Project Canterbury

A Sermon on the Neglect and Apathy of the Public
in the Psalmody and Responses in the Church Services

Preached at Portman Chapel, Baker Street, and All Soul's Church, Langham Place.

by the Rev. W. Bennett, M.A.

London: John Ollivier, 59, Pall Mall, 1841.

"They lifted up their voice with the trumpets, and cymbals, and instruments of music, and praised the Lord, saying, For he is good--for his mercy endureth for ever."--2 Chron. v. 13.

WHEN Solomon consecrated to God the great Temple of Jerusalem, so celebrated in the Jewish history,--one of the main features of its dedication was the singing of praises and psalms of thanksgiving to Jehovah. We have a long and minute description, in the Book of Chronicles, of the different parts of the sacred building, its various ornaments and decorations, and then the manner of bringing up the ark, and the tabernacle, and all the holy vessels; and then we have the following account of the singing of Psalms: "Also the Levites which were the singers, with their sons and their brethren, being arrayed in white linen, having cymbals and psalteries and harps, stood at the east end of the altar, and with them an hundred and twenty priests, sounding with trumpets. And it came to pass as the trumpets and singers were as one, to make one sound to be heard in praising and thanking the Lord--they lifted up their voice with the trumpets and cymbals and instruments of music, and praised the Lord, saying; For he is good, for his mercy endureth for ever." So also David at the bringing up of the ark, many years before the building of the Temple, in a similar manner made an especial appointment of singers to celebrate the praises of God in the congregation. "And David spake to the chief of the Levites to appoint their brethren to be the singers, with instruments of music, psalteries and harps, and cymbals, sounding and lifting up the voice with joy." (1 Chron. xv. 16.) There are also many other passages which sufficiently shew, that the singing of psalms and anthems to God formed a very considerable portion of the worship of the Jewish Church. .When we come to Christian times,--as the early Christians very mainly followed the Jewish ceremonies in their worship, so they particularly followed them in this observance. In the celebration of the Lord's Supper, as detailed in St. Matthew, after partaking of the bread and cup, the Evangelist relates, as if it were a matter of common custom among the Christians, "When they had sung an hymn they went out into the Mount of Olives." (Matt. xxvi. 30.) So again, Paul and Silas, when imprisoned at Philippi, occupied themselves in this exhilarating devotion. "And at midnight," says St. Luke, "Paul and Silas prayed and sang praises unto God." (Acts xvi. 25.) And we have also many well-known injunctions in the Epistles. In the Epistle to the Ephesians, "Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord." (Eph. v. 19.) And, further, in that to the Colossians, ''Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom, teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord." (Col. iii. 16.)

Now, my brethren, I wish to apply these general observations more particularly; because I conceive that there is no greater defect in the general method in which our public service is carried on, than the coldness and apathy of the congregations who assemble in our Established Churches.

No sooner were we relieved from the superstitious idolatry of the Romish Church by the labours of our great Reformers, than an adverse party arose to deface the goodly work. The Puritans, making religion a stepping-stone for political ambition, cast over the whole face of public worship a spirit of frantic and hypocritical fanaticism,--from this again diverging, in the reign of Charles II., into an opposite extreme,--excessive negligence and laxity in regard to every thing religious; the worship of God was almost abandoned, and every thing that savoured of a form of external devotion, was attributed to puritanical hypocrisy. Since that period, the people of England (especially the higher classes) have ever displayed an excessive dread of anything approaching the confines of enthusiastic display,--have seemed to make it their study, as a mark of refinement, to carry with them a cold and formal bearing in every thing they do. To display any feeling, any sensitiveness to the warm aspirations .of religious love, is not considered correct or agreeable to the conventional terms of good society. And thus the character of Englishmen in religion as well as other things, is cold, cautious, and phlegmatic. From fear of one extreme--fanaticism, and "zeal without knowledge,"--they have run into the other extreme, coldness, inattention, and a total want of that spiritual fire and devotion of the heart, without which all worship of God is mere mockery.

