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AMONGST the vain contemptible things whereof your lordship would create an abhorrence in the laity are the trifles and niceties of authoritative benedictions, absolutions, excommunications. Again, you say, that to expect the grace of God from any hands but His own is to affront Him. And, that all depends upon God and ourselves; that human benedictions, human absolutions, human excommunications, have nothing to do with the favour of God.
It is evident from these maxims (for your lordship asserts them as such) that whatever institutions are observed in any Christian society, upon this supposition, that thereby grace is conferred through human hands, or by the ministry of the clergy, such institutions ought to be condemned, and are condemned by your lordship, as trifling, useless, and affronting to God.
There is an institution, my lord, in the yet established Church of England, which we call confirmation. It is founded upon the express words of Scripture, primitive observance, and the universal practice of all succeeding ages in the Church. The design of this institution is, that it should be a means of conferring grace, by the prayer and imposition of the bishop's hands, on those who have been already baptized. But yet, against all this authority both divine and human, and the express order of our own Church, your lordship teaches the laity that all human benedictions are useless niceties, and that to expect God's grace from any hands but His own is to affront Him.
If so, my lord, what shall we say in defence of the Apostles ? We read (Acts viii. 14) that when Philip the deacon had baptized the Samaritans, the Apostles sent Peter and John to them, who having prayed, and laid their hands on them, they received the Holy Ghost, who before was fallen upon none of them ; only they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus.
My lord, several things are here out of question : First, that something else, even in the Apostolical times, was necessary, besides baptism, in order to qualify persons to become complete members of the body, or partakers of the grace of Christ. They had been baptized, yet did not receive the Holy Ghost till the Apostles' hands were laid upon them. Secondly, that God's graces were not only conferred by means of human hands, but of some particular hands, and not others. Thirdly, that this office was so strictly appropriated to the Apostles, or chief governors of the Church, that it could not be performed by inspired men, though empowered to work miracles, who were of an inferior order, as Philip the deacon. Fourthly, that the power of the Apostles for the performance of this ordinance was entirely owing to their superior degree in the ministry, and not to any extraordinary gifts they were endowed with, for then Philip might have performed it who was not wanting in those gifts, himself being an evangelist and worker of miracles; which is a demonstration that his incapacity arose from his inferior degree in the ministry.
And now, my lord, are all human benedictions niceties and trifles ? Are the means of God's grace in His own hands alone ? Is it wicked, and affronting to God, to suppose the contrary ? How then come Peter and John to confer the Holy Ghost by the imposition of their hands ? How comes it, that they appropriate this office to themselves ? Is the dispensation of God's grace in His own hands alone ? And yet can it be dispensed to us by the ministry of some persons, and not by that of others ?
Were the Apostles so wicked as to distinguish themselves by a pretence to vain powers which God had reserved to Himself, and which your lordship supposes, from the title of your preservative, that it is inconsistent with common sense to imagine that God could or would have communicated to men ?
Had any of your lordship's well-instructed laity lived in the Apostles' days, with what indignation must they have rejected this senseless chimerical claim of the Apostles ? They must have said, Why do you, Peter and John, pretend to this blasphemous power ? Whilst we believe the gospel, we cannot expect the grace of God from any hands but His own. You give us the Holy Ghost! You confer the grace of God! Is it not impious to think that He should make our improvement in grace depend upon your ministry, or hang our salvation on any particular order of clergymen? We know that God is just and good and true, and that all depends upon Him and ourselves, and that human benedictions are trifles. Therefore, whether you Peter, or you Philip, or both or neither of you lay your hands upon us, we are neither better nor worse ; but just in the same state of grace as we were before.
This representation has not one syllable in it but what is founded on your lordship's doctrine, and perfectly agreeable to it.
The late most pious and learned Bishop Beveridge has these remarkable words upon Confirmation : “How any bishops in our age dare neglect so considerable a part of their office, I know not ; but fear they will have no good account to give of it, when they come to stand before God's tribunal.”
