OBSTRUCTIONS OF THE WORK OF THE MINISTRY.
BY THE REV. DR. GEO. R. VAN DE WATER.
“Think on these things”—PHIL. iv. 8.
Published in The Churchman
Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2016
I have been asked to come here and speak to you young men about something that has to do with the active work of the ministry. The ministry is peculiar among other professions in this, that in its preparation there is nothing of a practical nature that is taught. Even in the department of pastoral theology much more emphasis is put on the theology than upon the pastoral. In the nature of things this must be so.
A student of medicine can attend the clinic, and practise in the laboratory. A student of law can have office experience while his studies are progressing, and along with his technical knowledge can attend and take part in the transactions of mock courts. But the student of theology is unique in this respect, that he has nobody to practise upon, and no experience to qualify him for the work to which he is ordained. This would be bad enough, but the trouble of inexperience extends further. A young lawyer, just admitted to the bar, knows that in any work that is likely to come before him he has the advantage of the counsel and assistance of older and more experienced men, who, in the giving of advice, or in the conduct of cases, may save the youthful tyro from serious error or fatal mistake. So, too, the young physician has either the advantage of hospital or dispensary experience before beginning the independent exercise of his profession; and even when beginning this, the dispensing chemist is likely to be a check upon indiscretion or ignorance. Not so, however, with the youthful theologian. Nine out of ten men who come up for Holy Orders have never done more of ministerial work than read lessons and prayers. They have never had pastoral experience of any kind. They have, most likely, for ten years previous lived the life of a student, among students, and have very little knowledge of the ways of society and the world. We would not say they are green young men, for in some instances, unfortunately for the exercise of their profession, some are too ripe, but it is nothing against them, personally or professionally, to tell the truth, say, they are not men of experience, men of affairs. The pastoral knowledge they have, they have got out of books, or from men who, generally speaking, have spent most of their lives in institutions of learning, and have, therefore, very little practical knowledge of the things they teach. These young men are ordained, and at once they go to their work, not to work under supervision, as a rule, not to work together, two by two, as apostolic usage might approve, but each to labor alone, usually in a lonely spot, all too often in the most uncongenial and difficult field the diocesan has in his jurisdiction.
Among a people before whom a priest with forty years’ experience might well shiver and shake, this youth our friend, the tyro, is put to see what issue will come of the experiment. Generally the issue is soon seen and a change follows. Where it happens that, under such adverse conditions, a young man by prudence, and spirituality, and hard work, succeeds, that man’s reputation is secured, and his place among his brethren in the clerical profession fixed. For in the ministry, more than elsewhere, nothing succeeds like success. It is useless to go on with a description of what takes place year by year in all of our dioceses. We are not disposed to find fault with the system, we only lament it. The fact is before us that neither the theological school nor the experience a divinity student has outside of his studies, fits him at all for the exercise of his pastoral office. So long as the tendency of candidates for Holy Orders is to decrease, it will be impossible for the bishops to remedy this state of things. When the time comes that it will be possible to carry out this idea, I am satisfied the whole Church would be benefited by insisting upon every deacon passing, at least, one year in the parish and under the supervision of an experienced priest.
