The Chancel Monument A sermon preached by the Rev Canon Vidal, BA
at Christ Church, Sydney
On Sunday, the 8th November 1868.
transcribed by Joseph Waugh
The work is great, for the palace is not for man, but for the Lord God."--1 Chron xxxix, part 1st verse.
Thus David addressed the princes and people around him:--
It was a memorable occasion. It was that in which he told them what preparation he had made for the embellishment of the temple--and what moreover, he adds, "because of his affection to the House of his God" he had further offered "of his own proper good" (or as we say) of his own private means, "Even 3000 talents of gold of the gold of Ophir, and 7000 talents of refined silver ... gold for things of gold, and silver for things of silver, and for all manner of work to be made by the hands of artificers."
And having made this communication, he asks, "Who is willing to consecrate his service this day unto the Lord?"
And very noble was the response. We read: "The people rejoiced for that they offered willingly, because with perfect heart they offered willingly to the Lord."
And there followed a solemn service of praise and prayer-at the close of which are these pregnant words--
"O Lord God, of Abraham, Isaac, and of Israel, our fathers, keep this for ever in the imagination of the thoughts of the heart of thy people, and prepare their heart unto Thee.
And give unto Solomon my son a perfect heart, to keep Thy commandments, Thy testimonies and Thy statutes, and to do all these things, and to build the palace for the which I have made provision."
They were, I say, pregnant words, and under the Divine blessing, brought forth fruit in all the generations to come.
We know how Solomon fulfilled the wish of David his father, and how, in approbation of the great work when it was completed, "the glory of the Lord filled the house."
And we know how a like zeal animated the captive Jews on their return in building the second temple.
David's prayer was thus answered. God had "kept it in their hearts" to do Him this service.
Moreover, a like token of the Divine approval of the prayer was manifested when Christianity had superseded Judaism.
As soon as early Christianity emerged from the dens and caves in which it was first forced to worship when persecution ceased, and "kings became its nursing fathers, and queens its nursing mothers" again--as the fruits of David's prayer--God "kept it in the imagination of the thoughts of the heart of His people," to build, not mean unsightly places of worship, but "palaces." For, as soon as the early Christians could venture to pray in public, to the extent of their powers they made their churches gorgeous and magnificent, and when Christianity became the religion of the Roman Empire, the splendid temples of the heathen were converted into Christian Churches. The first Christian Emperor, Constantine, spared no pains in adorning the Churches of his Empire.
All this was natural.
It was the proper growth of a religion which came from God, to distinguish the buildings dedicated to His worship, by a dignity and solemnity peculiarly their own.
David's sentiment has been re-echoed in all hearts loyal to God. "See now I dwell in an house of cedar, but the ark of God dwelleth within curtains." And in spite of fanaticism we may bless God that, even to this present day, the sweetest psalmist of Israel's prayer is answered--God has "kept it in the imagination of the thoughts of the heart of His people," to make His temples worthy as they can of the Adorable Being whom they worship.
To this, we may say, the instinct of piety would prompt them.
But, apart from this, and apart from Scripture arrant and precedent, Reason steps in and adds the weight of her judgment. For, are we not all, more or less, so constituted as to be influenced by impressions from without? Do we not recognise it in worldly things? Who is unmoved by outward appearance? Who is uninfluenced by artistic effect? In these matters what pleases the eye or ear is appreciable. Hence, not among the rich only but among the poor we deem it right to cultivate a certain taste and refinement. To make the best of what they have to set off their persons or their homes: On this how much depends the preservation of self-respect. We may call it an axiom of our political economy.
But man is still man in his relation to the spiritual world.--Visible objects influence him not in earthly things only but in heavenly. Therefore our All-wise Creator would have us use outward aids to inward devotion to enhance our reverence for things divine. Hence, not the distinctive architecture of our churches only, but the decency and order of public worship. All things within the sanctuary should be eloquent of Him whom here we meet to praise, in order that every sense should be enlisted in the great work, and help to upraise the soul.
And Christians have ever recognised this. In fulfilment of David's prayer, God has "kept it in the imagination of the thoughts of the heart of His people." And here, observe, it is not a question between outward worship and the worship of the spirit. We all know that the worship of the heart is alone of value. Mere formal service is utterly worthless. But the question is, whether, in opposition to God's revealed will regarding His worship, in disregard of the analogy of nature and the constitution of our being, we shall strike out a new mode of worship of our own, as irrational in its conception as it would surely be futile and fatal in its result. They who discard outward aids to devotion soon cease to be devout. They outrage a divine law which cannot be infringed with impunity. The wisdom which set apart one day out of seven; which gave Moses a fixed pattern for the tabernacle service-which ratified the elaborate and costly ceremonial of the temple, condemns the vain idea of a religion from which the aid of sight and sense is banished. Until the soul is emancipated from the body, what is visible must be used in apprehending the invisible. But see farther. If it cannot be denied that outward forms or symbols are aids to piety, then follows another question--"What symbols and what forms?"
