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THE USE AND PROPRIETY OF LOCAL AND OCCASIONAL
The late archbishop Secker, whose memory is entitled to public respect, as on many accounts, so especially for the judgment with which he described, and the affecting seriousness with which he recommended, the duties of his profession, in one of his charges to the clergy of his diocess, * exhorts them “to make their sermons local.” I have always considered this advice as founded in a knowledge of human life, but as requiring, in its application, a more than ordinary exercise of Christian prudence.
Whilst I repeat therefore the rule itself, with great veneration for the authority by which it was delivered, I think it no unfit employment of the present opportunity to enlarge so far upon its use and meaning as to point out some of the instances in which it may be adopted, with the probability of making salutary impressions upon the minds of our hearers.
But, before I proceed, I would warn you, and that with all the solemnity that can belong to any admonition of mine, against rendering your discourses so local as to be pointed and levelled at particular persons in your congregation. This species of address may produce in the party for whom it is intended confusion, perhaps, and shame, but not with their
* Archbishop of Canterbury's Third Charge to his Clergy, Abp. Secker's Works, vol. iv. VOL. V.
proper fruits of penitence and humility. Instead of which, these sensations will be accompanied with bitter resentment against the preacher, and a kind of obstinate and determined opposition to his reproof. He will impute your officiousness to personal enmity, to party spirit, to the pleasure of triumphing over an adversary without interruption or reply, to insult assuming the form of advice, or to any motive rather than a conscientious solicitude for the amendment and salvation of flock. And as the person himself seldom profits by admonitions conveyed in this way, so are they equally useless, or perhaps noxious, to the rest of the assembly; for the moment the congregation discover to whom the chastisement is directed, from that moment they cease to apply any part of it to themselves. They are not edified, they are not affected: on the contrary, they are diverted by descriptions of which they see the design, and by invectives of which they think they comprehend the aim. Some who would feel strongly the impropriety of gross and evident personalities, may yet hope to hit their mark by covert and oblique allusions. Now, of this scheme, even when conducted with the greatest skill, it may be observed, that the allusions must either be perceived or not. If they be not perceived, they fail of the effect intended by them; if they be, they are open to the objections which lie against more explicit and undissembled attacks. Whenever we are conscious, in the composition of our discourses, of a view to particular characters in our congregation or parish, we ought to take for granted that our view will be understood. Those applications, therefore, which, if they were direct, would produce more bad emotions than good ones, it is better to discard entirely from our sermons; that is to say, it is better to lay aside the design altogether than to attempt to disguise it by a management which is generally detected, and which, if not seen through, defeats its purpose by its obscurity. The crimes, then, of individuals let us reserve for opportunities of private and seasonable expostulation. Happy is the clergyman who has the faculty of communicating advice and remonstrance with persuasion and effect, and the virtue to seize and improve every proper occasion of doing it; but, in the pulpit, let private characters be no otherwise adverted to than as they fall in with the delineations of sins and duties which our discourses must necessarily contain, and which, whilst they avoid personalities, can never be too close or circumstantial. For the same reason that I think personal allusions reprehensible, I should condemn any, even the remotest, reference to party or political transactions and disputes. These are at all times unfit subjects not only of discussion in the pulpit, but of hints and surmises. The Christian preacher has no other province than that of religion and morality. He is seldom led out of his way by honourable motives, and, I think, never with a beneficial effect.
Having premised this necessary caution, I return to the rule itself. By “ local” sermons I would understand, what the reverend prelate who used the expression seems principally to have meant by it, sermons adapted to the particular state of thought and opinion which we perceive to prevail in our congregation. A careful attention to this circumstance is of the utmost importance, because, as it varies, the same sermon may do a great deal of good, none at all, or much harm. So that it is not the truth of what we are about to offer which alone we ought to consider, but whether the argument itself be likely to correct or to promote the turn and bias of opinion to which we already perceive too strong a tendency and inclination. Without his
circumspection we may be found to have imitated the folly of the architect who placed his buttress on the wrong side. The more the column pressed, the more firm was its construction ; and the deeper its foundation, the more certainly it hastened the ruin of the fabric. I do not mean that we should, upon any emergency, advance what is not true; but that, out of many truths, we should select those, the consideration of which seems best suited to rectify the dispositions of thought that were previously declining into error or extravagance. For this model of preaching we may allege the highest of all possible authorities, the example of our blessed Saviour himself.
He always had in view the posture of mind of the persons whom he addressed. He did dot entertain the Pharisees with invectives against the open impiety of their Sadducean rivals; nor, on the other hand, did he soothe the Sadducee's ear with descriptions of Pharisaical pomp and folly. In the presence of the Pharisee he preached against hypocrisy: to the Sadducees he proved the resurrection of the dead. In like manner, of that known enmity which subsisted between the Jews and Samaritans, this faithful Teacher took no undue advantage to make friends or proselytes of either. Upon the Jews he inculcated a more comprehensive benevolence; with the Samaritan he defended the orthodoxy of the Jewish creed.
But I apprehend that I shall render my advice more intelligible by exemplifying it in two or three instances drawn from what appears to be the predominant disposition and religious character of this country, and of the present times. In many
former ages of religion, the strong pro. pensity of men's minds was to overvalue positive du. ties ; which temper, when carried to excess, not only multiplied authorised rites and observances, not only laid an unwarrantable stress upon those which were prescribed ; but, what was worst of all, led men to expect that, by a punctual attention to the ordinances of religion, they could compound for a relaxation of its weighty and difficult duties of personal purity and relative justice. This was the depraved state of religion amongst the Jews when our Saviour appeared ; and it was the degeneracy against which some of the most forcible of his admonitions, and the severest of his reproofs, were directed. Yet, notwithstanding that Christ's own preaching, as well as the plan and spirit of his religion, were as adverse as possible to the exalting or overvaluing of positive institutions, the error which had corrupted the old dispensation revived under the new : and revived with double force, insomuch as to transform Christianity into a service more prolix and burdensome than the Jewish, ·and to ascribe an efficacy to certain religious performances, which, in a great measure, superseded the obligations of substantial virtue. That age, however, with us is long since past. I fear there is room to apprehend that we are falling into mistakes of a contrary kind. Sadducees are more common amongst us than Pharisees. We seem disposed not only to cast off the decent offices, which the temperate piety of our church hath enjoined, as aids of devotion, calls to repentance, or instruments of improvement, but to contemn and neglect, under the name of forms and ceremonies, even those rites which, forasmuch as they were ordained by the Divine Founder of our religion, or by his inspired messengers, and ordained with a view of their continuing in force through future generations, are entitled to be accounted parts of Christianity itself.