an also immanent God. The power and authority is, of course, given him not for himself, but for the service of men. Yet, since he derives it not from men, but from Heaven, he is responsible to Heaven and not to men.

As mere symbolism, as a pictorial and imaginative explanation of the source and meaning of authority, all this may be quite harmless, useful, and even necessary. Our sacred scriptures are full of this language and imagery. They show us the heavens opened and the Spirit descending and resting on God's delegates in the form of a dove, or of fiery tongues, or transmitted from soul to soul through bodily contact. Nor has Christian tradition ever departed from these figures and metaphors by which alone the highest truth can enter into the lowliest doors. But squeeze any metaphor hard enough and it will yield poison; in this care the poison of absolutism and irresponsible government, the poison which constitutes the second objectionable element of "sacerdotalism."

It is possible for the priest to use his power and authority disinterestedly, and solely in the service of the community, and yet to hold himself in no wise responsible to that community for the use of his power; to consider himself the superior of all collectively, and not merely of each singly; to account himself answerable only to an "absentee" transcendent God to whom appeal is impossible; or to an assize for whose sentence we must wait until the dawn of eternity. The existence of men or classes of men who so conceive their authority has been and must always be fraught with mischief and danger for societies whether civil or ecclesiastical. To trace the growth of this conception of religious authority back to its first beginnings almost in apostolic times would be to discover the ultimate fibres of a malignant cancer which has steadily undermined the strength and vigour of Christianity, century after century. That it has not slain Christianity altogether is only because the wheat of truth is more deep-rooted than the tares of error. It is because of that instinctive, unconscious (or sub-conscious) spirit of sane democracy which breathes through the Gospel from beginning to end; which underlies those same inspired figures and images to which absolutism perversely appeals . . .

It is no longer difficult for us to believe that "no man has seen God at any time"; seen Him, that is, as something external and apart from the world and humanity; or that no man has heard God at any time calling out from the clouds, or from the burning bush, or from the summit of Sinai. We have long since not merely resigned ourselves to a silent and hidden God, but have come to recognize our seeming loss as a priceless gain. For now we have learnt to seek Him where alone He is to be found, and seen, and heard; near and not far; within and not without; in the very heart of His creation, in the center of man's spirit; in the life of each; still more, in the life of all. It is from the Sinai of Conscience (individual and collective) that He thunders from His commandments and judgments; it is from the heights of His holiness that He looks down in pity upon our earthiness and sinfulness; it is in His Christ, in His Saints and Prophets, that He becomes incarnate and manifest, and that He tabernacles with the children of men.

Along with this sense of the Divine Immanence has grown that of the authority of the general over the individual mind and conscience, as being a relatively more adequate organ and expression of God's truth and God's will; as furnishing a standard from which the individual may not fall short, and which he must first attain before he is competent to criticise and develop it. The fragmentary revelations of Himself which God makes to every mind and heart coalesce in the mind and heart of the community, and form a steadily developing body of traditional beliefs, laws, and customs, through contact with which the individual spirit is wakened, guided, and stimulated. If individual judgments and impulses are liable to the warp and bias of private aims and interests, there is a strong presumption that the consentient mind and will of the community are free from such limitations, and are determined by an end that is more approximately universal and divine, more truly representative of the normal developments of the human spirit.

Yet we must not confound this general spirit, this authoritative mind and will of the community, with its provisional embodiment in certain formulated beliefs, laws, and customs. To give to this latter the honour that belongs to the former would be to imprison the spirit in the letter, and to make progress impossible. The formulation of a living and growing spirit can never be of more than approximate and relative value. It is, at best, a compromise for purposes of social intercourse and co-operation. Growth and progress demand that under certain conditions the individual may and even must depart from established forms of belief, law, and custom, in obedience to the higher and more ultimate law of the spirit itself. It is a false explanation which makes a certain lawlessness of private will and judgment a condition of advance, as though it were the only through disobedience and rebellion that new paths of progress could be discovered. Disobedience is never lawful, but fidelity to the letter may be infidelity to the spirit; obedience to a lower may be disobedience to a higher authority; loyalty to our rules may be disloyalty to our Church or to our country, in whose interest and for whose sake alone they are to be obeyed. To disregard law, custom, or command solely from self-interest motives is plainly disobedience . . . but when we see, or sincerely think, that such a law or custom is generally hurtful, that its abolition or modification is clearly for the common good, we not only may, but we ought to depart from it in obedience to that highest social law from which all lower laws depend . . .

