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Communion Sunday
Discources: VI. The Beauty of Holiness


‘O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.' — Psalm xcvi. 9.

I HAVE no scruple, honoured as I have been by the invitation of the Committee which has cared for the restoration of this venerable Cathedral Church, to preach to you this evening,—I have no scruple in turning aside from the ordinary range of the topics which form, and fitly form, the burden of the faithful preacher’s message, to think of matters, most worthy of occasional discussion in a discourse to 3e spoken from the pulpit, which the very look of the •estored and beautified sanctuary presses this evening jpon my mind and yours. With the serious remembrance that the house of God in which we are met is a holy as well as now a beautiful place: amid the thronging associations of the ages through which, in the most diverse ways, Christian people who are gone have here worshipped God: with the earnest prayer for the sensible presence of that Blessed Spirit without whom no ritual, however ornate or however simple, can be acceptable worship; I desire to lead you to think for a little while of the point at which we stand in the National Church of this country in the respect of form and order in the public worship of God : doing this, as I trust, in a fashion which, not concealing my own strong prepossessions and convictions, may tend to conciliate and not to offend good Christian folk who think and feel quite differently: as indeed some few of my most esteemed friends do.

No Scotchman who has lived to middle age can look round this choir; can remark its decorous arrangements, so familiar to some of us elsewhere though so rare here can think of the type of worship (varied, indeed, only in non-essential details) which has been adopted since the re-opening of the cleansed and beautified structure, now retrieved from the disgrace of squalor and gloom that had come through years of neglect and ignorance: without feeling, as truly we are made to feel in many other ways and places, what a change has passed and is passing on the Scottish mind in the regard of Externals in the public service of God. The day was, wherein a confused but firmly-held belief prevailed, that the inspired declaration that God is to be worshipped in spirit and in truth was a declaration on the side of a severe simplicity in worship: I am sure you have heard the ever-memorable saying of our Blessed Redeemer quoted in that sense. Now, we know better. We know (a glance might always have shown it) that the famous text simply says that worship must be sincere and hearty; but adds not one syllable as to what kind of worship is likeliest to be so. Under the sublime vault of Westminster: amid the glories and memories of Canterbury: in the inexpressible loveliness of Wells with its environment of deep southern green and the enchantment of Glastonbury and Avalon; that text might be preached from in as good faith as in the homeliest Scotch country church amid its great trees and green graves this June. Dear to us, through the remembrances of our fathers and mothers gone, — through the whispering memories, now in these careworn days when we are wearying in the pilgrimage, of bright summer Sundays when we went to church as little children, and watched, the long sermon through, the swaying branches through the opened windows with little brothers and sisters lost in the growth of years: dear to our Scotch hearts may be the humble sanctuary with its hearty psalms, as perhaps no grand cathedral that appeals to the calm aesthetic appreciation of after-life can ever be. But we will not, ignorantly and insolently, presume to say that our way is absolutely, and before God, the better way. It is the better for us, because it suits us and has grown dear to us: That which suits others is the better for them. And we believe, and are sure, that amid what surroundings soever, gorgeous or severe, man heartily worships God through His Son by His Spirit, with that worship God is well-pleased.

