Project Canterbury

The Liturgy of the Episcopal Church: A Sermon, Delivered in St. John's Church, Savannah, on Sunday, Nov. 18, 1860.

By George Henry Clark.

Savannah: George N. Nichols, Printer, 1860.

To my Beloved People of St. John’s Church:

On the Sunday before the following Sermon was delivered, I addressed you on the subject of Public Religious Worship, under these particulars: Your duty to yourselves, your duty to your families, your duty to society, and your duty to God. You were told, that each individual among you, in view of the nature with which he is endowed, and the endless life before him, is under obligation to engage, in this worship; that private communion with God is not to be expected, where sacredly authorized services are willingly neglected; that this worship fortifies you against temptation, and imperceptibly moulds your characters, imparting purity and love of truth; that you cannot join in it sincerely, and not in every way be elevated by its influence, becoming better citizens, kinder neighbors, surer friends, more patient under trials, more just in duties, by the power which it exerts over you; and that you owe it to your souls and your ultimate existence, to engage in it with regularity. It shows that one does not know his wants, when this obligation is lightly held. Something is wrong if you do not love to meet in the Church of Christ. Something is wrong, if you only come here, when there is no temptation to stay away.

You were told, that public worship is a duty, which parents owe to their families; that if the custom of worshipping is of value, and the establishment of it, in early life, almost a necessity, it is a matter of the first importance for parents to take, not send, their children to God’s house; that the son of a careless [3/4] Church-goer will probably slide away from Church influences, when the restraints of childhood are over, perhaps wholly ignoring the Church, never entering its hallowed walls; that, while irreverent and negligent parents, may be able, by reason of the pious education of their childhood, to be moral, and upright, notwithstanding their inadequate appreciation of worship, their son, taught by a father’s or a mother’s life, may, by renouncing the Church, renounce all the principles which cluster around it, and be driven, a shattered wreck, on the rocks of depravity and corruption; or if he escape such dangers, human philosophy may take with him the place of religion, and human ambition the place of God. You were told why you should occupy, if possible, the same pew, year after year; how your child should have sacred associations gathering around that spot, and be able to remember, amid the perils of manhood, his bowing there, with sainted ones, and learning with them to pour out his heart to God; that that recollection will be a protection to him, a power for good, it may be forever, in his soul.

You were told, that the public worship of Almighty God is a duty which you owe to society; that the public morality rests on it; that it will not do for one to say, he can pray at home, when the general interests of virtue and piety demand that he shall consecrate his service to God in His temple, the perpetuation and the very existence of religion depending on the support of public Christian worship.

You were then called to consider this subject in connection with divine obligations. You were asked to look on public worship as a duty to God. To forsake this assembling was pronounced, an offence to [4/5] your gracious Creator. You were instructed, to be here, as poor, sinful men, admitting guilt, craving favor, to show your love to Christ, to show your trust and gratitude. You were told, that it was not your convenience which you were to consult, nor your mere gratification; that you were to be here, not as spectators, but as honest, penitent, hopeful worshippers. Let me call on you, my beloved people, to remember these things in connection with the statements of the following sermon, in which it was my purpose, not to instruct you as to your duty, but to set forth the superiority of our Liturgical Services.

How blessed, how grand is this our Sunday worship. Labor stops. The weary workman rests. The din of trade is hushed. The halls of gayety are closed. Secular study, political strife, schemes of ambition, are suspended, and man kneels before his God. How solemn the duty, how exalted the privilege. See to it, that it makes you truer, purer, more like Christ.

See to it, that not your words only, but your thoughts, go up to heaven. See to it, that this worship enlarges your soul, and deepens your piety. See to it, that neither pride, nor lust, nor levity, intrude on the sacred hour. See to it, that you keep the world, the flesh, and the Devil, outside the Church, outside your heart. The place is God’s; the time is God’s; the service is God’s. To him these prayers bear your spirit; from Him may they bring you blessings.

