IT is the peculiar blessing of our branch of the Church Catholic to have inherited from our Fathers in the Book of Common Prayer a rich treasury of devotion as a medium of public worship. Christianity is a social religion, and from its earliest days, by an irresistible impulse of the human heart, those united to our blessed Lord, in the bonds of a common faith, have been led to express their loyalty by meeting together in a common worship. Indeed, in obedience to this natural instinct, the great temple at Jerusalem was erected as a place of public worship. It was built by the express command of God, who condescended to give most careful specifications as to its construction, equipment, its furnishings, and its altar. Our Lord Himself was a frequent worshipper in its courts, and the dignity and beauty of the service found expression in the use of the Psalms, which form an important part of our prayer-book service to-day.
Our Book of Common Prayer, with its beautiful liturgy, has come down to us through nineteen centuries of Christian devotion. It is the growth and development of the best ages of Christian manhood and saintly living. It is so arranged that all the people, high and low, rich and poor, can take their part in its prayers and praises, its hymns and spiritual songs.
More and more parts of the prayer-book are being used by other Christian bodies. Our burial service, our Communion service, our marriage service, our Te Deum, our Creed, our Gloria in Excelsis are surely making their way into the hearts and lives of Christian people of all names.
If we had no Book of Common Prayer we should still have the Church with her faith and ministry, her Sacraments, and the word of God. But then we should be deprived of a priceless heritage. We love the prayer-book for the sanity of its religion, the beauty of its worship, the breadth and freedom of its spiritual fervor. It aims at the conversion of the soul, the sanctification of the heart to the glad and grateful service of God. It teaches us that religion is a life, and not a sudden experience of ecstatic rapture. We are reminded that if we continue in His word, then are we Christ's disciples indeed. The Church engrafts us by Holy Baptism into the Kingdom of light and love, she guides our tender years with watchful care, and brings us to the grace of confirmation, with its sevenfold gifts, that we may be strengthened by the Holy Ghost. She feeds us at the altar on the Heavenly food of the blessed Sacrament; she blesses us as we solemnly pledge our troth, one to the other, in Holy Matrimony; she follows us through all the changes and chances of this checkered life, and then, "When the busy world is hushed, and the fever of life is over, and our work is done," she pronounces over us her words of hope and immortality.
Our prayer-book is called the Book of Common Prayer. This title is significant of the fact that the Church intends that all the people shall take part in the service. The worship of God is to be shared in by all the congregation. To make this possible the language is our own native tongue, in which the worshippers may all heartily join with intelligence and understanding.
We need hardly remind our own people that the use of a prayer-book, or following a prescribed form of worship, is one of the characteristics which distinguish us as a Church from many of our Christian brethren by whom we are surrounded. The authority for forms of prayer in public worship has the highest possible sanction. When our Lord was asked by His Disciples to teach them how to pray it is noteworthy that He gave them a form familiarly known to the Christian world as the Lord's Prayer. His own imprimatur was then and there placed on the principle of a preconceived form of prayer. It is popularly supposed that our Lord composed this prayer, or evolved it, as it were, from His own spiritual consciousness. But His example derives additional power and significance for us all when we remember that such was by no means the fact, but that our Lord took that prayer almost bodily from the familiar prayer-book service, or liturgy, of the Jewish Church, of which He was a devout member and whose temple services He habitually frequented. He, therefore, not only gave His Disciples a form of prayer, but commended to them a particular form with which they were already more or less familiar, and indorsed thereby the usage of a prayer-book for public worship. It is a well-known fact that the Jewish prayer-book still extant was constantly used by our Lord when He attended the synagogue worship. An important part of that service was the use of the Psalms of David, itself an inspired prayer-book, which the Christian Church most wisely embodied in its liturgies. Many of these Psalms are really prayers, and none the less acceptable to Him, we may be sure, because precomposed. Indeed, it ought to be a sufficient answer to any objecting to precomposed forms of prayer for Christian people to be reminded that very many of our noblest hymns in which the soul finds expression for its most fervent devotion are nothing more nor less than forms of prayer printed in a book. For instance, "Jesus, Lover of my soul," "Rock of Ages cleft for me," "Son of my soul, Thou Saviour dear," "Abide with me," and many another hymn so dear to our hearts will readily occur to us as examples. These inspiring and uplifting petitions to God are none the less pre-composed forms of prayer because they are written in meter, set to music, and sung.