But we must take things as they are. You, young men, are very soon to enter this ministry, as all have done who have gone this way before you, under the adverse conditions we have described. What the obstructions to the work of your ministry are, and how best you can meet them, is the theme of my talk with you. If a busy man may be excused for want of system, or absence of literary treatment, which more time than he has had at his command might have secured, and may be allowed hastily to jot down living truths from actual experience, for your guidance; if one who has made some blunders and mistakes, can tell you of them in such a way that you may avoid repeating them, then it is good for us to be here, and I can summon you, for your own benefit, to “think on these things.” Here are some thoughts that you will not find in Gesenius, or the Septuagint, in Pearson or Browne, Proctor or Freeman, fathers of the first three, or sons of the last fifteen centuries, but I undertake to say, they are worthy of as much attention, and, maybe in some instances, as capable of inspiring prayer, repentance, resolution, as anything you have studied, or may yet study, in the three years’ course of theological learning. Hear ye what I say, and not only hear, but heed. The sacred ministry is at once the highest, and the lowest of functions. There is enough, therefore, in the office to magnify it, and there is enough in its functions to make us minify ourselves. We are, St. Paul tells us, ministers of Christ; the original Greek meaning, toilers, underlings, rowers in the boat. We are also, the same apostle tells us, “stewards of the mysteries of God,” appointed guardians of the King’s treasures, dispensers of heavenly blessings, appointed housekeepers for our heavenly Father. What manner of men ought we to be, we who profess to hold and to exercise such an office? Different, my young brothers, very different from other men. Think on these things! Your estimate of your office will influence your exercise of it, and your behavior in it. Nothing can be more unfortunate for a young man in the ministry than for him to believe and to act as if he believed that after his ordination he is not different from other men. He may persuade himself that this is so, but he will find it very difficult to persuade others that this is true. For even the world looks upon the office as holy, and demands, in order to respect the one holding it, that he be essentially holy. Men of the world will not regard the man in orders as on an equality with other men. They profess to be clergymen, called men, elected out of the mass of men, for the distinctive work of leading in holiness, and men of the world therefore demand that a minister be holier than other men. If they are not, they very quickly put them where they belong, not on an equality with worldly men making no pretensions to holiness, but far beneath them. Men of the world account of our office something like this, and Scripture bears witness that the accounting is true. As the office of a lawyer is important, since it protects property, the office of a physician more so, since it guards health, so the office of priest is most important, because to the interests of the soul and eternity this office is appropriated, and of all things with which we are concerned, the soul and eternity are absolutely the greatest. More of such magnifying the office among ourselves, and with it a stronger resolution and endeavor to make our lives tally with the ideal, and less of earthly agencies to create short roads and easy ones to Holy Orders, would, in my judgment, give us the increase of the ministry, all the increase that the ministry really needs. The first great obstruction a young clergyman meets in the actual exercise of his office lies right along this line of personal holiness. We assume the integrity and the earnestness of every man who will voluntarily stand before the altar in the Church of God, answer the questions put by the bishop, and then reverently kneel and bow his head for the imposition of hands, and what is of greater importance, the imposition of the yoke of Holy Orders. But be this young man never so piously inclined, never so earnest, very shortly he goes to a parish where social temptations are great for him to be like other men. He will be told by prominent men in the community, if not members of his Church, that to be popular be must be “hail-fellow well-met” with everybody; that he must take part in their recreations and amusements, and that too rigidly to draw the line between things of the world and things of the spirit, is a species of Puritanism which the average Churchman will not easily endure.
He will very soon find a difficulty confronts him. He has come up against his first obstruction. There are things not absolutely evil, which he will be urged to do, which, he knows very well, will compromise his office, and injure his influence. We will be plain, and specify. He will be asked, urged to sample choice wines, to be present on public occasions, when the conversation is not always the choicest, nor the manners the most approved. He will be asked to laugh at and to countenance the story that is doubtful, or in the fumes of tobacco, to listen to the double-entendre, the vulgarity and the slang, all too common when men are alone. He may be told of other clergymen, even bishops, who have done these things. He will be invited to the theatre, the opera, and told that greater men than he have gone, do go. He may be asked to attend the dances of the young people, and to take part in the same. He will be pressed to take a hand in whist, maybe to learn how to play poker. These are temptations to any clergyman, especially to young clergymen. They do not like to be considered prudish; it is hard work for a deacon to set himself, or his example, above that of a distinguished divine, or an eminent prelate. Frequently, to please the guest, or to put an end to the unpleasant solicitations, the thing not essentially evil, though perhaps essentially inconsistent, is done. The fatal results always follow. A compromise is always a loss. Respect for the office and for the man holding it, is lessened, whenever, for any reason, such compromise is made. The men who urge young ministers to make the compromise are generally the first to express the loss of respect they have suffered in consequence.
