Sermon on Consecration of Romford Church

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Sermon on Consecration of Romford Church  (1856) 
by Nicholas Wiseman
Church of St Edward the Confessor in Romford , consecrated by Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman on 6 May 1856. The sermon based on Matthew XXVIII 20 (‘And behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world.’)

This day, my dear Brethren, closes the solemn commemoration, which the Church has prolonged through eight days, of Our Lord’s glorious Ascension. It is right, therefore, that we should now attend to the lessons particularly connected with this event. None seems to me more suggested to our consideration, by the happy motive of our meeting here this day, than that which is contained in the words of my text.

They are the guarantee of the last commission which our Blessed Saviour gave to His Apostles, a guarantee of their success in preaching the Gospel to every creature, and teaching all nations to observe the whole of His doctrines.

The Apostles were a body corporate formed by Him, limited in number, and endowed with peculiar privileges. It is to them that these words were spoken. To them, and not to the bulk of His followers was committed the duty of converting the world, and establishing the Church: and consequently to them alone is given the assurance of success in its discharge. Nor could He have been more explicit in the expressions which He selects, to intimate the perpetuity of that assurance.

When a charter is given to a body, a corporation to a borough, a constitution to a kingdom, by an authority capable of bestowing them, when especially it is once for all stated to be granted in perpetuity, it is not necessary to repeat from age to age the original grant. It takes effect from the first moment; and no one doubts that the successors of the original recipients inherit the rights and privileges of those whose duties they are bound to continue. How much more must this be the case, when the granter is He whose word is creative of what it gives, and whose promises are faithful, under the guarantee of omnipotence and essential truth.

But further, the commission was one of impossible fulfilment by the Apostles in person. However much their lives might be prolonged, it was impossible for them to reach even the whole known world. We know, how they preached in Palestine, and Syria and Asia: how they carried the Gospel to the polished Greek, and to the haughty Roman; how they established the church in Egypt, and Mesopotamia. We flatter ourselves that the voice of the Apostles sounded on our shores. Spain too and other western countries have the same boast: while Scythia, Armenia and India were reached by these first preachers of God’s word. But surely much more than even all this was included in that promise of salvation to all the nations of the earth. Can we believe that the numerous tribes of Germany were not comprehended in this message? That the frozen regions of Scandinavia were not comprised in it? A second world was as yet undiscovered beyond the Western Ocean: and surely it formed a portion of the world to which the glad tidings of salvation were to be, one day, borne. And so, doubtless were the islands of the Pacific, and those new continents, rather than islands, which lie at the opposite extremity of earth; and so were China and Japan, and southern Africa, and many other regions unvisited by Apostolic feet.

The kingdom of Christ was to extend from sea to sea, to embrace all whom He had redeemed by His precious blood; and it is clear, from the very impossibility of compliance, by the Apostles, with the commission, given for carrying out this prophecy, that their successors, that is the Church, were to continue it till fulfilled, not only till the present time, but to the end of time. And as the assurance of Divine assistance, and so of perfect success, is an essential part of the heavenly commission, so is this also a prerogative of Christ’s Church.

Our Saviour therefore was careful to put this so beyond all doubt, that it seems wonderful that two opinions should have been ever entertained, as to the meaning of those simple but complete, and unmistakable words “all days”, “even to the Consummation of the world”.

“All days”, not by fits and starts, nor by centuries, nor periods; but each day, so that the divine assistance is a chain from which not a link can drop, but is woven on day by day till it reach the end of days. No interruption, no break, no weak point, in its well-knitted, smooth forging, unitedly and concurrently with the succession of day to day in the heavens; for both obey one ordinance. And as surely as the sun keeps his course by an unalterable and unceasing law of perpetuity, though apparently of successive appearances, so is Christ present with His Church uninterruptedly, whether day or night seem to have come upon her.

“To the consummation of the world;” that is every day till the last day. As there is no interruption – so will there be no failing. The promise will no more wear out, than it can break down. So long as the world shall last, so long shall the Church.

Having now explained the security of perpetuity thus given to her, let us see what illustrations we find of its possession by the Catholic Church alone, in the circumstances which have this day brought us together.

Surely it is presumptuous, some one may say, for you to see in the frail structure, and small dimensions, of this church, the type of stability and perpetuity, standing, as it does, by the side of a solid and noble pile, lately erected here; and that too in succession to one still older; while yours springs up suddenly, inheriting no previous existence.

