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Conversations on Ritualism
Anonymous [Charles Woodruff Rankin]

New-York: Hurd and Houghton, 1867.

Conversation VI.

Rector.—You have delayed your promised visit longer than I expected, Mr. Brown: may I ask the reason?

Parishioner.—The truth is, Mr. Wilson, I have found myself overwhelmed by the variety, abundance, and importance of the thoughts presented in this discussion, and I wished to take time to digest what I have heard, to weigh well the ideas you have given me, and to reach, if possible, some practical conclusion on the subject.

Rec.—May I ask the result of your reflections?

Par.—I think that Ritualism is right, good, scriptural, spiritual, and reasonable, and if persons would only take the pains to look into it impartially, they would become its ardent supporters.

Rec.—I have thought as much for many years.

Par.—For many years? How does it happen then that I have never heard you speak of it in private, or preach about it in public? Indeed I think I have rarely ever heard you use the word, and yet you have been our Rector for at least twenty years.

Rec.—Yes, twenty years this coming Whitsuntide. My first official action I think was to marry you and Mrs. Brown; of course you remember that service, but do you remember the appearance of our church at that time?

Par.—Remember it? was not my father the chief man on the building committee when the church was built? The good old gentleman regarded it as a masterpiece of architectural beauty, though before he departed he somewhat changed his mind.

Rec.—Let me hear you recall the chancel arrangements of the building.

Par.—Well, there was a space railed off in a semi-elliptical form, about fifteen feet from the east wall; this was inclosed by a small mahogany railing. Within, on a platform one step above the floor of the church, was a little mahogany table with a marble top.

Rec.—A pier-table, was it not?

Par.—Yes, good old Mrs. Reynolds gave it to us when she broke up house-keeping. Above this there was a formidable structure about eight or ten feet long, which we called "the reading-desk." It was big enough for three or four clergymen, and we used to think it had a majestic appearance with its crimson cushions and heavy fringe, with the Bible and Prayer-book on top of it. Then above this, perched on the wall, was a pulpit, for all the world like a cage; the door was in the back part of it, and the clergyman had to go up a narrow staircase behind to get into it, and I know how droll it looked to see him pop out suddenly in his black gown and heavy white bands. The children used to joke about the magpie in his cage.

Rec.—What services had you at that time?

Par.—Why, we had service twice on Sunday, on Wednesday and Friday during Lent, on Christmas and Good Friday; and we had the Holy Communion on the first Sunday in the month: this was about all.

Rec.—Plow were the services conducted?

Par.—The clergyman read the service, and the young ladies said he did it very impressively, some said eloquently; the music was thought to be very fine; the organ was good, and the four or five singers did very elaborate and ambitious music.

Rec.—Did the congregation sing?


Rec.—Did they respond?


Rec.—Were the children and poor people interested in the church?

Par.—Far from it; the children voted it a bore, and the poor people said the church did very well for the rich, but not for them, so they went to the Methodists.

Rec.—Were there such things as Christmas trees, and Christmas carols, and choral responses, and bowings at the name of our Lord in the Creed?

Par.—Nothing of the kind.

Rec.—How was it at the Holy Communion?

Par.—Why, the minister did for a time administer it in his black gown, though a little before you came he put on the surplice while the Offertory was being taken (they used to call it "making a collection"); the people came up, and received with their hands gloved, and when the service was over, the men stood around the rail, and talked and laughed while they consumed the elements, but there was nothing of the beauty and reverence which we now have.

Rec.—Do you know, my friend, that your church afforded a very creditable specimen of the way in which the services were conducted at that time? There were probably no churches in the country where the usage was above your own, and there were very many (as alas! there are still) where the order of services was far below. But how is it now?

Par.—Why, everything is changed. Soon after you came here, you remember that the wall at the east end of the church was found to be defective, and it became necessary to tear it down; I remember that you suggested to the vestry that we might improve the appearance of the church, and make it better fitted for our services by building a recess chancel; you gave so many good reasons for it, that the vestry came to the conclusion that you knew more about it than they did, and they asked you to arrange it according to your own ideas.

Rec.—Yes, we might revive many pleasant memories of olden times by going over, step by step, the various changes and improvements we have made within the last twenty years.