Before, however, we approach the musical part of our service, I would desire to say a few words upon those points which are in some sort connected with it, as duties devolving upon the congregation in general.

The whole spirit of our Liturgy hears, unquestionably, the appearance of a people worshipping God. It is not the minister alone, but it is the congregation jointly with him. They are to take their turn, both in the Prayers and in the Psalms; and so far does this spirit extend itself, that even in the Lessons it is in some churches customary for a layman--one of the congregation--to stand up and read the appointed chapter for the day. (In the Colleges of the Universities, this practice is very common.) But in the Psalms particularly, which were originally sung, (and which are now sung, or chanted in cathedrals,) there is a special alternation of the verses--the minister reading one, the people the other. Also in the versicles which occur in many parts of the Liturgy, the minister reads the first, the people reply in the other. The custom of repeating the Psalms alternately is extremely ancient. St. Basil, one of the Fathers of the Church, says, that "the people rising before it was light, went to the house of prayer, and there, in great agony of soul, made confession of their sins to God; and then, rising from their prayers, proceeded to singing of psalms, dividing themselves into two parts, and singing by turns. Thus our cathedral service divides the choir into two sides, and each sings or chants a verse alternately, as it were, provoking and relieving each other's devotion ." (Wheatley, on the Common Prayer, p. 129.) And from this, no doubt, our parochial or common service takes its custom, of the minister reading one verse, and the people the other.

This, then, being the theory of our service--namely, that the people, or congregation, are to take a considerable portion of it as their share--how comes it, in the practice, so lamentably neglected, that the beauty (as far as theory goes) of a whole congregation joining with one voice, to praise the great Creator, should so lamentably fall short in the stillness and silence of our church worship. For instance, in the prayers, the Rubric directs that the people should say "Amen," thereby denoting their assent and co-operation in the prayer offered by the minister. But how few of the congregation repeat the Amen. The clerk answers; but the Rubric does not direct the clerk to answer; but the people. Again, the Rubric directs that the Lord's Prayer, the Creed, the Confession, and some others,--but those in particular,--should be distinctly repeated by the congregation. The clerk does so, and the children of the school accompany him; but where are the voices of the people? See what the Rubric directs at the first occurrence of the Lord's Prayer:--"Then the minister shall kneel, and say the Lord's Prayer with an audible voice; the people also kneeling, and repeating it with him, both here and wheresoever else it may occur in divine service." Again, the Rubric directs, in all the versicles, that the people are to answer; and the whole spirit and meaning of the service is lost, if they do not answer. When the minister says, "O Lord, open thou our lips;" what is the sense of the reply, "And our mouth shall show forth thy praise"--if no mouth is opened to record that praise? Again, the priest says, when about to commence the Psalms, "Praise ye the Lord;" but to what end is that exhortation, and to what end is the reply--"The Lord's name be praised," except the congregation join, and take part in that praise? Again, in the Morning Service, the commencement of the 95th Psalm, "O come, let us sing unto the Lord, let us heartily rejoice in the strength of our salvation;" to what end is that invitation--to what end are the stirring and exulting words of the Royal David thus used, if the psalms that follow are to be pronounced by the solitary voices of minister and clerk? Have we lack of devotion? Have we lack of feeling? Have we so few sins to be forgiven, that we should refuse, when the priest, in the name of all, cries aloud to God, "But thou, O Lord, have mercy upon us, miserable offenders; spare thou them, O God, which confess their faults"--that we should refuse to let that confession be heard? Have we so few, and such unimportant articles of faith, that when the priest says, "I believe," the people should be ashamed to let God hear what they believe? Have we so few, and such slender temptations to forget God's moral law, that when the priest reads aloud the Ten Commandments from God's altar, the people stand in no need to say, " Lord, have mercy upon us, and incline our hearts to keep this law?" Have we so few, and such ordinary blessings, as Englishmen, as individuals, and, above all, as Christians, to be thankful for, that we should refuse our "Amen" to the words of the minister, giving "humble and hearty thanks to God, for his goodness and loving kindness to us, and to all men?" Is the "strength of our salvation" so weak that it can call forth no responsive note from our voices--our hearts so dull and dead that the remembrance of God's mercy, in the creation, preservation of our lives, and the redemption of our souls by Jesus Christ, should carry with it no stimulus to pour forth, with audible voice, the praises of our God?--My brethren, coldness on the part of a congregation is sure to beget, coldness on the part of the minister, and thus the evil works upon itself. It is one of the objections against a composed form of Liturgy, that the prayers are, from frequent repetition, hackneyed, and worn; and that they are read as a lesson, rather than prayed as a petition to God. But the reason is just this, that in our churches the congregation will not do its fair proportion of the work. What can be more sublime, more lofty, more inspiring, than the beautiful prayers of our Church Service? But their beauty and their propriety is gone unless the people take their share. The devotion of the priest, however zealous in himself, is deadened when he perceives the voices and the hearts of the people far away from God. Both must go together; each must stimulate the other. Our business (and it is a great and noble business) is to worship and praise God; and it must not be done with silent lips,--with inattentive minds. "The words of our mouth," as well as the "meditations of our heart," must be made, through Jesus Christ, acceptable to God; and they cannot be so, unless when the priest addresses the people, "The Lord be with you," the people audibly and heartily answer to the priest, "And with thy spirit."

