THE COMPOSITION OF SERMONS.
VIR. GEE, Vicar of Abbots Langley, Rural Dean, author of 111 at least one sensible little religious book, and evidently an Accomplished as well as a pious man, has undertaken to help clergymen of the present day in producing useful sermons, by the publication of a little work* devoted to that subject. We cannot say that we should look for any great improvement from the adop- tion of Mr. Gee's advice, 'judicious' though no doubt it often is. Mr. Gee is somewhat shocked with a sentence which he quotes,— • Our Sermons: an Attempt to Consider Familiarly but Reverently the Preacher's Wort in the Present Day. By Bev. B. Qee, MA., Oxon. London: Lougmans. we believe from a remark made in these columns,—that "there is a gulf between the clerical and the ordinary male mind, which is deep and daily deepening," and though he professes to be anxious to fill up such gulf, if such gulf there be, it is obvious that his qualifying doubt as to its existence is inconsistent with his power to recognize it in anything like its full magnitude. Indeed, as we turn over the pages of Mr. Gee's work, we feel, with every respect for him, that he has never entered into that profound feeling of despondency with which most laymen of the present day await the transition of the clergyman from the reading desk to the pulpit. Our own impression is, that whatever other difficulties there might be in the arrangement, average sermons are not likely to become really useful until clergymen take it year and year about with laymen in the thick of actual every-day life. As it is, they lead a sort of charmed existence, scarcely hearing at all the habitual comments and opinions of the living world on the lives and actions of ordinary men, or hearing them only through lips which com- municate them with conventional expressions of condemnation and regret so as to break the jar upon the nerves. What of living evil they know accurately is either the chronic evil of a social con- dition far beneath their own, and on which, therefore, they look without any sense of temptation, without any realizing insight,— or, on the other hand, what they remember of their own youthful days at the University, which, again, has probably lost half its reality for them, and which they have pushed aside, neatly classified under the head of 'sins of youth.' What men who half-vainly seek to effect some sort of unity between the prayers and lessons of the Sunday and the actual work of the week miss so much in the sermon, is, any attempt to realize in detail how either the spiritual revelation or the moral teaching of Christ is to be applied to the totally new forms of life which have arisen in the present day. In the first place, science, striding rapidly along, is doing much to alter the form in which men conceive the relation of causes and effects in both the outer and the inner world,—doing much to substitute what Mr. Grove calls the principle of "perfect continuity" for the phenomena which the Prayer Book assumes, in its prayers for rain, fine weather, &c., to depend wholly on the direct voli- tion of the Almighty,—and, again, to sap even the belief in individual freedom and responsibility by a kind of predestination totally different from that of St. Paul's epistles. And in the next place, the highly complex forms of our newest civilization intro- duce a variety of shades of duty and sentiment on the one hand, and of moral evil and selfishness on the other, which were far enough from the moral horizon of the Apostles, who sold all that they had to give to the poor and had all things in common. These, if they are to be judged by the standard of Christ at all, demand a very discriminating and powerful grasp of Christian principles, and a very clear insight into the superficial difference of widely diver- gent circumstances, before they can be judged satisfactorily and fairly. To effect these reconciliations is the task of the preacher of the present day, if he has a task at all. Of course it will be one thing to effect it for an agricultural labourer to whom science is a blank and the complersociety of the day only a rumour, and to effect it for thinking merchants, or barristers, or politicians, or lite- rary men. We do not know that the former is less difficult than the latter, and it might well be more difficult. To translate Christian faith and principles into the very life of an ordinary farm labourer, may often need a greater effort than to translate them into the thoughts of a class whose culture the clergyman shares. But this is what the sermon should do, if it does any- thing. It should bridge over the practical chasm between the revelation of eighteen hundred years ago and the living-spiritual thoughts of to-day. It should attempt, more or less, to make us feel what St. Paul or our Lord Himself would have said to our modern perplexities of either faith or duty. If it cannot do this it is not preaching, but antiquarian commentary. And this, we are afraid, is still Mr. Gee's model of what a sermon should be. He has no conception at all of the need in question. He feels, as tve all feel, that the spirit of the psalms, and prayers, and lessons of the Church enters into us to some extent without any effort beyond that of clearly understanding them, and when he comes to the sermon he has little further idea than 'to help us to an exposition and illustration of the meaning. But the truth is that while the language of prayer may well be the same throughout the centuries, since it is the language of want, and helplessness, and thanksgiving,—the sermon has little, if any use, unless it makes clear to the conscience and the understanding the immediate and detailed bearing of these feelings on the thought and conduct,—in one word, on the charac- teristic life of to-day. It is better to carry away undimmed the immediate influence of prayer upon the heart, than to hear an address full of stereotyped forms of speech which only dilutes the Bible or the Prayer Book, and does nothing in the way of bridging the chasm between the present and the past. Yet this is the way Mr. Gee advises his clerical readers to start in the
preparation of sermons • "I will take, as an illustration, the very general duty of a Christian profession. Let the text be S. Luke ix. 23, 'If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.' If any man will come after me.' Here are offered to every man who wills to take Christ as his leader three directions, which are Christ's own mind in the matter. 1. 'Let him deny himself.' He must begin by denying his own wishes, tastes, and inclinations. 2. 'Let him take up his cross daily.' Let him make his account for continual trials and troubles on small points, rather than some one great thing which will begin and end his Christian conflict. 3. 'Let him follow me.' Let him tread in my footsteps, and try to imitate me. Let him take my life as his pattern, and his death will bring him to where I now sit in glory. This mode of treatment will, I believe, save the widest subject from being cramped or parcelled out into small divisions, and also from being lost in vague generalities ; and again, I say, we may be thankful as preachers and hearers for the banks and bounds which the text affords to the exuberance of some imaginations."
