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Conversations on Ritualism
Anonymous [Charles Woodruff Rankin]

New-York: Hurd and Houghton, 1867.

Conversation II.

Rector.—Well, Mr. Brown, you have come to renew the conversation we had a day or two ago, I suppose?

Parishioner.—Yes, sir, I have, and this time I do not mean to occupy your time by any side questions, but to come directly to the point I wish to have explained. I want to know the meaning of this word which is in every body's mouth; I want to know what "Ritualism" means.

Rec.—I will try to explain its meaning according to my own understanding of it. Ritualism means simply the mode in which the public worship of God is conducted. It relates to religious rites, usages, and ceremonial; and as there must be in the public services of every denomination of Christians some outward and visible mode in which their worship is carried on, that outward and visible service is its Ritual.

Par.—Why then it seems to me that there can be no question as to the necessity of Ritualism; the only question is what kind of Ritual shall we have?

Rec.—You are quite right. Every society of Christians must have some Ritual: the Friends, when they are sitting in silence with their uniform dress and broad-brimmed hats on, waiting for the moving of the Spirit, have a Ritual just as decidedly and just as expressively as the Romanists have. The extemporaneous prayers and peculiar singing of the Methodists are their Ritual, as much as the choral services and liturgical worship of the Church. Every thinking man will see that there must be some mode of conducting public worship, and that mode, whatever it may be, is Ritual. Ritualism, therefore, is simply and absolutely necessary: the only question is what kind of Ritualism is most appropriate for the services of the Church.

Par.—How is this to be discovered? You say we have no written law to regulate us in this country, and that we have no uniform usage which can serve as unwritten law to direct us. Can we not get some light from English law? I remember that in the preface to the Prayer-book it is said, that "this Church is far from intending to depart from the Church of England in any essential point of worship;" if we could learn something from the law of the Church in England, might it not aid us?

Rec.—The English law seems to be express upon some important points, but there is such a diversity of interpretation on others that we cannot look for minuteness of direction in detail; still we can get some information, and so far as liberty goes, it would seem that the American Church is not limited to any special year in English history, but is free to adopt the ornaments of any period of the Anglican Church. Indeed I should be sorry to think that we were to be tied down to the usage of the first or second year of any sovereign, for our ultimate law in this matter. The Church in this country must have her own rites and usages; she may and ought to learn from the usages and traditions of our Mother Church, but not necessarily to be enslaved by them. We certainly have no written law now in this country, and as to usage, do not let me be misunderstood. I say that we have no usage which can be regarded as authoritative; of this I must have satisfied you in our last conversation, so that we cannot appeal even to the ordinary usage of our churches now as a standard of public worship which is incapable of elevation and improvement. If I understand the principles of those who are called Ritualists, their object is to improve and advance the public worship of God, by enriching and beautifying the services of the Church. Let me read a short extract from an address upon this subject:—"Ritual is necessary in worship, because worship is a great comprehensive act, including a vast number of minor acts, and Ritual is the mode of performing such acts. But as there are always two ways of doing every thing,—a bad and good, a right and I wrong, a becoming and an unbecoming way,—the question is, What is becoming or unbecoming in the Ritual of the Church? Now, first, we must find some principle by which to test this suitableness and decency. It would seem, then, that Ritual must be suitable to the nature of the act performed. Worship is the great act of homage to God from His creatures,—to the Creator from the creature. What then? All that is connected with the mode of worship must bear suitable characteristic marks, such as carefulness, reverence, attention to detail, restraint, reserve." 

* This seems to me to explain the principles on which the advocates of Ritual act; only that I would add that Ritual should be symbolic, setting forth in some appropriate way the great truths of our holy faith.

Par.—All this seems very reasonable.

Rec.—It is so, and if people would only talk less and think more, if they would lay aside their narrow-minded prejudices, and think it barely possible that wisdom will not die with them, we should have less trouble about Ritualism as well as a good many other matters.

Par.—I must confess myself much interested in the views you have presented; they commend themselves to my own judgment, and seem to have the warrant of Holy Scripture. I remember how St. Paul charges that all things should be "done decently and in order," how he gives direction to the Corinthians about details of worship, and how he even goes so far as to speak of the effect of an united and solemnly conducted worship upon the bystanders, leading them to fall down and worship God, and report that God is with them of a truth. 1 Cor. xiv.

Rec.—Yes; I think that every rightly constituted mind, unless when warped by bigotry, prejudice, or the bias of narrow training, will acknowledge that a rich, solemn, glorious Ritual is that which is most becoming, as an offering from the creature to the Creator—most worthy (poor and indifferent as the best of our service is) of Him to whom it is presented, and the best fitted to impress the soul with a sense of the Divine Majesty; and I think that one reason why there is so much irreverence among us, even in our best-conducted churches, is because there is so little to call forth those feelings of awe and solemnity, with which we should always engage in the public worship of God. I am quite sure that if our services were enriched and beautified; if our chancels were filled with surpliced choristers, trained reverently to bear their part in the solemnities of religion; if they were marshaled to move in solemn procession to the Holy Place; if the services were either monotoned or sung to appropriate music, instead of being mumbled or "spouted" as they sometimes are; if the Psalter were chanted, as it was designed to be, instead of being read; if the Holy Table were enriched and beautified, instead of being, as the Table of the Lord so often is, "contemptible"; if it were adorned with appropriate color and radiant with symbolic lights, instead of being cold and cheerless to the eye; if the priests, the ministers of the Lord, were vested in some distinctive way to mark their respective orders in the service of the altar, and to distinguish that highest function of the Church from lower offices; if all this, I say, were done, I venture to believe that it would have a most salutary effect upon the worshipers themselves, and would impress even the beholders with a deeper sense of the Divine Majesty, when they saw those who "profess and call themselves Christians" thus drawing near with reverence and with godly fear.

