BY REV. PROF. R. J. GEORGE, D. D.
The Reformed Presbyterian Standard recently announced its purpose to publish a series of editorial articles in opposition to a long established usage in the Covenanter Church - the use of tokens in connection with the observance of the Lord’s Supper. A hope was entertained that others connected with the paper would dissuade the editors from their purpose, but the appearance of the first of these articles in a late issue dispels that hope.
Many in the Church will deprecate the agitation of this subject at the present time. Most important issues are pending, and issues on which our Church is united; why should she be forced to divert her energies to what are supposed to be less important issues, on which is she divided?
Twice within comparatively recent years this subject has been carefully considered by Synod. In 1883 the subject was brought up by a memorial, and a special committee was appointed with Dr. J. R. W. Sloane as chairman, which brought in a series of propositions clearly defining the nature of this service and its true relation to the Sacrament and closing with the following:
“In view of these considerations we advise all our people to observe the custom as heretofore until such time as the Church in its wisdom may deem it proper to dispense with it.”
This action was not mandatory but advisory, and it aimed to preserve uniformity of practice throughout the Church and to promote the peace of our congregations.
As late as the year 1896 the subject was again brought up and Synod, having held the matter under consideration for a year, in 1897 adopted the following recommendation, submitted by its Committee of Discipline, Dr. C. D. Trumbull, chairman, viz.:
“Inasmuch as the use of tokens is not a part of the Sacrament of the Supper, we recommend that their use be left to the discretion of individual sessions with due regard to the peace of our congregations.”
This also was a peace measure, and authorized sessions to discontinue the use of tokens, if they see fit, when it can be done without disturbing the peace of their congregations; but it does not warrant them to distract and vex their people by violently breaking down a custom which is endeared to many by hallowed associations.
It would seem as if the opponents of this honored custom, having secured liberty from the supreme judicatory for “individual sessions” peacefully to set it aside, if they so desire, might permit the matter to rest. But they will not.
It may be said that an editor, as a public teacher, is under obligation to attack any usage in the Church which he regards as “unscriptural,” and to seek to break it down, however dear it may be to many of God’s people. But the question here is one which it belongs to Church courts to decide. And when the supreme judicatory, after careful consideration, has decided that the custom is not contrary to the Word of God, and has left the matter of its continuance to the discretion of the sessions, the sense of editorial responsibility must be strong to require the reopening of the discussion in the columns of a Church paper.
Again, it may be said that the time has come when we can peacefully discuss any of the doctrines or usages of our Church, and that it is a reflection on the intelligence, broad-mindedness and charity of our people, to intimate that such discussion may disturb the peace of our beloved Zion. It is well, however, to observe that there are just limitations of peaceful public discussion. In opening the question The Standard seems to take very broad ground as to the scope which the discussion may take. It says:
“If any doctrine of our faith, or any practice of our life, will not stand in the light of investigation, conducted with the torch of truth, well and good; let it go.”
This was the plea made in 1890. It was charged that the practice of making political dissent a term of communion is unscriptural, and men claimed the right to discuss it in the Church papers, and to bring it to the test of the Word of God. But Synod enjoined Presbyteries to see that such discussion cease. In the interests both of truth and of peace, the Church places limits on public discussion. In the deliverance of 1897, authorizing sessions to discontinue the use of tokens, Synod guards the Church’s position by adding:
“It is understood that this action in no way affects the doctrine and practice of the Church in the matter of close communion.”
Nor is it the fear of inability to defend her position that leads the Church to discourage such agitation.
But the discussion is on, and the plea for peace can now have reference only to the spirit in which it shall be carried forward. If The Standard makes good its contention, that the fathers of the Church have not understood the true character of this service and have been guilty of practicing and advising the perpetuation of an “unhistorical,” “unpresbyterian,” “unscriptural” and “unedifying” custom in connection with the observance of her most sacred ordinance, then we should be willing to discontinue it.
On the other hand there is need to hear in mind in the discussion that the traditions of a church are dear to the hearts of those who truly love her.
“Thy saints take pleasure in her stones, Her very dust to them is dear.”
Nor is this attachment to be ascribed either to ignorance or to superstition. These traditions are often associated with the profoundest religious experiences of the saints of God. They have, for them, a real and spiritual value. They cannot be discredited by epithets.
The most precious of our Covenanter traditions are connected with the observance of the Lord’s Supper. The communion season has long been recognized as the reviving time in the Church. Certain usages have made it so. They have tended to uplift it and make it like the “Delectable Mountains,” and the “Land of Beulah,” hard by the gates of the celestial city. Among these have been the preparatory days: Preparation Sabbath, Fast Day, Day of Immediate Preparation: preparatory exercises, such as Explaining the Terms of Communion, Distribution of Tokens, the Action Sermon, Fencing the Tables, explaining the Words of Institution: the manner of its observance, the communion table, the solemn approach of the communicants singing the marriage song of the Lamb, Psalm forty-five, to a familiar sacramental tune, seldom used on any other occasion, the elements exhibited and then consecrated, then dispensed to communicants, the enraptured table addresses, where, as in the “Palace Beautiful,” all the talk at the table was about “the King of the celestial country, who He was, and what He had done, and why He did what He had done”: then Monday’s Thanksgiving and Witness-Bearing Service, and the parting words, and the closing admonitions, solemnly read from God’s Book. It is in the memory of some when these traditions and usages were the common heritage of other Presbyterian Churches. But they disappeared - first the Tokens, then the Terms, then the debarring service, then the Monday’s service, then the Preparatory days, until these remained only as the distinctive features of a Covenanter Communion.
It is strange that thoughtful men look on with troubled hearts as they see the same process of disintegration and mutilation as it goes on in our own Church. Some have laid aside the tokens and naturally they have a tendency to minimize the other services connected with their use; others have discarded the Fast-Day, and substituted an evening sermon in its place; others abbreviate and emasculate the debarring service with its solemn searchings of heart; and others have cut off the Monday’s service entirely. Many regret these mutilations and are ready to say in the language of the Sweet Singer of Israel:
“My soul is poured out in me
When this I think upon,
Because that with the multitude
I heretofore had gone.
With them into God’s house I went
With voice of joy and praise;
Yea, with the multitude that kept
The solemn holy days.”
I cannot but express the hope that this discussion will be in a spirit worthy of the sacramental feast in a which we commemorate our Saviour’s dying love; and that as the result the use of tokens will be better understood as the Synod has defined it, as “not an integral element of the ordinance,” as “in no sense an act of worship,” and that “it cannot in any way be productive of mischief unless elevated into a prominence and significance that does not in any sense attach to it:” and that it will be seen to be a beautiful, appropriate, dignified and impressive service; not meaningless, but instructive and significant as to the spiritual oversight of the flock by pastor and elders, and of a right concern for the purity of the Holy Sacrament; that it is in keeping with the Church’s position as to close communion, that it is an important step toward the renewal of our sacramental engagements, and well calculated to impress upon communicants a too much neglected truth, the binding obligation of our Church Covenants, and that it is in perfect harmony with the Holy Scriptures. May it bring the arrest of thought to our sessions, and to all our people, and lead them to value more those Covenanter traditions which have made possible our glorious Covenanter Communions, and to hold fast that which remains and to restore that which has been taken away.
“Pray for the peace of Jerusalem; they shall prosper that love thee.
“Peace be within thy walls, and prosperity within thy palaces;
“For my friends and companions sakes, I will now say: Peace be within thee.” - Ps. 122:7-9.