Happily for us and for the spiritual comfort and edification of the Christian world, it seems no longer necessary to argue for the propriety of a reverent and dignified worship. The prejudices which once so generally existed against the use of a form of worship have of recent years been rapidly passing away. As we have already intimated, nearly all the Churches are now using parts of the prayer-book and other forms of public worship of their own. They have learned by experience that if the people are to take part, if the worship is in reality to be common worship, it must be provided for beforehand. To allow an individual minister to supply the words and thoughts of united intercourse with God is clearly to defeat the great object of our assembling together. For what alone is the most worthy purpose of going to Church? Not, surely, simply to hear the sermon, helpful and inspiring though it may be. Is it not rather to render thanks for the great benefits that we have received at God's hands, to set forth His most worthy praise, to hear His most holy word, and to ask those things which are requisite and necessary as well for the body as the soul? The law of liberty so dear to American people is more and more demanding that in the matter of public worship, at least, the congregation shall not be delivered up, as it were, into the hands of one man, for in this way the uncontrolled liberty of the minister becomes the slavery of the people. Of course, the minister who conducts the services in Churches where there is no form of worship or liturgy will pray in the name of all and ask for things of which all are supposed to have need. But, still, what he prays for will be his own, though it may be to a certain extent silently adopted by the congregation. Both thoughts and words of such a minister are assumed to be his own, assumed, indeed, to be the unpremeditated effusion of his own brain at the moment, for it is supposed to be extempore. Every sentence must reflect his own individuality and be tinctured with his own views.
Such a system may have its advantages, but it is evident that all will depend on the personal gifts, spiritual and mental, of the individual pastor. The devotional part of the service will be edifying, on the contrary, according as he who needs it has facility of expression and a wise discrimination, or lacks these qualities.
We Churchmen, on the other hand, know in advance what prayers and praises are to be offered up, and the congregation by their presence, deportment, and responses are supposed to concur. Moreover, opportunities are given at every turn for the congregation to assert its rights as "priests of God," and to take actual and audible part in the service. They offer up the general confession and the Lord's Prayer, wherever it occurs, with the minister. With him they stand and jointly give expression to their faith in repeating the Creeds. They take their share in the daily Psalms of the Psalter by reading as a congregation each alternate verse. In cathedrals and places where the Psalms are chanted this part of divine worship is rendered almost solely by the congregation or laity, the priest joining only as one of the worshippers. So it is, moreover, with such exalted acts of praise as the "Te Deum," "Magnificat," and "Benedictus."
The Litany is thrown into its present form in order to give as much opportunity as possible for response on the part of the assembled worshippers. The use of short Collects rather than long prayers affords frequent occasion for the congregation to join in by their hearty and solemn "Amens," for there is scarcely a prayer throughout the service the reading of which, slowly and reverently, requires more than one minute of time. This arrangement tends to keep the attention fixed and to carry the people sympathetically along with the petitions offered.
The very Commandments seem to be read chiefly with the view to eliciting the response after each, and to encourage us to ask God's mercy for our sins past, and grace to keep each law for the time to come. Above all, it is the congregation rather than the minister who offer up the most solemn sacrifices of praise in the whole prayer-book--namely, the "Holy, Holy, Holy," or the triumphal hymn in Holy Communion, as well as the "Gloria in Excelsis" in the same solemn service.
So that the prayer-book is in the strictest sense what it professes to be, the book of common prayer, because it is the common expression of devotion, not of an individual, but of the whole assembly, and also because, by response or repetition after the minister, the congregation is expected to use it in common.
Of course we recognize that there is a place for extempore prayer, and in nothing that we have said would we be understood as depreciating its importance. We have been speaking of public worship; and, while occasions may and do arise in the Church service where extempore prayers may be used to edification, it is evident that the place where we pour out our hearts to God for pardon or relief, as individuals, is in the privacy of our own closet, and in the sacredness of our own personal confession of sin and sorrow. As we kneel alone before our Maker, "Prayer is the soul's sincere desire, uttered or unexpressed," and often our hearts can interpret our needs when our tongues cannot find words in which to express them.
While as Churchmen we may always depend on finding, in whatever particular house of worship we happen to be, the same form of sound words provided by the prayer-book, whether at the Holy Communion or at morning or evening prayer, much liberty is allowed as to the method of rendering the service. In the exercise of this lawful liberty there is more or less variety. In some churches we shall find the prayers and sometimes even the chants simply read; in others they may be sung or intoned. In one church there may be but little music beyond a few simple hymns and chants; in others we shall find that a part, or perhaps the entire service, is sung or rendered chorally. Again, in the postures and vestments of the clergy, in the ceremonial parts of the service, as well as in the ornaments and decorations of the altar and sanctuary, we may meet in some churches more form and ritual than in others. It will conduce to our spiritual peace and comfort to remember that such differences are entirely allowable and strictly within the law; indeed, that the Church has most wisely left to the individual rector and his congregation the privilege of ordering such a service as may be most in accordance with their sense of propriety. These things are non-essential, and largely matters of taste. The Apostolic injunction that all things shall be done decently and in order is all that we have the right to insist upon.
A church intended for all sorts and conditions of men should give free scope for the exercise of varying tastes. We should remember that just because the Church is Catholic in her spirit she must give a glad welcome and cordial hospitality to differing views in matters not of the essence of the faith.
This spirit of toleration toward different forms of expressing our religious emotions is especially incumbent on a church like our own that stands for Christian unity. Already we are receiving into our communion and fellowship thousands of strangers and foreigners whose religious antecedents are quite different from our own. They must be made to feel at home under the protection of the Church's liberty. Moreover, the freedom we naturally desire for ourselves in these non-essentials we should be glad and ready to extend to our brethren. A good motto is, "In essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in all things charity."