First published in the Westminster Review 1892.
SOME NEW THOUGHTS ON A WELL-WORN THEME.
That the Press should now be so frequently placed in opposition and contrast to the Pulpit, and that it should be supposed the two institutions have enough in common to justify comparisons being made between them, indicates a new view of the functions of the pulpit at least. Until comparatively recent years it was generally considered that people went to church, not so much to be regaled with highly intellectual fare, as to join in praise and prayer and to hear passages of Scripture more or less passably expounded, and an application of the text given to one or other of a limited number of religious and moral questions-the homily being, as a rule, very general in its terms alike of reprobation and commendation. In short, people were supposed to go to church "to worship God."
That this idea, with all it implies; is not yet wholly extinct is shown by the fact that laymen, and even clerics, possessed of learning, dialectical skill, and oratorical power, will attend a church in which the regular minister is much inferior to them in all of these qualifications. Those who regard the church in this now old-fashioned light may be said to consider it as a place where certain ceremonies have to be 'performed ; that it is necessary to have a master of those ceremonies- a fugleman to say the word at the proper time; that it is well to have a class of men specially trained for this work ; but that no very high standard of intellectual power is required of the fugleman, since all the worshippers know pretty well what they are likely to hear, how they are expected to feel, and what they are expected to do on a given occasion.
The function of the press, on the other hand, surely is to chronicle events, to discuss politics, economics, art, science, literature, philosophy, commerce, and industry, and, in the doing of all this, to be informing, amusing, instructive, and improving. That the pulpit should be brought into comparison with an agency whose work is of this nature means that the critics of the pulpit as it is desire that it should perform more of the species of work done by the press, while 'doing it, of course, in the different manner necessitated by different circumstances. A newspaper or magazine is read in private: a sermon or lecture is heard in public-the hearer being one of a congregation through which the preacher, if master of his art, causes something like an electric current to run, uniting the listeners into an organic whole by the subtle sympathy born of unity of thought and feeling. The thought that you form one of 500 who are simultaneously listening to the same ideas and arguments as yourself lends a heightened dignity and adventitious importance to those ideas and arguments; so that a discourse which, if printed, would be read with but languid interest, may, when spoken with fitting accompaniment of look, gesture, and intonation, be followed with pleasure by a large assemblage. The church thus brings into play a social feeling which the press cannot possibly command, and, properly conceived and ordered, occupies an important place in the economy of society; but the question at present to be considered is whether the church makes as good use as it might do of this advantage which it possesses over the press. That it does not is shown by the circumstance that while everybody patronises and supports the press, comparatively few people patronise and support the church.
A church connection brings a business connection: church membership gives a certain status of respectability. A church brings men and women together for social work, setting up many interests in common between the parties, apart from their interest in certain specific theological doctrines. There are mission agencies, meetings of matrons, meetings of young men and maidens, choir practisings, Bible classes, and literary societies-all having a tendency to bring people together and increase their attachment to the central institution around which these various activities are carried on: notwithstanding all this, however, church attendances, church membership, and church funds are relatively on "the down grade." While the religious sentiment is as strong as ever-probably stronger than ever-the clergy as a class are more and more subjected to unfavourable criticism; gatherings of a secular order-such as concerts and political and trade union meetings-are becoming more and more common on Sunday; and last, but not least, comparisons are more frequently drawn between the pulpit and the press.
All this has doubtless to be attributed largely to the decay of religious belief; but the decay of religions belief has, in turn, to be attributed very largely to the failings and shortcomings of the pulpit. So long as literature was an expensive luxury, and the great body of the people were either absolutely unable to read, or had no taste and no time for reading, it was not remarkable that they should put up with a low standard of pulpit eloquence. That they were satisfied to dispense with literary grace and reasoning power on the part of the preacher is attested by the objection to "read " sermons which for a long time existed, and by the value placed upon mere fluency and fervour. But in these days of half penny papers and sixpenny magazines the humblest church-goer may, and often does, have a higher ideal of what a sermon should be than even well-to-do people had fifty years ago. For the masses not only have their judgment and taste cultivated by reading, but they attend the lecture-room and the theatre as well as the church; and, accustomed as they are to hear accomplished actors and brilliant platform lecturers, they are coming to expect from the pulpit entertainment and instruction as well as exhortations to "trust in God and do the right," which must always carry with them a certain platitudinarian sameness.
Now, it is because the pulpit does not come up t0 the standard of excellence already attained by the press, the platform, and the stage, each after its own manner, that men stay at home and read on Sundays, go out and stroll while the morning service is being held, and go to some secular or semi-secular lecture hall at night.
But, it will be asked', how should the pulpit be so behind other civilising agencies? Are not the clergy specially trained for the work of the church before entering upon their ministerial duties? and have they not the means of culture and refinement at command after they enter upon those duties ? Have they not a sound basis of scholarship to start with, and plenty of time to prepare for their Sunday ministration? Nay, the champions of the pulpit, warming to their theme, may say, are not clergymen better equipped intellectually than either press-men or platform speakers, to say nothing of actors, who may well be left out of account as persons who only patter other people's ideas?
