Great Churchmen No. 24
Second Bishop of Liverpool
Published by Church Book Room Press
What of the Faith that went to the making of so dynamic a personality? If I have kept this question to the end it is only that the amazing output of this single life as already portrayed may show how decisive this question is. The word “Evangelical” has suffered not a little misrepresentation. It has been used to denote various liturgical predilections and antipathies. It has been made synonymous with that “low-churchism” which so often, as in the notable cases of John Venn or Charles Simeon, has constituted its chief opposition. Evangelicalism is not to be assessed in the outward and visible but in the inward and spiritual. No one perhaps, has drawn a fairer or more glowing picture of our earlier Evangelicals than has Mr. Francis Warre Cornish in his English Church in the Nineteenth Century. “The love of souls was their motive, and separation from the world their method.” “Everything down to the minutest details of action and speech was considered with reference to Eternity.”(l) “Zacchaeus-like they gave half their goods to the poor, and labouring incessantly, made Mammon serve in their workshop of philanthropy.” (2) “Judged by their fruits they could claim to have revived personal religion in the nation and to have raised the level of its family life.” An Evangelical is one who, living day by day with the Jesus of the four Gospels, draws into himself the whole mind of Christ—His horror of sin, His passion for souls—and takes it for the discipline and inspiration of his own life. The Atonement gives to him at once his Gospel and his incentive. He prays for “the whole family” to be “filled with all the fulness of God”: he tries to live as one filled with that fulness himself. Of such was Francis James Chavasse.
His faith shone out in his sermons: those sermons which, as seen in an earlier chapter, were to enthral and edify all sorts and conditions of men from the very outset of his ministry to its close. He was, whether consciously or unconsciously, a profound psychologist. He knew the infinite capacity of the psyche (the soul) in man to reach out into the unseen: and to that capacity he persistently appealed. He never underrated his audience. His voice, his reverence, his evident absorption into God, held the congregation and kept them spell-bound. Many of his sermons were to be remembered and treasured across the years. We owe it to Dr. H. D. S. Sweetapple that we have a volume of his best.
Let me select three examples.
The decisive thing in life is the End we have in view. It was so pre-eminently with the Bishop. “When a man enters upon any new work,” had he not declared in his inaugural sermon at Liverpool, “if he thinks at all his thoughts wander to that solemn account which he must one day give.” This great Advent anticipation is brought out forcibly in his sermon on “The Parable of the Drag-net”, St Matthew xiii. 47-50.
“The drag-net foretells the great and final separation from evil for which every true-hearted Christian longs. . . . We shall consider the need, the hour, and the character of this separation. . . . The great test will be our value to God, and whether we are in sympathy with Him and able to enter upon His work and carry on His purposes. Only by what we are can we be judged. . . . That fitness can only be gained in one way: by trust in Christ and the receiving of His Spirit. . . . My friends, the fishermen whom Christ sends forth to cast in and draw to shore the dragnet of the Gospel are not mere naturalists seeking for what is curious and rare; not mere idlers fishing for sport, or children who clap their hands over every wonder brought to shore; but men who cast their net with an object, which is to gather out of the sea of the world all that will be serviceable to God in the ages of eternity. . . . My brethren, there is only one way by which a Christian can enter into that life. We must go to school to Jesus Christ.” (3)
Let me take next one of his evidential sermons, on “Christ before Pilate”: “What shall I do then with Jesus which is called Christ?” (St. Matthew xxvii. 22).
“Pilate had often heard of Christ, but had never met Him. Christ now stands before his tribunal. Pilate must decide His claims. His foes clamour for His life, but three great witnesses plead for his Prisoner.
“(i) Christ’s character.—His majesty, calmness and gentleness.... Thrice he utters the emphatic testimony, ‘I find no fault in Him’ . . . . Brothers, like Pilate we may often have heard of Christ, but comes at last a crisis to each. Christ and the soul meet. What shall I do with Jesus who is called Christ? Then, as to Pilate, there rise up these three great witnesses. First comes the character of Jesus. The Christ of History. How do you explain His appearance, His life, His words?
“(ii) The witness of others.—The witness is universal. . . . It is the testimony of nations . . . of men and women in every congregation.... He has brought new light into darkened lives, new power into weak wills.
“(iii) The witness of conscience.—Pilate was convinced that Christ was innocent. . . .When He stands before Conscience, Conscience bows down in adoration and cries, ‘My Lord and my God.’
“My brothers, what have you done with Jesus, and what are you going to do?” (4)
It all culminated where, for the Christian, faith must ever culminate—at the Cross. My last quotation then shall be from a Good Friday sermon on “The Attraction of the Cross”: “I, if I be lifted up, will draw all men unto me” (St. John xii. 32).
“Where is Christ’s power to attract men felt to be strongest?... In what consists the attractive power of the Cross? ...The Cross attracts because
(i) It is a great spectacle of Self-sacrifice.
(ii) It is the pledge of Sympathy.
But chiefly because
(iii) It is the atonement for Sin … Sin is a tyrant . . . Sin is a malignant power . . . Sin is a burden. It must needs be removed from the soul by a definite act. Christ is our propitiation. ‘He bore our sins in His own Body on the tree.’ The Cross tells us that Christ is our ransom, our reconciliation, that His sacrifice is full, perfect and sufficient for the sins of the whole world, because Christ is God, and that sacrifice is appropriated, and made efficient for us by faith. . . . Only see that His blood cleanses not only the conscience from the guilt of sin, but also the heart from the reign of sin. Do not mock Christ by professing to trust Him as Saviour, and yet living in the sin which cost His life.” (5)
In this faith he lived, and in this faith he died. His last will and testament contained the notable provision: “Among the hymns used at my funeral I should like Rock of Ages, because it holds my sole hope for salvation and eternal life.”
Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy Cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die.
Toplady’s immortal lines fall on our ears with fresh inspiration. “The Evangelicals are right,” he liked to quote Dr Pusey’s parting tribute, “‘Nothing but Christ for us and Christ in us can avail’.”
Twenty years have passed since, on March 17th, 1928, his frail body was laid to rest by the side of the great cathedral in what we have since known as “the Founder’s plot”: twenty years that enable us to assess a little better the immensity of the contribution he gave to the Church of England.
He has presented in himself that type of clergyman for which every parish in turn seems to be clamouring: the assiduous pastor; the life-giving preacher; shepherd, prophet, saint in one. And he has shown it to be both practicable and popular. For he made no claim to exceptional gifts. Indeed, he lamented that his gifts were not greater. He felt keenly his physical limitations. He was made “like unto his brethren” to the considerable consolation of many of them. He just lived out a life of complete devotion: and far from alienating the common people thereby, he only seemed to bind them to himself more closely.
Let it be our prayer that across the years his example may stimulate others to a like service to their generation. If on all sides the cry is for more to assist us through life’s pilgrimage in the way of comfort and culture and nurture—for more nurses and teachers, more agriculturalists and more home helpers—the direst of our needs is for more clergy of this best sort.
For it is the future that supremely matters. While others minister in countless skilful ways to our present necessities, ours it is, as clergy, in response to the Divine Call, to attempt to assist men to their final destiny: to aid them, however inadequately, “so to pass through things temporal that they finally lose not the things eternal.” And the triumph of Francis James Chavasse is to have lit with new radiance the glory of this endeavour.
1) F. W. Cornish, The English Church in the Nineteenth Century, p. 33.
2) Ibid., p. 13.
3) Parochial Sermons of Bishop Chavasse, p. 69.
4) Ibid., p. 135.
5) Parochial Sermons of Bishop Chavasse, p. 151.