I saw a spacious hall, and men seated therein as if in conclave. As I looked upon the gathering, one, who seemed to be presiding, arose and addressed them:
"Brethren, we are met together as representatives of all the Churches owning allegiance to Christ, our aim being to formulate a common creed and a common basis of action that the way may be paved to the foundation of a United Christian Church.
"There are many indications that Time is at length beginning to break down some of the prejudices and misconceptions which have, in the past, kept the various Churches apart, hindering the growth of brotherly sympathy, and it is our purpose to discuss and, as far as possible, harmonize whatever differences may exist between us.
"Could we now so minimize these difficulties as to enable all to unite together in common cause, how infinitely greater would be our influence, not as the Church of Christ alone, but as a social and moral force in the world.
"I need scarcely remind you of the necessity of considering the questions which may arise, in a broad and charitable spirit. Let us treat the opinions of those who differ from us with Christian tolerance, and it may be that a friendly discussion will reveal that our differences, after all, are largely concerning matters of definition rather than of principle—words rather than facts.
"We are at least agreed upon the fundamental principle of our Faith. We are all brothers in Christ. Should not this suffice? As brothers in Christ we possess a common aim; let us also seek a common basis of Thought and Action."
He ceased, and there ensued a pause, none seeming to be desirous of first breaking silence. I took the opportunity of glancing over the assembly. One side of the hall was occupied by a body of priests or clergy, amongst whom I observed a Cardinal of the Roman Church and an Anglican Bishop. On the other side was a somewhat larger gathering, which I judged to consist of those representing the various Free Churches.
It was from this quarter that a speaker now arose. He was an elderly man, with a snow-white beard, and his face bore a look of authority.
"I had hoped," he began, "that the first word would have been spoken on behalf of one of the two great historic Churches. As, however, the opportunity has not been accepted, I need offer no apology for opening the discussion.
"I think that the address to which we have just listened sounded the true keynote of Unity. Our watchword should be 'Brothers in Christ,' for only by keeping this thought ever before us, as a guiding principle, can we hope to attain our end.
"But to be 'Brothers in Christ' we must be not only followers of Christ, but believers in Him as God Incarnate.
"I am aware that there are some who call and profess themselves Christians, who are yet unable to accept this doctrine. I believe, however, they are but few in number, and although we may respect their aims, yet you will doubtless agree that it would be impossible to include in our scheme of Unity those from whom we differ on the essential principle of our belief. It would, therefore, appear that our starting point must necessarily be the acceptance of the Doctrine of the Incarnation."
As the speaker resumed his seat an Anglican cleric on the opposite side rose to his feet.
"We shall, of course, all agree with our brother, who has just spoken, that the acceptance of the Incarnation is absolutely essential," he began, speaking in a clear, penetrating voice. "It will, however, be necessary to define what is meant by the Incarnation. We, Anglicans, regard the Miraculous Conception as the foundation of our creed, and see its fulfillment in the Resurrection and Ascension.
"Upon these beliefs depend our conception of the spiritual principle underlying our ritual and our sacramental doctrine. There are some among us, however, who disclaim them, holding the Incarnation to have been post-natal and the Resurrection purely spiritual. What, therefore, is to be the creed of the new Church, and is the sacramental doctrine to be consubstantiation or transubstantiation?"
A murmur passed over the meeting as he ceased, and I noticed that the Bishop was in earnest conference with some of his brother clerics.
At length he rose.
"The Anglican Church," he commenced, speaking with deliberation as if carefully weighing his words, "the Anglican Church embraces various tendencies of thought, and the different conceptions which they represent have been regarded as a matter for individual belief, according to conscience and feeling. It is true, as our friend has just stated, that a certain section hold the Incarnation to have taken place in a spiritual sense alone, but in so far as such conceptions do not interfere with the central doctrine of the Divinity of Christ, their orthodoxy has not been called in question.
"As we know these varying tendencies to have existed harmoniously side by side in the Anglican Church, similar conditions could surely pertain under a more extended organization.
"When we come, however, to the question of the Sacrament," he continued, glancing at the last speaker, and speaking somewhat sternly, "we are on different ground. The Anglican Church, while acknowledging the Real Presence within the elements, admits no material change. It neither recognizes Transubstantiation nor permits Reservation."
