I AM venturing to add a few words to my lay readers on the very trite and ordinary subject of church-going--a duty I have come to regard as one of the greatest importance, with the most far-reaching of consequences, and especially so in the days in which we are living.
Wherever and whenever I have had opportunity in the last two years, I have made the appeal with which I am going to conclude now: "Forsake not the assembling of yourselves together, as the manner of some is."
In all my wanderings over the world's surface during the last thirty-five years, and they have taken me far and wide, I have come to the profound conviction that there is no social tie so strong, so cordial and so permanent, as that which grows up between those who regularly worship together. I can conceive of no influence which will unite all sorts and conditions of men, high and low, rich and poor, which can be compared with common prayer together and a common Eucharist.
And yet how is this duty coming to be more and more regarded? This is my experience! When I have been staying, in the course of my work in the Diocese, with some fellow countryman of my own, and we have got really to know each other and could talk quite freely, he has, again and again and in place after place, said to me the same thing, expressed somewhat like this: "Will you forgive me, Bishop, if I tell you how surprised I feel that you and your clergy, with all your experience of man and manners in many lands, attach such importance to going to church! I'm not an irreligious man, but I find I can worship far better out in the open, in touch with nature, than I can in a hot and stuffy church, with a service which very often jars every nerve. I hope you won't mind my being thus frank and straight, and telling you that I don't quite see the good of it, and don't feel that I get any good from it."
Such plain and straightforward speech between laity and clergy is ever to be welcomed and prized; for it ever gives one valuable opportunities of explanation.
For surely the reply to such a question, for a churchman who understands not only his rights but his duties, is an obvious one. Do we ever approach the great duties of our life on that plane of thought at all? Considering what we are to get out of them!
Do we teach loyalty, patriotism, faithfulness to home ties and institutions, home, school, the old firm, the old regiment or mess, kith and kin or native land, because there is some good to be got out of it? Are we to drop anything, or any one, as we go on in life, when there is nothing more to be got out of them?
Or are we not, on the other hand, continually being reminded that for a true man there is something far higher than getting, and that is giving, and that it is the greatness of our being, the splendour of our manhood, that we have so much that we can give to our fellow man.
This heresy, for I can call it nothing else, of "getting good" out of the duties of our religion is imbibed very young!
One Sunday afternoon, years ago, when I was chaplain to the Blind School in my former parish of St. Paul's, Avenue Road, and I had gone in to superintend the Sunday-school teaching as usual, one of the teachers called me to her side and said:
"Vicar, I can't get the boys to attend to their lessons to-day, however I try; they are so inattentive and careless, and they wz//talk."
"What are they talking about?" said I, sitting down beside them.
"About church, and the services, and their being compelled to go. They say, when they're grown up they'll never go to church, and so on."
"How's that, boys?" I asked. "Why won't you go to church when you're men? "
They were silent, but the teacher supplied their answer.
"They say they don't feel that they get any good," she said.
"Well," I went on, "I'm sorry that you don't feel that you get any good, boys, but do you think that's what we go to church for, to feel that we get some good? When we were there this morning, and I was reading out that address, with which the service begins, what did I say were the first reasons for coming? "
They were boys of about ten, and I shall not soon forget the wistful look upon their faces as they turned their sightless eyes towards me--while I was feeling, myself, as I looked at them, that the one gift of sight alone was enough to make a man go down on his knees and thank GOD every day he lived--and then, after I had started them with:
"'When we assemble and meet together,'" they continued in their boyish trebles:
"'To render thanks for the great benefits we have received at His hands, to set forth His most worthy praise.'"
"Very well," I interrupted, "those are the chief reasons for church-going, you see, boys, for they are put first. Now, do you mean to tell me that when you are grown men and look back at your days at this splendid school, one of the very best in all London, where you have been so well taught and prepared to hold your own in the battle of life, and earn your own living and be independent of the help and charity of others as self-respecting men, notwithstanding your own affliction, and when GOD will have given you, as I know He will by that time, many other helps and blessings, you'll 'never go to church,' and 'render thanks for the great benefits you have received at His hands'? I think better things of you than that, boys." And I left them to think it over.
That is how I should now put it before my readers in all the simplicity of our earliest teaching, given to many at their mother's knee, "My duty to GOD is to worship Him and give Him thanks;" and if we could all keep it well in mind, I know what a tremendous difference it would make in the character of our congregations all over the world, as Sunday after Sunday comes round. We don't go to church primarily "to get good," but "to give thanks."
Then again, I have frequently had another experience, which I will also venture to give in this concluding chapter, knowing as I do that it is the common experience of my brethren the clergy, both at home and abroad.
