Project Canterbury

Addresses to Candidates for Ordination
On the Questions in the Ordination Service

By Samuel Wilberforce
Lord Bishop of Oxford

Oxford and London: J.H. and Jas. Parker and F. and J. Rivington, 1860.

Address VI. Private Monitions and Exhortations to the Sick and to the Whole.

MY Brethren in Christ,--In my last Address I considered with you in some detail the former part of the question which it will be my duty to put to many of you to-morrow: "Will you be ready, with all faithful diligence, to banish and drive away all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's word; and to use both public and private monitions and exhortations, as well to the sick as to the whole, within your Cures, as need shall require, and occasion shall be given?"

To enable me to examine the question more thoroughly, I endeavoured to confine your thoughts to the one point of driving away erroneous and strange doctrines; seeking to shew you to what this engagement bound you, and how you were to fulfil your obligation. It is my desire to take up to-day the latter part of the question, and enter a little upon the momentous subject which it brings before us.

This is no other than the whole tenour of what, for distinction, may be called your more private pastoral labour. For though the question includes public monitions, yet we may for the present dismiss them as contained in that subject of preaching which a former enquiry led us to consider.

[102] To what, then, does this promise bind you: and how are you here to discharge your obligations?

A more important question cannot be put to you. For whilst your ministrations in the sanctuary or in the pulpit may be the more evident and conspicuous features of your pastoral work, yet its real character will depend quite as much upon that great mass of private exhortations, and upon those labours with separate souls, which the eye of the mere by-stander might very probably overlook, but in which your flock will feel, even more keenly than in your public services, your weakness or your strength.

For in very truth, on these does depend, under God's blessing, the power and fulness of your ministry. They are all important, alike for your people and for yourselves. For your people they are of the greatest moment for many reasons. Let me point out to you a very few of them.

First, then, without close private intercourse, without bringing your mind patiently to bear upon your flock with all the labour and minute application of individual detail, you will never make them understand you. It is one of the great results of education, that it renders our minds ready at once to follow out any idea presented to them into its consequences and correlatives: one chord is sounded and many others vibrate to it, one note is struck, and the ready ear takes up the whole imagined strain. But where education has been, as it too often has been in our parishes, sadly scanty and barren, the mind is very slow to follow out what it has learned into any remoter consequences. Hence, even where the actual sense of a part of one of our sermons has been [102/103] comprehended by our hearers, it by no means follows that they have understood our true meaning, because it will often happen that to comprehend that meaning-it is not enough to understand clearly one or more propositions, but that it is necessary to follow out into detail some thought or idea which, whilst it really pervaded the whole, was as a separate and direct proposition, merely or scarcely hinted at, and which by such a hint is not brought distinctly before the minds of half-educated listeners. Yet if they do not understand us, whence are they to learn the doctrines of our holy faith? That they must have many difficulties in receiving and holding these doctrines simply is but too certain. The history of all heresies makes it plain. For what are heresies but the errors which the mind of fallen man is naturally disposed to substitute for the truth of God reduced to form and system. Now the mere general impression towards good produced on uneducated minds by even an earnest and affectionate sermon, understood only in parts, is no safeguard against these errors. And so it is manifest that our people do often become the prey of schismatical and evil teachers, because, whilst we have perhaps kindled their feelings, we have not trained them to understand God's truth. It must be by conversation with them; by putting the truth before them with the briefness of statement, the reiteration, the plainness, and the meetness for their peculiar errors, which are only possible in conversation; it must be by catechizing child after child, and talking privately with adult after adult, that we can alone make them understand our statements.

Again, it is by intercourse of this kind that we must [103/104] gain and keep our hold on their affections. There must be a certain air of dogmatism and superiority about our pulpit addresses which requires to be softened and relieved by the kindness of private intercourse. If we would really have a hold on their affections, they must have seen us in their families, heard us by the sick-bed, felt individually that we do care for their bodies, and so learned to believe that we do really care for their souls, before they can give us that attention of love which opens the heart to our words.

And then, once more, it is of the greatest moment that we thus follow out our instruction into the minute details of their daily duties, needs, and temptations, that they may feel the practical reality of our exhortations.

