This piece is taken from “To My Younger Brethren: Chapters on Pastoral Life and Work” written in 1902 by Handley Moule, at the time the Bishop of Durham. Moule was one of the leaders of the “Evangelical” party alongside J.C. Ryle, what today we might call “Old Low Church,” although by the standards of modern Anglicanism, still quite high. While clearly Evangelical in leaning, this piece struck me with its poignant reflection upon the Book of Common Prayer, noting how unique it is in its focus on Scripture, our daily need for repentance, the centrality of the Cross, and the reality of the presence of God, timeless observations that transcend churchmanship.-Robert
Dear pages of ancestral prayer, Illumined all with Scripture gold, In you we seem the faith to share Of saints and seers of old. Whene’er in worship’s blissful hour The Pastor lends your heart a voice, Let his own spirit feel your power, And answer, and rejoice.
In the present chapter I deal a little with the spirit and work of the Clergyman in his ministration of the ordered Services of the Church, reserving the work of the Pulpit for later treatment.
THE PRAYER BOOK NOT PERFECT BUT INESTIMABLE
Let me begin by a brief reminder of the greatness of the spiritual treasure which we possess in the Book by which we minister. How shall I speak of it as I would? “The Prayer Book isn’t inspired, I know,” said an old coast-guardsman some years ago to a friend of mine, “but, sure and certain, ’tis as bad as inspired!” “I find the Liturgy,” said another veteran, Charles Simeon, “as superior to all modern compositions as the work of a philosopher on any deep subject is to that of a schoolboy who understands scarcely anything about it.” “All that the Church of England needs to make her the glory of all Churches,” said Simeon’s friend, the late Rev. William Marsh, “is the spirit of her own services.”
I am not so blind as to maintain that our Book is ideally perfect, and that its every sentence is infallible. It is not quite literally “as bad as inspired.” After using it in ministration for nearly five-and-twenty years I own to the wish that here and there the wording, or the arrangement, or the rubrical direction, had been otherwise in some detail, perhaps in some important detail. I do certainly wish very earnestly indeed that the Revisers of 1661-2 had expressed themselves more happily in that Rubric about “Ornaments” which within recent years has proved—little as they expected it, or intended it, to do so—such a fertile field of discord. But for all this, my five-and-twenty years’ ministerial use of the Prayer Book has only deepened my sense of its inestimable general value and greatness.
If a temperate and equitable revision were possible at the present time I should welcome the prospect on most accounts. But it seems to me plain that it is not at present possible. And meanwhile I thank God from my inmost heart for the actual Prayer Book as a whole.
Let me point out a very few of the claims of the Book on our love and gratitude; and now specially in view of what we may sometimes hear said about it by Christians not of our own Church.
i. Observe its profound and searching spirituality. It is quite true that in a certain sense the Book takes all who use it for granted; it assumes them to be worshippers in spirit and in truth; it does not pray for them, or lead them in public worship to pray for themselves, as for those who do not know and love God, who have not come to Christ. But then what form of public, common prayer can well do this? And meantime the Book does, especially in the service of the Communion, and particularly in that too often omitted part of it, the “longer Exhortation,” beginning Dearly beloved in the Lord, throw the worshipper back upon himself for self-examination. This is just the method of St Paul in his addresses to the Christian community. He writes to all as “saints,” “faithful,” “elect,” “sanctified.” What does he mean? Does he mean that those glorious terms are satisfied by the fact that all have been baptized, or even that all are communicants at the sacred Table? Not at all. He takes all for granted as being what they profess to be, when he greets the community (Rom. 8:9; 1 Cor. 16:22; 2 Cor. 13:5; Gal. 5:6). But he says also, “If any man have not the Spirit of Christ he is none of His”; “If any man love not the Lord Jesus Christ, let him be anathema”; “Examine yourselves, whether ye be in the faith; prove your own selves. Know ye not that Jesus Christ is in you—except ye be ἀδόκιμοί, counterfeits?” “In Jesus Christ neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision, but faith which worketh by love.” Such sentences throw a flood of holy and searching light on the sense in which St Paul “took them all for granted.” And the Prayer Book is in true harmony with both parts of the Apostle’s method.
