Sunday 18 October 2015

Worship: Catholic & Protestant

William Cobbett: Englishman
There is no excuse. I came to William Cobbett very late in the day. Yet at one time my grandparents lived in Botley in a house called Cobbett's Cottage, and my grandfather worked the kitchen gardens of the big house which once must have belonged to Cobbett. At last, I am remedying my omission. First I read Anthony Burton's biography of the great man, entitled simply "William Cobbett: Englishman." Now I am enjoying accompanying Cobbett on his "Rural Rides".

He made these journeys on foot and on horse-back in the first quarter of the 19th Century. The wars with the French were recently ended, there was terrible rural poverty. As he comments on the state of the crops through the counties where he travels he also notes the situation of the farm workers. Where the land is rich, it has been enclosed by wealthy land-owners, and the poor are treated as slave labour. They fare much better in the poorer lands, where it has not been worthwhile for the rich to take them in; so they are able to keep pigs and poultry and gather wood for their fires; Elsewhere, they are persecuted for daring to snare a rabbit or kill a deer, and the harshest of penalties are handed down to them by those landowners and their friends.

He is very harsh too on the Church of England with so many of its clergy in sinecures, living off tithes extracted from struggling farmers. Hatred of the French, and of Catholicism, was deeply engrained in England by this time; yet Cobbett often has a good word for both the Catholic Church and for France. Forgive a rather long extract from his visit to Tenterden in Kent.

"The church at this place is a very large and fine old building. The tower stands upon a base thirty feet square. Like the church at Goudhurst it will hold three thousand people. And, let it be observed, that, when these churches were built, people had not yet thought of cramming them with pews as a stable is filled with stalls. Those who built these churches, had no idea that worshipping God meant, going to sit to hear a man talk out what he called preaching. By worship they meant very different things; and, above all things, when they had made a fine and noble building, they did not dream of disfiguring the inside of it by filling its floor with large and deep boxes made of deal boards. Some were not stuck into pews lined with green or red cloth, while others were rammed into corners to stand erect, or sit on the floor. These odious distinctions are of  Protestant origin and growth. This  lazy lolling in pews we owe to what is called the Reformation. " ... "I often wonder how it is,that the present parsons are not ashamed to call the churches theirs! They must know the origin of them; and, how they  can look at them, and, at the same time, revile the Catholics, is astonishing to me."

The history of Pues
Something of the same feeling saw the Cambridge Camden Society publishing a paper read to them in 1841 on the History of Pues.  Like Cobbett a chief argument against Pues was that they "shut out the poor, who ought if there be any difference, to be first cared for in church, not last." The writer goes on to ask, "What is the History of Pues, but the history of the intrusion of human pride,and selfishness, and indolence, into the worship of God?" What we have come to call the Oxford Movement was just getting into gear and we should recognise Cobbett as one of its progenitors.

So to return to Cobbett. He was not only hard on the Church of England. "This evening I have been to the Methodist Meeting-house. I was attracted,fairly drawn all down the street, by the singing. When I came to the place the parson was got into prayer. His hands were clenched together and held up, his face turned up and back so as to be nearly parallel with the ceiling, and he was bawling away, with his 'do thou' and 'mayest thou' and 'may we' enough to stun one.  Noisy, however, as he was, he was unable to fix the attention of a parcel of girls in the gallery, whose eyes were all over the place while his eyes were so devoutly shut up. After a deal of this rigmarole called prayer, came the preachy as the negroes call it; and a preachy it really was. Such a mixture of whining cant and of foppish affectation I scarcely ever heard in my life." So, if you have not yet read Cobbett for yourself, ask Father Christmas for the Rural Rides. I wish he were around to comment on some of what we dare call worship today - in both Catholic and Protestant churches.

Wednesday 14 October 2015

Ascribe unto the Lord

Is there any hope of rescuing one element of Anglican Patrimony - the Ascription at the end of a sermon? Always, as I remember sermons from my youth, the preacher ended by ascribing the glory to God  This was also how that great master preacher, Austin Farrer, would end his sermon, and often it would take up the theme of what he had been preaching. So for example in the last of a series of sermons preached in Pusey House in 1963, a sermon on Sanctification, he concluded: "This is the will of God. Your sanctification. And why is it his will? That he may enrich you with the glory of his works, the truth of his love, and the vision of  his countenance, both here and in that heaven which beholds him face to face; where to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost, three Persons in one God, is worthily ascribed what is most justly due, all might, dominion, majesty and power, through ages everlasting." Not just an ending, a poetic peroration.

When a sermon ended like that, the congregation could respond with a heartfelt "Amen".

Today, the ascription is almost always missing; but often the preacher himself ends his sermon simply by saying "Amen". Now that is just extraordinary. "Amen" signifies agreement. Does the preacher expect the congregation to join him in saying "Amen"? Surely not; And if the preacher believes what he has preached, he has no need to say "Amen".That is the response to something, particularly a prayer, which another has uttered.

During eight years at St Stephen's House I tried to teach something of the art of preaching - homiletics to give it an unnecessarily pompous name. In particular I explained how best to end a sermon. I think my words went unheeded, for I still hear former students at the conclusion of a sermon just saying "Amen" - as an indication that, there you are, take it or leave it, I'm done.

Where Farrer does not give an ascription he often ends with words of  Our Lord, which again can properly evoke an "Amen" - in the sermon before the one already quoted he concludes, "He said unto them, All power is given to me in heaven and on earth. Go therefore make disciples of all nations; Lo, I am with you always, to the end of the world".

I think in many printed sermons the ascription does not appear, simply because everyone would have know it ended with the preacher saying something like "To the One Wise God, Living and Eternal, be all praise and glory, now and for ever". Certainly he would not have wanted anyone saying "Amen" to his own words. Newman often has something of Our Lord's at the end of his sermons; for instance, "Christ says for us continually, 'Father, forgive them' for they know not what they do'". Once again, a congregation might properly respond 'Amen' to that. (This from sermon XVII on Subjects of the Day, 1853).

I have a few sermons on my shelves; so J B Lightfoot in 1872 had as a final sentence on 'The triumph of failure' "Trust God,who is One, and not the world because it is many. Then your triumph is assured. 'This, this is the victory that overcometh the world, even our faith'   In similar vein G R Prynne in St Peter's Plymouth in 1876: "Blessed Jesus, let thy words come with power to our hearts. Give us grace to do what thou dost command, and then command what thou wilt".

So, dear preachers, do be careful what you say "Amen" to - for it is probably just an opinion of your own. It really does matter how you end your sermon. Safest and best of all, ascribe the Glory to God - then your poor hearers will at least know that you have finished (even if your sermon might have ended some time earlier).