Whoever is moderately read in the history of the Mediaeval Church in Scotland will never wonder that the Reformation from it should have been decisive, and should have gone far. The pre-Reformation Church was so utterly corrupt through and through; it was so bitterly and infamously bad, both in its system and its personnel; that our Reformers thought they could not get too far away from it; and Presbytery, both in government and worship, was a vehement re-action against Popery. And though it has been made most plain that it was not Knox and his fellow-labourers who ruined our great churches; though that harm befell us through the parsimony and dishonesty of those who shammed great reforming zeal that they might lay hands on the Church's patrimony, which was the patrimony of the poor: though our barn-like places of worship are such mainly to the shame of the ancestors of some of those who now upbraid the Church of Scotland for her bare sanctuaries, and sever themselves for reasons often contemptible and always unpatriotic from the worship of the vast majority of their countrymen; and though it has been made most certain, too, that not the national Presbyterianism of the North, but the imported and alien Puritanism of the South has to answer for that in our worship which these latter years have been mending: yet, in practical fact, it is to be frankly admitted that till within the memory of those who are hardly yet old, all attention to outward detail in our worship—all external reverence— all regard to what may without perversion of Scripture be called the visible beauty of holiness and devotion—was looked at with disfavour. As too much form was admitted to be bad; as resting in the form to the forgetfulness of the spirit was admitted to be unchristian ; the tendency was to approach as nearly as might be to having no form at all. Yet I will not fail to testify, from my own experience, that an extreme, hard to defend in theory, did oftentimes in practice work marvellously well. For, after all, the warmest lover of the pointed arch, the storied window, the long-drawn aisle, will admit that the grand thing about a church is the living congregation: and there are those who know that in the ugliest building ever called a church even here,—still the earnest multitude, the rude but soul-sent praise, the momently-adapted prayer that was made for just that time and place and people, the Gospel-sermon giving the whole Gospel to dying men who might never hear it more, and spoken with the strange warmth so rigorously expected amid a hard-headed and un* demonstrative race, in all other things so cool and unimpassioned and little likely to be swept away by the display of feeling; and then the seldom-coming communion with its earnestly marked deviations from the order of common Sundays; the white-headed elders, truly ensamples to the flock; the breathless silence as the sacred symbols passed from hand to hand, the withered face of age and the fresh features of youth reverently bowed down upon the Table, holy if there be such a thing in Christendom, —the Saviour’s Presence, not in the hands but in the heart,—a Real Presence if there be reality on this side of time,—calming with a wondrous calm, lifting up the heart to a blessed elevation, high above cart and doubt and sin and temptation as mid-day sun above summer sea;—I say before God there are those who know that such things have made sinful souls, yet surely pardoned and somewhat sanctified, feel as near heaven as they can ever feel on earth. I recall, fondly and tenderly, even in this grand presence,—you will pardon it in a son of the manse,— the Communion Sunday evenings of the West when I was a boy: the great multitude gathered so decorously,—if ever there was indecorum I never saw it, —under the blue dome that was stretched out by no mortal architect,—under the setting sun of July: the air sweet with the fragrance of the clover, borne in by the warm summer breeze: the mossy headstones and the little swelling graves; and then the great psalm rising up to Christ in strains never to be exceeded, at least to a Scottish ear and heart, anywhere in all this world. Surely, surely, if ever there were hearty and acceptable worship upon earth, you had it there!

You will believe that it is in no grudging spirit I admit the charm there used to be about our old Scottish worship, specially amid rural scenes and people : it never had to me that singular fascination amid the streets and congregations of the city: and you will receive my testimony as given in the simpler good faith for what I have said, when I now say that for better for worse the Scottish nation has in great measure grown away from that old worship with its homely pathos, and looks for other things. Not even in Ayrshire will you now find the ancient tent-preaching; nor the gathering, at the infrequent communion, of the Christian-folk and the Christian ministers of half-a-dozen neighbouring parishes, as it used to be. And as a trimness has overspread society, effacing the quaint characteristics and sharp corners of old days, so has the desire grown strong for more decorous and impressive places of worship than have heretofore been common; and for greater propriety and dignity in the forms and arrangements of the worship itself. There has gradually developed itself the conviction that it is not a good reason for irreverently sitting down to sing God's praise, merely that in so doing we are able to reflect that we are doing the opposite of what has been done by most Christian people in most places at most times. I do not waste time in trying to explain the rationale of the decided change in taste and liking. It seems to be the rule of God's Providence, that if two civilizations are set side by side, the more advanced civilization shall leaven the less advanced: If two systems are set down close together, the system implying the higher culture shall slowly but surely give tone to the other: and surely as the Anglican ritual grows familiar to those brought up in the Scotch, so surely, without any mere aping of ways markedly different from our own, without any essential departure from our own type of common worship, will be certain of the beautiful characteristics of that mellower southern ceremonial commend themselves to us as suggestive of respects in which onr worship may be made more reverent, orderly, and attractive to high and low. The English training which many of us give our children has familiarized no inconsiderable number of the youth of our National Church with the Anglican ritual and liturgy at the most impressionable season of their life: and modern facilities of travel have made all educated Scotch men and women as well acquainted with that worship as with their own. Sure as that comes to be, the two types will be compared: and unless we strive to make our worship ever more reverent in its outward surroundings; our prayers more prayerful and less sermonizing; our praise more worthy of the name of God's praise; the comparison will be to our disadvantage. I put aside the contemptible instinct of conformity to fashion: if that has withdrawn any from the Church of their fathers, they never were worth keeping,—let them go! But there is something at work that is far deeper and far more respectable than that. There is a real deep craving—and who can condemn it?—after a beauty of holiness, a solemnity of order and demeanour, which have hitherto been, in many places, sadly lacking. And while it is admitted,— no competent judge could help admitting it,—that our average standard of preaching is markedly superior, in power, interest, and thoroughness of workmanship, to the average standard of preaching in the other National Church of Britain,—it is as sure as anything can be,—it is as sure as the law of growth or of gravitation,—that as our congregations grow in intelligence and culture,—as the distance between the congregation and the preacher lessens, reaches zero, gets to be on the wrong side of the account,— our congregations will be growingly impatient of being left helplessly in the power of the preacher for the expression of their needs and desires and sorrows and experiences in prayer. Do not fancy I am pleading for an authorized liturgy; though I have heard the ablest, wisest, and devoutest of our clergy do so: but I am pleading for a clergy mightily lifted up in spirituality and learning and culture: and for prayers diligently gathered from the Universal Church's rich stores of devout thought and expression : coming of abundant study; and themselves the outcome of many earnest prayers. Nor do I hold myself other than one of the most loyal and devoted sons of the Church of my fathers, when I say that worshipping at altars which are not hers (because in a country which is not hers), I cannot but gather thoughts and suggestions to which (as I think and am sure) my honoured fathers and brethren in the ministry might well give heed. For who that has paced the echoing aisles of the sublime Minsters of the South and reverently joined in a worship worthy of them : grown familiar (as are most of us) with pealing organ and white-robed choristers,—with the chanted psalm, and the melodious prayers with their all-but-inspired felicity, beauty, and majesty: but has turned away with the lingering thought, Might not the dear old Church, keeping still that Presbyterian government which we believe to be founded on the Word of God and agreeable thereto, and specially adapted to the independent, unsubservient, unhierarchic Scottish race,—and keeping, too, in the main, the type of worship which has grown familiar,—not innovating, but going back towards what the fathers of our Church intended,— not breaking at all with old traditions dear to the nation's heart,—yet gain and keep more of the beauty of holiness in things outward: more of that reverence, seemliness, and order, which befit the sinful human creature in the awful though kindly presence of the beloved Redeemer who yet is God Almighty: which befit the human worshipper whom the grateful overflowing heart within him impels to offer to his Saviour his very utmost and best!