WHAT IT TAKES FOR GRANTED IN THE WORSHIPPER
And then, think what the Book does thus searchingly and helpfully “take for granted.” It assumes a deep sense of sin, such a sense as is indeed “grievous unto us.” It takes for granted our deep desire both for pardon and for spiritual victory. It assumes our desire to be “kept this day without sin”; to “follow the only God with pure hearts and minds”; to “be continually given to all good works”; to “be enabled by the Lord to live according to His will”; to have “all our doings ordered by His governance”; to have “such love to Him poured into our hearts that we may love Him above all things.” It assumes our desire to “read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest all the Holy Scriptures.” It assumes our readiness to “suffer on earth for the testimony of the truth, looking up steadfastly to heaven, and by faith beholding the glory that shall be revealed.” It assumes our adoring devotion to our Lord Jesus Christ, and that we present “ourselves, our souls and bodies, a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice,” to our God.
I heard a few years ago of a remarkable case of secession from the Church of England. A thoughtful and conscientious man left us because, as he said, he could no longer seem to concur in such words of intense spiritual reality and surrender while he did not fully mean them. On his principles, I fear there ought to be a large exodus from our Church. But that is not the fault of the Church, or of the Church’s Book. It is the fault of the worshippers, and it is a solemn call to us not so much to criticize the Liturgy as to “examine ourselves.”
THE PRAYER BOOK AS A WEAPON
In this connection I am reminded of a characteristic saying of an honoured friend of mine, now at rest with the Lord after a long and faithful ministry. He was one of those men who instinctively speak strongly, perhaps sometimes roughly; but such roughness is often useful. “The Prayer Book,” said he, “is always handy to throw at people’s heads”; figuratively, of course, not literally. He slung it out in vigorous quotations from his pulpit, point blank at the unreality, and formalism, and pharisaism, and love of this present evil world, which too often underlies the most precise “churchmanship” and the most punctual church-going.
My old friend’s strong word may carry a suggestion to some of my younger Brethren; though I would advise their deferring a projectile use of the Book till they are seniors in the Church. But the youngest Minister of Christ, in all loving modesty, may reach many a conscience (beginning with his own) by well-timed words from the Prayer Book, showing what the Book takes for granted in the worshipper.
SCRIPTURALITY OF THE BOOK
ii. Next I point to the abundant and loyal Scripturality of the Prayer Book. I venture to say that no Service Book in the world is quite like ours in this. This characteristic lies on the surface; in the wealth of Scripture poured out in every service before the people; Psalms, Lessons, Canticles, Epistle, Gospel, Introductory Sentences, Decalogue, Comfortable Words. At the Font, in the Marriage Ordinance, at the Grave, it is still the same; Scripture, in our mother tongue, full and free, runs everywhere. And below the surface it is the same. Take almost any set of responses, or any single prayer, and see the strong warp of the Bible in it all.
And then go for a moment from the Services to the Preface of the Book, and see what the Fathers of our English Liturgy thought and intended about the place of the Holy Scriptures in worship. I hope my Brethren have all read that “Preface” with care; I mean, of course, the whole length of introductory matter which precedes the Tables of Lessons; nothing of it later than 1662, most of it (indeed all but the first section, written by Sanderson) dating in substance from 1549.26 I hope it has all been read by you; but I am not quite certain of it, so little attention is at present called to those important and authoritative statements of principle. But however well you may already know them, they will repay another reading; and so you will be reminded again that the really first thought in the minds of the men who gave us our Prayer Book in English was to let “the Word of God have free course and be Glorified” in all the worship of the people (2 Thess. 3:1). Those men were learned in the past, and they reverenced history and continuity. But they reverenced still more the heavenly Word, and where they found the ample reading and hearing of it impeded by even immemorial usage, the usage had to give way, without reserve, to the Bible.