Par.—Your remarks remind me of something that I met with yesterday, and which I have brought to show you. This is it (Reads): "How can we most easily get a half-savage street-Arab or country clown to understand that there is a Mighty Being Whom he should adore, that there is a brighter and better world than this for which he should strive? Is it by putting him into a dark corner of a large, bare, and shabby room, to hear a gentleman read something carelessly out of one or two books for half an hour, and then roar something else excitedly for double that time? Will that get the unlettered peasant or artisan down on his knees in awe and prayer? On the other hand, will not the sight of a building far more beautiful and stately than any other he knows, will not the sound of sweet singing, and the example of numerous worshipers bending and prostrating themselves, speak directly to his eyes and ears, and thus make their way into his slow mind? More than a thousand years ago the Emperor Charles the Great conquered the Saxons, and imprisoned their chief. One heathen Saxon, thirsting for revenge, followed the Emperor to his capital, and sought him out for the purpose of murder. On inquiry at the palace he was directed to the Cathedral, and arriving there he found the terrible warrior, poorly clad, prostrate before the altar, while the solemn rite of the Holy Eucharist was being celebrated. The thought which flashed across the heathen's mind was, "How great must that God be to Whom so great a king abases himself thus! It is by His might that my gods have been overcome." And the intending murderer sought baptism, and became a Christian noble at the court of the monarch he had meant to kill. If the Emperor had been sitting in a pew listening to a fluent gentleman in black, his life would have been forfeit, and the course of all European history have been changed."

Rec.—Yes, that is well told, and my own experience, though I trust not a "half-savage street-Arab or country clown," teaches me that such salutary influences are not confined to the uneducated, but that in the same proportion that a man rises in refinement, intelligence, and education, will he appreciate such services. But we must not forget in their effect upon ourselves or others the real object of a beautiful Ritual,—namely, to glorify God, to serve Him with the very best of all we have or are.

Par.—Now here you touch a point which I confess disturbs me. I read that "God is a Spirit, and that they who worship Him must worship Him in spirit and in truth;" does not this seem to make against such worship as you speak of? does it not seem as if God took pleasure only in a spiritual worship?

Rec.—You ask a question which opens many trains of thought; let me answer you as briefly as I can. Of course our worship must be spiritual; the highest, richest, and most beautiful services may be unspiritual, and if they are, if the heart and soul of the worshiper are not engaged in them, they are displeasing to God. But you will bear in mind that man consists of body, soul, and spirit; that we are charged to glorify God in our bodies, as well as in our spirits; and therefore a truly spiritual worship must embrace the whole man. We cannot give God half of our nature and refuse Him the other half, and it is the high privilege of the Christian that even his body becomes the temple of the Holy Ghost; so that there can be no truly spiritual worship, in the fullest sense of the term, unless the body bears its part.

Par.—What! can we worship God in our bodies?

Rec.—Not only can we, but must we. Are not our bodies redeemed as well as our souls? Are they not to be raised up in the Resurrection at the last day? Are they not to bear their part in the worship of the Church in glory. And can we do better than to train them here for what must be their everlasting duty there? Hence responding, singing, bowings, kneelings, prostrations, and crossings, if you like, are parts of bodily worship which are at least appropriate, if not necessary, if we would worship Him who made and hath redeemed our bodies, "in spirit and in truth."

Par.—It seems to me that this subject of Ritualism is invested with far more importance than I had imagined; it appears to reach out into another world, and to view man in his most intimate relation to God.

Rec.—It does; and when men once realize this truth; when they come to see that Ritualism is not mere ceremony or formalism or mummery, but that it is the outward and visible sign of the most momentous truths, the earnest and sincere will cease to cavil at it, and will leave that irreverence to the ungodly and profane. But I have not finished all I wish to say about spiritual worship. The best comment on the words of God are His works. Now if you want to know what He considers as spiritual worship, if you would understand what He means by worshiping Him in spirit and in truth, you can easily ascertain. You have only to read the directions which He gave to Moses for the construction of the Tabernacle, and the care which was taken by Solomon in the erection of the Temple, and you will have His own illustration of His meaning, for "He knoweth whereof we are made. He remembereth that we are but dust," and in framing the services which are most acceptable to Him Who "is a Spirit," He hath so ordered them that we must render to Him bodily worship, that we may "worship Him in spirit and in truth."

Par.—All this is wonderful to me; it seems to give one an insight into that old Jewish worship which so many persons decry; I cannot but think that there is much more in it than I had ever supposed.

