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SermonIndex.net : Christian Books : Chapter VIII. Presbyterian Worship Outside of the Established Church of Scotland.

Presbyterian Worship by Robert Johnston

Chapter VIII. Presbyterian Worship Outside of the Established Church of Scotland.

Whether they were right or wrong ... no man of fairness will fail to allow that the record of the Seceders all through the period of decadence was a noble one, a record of splendid service to the cause of Christ and the historic Church of Scotland. -- M'CRIE.

No review of Presbyterian Worship would be complete which failed to consider the spirit which has characterized those large sections of the Church which exist in Scotland outside of the Establishment, and those also which have been planted and fostered in the New World.

In 1733 the first Secession Church was formed, when Ebenezer Erskine, William Wilson, Alexander Moncrieff, and James Fisher, protesting against what they regarded as the unjust treatment accorded them by the prevailing party in the Church, were declared to be no longer members of the Church of Scotland. This Secession Church enjoyed a rapid growth, and soon came to form a very influential section in the Presbyterianism of the land. Its principles and practices with regard to worship show that same suspicion of a ritual and partiality for a free form of worship which has always characterized the Presbyterian Church in the days of her greatest vigor. In 1736 this Church published its judicial testimony, in which it declared its loyalty to the Directory of Worship as the same was approved by the Assembly of 1645. Some years later one section of this Church, known as the Antiburgher, published a condemnation of the corruptions of worship as witnessed in England and Wales, and at a subsequent period a further manifesto, in which the reading by ministers of their sermons in the public ministry of the Word was condemned, as was also |the conduct of those adult persons who, in ordinary circumstances, either in public, in private, or in secret, restrict themselves to set forms of prayer, whether these be read or repeated.| The same manifesto, in a part treating of Psalmody, claimed for the Psalms Divine authority, as suitable for the service of praise, in the Christian as well as in the Old Testament dispensation, but acknowledged that, in addition to these, |others contained in the New Testament itself may be sung in the ordinance of Praise.|

Similar to this position was that of the United Associate Synod, which, formed in 1820, published, seven years later, its views on the subject of worship. It condemned |the conduct of adult persons who restricted themselves to set forms of prayer, whether read or whether repeated;| it acknowledged also that other parts of Scripture besides the Psalms were suitable for praise, and, with regard to the use of the Lord's Prayer in public worship, a matter which had caused much discussion within the Church in earlier times, it asserted that:

|As Scripture Doxologies and the Divinely-approved petition of saints may be warrantably adopted in our devotional exercises, both public and personal, so may the Lord's Prayer be used by itself or in connection with other supplications.|

Other manifestos were published from time to time by different bodies as separations or unions took place, for the early part of the past century was a period of frequent divisions and of more happy unions. But while differences existed with regard to the use of paraphrases and human hymns in the service of praise, on the general subject of simplicity of worship and absence of prescribed forms, the manifestos previous to the middle of the century were a unit. As late indeed as 1872, in a deliverance of the United Presbyterian Church upon the subject of instrumental music in public worship, this jealousy of simplicity in worship hitherto enjoyed is evident. To a consideration of that subject this Church had been led by the example of the Established Church in securing to its congregations liberty of action in the matter. The United Presbyterian Synod, in a deliverance in which it declined to pronounce judgment upon the introduction of instrumental music in Divine service, proceeded to urge upon the courts of the Church, and upon individual ministers, the duty of guarding anxiously the simplicity of worship in the sanctuary. Not until recent years has any considerable section of the Presbyterian Church shown a tendency to return to the bondage of a ritual.