And yet, my Brethren, it is no less true, that we claim the exclusive possession, the undivided rights, of this divine promise of Christ’s perpetual assistance. For we are here, not as a small, isolated, family of worshippers, as a new sect suddenly risen. We form part of the great, universal Church, spread over the whole earth, we partake of its being, we are alive with its life. Remember that the smallest joint of a child’s finger united to its body, has more life, more vital power and action in it, than the right arm of a hero, which lies on the field, severed from his frame, after performing prodigies of prowess and of might. And so this little congregation partakes of the whole life of the Church catholic, the mighty body of which is spread over the entire globe: a life not shared by any, however humanly strong or earthly powerful, that is cut off from its communion.

Designate us by what name you please; we find in the title the expression of this prerogative. Call us “Catholics”, as we call ourselves; and we see in this the assurance that we cannot fail. The word tells us that we belong to the “universal” Church, to which alone promise of perpetuity was made. For scarcely had the words of my text been spoken, than they received their first application. On Whitsunday the curse of Babel was reversed; for as there all mankind till then of one speech and lip was confounded by the multiplication of tongues, and so dispersed in punishment (though no doubt beneficially), so in Jerusalem, on that day, the Apostles, who had till then spoken only the degraded dialect of the Galileans, were gifted, in blessing to mankind, with innumerable tongues, by which they began, at once, to preach the Gospel of Christ. And thus, however small in numbers, the first Church of Pentecost was established as the Church of all nations, of all tongues and peoples; even in those hundred and twenty persons who were assembled in the upper chamber of Jerusalem, the universality of Christ’s Kingdom was not merely typified but realized; for the tongues of the entire world were represented in them. In, and from, that moment the promise and assurance of Christ took effect, and attached itself to that body which then undertook and executed His commission. The characters of universality, or catholicity, and perpetuity thus became united, perennially and indissolubly combined. Where is the one gift, there is the other. When therefore you call us Catholics, you virtually admit our claim to be the perpetual and unfailing Church of Christ.

Or add the epithet of “Roman”, or call us “Romanists”, and I accept the omen of the name. Before the light of the Gospel dawned on the capital of the Roman Empire]], there was an augury which her admiring sons reserved for her. They had seen other seats of empire pass away. Babylon and Niniveh were in ruins, Tyre and Carthage were desolate. But they believed that Rome was to be the sole exception to this law; and their loving wish was expressed in their greeting: “Esto perpetua! Be perpetual!” It was one of those mysterious prophecies of truth, which floated, no one can tell how, like Sybilline sayings, in heathen thought, a feeling and aspiration, deeper and fuller of meaning than men speaking it believed. But they acted on it; and built Rome, as if destined for eternity. And so, while the site of other great cities has changed, and they have been removed from their place, the yet enduring monuments, or the broken ruins, of ancient Rome, mingled with modern edifices, prove that the augury was true, and that old and new run on, and form only one perpetual, or as it is often called, “Eternal city”.

Any name, therefore, though spoken scornfully, which links us to her, we gladly accept, as an admission of our claim to perpetuity. In fact, it is this communion with the great Catholic Church, and its centre, which reserves to you, in this little church, perpetuity of faith. It is by it that I feel confident that no pastor appointed by me, to minister and preach here, will differ in the smallest title of faith or practice from his predecessor. Though a foreigner, like your present one, I can have no fear that he will teach any doctrine, practise any ritual, set up any ceremonies even, which a native priest would not equally inculcate or observe; simply because I could not dream of appointing any one who was not in perfect accordance with the doctrines and practices of the universal Church. In this we have the guarantee of perpetual identity of doctrine from age to age.

Do you wish to put the reality of this security to the trial? I have alluded to the greater religious structure lately raised close to us, the successor and reputed representative of an older building. It seems thus to carry us back through centuries, and to present a greater security of solidity and duration. Well; ask there whether any security is there given of permanency of right doctrine, supposing this to be now taught there? You would be told, in consistency, that none could be given; that it was the belief of that religious establishment to which the place belongs, that the whole Christian world had, without exception, been plunged in “damnable idolatry” – for many centuries. Where was Christ’s promise of abiding with His Church, during that period? I think we may fairly ask. But no matter. It is clear that no religion believes perpetuity of doctrine to be its prerogative, which admits such a break in its past existence.