The tendency to lead at once two lives, wholly distinct from each other, is almost universal. It will affect numbers of our flocks. They will be disposed to be religious up to a certain point in their feelings; to say their prayers, to come to church, perhaps occasionally to attend the Holy Communion, but they will be sorely tempted not to apply what they hear to the government of their daily lives, or to connect these occasional acts and feelings with their ordinary conduct. Nay, even beyond this, they will be tempted to substitute these religious feelings and this religious knowledge for prompt and hearty obedience in the detailed trials of daily life. Now nothing will, under God's blessing, more help us to lead them to make practical that which they thus feel than our carrying out the more general instruction of the pulpit into the closer and more distinctly applied lessons of personal ministerial converse.

But if this minuteness and detail of individual [104/105] intercourse is needful for our people, it is little less essential to ourselves. As it is necessary to enable them to understand us, so it is necessary to make us understand them. Without this we shall never know what they do and what they do not comprehend. Very many clergymen live always upon this point in a sort of amiable dream; they speak, or they think they speak, very plainly in their sermons; their flocks exhibit no manifest symptoms of impatience or fatigue under their teaching;--for the forbearance with which our people listen to that which conveys scarcely an idea to them is really wonderful,--and they conclude that all which they have said has been pretty well understood; when if they were to converse closely with the greater number of their hearers, they would often find that scarcely a word of one of their best reasoned sermons had really found its way into their minds. Now what can be the result of such a state of things save delusion on our part and undispelled darkness on theirs. This false impression of their state can only make us at our ease in leaving them uninstructed. But they will remain unblessed. The physician will not heal his patients by dreaming of their convalescence whilst he is profoundly ignorant of their malady. It is only by knowing the real forms of their disease, and applying actively his remedies to meet it, that he can hope to work their cure. And the diseases of the soul are not less subtle, and do not more certainly elude the touch of such a general unreal handling, than do the grosser and more palpable forms of disorder which affect the body. "We never can hope to make our sermons thoroughly intelligible to our people unless we are in the habit of conversing with them, unless we sound them and try [105/106] them, and see how far we have reached their minds, and where we have failed. Such an examination would convey to some who have been used to contemplate their public efforts with not a little secret satisfaction many startling revelations as to the real effectiveness of their labours.

But we want this intercourse for another most important work also; we need it to enable us at all to reach the individual cases which come before us. It has been well said that he who having to fill vessels with long narrow necks full of water should, instead of taking them singly into his hand and pouring the liquid into them, satisfy himself by casting water promiscuously over them, would most surely lose his labour: and that not less certainly will he fail, who, having to deal with other men, contents himself with substituting for individual instruction the mere shedding over them the general shower of doctrine. But even this figure insufficiently expresses the truth; for the separate cases of distempered souls will require in manifold ways separate treatment: the proportions in which reproof, encouragement, restraint, and license must be administered will hardly be the same in any two cases. And the coarseness of an universal panacea will fail in the hand of the spiritual, as it docs in the hands of the ordinary empiric; only with a consequent amount of evil as much greater and more irretrievable as the interests of the soul are vaster, more precious, and more enduring than those of the body.

We lose, moreover, when we neglect this constant private intercourse with our people, the great advantage of being able to turn to their spiritual profit the events [106/107] of their daily life. Just as the careful cultivator of the soil watches his times for more successful labour, and lets no change of atmosphere or sunshine pass by unimproved, but gains a more abundant produce from this day's heat and that day's showers, because a ready diligence turned both to an immediate purpose; so is it in our spiritual husbandry. A fit of sickness, or the restoration of health, or some other passing incident opens to us some door through which we never should have passed, and some heart which we never should have reached, had we not beforehand been watching for such a time to arrive, and so been prompt to use it when it came. All the turns of their lives become thus openings for good to the hand of a skilful and loving diligence, which watches over our people as having to give an account of them. The afflictions and the joys which wait on their family career, the sickness of a child, an unexpected recovery, an unlooked-for success,--these and many more such opportunities present to us living hearts in that state of softness which makes it possible for us to strike with effect for God and for themselves, and, through His grace, to stamp an impress which they never otherwise would have received, and which will now be deeply imprinted on them.