To this we reply that many of our clergymen of the Nonconformist churches have had no University training; that, besides a common school education, the only training they have had has been obtained at one or other of the Divinity Halls; and that even in the case of those who have attended college it has to be pointed out that men are not necessarily sound scholars, sagacious thinkers, or brilliant writers or speakers because they have had a University education. The only thing you can be moderately sure 0f with respect to a University degree is that it represents fees paid, and even that does not, of course, hold good of honorary degrees.
It may readily be admitted that the clergy have abundant opportunities of storing their minds with ideas and cultivating literary graces, of doing their work of sermon-writing with care and finish, and embodying sound materials in that work. But do they avail themselves of these their opportunities? Before answering this question there are a few considerations I want to note.
It must be borne in mind that while the professional journalist has to devote his undivided attention to journalism, the professional preacher has to baptise, marry, and bury; has to visit and gossip with the members of his flock; has to take part in mission work and the business procedure of his church; has to serve in church court, attend sick-beds, and take a share in the work of running charities.. He may have a Bible class, a weekly prayer meeting, a Sunday school, a seat on the School Board or the Board of Guardians. Yet despite the formidable appearance of this list or possible and probable pastoral duties, I do not believe that ministers as a class are hard worked. They are oftener to be seen taking a side at tennis or a hand at whist than are most professional men. They take more and longer holidays than professional men do. They are not under the same obligation as professional men are to devote steady and unremitting attention to their work. Country parsons may, and sometimes do, farm and raise stock without apparent interruption to their clerical duties. Parsons, whether in town or country, can, and do frequently, exchange pulpits-making an old sermon suffice, and so saving themselves of what ought to be a considerable amount of work if well-written sermons were the rule. After having held a charge for a number of years they may get a transfer, and they will then use up in the new pulpit the sermons written for the spiritual well-being of their former flock. If they are incapacitated for duty by sickness, there are always plenty of students, lay preachers, and unplaced clerical brethren to take their place. But while it cannot, I think, be contended that clergymen as a class are hard worked, yet, that they have so many matters to look after besides their chief work-the work of the pulpit-is often made an excuse for doing that work in a makeshift manner.
If a newspaper editor goes on scamping his work-inserting weak, ill -digested, or plagiarised leading articles and stale news day after day, week after week-his circulation will fall, the directors to whom he is responsible will shortly bring him to book, and, if he cannot or will not render his employers more efficient service, he must make room for one who can and will do so. The same commercial principle will be applied to reporters and sub-editors, as well as to contributors on the staff of a magazine. But while the commercial principle is thus in active operation among the representatives of the press, it scarcely operates at all among the occupants of pulpits. A minister may for years go on gradually emptying a church by the feebleness of his hebdomadal performances; but unless matters get quite desperate, or our feeble brother gets implicated in some scandal, his employers do not suggest that he should make room for another. There are, as has been indicated, so many interests, associations, attachments connected with a church-there is, to put it bluntly, so much to be got out of a church besides religion-that a congregation will undergo a long-continued course of indifferent pulpit ministrations without breaking into open rebellion, and without its members individually leaving "the venerable house their fathers built to God." As a result of this indulgence the clergy have got spoiled. They do not feel called upon to keep up the high standard of excellence in their pulpit work which the press-man knows he must maintain in the columns of his paper, if it is to succeed, and he himself to keep his situation. And so, while I am not an admirer of all the results attending the operations of commercial principles, still I think it tolerably certain that if the ministerial calling were to a greater extent brought under the influence of those considerations which regulate the ordinary relations of employer and employee, it would tend to improve the quality of pulpit work.
I do not say, however, that the introduction of this principle would accomplish all that is required for the reformation of the pulpit. To make the pulpit anything like the social force it once was- a result which I do not say I am desirous to see attained-a different class of men would be required, as well as different conditions of pulpit tenure. The clergy are largely drawn from the class of '' good young men," and the members of that class are not remarkable for either physical or mental vigour. There are, of course, many robust men amongst those who beat the "pulpit drum" ; but it is undeniable that a large proportion of the clergy come from the quarter indicated. Moreover, clergymen as a class are so removed from that ''storm and stress " of work-a-day life which give tone and fibre to other men, and they come so much in contact with women, both within their own domestic circle and in their pastoral work, that they show a tendency to develop very many of the traits of character usually supposed to be the distinctive attributes of the female mind.
This want of robustness does much to lower the quality of pulpit work, and to lessen the influence of the Church. Knox and Latimer,Channing and Chalmer, were strong men, in touch with the life of their time, and capable of moving the multitude at will. In the struggle against abuses, shams, and tyranny, they took sides, as their Master did, and spoke out with fire and fervour, with manly strength and reason. You knew their position and intent: that they were with you or against you. But in these days when disputes between capital and labour are rife, and when great political movements are abroad in the land, the clergy take no side, show no colours. Although there is always one of the parties pretty surely in the right and the other just as surely in the wrong, the clergy sit on the fence. Assuming the role of Mr. Facing-both-ways, they pray that peace may be restored between the opposing factions ; but not one word is said as to the issues over which the conflict is being waged.