Yes, the Prayer Book is, whatever else it is, searchingly, overflowingly Scriptural; full of the Bible, full of Christ. Let us drink its principles and its manner in, that they may come out in our life and our preaching.
And now for a few simple practical suggestions on our ministerial use of the Book.
USE THE BOOK WITH DILIGENCE
i. First, I would entreat my younger Brother to resolve in the Lord’s name that his own use of the Prayer Book in his ministration be to him a thing of sacred importance and personal reality. We need to form such a resolve deliberately, and to watch and pray over it. Do we not know what strong temptations lie in the other direction? We have to use these forms over and over again; before many years are over perhaps we could “take” a whole service, except the appointed Scriptures, without looking at the book: is it not too easy under such conditions to read as those who read not, and to pray as those who pray not? And all too often the Clergyman, younger or older, allows himself almost consciously, almost on principle, to form an inadequate estimate of his Prayer-Book work. Perhaps he regards the prayers as in such a sense “the voice of the Church” that he is willing to be little more than a machine through which the Church offers them. Or perhaps on the other hand he lets himself forget their immense importance, under a strong, and just, sense of the sacred importance of the Sermon. He is alive and awake in the pulpit, and seeks his Lord’s presence there, and realizes it as sought; but in the desk—he goes by himself, and much of his precious time there is spent in thought which wanders to the ends of the earth while his voice does its decent but somnambulatory part alone.
I can only appeal with all my heart to my younger Brother not to let it be thus with him. And the only effective recipe against the trouble is faith, exercised in prayer and watching, with a full recollection of the urgent importance of the matter. For indeed it is all-important that the servant of God should be “given wholly to” his work, at the reading desk, at the lectern, at the Table, at the Font.
PRAY THE PRAYERS
It is easy to say, as it is often said, that we “must not preach the prayers,” must not obtrude our personality in leading the devotions of the congregation; that our part is to be regular and audible, and otherwise to “efface ourselves.” Most certainly we ought not to preach the prayers, in public any more than in private. But then, we ought to pray them. Most certainly we ought not to obtrude our personality upon the thought of the worshippers. But then, we ought to serve them with our personality, and we can best do this, surely, by a spirit and a manner which is unmistakably that of the fellow-worshipper, who feels himself to be in the presence of the King, and knows that the petitions and the promises are for him at least a holy reality. I am perfectly well aware that it is not easy to steer between a more or less mechanical manner and a demonstrative one, and that perhaps of two evils the former is the less. But I am sure it is possible to steer the right line, by using sanctified common-sense, and asking for a little candid counsel from those who hear us, and above all by being what we seek to seem—true worshippers, spiritually awake and humbly reverent.
As long as man is man, so long will the law of sympathy hold good. And by that law it is certain that the way to promote, so far as we can, a spirit and tone of true worship in our people is to possess—and to show—that spirit ourselves, as we lead, and also join, their worship. Never declaim the prayers, but always pray them, from the soul and with the voice.
“GIVE ATTENDANCE TO THE READING” OF THE LESSONS
ii. I spoke just now of what we should do at the lectern. Let me earnestly press upon my Brethren the great duty of rightly reading the Lessons. Do you want to carry out the will and purpose of the Church of England? As we have seen, that purpose is above everything to glorify the Word of God. See then that the Lesson, as read by you, is as audible, as intelligible, as impressive as you can make it. Take care beforehand that you understand its points, its arguments, its emphasis. Take counsel with yourself, and perhaps with others, about ways and means for bringing these things out in your public reading. Remember that for very many of your people (I fear I am right in saying so) the Church Lessons are the most solid pieces of Scripture they ever hear, or ever read. Many years ago it was not uncommonly said that in “these days of universal reading” we might perhaps abbreviate our Church Lessons. But since that time it has been more fully and sadly realized, by very many of us at least, that universal reading does not mean universal Bible reading by any means, but much rather universal newspaper and novel reading. The heavenly Book is terribly unfamiliar to multitudes of churchgoers, as you will find, if you ask, when you go about your parish; of this we have already thought. Therefore, make all you can of the reading of the Lessons in public worship. πρόσεχε τῇ ἀναγνώσει, says the Apostle to Timothy, “Give attention to the reading” (1 Tim. 4:13); does he not mean, be diligent in reading the Scripture to the people? The precept is as much as ever in point in our day.