Rec.—It is a great pity that persons will be content with shallow and superficial views of sacred things. When our Lord tells us that He came not to destroy the Law and the Prophets, but to fulfill them, one would think that the most minute details in the old economy must have some counterpart in the Christian Church; and especially in the leading features of divine worships would we expect to find it exemplified.

Par.—Is it so then, that the prominent features of the Jewish system have been continued in the Church of Christ?

Rec.—Certainly: you know that Circumcision has given place to Baptism; the whole ancient sacrificial system to the Holy Eucharist; the threefold ministry of the Jewish, to the threefold ministry of the Christian Church; their leading festivals to our chief holydays; and descending from these bolder outlines, there has been a very close adherence even in minor matters to the usages of God's elder covenant. It will well repay your study to investigate this subject, and you will certainly find that there is no such impassable gulf between the Jewish and the Christian systems of worship as some men think.

Par.—I have often been struck with the fact that our Lord paid such strict attention to the worship of the old Jewish Church. It would seem that in every particular he conformed to its requirements. He observed its appointed festivals, even when, as in the case of the Feast of Dedication, they were appointed by human authority. He frequented its synagogue service and temple worship, and observed all its most minute directions; and I have sometimes thought that they who are stigmatized with party names because of their observance of such things as daily service, holydays, and the like, now, might take comfort in thinking that they were following His example.

Rec.—Yes, and His Apostles after Him did the same. Read the book of their "Acts" carefully, and you will see how they continued daily in the Temple, even while they continued steadfastly in "the breaking of bread and in prayers;" how St. Paul frequented the synagogue and observed vows, and was anxious to be present at the high days of the Jewish Church. There was a deep meaning in all this. The truth is that Judaism had fulfilled its mission, and when that mission was accomplished our Lord and His disciples hung lovingly around it, laying aside that which was only typical, local, and peculiar to itself, and carrying forward, to be invested with a higher power and fuller glory, that which was to last until the earthly church should be swallowed up in that in glory.

Par.—Do you think then that the worship of the early Christian Church was molded after the Mosaic Ritual?

Rec.—I do not mean that there was any slavish adherence to it, but I think there was such a conformity to it as would naturally result from the fulfillment of a typical and preparatory system, when the reality which is typified, and for which it prepared the way, had come.

Par.—How then do you account for the rebuke which St. Paul gives as to the observance of days and months, and the adherence of the Jewish converts to their old system?

Rec.—If you will examine the subject closely, you will find that he did not censure the observance of these customs in themselves; indeed he himself conformed to them. What he did blame was the substitution of them for, and reliance on them instead of, the faith of Christ; he condemned those Judaizing Christians who rested on the old economy which was then passing away; but there is nothing either in his life or his epistles which can sustain the popular idea that there is any antagonism between Judaism and Christianity.

Par.—Do you think then that the services of the early Church were materially affected by those of the Jewish system?

Rec.—Undoubtedly. How could it have been otherwise? Our Lord Himself was of the seed of Abraham, and a close adherent to the Jewish worship; His first Apostles and disciples were Jews, and zealous for the faith of their forefathers; the Christian Church was the ripening of the seed which had been so long growing in Jewish soil; the Mother Church of Christendom was the Church in Jerusalem; most of the first bishops of the Church were Jews; it was universally acknowledged that the Old Testament had been accomplished in the New, and that Christianity was but the fulfillment of Judaism. How could it have been otherwise, with all these circumstances, than that the Ritual of the Christian Church should have been cast in a Jewish mold?

Par.—True; I never thought of it in that light before. But if this be so, then there must be traces of this influence in the worship of the Church; can you mention any such features?

Rec.—Yes. The use of vestments, lights, and incense, which obtains to a greater or less degree in various branches of the Church, seems to me to have been derived from the old Jewish Church.

Par.—It seems quite natural that it should have been so, and if this be the case, then those churches which adhere most closely to the primitive model, may be supposed to have retained these characteristics most closely.

Rec.—It is even so, and the worship of the Oriental Churches is a striking illustration of the truth. You only have to look upon a Greek priest or bishop, when fully vested, to have an almost exact picture of the old Levitical priesthood.

Par.—You surprise me. You speak of the Greek Church and clergy; I have heard so much about Ritualism being Romish, that I am quite astonished to hear of it in this new connection.

Rec.—I am heartily sick of this talk of things being "Romish," which are new to us because we are ignorant of some of the first elements of Christian faith and worship; but let that pass for the present; I may hereafter say more about it. Certain it is that not only the Greek Church, but even some Protestant societies, e. g. the Lutherans, retain ritualistic features of worship which we have been deprived of; they have vestments, lights, and even crucifixes. Ritualism, therefore, cannot be peculiar to the Roman Church, inasmuch as the Greek Church, which has been for many centuries the strongest enemy of the Papacy, and Lutheranism, to which the word "Protestantism" peculiarly belongs, both practice it.

Par.—Well, this is worth thinking of; I will go home and digest what I have heard, and, with your permission, will come again for further information.

Rec.—Do so; I have not yet said all I wish to say about spiritual worship.

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