The views of the bodies above referred to will be differently estimated by different men. Some will be inclined to regard the Secessionists as narrow in spirit and severe in their simplicity, and as often failing to exhibit a due regard for the beauty of holiness that should characterize Divine worship. It will surely, however, indicate on the part of those who read their history a want of appreciation if they fail to recognize the sturdy spiritual life which, forming, as it ever does, the truest foundation for right views of religion, marked these men of whom an eminent leader in the religious life of Scotland has said |they stood for Truth and Light in days when the battle went sore against them both; and as long as Truth and Light are maintained in Scotland it will not be forgotten that a great share of the honor of having carried them safe through some of our darkest days, was given by God to the Seceders.|

The period of the disruption in Scotland was one of such struggle concerning great and fundamental principles of Church government, that the Free Church, during the first quarter of a century of its existence as a separate communion, had little time to devote to a consideration of the subject of worship; with the work of organization at home, and afterwards in seeking to carry forward evangelization abroad it was fully occupied. It was for the Free Church, as also for the Established Church, a period of revival and of new life, and at such a time men think but little of form and method, finding spiritual satisfaction in the voluntary and spontaneous worship which such an occasion develops. The practice, however, of the Free Church in worship, and its uniform tendency, was decidedly un-liturgical; freedom from prescribed forms in prayer and an absence of ritual marked its services during the half-century of its existence as a separate communion. So emphatic was its devotion to absolute liberty on the part of the worshippers that it was the last of the great Presbyterian bodies in Scotland to take any steps towards a further control of public worship other than that which is provided in the Directory.

About the year 1885 the Presbyterian Churches of England and of Australia appointed committees to consider the matter of a uniform order and method of public worship, and these in each case devoted their efforts to the revision of the Westminster Directory, and in neither has anything more liturgical been suggested than the repetition of the Creed and the Lord's Prayer by the people. The orders of service recommended are more lengthy than that of the Westminster Directory, but are similar in their general character. The hesitation shown in accepting even such slight changes as were suggested and the vigorous debates which resulted, furnish abundant evidence that the spirit of both of these Churches is still strong in favor of voluntary and untrammeled worship.

It is but right that in reviewing public worship outside of the Established Church, reference should be made to the practice of those large sections of the Presbyterian Church which, originating in Scotland, have grown strong in other lands.

The Presbyterian Church of the United States of America has exhibited in the main the same spirit that has characterized Presbyterian bodies across the sea. In 1788 the Synod of New York and Philadelphia adopted among other symbols the Westminster Directory for the Worship of God, abbreviating it somewhat, but changing its instructions in no material respect. There has been but little legislation by this Church concerning this subject. In 1874 the General Assembly declared the practice of a responsive service in the public worship of the sanctuary to be without warrant in the New Testament, and to be unwise and impolitic in view of its inevitable tendency to destroy uniformity in the form already accepted. It further urged upon sessions of Churches to preserve in act and spirit the simplicity indicated in the Directory. This judgment of the American Church with regard to the influence of a liturgy in public worship is not materially different from that of the framers of the Directory as it is set forth in their strongly-worded preface. In 1876 the Assembly declined to send down to presbyteries an overture declaring that responsive readings are a permissible part of worship in the sanctuary, although it declined at the same time to recommend sessions to make the question a subject of Church discipline. Six years afterwards it again refused to |prepare and publish a Book of Forms for public and social worship and for special occasions which shall be the authorized service-book of the Church to be used whenever a prescribed formula may be desired;| the reason given for such refusal, however, was the inexpediency of such a step in view of |the liberty that belongs to each minister to avail himself of the Calvinistic or other ancient devotional forms of the Reformed Churches, so far as may seem to him for edification.| This explanation clearly indicates that, while the American Church is in sympathy with the necessity on the part of ministers, of a due and orderly discharge of all public services, yet it is unwilling to lay itself open to the charge of even suggesting the imposition of forms upon the Church for use on stated occasions. An optional liturgy has not been without its advocates among the leaders in this influential section of the Church. Such eminent and wise men as Drs. Charles and A. A. Hodge and Dr. Ashbel Green confessed themselves as in favor of the introduction of such forms for optional use, and Dr. Baird in his |Eutaxia| and other writers have argued vigorously from the example of sister churches of the continent of Europe for a return to the practice which they regarded as historically Presbyterian. As yet, however, the Church has preferred liberty to even suggested restriction.