OPPORTUNITIES OFFERED BY THE OCCASIONAL SERVICES
iii. As regards the occasional services, Public and Private Baptism, Marriage, Burial, I would earnestly counsel my Brother to put personality into his reading in them all, in the moderate sense indicated above. The fact that such occasions are necessarily more or less special in their interest for some at least of those present should never be forgotten; bring the power of a sympathetic interest and earnestness to bear upon it. In administering Public Baptism I have often realized this to a very peculiar degree. Who can feel the least fondness for little children, and have the slightest insight into a parent’s heart, and not do so? Our service is undoubtedly long; very long indeed when accompanied by a chorus of perhaps several little crying voices. But let the servant of God “be in it,” and he will find himself much more touched than troubled by the babies’ lamentations as he speaks to the sponsors about the young helpless souls, and turns to the Lord of all grace to dedicate them to Him and to invoke His blessing on them for time and eternity, and then applies the watery Seal of all the promises to their small foreheads. I have always found it very hard to get through that service with a perfectly steady voice; and after all, why should we be so careful to do so?
Private Baptism is indeed a special occasion. There are reasons, no doubt, why it must not be too readily administered; in some parishes parents, for one reason or another, too often try to secure “a christening” in private, on insufficient grounds, with no intention of a public dedication afterwards. But when the case is clear, and you are at the little suffering one’s side, perhaps with a distressed mother close beside it and you, see to it that you so minister the rite, so read the few precious words, as both to sympathize and to teach. Let me add that Private Baptism often brings the Clergyman into a house where religion is utterly neglected; and the opportunity may be a priceless one, if the power of love and spiritual reality is with you in the work.
And when you officiate at a Wedding, different as the conditions are from those just remembered, still do not forget that for at least some there present the hour is a deeply moving one. And is not the Marriage Service a noble one to read, to interpret, with its peculiar mingling of immemorial and archaic simplicity with a searching depth of scriptural exhortation, and a bright wealth of divine benedictions? Throw the power of a true man’s solemnized sympathy into your reading of that service.
PROBLEMS CONNECTED WITH THE USE OF THE BURIAL SERVICE
Of the ritual of the Grave I hardly need to speak. I know only too well that there are funerals and funerals. There are occasions of unrelieved sadness. There are occasions when the Minister’s heart is chilled by a manifest and utter indifference. But the saddest, dreariest of burials is an opportunity for the Lord. Whether or no you see your way to give an address, let it be seen that you are dealing with God in the prayers, and read the Lessons “as one that pleadeth with men.”
A brief word in passing on the problem raised by some of the phrases of our Burial Service. Let me call attention to the studied generality of the words, In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life. Before 1662 this ran “in sure . . . hope of resurrection, etc.,” which, as you will observe, expressly applied the “hope” to that case of burial; the change was evidently made on purpose to relieve conscience in the matter. Then remember that the whole service is constructed, like all our services, for the member of the Christian community taken on his profession; and that assumption, unless flagrant facts withstand it, is to be made, in public ordinance, as much at the grave as elsewhere. And do not forget that hope, be it ever so “trembling,” is never forbidden at a grave-side. I am no advocate of what is called “the larger hope”; I dare not be. But I am deeply convinced that mercies of the Lord, in cases quite beyond our possible knowledge, are experienced in the very act of departure.
Betwixt the stirrup and the ground
Mercy I sought, mercy I found.
That instance has many parallels; and God only knows their limits. Never should we say, whatever we may awfully fear, that such and such a soul is to our knowledge lost.
As regards the practical management of extreme cases, the young Clergyman will of course act altogether under his Incumbent. And the young Incumbent will remember that he can have recourse to his Bishop for counsel.
