DIOCESE OF SODOR AND MAN.
Bishop's-Court, March 3, 1708.
MY DEAR BRETHREN,
I PERSUADE myself that you will take the following advice well from me, because, besides the authority God has given me, I have always encouraged you to give me your assistance to enable me to discharge my duty.
Every return of Lent (a time when people were wont either to call themselves or to be called to an account) should put us, above all men, upon examining and judging ourselves, because we are to answer for the faith and manners of others as well as for our own; and therefore this is a very proper season to take an account both of our flocks and of ourselves, which would make our great account less hazardous and dreadful.
Let me therefore entreat you at this time to do what I always have obliged myself to; namely, carefully to look over your ordination vows. It is very commendable to do this every Ember-week, but it would be unpardonable negligence not once a year to consider what we have bound ourselves to and taken the sacrament upon it.
In the first place therefore, if we were indeed moved by the Holy Ghost and truly called to the ministry of the Church, as we declared we were, this will appear in our conduct ever since. Let us then consider whether our great aim has been to promote the glory of God with which we were intrusted and the eternal interest of the souls committed to our charge, according to the vows that are upon us? If not, for God's sake let us put on resolutions of better obedience for the time to come.
The Holy Scriptures are the rule by which we and our people are to be judged at the last day; it is for this we solemnly promise to be diligent in reading, and to instruct our people out of the same Holy Scriptures. They do indeed sufficiently contain all doctrine necessary to eternal salvation (as we profess to believe) but then they must be carefully studied, often consulted, and the Holy Spirit often applied to for the true understanding of them; or else in vain is all our labour, and we are false to our vows.
Upon which heads it will behove us to consider how much we have neglected this necessary study;--how often we have contented ourselves with reading just so much as we were obliged to by the public offices of the Church;--how apt such as read not the Holy Scriptures are to run to other books for matter for their sermons, by which means they have been too often led to speak of errors and vices which did no way concern their hearers, or of things above their capacities;--and it has often appeared that they themselves have scarce been convinced of (and of course have not been heartily in love with) the truths which they have recommended to others; which is the true reason why their sermons may have done so little good.
But when a man is sensibly affected with the value of souls, with the danger they are in, with the manner of their redemption and the price paid for them; and is well acquainted with the New Testament, in which all this is plainly set forth; as he will never want matter for the best sermons, so he will never want argument sufficient to convince his hearers, his own heart being touched with the importance of the subject. Under this head we must not forget to charge ourselves with the neglect of catechising; for as it is one of the most necessary duties of the ministry, so it is bound upon us by laws, canons, rubrics and constitutions, enough to awaken the most careless among us to a more diligent discharge of this duty.
But though we should be never so diligent in these duties, if our conversation be not edifying, we shall only bring these ordinances into contempt; and therefore, when a priest is ordained, he promises, by God's help, to frame and fashion himself and family, so as to make both, as much as in him lieth, wholesome examples and patterns of the flock of Christ.
Under which head it will be fit to consider what offence we may have given by an unwary conversation, by criminal liberties, &c., that we may beg God's pardon and make some amends by a more strict behaviour for the future; that we may be examples to the flock, teaching them Sobriety, by our strict temperance; Charity, by our readiness to forgive; Devotion, by our ardent zeal in the offering up their prayers to God.
They that think all their work is done when the service of the Lord's day is over, do not remember that they have promised to use both public and private monitions, as well to the sick as to the whole, within their cures, as need shall require, and as occasion shall be given. Upon this head, let us look back and see how often we have forborne to reprove open offenders, either out of fear or from a sinful modesty, or for worldly respects:--considerations which should never come in competition with the honour of God, with which a clergyman stands charged.
Let us consider how few we have admonished privately; how few we have reclaimed; and how many, who are yet under the power of a sinful life, which we might have reclaimed by such admonitions!
Let us consider how many have been in affliction of mind, body or estate, without any benefit to their souls, for want of being made sensible of the hand and voice and design of God in such visitations! How many have recovered from the bed of sickness without becoming better men, only for want of being put in mind of the fears they were under and the thoughts they had and the promises they made, when they were in danger! Lastly, how many have lived and died in sin, without making their peace with God or satisfaction and restitution to man, for want of being forewarned of the account they were to give! A negligence which we cannot reflect upon without trembling.
It will here likewise be proper to consider how many offenders have escaped the censures of the Church through our neglect, by which they might have been humbled for their sins, and other restrained from falling into the like miscarriages. Other Churches lament the want of that discipline, which we (blessed be God) can exercise. How great then is the sin of those who by laziness or partiality would bring it into disuse!
Because a great deal depends on the manner of our performing divine offices, we ought to reflect upon it, how often we read the prayers of the Church with coldness and indevotion, and administer the Sacraments with an indifference unworthy of the Holy Mysteries; by which it comes to pass that some despise and abhor the service of God! Let us detest such indevotion, and resolve upon a becoming seriousness when we offer up the supplications of the people to God, that they, seeing our zeal, may be persuaded that it is not for trifles we pray, nor out of custom only that we go to church.