Go further, however, in this practical inquiry. Ask if, as matter of fact, the same doctrines are now preached in the parish church, which were delivered there about 300 years ago. And you will be answered; “God forbid. In those days, Mass used to be said in it; the Pope’s supremacy, intercession of saints, seven Sacraments, Transubstantiation, and Purgatory were openly taught. All these have been condemned by the legislature of our country, and the very contrary is at present taught here”.

Now, without discussing which is right and which wrong, the fact is incontestable, that unity and perpetuity of religious teaching has not existed in that greater and more costly building, any more than it can be guaranteed on principle. But here we reappear, after those three hundred years; and teach and do whatever you have been told was taught and done in that older parish church. Is it not we that thereby establish a well founded succession to that primitive Church? Though the links that intervene in the chain of perpetual succession have been unseen for the time, they must have gone on being attached elsewhere, to keep the connection whole. And so this has been, throughout the Catholic Church. In truth, my Brethren, had there existed, planted on this spot an old and venerable oak, which centuries ago had been cut down, leaving but a withered root in the earth, and had an acorn gathered from it and sown near grown up into a tree, you might have considered this as its successor and representative. But if, after many ages, through some renovating power of nature, from that very root shot up a sapling, however slender, and however weak, you would recognize in it, not the heir or successor of the good old stock, but the identical plant, the very same thing as grew there before. Now such is our claim. After three hundred years, the old iron bound root of catholicity sprouts here afresh, and puts forth this young and yet slender shoot. The Church resumes her office of teacher, without resentment for the past, without consciousness of her long constrained slumber: she takes up her work where she left it off; begins again her song where it was interrupted; and knits her next sentence to the instruction that was broken by the entrance of her plunderers. As Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today, so is His Spouse, the Church: she knows no difference of times; but returns among you unchanged, in full assurance that she possesses this gift of perpetuity.

And if Christ, our Lord left this with some Church on earth, and no other claims it, or even the consciousness of possessing it, to whom else can it possibly belong?

But if this little church can thus prove itself the symbol of doctrinal perpetuity, it has been shown no less to possess this mark, by the solemn rites by which it has been consecrated to God. Many of you were present on Tuesday last, during a portion of that function, and it may have appeared to you, though no doubt solemn and impressive, perhaps unusual and even strange.

We walked round these walls, calling on God to bless them from foundation to roof-tree; we sprinkled them with water blessed by prayer for that purpose, to signify that this building was to be set apart, cleansed from the corruption of creatures groaning under the defilement of sin; divided from them for the perpetual service of God. The walls were anointed with oil, as God commanded the Tabernacle and its furniture to be anointed, to show that they were consecrated for ever to God. So complete and enduring is this consecration, that should the waste of time, or the violence of man destroy this building, or should it become unsuited for its present purpose, we could not substitute another, nor adapt this, for secular objects. The dedication is perpetual; itself is a symbol of the perpetuity of that religion which it represents.

But it was this altar which formed the object of our special care and devotion; on it the ceremonial of our consecrating rites was principally concentrated. For it, in fact, was this church built, for it consecrated. If there had not been an altar fixed and immoveable, a symbol of the perpetuity of our doctrine, I could not have consecrated the church at all. It is no communion table, no shifting expedient for an occasional rite; but a permanent altar for a perpetual oblation, for a daily immolation, for an uninterrupted dwelling of Christ Our Lord amongst us. Speaking of the altar before the Tabernacle, the sacred historian writes, “And when he (Moses) had sanctified and sprinkled the altar seven times, he anointed it”. And similarly did we sprinkle first seven times, and anoint frequently this holier Altar of the new Covenant. We anointed it with the holy oils of unction, and we burnt incense upon it, that its table might be sanctified for the oblation of a perpetual sacrifice: we anointed its body, and its junctures with its base, to signify that never more was it to be broken, and its stones dispersed, but it has to remain as “a title”, a stone like that of Bethel, on which Jacob poured his oil, and which he thus made holy to the Lord for ever”.

