Wanted - A Baptism of Reverence

Transcription of Article published in the Primitive Methodist Magazine by William C. Ball

A PROMINENT member of another Church said to the writer a short time ago, “Your people, the Primitive Methodists, are very hearty and deeply earnest, but they are not reverent.”

This criticism, which was offered in the kindliest spirit, was too sweeping; nevertheless, there was too much truth in it for it to be roundly denied. We did not, of course, at the time give our Church away by expressing all we thought. Here, however, we may surely say with freedom that, in our humble judgment, the speaker put his finger on the weakest spot in our denominational character. Irreverence is unquestionably our besetting sin. More than any other denomination unless it be the Salvation Army, we need to cultivate refinement. From some perils to which other churches are exposed we are practically free. Sacerdotalism, for example, is as unlikely to injure us as a snowstorm to sweep over the tropics. On certain sides of the fort, our walls are simply unscalable at present. This being so, there is all the more reason to look well to our defences; where we are really weak.

Now it is through the gateway of irreverence that the enemy will enter unless we are vigilant. Let not our readers then look askance at us for blowing this trumpet of warning. Let us not be deemed an enemy of our Israel because we are fearful on this score. If it can be shown that we are foolishly timid, we shall heartily rejoice; but before God we avow that to us it seems that no cloud hangs so blackly over our Church’s head as this.

Nor is it difficult to see how we have come into this perilous condition. We are, above all things, a democratic Church, and the pathway of democracy always skirts the edge of the precipice of irreverence. We are a hearty people, as our friend observed, and the peculiar peril of heartiness is its tendency to lapse into roughness. We are earnest, too, as he also bore witness, and earnest souls are always tempted to set small store upon the subtleties and delicacies of refinement. Our very excellencies then open the door to the danger of irreverence. We could not do our God-appointed work without coming into the neighbourhood of this perilous rock. But to have to sail close by it is one thing, to be compelled to strike it is another. The former may be inevitable; the latter is by no means necessary, nor will it be our experience if we keep our eye on the chart and compass, and hold the helm with a firm hand. In other words, we may have and ought to have as a Church apostolic passion, Holy Ghost fervour, cordial brotherhood and total freedom from artificiality and stiltedness, and yet be as careful of good taste as the stateliest courtier at Windsor, yea and be as dignified, as the very angels around the throne of God.

Perhaps we ought here in fairness to drop generalities and come to definite statements. We may be asked for proofs of the irreverence which we lament, and it is only proper that some should be supplied. Take, for example, the widespread habit of unpunctuality. Hundreds of our worshippers scarcely ever know what it is to be in their pews when the preacher first says, “Let us worship God.” Many of them seem to think they are early if they get in before the first hymn is concluded, and numbers have been heard to say that if they arrive just after prayer, that will do. Is this reverent? If we had an appointment with King Edward VII. should we not be ashamed to be even a minute behind time? Why should we treat the King of Kings with less respect than an earthly monarch? The matter is made worse by the fact that some of the worst offenders are those who are absolutely without excuse. Nor is the fault confined to the pew. Preachers, ministerial and lay, are often the biggest sinners of all, and when the teacher sets a bad example, is it surprising if the disciples take their cue from him? From unpunctuality other evils naturally flow. Late-comers distract the attention of the congregation. The early hymns in the service are apt to be feebly rendered because the company is small, or the choir scanty, or the organist missing, or most probably for all three reasons. The service is robbed of its calmness, and the preacher, placed in full view of the ever swinging door, is ill prepared to lead the congregation to the throne of grace.

Late officials, too, are seen on the wing, arranging for the taking of the collection, enquiring about notices, invading even the pulpit often on the very threshold of prayer, and in other ways giving attention to matters that should have been quietly settled in the vestry ten minutes before the service began.

Other manifestations of irreverence in public worship are equally in evidence. How frequently the quiet of the sanctuary is disturbed by the shuffling of feet, the murmur of voices, and the irritating cough which in nine cases out of ten is nothing but a nervous habit unchecked. Then again, how far from the ideal is the behaviour of many of our young people. Some of them cannot sit still and give attention to the message of truth, nor do they attempt, in many instances, to conceal their restlessness. Only by exchanging frivolous glances with their friends, passing notes, reading their hymn books and similar pursuits can they manage to live through the half hour allotted to the preacher. It is delightful to see the young in the house of God, but surely we have a right to expect them to behave themselves, especially when they are active members of Christian Endeavour classes. Then, to name only one more circumstance out of many that might be mentioned, look at the way in which many Primitive Methodists leave the sanctuary. In many churches, the preacher has scarcely time to get the benediction decently concluded, ere there is a stampede for the door, as though a fire had broken out. Where this habit is not indulged in you often find a practice almost equally odious, namely that of standing in the sanctuary in little knots discussing anything and everything, instead of filing in an orderly and quiet fashion right out into the open air ere a word is spoken. When one thinks of these things one is rejoiced to remember the familiar line of the hymn that assures us that in the upper temple “congregations ne’er break up.”

Brethren and sisters, why should these things be? Go into an Anglican Church, and what different conditions prevail! Unpunctuality, it is true, casts its shadow even there, but not so blackly as in our Churches, and the other evils we have named are practically non-existent. In the State Churches you can hear a pin drop when the lessons are read and the sermon is delivered, and how beautifully and with what dignity the service is concluded! It may be said that the Anglican’s reverence is only outward, but this is easier to say than to prove, and even if it were true, we would a thousand times rather have the reverence of mere deportment than vulgarity. “But,” says someone, “I cannot enjoy such quiet, stately services.” If that be so, we cannot congratulate you. You remind us of the man who confesses that he does not appreciate his dinner unless it is laid out in the rough and unless he can put his knife in his mouth and afterwards use it to carve the joint for himself and everybody at the table. To such a person we should quickly say that order and decency do not destroy comfort but promote it, and in the same way reverence in God’s house does not fetter worship, but facilitates it.

“But why not go over to the Church of England,” says another, “if you so admire their ways?” But we have no desire to go over to them. What we want is to introduce into our services the same dignity and restfulness that pervade theirs. And this can be done without sacrificing anything essential to Methodism. Other Churches are giving attention to this thing as well as our Anglican friends, and where they lead we can surely follow. In some things it has been our privilege to set the pace. We cannot do that here, for we are so dreadfully behind, but we can do the next best thing; we can quicken our steps, and come slowly but surely into line with our neighbours. Are we unwilling to try? When so many of the features of our Church life are so praiseworthy, is it not a pity to fall short in so simple a matter as this!

How shall we begin? We reply, individually. Let us each for himself register a vow before God to resolutely check, by the help of His grace, all tendencies to irreverence, especially when in His house. Then when we have come to close grip with our own souls, we may lovingly and tactfully carry the good work further afield. A Reverence league would do no harm. We have had associations ere this for objects far less worthy.

Needless to say, the home circle is a magnificent sphere for inculcating right principles along this line. In the Sunday School, too, there are unlimited opportunities for the same good work. Anyhow, wherever it is done, the young should especially be influenced in this direction. The work at best will be slow, hence the earlier in life it is begun, the more abiding will be its fruits. Finally, let us not forget that at the root of true reverence there is the spiritual mind. We shall get a baptism of reverence if we dwell continually in the life and love of God.


Primitive Methodist Magazine 1908/779

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