Nor is it only on account of the power it gives us of understanding and dealing with our people that this closeness of intercourse with them is thus important. It is most needful also for maintaining in our own minds the habits and temper which are essential for success in our work. Without it we cannot keep alive true reality of feeling towards them. God has so constituted us that we must touch others closely in their particular wants, and [107/108] trials, and sorrows, and joys, if we would really sympathize with them. We must stand in this personal relation to them, and enter into their individual difficulties, before we can feel for and with them. When, therefore, we suffer ourselves to be mere addressers of a congregation from the pulpit, instead of dealing with our people in detail, we are almost sure to become unreal. We grow to substitute that play upon our own feelings which we practise when we speak to numbers, for the reality of Christian sympathy. All the deep lessons which come from bearing other men's burdens are lost to us. The manifold instruction which pours into us as we patiently watch by sick-beds, and grapple closely with sick consciences, and bind up as with our own hands the soul's wounds, and pour into the stricken heart the balm of Christ's Gospel, all this store of instruction is withheld from us. We grow accustomed to throw our own spirit into the attitude of general compassion and sympathy, without really compassionating, or bearing really the smart of sympathy; and so we become soft, sickly, effeminate declaimers about feelings we do not know, and efforts we are too selfish to make. And this lack of reality of feeling grievously injures our own souls, and marvellously weakens our ministry. It is indeed a great and blessed discipline for the affections and instruction for the ignorance of our own souls, which God provides for us when He makes us His ministers of healing amongst our sick and wounded, and poor and distressed brethren; and if we shrink from this, when His providence has made it our special vocation, it cannot fail but that we shall suffer grievously for our omission. For this is closely connected with a sinful lack of self-denial, and a sinful yielding to [108/109] self-indulgence. The attention to individuals of which I speak, the readiness to suffer with them, the patient bearing with dulness, and apathy, and caprice; the gentleness of handling, the unnoticed struggles with heaviness or shyness; the sacrifice of gratifying freely a taste for literature, or exercise, or any other pursuits which would draw us aside from our chief purpose; the reverence for humanity, as that which Christ has redeemed, even in its weakest, or dullest, or most unprepossessing instances, because they are our charge, our charge committed to us by Christ, Who died for us--all this cannot be attained without many struggles with the habit of self-pleasing, and much growth in the difficult and trusty grace of self-denial. And without this our ministry must be weak, as with it, of God's goodness, it will assuredly be strong.

If such, then, be the great importance of this part of our ministerial work, let me give you a few practical hints as to its successful discharge.

And first, let me say, make up your minds for difficulties in this work. In truth, easy as the work of ministerial intercourse looks at a distance, there is no harder part of his duty to a pastor who sets himself with real earnestness to its discharge. Good Archbishop Leigh ton's dread lest when he visited he should make either a blank or a blot is the fear which must have continually presented itself to every mind practically acquainted with the subject. Be assured, then, that you will meet with these difficulties, that their unlooked for presence may not startle or alarm you. For so it has been with not a few, who say they have no gift for visiting their people profitably, because they find these [109/110] difficulties and shrink from them as being peculiar to themselves, instead of seeing that they are inherent in the work. Again, be assured of the existence of these difficulties, in order that facing them boldly, instead of slipping aside from them, you may know how to deal with them and overcome them. For they are of many kinds, arising from our own temptations and characters, and the characters and temptations of our flocks. As, for instance, we shall be too ready to substitute ordinary kindly intercourse with them for any true pastoral handling of our people; whilst our people will, in too many cases, welcome such a falling short of our duty. Many are very ready to substitute a friendly intercourse with their clergyman, especially if it takes a religious turn, for being truly and personally religious men. It is to them in the nature of a set-off for some evil, or careless, or spiritually negligent practices. Thus, if we are content that the exchange of a few religious phrases, or kind words, or courteous greetings, shall count as ministerial intercourse, they will be ready and forward so to let it be. But if we resolve to come closer to them, to grapple with them, to bring home conviction to their consciences, to find them out in their hiding places with a "Thou art the man," they will seek by every stratagem of natural artifice to avoid our really reaching them. And now, instead of the pleasantness of a general mutual friendliness, our intercourse with them will require for its due maintenance the exercise of all those great graces which combine at once faithfulness and tenderness, boldness and patience, truth and love. And here at every turn we shall be met by new difficulties, which can be resisted only in the [110/111] strength of God's grace. For if we will not be content to speak with a kindly interest of merely common matters to those we visit, they will seem, it may be, to yield to us, whilst they contrive to keep all our conversation to the more general topics of religion; or, it may be, they will perpetually wander to the character of others; or will directly apply to us to read some few verses, with exposition and prayer, as a seemly religious service, under cover of which they may escape. So many are the artifices of the uneasy but unawakened conscience; so firmly, whilst yet with all tenderness, must it be dealt with.

