Wednesday, September 12, 2012

John Henry Hobart: "How excellent and superior in all respects is the Liturgy of our Church"

On the Episcopal Church calendar today we commemorate the life and witness of John Henry Hobart (1775-1830).  Here's a brief synopsis (taken from Love's Redeeming Work: The Anglican Quest for Holiness):

Deeply committed to the theological tenets of pre-Tractarian High Churchmanship, John Henry Hobart paid particular regard to the Apostolic succession of the episcopate and with it a profound understanding of Holy Orders.  After serving at Trinity Church, New York City, he was elected to the episcopate in New York in 1811, at the age of 36.  His episcopal ministry in New York was characterized by an extraordinary zeal for fulfillment of high demands which he placed upon his office, in particular with regard to the practice of confirmation.  His overwhelming commitment was thought a contributory factor in his death at the age of 55 during a missionary tour of the western limit of his diocese.

Hobart also founded Geneva College (later renamed Hobart College) and he was one of the founders of the General Theological Seminary in New York City where he served as the seminary's first dean. 

In the following passage, Hobart extols the virtues of the liturgies in the 1789 U.S. Book of Common Prayer, with particular attention to the ways that those liturgies provide instruction "on the doctrines and duties of religion" while also cultivating "a spirit of devotion" that "preserve[s] the light of divine truth and the genuine spirit of evangelical piety."  Hobart also notes the "solemn promise of conformity" that all clergy make to the doctrine, discipline, and worship contained in the Prayer Book.

Forms of prayer possess many important advantages.  When public worship is conducted according to a prescribed form, the people are previously acquainted with the prayers in which they are to join, and are thus enabled to render unto God a reasonable and enlightened service.  In forms of prayer, that dignity and propriety of language, so necessary in supplications addressed to the infinite Majesty of Heaven, may be preserved.  They prevent the particular opinions and dispositions of the minister from influencing the devotions of the congregation.  They serve as a standard of faith and practice, impressing on both minister and people, at every performance of public worship, the important doctrines and duties of the Gospel.  And they render the service more animating by uniting the people with the minister in the performance of public worship.

Thus, then, we see how excellent and superior in all respects is the Liturgy of our Church; and how admirably she has provided for the two important objects of the public service, instruction and devotion.  The lessons, the creeds, the commandments, the epistles and gospels contain the most important and impressive instruction on the doctrines and duties of religion.  While the confession, the collects, and prayers, the litany and thanksgivings, lead the understanding and the heart through all the sublime and affecting exercises of devotion.  In this truly evangelical and excellent Liturgy the Supreme Lord of the universe is invoked by the most appropriate, affecting, and sublime epithets: all the wants to which man, as a dependant and sinful being, is subject are expressed in language at once simple, concise, and comprehensive; these wants are urged by confession the most humble, and supplications the most reverential and ardent.  The all-sufficient merits of Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world, are uniformly urged as they only certain pledge of divine mercy and grace; and with the most instructive lessons from the sacred oracles and the most profound confessions and supplications is mingled the sublime chorus of praise begun by the minister, and responded with one heart and one voice from the assembled congregation.  The mind, continually passing from one exercise of worship to another, and instead of one continued and uniform prayer sending up its wishes and aspirations in short and varied collects and supplications, is never suffered to grow languid or weary.

A person who thus sincerely offers his devotions according to the Liturgy of the Church, may be satisfied that he is worshiping God "with the spirit and with the understanding also."  The more frequently and seriously he joins in the service, the more will he be impressed with this exquisite beauties, which tend at once to gratify his taste and to quicken his devotion.  That continual change of language in prayer which some persons appear to consider as essential to spiritual devotion, it would be impossible to attain, even were every minister left to his own discretion in public worship.  The same expressions would necessarily recur frequently in his prayers.  They would soon sink into a form destitute of that propriety and dignity of sentiment and language, of that variety, that simplicity, and affecting fervor which characterize the Liturgy of the Church.

Long then may the Church preserve a form of service which is calculated to cherish in her members a spirit of devotion equally remote from dull and unprofitable lukewarmness on the one hand, and from blind, extravagant, and indecent enthusiasm on the other - a form of service which has ever served to brighten the pious graces of her members, and, in the season of declension and error, to preserve the light of divine truth and the genuine spirit of evangelical piety.  With such sacred and commendable caution does the Episcopal Church guard the Book of Common Prayer that she exacts from all her ministers, at their ordination, a solemn promise of conformity to it; and, in one of her canons, enjoins the use of it "before all sermons and lectures, and on all other occasions of public worship," and forbids the use of any "other prayers than those prescribed in the said book."

~ John Henry Hobart, A Companion for the Book of Common Prayer (1805)

quoted in They Still Speak: Readings for the Lesser Feasts (1993)

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