3 SEPTEMBER 1898, Page 9

WHAT IS A CHURCH ? T HIS is the question which

emerges from the newspaper discussion in which Sir William Harcourt has sought to continue—or to cover—his Parliamentary performances in the role of Defender of the (Protestant) Faith. We do not speak to-day of the essential features of the Church Catholic, or even of the Church of England. What we have in view is the raison d'e.tre of the building, commonly called a church, to be found in each one of the many thou- sands of parishes into which this country is divided. What is it there for ? Sir William Harcourt has not undertaken to answer that question because it has not been put to him. But an answer is very easily to be gathered from his writing in the Times about the Bishops and the Uniformity Act Amendment Act of 1872. The parish church is an edifice designed for doubtless very im- portant, but strictly limited, purposes. There, every Sunday, Morning and Evening Prayer and the Litany are to be said or sung (the less sung, probably, the better) ; two sermons will be preached ; and, not too often in the month, the Holy Communion is to be celebrated. The same observances are certainly allowable—some of the stricter sort might say compulsory—on Saints' Days; and zealous clergy will be apt, and may be permitted, to read the Litany and deliver a religious address on one or two week-days, even when there is not the excuse afforded by the anniversary of the martyrdom of some Apostle. In modern times a disposition, of a very doubtful character, has grown up to multiply services, which are called "addi- tional " or " special " services. Parliament, however, early discerned the dangers lurking in the tendency just men- tioned, and in its wisdom, in the year 1872, provided against them. The provision consisted of clauses in what is called the Uniformity Act Amendment Act of that year, prescribing that neither " additional" nor "special" services should include anything which was not contained either in the Bible or in the Book of Common Prayer. It is there- fore flatly illegal, besides being manifestly improper, for any service to be conducted in a church which consists of anything but selitenbas, or possibly whole prayers, drawn verbatim from one or other of those sources. Thus it will be seen that a parish church is a building designed for public worship which, whatever the occasion, and whatever the character of the congregation, must be rigidly confined to phrases which received the stamp of approval from those sixteenth - century Reformers who founded the Church of England, or from the translators of the Authorised Version of the Scriptures, given forth under James I. That is what a church is for, and anybody who says otherwise is a law-evader, and an architect or builder of chaos.'

We have no desire to caricature Sir William Harcourt, but we invite any candid reader of his letters to say whether we have not fairly suggested the natural scope of his answer to the question with which we set out. It is an interesting point of view, for almost everything connected with the eighteenth century is interesting. It is to that century, as Mr. George Russell mentions in his recent most entertaining volume, that Sir William Harcourt deems himself to belong, and his present attitude on ecclesiastical questions strongly confirms the justice of that estimate. It was an age marked in this country, among the upper classes, by every grace but that of religion. Far be it from us to suggest that the present leader of her Majesty's Opposition is not a religious man. All that we say is that his attitude towards religious movements within the Church of England is that of the age in which her spiritual life was at the lowest ebb, the age when she committed perhaps the greatest mistake in her history,—the misunderstand- mg and practical expulsion of John Wesley. It is clear that Sir William Harcourt would have been' a party to that course of procedure, now lamented by Churchmen of all parties. It is also clear that if he had his way the adaptation of the activities of the Church of England to the diverse needs of different classes of her sons and daughters, on varying occasions, would be reduced to the minimum. The excellent letter of the Bishop of Winchester in Monday's Times brings nut with admirable clearness the issues to which Sir William Harcourt, perhaps half unwittingly, has been seeking to drive the Bishops and the Church. He shows that in various ways and for generations there has been exercised in churches of the Anglican Estab- lishment, within somewhat narrow limits, a liberty, not only of prophesying, but of praying in accordance with the needs of the occasion, from the august Coronation of the Sovereign down to the humble Sunday- school. Of late years there has been more active life in the Church, and naturally this freedom has been more widely claimed and exercised. But only to a very small extent has it been in any sense abused. Like other Bishops, Dr. Davidson asked his clergy recently to send him copies of all forms of service used in church in addition to those prescribed in the Prayer-book. They have poured in upon him, and they consist of " mission services, children's services, services of intercession for the parish, for the country, for the Church, and for foreign missions, services in connection with temper- ance societies, Girls' Friendly Society, and Mothers' Union, and services in preparation for Holy Com- munion, some of them general, some of them for members of communicants' societies and guilds." At the time of writing the Bishop had one hundred and sixteen such forms of service on his table, from forty-eight parishes, " including most of the churches in which difficulties on ritual questions might be likely to arise." And yet he could say without hesitation that there were only seven of them " to which exception could or would be taken on doctrinal grounds by any loyal and intelligent member of the Church of Eugland," and he has no doubt that the four clergy who have submitted those seven possibly exceptionable services will follow his direction on the subject. Yet there are eighty-four out of the hundred and sixteen services in which there is a certain amount of independent or adapted phraseology, that element being " sometimes considerable, sometimes 'very slight indeed." Sir William Harcourt would oblige Bishop Davidson to forbid them all.

Again we may ask what is a parish church ? And is there any reasonable answer, but that it is the building set apart as the spiritual home of the people of the parish, designed to minister to all their spiritual needs, and to do so on all of occasions in the most suitable and effective manner ? No feature of English Pro- testantism has been more lamentable than the divorce of religion from the work-a-day concerns of nominal Christians. The occasions of resort to church became so rare that the shy and reserved English citizen has felt afraid of being seen going there, lest he should be sup- posed to be setting up as holier than his neighbours. It once was, and it ought to be now, the most natural thing in the world for a man to find his way to his parish church in virtue of his occupation, whether professional, or mercantile, or industrial. The benediction of God was understood to rest, if rightly sought, upon every form of honest labour, and also upon every form of lawful pleasure and recreation ; and it was largely by attendance at special services in church that that benediction was realised and secured. That is the direction in which we should seek to return, and in which some appreciable, if as yet only limited, progress has been made. The Bishop of Winchester's list of special services makes this abundantly plain, so far as his diocese is concerned, and we do not doubt that what is happening there is happen- ing all over the country. Do we wish to go back to the eighteenth century, with its church doors closed throughout the week, and its cold and remorseless frown I for all novel developments of spiritual ministration, driving the most religious people, as they often were driven, to seek the sustenance they craved from Noncon- formist sources ? Or shall we not welcome with both hands every sober effort to restore the parish church, whether in town or country, to the position which it occupied in the "Ages of Faith" in the affections and in the daily life of the people ? In the coldness which followed the purging away of the abuses we lost many of the best uses of the church. We may help their recovery in the England of to-day, by giving a cordial and firm support to the wise exercise of episcopal discretion, and by steadily opposing the reactionary policy of which Sir William Harcourt has made himself the leading exponent.