Par.—I am astonished when I look back and think of them: we now have daily services, morning and evening; the Holy Communion every Sunday and on all holy days; larger congregations at the services during Lent than we used to have on Sunday afternoons; we have not seen, except on one occasion, a black gown for years (I remember it was in your absence), and then some people thought it "Popish;" we have our choirs of surpliced boys, arranged on either side of the outer chancel (the choir I think you call it); oftentimes the responses and services are entirely choral; the congregation sings out lustily in the Psalter and Amens; we have not room enough for the children, and the poor have flocked to us in such numbers that the Methodists do not know what to make of it; the Holy Communion is thronged, reminding me sometimes of the "countless numbers" in the Ninety-fourth Hymn; they receive with the greatest reverence; after the service is over, the consecrated elements are reverently consumed, some of the communicants who are nearest to the chancel coming forward and kneeling to receive them; the vessels are cleansed before being taken from the Holy Table—but why need I specify any further? You know it all better than I do.

Rec.—Yes, I do. How long has it taken to effect all this?

Par.—About fifteen years.

Rec.—Have these changes encountered much opposition?

Par.—The truth is you have made them so gradually and explained the meaning of them so fully, that our people have, as a general thing, been delighted with them. Still I must say that there has been plenty of outside talk.

Rec.—Of course you have heard of "Popery"?

Par.—Indeed I have,—especially when you first introduced flowers at Easter and on the chief holy days of the Church; and when you had the lighted candles at the celebration of the Holy Communion, it seemed for a time that I should never hear of any thing but Popery. I think the trouble was aggravated by a family which had recently joined the parish; they had been members of Dr.------'s congregation, and had occupied a prominent position there; but when they came here, and found that no unusual prominence was given to them, and especially that Mrs.------was not made president of the Dorcas Society, it seemed as if they must make themselves felt in one way, if not in another.

Rec.—But that has long since died away.

Par.—Yes, except among the various religious societies, and those (I do not like to use party names) members of our own church who—well, you know who I mean—but you are diverting me from the real object of my visit: I wish to know how this Ritualism is to be made practical?

Rec.—I am not diverting you from this question; on the contrary, I am giving you a practical answer to it.

Par.—What do you mean?

Rec.—You have just recounted the changes which we have made in fifteen years. You see how far we are in advance of where we then stood; you see that these improvements have carried with them the vast majority of our people; that our congregations are larger, and the work of the Church more efficient than ever; that this has been done quietly, steadily, intelligently, and prudently; now this is what I call making Ritualism practical.

Par.—I see; you have answered my question by example.

Rec.—Yes, and I mean to convey this idea, that sudden changes in the services—changes for which the people are unprepared, and which they do not understand—ought to be avoided; that whatever is done, should be done on just these principles.

Par.—I suppose then you are looking forward to further improvements in our service?

Rec.—I am.

Par.—I am glad to hear you say so, for if we may judge of the effect of enriching and beautifying the services in the future as we have seen it in the past, I am sure it will be blessed; and now that I understand the subject more fully, I shall take a corresponding interest in its practical exemplification; but still there are some points on which I would like to have your opinion. This question of Ritualism is attracting a great deal of attention, and I would like to know how it should be treated in the Church at large, not particularly in our own congregation.

Rec.—I will tell you what I think: I think that our bishops and clergy ought to go to work and make themselves familiar with this subject. As a practical fact, I doubt if there are many of our bishops or priests who know more than the mere A B C of this, the real question of the Church's worship. I question whether they have even the slightest conception of the wealth of Ritualistic literature, which the piety and learning of the English Church have made accessible. Bear in mind that men of the ripest minds, the highest education, the most devoted piety, the most self-sacrificing zeal in our Mother Church have devoted themselves to the study of this subject, and that it would at least be modest for us to profit by their studies before allowing ourselves even to form, to say nothing of expressing, a final and authoritative opinion. They should bear in mind that the Catholic Church does not date from the American Revolution, or even from the 16th century; and that it is quite possible that some ideas, Evangelical in the strictest sense, may be gathered from the Church's history from the beginning. Therefore my first suggestion would be that the Church (meaning thereby the bishops, clergy, and laity) should inform herself somewhat upon this matter.

Par.—It is good advice: but suppose that this idea of the Revolutionary period in our history, to which "the 28" attach so much importance, should be accepted as the standard of our Ritual?