And thus desiring that worship were made more of: that praise and prayer be emphasized, and not (as they have been) thrust as into a comer in what after all is essentially the house of prayer: that the reading of God’s plain and powerful Word had its due place (it has it now, but you know that for many a year it had no place at all); we never dream of depreciating the preaching of the Gospel,—of degrading from its own rightful dignity the sermon,— proverbial indeed on irreverent lips and irreverent pages, but oftentimes owned and blest of the Divine Spirit to convert and console. Least of all, let me say it earnestly and solemnly, do we seek any deviation, the very slightest or smallest, from the old doctrines of the Cross in whose faith our fathers died. I stand here as one of many who, ever mindful of the vows of our ordination day and ever loyal to them, to maintain the purity and simplicity of the worship of this National Church, would yet seek, within the liberty these vows permit us, to make our worship more worthy and attractive than often heretofore : but with all that, quite content with our old doctrinal standards; asking no change on these; believing as our fathers believed, who were better men; and sure that if there be hard things in our creeds, it is because they are in God’s Word too;—ay, and in the nature of things, not to be escaped or evaded in this state of being. I should lament, indeed, if the chanted psalm, and the grand Te Deum in whose use we are drawn closer to Catholic Christendom,—if the knee bowed in prayer, and the solemn hush when the parting blessing is over,—should ever become suspect things through being associated with peculiar and exceptional doctrinal teaching, with which they have absolutely no link at all.

Neither, in our modest endeavours after a more reverent and cultured ritual, are there involved (what are called) sacerdotal or sacramental views. We endeavour after that, because it is in itself a fit and seemly thing that God's worship be surrounded by reasonable outward circumstances of dignity and solemnity: because it is right to do all we can, within legitimate limits, to make God's house and worship attractive: to make these such that there shall be nothing about either to jar on the right mood of mind and heart with which we should pray to wait upon them. We would not have it in the power of even the most regardless to plead as excuse for absence from church, that really the whole service when he last was there was an offence against taste and feeling,—was so rude, and uninteresting, and unworthy of what it claimed to be, that there was no inducement to go back again but many reasons to stop away. We hold it a fit end,—only one among many fit ends, some of them doubtless more vital,—that Christian congregations be enabled to worship not in dreariness and squalor, but in all the beauty of holiness: remembering, too, that the Christian Church did not begin at the Reformation: that then it was only that she was purified from accretion of human error; and that in all which was good and beautiful in the ancient Church we as much as any have our part. But, having said so much, I am not ashamed to add that I hold by our venerable standards, as in everything else, so in their teaching as to Sacraments and Orders: and I venture to say that such as go there for our Church's doctrine will find it anything but low: will find our Church's claims are strong and explicit. The Sacraments do not mean nothing. The Christian ministry has its authority and grace. Would that Christian people and Christian ministers lived worthier of their privileges and calling.

