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party-attachments of various kinds, with the requests and thanksgivings, which they utter in the name of the congregation; may inflame one part of the neighbourhoood, one part of their fellow-subjects, against another; stir up some to mischief, under colour of its being the cause of God; and by so doing, make his worship abhorred by the rest ? I am far from charging the body of those amongst us, who use extempore prayer, with being guilty of these things now. I am only representing, what evils a more general use of it would be likely to produce, especially in times of public discord. Indeed most of them, if not all, it formerly hath produced : and preventing them is much easier and every way better, than punishing them.
But supposing these inconveniences avoided, another, very considerable, would remain. Let their dislike of forms be ever so great, the words of their minister in praying are as absolutely a form to them for the time, as the words of a national liturgy: but with this unhappy difference, that his expressions being continually varied, possibly the most judicious, at least the slower and more ignorant, may often doubt of their meaning; and the scrupulous, of their fitness: and though upon consideration they should be satisfied, yet he in the mean while is gone on to something else. And thus they may follow after him through the whole of a prayer, and be able to overtake and really join with him in but a small part of it: whereas a form may always be examined beforehand ; and when it is once understood and found to be right, our judgment and affections will go together in the use of it, without let or hindrance; and we shall be edified, not in imagination, but reality.
Upon the whole, the reasons for a public liturgy are so strong, that Calvin, the most universally esteemed
by our dissenting brethren of all the reformers, in a letter to the protector of England, under Edw. VI. hath these words. • As to a form of prayer and of ecclesiastical rites, I highly approve that it should be certain, from which it may not be lawful for any minister to depart: as well in consideration of the weakness and ignorance of some, as that it may more plainly appear, how our churches agree amongst themselves, and lastly, that a stop may be put to the giddiness of those, who affect novelties.”
Still I am sensible, that some of the arguments, which I have urged against devotions composed by the minister, may seem to lie equally against sermons composed by him; and to require, that instruction be in a constant form, as well as prayer. But besides that one hath been the custom of the churches of God", the other not; prayer is the voice of the people to their Heavenly Father; and should therefore be preserved, with singular caution, from every thing, which they ought not to say, or may not immediately comprehend or approve; else, in such parts of the service, either they do not pray at all, or they pray amiss. But preaching is the voice of the minister to the people, which they may weigh and judge of at their leisure: and even should they fail of learning their duty from thence, they may lea it from a much higher authority, the lessons of Scripture read to them. Further, where a fixed form of worship is appointed, instruction may be left at liberty more safely; because it will be observed, if the latter contradicts the former: and also very usefully, because a much greater variety of things is requisite to be said to the people in sermons, than is needful for them to say to Heaven in their prayers. But
* 1 Cor. xi. 16.
how proper soever it may be to have some form, they, who dissent from us, apprehend there are such great imperfections and faults in the established form, that if they must pray with the Spirit and with the understanding, they must not pray by that. Now imperfections will be found in every thing human : and if these be a sufficient objection against our prayers, it will hold against their own and all prayers, excepting that of our blessed Lord. From every thing unlawful we are ready to prove that our service book is intirely free. But the faults of extempore devotions, which are different in every congregation, and every time of meeting in the same congregation, easily escape the notice of such as are prejudiced in their favour, who alone hear them: and when observed, it is only by a few, and they are soon forgotten: while those that are charged on a public printed liturgy, lie open constantly, year after year, to the censure of every one. And were it possible, that the several prayers offered up, in any one day, in the
, several dissenting assemblies of this kingdom, could be written down; and examined half so narrowly for a short space, as ours have been for two centuries together : can it be imagined, that many times more and worse omissions and improprieties would not be found in almost every one of them, than they have pretended to find in our Common Prayer? Still we are far from saying, it is incapable of any alteration for the better. Yet this we must say, that most of the alterations, proposed by some persons, have been thought by others, every way their equals, if not superiors, by no means to be amendments. And as eminent a nonconformist, as ever was, Mr. Baxter, hath long since owned, that almost every church on earth hath a worse liturgy, than ours.
There hath indeed been a railing accusation*, even of Popery, brought against it: though it was first compiled, then reviewed and approved, by confessors and martyrs for the Protestant cause; and several articles of Popery are as flatly contradicted in it, as can be. Some parts of it, we acknowledge, were in the Romish offices before: but not one-tenth of the whole, as a very diligent person hath computed t. Most of this tenth part also was in much ancienter offices, before the Romish corruptions were introduced. And had it not; as even these prayers are intirely free from those corruptions, where can be the harm of using them? Had our reformers rejected them, they would have been in reality never the farther distant from the Papists. And by retaining them, they had a prospect of bringing many of the Papists over to themselves: by shewing, that they did not act from passion and prejudice, but reason and consideration; that they respected the ancient offices and usages of the purer ages of the Church, and departed only from modern abuses and errors.
It hath also been alledged, that we wear the habits of the Papists in offering up these prayers. But indeed, though it were no way material if we did, ours are very different from theirs. And if wearing any, which are not in common use, be condemned, what cause is there for it? why may not sacred, as well as civil offices of dignity and importance, be made somewhat more solemn by vestments appropriated to them? The fitness of it hath been confessed by the constant practice of mankind, and particularly of the Christian Church in early ages, and indeed of our Dissenting Ministers themselves; who change their dress a little, when they officiate. And where is the * Jude, ver. 9.
+ Dr. Bennet on the Common Prayer, App. 1.
harm, if we change ours a little more? Though after all, if the wearing of such garments by us of the clergy were a fault, it would be intirely our own fault: and seeing us wear them could surely hurt nobody.
But besides these general objections, there are several made against particular passages, which ought to be confuted. This therefore I purpose, God willing, to do in a proper number of discourses, on all the stated offices of our Liturgy: and not only to vindicate what is blamed, but explain also what too many may possibly not understand, and direct your notice to what may not be sufficiently observed. All these things will very well come under the head, of which I promised at first to treat,
II. That we should be very solicitous rightly to apprehend the sense and fitness of what we say and do in God's presence. For though censuring without reason is worse, yet esteeming without reason is not the part of wise men. And some perhaps are mighty zealous for our liturgy, who yet know but very imperfectly, what good reason they have to be zealous for it. Indeed amongst many advantages of public forms of prayer, there seems to be one disadvantage; that the words of them being in the main continually the same, and thus becoming well known and familiar, we often hear them, and even speak our share of them, with scarce any attention to them. But then it is equally true, that we often hear sermons, though they are new to us, with just as little regard ; and therefore should be likely very soon to hear extempore prayers also with no less negligence : which fault our liturgy is in several respects peculiarly calculated to prevent, as I shall hereafter shew you. But still the danger is great enough, to demand our utmost care to guard against it. For