Rec.—I think that a careful study of the condition of the Church during the Colonial and post-Revolutionary periods of her history would be the best answer to that question. The truth is that the Church was planted in this country at the time when our Mother Church in England was in her lowest state after the Reformation. So little was the real life and spirit of the Church appreciated that every effort to secure the Episcopate for the Daughter Church was frustrated, and this, the real bond of churchly order, was not obtained until after the Revolution, and then, in the first instance, from the Church in Scotland. Ritualism, with which we are now concerned, was at its lowest ebb, and it was not to be expected that our Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary clergy, earnest, zealous, faithful men as they were, would rise above the level of the Mother Church: in point of fact they fell below it. Just to instance some points which bear upon this Ritualistic question. What are the facts touching our Prayer-book? Why, a "Proposed Book of Common Prayer" was actually prepared, and when the obnoxious volume was to be cast aside, so ready was the Church to cut herself off from the liturgical traditions of the past, that committees were actually appointed to "prepare a Litany," to "prepare a Communion Service," a "Morning and Evening Prayer," and other offices. "In this they ran no slight peril, for scarcely with any thing besides is the well-being of the Church bound up so closely as with the full orthodoxy of her Liturgies." The Bishop of Oxford justly says that "the prevailing tone, both as to discipline and doctrine, was low and uncertain;" and he gives, as a remarkable instance of it, "the desire of removing from the opening of the Litany the addresses to the Blessed Trinity," and mentions other facts which it would be well for those who regard this as the ideal period of our history to ponder well before they accept it as the ultimate standard of our Church's Ritual. As it is, the Athanasian Creed has been omitted from our Prayer-book; the Nicene Creed would likewise have been put out-of-doors, but for the intervention of the English Bishops; one article in the Apostles' Creed is virtually bracketed; the use of the sign of the cross in Baptism has been made subject to the wishes of the people and the discretion of the minister; the "Benedictus" has been curtailed; the "Magnificat" and "Nunc dimittis," those two glorious hymns, uttered under the special inspiration of the Holy Spirit,—hymns in the strictest sense "Evangelical," since they ushered in the Christian dispensation,—have been omitted. Our Service Book has been shorn of some of the most touching beauties in the English Prayer-book, namely, the intercessory versicles and responses, although, thanks to Bishop Seabury and the Scottish Church, there is a great improvement in our Communion Service; some of the offices are curtailed, and that of the Visitation of the Sick has been seriously mutilated; and yet we are now to be told that they and their Ritualistic ideas are the standard to which we, in an entirely different condition of society, must conform ourselves, and beyond which there must be no advance. No! let us honor those pioneers of the Church; let us bless God for their zeal, their piety, their self-sacrifice, their indomitable perseverance; but let us not think that, because they were all this, they were likewise masters of the great subject now before us. They were pioneers, but pioneers prepare the way for a higher culture and more refined civilization; and it would be as wise to take our western pioneers, in their log-cabins and their deer-skin shirts at that time, as the standard of the western civilization in 1867, as to take the ecclesiastical pioneers of the Church in America as the infallible standard for their followers at the present day.

Par.—All this is worthy of grave thought; but what of the usage of the English Church before our Revolution?

Rec.—I have already told you that in some points the law of the Church in England seems to be express (e g., in the matter of vestments and lights), and in those points we should attach great importance to it; but still there is such a diversity of interpretation on other matters, that we cannot fall back upon it as authoritative; we can only refer to it as traditional. I quite agree with the twenty-eight Bishops in refusing the usage of the Prayer-book of the Church of England in the reign of any sovereign as our final standard of Ritual. I would rather regard the offices and Ritual of our Mother Church from the beginning as our rightful heritage, and from them, and from other Ritualistic treasures, would hope that in the future a Ritual might be developed which would satisfy both the reverence due to traditional authority, and the demands of a true branch of the Church of Christ in a new world and under entirely new circumstances.

Par.—Does not this idea seem to be recognized in the preface to the Prayer-book? I read: "The particular forms of divine worship, and the rites and ceremonies appointed to be used therein, being things in their own nature indifferent and alterable, and so acknowledged, it is but reasonable that, upon weighty and important considerations, according to the various exigencies of times and occasions, such changes and alterations should be made therein, as to those who are in places of authority should, from time to time, seem either necessary or expedient." I read, too, "that seeking to keep the happy mean between too much stiffness in refusing, and too much easiness in admitting variations in things once advisedly established, she (i. e., the Church in England) hath, in the reign of several princes, since the first compiling of her Liturgy in the time of Edward the Sixth, upon just and weighty considerations her thereunto moving, yielded to make such alterations in some particulars, as in their respective times were thought convenient; yet so as that the main body and essential parts of the same (as well in the chiefest materials as in the frame and order thereof) have still been continued firm and unshaken." I read, that "her general aim in these different reviews and alterations hath been," as she further declares in her said preface, "to do that which, according to her best understanding, might most tend to the preservation of peace and unity in the Church; the procuring of reverence and the exciting of piety and devotion in the worship of God; and finally, the cutting off occasion, from them that seek occasion, of cavil or quarrel against her Liturgy." From all of which I gather that if the needs of the Church in the nineteenth century demand changes from the accustomed usage of the eighteenth century, it is right and proper that they should be made.