Some years since there was somewhat of an uneasy feeling in various estimable quarters, that though the New Testament do not in any way declare against even an ornate and stately worship,—far more ornate than any man among us has ever dreamt of,—yet that at least the clergy of the National Church were precluded from suggesting or adopting any change whatever by their ordination vows. And charges of unfaithfulness to these were cast abroad. I have even heard the word perjury applied with much zeal if with small charity. Very little consideration of the terms and meaning of those vows sufficed to show that they do not in any way apply to the improvements desired; and no reasonable human being will now bring charges of faithlessness to them. And when I think how many of our very best and devoutest ministers and elders have in their churches that more dignified ritual; when I think of the hearty West, the centre of so great a part of the Church's energy and spirituality and wisdom, — where hardly is a new place of worship opened that has not all you see here: when I remember that my revered father, as faithful and worthy a minister as ever stood in troubles by the Burning Bush, had in his church and left in it the organ and all that comes with it: I say, Be my soul with such, here and hereafter! And as for the ignorant and malignant accusations of broken vows and the like,—still sometimes to be heard,—I fling them aside not with indignation but with contempt.

Does it need to be said that no wise minister would thrust improvement in ritual on an unwilling people; or that changes, however much for the better, should not be pressed until the congregation is substantially unanimous in desiring them ? Much as I enjoy and approve all I see here, strongly as I hold it is all within the liberty the National Church permits to her faithful sons, I never would urge these things upon those who in an ill-informed conscientiousness object to them. If the rich window, with its solemn light, and the long-drawn aisle; if the sacred organ, and the chanted psalm, and the soul-uplifting anthem (which are such helps to some); be hindrances to the devotion of the flock, in God's name let them be! But where an enlightened and cultured taste demands all these, and more; and where patient tact has borne with opposition till it has melted away; let us be thankful that the law and usage of the Church are now so read as to suffer us to have them and enjoy them.

And in all this there is no going down to a lower level of spiritual discernment and life. We are merely opening our eyes to facts in human nature. There is no looking back to Sodom; there is simply the exercise of common sense. Why should we go and deliberately set ourselves to worship at a disadvantage ? Is it not all quite right to hope and pray for pleasant weather on the communion Sunday, that physical discomfort may not destroy or abate the enjoyment of spiritual privilege? And to a multitude of men and women, truly desirous to worship God, the graceless irreverence and ugliness in too many places characteristic of our worship, are as grievous a hindrance to devotion, are as jarringly destructive of the peaceful devotion and calm of holy communion, as any physical discomfort or bodily pain. Within my own knowledge, they have driven from the National Church those whom she could ill spare. You may be angry with yourself that you are so clogged and distracted by these miserable externalities: you may confess it in your evening prayers as a sin: but unless you could get another nervous system, you never will wholly rise above these influences while your soul dwells in the flesh. Half-material as we are,—for it takes soul and body together to make the human being both here and in the glorified state,—profoundly affected in our spiritual experience by material surroundings, often affecting us for the worse: whensoever we can make a reprisal on the hostile territory,—and get material surroundings and influences to calm the spirit and lift up the heart,—in God’s name let us take that help and be thankful.

There is much more I had thought to say and should wish to say: but not the least helpful rule of our better ritual is that which says that the sermon shall be short. You know the purpose towards which the contributions of the congregation are besought. All that you can be asked to give will be but a drop in the stream towards the heavy cost of this fair and truthful restoration: but it will be given with a willing mind. Nor do I fear that, pleading for what I have pleaded for under this roof to-night, I have said what would go against the grain with the strongest and perhaps the greatest man who was used to preach here. The mighty Knox, with his hard words but his true and kind heart, knew human nature better than to blame the plan to rule it by yielding to it: to make the best of the weak and warped material with which we have to deal. I am less clear that my sermon would have pleased the bearer of another name indissolubly associated with this choir: but for that I care not at all. It suffices, that the ancient Cathedral of this beautiful and famous city has, at least in part, been made worthier of surroundings all but unrivalled: that it can no longer be, as it used to be, the byeword of the passing stranger: that it has been fitted to be, as we may hope to see it, the home of lonely hearts, the shelter of devout hearts; the place of daily worship, where, in the larger truth, ‘ rayer is wont to be made!'

THE END


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