Men of the world will tell you, how frequently they hear on ‘change, “the Rev. So-and-So is a jolly man, a good fellow, he takes his wine right along with the rest of us;” or “such a clergyman is a peculiar parson; he goes to theatres and operas just like other men,” and always with such remarks, implied or expressed, comes the detraction which they are intended to make. The man in a parish who can say, “I defy any man, woman, or child, to whisper against me the charge of worldliness,” has a power that can remove mountains. If against a clergyman a single individual can say “he is worldly, secular, unspiritual, free in the use of allowable, though not expedient things of the world,” he is as weak as water, and cannot excel. The obstruction of social temptations to be worldly is one I beg you to surmount at the start. There is no room for compromise here. Toying with the world is to be ensnared by it. Learn how gracefully to say no; but whether gracefully or not, learn to say it. To have power in your pulpits, never let anybody in the pew feel that your tongue is dumb on any sin, or folly. Be able at all times to preach against worldliness in any form, conscious that you can say to everybody listening to you, “Thou canst not say I did it.”
It is difficult to give you explicit rules how to keep yourselves unspotted from the world. God does not give them. He gives no principles, then treats us not like babies who have to be watched, but like sons and daughters, who can be trusted. It isn’t such a wonderful hardship, if, for the honor and pleasure of our office, we are called upon to renounce some things that other Christians may legitimately indulge, but which we ministers ought to leave alone. We have resting upon us not only the vow of a Christian profession, but the additional vow of a Christian minister. We have, therefore, to maintain a consistency of Christian character, not only for our own sake, but because men, who never read Bibles, read us, and are accounting of us, not as men, but as clergymen, called men, picked men, and they judge truly by us, since they look to us as ensamples of the flock. We have scriptural authority for the statement that what ministers are, to a certain extent, to a great extent, their people are likely to become. In this view, in the personal character of the minister rests all his influence. In his general deportment, his manners, his bearing, his dress, his private intercourse, he is the minister. Let him never forget this, at all times, in all places, and as such, men take knowledge of him for good or for evil. His compositions may be elegant, his diction sublime, his rendering of public service passing criticism, his genius brilliant as Cicero’s, his oratory more resistless than the thunders of Demosthenes, let but a single man in the corner of a pew have reason to say, “Physician, heal thyself,” and what, after all, is our great divine, but something less than “sounding brass, or tinkling cymbal?” So important a factor is personal character to an efficient ministry, that I beg you, young brothers, to think seriously on this thing, and if you are not willing to crucify to yourself all worldly things, hesitate before you take orders. Much as we need you, rather than carry any worldly, secularized, frivolous, unspiritual men among us, spare us the infliction of your presence. Infinitely more honorable to turn back to the world than bring more of the world into our holy order. Too often it happens that the seed of the word is scattered on the Lord’s Day over the whole field, and in the course of the following week, the worldly-minded sower goes from one part of the field to another, and by a careless manner of living, by a frivolous conversation, by a worldliness of spirit, sows tares broadcast to choke the tender plants, or poisons to consume them.
I may not go on with this idea. Enough at last in dismissing this special topic, if I quote St. Bernard, “The trifles of the laity are sins of the clergy”, and declare that there are things not inherently sinful, yet decidedly contrary to our profession. Until we are ready to give up these things, we are not ready to take Holy Orders.
Let me go abruptly, now, to a second real obstruction of the work of the ministry, without even a connecting sentence to make the transition smooth.
I refer to the beliefs, theological and ecclesiastical, which every sincere minister holds dear, and the great difficulty he experiences in making others hold as dear, hold at all, in fact.