Nor are these difficulties found in the case of those only who are distinctly irreligious. So far from it, when the conscience is really stirred, even when it is almost ready to yield, the man will often redouble his efforts to escape full conviction. The first feeling of the hook makes his struggles the more desperate, and there is often in ourselves a strange readiness to help him to escape, and a nervous dread of what may follow; so that by a sort of unacknowledged compact the weak points of the character are suffered to pass by us unnoticed in mere generalities, and the great result of full awakening is lost.

All these are indeed difficulties; but they are difficulties we must surmount if we would discharge aright our duty. For that the Church does consider this as our duty, will, I think, be manifest at once to any one who will compare this question, as it is addressed to those who seek to be ordained Priests, with the declaration of the special duty of the Deacon in this matter. For his duty is limited to the "searching for the sick, [111/112] poor, and impotent people of the parish, that he may intimate their estates, names, and places where they dwell unto the Curate;" whereas the question we are now considering points clearly to the far higher function of acting as an awakener of dull, and guide of stricken, consciences. Here, then, we touch the difficult and anxious subject of the spiritual direction of others, involving the due use of private confession; and as to these we must have some clear view if we would have our visitation of our people conducted on a fixed plan.

Now as to this important subject it is plain, 1st, that our Church never designed that the ministers of God's Word and Sacraments should abdicate that which is amongst the most important functions of their office, the dealing as ministers of God with the consciences of men. Yet on the other hand it is equally clear that there is a broad distinction between her intention herein and that of the Church of Rome. Can, then, this difference be referred to any guiding principle of action? It seems to me that it may, and that we may find the difference here. The object of the Roman Communion and of our own is widely different, and this difference at once affects our several practice. The object of the Roman Church is to bring the conscience under the power of the priest, to make him the judge to whose sentence it should absolutely defer. The object of our own Church is so to awaken, enlighten, and strengthen the conscience, that with the aid of Holy Scripture and the ordinary public ministrations of God's word, it may rightly guide the individual soul.

With these different objects in view, there is between [112/113] the two systems far more than a mere difference in degree. Every part of the priest's private ministrations with consciences is affected by it. The one is always seeking to subdue, the other to emancipate, the individual conscience. And this difference of object has by degrees greatly affected the statement of doctrine as well as the administration of discipline in the two Communions.

Thus it is not merely that private confession is enjoined upon all in the Roman Communion, and only permitted in certain exceptional cases in ours, but that the spiritual aspect of the same act assumes a wholly different character in the two communions. The teaching of the Church of Rome is, that confession to a priest is a direct sacramental ordinance of the Church of Christ; and, that to be duly practised, it must be secret and complete, numbering all remembered sins. So made, it is to be followed by private absolution, which, as it is held, conveys a special pardon for the sins so remembered and confessed; and then, consistently with this system of confession, she recommends that every soul should be permanently under the direction of some priest; that this spiritual director should habitually guide those who consult him; that the conscience should be committed to his keeping: this is, in their view, the result to be aimed at; it is the best state of spiritual health when most regularly and systematically the conscience lays down all its burden in confession before the minister of God as a direct act of spiritual submission, and receives most humbly and obeys most implicitly his directions for all its conduct. It is not difficult to see what must be the effect of such a system. It will lead to many [113/114] great evils, and amongst them these. When confession to man is thus enforced, or even encouraged as a duty, instead of being allowed as a last permission, to which under certain peculiar circumstances, and as an extreme remedy, the stricken soul, unable to reassure itself, may have recourse, it will with many be used dishonestly. The habit of withholding the real and deepest sins of the soul, consistently with getting through confession, will soon be formed. On the other hand, those who strive to confess all will assuredly be led to weaken the spring of conscience by devolving that determination of what is right, which is its own solemn responsibility, to be discharged under the eye of God and by the light of His Word, to the decision of another for it. The confessor will take the place, first, of Christ, as the receiver of all the secrets of our guilt, and shame, and weakness, and then of the conscience as the judge, arbiter, and director of our lives.

Now in opposition to this system, the Church of England, in exact conformity, as we maintain, with the Word of God, and the teaching and the practice of the primitive Church, allows private confession instead of enforcing it, and recommends it only under certain prescribed circumstances and conditions, as a means of restoring health to a sick conscience, instead of treating the habit of confessing as the state of health. She treats it as wise men treat medical aids, as blessed means of renovation, stored by God's mercy for their need in times of sickness, but still as not meant for, and not wholly compatible with, a settled habit of strong health. And this difference of view is founded upon a great doctrinal difference as to the place which confession occupies in the new [114/115] kingdom of Christ. The Church of England does not treat it as a separate ordinance of Christ, endowed with a special sacramental grace of its own; but she regards it as a permitted "opening of grief," as a "lightening" of a "burden," as in no way bringing any special pardon or absolution to the penitent over and above that which he might equally obtain by general confession to Almighty God, and public absolution in the congregation, but only as a spiritual confidence which might be entrusted to any brother Christian, but which it is most natural and best to commit to the Physician of souls, as having more experience of such cases, and as being specially provided by God with grace for their treatment and relief.