Rec.—Yes, unless we are to treat the Ritual of our branch of the Catholic Church as Rome treats the national churches over which she gets control, namely, by binding on them her own cast-iron Liturgy—I ought rather perhaps to call it malleable iron, for even she can alter it to embrace her new ideas, and to embody her novel additions to the Creed.

Par.—What legislation would you advise upon the subject?

Rec.—None. Legislation implies at least some knowledge of the subject legislated upon; and I am inclined to think that there are but few of our bishops and clergy (unless they are puffed up by self-conceit) who would consider themselves capable of intelligent legislation at the present time, such as would satisfy the real wants of the Church. I think, moreover, that we have seen so much evil resulting from hasty legislation, that we should be very cautious how we venture to fix a yoke upon our successors which we ourselves find it difficult to bear. Furthermore, I think that we may learn a lesson from our experience in a branch of Ritual which has already come before the Church.

Par.—What do you refer to? has there been any Ritualistic legislation?

Rec.—I refer to our Hymnal. It is almost universally acknowledged that our collection of Psalms and Hymns does not in any real way meet the wants of the Church; it may have done so once, certainly it does not now. Well, the subject has been before the Church in various ways: we have had newspaper and magazine articles about it; we have had commissions appointed to take it into consideration; we have had reports to convention about it, and we all know the overwhelming ridicule which the proposed new hymns encountered at the last General Convention. I am quite sure that but few would be willing to say that the Church is even now in a position to legislate finally upon the subject.

Par.—But has nothing been gained?

Rec.—Much: the attention of the Church has been called to the subject; interest has been awakened, and information gained about it. There are at the present time invaluable collections in the hands of at least one of our bishops of all the hymns which are accessible; so that so far as knowledge of the subject goes, we are far in advance of our position twelve years ago, and yet the Church is not prepared to legislate about it. And I conclude that if she is not ready to legislate upon this, which is only one point in her Ritual, she certainly is not prepared to legislate upon the subject in general. Nay! there is really less information now upon this subject of Ritual in the Church than there was about hymns twelve years since, and yet there are some people who would, in the midst of this ignorance, undertake to fix finally the Ritual worship and service of the Church. Certainly it strikes me that if we are not prepared to legislate upon the less, we are not in a condition to legislate upon the greater; therefore I deprecate the thought of legislation.

Par.—But there is so much interest felt upon this subject that one would think that something should be done.

Rec.—There are times when our true "strength is to sit still": "He that believeth shall not make haste." There is one thing, however, that I think ought to be done—that is, that the Church should open her eyes and "discern the signs of the times." Certain it is that there is a marvelous stirring of men's minds upon this subject; it is not confined to the Church in England and America, but other religious societies are more or less affected by it. Now, if this be true,—and no one can deny it,—then I think the Church should take knowledge of the fact; she should recognize the importance of the movement, and should beware lest in any way she checks or thwarts it, either by the individual action of the bishops in their respective dioceses, or by any general legislation.

Par.—I quite agree with you; I can never think of the history of Methodism without wondering at the Church's blindness in not directing that mighty movement when she had it in her power, instead of allowing it to strengthen and ripen into schism.

Rec.—Yes, and we may learn a lesson from that sorrowful history: when there is any great and general movement in the Church, we should recognize God's hand in it, and instead of setting ourselves against it, should recognize the good that may be in it, and strive by wise and gentle and careful handling to control and direct it in a proper channel. And when I see how wide and general this Ritualistic movement is; when I see that it embraces many of the holiest, most learned, and zealous of the clergy in the Church in England; when I consider the good the Ritualists are accomplishing, and remember the strong grounds of reason and Scripture on which their principles are based, I should regard it as hazardous and presumptuous in the extreme for any one to say that this thing may not be of God, and to set himself to crush it.

Par.—What then would you advise?

Rec.—I would advise that the Church should recognize these truths; that the bishops and more experienced clergy should encourage the movement, and guide it in a proper channel, instead of leaving it to young, zealous, but inexperienced men, who may by their excesses and indiscretion bring reproach upon it, if not seriously injure it, and, in injuring it, do harm to the Church.