A young man, with his degree, goes to a technical school, and studies theology hard for three years, then, with his orders, goes into a parish, to be told, perhaps, by his senior warden, who has had but a plain education, never studied theology, nor read much history, that his views of the Sacraments and the Church are not at all those which the ardent young divine has preached. Happy for the tyro in divinity, if no thumbscrews are applied to enforce milder utterances in the future. The obstruction is aggravated by the fact that all ministers do not agree even upon the fundamental doctrines of our faith; that ecclesiastical discipline is so lax, that open heresy is never called to account, and that our Church, when expressing itself on points of doctrine, or of polity, does so with such well-chosen language that men of every school of thought in the Church find in the utterance the exact expression of their views; who, for example, will tell us whether in the now famous utterance of the House of Bishops in the last convention on the subject of “Christian Unity,” our right reverend fathers did, or did not, declare the apostolic succession necessary to the being of a Christian Church, did or did not admit the validity of lay baptism? The obstruction is also added to by the meagre statements given in Scriptures on questions of doctrine or sacraments, these revealing statements of fact, rather than conclusions of philosophy.
By the time a young man is ready to take orders he has formed some definite idea about the nature of sacraments, and knows pretty well in what school of Churchmanship to place himself. Be he high, low, broad or ritualistic in his views or tendencies, he is absolutely certain to experience a spiritual loneliness, if not depression, so soon as he attempts to teach his people.
If he be a Low Churchman, sincerely believing that the Church of Christ is the company of Christian people, and does not at all depend for its existence upon any form of ordination whatever, if he conscientiously holds that being a Christian depends rather upon a subjective consciousness of relationship with God than upon any submission to outward, objective sacraments, he is certain to find some of his people dissatisfied with his preaching, his form of service, his lack of what they consider a churchly taste, tone and feeling. If he happen to be a High Churchman, he will find parishioners who persist in calling his honest convictions a species of bigotry, and who consider him lacking in the essential grace of charity. He will be asked why his pulpit is not open to brethren of other denominations, and, in this connection, may be reminded that the Episcopal Church is far from having the best preachers in its own pulpits.
If a young man develops into a ritualist, has advanced ideas of sacramental grace, and Church unity, considers that auricular confession and priestly absolution develop the best type of the spiritual life, he is certain to meet men about him who fear he is a Jesuit in disguise, and to receive from his brethren in the ministry a cold reception, and at the best a suspicious welcome. These things constitute a real obstruction to the work of the ministry. To a great extent this is a unique feature of our Church. The Protestant denominations know no such feature of clerical life and work. The Roman Church is all too much “at unity with itself” to suffer from any such divisions of sentiment and opinion in its ranks. But it is inherent in the historic formation of our Church that parties should exist, that Puritan and cavalier should company together, that extreme Protestants of the Cranmer type should have fellowship with the Catholics of the type of Laud. The structure of our Book of Common Prayer, no less in its significant omissions than in its plain statements, shows that the descendants to-day maintain the theological beliefs, and hold the ecclesiastical opinions of their forefathers in the days of the Reformation. Bearing these facts in mind will do much to remove the obstruction we have mentioned. We are not to expect such unity of sentiment nor uniformity in service in this Church as we are wont to find in others about us. So much for comfort. The characteristic of this Church’s doctrine is the characteristic of Bible truth. Simple statements without definition, without explanation, must suffice for standards. This, of course, will leave the field open for opinion, and very naturally schools of thought will spring up in every age.