But now let us consider that part of the subject to which the words of the text more specifically alludes, namely, the singing of the Psalms as set to metre, and accompanied with musical instruments. As to the Jewish Church we have only to refer to the passages already quoted; but one more may be added for the sake of that particular musical instrument now generally in use. In the 149th and 150th Psalms, David calls upon the people to prepare their timbrels, harps, trumpets, cymbals: and he says, "Praise him with the timbrel and dance; praise him with stringed instruments and ORGANS." (Psl cl. 4. Bible Translation. In the Prayer book the word organ is translated by Pipe, but the same thing is evidently intended--an instrument with pipes as opposed to strings.)

As to the Christian Church, we cannot have a better reference than Hooker. In his Ecclesiastical Polity, he thus defends this ancient practice. (Hooker's Eccl. Pol. Bk. v. 38.) "Touching musical harmony, whether by instrument or by voice, such is the force thereof, and so pleasing effects it hath. It is a thing which beseemeth all ages, and delighteth all states--a thing as seasonable in grief as in joy"--"The prophet David, therefore, having singular knowledge, not in poetry alone, but in music also, judged them both to be things most necessary for the house of God, and left behind him to that purpose a number of divinely indited poems, and was further the author of adding unto poetry, melody in public prayer, melody both vocal and instrumental, for the raising up of men's hearts, and the sweetening of their affections towards God; in which considerations, the Church of Christ doth at this present day retain it as an ornament to God's service, and a help to our devotions." And St. Basil thus writes (a singularly beautiful passage,) "Whereas, the Holy Spirit saw that mankind is unto virtue with difficulty drawn, it pleased the wisdom of the same Spirit to borrow from melody that pleasure, which mingled with heavenly mysteries, causeth the smoothness and softness of that which toucheth the ear, to convey as it were by stealth, the treasure of good things into man's mind. To this purpose were those harmonious tunes devised for us, that they which either in years are but young, or touching perfection of virtue, are not yet grown to ripeness, might, when they think they merely sing, be in reality learning the great truths of salvation. And the wise conceit of that heavenly Teacher which hath by his skill devised a way that doing those things wherein we delight, we may also learn that whereby we profit." (St. Basil on the Psalms, quoted by Hooker, Ecc. Pol. v. 38.)