THE HOLY COMMUNION
iv. Let me say one special word on our administration of the precious ritual of the Table of the Lord. I am not attempting here any discussion of its doctrinal aspects in detail. For myself, as I have said elsewhere, I make no secret of long-settled “Evangelical” convictions. I regard the Holy Eucharist as above all things else the Lord’s way of sealing to His true Israel the unutterable benefits of the New and Everlasting Covenant, rather than an occasion on which He infuses into them His glorified Manhood. His sacred Body and Blood are, for me, the Body and the Blood as they were, once for all, at Calvary, and as they are not therefore literally now; and my participation in them is accordingly my participation in the virtues of the Atoning Sacrifice, there once and for ever wrought and offered. But this is by the way. I speak now of our spirit and manner in the administration, in respect of some principles which are little if at all affected, it seems to me, by even grave differences of doctrinal theory. Alas, at the present day it is too often the case that the communicant is fairly bewildered by the varieties of Communion ritual, or by the complications of it. Ought this to be so, on any theory of the Eucharist? Did I for one believe our adorable and beloved LORD to be locally present (I use the words not technically but practically) on the Holy Table as nowhere else here on earth, I think that all my instinct would go towards a reverence whose depth was manifested not by an elaborate ceremonial but by the most solemn possible simplicity of act. A ritual whose details must be matter of careful practice, and which suggests almost the need of a Spanish master-of-the-ceremonies–ought that to be the natural effect of an, as it were, invisible Presence?
SIMPLICITY AND REVERENCE
But probably I write for readers whose inclinations or risks lie little in that direction. And for them I say, let your administration of the blessed Communion always combine a manifest reverence and a restful simplicity. The Lord is there, the Master of His own Table, the Prince of His own Covenant, ready to give His people His royal Seal by your hands. And His people are there, to have their sacred interview with Him. Do not obstruct their view, their colloquy; humbly aid it. Be their servant, as in HIS presence; obtrude yourself as little as you possibly can.
ADDRESSES ON THE PRAYER BOOK
As I draw the chapter to a close, I make one practical recommendation to my younger Brethren. It is, to do what they can to interest their people in the Prayer Book, and to promote its intelligent use, by taking what opportunities they can to talk to them about it. Many a private occasion for this will no doubt present itself. But if now and then a simple lecture on the history of the Prayer Book can be given, and if possible well illustrated, it will be very useful; and so will be a series of week-night devotional addresses on the teaching of the Prayer Book. And let not the need of plain matter-of-fact explanation of obsolete terms and technical phrases be forgotten on such occasions. Of course the Curate will carefully consult his Incumbent on the whole matter. But few of my elder Brethren will not feel with me that such “talks upon the Prayer Book,” carefully considered and conducted, whether by Incumbent or by Curate, may be of the greatest use, under our Master’s blessing.
“MORE CEREMONIAL, LESS WORSHIP”
One last word, and I have done with these suggestions. An English Bishop once told me that he had lately met a gentleman who, after ten years’ residence abroad, returned to England, and to his place as a worshipper in our Churches. “Do you remark particularly any change or advance in what you see there?” “I observe on the one hand much more ceremonial, on the other hand, apparently, much less worship. Fewer kneel, fewer respond, fewer around me seem devoutly attentive.” Less worship! Is it so indeed? Let the very opposite be the case, so far as our influence and teaching can have effect, with our fathers’ Prayer Book in our hands, and in our hearts.
Lo, God is here; Him day and night
Th’united quires of angels sing;
To Him, enthron’d above all height,
Heaven’s hosts their noblest praises bring;
Disdain not, Lord, our meaner song,
Who praise Thee with a stammering tongue.
Being of beings, may our praise
Thy courts with grateful fragrance fill;
Still may we stand before Thy face,
Still hear and do Thy sovereign will;
To Thee may all our thoughts arise,
Ceaseless, accepted sacrifice.
—J. Wesley, from Tersteegen
- 26 I do not forget that some modifications in detail, as to the Lectionary, are quite recent. Editor’s Note: Moule here refers to the 1871 Lectionary. ↑