A man will tell me:
"I make no profession, Bishop, though I'm not an irreligious man and say my prayers, but I've seen so much inconsistency and humbug, so much formality and hypocrisy, that I'm determined to keep out of it altogether, and so I make no profession at all now, and I don't go to church, but I hope you'll not misunderstand me and think I've no religion at all. I'm a Christian in my own way."
My answer to all this, for Christians, is:
"Can we shuffle out of our corporate responsibilities in any such selfish way as that? If CHRIST came into the world, not only to save our souls, but to put us in right relations with our fellow man, and so founded His Church, can any one stand apart, either in a superior or careless and thoughtless kind of way, from the efforts made in his neighbourhood to realize this, in that Church's services? "
It seems to me a thing impossible! However simple the effort and the result, however imperfect and poor the witness, yet it is a right effort and it is a witness, and our duty is to throw in our lot with it and give our witness also and join in with our fellow man in his endeavours, however inadequate they may be, not only to "feel after GOD, if haply he might find Him," but "feel after if haply he may find," at the same time, his true relation to man; and thus, if my "duty to GOD is to worship and give Him thanks," the duty which comes immediately after it, to my fellow man, is to worship with him.
I truly wish I could transfer to paper the depth of emotion and the strength of conviction with which I am writing these concluding words, the clearness of vision with which I seem to see a "new Heaven and a new earth" if we could and would just convert that real Christian belief of which I am sure there is so much amongst us, real, heartfelt and sincere, into corporate life and activity, realized first, as it must be in this sense, in joint and public worship, and then going into, and influencing, all the other relations of our social life.
"The greater includes the less," and if we were but united in the highest of all interests, our spiritual beliefs and experiences, then surely greater unity would follow in all the rest.
Could anything be graver and more disquieting than the social life of every Christian civilization in every part of the world to-day? Unrest, uncertainty, discontent, distrust, even hostility, mark the relations of class and class! Every newspaper is full of it as we read it. Is there no message for these times then when we take up the New Testament and read of "Love for the brotherhood," "Fellowship in the Gospel," "A multitude of one heart and one soul," etc. etc., and read at the same time that it was not the Christian Faith alone, but Christian worship and united prayer which brought all this about, in a social life that was full of great social inequalities, far worse than anything we have to-day!
And yet we have the same dreary story from every part of the Empire, and from all parts of the world, at home and abroad! At home in almost every parish there is a falling off in church attendance; on the Continent of Europe I have already learnt that it is the same in every chaplaincy; and from the Mission-field there comes the continual lament that our countrymen, as soon as they get abroad, can apparently let all their religious duties simply fall away from them.
I wonder if older men in the colonies and at home realize their own influence when they attend church! I have seen, for instance, a young fellow come to a service abroad, evidently after some neglect, and as soon as he had settled down in his place looked nervously round to see if there were many other men there. And when he sees, at such a time, men older than himself, whom he perceives at once to be worthy of respect, and to whom he can look up, ladies who remind him of his mother at home, and other good women he knows, and as he joins in the old familiar hymns, and listens to the Scripture lessons he has heard so often before, and the words of the preacher touch a chord here and there of which he has not been conscious for some time, who can say what an experience of that kind may mean at perhaps the very crisis of a young life?
Our merchants abroad, our ambassadors, ministers, members of legations, and consuls, our governors and other officials, our judges and other professional men have no idea, I fear, of the tremendous influence for good they are exercising in the community in which they live, when it is known on all sides that they "regularly attend church," and their lives correspond. I know, and all clergy know, what a strengthening it is of all their best efforts to do our work, and how deeply grateful we all are for having such perfectly invaluable support.
The Christian religion to me is an impossibility unless it is realized and lived practically in its corporate sense, and I do not see how that corporate sense can ever be realized except in the way I have tried to describe. We are baptized in infancy that, amongst other things, we may realize our corporate life and responsibilities as soon as we are able to learn them, and from that time onwards we are meant to learn in the unity of the church of our baptism our responsibilities and duties to our fellow man in all brotherly sympathy.
It is just that sympathy and responsible knowledge which are lacking between the different classes of the community to-day, and constitute the very gravest social peril our race has ever yet known; and though it is significant enough that "The Church" was not even considered or even thought about in the social war of August 1911, I do not think it is yet too late for its clergy and laity to use their opportunity.
I do not think for one single moment that public worship or common prayer would be the panacea needed for all our social ills, nor do I question that there are as good men outside a church as there are in it, whenever a service is held.
Yet still I feel that such common spiritual action as united worship, if only sincere, is and has ever been a social force for good of the very highest character. It impresses upon us the great and grave responsibility which must ever attend upon privilege and possessions and abilities, and inculcates that sense of stewardship and duty which cannot fail to have their result in a social life worth the name, a true social life of which some of us are always thinking, and for which we are often praying, and of which some who read these pages, may yet see the "day break, and the shadows," now so dark and brooding over it, "flee away." "I am come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly."