On Frequent Communicating: The Means To Promote Frequent Communicating In Scotland
8 min read
8 min read
I am now to inquire, whether the synod’s overture is not the most proper, and least exceptionable means to promote frequent communicating. I shall not be stiff in asserting this: but hitherto no better plan has been proposed, that I know of.
I chose, in this part of the subject: to deliver my sentiments in the words of two worthy ministers, who have thought much on the question.
The one is Mr Willison of Dundee, preface to his Sacramental Catechism, p. 12:
“I confess there is one thing amongst us, which is a great obstruction to the frequent celebration of this ordinance, viz. the great numbers of ministers and preachers now used on such occasions, which truly makes that solemn work a business of such outward toil and labour to the administrators, as discourages them frequently to undertake it. So that till some regulation be made in the aforesaid respect, I despair of seeing this holy ordinance dispensed (o frequently amongst us as it ought to be. In the days of old, there was less preaching at communions, but much power and life in them; but in our days there is much preaching, but little power. Not that I am against much preaching at these occasions, where there is an appetite among the hearers, and where plenty of ministers may be had, without laying the neighbouring congregations desolate, or proving any let to the frequency of this ordinance: but to make it a standing order, that there will be so many preachings, whether there be an appetite or no, or whatever inconveniences should follow, I apprehend cannot be so easily justified. I acknowledge, about the time of our late happy revolution, when so much preaching at communions began to be a settled practice, there were such vehement desires among the people after the ordinances, and lively preaching of the word, that had been so scarce for so many years before, that it was necessary to gratify them, with much preaching, at these solemn occasions but it is not to be expected, that these longings mould always continue. In the primitive times of Christianity, when the disciple’s hearts flowed with love to their lately crucified and ascended Redeemer, they had such burning desires after the ordinances, and preaching of the gospel, that the apostle Paul, at the celebration of the Lord’s Supper, Acts 20:7. was encouraged to continue preaching with the people till midnight; yet none ever pled, that the apostle’s practice, on that occasion, should be a standing rule for the church, in all time coming.”
The other is Mr Randal of Inchture, in a written paper, where a plan much like that of our synod is proposed. And as that paper first engaged me to apply my thoughts to this important subject: I shall insert the greatest part of it.
“Our present manner, says he, of partaking of the sacrament, by employing three working days in attendance on preaching, on every such occasion, renders the frequent partaking of that ordinance inconvenient, if not impossible. For:
(1.) It is hard to bring our people to relish a frequent administration if it must deprive them of so many days of labour. And as industry and improvement increase, that difficulty will increase also; especially, as some concerned in these things have not so great a respect, as might be wished, for religious institutions. But if all were willing to attend, there are not many seasons where, in landward parishes, they can have leisure, especially as the lint improvement goes on, which much shortens the leisure time in summer.
(2.) Tho’ ministers may not speak it out the expense, with which dispensing the sacrament frequently in our way would be attended, will ever be an effectual stop to it.
(3.) Our present way is very inconvenient to every single minister. As almost all have the sacrament once a year, each must assist five or fix neighbours 5 and this hurries and hinders, in a great measure, from that solemnity of thought, which is only to be found in calm retirement. In the parish where the sacrament is dispensed, the minister’s wife and family mud be all Marthas, and no time allowed them to look after the better part.
(4.) It is equally inconvenient to ministers as a society. It often proves the source of heart-burning, misunderstanding, party, and faction amongst us. Tho’ we have a regard to a neighbour, yet the aversion of our parish to him, sometimes not well founded too, tempts us to purchase peace at home, by overlooking him on such occasions : and this proves a wound that can scarcely be healed, But by dispensing this ordinance in its primitive simplicity, one occasion of distance and interference will be removed, and brotherly love promoted. Sometimes jealousies, that such a candidate for a vacant congregation would not employ us, but popular men from a distance, at his communions, occasions us, underhand to oppose his settlement. Every new settlement is half my own, says the neighbour: half my peace and comfort depends upon it. In the way now proposed, there could be no room for such suspicions, and therefore it is probable candour and friendship would more prevail.
(5.) In our present way, there can, in most places, be no feast in the winter.
If it be alleged. That this will prevent peoples being edified as they now are by a diversity of gifts. I answer:
(1.) We cannot expect the church mould be edified by neglecting the means the head of the church has appointed for their edification, (of which frequent remembering him in the breaking of bread is one) and substituting, in their room, means of our own devising. For our Lord has nowhere prescribed a multitude of sermons on such occasions, as a means of our edification. Whereas, in receiving the bread and wine, he has promised his special presence.
(2.) Four preparation days in the course of a year may procure as great a variety of gifts as we now have. besides, congregations may and ought to fast often, in which way diversity of gifts may be obtained, without neglecting the dying command of Christ.
It was hinted to me, by a worthy and judicious friend, that communions might be had in our present way, if ministers were confined to one assistant; and if the minister of the parish, and that one assistant preached each of them three or four times : or if that should be reckoned burdensome, week-days sermons might be got from probationers, or even from neighbouring ministers, without asking their assistance, and thus throwing their churches vacant on the Lord’s day.
If I can be convinced, that frequent communions may be had in this way, without danger of superstition, or hurt to society, I shall not be the first to decline such a plan. I own, it is free from some objections which startle people at our synod’s overture: but, to me, it seems liable to greater difficulties of another kind.
(1.) Would not this take up ministers as much, or more, from private preparation, as our present way, which I have heard many complain of on that account?
(2.) How few probationers are there in many corners? And could their assistance be more easily procured, how disagreeable would our employing of them be to some congregations?
(3.) Would it not be hard on poor people, and occasion the murmurs of others, that a parish, four times every year, should spend three entire working days, in the space of a week, in religious exercises? And would not this hardship appear greater to people, when there was little variety of gifts, only their own minister and one assistant?
(4.) Employing neighbouring ministers will not remove the difficulties mentioned in the last head. — But I own, tho’ some may think it a paradox, it is my judgment, that neighbours ought never to be employed at sacraments. For there are some who will not, and others who dare not, employ their neighbours. And this being looked on as a piece of contempt is an unhappy source of division amongst us. Whereas, if it were the custom, always to employ people from a distance, everyone, without giving umbrage to any of his brethren, would employ whom he pleased.
It is objected, that a multitude of congregations will be thrown vacant by our overture: for if the sacrament be dispensed through a whole presbytery on the same day, sixteen or eighteen parishes in neighbouring presbyteries must be thrown vacant to supply them with assistants. But:
(1.) Though many congregations will, no doubt, be thrown vacant, even by our overture; yet it will not be a whole countryside of contiguous congregations, as is the case at present; for the assistants will be got, from different presbyteries, and some ministers will seek none.
(2.) In our present way, the same parish is often vacant five Sabbaths in the space of ten or twelve weeks: But if the overture succeeds, this can scarce ever happen.
It has been urged, that celebrating the sacrament four times in the year, will scarce be practicable in some parts of the Highlands, and therefore ought not to be bound upon them by an act : And that it would be highly inconvenient for a whole presbytery there to have the sacrament the same day, as they would find it hard to be supplied with assistants from neighbouring presbyteries, considering the great distance. — I believe, none will oppose altering or amending the overture in this respect, if once it were known what is the alteration which northern synods would judge most for their benefit.
Some were of opinion, that abridging the number of sermons more gradually might perhaps prevent the opposition which the overture, in its present form, will undoubtedly meet with. To this I reply, in the words of a worthy Member of this Synod.
“As to correcting these abuses gradually, it is highly probable, that any such half or faint attempt, would defeat its own design. Pusillanimous assailants are easily beaten back. The abuses complained of are such, as we may boldly avow our design to correct: Whereas, if we conceal this design, or seem ashamed to profess it, this very conduct will harden such of our people as may be wedded to the present way, in their prejudices. Palliatives will look more like slothfulness in ourselves : Whereas, if we boldly avow the whole design at once, the abuses which we aim at will be allowed, I believe, to be indefensible, and the remedy proposed must be admitted to be the only cure: And, by that means, a conviction, I think, will be more easily fastened upon our people. besides, as nobody proposes to stop at the first step, the very slowness of our procedure will encourage and occasion opposition, at least protract: and lengthen it out. Every new step may be expected to raise as great a clamour as the whole would do, which in the one case would be over at once, whereas in the other case it would be constantly fed by fresh springs. And the people having once declared themselves, as this would involve them in a constant opposition to every further alteration, before they really could perceive the reasonableness of the whole that was intended, so it would render it more unpopular in ministers, to be so often flying in the face of what is already discovered to be so unpopular. What happened at the first establishment of the present Version of the psalms is an evidence what an advantage it is to accomplish any considerable alteration all at once. It was extremely unpopular, as it may easily be imagined, anything that had the appearance of altering the Bible would be. But as the thing was boldly begun over all Scotland on the same day, and ministers were united among themselves, the noise made against it was very soon over.”
Some have observed, that providential incidents or a remarkable down-pouring of the Spirit, may make it reasonable to have week-days sermons, at a communion, on other days, as well as the Saturday; and that therefore it is a strange overture, that for four weeks of the year Christ may not be preached on a week-day, except once let it be never so convenient, I heartily agree, that though ten thousand general assemblies would make such an act, our obedience to it would be sinful. But, did the Presbyterians, by abolishing Christmas, etc. enjoin, that Christ should never be preached on these days? No doubt, that was far from their intention. A positive injunction, that there should be no sermons on the Thursday before, or the Monday after the communion, would be criminal. And so would a positive injunction, that there should be no sermon on the 30th of January or the 25th of December. But it would not be unworthy of our church, to give it as her judgment, that the stated week-days sermons, which have been in use in Scotland before and after communions, have not a great deal more foundation in the word of God, than the anniversaries of the Church of England.
Time will not allow me to consider other objections. The public may expect soon a more distinct defence of the synod’s overture, by the Reverend Mr Randal. I have perused, with pleasure, since part of this essay was sent to the press, and almost all of it composed, the first three sheets of his manuscript, in which are many new and ingenious proofs, that communicating as often as the primitive church did, is our duty.
May God send forth his light and his truth, to lead us, and guide us, and to bring us to his holy habitation. May we be willing meekly and humbly to receive the law from his mouth. And if our eye be thus single, our whole body shall be full of light.