In all this, my brethren, there was nothing new, nothing modern. Every ceremony, and every prayer, belongs to the earliest times. And do you wish to know by evidence, that, in our own country, the same rite was formerly employed to consecrate the cathedrals, and abbeys, and parish churches, which yet stand in it? You will find it often, alas! no longer in the chancel or sanctuary of the church, but in its pavement. Often may you see there, put purposely that the footstool of our Lord’s glory, “the place on which His blessed feet have stood”, might be trampled underfoot by those of the most profane, the altar-slab, recognizable not only by its form, but by the five crosses exclusively marked on it, as on this, for the places of sacred unction. They who rejected the doctrine of sacrifice, were not contented with removing its symbol, but, with ingenious malignity, made it the object of vulgar scorn. But not only does the sign of salvation cut into the stone remain to protest against the sacrilege, but the very seal of consecration, the incense, wax, and chrism burnt into it, may still be sometimes traced on the surface of our desecrated altars. And the crosses anointed on the wall of the church, sometimes at least on the outside, yet keep their places; “the stones from the wall” cry out, and give testimony, that they who built them practised the same rites as we, and held consequently the same doctrines which they represent.

But so ancient, so venerable is all that you witnessed, so strong its evidence of the perpetuity, not only claimed but exhibited, by the Church, that it leaves us in doubt which explanation to give of what St. John tells us in his Revelations that he witnessed in heaven; whether the Church immediately copied her worship from what he there saw, or the heavenly temple and its functions were purposely shown to him to be the exact counterpart of what she had already instituted. In either case the highest sanction and approbation are given to what forms our solemn worship of the living God.

For he describes to us that he saw in Heaven, standing before the Throne of God, the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Around Him are seated four-and-twenty Elders, clothed in white, and wearing crowns, selected from the great army of just made perfect, whose duty it is to sing to their harps the praises of God, and offer up the prayers of others, less sacred than themselves. Before the altar there raised, stands a ministering Angel, who burns incense upon it, and is the channel through whom pass the homage and the supplications of more distant adorers. Surely all this is an exact counterpart of what is done daily, in the Catholic Church, and in her alone. For here stands an altar, on which she unhesitatingly teaches, is laid, and offered up the very same Lamb, slain for our redemption, and God’s atonement. And though the magnificent scene described by the Apostle is more truly and more beautifully represented in some great cathedral, yet even here around the altar are seated the priests, that is the Elders of the Church, singing to God, and praying with sacerdotal power, between the porch and the altar. And here is incense offered on the altar, by the minister who brings into the sanctuary, and lays upon that altar, the oblation of prayer offered by the faithful.

No other religion dares to cope thus with the celestial, to believe what is there seen, to repeat what is there acted. But while this coincidence shows that our worship is not of yesterday, nor of a thousand years ago, is not indeed of time but of eternity, is not of earthly origin but of heavenly, there is one peculiar rite to which I have not yet alluded, but which formed a prominent, and indeed essential, part of our function on Tuesday last. The inspired Evangelist saw the altar in heaven; but more still, he heard its voice. It was a vocal, not a silent, altar. From beneath it issued mysterious words, and he tells us from whom they came, for them he saw likewise; – from those who had been slain for the word of God – the Martys of Christ. From that hour to this, the Catholic Church has made it a law, and a practice, that the sacrifice of the Blessed Eucharist can never be celebrated on an altar, beneath which do not repose sacred relics of martyrs slain for Christ. If you were to visit, or to read about, the catacombs, that is the underground burial-places and churches of the early [persecuted Christians, you would find this beautiful rule invariably and admirably carried out. There are no altars there, except the tombs of the martyrs; and these are therefore often so constructed as to be most appropriate for altars. When the Church first obtained liberty, she built her temples, so as that the altar should stand directly over the sepulchre of some illustrious martyr, to whom it was dedicated. This was called his “confession”. And we read that holy bishops, like St. Ambrose at Milan, in building churches, were anxious how they should be able to procure relics for their consecration.

