The backward glance and the forward look

Written by Peter J. Gomes
October 28, 1998

The following sermon was preached at the Harvard University Memorial Church by the Rev. Peter Gomes at the concluding service of the Celebration of the Cambridge Platform's 350th Anniversary.

"If they had been thinking of that land from which they had gone out, they would have had opportunity to return. But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one." (Hebrews 11:15-16)

The late historian Henry Steele Commager often commented upon the fact that Americans, nearly more so than any other people, were engaged constantly in the "search for a usable past," a deliciously ambiguous phrase which suggests the desire not merely to nourish our roots, but to appropriate, and in some cases to invent, those roots for usable purposes in the present. Coming as I do from Plymouth, and serving as I have in this university, I am very much aware of this and have done my fair share to perpetuate the practice. Thus it is out of a sense not only of neighborly hospitality that I welcome both you and the occasion of this service to The Memorial Church but a sense as well of genuine appreciation for that spirit which has motivated your presence in Cambridge these past few days. You have had much of scholarship and fellowship, and in fact have probably had a much better time than those who gathered here in 1648.

They had weighty matters to consider with few useful precedents before them, and they were also difficult and contentious people whose personalities were not dissimilar to that rocky ground out of which their parishes sprang, perched between the howling wilderness and the unforgiving sea. You are probably no less contentious than they, but your work has been both to commemorate theirs and to consider what in that past is now useful and usable in the ongoing work of the churches from which you come, and to which, very shortly, you will return. Yours, then, if I may presume to so characterize it, is both a backward glance and a forward look.

There may have been celebrations of the Nicene Creed of 325 in 1975, or of the Chalcedonian Formula of 451 in 1951, or even of the Westminster Confession of 1646 in 1946, but if there were such commemorations, to my notice Harvard took no notice. Fifty years ago, however, in 1948, your predecessors came here as today to celebrate the three hundredth anniversary of that Platform, which, while critical not only to New England and to congregational polity but to the whole of America, was, and largely remains, a little-known episode in the popular mind. For this reason alone, an occasion such as this is useful not so much as an antiquarian indulgence on the part of successor churches and denominations but as a reminder to self and to others that the American social polity, a celebration of our secular institutional arrangements and the assumptions of the proper relationship between the local and the larger, is the direct descendant of the ecclesiastical polity forged here in Cambridge in 1648. The delicate relationship between a polity and the principle which gives birth to the polity, and the principle of which it is an expression and from which it derives its legitimacy, is a relationship taken in hand here by your predecessors to the greater benefit of our posterity.

Such claims are unfashionable, and the founding fathers are rarely thought to be those clerics of Plymouth and the Bay who labored here within the shadows of Harvard College. I think that Henry Wilder Foote's not too subtle claim that the "road to Philadelphia was first paved in Cambridge" is worthwhile, although those evidences may be clear only to those of you who have attended every seminar this week. President Lowell once said that you can have either the success of an idea or the credit for it, but rarely can you have both. The Cambridge Platform, and by implication its successor churches, may not receive the credit for the American social polity, but the apparent success thereof is surely yours.

Francis Higginson, in his farewell to England as he and his comrades sailed on May 1, 1629, from the Isle of Wight for the new world, said, among some other things which were hardly friendly to the Christian brethren then settled since 1620 in Plymouth, "We go to practise the positive parts of church reformation and propagate the gospel in America." They went, he was quick to point out, not as separatists but as men of the Church of England. As we know, however, their experience would be one of adventure and improvisation in which, as C. Conrad Wright has observed, the Atlantic made of them all separatists, and the primacy of the Bay made of them all, after a fashion, Puritans. The delicate relationships between dependency and independency would be the harvest of the seeds sown at this Synod eighteen years after their arrival in New England.

While the backward glance compels and inspires and at times confuses, the "positive part of church reformation," in Higginson's words, is always a work of the future, the forward look; and it is to that future, to that unfinished and perhaps unfinishable work, to which you will now return. Few better than you know the volatility of the congregational principle in which the local, if it is not careful, substitutes for itself the fellowship of the gospel, and in homage to a polity traduces the mutual bond of peace which is the model of the primitive church. We Baptists, despised by your predecessors and excluded from your ecclesiastical councils and fellowship, know only too well the blessings and curses of an untempered congregational polity, yet the proper relationship of the churches to each other and to the world is the ongoing work of the church in which we all labor together. To an outsider one of your contemporary formulations seems to put it well, calling the congregational way "one of the great outer and corporate expressions of the inner and individual life, a principle around which even as diverse a group as this can gather in fellowship."

The gathering in The Memorial Church in 1948 was presided over by my venerable predecessor, Willard L. Sperry, himself a child of the congregational way and steadfast in his maintenance of the way of free churches: this very church is in some real sense his monument. Sperry was fond of the phrase that refers to the church as the "beloved community of memory and of hope," which was first used by the philosopher Josiah Royce but is by most people intimately associated with Dean Sperry. Invoking that sentiment in these closing moments not so much as description of our successor churches but rather as blessing upon you, may do something, I hope, to set your ongoing work, your backward glance and your forward look, within the context of the ongoing work of God, in which you remember and are remembered, you love and are loved, you hope and are the heirs of hope. It is not, I suggest, a mere polity that brings you together or keeps you together, and nor is it even the affirmation of a set of principles and practices, important as those surely are: rather, it is the sense that you continue a part of God's great unfinished work, work which remains for you to do so that by God's grace you may continue "to practise the positive part of church reformation and propagate the gospel in America."

What you have the will to do may God give you the means, for the sake of the whole church. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Peter J. Gomes is Plummer Professor of Christian Morals and Pusey Minister in Memorial Church, Harvard University, Cambridge, Mass. 

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