SermonIndex Audio Sermons
Image Map : Christian Books : Chapter X. Conclusion.

Presbyterian Worship by Robert Johnston

Chapter X. Conclusion.

|A constant form is a certain way to bring the soul to a cold, insensible, formal worship.| -- BAXTER.

The foregoing brief review of public worship within those influential sections of the Presbyterian Church whose attitude on this question has been examined, affords a sufficient ground for the assertion that those bodies have shown, until recently, a uniform and steadily growing suspicion of a liturgical service, even in its most modified form.

The Book of Common Order, the first official service book adopted by the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland for the regulation of its worship, marked a distinct advance towards a freer form and greater liberty on the part of the minister in conducting Divine service. As compared not only with the English Prayer Book of the time, which was used in Reformed parishes in Scotland, but even with Calvin's order of worship, which had been so generally adopted by the Reformed Churches on the Continent, this Book of Common Order was characterized by a spirit of larger liberty in worship and less reliance upon forms either suggested or imposed.

In the period of struggle through which the Church of Scotland passed in the reigns of James the First and Charles the First, the conflicts, civil and religious, only served, so far as they had any effect upon the views of the Church concerning worship, to strengthen the already strong opposition to prescribed forms of prayer and to ritualistic observances. Accordingly, when it was proposed to substitute for the Book of Common Order a Directory, in which there should appear no prescribed forms for any part of public worship, the Scotch Assembly gave a ready assent to the proposal, and, although some words of regret at parting with an historic symbol were spoken at that time by leaders in the Scottish Church, they were only such as it was natural to expect should be spoken in view of the strong attachment for that symbol fostered by its use during many years, but they were not such as indicate that those who so spoke felt themselves called upon to surrender any principle in laying aside the order to which they had been so long accustomed. Indeed the hearty and cheerful adoption by the Scottish Assembly of the strongly worded preface to the Westminster Directory, exposing as it does so vigorously the weakness as well as the dangers resulting from the use of a liturgy in public worship, plainly indicates that in the judgment of the Church of that day the use of liturgical forms was not only not helpful, but was positively perilous, as well to the best interests of the congregation as to the most efficient service of the minister.

Again in a third epoch of the Church's history, in the days following the |killing time,| and marked by the succession to the throne of William of Orange, and later by the union of England and Scotland, the Presbyterian Church of the latter country not only reasserted her loyalty to the principles of liberty in worship which she had so long defended, but she also succeeded in having secured to her by legislation, freedom from the imposition of ritualistic forms.

It is at least allowable to assert that the leaders in the Scottish Church in the days of the Westminster Assembly and at the beginning of the eighteenth century, regarded the perfect liberty in worship allowed by the Directory not only as scriptural, but as suitable for the attainment of the great ends of public worship, for on no other grounds would they have consented to its adoption in Scotland. And if Presbyterians of to-day desire to imitate the spirit and methods of their ancestors, it is reasonable that they should study the example of the men of the second Reformation. There is good ground for claiming that in no period of the Church's history did it give evidence of a deeper spiritual life and a more aggressive energy than in the age in which those heroic spirits lived. The leaders in that day also, such men as Henderson, Gillespie, Rutherford and Baillie, understood the spirit of Presbyterianism and the need of the Church quite as fully as did any leaders of either an earlier or a later day. It is not to be forgotten that, in an age that produced men whose names must never be omitted when the roll of Scotland's greatest sons is called, the Presbyterian Church stood firmly for absolute liberty in worship from prescribed forms.

It should, therefore, be considered by those who would have the Church return to the bondage of forms or even to their optional use, that they are advocating not a return to the practice of any former period in which the Church was free to exercise its own desire in this matter, but rather that they are urging her to a course that will be wholly antagonistic to the spirit of Presbyterianism as indicated by the trend of its practice during a stirring and eventful history of three hundred years. The spirit of Presbyterian worship has been consistently and persistently non-liturgical and anti-ritualistic, and to advocate the adoption of liturgy and ritual to-day is to depart completely from that historic attitude.

A few words on the subject of liturgies in general may not inappropriately close this sketch of the history of Presbyterian worship since the Reformation.

It is now generally acknowledged that the introduction of liturgies into the worship of the Christian Church was not earlier than the latter part of the fourth century. Not until the presbyter had become a priest, and worship had degenerated into a function, did liturgies find a place in Christian service. Even the earliest Oriental liturgies were sacramentaries, the Christian sacrifice being the central object around which the entire service gathered. So long as the life of the Church was strong, and in its strength found delight in a freedom of approach to God, so long the Apostolic practice was followed and worship was unrestricted and simple.

During the middle ages, as religion became ever more formal and less spiritual, as the priesthood deteriorated intellectually and spiritually, liturgies flourished; and it is not too much to assert that just in proportion to the growth of the liturgical service in any Church, in that proportion the power of its ministry has declined. Indeed the whole history of liturgies in their origin, development, and effects, should make the Church that rejoices in freedom from their binding forms most careful ere submitting in any degree to their paralyzing influence.