But we may justly, and therefore I hope with decency, ask your lordship, how you dare perform this part of your office ? For you have condemned it as trifling and wicked; as trifling, because it is a human benediction; as wicked, because it supposes grace conferred by the hands of the bishop. If therefore any baptized persons should come to your lordship for confirmation, if you are sincere in what you have delivered, your lordship ought, I humbly conceive, to make them this declaration :
“My friends, for the sake of decency and order, I have taken upon me the episcopal character, and, according to custom, which has long prevailed against common sense, am now to lay my hands upon you. But I beseech you, as you have any regard to the truth of the Gospel, or to the honour of God, not to imagine there is anything in this action, more than a useless empty ceremony; for if you expect to have any spiritual advantage from human benedictions, or to receive grace from the imposition of a bishop's hands, you affront God, and, in effect, renounce Christianity.”
(From Second Letter to Bishop of Bangor.)
CHARACTER OF OURANIUS
OURANIUS is a holy priest, full of the spirit of the gospel, watching, labouring, and praying for a poor country village. Every soul in it is as dear to him as himself; and he loves them all as he loves himself, because he prays for them all as often as he prays for himself.
If his whole life is one continual exercise of great zeal and labour, hardly ever satisfied with any degrees of care and watchfulness, it is because he has learned the great value of souls, by so often appearing before God, as an intercessor for them.
He never thinks he can love, or do enough for his flock; because he never considers them in any other view than as so inany persons that, by receiving the gifts and graces of God, are to become his hope, his joy, and his crown of rejoicing.
He goes about his parish, and visits everybody in it ; but visits in the same spirit of piety that he preaches to them ; he visits them, to encourage their virtues, to assist them with his advice and counsel, to discover their manner of life, and to know the state of their souls, that he may intercede with God for them according to their particular necessities.
When Ouranius first entered into holy orders, he had a haughtiness in his temper, a great contempt and disregard for all foolish and unreasonable people ; but he has prayed away this spirit, and has now the greatest tenderness for the most obstinate sinners ; because he is always hoping that God will sooner or later hear those prayers that he makes for their repentance.
The rudeness, ill-nature, or perverse behaviour of any of his flock used at first to betray him into impatience ; but now it raises no other passion in him, than a desire of being upon his knees in prayer to God for them.
Thus have his prayers for others altered and amended the state of his own heart.
It would strangely delight you to see with what spirit he converses, with what tenderness he reproves, with what affection he exhorts, and with what vigour he preaches; and it is all owing to this, because he reproves, exhorts, and preaches to those, for whom he first prays to God.
This devotion softens his heart, enlightens his mind, sweetens his temper, and makes everything that comes from him instructive, amiable, and affecting.
At his first coming to his little village, it was as disagreeable to him as a prison, and every day seemed too tedious to be endured in so retired a place. He thought his parish was too full of poor and mean people, that were none of them fit for the conversation of a gentleman.
This put him upon a close application to his studies. He kept much at home, writ notes upon Homer and Plautus, and sometimes thought it hard to be called to pray by any poor body, when he was just in the midst of one of Homer's battles.
This was his polite, or I may rather say, poor, ignorant turn of mind, before devotion had got the government of his heart.
But now his days are so far from being tedious, or his parish too great a retirement, that he now only wants more time to do that variety of good, which his soul thirsts after. The solitude of his little parish is become matter of great comfort to him, because he hopes that God has placed him and his flock there, to make it their way to heaven. • He can now not only converse with, but gladly attend and wait upon the poorest kind of people. He is now daily watching over the weak and infirm, humbling himself to perverse, rude, ignorant people, wherever he can find them ; and is so far from desiring to be considered as a gentleman, that he desires to be used as the servant of all; and in the spirit of his Lord and Master girds himself, and is glad to kneel down and wash any of their feet.
He now thinks the poorest creature in his parish good enough, and great enough, to deserve the humblest attendances, the kindest friendships, the tenderest offices he can possibly show
He is now so far from wanting agreeable company, that he thinks there is no better conversation in the world, than to be talking with poor and mean people about the kingdom of heaven.
All these noble thoughts and divine sentiments are the effects of his great devotion ; he presents every one so often before God, in his prayers, that he never thinks he can esteem, reverence, or serve those enough, for whom he implores so many mercies from God.
Ouranius is mightily affected with this passage of Holy Scripture, “The effectual, fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.”
This makes him practise all the arts of holy living, and aspire after every instance of piety and righteousness, that his prayers for his flock may have their full force, and avail much with God.
For this reason he has sold a small estate that he had, and has erected a charitable retirement for ancient poor people, to live in prayer and piety, that his prayers being assisted by such good works, may pierce the clouds, and bring down blessings upon those souls committed to his care.