I am,

With great affection,

Your friend and Rector,



It is my purpose, in this sermon, to bring before you the advantages which are secured in the Episcopal Church, by her Liturgical Worship. This subject I take up, not in a controversial spirit, but simply with a view to the better appreciation of your religious privileges. It is wisdom, under some circumstances, to let the Liturgy speak for itself, and impress itself on intelligence and piety; but, in a congregation containing many, by whom our forms of devotion have but recently been adopted, and which are yet perhaps regarded, in comparison with other modes, as of doubtful benefit, it is right and proper that we give the reasons, why we so venerate and cherish these forms of prayer, which our Christian fathers have bequeathed to us. To do this implies no want of charity, nor lack of affection, toward those whose worship is different from ours, but only our conviction of the great and peculiar excellence of our premeditated services. I disclaim hostility to others as unworthy of the pulpit, and inconsistent with the Gospel; as contrary to the temper of our devotions, and out of harmony with our position as followers of Jesus Christ.

A prominent advantage involved in our Liturgy is indicated by the text: praying with the spirit, and with the understanding; in other words, and reversing the order, praying intelligently and with the heart. It is not affirmed that liturgical services necessarily secure these ends, but that they are better [6/7] adapted to attaining them than other modes of worship. Assuming that a worshipper is not thoughtless, and truly desires to commune with God, the Liturgy secures, both for the mind and heart, what the mind and heart need in worship, more certainly and constantly than extemporaneous services; and we affirm its superiority to such services, in that it best enables one to pray with the spirit and with the understanding. It is possible to pray with the spirit and not with the understanding; many, I doubt not, do this, praying in a dead language in the Romish Church, for prayer, perhaps, is but the “burden of a sigh, or the falling of a tear,” but this is not the best or most comprehensive devotion; and one can take a devotional attitude before God, in attempting to follow unpremeditated prayers, which he cannot understand, but this again is not the most desirable communion with heaven, nor that which the Apostle speaks of in the text. Let us look more closely this subject. The maker of a public extemporaneous prayer is, by necessity, more or less occupied in intellectual invention. If he has not a form of his own, his work is apt to be too much a work of the head, too little a work of the heart. The demands on memory, the securing of grammatical accuracy, the attaining of appropriate language, the arrangement of subjects and sentences, require often a mental effort, which completely paralizes the heart. The religious affections cannot flow out freely, where the mind has to toil on, under the consciousness of feeble conceptions and in adequacy of thought. Where one does not understand himself, it is presumption to attempt to lead others; how much greater presumption to attempt to guide souls Godward, when one feels that his mind is [7/8] dragging itself earthward, his thoughts being dim, his materials meagre, and his language obscure. It would be unjust thus to characterize all extemporaneous worship; sometimes it is clear, impressive, solemn; but where there is great originality, there is great mental exercise, which interferes with spiritual communion; and where there is poverty of thought, confusion, embarrassment, there must be a check on the heart and its outpourings. While the framer of an extemporaneous worship is contending with these difficulties, the worshipping listener is beset by hindrances to devotion of another character. He must apprehend the meaning of what he hears, in order to his praying with the understanding—a thing not always easy to be done. He must agree with the doctrines unfolded in the prayer, and yet possibly his mind dissents from them. He is liable to be forced into a critical position, if he has culture and taste, and that is likely to impede his devotions. The understanding may have too much to do, or it may have too little to do, in such a worship; and in either case, the heart does not pray.

These evils are avoided in our liturgical worship. The minister is not required to invent, the people are not, in the hour of prayer, required to judge. The understanding is not distracted, nor are the affections disturbed. The meaning of the petitions are understood by all. No doubtful doctrine and no questionable subjects can find their way into the services. We have but to join our souls to the supplications, and confessions, and praises, and send them up to God. The mode of conducting the worship can furnish the only possible perplexity on one part; the worshipper’s inattention and coldness of heart, the only obstacles [8/9] on the other. Devotion may not be secured, but if not, the fault is with ourselves, not in our forms of worship.