Now, in comparing ourselves with others, we shall find that the Roman Catholic Church adopt into their form of worship a greater variety, and a greater extent of music than we do. They excel, thereby, as they do in all their ceremonies (which aim at the heart through the medium of the senses), in arousing and stimulating the cold hearts of men to more exalted feelings of devotion; but then, in their case, it is carried too far. It becomes a theatrical display, and public singers are hired for the sake of attracting crowds by their name--for curiosity and ostentation of art--rather than for the sole glory of God, The Church of Scotland, again, err in the other extreme. They sing, but it is generally the solitary voice of the precentor, without any embellishment of music, and without any unity of voice on the part of the congregation. But we standing between the theatrical display of the Roman Catholic Church, and the cold solitude of the Scotch Church, (at least as far as theory goes), do on the one hand use musical instruments, yet on the other confine ourselves within certain limits of voice and music--enabling the congregation to take part in the sacred song of thanksgiving and praise without endangering the devotion--which, of course, ought to be the main, nay, the sole object of all singing. For this reason it is, that ever since schools have been established among us, one of our duties is to train the children in the practice of singing, and by this means we ensure a certain number of voices when we sing our praises to God. But how utterly inefficient the voices of some ten or twenty children suitably to represent the hallelujahs of several hundreds! how little to be compared with the effect and the sublime devotion of every one of those hundreds, each individually joining in the Psalms!

Again, comparing ourselves with Dissenting congregations, how infinitely we of the Established Church are surpassed. We hear, sometimes without organ or any accompanying music, the joint voices of the assembled multitude singing loud anthems to God. You may often stand and listen in the street to the out-pouring of this mass of human voices; and your hearts must surely be stirred within you for shame, at the coldness and apathy which we of the Church so constantly display. Though we have music--though the writers of our Church Services are considered on all hands to be the greatest masters of their art--though we select our Psalm tunes from the simplest melodies, and such as the least trained in musical science may easily accompany--still (particularly in those churches where the higher classes more generally abound,) you see the congregation, psalm after psalm, standing up with perfect indifference--not condescending, perhaps, to pronounce aloud one syllable of the psalm--not even searching for it in the book--but esteeming it as a part of the duty, in which they have no more concern than preaching the sermon, or administering the sacrament. The clerk calls the attention of the congregation; he invites them to sing--"Let us sing to the praise and glory of God," which invitation is responded to by no one except the few children of the school especially trained for the purpose. But what a mockery is this in God's presence! Where are our hearts? Where is our devotion? There may be some who have not the power to sing aloud--others with great desire to sing, but wanting the courage to commence, and desiring not to be made conspicuous; but what a service would they do if they would master these feelings--if they would remember whose cause it is that they will serve--if they would but exert themselves (having the power) to lead the less experienced part of the congregation, and at once break through that icy coldness and indifference with which we generally in the Church of England stand up to sing God's praise. It is in vain that the Clergy attempt anything, unless they gain the concurrence of the congregation. It is the united voice of the people that God loves. It is not the voices of the few to gratify the many, but it is the joined sympathy of the whole, for the glory of ONE. It is His praise that we require, and His praise only that we ought to sing; and thinking not of men, or man's opinion, but lifting up our voices in the sacred devotion of a pure Christian spirit, calm and reasonable, yet exalted and enlivened? by the joyful duty. It is the glory of the Almighty that we sing, through his only beloved Son, Jesus, Christ our Lord.

There is one more argument--one which affects the subject, not only in regard to our acts of prayer and praise, but also the preaching of God's word.

If one man is invested by authority to instruct others--if there is appointed by God's law, a Pastor, a Shepherd for the sheep:--if he is put in charge with so solemn and responsible a duty as to preach the Gospel of Jesus Christ to his brethren--to men equal, or, perhaps, superior to himself in learning, and worldly acquirements--must he not look with fear, standing by himself, and trusting to himself to the execution of this most arduous duty? Must he not stand in need of all the aids and helps, the props and defences which human nature in its weakness, so universally requires?

