What Is Demanded of a Protestant Rector
‘I HAVE been on the waiting list for two years now and cannot understand why I am still unable to obtain a sitting in this church. In the churches I have heretofore been acquainted with, the sittings go begging,’ said an applicant to a member of the vestry in one of the leading Protestant Episcopal churches in New York City.
‘Sorry we cannot accommodate you sooner with a sitting, but the truth is that we have had over one hundred and fifty on the waiting list for three years now. The applicants increase and there are fewer pews with vacant seats, because when those who have sittings are to be away for any length of time, instead of relinquishing the pews as in the ordinary case, they merely sublet them to their friends, so we are at our wits’ end to accommodate the applicants. The church already has twentyfive hundred sittings, and we do not wish to make it larger for the reason that the effective use of personality puts physical limitations on the size of the church building. When you make it larger, the hearer might just as well be listening in on a radio,’ replied the person addressed.
‘I come to hear the lessons read as much as I do the sermon, although the rector is admittedly one of the greatest preachers in the world to-day,’ said a member who had overheard the above conversation. ‘I come to sing the canticles,’ said a third member. ‘And I enjoy the responsive reading of the Psalms,’ said a fourth. ‘While I enjoy most the extra hymn and the congregational singing,’ said a fifth. Thus was emphasized one of the first demands on the modern Protestant rector — namely, bringing out all parts of the service, rather than building the whole service around the sermon, as is the rule in most Protestant churches.
How often has the average attendant heard the lesson read in a singsong voice, while apparently most of the attention of the reader was elsewhere than upon his reading. In the church in question, the reason why one can hear a pin drop during the reading of the lesson and why not a word escapes those listening is that the rector devotes time and thought to a consideration of the lessons to be read and then reads them in a way that can only be done when the entire concentration of the reader is centred upon what he is doing.
The moving power and the spiritual experience derived from mass singing have long been recognized, but even with this knowledge it is surprising how often this appealing side of a service has been neglected. The enjoyment and spiritual value of congregational singing of the canticles are still territory mostly unexplored. Even when the value is recognized, many rectors do not know how to secure it. To achieve the desired result, the organist must often repeat the simple canticles until the congregation as a whole becomes familiar with them. The moving power of the well-known canticles greatly surpasses the more elaborate music. In this connection it is surprising how most church organists seek to emphasize their individual importance at the expense of sinking their individuality in the greater unity of the service and making it an integral whole. An extreme case is the story of an organist who sent the verger to request the one member of the congregation who insisted on joining the choir in the singing of the canticles kindly to desist. ‘But is this not a house of God where I have a right to sing?’ said the person addressed. ‘Not at all,’ replied the verger; ‘this is a private chapel.’ Many organists do not differentiate, so far as their part is concerned, between an operatic performance and a church service. In each case they forget that an opera is a spectacle and a church service a common act of worship.
Many of the average congregations unknowingly take the same point of view. They do not distinguish between attending a church and attending the opera, and regard what takes place as something apart which they have come to criticize or enjoy as a spectacle, and not as an act of worship in which they are an integral part. This point of view likewise often possessed the old-fashioned rector, who enjoyed his individual role as preacher. The successful modern rector has discovered that he must bring out each part of the service to an importance of the first order and must lead the congregation as a whole, so that the members are performing an act of worship in which the organist, choir, and rector are but mere instruments playing a necessary but not the entire part in the spiritual act of a large number of persons coming together for common worship. A realization and carrying out of this idea means full churches in place of halfempty ones. One is often reminded of the congregation which, after listening to poorly executed music that was over the head of the organist and choir, finally effected a compromise by suggesting that if the organist would play the hymn tunes with which the congregation was familiar, and the simple canticles, he could do what he pleased during the offertory.
Of course, well-attended churches with waiting lists for sittings would be a distinct novelty. To hear many talk one would think this was the only thing desired. Much more, however, is demanded of the modern rector. He must be sincere, else he can bring only half-hearted comfort. He must have faith in the fundamentals. This faith must not be confused with belief in dogma or theology as such. Then, too, the themes of his sermons must be constructive and not merely critical. Continual criticism soon develops into continual faultfinding, without constructive thought. Successful constructive thought involves responsibility which the nagging critic need not shoulder.
A check-up on the sermons taken on a random Sunday in the Borough of Manhattan showed that 70 per cent of them consisted merely of criticism, followed by the usual weak exhortation to lead a Christian life, and that only 30 per cent attempted to lead constructively. Furthermore, many preachers follow continuously a main theme of what may be called a modified, dignified Billy Sunday type — namely, an appeal to the unbelievers and, nowadays particularly, to the young person to embrace religion, the average rector thinking that the young people are going to the bad, forgetting that-each older generation adopts this point of view regarding the younger.
The average modern rector must not forget that most of his congregation already agree with him as to the essentials of a well-ordered life, but ask him to go a step further and consider with them the beauty of holiness of things spiritual or to help them with the practical problems as they arise.
‘Why does n’t our rector tell us how to apply at the bridge table the doctrines for which he contends, and in other everyday affairs of life?’ said one young woman. ‘I am glad to go to church, as our rector never attempts to speak on political subjects; when rectors do, they know so little about politics that it bores you to listen to them,’ said another prominent political leader. The average modern rector realizes that his field is vast enough and deep enough to demand his whole attention, and leaves secular topics to those to whom they belong.
To go a step further, the modern rector may develop the beauties of the service. One way is to have a main theme, with his scriptural reading, his sermon, and his hymns all chosen with reference to the central idea. This adds a beauty of unity to be enjoyed by the loss superficial members of the congregation and gives a depth to the service. Of course, it takes time and attention, but the average modern rector in the average Protestant church in New York is no longer to be pitied in regard to money received, or assistance, or compensation. His salary and emoluments compare favorably with the most favored in any other walk of life, including business, while the assistance he has in his profession far outstrips that of his brother in other professional fields. Of course, this does not hold true of the clergy as a whole, but it does of a few churches in the great cities. Accordingly, much may be asked where much is given. Besides, these men are and should be chosen for their extraordinary abilities, because of the commanding leadership which they should assume. One difficulty for the average vestry lies in finding applicants big enough to fill the positions in the great urban churches. Too often a vestry of exceptional men must sit around and inwardly smile at the smallness and pettiness and self-opinionation of their chosen leader in things spiritual. The average modern rector needs the enthusiastic help and support of his vestry.
It is likewise demanded of the modern rector that, in a vestry meeting, the truth and the wisdom of the questions presented must be determined on the merits of the case, and both the vestry and the rector must work in harmony, each giving way to the cause that has the greater reason. Too often a rector pig-headedly insists upon his own policy and accuses of disloyalty those who dissent, even when a full discussion has shown the weakness of his position. So, too, some vestries hamper the clergymen, but in general the vestries are too subservient.
The path of the modern rector is admittedly beset with difficulties, but his profession is indeed the greatest adventure of all. How best to bring peace of mind and comfort and spiritual leadership to the great mass of troubleminded humanity is his goal; and religion and education, after all, are essential for an enduring nation. If religion existed merely as a means of keeping quiet masses of humanity, as charged by some critics, it goes without saying that it could not exist. Religion is, as it must be, a sustaining hope of each individual, small and great.