Charles Chapman Grafton: Selected Writings

Edited by Clinton Collister

Nashotah House Press, pp. 261. $13.99

Review by Joel Gillin


In his spiritual memoir, A Journey Godward of a Servant of Jesus Christ, Bishop Charles Grafton (1830-1912) recounts facing the final doubt on his journey to the priesthood: he couldn’t preach. Or, at least, the sermons he has been hearing were “full of words [he] did not understand,” leading the Harvard-trained lawyer to doubt he had the “literary ability” to write them. Whether the problem was with Bp. Grafton’s vocabulary, or the skills of the preachers, we can leave aside for now. But at this crucial juncture, Grafton received a timely — and perhaps uncharacteristically clear — word from his priest. As he summarized it: “If God intended me to be a third-rate clergyman, rather than a first-class lawyer, my duty was to enter the ministry” (Grafton, Selected Writings, p. 4).

A third-rate clergyman? At first glance, this may seem to indicate a rather dismal view of the priesthood, as if the bar were so low that anyone at all could perform the duties of a priest. On the contrary: this indicates the seriousness with which the bishop understood ordained ministry and the humility it required. Bp. Grafton had a deep sense of the divine source of the call to the priesthood, which means once it is discerned, it must be embraced in the full knowledge of one’s personal inadequacies. Grafton would rather clergy lean in to the discomfort of being third-rate, especially if they have forfeited more lucrative or prestigious careers (Phil. 3:8). As Bp. Grafton adds, “One must seek first to know one’s vocation, and then trust God and follow it” (p. 4). God’s power, we might say, is made perfect in the priest’s weakness.

Yet Bp. Grafton was not saying that a third-rate priest could get by without the pursuit of holiness, Spirit-imparted gifts, and efforts to develop pastoral skills. On the contrary, what is apparent throughout the selection of his writings recently published by Nashotah House Press is precisely the opposite: the high bar he sets for clergy’s commitment and spiritual formation. He sees personal discipline as essential for the priesthood, the necessary path for anyone sufficiently aware of being “third-rate” followers of Christ and in need of grace. In an address to candidates for holy orders, Bp. Grafton spoke of the need to inhabit a cruciform ministry to draw people to Christ: a priest must “preach the Cross from the Cross” (p. 202). That’s why he thought highly of priestly celibacy, even as an Anglican, and encouraged his candidates for ordination to consider it. He wanted them to understand the sacrificial nature of the priesthood, and even required that they give up things like alcohol, smoking, dancing, and theaters during their training, citing Jesus’ training of his disciples (Matt. 10:5-15).

As I read Bp. Grafton’s requirements for his candidates, I couldn’t help but wonder how such an approach to clergy training would be received today were a bishop to adopt it. Imagine a contemporary version for seminaries that included abstinence from, say, alcohol, smartphones, social media, and Netflix for the duration of training. Candidates would be made to understand that these rules are temporary and in place simply because, as Bp. Grafton said, a “good soldier of Jesus Christ must learn to endure hardness” (p. 206). Self-denial for the purpose of godliness: it is fair to say that such a training strategy would come across as extreme and unnecessary today. Why would Bp. Grafton have thought it beneficial? Why set the bar so high?

In a word, confidence. The writings of the Bishop of Fond du Lac exude a confidence in the gospel of Jesus Christ and in his church. This confidence was surely strengthened during his time in England, under the influence of the Oxford Movement and E.B. Pusey in particular. As the selections in this volume show, Bp. Grafton had no doubts about the catholicity of the Anglican church, the validity of her sacraments (including holy orders), or the orthodoxy of the catholic creeds. The sturdy foundations of this objective side of the faith were in no way antagonistic to the subjective side characteristic of evangelicals, through which with similar confidence one “dwells on the sinfulness of man’s nature, and his redemption by the atoning efficacy of Christ’s cross, and the necessity of conversion and a living faith” (p. 101). This evangelical-catholic combination gave him great assurance in the fight against the world, the flesh, and the devil, at a time when he felt “the gates of hell are pressing against the Church” (p. 206). In preparing soldiers to lead the Church Militant, with a Savior so worthy and with the stakes so high, Bp. Grafton therefore saw no reason to keep the bar low.