[Those] who depart from current and well-established traditional beliefs solely on the strength of some personal view -- which, in such matters can never be quite self-evident -- are following private judgment in its bad sense. But when it is clear that a counter-belief is gaining ground in such a way that in represents the "consensus" of the future; when the same conclusion is reached simultaneously and independently by different thinkers, one may, and at times one ought, to follow the belief that lives in the spirit (however small the number of its supporters) rather than that which stagnates in the formula (however vast the number of its passive adherents); for in so doing one departs from the dead letter only to conform oneself to a truer, higher, and more authoritative expression of the living spirit.

BishopThus, it is in the widest, the most enduring, the most independent consensus that we possess the fullest available manifestation of that Divine Spirit, partially and imperfectly manifested in our own individual mind and conscience -- the Spirit of Truth and Righteousness, the source of all moral power and authority -- God revealed in man.Authority, then, is not an external influence streaming down from heaven like a sunbeam through a cleft in the clouds and with a finger of light singling out God's arbitrarily chosen delegates from the multitude, over and apart from which they are to stand as His viceregents. Authority is something inherent in, and inalienable from, that multitude itself; it is the moral coerciveness of the Divine Spirit of Truth and Righteousness immanent in the whole, dominant over its several parts and members; it is the imperativeness of the collective conscience . . .

It cannot be denied that in the life of that formless Church which underlies the hierarchic organization, God's Spirit exercises a silent but sovereign criticism; that His resistlessly effectual judgment is made known, not in the precise language of definition and decree, but in the slow manifestation of practical results; in the survival of what has proved itself life-giving; in the decay and oblivion of all whose value was but relative and temporary.

The path of the Church's progress is simply littered with the bleached bones of long-forgotten decisions and decrees which, in their day, were reverenced as immortal.

One thing, at least, is certain, that democracy has come to stay; that to the generations of the near future any other conception of authority will be simply unthinkable; that if the authority of Popes, Councils, and Bishops cannot be reinterpreted in that sense, it is as irrevocably doomed as the theologies of man's childhood. The receptivity of the general mind is a fact that priesthoods have to reckon with, and always do reckon with in the long run. They cease to say, nay, they cease to belive that to which the general ear has become permanently deaf. They would fain seem to lead, but, in fact, they follow the spirit in its developments; for it is there, and there only, that truth is worked out.

He may expect to be laughed to scorn who suggests that the spirit of democracy in the Catholic communions is not dead, but only slumbering. And he would perhaps merit ridicule who placed his hope in any cession of their claims on the part of the priesthoods. It is said reforms must come from below. Let us rather say they must come from above, from God immanent in the entire community which stands above both priesthood and laity. To trust in that is to trust in God, in nature, in the spirit, in the irresistible force of truth and right. There is no need of a violent revolution, but only of a quiet, steady, re-reading and re-interpretation of existing institutions . . . Abundant traces still remain of the primitive view of the priesthood and its powers, and these traces we must deepen and follow up and insist on . . .

It must needs be that error should arise, and spread, and work out its own disproof in order that Truth may be manifest, our minds being so constituted that we know nothing fully until we know its opposite. When we return to the abandoned Truth we return to it in a new and better form, and with a deeper appreciation of its value, So it is that we may hope to return to the profoundly Christian and Catholic conception of the democratic character of all authority, whether civil or ecclesiastical, and of "the liberty wherewith Christ has made us free."


"I am glad God is to judge me, and not any of his servants." -- George Tyrrell, a month before his death.

Home Traditional Values The Heritage Friends and Companions Liturgical Ramblings Something of William Morris Some Good Reading Some Links The Jubilee Group