Another advantage in our Liturgy, is its comprehensiveness. All that belongs to worship is included in it—confession, praise and prayer. It meets the wants every Sunday, of every Christian heart. It vibrates on every chord of the soul, which can properly be touched in the house of God, whether it be of penitence, or gratitude, or sorrow. Instead of wanting specialty, its prayers are so formed, that, under general language, each worshipper can offer to God, the cares, the burdens and the wants of his heart. It is a mistake to suppose, that variety in emotions or aspirations is best secured by ever changing language. New thoughts, new hopes, new resolutions are inspired by old familiar words; and as the music which we have heard in childhood, thrills through our bosoms like no other music, so these praises, and prayers, and confessions, come to us in our sacred hours; come with new power, with ever freshening beauty; they speak to us in deeper and deeper tones; they stir our souls to love and mercy, to penitence and faith, to gratitude and hope, far quicker, far more surely, than any other worship. The same words, Sunday after Sunday, says the critic, how cold, how formal; the same words; but not, it may be, the same things under them. Praying, for instance, that it may please God to succor, help, and comfort all who are in danger; to defend the fatherless and desolate; that in our troubles we may put our confidence and trust in his mercy; in confessing that we have erred and strayed from his ways, that we lament our sins and acknowledge our wretchedness, that “we have left [9/10] undone those things which we ought to have done, and have done those things which we ought not to have done,” we do not of necessity fix our minds on the same subjects, the same sins to be repented of, or the same sufferings to be assuaged. Perhaps to-day, in the unchangeable words of the Liturgy, one of us has thanked God for some special mercy of the past week; and another has bowed his soul in the sad remembrance of some particular sin; and another has poured out his heart’s desire that God would have mercy on some poor wanderer, or some afflicted and troubled spirit; so that, while the language is fixed, the confessions, petitions and thanksgivings are as varied as our sins, our wants and our blessings.

Is this comprehensiveness secured in common extemporaneous worship? Are all wants of all hearts met in such unpremeditated devotions? Are confessions, thanksgiving and prayer, always rightly commingled? May not the intellect composing, on the instant, the worship for hundreds of human beings, fail in the mighty work which it assumes to execute? and may not the heart, which comes between the hearts of the people and their God be in error and in darkness, incapable of transmitting the messages, which men need to send to heaven?

It is another advantage of our worship, that the prayers are so plain, that the most unlearned can comprehend them, and so pure in their diction, that the most cultivated can enjoy them. This combination of simplicity and beauty of language is a distinguishing feature of the Prayer Book, and constitutes one of the highest excellencies in our forms of devotion. There is nothing to perplex the intellect, and nothing to offend the taste. The most uncultivated can [10/11] engage in the service intelligently, and the most refined can engage in it with delight. Children can take a part in it, long before they could be trained to appreciate, or be taught to comprehend the complicated, theological and perhaps philosophical petitions of unwritten worship; and the old, when incapacitated for other public worship, by physical or mental infirmities, can take its hallowing language on their trembling lips. Thus, it blesses childhood, and thus it comforts age; trains the pliant heart of youth, and supports the wearied, care-worn pilgrim; for the one, it lights the pathway of life, for the other, it illumines the darkness of the grave.

The Liturgy is peculiarly fitted for arresting and holding the attention of worshippers. This advantage arises out of the variety and changes in the services, the brevity and pertinency of the separate acts of devotion, and the part which the people are individually called to take. Objection is sometimes made to our frequent changes of posture; but, sitting being the proper position when instruction is listened to, standing the proper position when praise is rendered, kneeling the proper position when prayer is offered, it is manifest, that these variations are not only not arbitrarily required, but that they serve a very important purpose. The spirit is often willing, when the flesh is weak. One’s heart may be inclined to worship, when the body is inclined to rest. Now, there must be a great preponderance of the physical over the spiritual, when in these services a man yields to the former. If he chooses to spend the sacred hour of worship in sleep, he, perhaps, can do so, though the character of the worship makes that difficult; but, if he desires to keep his faculties in action and his soul [11/12] in a religious attitude, these variations in the Liturgy, even in an inert physical state, largely contribute to these ends. It is therefore not a common thing to see people sleeping in the time of our worship. Though the service is long, the divisions of it, and the changes which these divisions involve, tend to keep alive the intellect and the affections.

And still more marked are the benefits of the responses in this sacred Ritual. If we apprehended fully this peculiarity, and individually carried out, the theory of the Church; if every Christian worshipper gave out his full and clear amen to the prayers, and Joined, with audible voice in the praises and confessions, the solemnity and sublimnity of this worship would be greatly enhanced, interest and sympathy would be widely extended; heart after heart would feel its glowing inspirations; lip after lip would quicken with its hallowed utterances; knee after knee would bend before the Almighty Sovereign and the blessed Redeemer; no longer should we of hear a cold and barren worship; and these, our temples, would be sought, not merely for the conservatism of the Church, or the revered antiquity of the Church, or the Gospel truth of the Church, but for her animating and glowing worship, her inspiring, soul-stirring prayers and adorations.