No doubt there is a great deal to be thankful for in having "banks and bounds." As a thoughtful man once said when he was condoled with on the length of the sermon, " Yes ; but it was very good of him to stop at all, for.there was no reason why he should ;" —but still, for our parts, we think this the only kind of thankfulness which such a treatment of the text as Mr. Gee suggests inspires. We confess we always shiver with horror when a worthy clergyman ,,,, improves the text by amputating the first clause of it, and asking his dear brethren to dwell first upon that. We would as soon have beauty of form or face anatomized feature by feature, and limb by limb, to help us to comprehend it, or deal with a poem in the same fashion. Suppose any one took Wordsworth's Ode to Duty,— " Stern daughter of the voice of God," —and murdered it after the same fashion, beginning,—" Stern. Here is the leading thought on the mind of the poet when the form of duty suggests itself. He begins by calling her stern, that is, rigid in her requirements, not willing to admit excuses, but com- manding and feeling a right to command. Secondly, stern as she is, she is a 'daughter' not self-originated, not God, but deriving all her being, all her right to command, from another. Thirdly, we see who that other is, it is the voice of God," &c., &c., ad infinitum. If any one commented on a great poem in this way, would he not quickly nauseate all hearers or readers of it, and con- nect it in their minds with all things ugly, mutilated, and deformed? Yet this is how our preachers, in their anxiety for some sort of method, make a rule of pulverizing the words of Christ and the Pro- phets and Apostles, in the absence of any attempt to apply their thoughts and truths in their broadest and most comprehensive aspect to the actual worries and puzzles, spiritual, moral, and intellectual, of the present day. It would be far more to the purpose, if our preachers would kindly omit this horrible explanatory mutilation of the simplest possible sayings, and point out instead what prac- tically our Lord meant to indicate to Galilean disciples by the phrase taking up the cross ;daily,' and how far sacrifices of the same order, which may be called 'taking up the cross' without any real exaggeration, are or are not required of us now. We imagine clergymen would find a vast deal more help from following the clue of a single spiritual puzzle, whether social, moral, or theological, which they had encountered in their own daily lives, and attempted to solve in the spirit of Christian teaching, than from spiritually parsing all the sentences in the New Testament after the manner suggested by Mr. Gee.