It is true, there are journals that profess no political creed and advocate no fixed socioeconomic principles. But even if these were not, as they are, the exceptions to a 'Very general rule, they are not to be tried by the standard we apply to the pulpit. It is not necessary that a newspaper should have a "policy," or advocate a particular set of opinions. Its first and chief function is to record news; and if it does that fairly and faithfully we shall not grudge being left to form our opinions for ourselves on the evidence it supplies. On the other hand, it seems impossible that a religious teacher should have no "policy " on all questions involving the great moral issues at stake in important political and social controversies. Though it is extremely unlikely that we shall ever get rid of party journalism, it is, all the , same, a very qualified blessing. But if the pulpit has no pronouncement to make on the question of the hour, it is not easy to see what function of public benefit the pulpit has to discharge. With respect to the press again, whether partisan or non-partisan, one further advantage which it possesses over the pulpit deserves to be remembered. The correspondence columns of newspapers and the pages of the Reviews are open to all who have anything interesting to say and who can preserve the amenities of discussion.
It may be said that the discussion of political differences and labour disputes lies outside the province of the clergy ; but if, as is usually the case, fundamental principles in the religion for which they stand are being violated on the one hand and upheld on the other, their duty and their province would seem to be alike tolerably clear.
The fact is, the Church is behind the times. She has always something to say about the duties of her children as men and women, as son and daughters, as husbands and wives, as masters and servants, and especially as church members; but nothing to say about their duties as citizens, although the duties and powers of citizenship form one of the most important trusts given into human hands. The discussion of political, social, and economic questions is in most churches reckoned contraband.
Jesus scourged the money-changers out of the Temple; but they are welcomed in today. Their contributions are wanted for the Sustentation Fund, their gold and notes for the church-door collections. The clergy invest their savings in a brewery or a death dealing match-factory as eagerly as if Jesus had not advised the rich young ruler to sell his superfluities and give to the poor. Or is it that there are no poor nowadays? And was Cardinal Manning proved to have been merely careless and improvident by the fact that he left but a beggarly £100? Jesus denounced the Scribes and Pharisees as hypocrites who devoured widows' houses, but made long prayer for a pretence. There are surely no lineal descendants of the scribes and Pharisees in the world today; for I have attended church twice a day for years, yet I never heard any attempt made to apply the passage to any class of men alive at the present time. Or is it that the Scribes and Pharisees of today are not within hearing of the pulpit? It was Jesus who told the parable of the vineyard; but how often do we hear any effort put forth to apply that parable to the labour problem?-an application which it will undoubtedly bear.
The average church-goer inclines more and more to note these thing , and observation tends to increase his weariness with the pulpit. So far do the clergy carry their injunction of ''peace, peace," where peace is a wickedness, that they often fear to denounce publicly, or even admonish privately, the wealthy sinner who gives generously to church funds, and keeps an excellent table; although he grinds the faces of his workers, or rack-rents the tenants in his slum property, bullies his family and domestic servants, and inflames his body and besots his mind with drink. Of this, also, the average man takes note; and it disgusts him to find that the shepherd of souls lives at peace with this incarnation of iniquity. He compares the clergyman's practice with his precepts, and throwing many another grudge into the balance on the same side, he finishes not infrequently by absenting himself from churches and ministers, good or bad, altogether.
The influence of the pulpit wanes because the preacher does his work in a slipshod manner ; because, while the pews are agitated by the questions of the hour, the preacher talks yet says nothing for fear he should offend the partisans of the side he happens to oppose. The influence of the pulpit wanes because its occupants are tied up to speak on old and outworn themes ; because the interest in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob pales before the interest in Tom, Dick, and Harry ; and Palestine is less to us than the most prosaic town in Britain where the tragi-comedy of life is now day by day enacted.
The press is not perfect; but, with all its faults, it represents the people. Forced by the conditions of its existence to please those for whom it caters, it reflects every mood of the public. It is all things to all men. It finds out everything ; it tells everything it finds out. You go to the preacher, who is usually the same man, and you have to endure him for an hour at a time. The newspaper comes to you; it contains the thoughts of many men, and discusses many themes; you can change the man and the theme at will, or dismiss the press altogether if you tire of it, or other matters demand your attention. Yon hear the preacher, if you go to church, one day in seven. The press comes to you morning and evening, wet day and dry, in health and sickness, six days out of the seven. The press has accomplished much in a short space of time. The pulpit has accomplished less in a long career. 'What the press has done it has done despite the hostility of princes and the repression of Parliaments. What the pulpit has failed to do it has failed to do notwithstanding the favour of princes and the subsidies of Parliaments. In influence for civilisation and enlightenment, the press, with all its faults, leaves the pulpit helplessly, hopelessly, ignominiously in the shade.
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