As long as there were Petrine, Pauline and Johannine schools among the apostles, and Clementine, Origenian and Augustinian schools among their immediate successors, we may take courage and not be despondent because it seems that we are divided. It would be the simplest thing in the world for our Church, by a too minute definition of doctrine, or too detailed proscript of ritual, to break up into at least three sects, each of which would be in perfect accord with itself; but better, more according to the mind of Him who prayed not that His followers would cease to be of many minds, but that they all might be one body to remain as it is. When the Church speaks she speaks facts, e.g., “It is evident unto all men, diligently reading Holy Scriptures and ancient authors, that from the apostles’ time there have been three orders, bishops, priests and deacons.” The Low Churchman makes little of this, the High Churchman much, the Broad Churchman what he pleases, the Ritualist most, but the Church in her serene dignity continues to pronounce the fact. “Seeing this child is regenerate.” A score of explanations will be given, but the Church adheres to the fact, and commands her ministers to declare it. “This is My Body: this My Blood.” On the explanation of this mystery really turns the issue of theology and Churchmanship. How much some would like the Church to add a definition or submit a statement of its belief. Trent has tried this, and made a miserable failure of it. Geneva, too, and with similar, some think worse results. It is the glory of the Anglican Church that repeating the Master’s words, and believing them, she says no more. It will be the cause of success in your ministry, my brother, if you, imbibing this spirit, so preach, and teach, in your congregations. Explaining mysteries is a hopeless task. “God never meant that man should scale the heavens by strides of human wisdom.” Do not be discouraged if among your flocks you find many men of many minds. Be thankful if in your congregations all schools of thought in the Church are represented. Under such conditions you can best cultivate the spirit of charity which is the spirit of Christ. And you will do this, not, as is too often thought, by striving to have your own way, but by patiently waiting until by your personal influence, your Christian character, your pastoral relation, you can succeed (and if you will take time, you will be sure to do this) in making your people think that your way is their way. Remember this.
A third obstruction arises out of the conflict between manifold tastes of our people and the right of a minister to order his services. In our Church the ministers have many rights accorded them, both in law and by tradition. A rector is pretty much a king in his petty kingdom, and I suppose it might accord with the experience of some to add—a slave in a petticoat kingdom. But it is not often wise, and it is never nice, to insist upon rights. Where they are not cheerfully accorded they are not worth having. For the very reason that ours is a Church of law and order, and its ministers have, in a measure, kingly powers, it is well for us to confer with the laity freely, to be willing to give up our tastes and predilections in matters not important, and to aim at one thing chiefly, and all other things subordinately. Custom, long continued, has the force of law. If you go into a parish with a use different from that which you have been accustomed to, different even from that which you may approve, do not consider that it is your bounden duty to revolutionize things in a week. The people are permanent. You, most likely, are to be transient. They must stop in the parish. You can leave at any time. They have a money investment in the property. You have not. They have associations, some of them very sacred, with things and usages. You have none. Until you have secured their love, their confidence, their unbounded esteem, do nothing in the way of change. When you have secured these you can do pretty much what you will. There are two ways of changing a parish use. One is, to begin your rectorship as you intend to conclude it, caring nothing for past traditions, insisting upon a rectors prerogative to order his service as he pleases, amenable only to his diocesan. A fool’s paradise is usually the result of this bold venture, and it is realized in about a fortnight. The other, and better way, is politely to enter on your work, deferring to past use and association, assuming that what has been is to be, until the people themselves will love you enough to care for what you desire. Success and happiness are as sure to follow this line of action as daylight follows night. Nothing is so unfortunate for the work and prosperity of a church as a want of confidence between people and priest, and few things produce this sad condition so quickly, so effectually, as covert changes, or unnatural surprises constantly occurring in the service. If changes are to be made, take counsel with your vestry, come before your people in a frank way, on the occasion of your anniversary of rectorship, tell the people all about them beforehand. Explain why they are made, if need be, and so establish the parish use from year to year. When this is done, have no further changes made for the year, and be sure that your choir-master understands this. Such action as this induces confidence, removes from the minds of your people the fear of constant changes, and serves to settle for a time this order of service. I believe that our clergy are largely responsible for the uneasiness prevalent in all