Rising to higher ground, let me state to you the advantage which the Liturgy holds, in that it embodies the main doctrines and the most precious language of the Bible. As clearly as the sun impresses the beauties of nature on the silvered plate of the Photographer, so clearly have the framers of the Prayer Book impressed on it the truths of God’s word. As faithfully as the Painter transfers to the canvass the [12/13] features and coloring of the human race, so faithfully have the makers of the Liturgy transferred to its pages the truths and the spirit of divine revelation. The Gospel is incorporated in every supplication and in every adoration. The very words of inspiration are engrafted into it. The familiar and blessed language, the revered and hallowed names of the book, which God has given, meet you on every page, in every line. You cannot read a prayer and not feel that Christ is your Mediator. You make a confession, in hope of pardon, and it is in the most fitting Bible terms of penitence, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” You offer praise, and your soul thrills with the very language of the Scriptures. You pour out your heart, in prayer, for faith, for charity, for power in temptation, for peace in trouble, for defence in adversity, for patience in affliction, for the redemption that comes through Jesus Christ, not in the language which your fellow-man may furnish, under the inspiration of the moment, furnish, possibly, when his mind sees darkly and when his heart is cold; furnish, it may be, when it is presumptuous in him to come between the souls of worshippers and their God; but in the language, which pious men have deliberately chosen, and chosen in no small part from God’s holy word. The devotions of the Prayer Book then are, to a great extent, the embodiment of the praises, confessions and petitions of the Bible; better, holier, more inspiring means of communion with our Heavenly Father than those which other worship commonly secures.

Our Liturgy not only embraces the truths of the Gospel, but it preserves them. It is conservative of Christian doctrine. It stands a beautiful, and yet a [13/14] firm and solid pillar on the rock of God’s truth, warding off, on one side, the attacks of fanaticism—on the other, the attacks of infidelity. Age after age, century after century, it teaches those glorious truths which Christ uttered; it tells man of his guilt and his helplessness, and his need of a Saviour; it proclaims the divinity of the Son of God, and the sacred offices of the Holy Spirit; it perpetuates the comforting and animating doctrines of the cross; and is a barrier against that, which Church history indicates as a danger, the introduction of false theology, through the services of religion. In a congregation worshipping without a fixed form, the foundations of truth may gradually be undermined; the people, almost without realizing the fearful fact, may lose the Gospel; but, in this Liturgy, the currents of truth roll on, from generation to generation, as clear, and pure, and life-giving, as when they first gushed forth from the fountains of benevolence and love; and as the cross will hold its place, in the constellations of the southern heavens till the earth has ceased to revolve, so shall the Cross to which we look for pardon and for hope, shine out amid the spiritual constellations of our Liturgy, till time shall be no more, and the redeemed, of every name and every race, shall have joined in the nobler worship of heaven.

We love the Prayer Book. We love it more and more; we love it, because it enables us to pray with the understanding and with the spirit; we love it, because it meets all the wants and all the exalted hopes of the heart; we love it, because it is so simple and yet so lofty in its diction; we love it, because the ignorant, the young, and the old, can secure its protection and reach its blessings; we love it, because all [14/15] worshippers are called to take an active part in it; we love it because it contains God’s truth, and perpetuates that truth in the Church; we love it too, for its venerable antiquity, for its connection with the holy dead, whose lips were once vocal with its anthems and its prayers, for its associations with those whose voices once mingled with our own, and who now share we hope, a higher worship; we love it, because so many millions, scattered over both hemispheres, and under all latitudes, the high and the low, the poor and the rich, the exile on some distant shore, and the sailor on the broad seas, the mother in her native Church, and the son far from Christian temples, in the ice bound Arctic, send up to God these Te Deums, and confessions, and prayers, thus blending their souls in acts of devotion and piety.

My hearers, having such a worship here on earth, may it be our privilege in that future to which we pass, to join the glorious company of Apostles and Martyrs, the sainted ones who have gone before, and pour fourth our praises and our thanks before the eternal throne of mercy and of love, lifting up our souls, and saying: “We praise Thee, O God; we acknowledge Thee to be the Lord. Holy, holy, holy. Lord God of Sabaoth, heaven and earth are full of the majesty of thy glory.”

Project Canterbury