Now, although all men for the most part are susceptible of impressions from without, they differ widely in the mode and measure in which they are affected. One is influenced by the eye-another by the ear. And the same sights and sounds may operate in various degrees on different men; and it may be there are some exceptional cases, insensible to all influence from sight or sound. But for all, even for these last--so perfect is the adaptation to every variety of taste and character--the Church provides ample spiritual food. If we would "keep the unity of the spirit in the bond of peace," we must accept this diversity as a law of our being, and allow natures different to our own the peculiar aids which best suit them. If, for instance, a man is devoid of taste, he has ample food to supply his own spiritual need in the word and sacraments which are here administered, and in the simple language of our liturgy, and should not grudge to others the solemnising thoughts which art further creates, or music kindles in those who can appreciate them. But this is sometimes done on the strange plea that it is like the Church of Rome to use religious symbols, and to have an imposing service.
What does this mean? Are we to resign the heritage which has come down to us from apostolic times because a high ceremonial happens also to be used by an erring Church? Because she has overlaid the truth with superstition are we to denude ourselves little by little of every fraction of that truth? Shall we, members of a pure apostolic Church, lay bare our walls, deface our altars, and impoverish our Churches through cowardly fear, or insane fanaticism?
I grieve, my Brethren, to be obliged to speak in this strain, but recent occurrences compel me. The outcry against the memorial upon our chancel wall--though confined, I believe, to a few persons--is yet of sufficient importance to be noticed. It is my duty to uphold the usage of the Church. I should be unworthy of my position if I shrank from doing so. A clergyman may neither sanction or forbid the erection of any memorial but on the ground of that usage. It is simply emblematic of those vital truths which are dear to us all.
I do not, indeed, know how it would be possible to satisfy those who cannot endure the sight of a cross; but I would seriously ask them, does the very sight of that symbol offend you, which reminds us of Him who died for us, and of the cross which He bid us bear for His sake? To how many a precious thought has the sight of that symbol given birth! How many a wandering soul has been arrested by that sign! Can any good Christian deny to such, this little aid on the eternal road? All these things are means to an end. You write an epitaph for the living rather than for the dead. The storied windows around us are so many sermons. Think only what they may be to little children. You bring your little one to Church. Think you those windows are nothing to him? They rivet his imagination. They engage his thoughts. They become stamped upon his memory. When he looks, for instance, on the central figure of the east window, will he not imbibe loving thoughts of Him who "gathers the lambs in His arms and carries them in His bosom?" And not to children only do they speak. See where the Lord of life bids Lazarus come forth from the grave. We look, and are reminded of the Divine power of Christ; but does it speak to us of nothing more? Has the sight of that pale, shrouded figure never moved us? Does it not, with a thrilling eloquence beyond the power of words, proclaim the Resurrection, and the awful issue for weal or woe of that moment when we, too, shall step out of our graves?
A step farther and what see we? Gethsemane. The Son of God in an agony of prayer, and an angel strengthening Him. Could sermon be more forcible? Does that bended form never reproach us for our lounging, listless attitude when we profess to pray?
Look again at the other side. Where is the father with his little daughter at the point of death? Will not such a scene as is depicted there touch his heart and bring him comfort, recalling the words, "She is not dead but sleepeth." And so I might go on. Each window around us which love has reared and piety dedicated to God bears its lesson. Not to mention others, I might point to a whole series of windows, monuments of the love and piety of one member of this congregation, in which each separate window tells its story, and preaches to the eye of faith some portion of the gospel.
Full many a lesson has the eye thus learned, when the ear was deaf to the voice of the preacher. In the words of the Bishop of London, "Sometimes the sight of the altar, and the decent preparation for the service, may compose a wandering mind more than a sermon." The new memorial seeks to be nothing more than another monument to the glory of God, while it keeps before the eye of faith the eternal truths of the book of life. The Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. Christ crucified--the blessings of His passion radiating as the sun with healing on his wings. In what so glorious can art engage as in this august, and to lost mankind, most precious subject?
Alas, my Brethren, our ears are often dull of hearing--our hearts are often cold in prayer. If music kindles our devotion, may not the heart be sometimes reached through the imagination, when these sacred symbols are presented to the eye. Such, at any rate, has been the devout belief of the Christian Church from apostolic times. We must not confound things which have no relation to each other. Some there ever will be who fall into this error--for in every community there will be some persons of comparatively small enlightenment, and possessed of zeal without knowledge; but every instructed mind knows that the use of the symbol of the cross is a part of our Christian heritage. To confound this usage with the heresy of Rome is to weaken not to strengthen our Protestant ground. It will blind us to the real and fatal errors of that Church, against which it needs our most watchful and steadfast efforts to contend. Let us not fight as one that beateth the air, but, firm on our own apostolic ground, let us contend earnestly for the faith which was once delivered to the saints. Let us be united in grappling with the evil around us in winning souls to Christ. "The harvest is plenteous but the labourers are few." Let not our zeal expend itself on phantoms, but let it be directed into the right channel--that so, we may all work together in the unity of the spirit and in the bond of peace. Let all bitterness and wrath and anger and clamour and evil-speaking be put away from us with all malice--that, like David, "because of our affection to the House of our God." each added monument which piety rears to His honour may rejoice our hearts--while, like Him, we apprehend the great truth, that "the palace is not for man but for the Lord God."