Where to set the bar is a question the extends beyond the training of clergy. In a recent piece in The Atlantic, Jake Meador reflected on research on the “dechurching” of America. More than church scandals or conscious turning away from belief in God, people simply find themselves stretched too thin, constantly on the edge of burnout. Christians are part of a culture that Meador says “leaves precious little time or energy for forms of community that don’t contribute to one’s own professional life or, as one ages, the professional prospects of one’s children.” But rather than propose that the church needs to tone down its demands to fit into people’s lives, Meador suggests the opposite: “What if the problem isn’t that churches are asking too much of their members, but that they aren’t asking nearly enough?” Real community and authentic Christian discipleship cannot flourish if church is simply one spoke on a wheel revolving around us and our careers.

In other words, perhaps the missional task for the church writ large is to raise, not lower, the bar, especially in forming ordained leaders. Anglican provinces across the post-Christian West face enormous challenges, including steep decline. Seeking to stem to tide, and fearing the church might come across as out of touch or legalistic, churches have in many cases moved away from emphasizing catholic beliefs, spiritual formation, and churchly discipline. The church faces further pressure across Europe, where parish systems admirably encourage serving all people, regardless of their faith, but tempt leaders to water down the gospel. And in some places on the continent, such as Nordic Lutheran countries, clergy training takes place in largely secular, academic contexts. It is clear, however, that the lower bar has not made the Christian faith seem any more relevant to an indifferent public or halted the exodus of practicing members. Perhaps something new — or old — is needed.

What if discussions of mission and clergy formation allowed the realities of decline and dechurching to strengthen resolve in catholic teaching and deepen our commitment to ascetical practices? What if we raised the bar? Perhaps discipleship after Christendom more closely resembles the early church, in which three-year catechetical instruction preceded baptism.[1] Perhaps clergy training requires time in the desert, away from distractions and with disciplines that seem extreme and won’t be understood by the broader culture. Perhaps that’s how Christianity gets “weird” again, which may already be happening among young adults. To be sure, such a shift in strategy would require a huge boost in confidence in the gospel and the church, such as we find Bp. Grafton. But as he said, “Fear nothing. Hope for everything” (p. 205).

Dr. Joel Gillin (Ph.D., University of Helsinki) is a postulant in the Church of England. He grew up in Southern California and lives in Finland. Before his shift toward ordained ministry, he worked as a journalist.

[1] On this front, see the good work of the Catechesis Institute.

One Response

  1. Omar reyes

    “Perhaps clergy training requires time in the desert, away from distractions and with disciplines that seem extreme and won’t be understood by the broader culture. Perhaps that’s how Christianity gets “weird” again, “
    As a priest in the episcopal church and having been trained in an evangelical seminary ( Gordon Conwell”. I understand the authors desire for that discipline and “ weirdness” that come with certain forms of orthodoxy . But let’s not forget that this weirdness or discipline already exists in many sections of the church, master seminary, Dallas, theological seminary, Southeast and seminary a southern Baptist school all train their men with much vigor, and isolation now the question is, is this kind of training, bearing the kind of fruit that the author seems to want in this article, I would say no I would say the turn from religion in general Has more to do with modernity than the message of the church. People just have more access to information and more ways to entertain themselves. The church is just not the only game in town. I’m not sure return back to orthodoxy or discipline, or anything else will change that. That’s not to say we shouldn’t be faithful to our calling to spread the gospel but we should understand that more rigorous discipline is not going to make it easier as an army veteran I can say for a fact that 8 to 12 weeks of basic was plenty to get me ready to be a good soldier And I knew soldiers special forces rangers who had no problem dancing and drinking and doing their job to high-efficiency. We should concentrate on loving our neighbor, really hone in on that .because that’s what’s going to distinguish us in this particular society .


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