Par.—Cannot the laity do something?

Rec.—They can do much. They can read and study up this question; they can encourage their pastors to make improvements in the details of worship; they can make offerings in this behalf; they can refrain from censure when their clergy introduce observances with which they may not be familiar; they can ask for explanations of things they do not understand, as you have done; and in various ways can contribute to the creation of a sound churchly opinion in reference to the whole subject. I have been struck with the fact that the laity take such a prominent part in this movement in England; they seem, in some respects, to be in advance of the clergy.

Par.—What do you advise the parochial clergy to do?

Rec.—They can do much in behalf of a good cause, by paying more attention to liturgical, in connection with their other studies. They can interest their congregations in various ways,—by occasional lectures, by conversation, by circulating appropriate readings on the great subject of the Church's worship. They can avoid hasty and inconsiderate changes, but by a prudent and intelligent course, can gradually tone up the character of their services; being at all times careful to have the reason of every improvement well understood by the people. An unmeaning Ritualism is but little better than mummery; an intelligent worship is that which is most acceptable to God, and most beneficial to man.

Par.—How about the bishops?

Rec.—Well, it is hardly becoming for a priest to counsel a bishop, and yet sometimes a fool may drop a hint which a wise man may profit by; and I will with all humility and deference tell you what I think. The bishops are the heads and rulers of the Church. As such they occupy positions of great responsibility and influence; the slightest word or expression of opinion from a bishop carries a certain degree of weight with it, even if it is not official, simply because it comes from a bishop. Bearing this in mind, I think it would be well for our bishops to be cautious in expressing opinions on grave questions like the present, until they are actually compelled to do so by the responsibilities of their office. It strikes me, moreover, that they would do well to consider that a very large amount of carelessness and irreverence has been, and still is, allowed in many of our churches, and that "as large an amount of liberty should be granted to reverence as has been given to irreverence." They might consider, too, that those clergy who are stigmatized as "Ritualists" have approved themselves, by their close adherence to the Church's requirements in daily services and weekly communion and the observance of holy days, and zeal in good works, to be as well entitled to their confidence as those whose churches are only open from Sunday to Sunday; who set themselves against the goodly order of the Prayer-book, by their looseness and carelessness in the divine offices, and who certainly have not shown themselves to be the real friends of the Church by their open fraternization with her enemies. They will usually find that a kind word of private counsel will go much further in restraining any of their clergy from excesses than open censure and declarations; for I believe that the Ritualists, so far as I know any thing about them, look up to their bishops as their fathers in Christ, and are ready to follow, with a glad mind and will, their godly admonitions, and to submit themselves to their godly judgments.

Par.—Well, really, I do not see any occasion for all this uproar and excitement which has so turned people's heads.

Rec.—Neither do I; only let us bear kindly and lovingly with each other; let us abstain from calling one another hard names and using opprobrious epithets; let us practice mutual forbearance and moderation, and temper our zeal with Christian charity and common sense, and we will get along well enough.

Par.—I quite agree with you. I wish that people would talk less, and read and think and pray more; that they would be ready to allow to others the liberty they claim for themselves; that they would aim at peace with all men and not be so eager to throw mud upon their brethren; in one word, if they would take St. Paul's lessons about charity, and put them into practice, we would have no trouble.

Rec.—I have been struck with the remark of one of our bishops, "One will have hard words enough to try his patience, and mud will be thrown in plenty, but it will not stick unless one becomes his own plasterer;" therefore I would add, "Do not let the Ritualists become their own 'plasterers;' let them leave all "dirty work" for other people, and in the long run, they will come out right. Well, Mr. Brown, we have had a long talk, and yet there are some important points which we have not touched upon.

Par.—What! more heights and depths in the Ritualistic question?

Rec.—Yes, we have not spoken of what I may call the Symbolism of Ritual, i. e., its power to give outward and visible expression to some of the most important truths of our holy faith; we have not even hinted at its bearing on another, and in some respects one of the most important questions of the day, namely, the establishment of intercommunion between the now separated, if not alienated, branches of the Christian Church; and we have left entirely untouched the practical question of securing a certain degree of uniformity in usage in the development of Ritual.

Par.—What! does Ritual bear upon the first two of these questions?

Rec.—It does, directly; but we have occupied so much time this evening that we must postpone the consideration of those questions until another time.

Par.—I thank you sincerely for the valuable information you have given me and shall look forward to the further unfolding of the subject with the greatest interest. Good-evening, sir.

Rec.—Good-evening: the Lord bless you!

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