So strictly is this law still observed, that I could not have consecrated this altar, had I not been able to deposit within it some portions of martyrs’ relics. None of any other saint, however distinguished for holiness, or rank, in the Church, even of a Pope, would have sufficed, if he had not laid down his life for Christ. But such were procured, the sacred remains of SS. Clement and Cyriaca, who suffered for the faith in the very earliest period of Christianity. Can you have a stronger proof of our claim to perpetuity, than this rite, based as it is on the apocalyptic vision, adopted by the Church from apostolic times, and so continued in ours, as to show that we claim alliance with the martyrs of primitive ages? Who else would have received their very dust as we have done? Who would have borne them from their original resting-place, carried them across mountain, plain, and sea, watched over them with psalms, as we did on the vigil of their resepulture, borne them in procession, upon the shoulders of priests round the church, and then deposited them in a tomb sumptuous as this altar, and sealed down the stone over them, till the day, if it please God, of their glorious resurrection? Yes, rest there, Martyrs of Christ, valiant and holy; cry from beneath this altar for mercy and reconciliation in favour of all who may enter in here. Cry aloud to them, that your presence amongst them connects this little church with the cavern-basilicas of the catacombs, and unites the religion of both in one perennial life. For when the trumpet-call to resurrection shall awake you again, to resume your bodies, to reign in them with Christ, you will have to call upon this altar to yield up its treasures, that its portion of your hallowed remains may be joined to the greater part which Rome yet possesses, and ye may testify that over both the same divine sacrifice was offered, and before both the same doctrine was preached.

Then as if to connect that distant period of the Church with ours in one perpetual course, through the Saints of God, you find that we have dedicated this church, after God, to St. Edward our king and holy Confessor. His connection with this place was a sufficient motive. And our grounds of claim to him will be simple and practical. For when his festival day recurs, go to the Abbey of Westminster, founded by him, where he reposes, and you will discover no mark of honourable, or affectionate, commemoration of him, nor any distinction of that day from any other of the year, unless it be, as has been, that access to his shrine is barred, for fear that Catholics should approach it with reverence. But then come here, and I promise you that you will find his festival celebrated with all the solemnity that the place will allow. Thus the primitive, and the middle age meet in the present with us, to prove our gift of perpetuity in religion.

But this brings me, my Brethren, to my last illustration of this prerogative, to the very literal fulfilment of our Saviour’s words: “Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world”. The church was consecrated for the altar’s sake; the altar for the Victim’s. And what is this? None other than the Lamb, slain from the foundation of the world. See at once, in this belief, the consciousness of a perpetual life in Christ. Our Church does not allow us to hold a variety, or a succession of sacrifices. That of Calvary is that of today, that of the Cross identical with that of our altar. The same offering and the same Priest, and the same ends of sacrifice. No difference save in the manner of immolation. Can that Church fail ever in conscious certainty of perpetuity which holds as basis, centre, pinnacle of all her belief and practice, that she continues in unbroken, and unalienable possession of the oblation which never ceases from the rising to the going-down of the sun, of the one sacrifice which is infinite in value and in duration, of His presence, who promised the gift, as real as receives worship from prostrate Elders, and veiled seraphs on heaven’s altar?

It is then no idle boast in us to claim this prerogative of perpetuity of Christ’s abiding with us. Most affectionately do we call upon all to come and listen, and know us if as yet they do not.

And may God, in His infinite mercy give all such a docile heart, and spirit free from prejudice and preconceit, that they may learn, with simplicity, what our holy and dear Mother the Church really teaches; and still more let us pray Him to grant them the uprightness and courage, to obey the voice of truth and conscience, whenever they shall hear it speak in our favour. May no uncharitableness or unkindness ever spring up, in consequence of what we have done, principally, for the sake of our own people.

Further may He bless, from this His new sanctuary, the faithful who here worship Him in spirit and in truth. From this holy place, may there go forth the waters of benediction, which we poured round the base of this altar, that a fountain of life might spring up thence, and overflow the pavement of the church, and issue through the door, like the stream which Ezechiel saw in vision, so deep that they may be immersed in it: that abundance and prosperity, and grace and benediction may pour into their houses, and flow exuberantly into their hearts.

And into no houses more copiously, into no hearts more richly, than into those of that virtuous family to which you owe this simple but beautiful church. May it partake of that privilege of perpetuity, that belongs to the Church which it honours and loves. May children’s children rejoice the hearts of parents, by the steadiness with which they walk in their footsteps, through fidelity to the precepts of their religion, as through their zeal for its welfare. Thus may all blend in one holy community – the rich and the poor, the learned convert and the simple old catholic, the native flock and the foreign priest, showing that the Church is one in all times and all ages-and therefore perpetual: lasting till the end of time on earth, through all eternity in heaven.

This work published before January 1, 1923 is in the public domain worldwide because the author died at least 100 years ago.