How little Mr. Gee apprehends the main want in sermons of the present day, as felt by laymen, may be gathered from the following recommendation :—" So soon as your subject is fixed, go carefully through your library upon the point chosen. Begin with Greek commentaries ; then take up English works of the same kind, then read sermons on the same text or similar texts, then make good any little point of geographical interest or histo- rical accuracy that may be involved, then sketch out, it may be only in four lines, just the heads of your proposed sermon. The time cannot be wasted, and you will at least be kept in check when tempted to give too much space to some earlier division by the recollection that there are, say, three other divisions td be exhausted before you complete your discussion of the subject." All this is not very difficult advice to follow, but we suspect that when followed it is rather more likely to widen the chasm which Mr. Gee says he wants to fill up than to diminish it. How well,
alas ! we know that sort of sermon which begins with a little geographical or antiquarian explanation. We remember a sermon that we once heard on St. Paul's healing of the maniac girl who practised divination at Philippi, which began with a long disser- tation on the architecture of the little oratories or buildings for prayer which the Jews used to erect by river banks and in other solitary spots, a dissertation supposed to be apropos of a different translation of the words which the common version renders where prayer was wont to be made,' the preacher preferring to translate it where there was an oratory.' This question of whether St. Paul went out to "a place where prayer was wont to be made," or to a specific building for that purpose, evidently does not and could not matter a button to any Englishman of the nineteenth century; but if you've gone through "the Greek commentaries," and "English works" of the same kind, and "modern sermons" on the same text, and made good any little "geographical point,"—al/ which no doubt is quite harmless, may even be praiseworthy, so long as it does not deceive you as to the relative importance of anti- quarian points and the principles of our modern life and duty, —the chances are that you have got up so many little critical and antiquarian interests on points of minute scholarship and shades of interpretation, that you have in the meantime pushed any urgent puzzle of every-day life on which the principle of the Apostle bears, quite into the background.. When you've quite done with the river on which Philippi stood, and the proseuche which perhaps stood on its banks-, and the purple dye which Lydia and the people of Thya- tira used, and the nature of the maniacal disease frour which the fortune-telling girl suffered, and the advantages of Philippi in being a Roman colonia, and all such bits of anti- quarian twaddle, — twaddle of course only with reference to the light which Christianity is capable of shedding over modern faith and duty,—you've got into that regular rut of didactic prosing which renders it nearly impossible to get home to any pressing spiritual want of to-day at all. Who does not shudder when a sermon begins with points of this sort, discussions as to the kind of seed-hopper which might have been used by the sower when he went forth to sow, or the sort of seed indicated by what our version calla mustard-seed, which grew up into a big tree, or how much the two pence were worth which the Good Samaritan took out and gave to the innkeeper at Jericho ? There's no harm in knowing these things, and there are clergymen who can pass naturally from them to deeper subjects. But they are very few, and even with them the transition is forced and unnatural.
The truth is that clerical counsellors of clergymen have, we take it, a false idea of the very nature of the preacher's duty. Mr. Gee, for instance, draws the usual strongly marked line be- tween the 'inspiration' of the Apostles and any gift that modern men may hope for. All that the Apostles said, they said, as he thinks, without a thought of preparation ; all that modern preachers say must be due to industry and art :—" Is it not the case that almost every act we do falls under the denomination of Inspiration, or of Instinct, or of Art? Can any other province be set forth and certain actions claimed as belonging rather to a fourth estate ? That which is done under inspiration is beyond the reach of instruction. We cannot be so presumptuous as to prescribe to an Apostle how he should preach. We cannot suppose that he preached a better sermon at one time than another. It was, we know, the special instruction given to the first preachers of the Gospel that they should trust unreservedly to the Divine afflatus that should be upon them. Preparation for a discourse would be faithlessness. . . . All else besides the acts of inspiration and of instinct—all that man does, or contrives, or writes, or says, in the simple exercise of those reasonable powers which God has given us—is open to improvement." We con- fess we do not in the least accept this broad distinction. There is a command of Christ to His disciples to trust to the moment for what they shall say in their own defence under civil pro- secution—" When they shall deliver you up, take no thought how or what ye shall speak, for it shall be given you in that same hour what ye shall speak ; for it is not ye that speak, but the spirit of your Father which speaketh in you,"—but there is no authority of which we know for supposing that the Apostles did not very care- fully exercise their gifts, both human and divine, in premeditating their addresses to the Jews and Gentiles. Certainly St. Paul could not but have studied his address at Athens beginning with the reference to the altar to the Unknown God, and his quotation fromi a Greek poet. And his letters constantly contain express confessions that he was not speaking purely from inspiration. Indeed his human tact and adroitness are some of his great characteristics. Still less is it true, if the faith in the real spiritual teaching of man
by God be true at all, that modern preachers have no right to expect inspiration, and this of the same kind with, however different in degree from, the Apostles themselves. The promise of the gift of the Spirit, if it means anything, means that ordinary men may be guided by it in intellect, heart, and will. And unless preachers believe this, and can have a little faith that they have themselves such a guidance to trust to, they may read all the commentaries that ever were written, and clear up all the "gee- graphical points" that antiquaries can raise, and interpret tongues till the English is plainer than the Hebrew and the Greek, and dogmatize with Bull, and moralize with Tillotson, and borrow eloquence from Jeremy Taylor, and they will never carry a single fortified position of doubt or sin in the hearts of their modern hearers. Mr. Gee's advice might be followed to the letter, and we should still think sermons in ninety-nine cases out of every hundred useless and vexatious dispensations for diminishing the spiritual influence of the Church service, and carefully blunting the religious feelings of church-goers before dismissing them to their homes.