The results in this Church, it cannot be denied, are not all that could be desired. The Directory is but little studied by ministers, and has by many been practically set aside. Frequently each congregation in the matter of worship is a law unto itself. Responsive readings have been introduced in some places, and choir responses after prayer in others; in some congregations the people join in the repetition of the Creed and the Lord's Prayer, while in others neither of these is heard; in one the collection has become a formal offertory; in another it affords an opportunity for the rendition of a musical selection by the choir. Worship in this great Church is at the present time characterized by the absence of a desirable uniformity, which it was one evident purpose of the Directory to secure, and in some of its congregations by the use of symbolism that occasionally becomes extravagant, and which is calculated to appeal entirely to the imagination, the result frequently being a service not attaining to that dignity which an authorized liturgy fosters, while it sacrifices that simplicity in which Presbyterians have been accustomed to glory.

The United Presbyterian Church in America, the result of so many happy unions, has always regarded simplicity in worship as an end earnestly to be desired, and worthy of all serious effort to secure. Its influence has, therefore, been uniformly in favor of that avoidance of forms against which the Seceders of Scotland, whom it represents on this continent, so often protested.

The Presbyterian Church, South -- that Church whose history has been characterized by a loyalty so unswerving to the doctrinal standards of Presbyterianism, by a spirit so wisely aggressive in evangelistic and missionary effort, and by a ministry so scholarly and eloquent, has, in the matter of public worship, shown as constant a fidelity to the Westminster Directory as in doctrine it has shown to the Confession of Faith. There have been attempts made to introduce changes looking towards the adoption of optional liturgical forms, but these have been few, and they have been rejected in such a way as to leave no room for doubt as to the mind of the Church in this matter.

The Directory has been ably revised, but it still remains a Directory, suggestive and eminently suitable to present requirements of the Church. Serious and persevering attention has been given to the praise service, and no less than three Hymnals have received and now enjoy the Church's imprimatur. Public worship in Divine service has retained a much greater uniformity among the Presbyterians of the Southern States than among their brethren in the North, and there has been less yielding to the popular demand for those features in worship that appeal to the imagination, and which so often serve to entertain rather than to edify.

The Presbyterian Church in Canada, owing to the ties that bind it to the Churches of the Old Land, has closely followed their practice, and its method in worship has been characterized by a similar spirit. No authoritative or mandatory formulas have been imposed upon it, nor does it seem likely that such would be received should they be proposed. Reverence and dignity have in general characterized its public services, and yet in recent years those changes which have gradually been introduced into the worship of the Church in that part of the American Republic lying contiguous to the Dominion have made their appearance in Presbyterian worship in Canada. The chief result has been, as in that Church also, an unfortunate want of uniformity in this part of divine service. There has always been a constant and due regard paid to all parts of worship provided for in the Directory, and the neglect of any of these parts cannot be seriously charged against any considerable part of the Church, but congregations have frequently considered themselves at liberty to change their order and to vary them as circumstances seem to demand. It is this feature as much as any that has in recent years led to an agitation for the improvement of public worship, and that is calling the earnest attention of the Church to a matter of supreme importance.

Until very recently then, all branches of the Presbyterian Church in the British Empire and those bodies in the United States whose standards have been those of Westminster, have refused to recognize the need for any other formula of worship than that, or such as that, provided in the Directory. And where any considerable desire for change and improvement has been found, it has expressed itself usually as favorable to a revised Directory rather than as desirous of the adoption by the Church of a liturgy, however simple.

Those great sections of the Church which have been most active in the work of Home and Foreign Evangelization, a work that has especially claimed attention during this century, have found the simple worship of our fathers well suited to the cultivation of the spiritual life that must of necessity lie behind all such efforts, and to the development of the reverent and devotional spirit so characteristic of an aggressive Christianity. The Church has been true to the traditions and principles so loyally maintained in the days of her heroic struggles in the past, and along these lines she has found in her public worship blessing and inspiration for her peaceful toils, even as our fathers in their day found in similar worship strength and revived courage with which to meet their difficulties and to endure persecution.

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