too many of our congregations. The good old days, when Episcopalians took pride in feeling that wherever they went they could find themselves at home at once in attending the service of the Church, are almost gone. People used to pray with face buried in the hands, expressive of humility and desire to commune in the spirit and with their eyes closed to the things of sense. Now, most of them pray gazing through their extended fingers to see what is going on in the chancel. The constant introduction by the clergy of something new in service has made conservative people restless and anxious, and the radical youth eager for a change. With new style of surplice, colored stoles and hangings, elevation of alms bason, turning to the east for Gloria and Creed, singing Amens and Versicles, choral Litany, addition of “Gratias Tihi,” “Benedictus” and “Agnus Dei” to the Communion Office, special vestments for the Eucharist, has come the very natural desire to have authority on these subjects, and in the absence of anything official there hangs in many of our vestries a strange conglomeration of Roman doctrine and perverted Anglicanism, with concise directions for everything from the proper colors of the day, to the proper way of washing one’s fingers after the ablutions of the vessels, all emanating from the fertile mind of a layman, engaged in the book and almanac business in our metropolis. “Who made thee to be a judge over us,” we might well ask. These novelties, and their introduction in service, constitute a real obstruction to the minister’s work. And in this instance the clergy have no one but themselves to blame. Without reflection upon the value of these new features in the services of our Church, most of which I am free to say I approve of, and use, we say, that it is time to calls halt, and to get our directions from bishops, rather than laymen and women. Our bishops ought to give us some idea of the limit desirable in each diocese, and loyalty of the clergy ought then to be sufficient to ensure reasonable conformity. Every clergyman knows he is beset as soon as he enters upon his work by those who want something new, something more than they have had, this part of the service sung, this posture taken, this color worn, and so on, until in despair he wonders, if it ever occurs to the dear people of his flock, that God sent him to save their souls, rather than cultivate their tastes. I have no doubt it is true that now, in this country, there are at least 100 parishes where there have been serious difficulties, and the progress of the Church greatly hindered, by these ritualistic grievances. It is a shame that this should be so, and I appeal to you, young brothers, to do what you can to put a stop to this; you will do better to put up with the baldest Puritan service for five years, preach in a black gown, and never dare to say Ah-men, rather than improve your service, and have your own way at the expense of “peace within God’s house, and prosperity in his palaces.”
There are some other obstructions to your work, which time will not permit me to do more than barely to mention.
There are unbaptized, and unconfirmed laymen in many vestries. The thing is unfortunate, but in many instances must be borne with. There are worldly-minded men and women who think they know more about the doctrines and customs of the Church than you do. They are to be patiently endured. There are incompetent officials, who, because of social connections, have to be retained. There are customs in parishes which may be distasteful, but had better be borne with for a time, than disturbed harshly by a ruthless hand. There are men, known to be corrupt in politics, crooked in business, vicious, it may be, in private life, who yet rent prominent pews, sometimes may come to the sacrament. Sad as this is, it isn’t the duty of a young rector to excommunicate the man, who for years has been elevated in the community, and may, perhaps, be the host of the bishop, when he makes his annual visits. There may be prominent people in the parish at variance with one another, do not speak when they meet. This is sad. It is a real obstruction to your work, but, take an older man’s advice, and be very careful how you attempt to remove it. You may feel that it is cowardly to ignore such things, but let me tell you there is a great difference between courage born of patience, and a foolhardiness that delights in uselessly bumping one’s head against a stone fence. I am well aware that I have but carelessly put together my random thoughts on obstructions in the ministerial work, but I believe I have given you some things to think upon, things well worth your serious meditation, before you enter upon the active work of your ministry. We cannot look at storm clouds and sunshine simultaneously. There is a brighter side of the ministerial life than that I have pictured, a side so bright indeed, that I can say, after thirteen years’ experience in one country, and two city parishes, dealing with all sorts and conditions of men, I love the work to-day more than ever, and would not exchange my life and vocation for that of any men living. To sum up my impressions in a few pregnant sentences, I should be quite willing to go on record and say: In nine cases out of ten of serious difficulty, the fault is the minister’s. If only clergymen will add to their knowledge and zeal a sanctified common sense in dealing with men, no serious trouble would ensue. Where in a rector there is godliness, zeal, common sense, and a willingness to wait for his own way, success in his ministry is a certainty.