It is argued in favor of the introduction of forms of prayer that their use would tend to the more orderly and dignified conducting of public worship by the minister. It is not a difficult matter to take exception to methods to which we have long been accustomed, and to compare these, sometimes to their disadvantage, with ideal conditions. As a matter of fact, however, it may in all fairness be asked, does disorder or irreverence characterize Presbyterian worship in general, or indeed to any noticeable extent? Whatever lovers of another system, within our own Church, may say, it cannot be denied that the impression in the minds of men of all denominations (an impression that has not gained strength without cause) is that, compared with the worship of any other denomination, that of the Presbyterian Church is characterized by reverence, dignity and order. The conduct of any average congregation in the Presbyterian Church, and the heartiness with which its members join in every part of public worship will appear at no disadvantage when compared with that of a congregation worshipping with a ritual. Whatever other blessings a liturgy may secure for those devoted to its use, it has never been able to develop in the Churches where it is employed a spirit and conduct in public worship as reverent and devotional, and at the same time so marked by understanding, as that which has uniformly characterized the Presbyterian Church, and that Church would have to gain very much in other directions to compensate for the opening of the door to the formal and careless repetition of holy words so often associated with the use of a liturgy.

It is further argued that congregations would, with the aid of a liturgy, be enabled to take both a more lively and a more intelligent part in public prayer than they can possibly do when endeavoring to follow a minister who uses extempore prayer only. This argument must appear to be of considerable weight to those only who forget how lifeless and unmeaning a mere form of words, with which the lips have grown familiar, can become. Paley frankly admitted, when treating of this matter, that |the perpetual repetition of the same form of words produces weariness and inattentiveness in the congregation.| There is a danger that by carelessness in considering the needs of the worshippers, and by diffusiveness, the minister may render the service of prayer far less helpful than it should be to those whom it is his privilege to lead to the throne of grace; but the cure for this is not to be found in the introduction of stereotyped forms, which in the nature of the case cannot be suitable for all occasions, but in a due recognition by the minister of the greatness of the duty which he assumes in speaking to God for the people. Such a recognition will lead him to seek that preparation of heart and mind necessary for its helpful performance, nor will his consciousness of the need of help, other than man can give, go unrecognized by the Father of Spirits, Who in this matter also sends not His servants at their own charges.

As to the unity in prayer so much desired, true prayer is |in the Spirit,| and earnest worshippers have a right to expect that their hearts will be united by that Spirit at the throne of grace, so that |with one accord| they may present their petitions and claim the promise to those who are thus agreed. This is the true unity and uniformity which Christians are bound to seek, and any mere mechanical uniformity of words, apart from this, is but the outward trappings of form which are much more liable to satisfy the careless worshipper than to inspire in him any thought of the need of a more real approach to God.

Lastly, it is urged that the responsive reading of the Scriptures would prove an aid to the intelligent understanding of them, and that the repetition of the Creed or other such formulary of doctrine would serve to preserve the Church in the soundness of the faith.

The refutation of the first statement is to be found in many congregations where the practice has been tried, and in Sabbath Schools in which the custom now prevails. Many there are who will not read, others who cannot, and these fail entirely to profit from the unintelligible hum of a number of voices reading in what is often anything but harmony either of sound or time; and those who do read, frequently fail to receive that clear impression of the truth that should result from the effective and sympathetic reading of an entire passage. Without dwelling on the question whether the reading of the Scriptures is to be regarded as properly a ministerial act or not, on the simple ground of efficiency, responsive reading in large and constantly-changing congregations must frequently, if not generally, prove a failure.

As regards the repetition of the Creed by the congregation, it is certainly a question open for discussion whether or not the frequent repetition of a formulary of doctrine is a safeguard to the faith of the Church. In this matter also we are not without the light of experience and history; the Presbyterian Churches of Scotland and America, which have never adopted any such practice, have certainly a record with respect to soundness in the faith which compares favorably with that of Churches which have for ages adopted this as a custom in their worship. It would not be difficult to mention Churches in which the repetition of a formulary of doctrine has long been an established question, and in which it is not apparent that the practice has successfully served as a safeguard to doctrine. Comparisons are odious, and we do not desire to institute them, but as wise men we should surely be guided by the light which history and experience in the past throws forward upon the pathway that we are to travel.

The Presbyterian Church has a history which may with reason cause all her children to thank God and take courage as they look forward on greater works than those of past days yet to be accomplished. Her past is rich in noble deeds, valiant testimonies and stirring struggles for the truth, and through it all she pressed forward rejoicing in a liberty which is inseparable from the principles of Presbyterianism, and one product of which has ever been an unwillingness to be trammeled by forms in her approach to God. That history is such as need cause no Presbyterian to blush when it is related side by aide with that of any other Church; surely they must be bold souls who would propose to introduce a radical change into the genius of Presbyterianism, or to relinquish principles which have led to such success, for others that have yet to show an equal vitality and vigor.

Our free and untrammeled worship demands from the worshipper his best; it brings him face to face with his God, and forbids him to rest in any mere repetition of a familiar form; it requires of the minister a preparation of both mind and soul, and challenges him to spiritual conflict which he dare not refuse, while in addition to all this its very freedom renders it adaptable to all the varying circumstances in which in a land like our own the worship of God must be conducted. It is suitable alike to the stately city church and to the humble cabin of the settler, or to the mission house of the far West; wherever men assemble for worship it affords the possibility for seemly, orderly and reverent procedure. Is there any other form of worship suggested for which as much can be said?

As long as the ministers of the Presbyterian Church are men of God, recognizing His call to the sacred office of the ministry, and believing that those whom He calls He equips with needed grace and gifts for their work, so long will they be able to lead the congregations to which they minister in worship that shall be at once honoring to God and a help to the spiritual life of the people: when they cease to be such men forms may become, not only expedient, but essential.

<<  Contents 

Promoting Genuine Biblical Revival.
Affiliate Disclosure | Privacy Policy