Murmurs of dissent could here and there be heard at the conclusion of this speech. The Cardinal smiled to himself, but said nothing.
There was a movement among the Free Church benches and I saw that he who had first spoken had again risen.
"It seems to me that provided we are all prepared to accept the Divinity of Christ as the absolute principle of our belief there is no reason why varying conceptions of a subsidiary nature should not be held in conjunction therewith.
"For instance, we may not all think alike concerning the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection and Ascension. There is a sense in which these beliefs may be regarded as materialistic, in that they seek to give divinity to the material body. This tendency in our view necessarily detracts from the humanity of Christ and perhaps logically demands the aid of a material medium for its expression, such as the Sacramental doctrine of Transubstantiation.
"On the other hand, the Sacrament is to us a purely spiritual communion. Spiritual grace is sought by prayer and communion of mind with mind, heart with heart. We partake of the bread and wine as a simple act of remembrance. But whether we believe in Transubstantiation or Consubstantiation or neither, we are still at one as to the purpose of the Sacrament. Let us not, therefore, demur because we may differ concerning the method."
At this point the Cardinal arose, and an expectant hush spread over the assembly. He was a stately man, and spoke with an air of conscious dignity.
"Gentlemen," he began. "In consenting to attend this conference, I must confess I was not hopeful that any useful purpose would be served by it. I have hitherto refrained from joining in the discussion and now only intervene to point out that its continuance upon the present lines is absolutely futile.
"It is necessary to remind you that there is and can be but one Christian Church, The One Holy Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church. Her doctrines are divinely inspired possessions, and are both irrevocable and irreformable. It is impossible for the Catholic Church to recognize any who do not accept her doctrines as divine and infallible. Unity is already ours, and if you would seek it, there is but one way before you. Enter the fold of our Holy Mother Church, and accept her rule and teaching.
"If, however, you seek a Unity which acknowledges neither the supremacy of our Church nor the Divine authority of the Pope, it must be a Unity among yourselves, a Unity in which the Holy Church can have neither part nor sympathy."
He resumed his seat, and the Bishop hastened to reply.
"I regret to have to utter a protest, Cardinal. I must in turn remind you that the English Church claims the title of Catholic equally with the Church of Rome, but in neither spiritual nor temporal matters can she accept the authority of the Pope."
"The Church does not admit your claims," returned the Cardinal proudly. "When you ceased to acknowledge her supremacy and teaching, you ceased also to inherit her Divine authority. The Apostolic succession was cut off."
"Your words are an insult," angrily rejoined the Bishop, and there was every prospect of a stormy scene, but hardly had the words left his mouth when he became speechless with amazement and wonder. All followed his gaze, and, behold, there stood a figure in their midst gazing upon them, silent, majestic, reproachful.
A breathless silence fell upon the assembly.
It was the Christ.
At length He spake; His words fell in gentle cadences, and His voice, though low and musical, floated to the farthest recesses of the chamber.
"Have ye so forgotten Me that I find you striving one with another?
"What strive ye for? Is it that ye may be foremost in gathering My lambs into the fold, in teaching the ignorant, or in feeding the hungry?"
He paused and looked upon them. They cowered beneath His gaze.
When next He spake it was in sterner tone. He seemed to address the Cardinal and the Bishop.
"I find you disputing among yourselves when ye should be about your Master's work.
"Ye have sought to make My Church a thing of forms and symbols. How have ye so misunderstood? Know ye not that all who follow Me are equally My ministers? The Holy Spirit dwelleth in the human heart, and wheresoever two or three are gathered together in My name, there also am I.
"Oh, ye faithless servants, by your jealousies ye bring Me naught but dishonor. Cease to dispute among yourselves. Go forth among My people and teach the erring and the ignorant the Love which their Father beareth them. But teach ye by your lives, not by your tongues alone. Point the way to the Heavenly Kingdom, but walk ye first in it yourselves.
"Thus may ye be living witnesses, that men may know and be drawn unto Me."
He ceased and suddenly vanished before their eyes, though none could tell in what manner He went, but ere the vision faded l saw that all had bent their knees in prayer.