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THE FREEDOM WITH WHICH CHRIST HAS
MADE US FREE.
A SERMON, preached in Cross Street Chapel, at the Morning
Service, on Sunday, June 24th, 1894, by the Rev. James
Exactly two hundred years ago the first sermon was preached in Cross Street Chapel from this text by Henry Newcome, who had been ejected from the Collegiate Church of Manchester by the Act of Uniformity in 1662. In that disastrous year of broken pledges and triumphant intolerance, which inflicted such incurable wounds upon the Church of Christ in England, a distinguished man (related to the ancestors of your present minister), Isaac Barrow, whose uncle had been ejected from Peterhouse, in Cambridge, by the Presbyterians, and who became the teacher of Sir Isaac Newton, entered on the professorship of Geometry at Gresham College. These facts are significant of the history and principles of that section of non-conformity in which this chapel has taken such a distinguished part. The confluent streams of spiritual life and of fidelity to all scientific truth have produced a new conception of ecclesiastical policy, or I would rather say a new ideal of the Kingdom of God, which is in complete opposition to that which has been dominant in the Church ever since Constantine summoned the Council of Nicæa to decide questions of knowledge and thought by votes. Warned by the evils which the mutual intolerance of rival factions had brought upon the country, and taught by the sharp discipline of suffering, when their own weapons of persecution had been turned with keener
edge against themselves, our forefathers came to see that violent attempts to secure an artificial uniformity only resulted in disruption, and that the true creators of schism were those who chose to thrust on others their own undivine conditions of communion. The intellect, ever seeking after larger knowledge, must be allowed to follow the light without fear of reproach and exclusion; and holiness could walk with a more majestic grace when freed from the props of coercive dogma. Accordingly the faithful Calvinists, who built our ancient chapels, did not impose upon them the Westminster Confession of Faith or other binding articles; but trusting the kindly and revealing providence of God they and their successors have moved upon the upward grade towards a nobler faith, a larger justice, a more inclusive love, and still for us, their children, the way slopes upward, and melts from view only in a cloud of heavenly glory.
The story of this chapel has more than once been admirably told; and instead of reverting to this theme, and dwelling on the many honoured names of those who nurtured here the character of faithful citizenship, it will be better for us to dwell this morning on the distinctive principle of this, the first-fruits of Nonconformity in Manchester. “ Holiness to the Lord,” the first text addressed to a congregation assembling here, gives the keynote of that principle ; for it selects as the essential thing spiritual perfection rather than intellectual consent, and gives the positive basis on which our religious liberalism rests.
There is a kind of liberalism which is based upon no deep conviction, but is simply a revolt against bigotry and superstition, and I would speak with all sympathy of this revolt of the enslaved intellect against an ancient tyranny. The destruction of error is a necessary part of human progress, and keen criticism, even if it be prejudiced and unsound, contributes to the advance of truth by rousing men's attention, and shaking them out of their lazy acquiescence. Still, the mere withdrawal of poison does not enable men to live ; and a liberalism which has no life-giving or organizing power, and whose temper is mainly one of supercilious scorn towards other men's beliefs, must be profoundly dissatisfying to those who seek for some positive truth and some redeeming power in human life. This was the kind of liberalism in religion to which the late Cardinal Newman was so bitterly opposed, and in his resistance to which he found the one fact which gave him ground for thankfulness in reviewing his career. To him liberalism in religion meant “ the doctrine that there is no positive truth in religion, but that one creed is as good as another,” and he pronounces it to be “inconsistent with the recognition of any religion as true.” It leads to what he regards as the fatal consequence, that “all are to be tolerated.” It is well that at a time when so many of the Anglican clergy are sinking back into a pseudo-catholicism we should take to heart this pronouncement of the greatest of modern Catholics. Intolerance is the inevitable outcome of every system of religion which is based on dogmatic exclusiveness; and we who call ourselves religious liberals, and would combat this intolerance, must exert ourselves to prove that the freedom which we have enjoyed for two hundred years is no desolating negation, but a spirit of life quickened with the breath of heaven. Notwithstanding the freer movement which is going on in so many churches, the forces of bigotry and reaction are strong and active, and we are still forced to maintain an attitude of vigilance and protest.
What, then, do we mean by liberalism in religion ? Newman has defined liberalism without religion rather than in religion. The latter is the doctrine that the human mind has, at least within the limits of immediate social safety, an indefeasible right to follow the dictates of its own conscience, and under the guidance of that conscience to seek for religious truth with all the resources which God has placed at its disposal, and that it is bound to accord to others the right which it recognises as inalienable in itself. This proposition does not say that the individual conscience is always enlightened or that private judgment is