The great secret of attaining such an affecting way is to be constant and serious in our private devotions, which will beget in us a spirit of piety, able to influence our voice and actions.
Have thus taken an account of our own engagements, and heartily begged God's pardon for our omissions, and prescribed rules to ourselves of acting suitably to our high calling for the future, we shall be better disposed to take an account of our flock: always remembering, that our love to Christ is to be expressed by feeding His sheep.
I have observed with satisfaction that most people, who by their age are qualified, do come to the Lord's Supper at Easter. Now it is much to be feared that such as generally turn their backs upon that holy ordinance at other times do come at this time more out of custom, or to comply with the laws, than out of a sense of duty.
This is no way to be prevented, but by giving them a true notion of this Holy Sacrament, such as shall neither encourage the profane to eat and drink their own damnation, nor discourage well-meaning people from receiving the greatest comfort and support of the Christian life.
To this end it will be highly conducive (and I earnestly recommend it to you) to make this the subject of a good part of your sermons during Lent. But let them be plain and practical discourses, such as may set forth the nature, end and benefits of the Lord's Supper. That it is to keep up the remembrance of the sacrifice and death of Christ, whereby alone we obtain remission of our sins and all other benefits of His Passion. That it is a mark of our being members of Christ's Church, a token of our being in covenant with God. That a sinner has nothing but this to plead for pardon, when the devil or his conscience accuse him before God. That we ought to receive as often as conveniently we can, that, as Peter Damian expresses himself, "the old serpent, seeing the blood of the Lamb upon our lips, may tremble to approach us." That Jesus Christ presents before God in heaven His death and merits, for all such as duly remember them on earth.
Let them know that a Christian life is the best preparation; that God respects sincerity of heart above all things; which consists in our doing what God has commanded us, to the best of our knowledge and power.
Let them know the danger of unworthy receiving, without full purposes of amendment of life. And that they may know wherein they have offended and that they may have no cloke for their sin, it would be very convenient, some Sunday before Easter, to read to them some heads of self-examination (leaving out such sins and duties in which none of them are concerned) such as you will find at the latter end of the Whole Duty of Man and in many other such books of devotion.
Let them know that the Church obliges you to deny them the Blessed Sacrament, which is the means of salvation, until you can be satisfied of their reformation.
Let such as live in malice, envy, or in any other grievous crime, and yet come to the holy table as if they were in a state of salvation;--let them be told that they provoke God to plague them with His judgments.
Admonish such as are litigious and vex their neighbours without cause, that this is contrary to the spirit and rules of Christianity; that this holy Sacrament either finds or makes all communicants of one heart and mind, or mightily increases their guilt that are not made so.
Tell such as are wont, before that solemn season of receiving, to forbear drinking and their other vices,--that fast and pray for a few days;--tell them plainly that none of these exercises are acceptable to God, which are not attended with amendment of life.
Rebuke severely such as despise and profane the Lord's-day; make them sensible that a curse must be upon that family, out of which none goes to church to obtain a blessing upon those that stay at home.
Tell such as have submitted to Church censures and are not become better men, how abominable that hypocrisy is, that made them utter the most solemn promises which they never meant to keep.
By this method you will answer the ends of that rubric before the Communion, which requires all persons that design to receive to signify their names to the curate at least some time the day before--an order which, if observed, would give us rare opportunities of admonishing offenders who yet do not think themselves in danger.
Lastly, in making this visitation you will see what children are uncatechised, what families have no face of religion in them, &c.
But for God's sake remember, that if all this is not done in the spirit of meekness, with prudence and sweetness, you will never attain the end proposed by such a visitation of your parish.
Do but consider with what goodness our blessed Master treated with sinners, and you will bear much in order to reduce them. At the same time fear not the face of any man, while you are engaged in the cause of God and in the way of your duty. He will either defend you or reward your sufferings; and can, when He pleases, terrify gainsayers.
It is true, all this is not to be done without trouble; but then consider what grief and weariness and contempt our Master underwent, in turning sinners from the power of Satan unto God: and as He saw the travail of His soul, so shall we reap very great benefit by it even in this world.
We shall have great satisfaction in seeing our churches thronged with communicants, who come out of a sense of duty more than out of a blind obedience. We shall gain a wonderful authority amongst our people. Such as have any spark of grace will love and respect you for your friendly admonition: such as have none will however reverence you and stand in awe of you. And they that pay you tithes will by this be convinced that it is not for doing nothing that you receive them, since your calling obliges you to continual labour and thoughts of heart.
That you may do all this with a spirit of piety worthy of the priesthood, you have two excellent books in your hands, The Pastoral Care, and The Country Parson, which I hope I need not enjoin you to read over at this time.
I considered that the best men have sometimes need of being stirred up, that they may not lose a spirit of piety, which is but too apt to languish. This is all the apology I shall make for this address to you at this time.
Now that both you and I may give a comfortable account of our office and charge, as it is the design of this letter, so it shall be my hearty prayer to God.
I am your affectionate brother,
THOMAS SODOR AND MAN.