First, of course, he must look to the grace of the Holy Spirit to strengthen him but he may also look for encouragement, he may naturally trust for sympathy in those to whom he is sent. If he finds his congregation cold and formal, worshipping God as a mere worldly custom, and not with the heart, not "in spirit and in truth"--must he not--is it not in the nature of things, that he should himself become cold and formal; that he should himself participate in the general feeling which predominates around him--and so the word of God become of none effect--become a spiritless, lifeless skeleton, without energy, without love, without the flesh and sinews of vitality? Often and often cast down by worldly feelings, wearied, perhaps, by the toils and labours of the week, naturally abashed at the presence of the congregated people, trembling under the heavy load of responsibility which he bears as God's ambassador---the Minister ascends the pulpit to preach the word--but if haply he should find warm and devotional hearts all ready to receive him, if he mounts the steps with the voices of the congregation sounding in glad melody around him--as he beholds in them the true fire of religion already kindled at God's altar--as he perceives that they have not come there as to a worldly business, but have their salvation at heart; that they have not come there as to an ordinary and irksome duty, but with joy, and love, and faith:--then is his soul also carried onwards, and with the voices of the congregation, all the infirmity of his nature melts away, with the Spirit of God he preaches, with the Spirit of God they listen, and thus all harmonizes, all mutually assists, all is done--not with any absurd enthusiasm, or extravagant fancy--but all is done with fervour and zeal--all is done to the quickening of the souls in things eternal--all is done to the praise and glory of Almighty God, and his Son Jesus Christ. "--And if the Prophet did think that the very meeting of men together, and their accompanying one another to the House of God, should make the bond of their love insoluble.--How much more may we judge it reasonable to hope that the like effects may grow in the people towards each other, in them towards their Pastor, and in their Pastor towards them, between whom there daily and interchangeably pass in the hearing of God himself, and in the presence of his holy angels, so many heavenly acclamations, exultations, petitions, songs of comfort, psalms of praise and thanksgiving." (Hooker, Eccl. Pol. v. 29.)

When Moses had escaped the pursuing armies of Pharaoh, "Miriam, the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand, and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances, and Miriam answered them--Sing ye to the Lord, for he hath triumphed gloriously, the horse and his rider hath he thrown into the sea." (Exod. xv. 20.) But we, my brethren, have a far greater deliverance to be thankful for--a far greater enemy hath been thrown into the sea by the advent of Jesus Christ. When David set up the ark, he also brought his instruments of music, and the people sang unto the Lord, "lifting up their voice with joy." (1 Chron. xv. 16.) But, for us, God hath set up a far greater ark than that. The ark of David's time, contained no more than the commandments of the Law, but our Ark, namely, the written will of the Almighty, contains the Gospel of his blessed Son. Shall we then set it up in our hearts with silent and careless voices, with hearts dull, worldly and cold? Again, Solomon in the text built up his temple to Jehovah, and a noble and glorious temple it was. He "gathered the people together with trumpets and cymbals, and they praised the Lord, saying, For he is good, for his mercy endureth for ever."--But we have a far more glorious temple to look to than Solomon's, even "in all his glory." There was the precious corner-stone wanting in Solomon's temple, which in ours stands fast for ever.--Our temple is the living God--the person of Jesus Christ--He, who himself said, "Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up." (John ii. 19.) That temple we have ever before us in faith. His body broken on the cross; his precious blood-shedding poured forth in the passion of his mortal agony for man's salvation. That, my brethren, is the temple which, as Christians, we should ever be building, ever ornamenting with our fairest tribute of praise, ever consecrating with the hallelujahs of rejoicing lips, and the humble piety of a religious life. Shall we consecrate it with voices less devotional, less loud in the praise of God, less enlivened with spiritual fervour, than they to whom the light of the Gospel shined not, and the words of the Saviour were unknown?

Let Minister and people stimulate and encourage one another with mutual emulation and good will in. their devotions. Let each perform their several parts to the full extent of their ability--so that the service shall be no longer, the mere labour of one man for the idle and spiritless attendance of hundreds--but let those hundreds, together and equally with the one, render to God on his Holy Sabbath, the united services of a Christian people. Therefore, in the words of the Royal David, of him who so well appreciated the rapt and sublime poetry of religious devotion,--"Praise ye the Lord from the Heavens--Praise him in the height--Praise ye the Lord from the earth, ye dragons and all deeps--Mountains and hills, snow and vapours, stormy wind fulfilling his word. Kings of the earth and all people, princes, and all judges of the earth--young men and maidens, old men and children, praise the name of the Lord--Let every thing that hath breath--PRAISE THE LORD."

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