This, then, is what we should bear in mind in this delicate part of our office. We must seek to awaken a slumbering conscience, to heal one which is wounded. If we see it possessed by apathy, we must use all our strength to rouse it; if we think that we perceive it to be burdened with some secret load, we must strive to win it to hearty confession to God. If it be earnestly desired, we must ourselves receive, as God's ministers, the spiritual confidence of the burdened soul; but we must do all this with the distinct aim of restoring the conscience to that healthier action in which it shall be able to guide the soul which God has, with the gift of individual personality, committed to its watchfulness and keeping.

At any time these and other difficulties may suddenly meet you in your private ministrations to the sick and whole. Surely such a work must test all your powers. In this arduous and momentous part of your duties you [115/116] will, I think, find some aid from a few strictly practical rules which I will further suggest to you.

Conduct your pastoral visits on a plan. Do not leave them to mere accident; map out your parish, and let every part of it come, within a certain time, in regular course under your eye. It will still further aid you in this if you will keep a regular list of your visits, and review them at fixed intervals; once a week, for instance, or once a month, as you find most convenient. Yet whilst you have a plan do not make yourself a slave to it. You may by this means distract and weaken efforts which gain a great part of their effect by concentration. Thus, for instance, it is far better thoroughly to follow out one case, and then take up another, than to be imperfectly handling two at once. Much, in such circumstances, is to be done by reiteration. Never, therefore, intermit your efforts in any instance till you have really tried to bring it to a full conclusion. If you fail to do so, leave it wholly for a while. Make your absence felt. This seems to be acting upon our Lord's rule of turning from the city which rejects your witness to another.

Again, prepare for your visits. Prepare for them, by frequently weighing the characters you have to deal with, and the objects you really propose to yourself, so that you may have the case before you in all its bearings; and then further prepare, by settling before each visit what point you will try to make good in that visit. Have a definite aim. Determine to do something each time: to bring home the sense of some sin, to lodge in the mind some one truth, to make some promise of good felt, to enlighten some dark place of the heart. [116/117] Visiting our people with such definite aims adds a marvellous power to our ministerial intercourse with them.

Again, before your visits prepare yourself for them by secret prayer. Bring the cases of those you are about to visit before God. Seek for light, seek for strength, seek for faithfulness, seek for love enough to deal with them. It is marvellous how often the most difficult cases will unravel all their intricacies when you thus spread them before the Lord in prayer. And then in all your visiting, set before yourself this great object, to bring your people indeed to Christ. Be content with nothing short of making them feel their sinfulness and utter loss without Him, and so of turning to Him with all their hearts. Evermore seek to raise Him before the eyes of men, to lift up His Cross, to bring them under His hands for healing. Never be content with getting them to welcome you, or to adopt your opinions, or to give a general assent to the Gospel scheme, or to mend merely their outward life, but aim at making-them the true, loving, trusting, followers of Christ, at leading each one for himself, as a separate soul, to seek for pardon, reconciliation, life, peace, and joy from Him, and then in return to give up all to Him.

All this, no doubt, is laborious; but it will abundantly repay your labours; not only will such a ministry give you the hearts of those to whom you minister in a way nothing else can do, but it will re-act on all the other parts of your ministry. It will give life to your prayers, closeness and reality to your sermons, quickness to your sympathy, strength and definiteness to your warnings. It will, above all, if it is conducted thus laboriously from a simple love to Christ, with a single [117/118] eye to His glory, and in full reliance upon Him, be a ministry the Lord will bless. In unknown and even unexpected ways He will manifest His presence with you, and you will have that greatest joy which here can be bestowed upon the faithful pastor, you will see that your labour is not in vain in the Lord, you will find in your own experience that there is an abundant blessing in resting simply on that rule of holy service, "In the morning sow thy seed, and in the evening withhold not thy hand, for thou knowest not whether shall prosper, either this or that, or whether they both shall be alike good." [Eccles. xi. 6.]

Project Canterbury