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Last Word - September 2013

Rev. Roger Williams: The Individual Quest

Some years ago, there was a review in the Wall Street Journal of a new book on Roger Williams, the founder of Rhode Island. I’d like to share a section of that review with you.

“The Rev. Roger Williams was an exasperating man. The story is told that, early in his career, he became convinced that the only scriptural church was one composed solely of godly members, an awkward position for a minister of the established Church of England, which seated godly and ungodly in the same pews and ministered equally to both. Williams was briefly satisfied by New England’s compromise: the godly announced themselves and made up the communicant church while the remaining parish members sat passively in the pews, unable to take the Lord’s Supper.

“But Williams rapidly concluded that such an arrangement was short of the mark…. He promptly rebaptized a group of adult believers and worshipped with them [in his new colony of Rhode Island]. But this too was only a waystation. Soon he decided that it was impossible to distinguish the wheat from the chaff in this life and withdrew to pray with his wife. After a while, he decided he couldn’t be too sure about her either. For the rest of his life, Williams prayed alone in his closet, a congregation of one awaiting the Second Coming” (from Wall Street Journal book review by Marc Arkin of Roger Williams by Edwin Gaustad).

In a way, Roger Williams’ story is comical, but in another sense, it is tragic. His idealism and zeal made him unable to understand and accept his brothers and sisters. His seemingly high principles left him unable to join others in a community of prayer and faith.

While Williams’ case is certainly an extreme one, it is not without parallels today. There are any number of people whose expectations of their churches make them unwilling to go to church when they discover to their horror what they should have known all along: that their brothers and sisters are weak and even their leaders are sometimes sinners.

But there no such thing as a sinner-less church. And even if there were one, as soon as you joined it, it would no longer be sinless. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves; and the truth is not in us” (I John 1:8). Church is just the opposite of the famous quotation of Groucho Marx: “I don’t care to belong to any club that will have me as a member."

Furthermore, there is no Christianity by yourself. Christianity can only take place in groups. The group can be as small as two, indeed the married couple is the smallest unit of the Church, but there is no individual version of Christianity. As the Second Vatican Council taught: “[God] has willed to make people holy and save them, not as individuals without any bond or link between them but rather to make them into a people who might acknowledge him and serve him in holiness.”

As one author puts it: Separate from the churches with all their faults, “the individual in quest of God, however sincere that search, lives the unconfronted life. Without church, we have more private fantasy than real faith.”

Rev. Msgr. Michael J. Henchal