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All committees ought to seek to purify themselves according to the celebrated precedent of the selfdenying ordinance. They form, no doubt, a very admirable institution in their way; but, at the same time, I have never met with more incapacity, blundering, cruelty, and injustice than among committees.
It was said by a member of that august committee, the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, that they used to sit mending or nibbling their pens until Bishop Blomfield arrived and business began in earnest. You may call a committee democratic or aristocratic, but generally an autocrat presides. The mischief of it is, that an air of impersonality is given to something extremely personal. For my own part, if ever I get any printed paper with the names of committees, I think it is not a bad rule to tumble it into the waste-paper basket. I know there are committees to which it is the highest distinction to belong. You can hardly have a more splendid set of names than the committee of the London Library or the committee of the Athenæum Club. But the excellence of names does not always denote excellence of work. Committees, as institutions, are to be distrusted. I am afraid this amendment can only be found in the amendment of shaken public morals; in the cultivation of that public spirit which is becoming increasingly rare, in the abstract love of justice, the habit of care and caution, and the attribute of mental independence,
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got into conversation than he began to indulge in the common and somewhat unmeaning abuse of sermons. After general remarks on their feebleness, and the drowsy effect of most of them, he appealed to the whole company whether any of us could remember more than two or three sermons that we had ever heard. And herewith he seemed to think he had given a home-thrust that could not be parried. However, I drove him from this attack by saying that I could remember the general argument of a great many, and almost the exact words of several.
I wondered to myself whether our questioner could remember accurately more addresses to the jury, or the M.P. at the other end of the table more speeches to honourable members. But as such a comparison might have seemed rude, and certainly would not have carried the table with me, I remained silent.
Now, this contempt for sermons is an old sore, one that will make itself felt, and that should give parsons
much to think about. Yet it must be allowed that we have many difficulties to contend with. Of these
. the most obvious is, that we have no sort of special training for this, the most difficult of our duties, but are left to native instinct in the one point where teaching and practice are most needed and might be made most useful. Let me illustrate our difficulties by my own case: I had been led early in life to choose the profession of a clergyman; from that time the subject of sermons had a peculiar interest from a professional point of view. This interest was steadily increased by frequent allusions to the matter in the public press—allusions, I need scarcely add, for the most part, very disparaging. The vicar of our town happened to be a remarkably good preacher. A few of his sermons have been published since then, and people who never heard him have been surprised at the admiration of his parishioners. In real fact, what he printed were mere skeletons of what we heard from the pulpit. He preached extempore from full notes, and one of his best characteristics was the homely force and quaintness of his expressions. These came on the spur of the moment, and could not be reproduced in cold blood in the study. But what we most valued in him, and that which kept us all awake, was his close logical manner of dealing with the subject in hand, Whatever his text might be, he dealt with it fairly and fully. He did not bring it forward as authority
for fifty things not contained in it. But he treated it so carefully, he searched into all its meaning so deeply, that the most dull could not help being interested in the inquiry; and when he began at last to press home some practical lesson upon the hearts of his people, it came to them with double force, because their minds had been already won, and irresistibly led on to this conclusion. Our good pastor had very little new to tell us; he did not trouble his congregation with difficulties about the Pentateuch, and perplex them with the latest interpretation of the Apocalypse. The church-goers in provincial towns are little likely to be interested or edified by such book-learning. But for all that, whatever he told us seemed new by his way of putting it. Like a good scribe, he gave us at once things new and old. The substance of his teaching was as old as Christianity itself; the style of it had the freshness and vigour of youth, and an interest of our own time, and of our own life.
From coming in contact with so excellent a preacher just when most interested in the subject, I got into the way of taking notes of sermons. This habit kept by me for some years, and I think it was a good training, though I have scarcely looked at any of the notes since they were written. In the first place, with pencil and pocket-book in hand, it was impossible to find any sernion quite uninteresting. If the preacher was rambling and illogical, one's attention
was engrossed in trying to follow his train of thought through all its ramblings. If the sermon was clear and well-arranged, the outline was drawn on one's paper in a moment, and a lesson was learnt in method. But if there was no pretence to reasoning, and the discourse was merely an appeal to the feelings, there was nothing to be done but listen for one's own edification. I carried on this plan at Oxford, and it is remarkable how few of even our best preachers could bear the test of a note-book. Several of those who had a fair claim to be called our pulpit orators were most wanting in plan. They said striking and beautiful things in abundance, but as for treating or exhausting their subject, that seemed to be something quite beside the mark. Except that custom imposed a limit, there was no reason apparently why they should not have gone on saying equally striking things without end. If one may so speak, these Oxford sermons were for the most part utterly deficient as works of art. They were fine fragments, but they had no completeness, no unity. Though there are a few notable exceptions, yet this general want of arrangement will be allowed, I think, by any of my readers who will put a series of Oxford Lenten sermons on their trial, and attempt to analyse them. There seems to be a widely-spread notion abroad that logic and rhetoric cannot be united, that beauty and order cannot be cultivated at once. That this is not the
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