YOU have just heard, my brethren, that ancient bidding prayer, which reminds us that the Parliament of England has been, once more, summoned to meet for a special session. It reminds us also that, by a privilege 300 years old, this Church is known as the Church of the House of Commons. Here, in former days, the members of the House met, year after year, on Ash Wednesday, to hear the exhortations of the greatest divines of the English Church. This parish of St. Margaret's was then the parish of the rich; the church was the church of royalty, and every Sunday the members of Parliament worshipped here in hundreds. All these conditions are changed. Streets are now abandoned, which were then full of wealthy and noble residents, and the parish is almost exclusively a parish of the poor. But the church has its memories. We are met within the same walls which were thronged by the Commons of England during the stormiest epochs of their career. Pym, and Hampden, and Vane, and Eliot, and Marvell, and Harrington have here knelt in prayer no less than Strafford, and Falkland, and Prince Rupert; and the altar and the font are associated with the memories alike of Milton, the secretary of Cromwell, and Clarendon, the historian of Charles, and Sir William Waller, the Parliamentary general. But apart from all these constitutional associations, the mere fact that Parliament has again assembled might well furnish the subject for our morning exhortation; and since we cannot but feel in that event a special interest, I purpose to ask you to dwell with me for a few moments on the thoughts which a new Session of Parliament suggests. I need not say that they will be religious thoughts. The functions of a pastor are not the same as those of a citizen, and the occasions are rare in which it could be the duty of the preacher to deal polemically with those burning questions which awaken the animosities of party strife. No ! it is his duty, and a blessed one it is, to deal with those indestructible principles which are, to the transient questions of political division, as is the ocean to its wreaths of foam; with those truths which tower above all passing questions, and lie behind them, wide as eternity and deep as life. It is his duty to enforce the deep moral obligations of Christian citizenship, not to thrust himself needlessly into the arena of its evanescent strifes. It is his duty to plead for mutual appreciation ; to soften bitternesses; to dwell on points of agreement; to urge that generosity is nobler than violence, that courtesy is more honourable than invective. Times indeed there have been, and may be again, when at all costs the Christian preacher must cry aloud and spare not; times when the laws of God have been imperilled; when the principles of justice have been traversed; when the rights of the many have been crushed under the encroachments of the few; when wealth and power have tyrannously pressed their privileges, and forgotten utterly their duties; when men have called evil good, and good evil; put bitter for sweet, and sweet for bitter. At such times the Christian preacher should, like the ancient prophets, speak out, even before kings, and not be ashamed. But my duties to-day are wholly different. I wish to make our bidding prayer real to you; I wish to impress on you the grandeur and solemnity of the functions of our legislature, and to urge upon you the duty of not forgetting, as you kneel at the throne of grace, those on whom rest such grave responsibilities.
"I exhort," says St. Paul, " that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks be made for all men." It is a grand and elevating duty. "But thou," says the dying king in the Idylls.
"If thou shouldst never see my face again, Pray for my soul; more things are wrought by prayer Than this world dreams of. Therefore let thy voice Rise like a fountain for me, night and day. For what are men better than sheep or goats, That nourish a blind life within the brain, If, knowing God, they lift not holy hands, Both for themselves, and those who call them friend ? For so the whole round world is every way Bound by gold chains about the feet of God".
But the Apostle proceeds especially to urge prayers " for kings and all in authority, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in godliness and honesty." Nor have Christians ever overlooked this injunction. In the very earliest liturgies we find prayers for rulers. " With outspread hands," says Tertullian, "we pray for all sovereigns a long life, a secure dominion, a safe home, brave armies, a faithful senate, an upright people, a quiet world." Now in England the strongest power is that of the Parliament. It results from the entire growth of our constitution, that the authority of Parliament, which is ultimately the will of the people, is irresistible and supreme. Even the Plantagenets felt that force, and it wrung from them the strongest charters of our liberty. Even the Tudors felt it, and it curbed their lion will. In vain did the Stuarts fight against it. When James I.. on receiving a deputation from the House, ordered so many gilded chairs to be set, " for," he said, " there are so many kings a-coming," he did but utter an unconscious prophecy of a force which was to cost his son a life, and his family a throne. And since then the Parliament of England has been the mainstay of England's liberties; its will has been the motive force, its laws the sheet-anchor of the state. Thank God we all love and honour the Crown of England with a most loyal affection, and we rejoice that there is a House of Lords, lifted above the perils of immediate unpopularity, representing the most established rights, and recruited yearly by the noblest intellects; and yet, again and again, the towering fasces of the sovereign and of the aristocracy have been loyally and fitly lowered before the majesty of a people's will. And if this be the grandeur of a senator's position, it is the privilege of ours. The members of the House of Commons are not our tyrants, but our representatives ; not our masters, but the agents of our will. For these blessings of freedom and self-government we ought to thank God. Citizens, by this gift, of no mean commonwealth, we ought not, amid the dwarfing selfishness of individualism, to forget that, in the formation of that enlightened public opinion by which the issues of legislation are decided, it is our duty to take a part which, however humble, ought to be both thoughtful and sincere. And the slow, just, legal growth of this glorious prerogative is the great characteristic of English history. Even our civil wars, stained as they were with a king's blood, had none of those lurid scenes of riot, those hideous excesses of revolution, which have reddened page after page of the annals of France, and caused her fortunes to oscillate with such terrible violence between the extremes of anarchy and despotism. We then—more perhaps than any nation under the sun—owe this debt of " thanksgiving " to God, of which the Apostle reminds us, " for kings, and all who are in authority".
And if we have such large reason to offer those thanksgivings, may not this be due, in no small degree, to the "prayers and supplications" which St. Paul tells us that we ought also to offer ? All that there is among us of peace, of progress, of prosperity is due to the collective wisdom of the nation, as guided by the voice of her Parliament; and if that wisdom have produced rich results, must we not believe that God has heard the prayers of His people ? If " every good gift, and every perfect gift," to nations as well as to individuals, is from above, must it not be due to His goodness that so many statesmen have been raised up among us whose great example is the heritage of the world? Ought we not to thank God for these great men—for their learning, for their dignity, for their eloquence, for their inflexible determination, to the utmost of their power, to be just and fear not?
Let none of us, my brethren, be so vulgarly absorbed by our shops and our families, by our private interests and selfish domesticities, as to think that Parliaments and laws make small difference to him. Their functions are so far-reaching that there is not a home or hearth in England which is not happier or more dismal from their influence. Not only does the safety of nations, the peace of churches, the prosperity of commerce depend on them, but even no little of the security, the order, the happiness of our individual lives. With them rests the continuance of the loyal affection of our colonies, over realms on which the sun never sets. When some great social iniquity has entrenched itself in the citadels of power, it is theirs to drive the battering-ram against its walls. By fearless repression of wrong, by wide encouragement of right, by high moral influence, by strong sanitary legislation, it is theirs to secure the righteousness of our land, and the health of our people.
These then are the reasons why, in this Church of the House of Commons, we pray " for the Great Council of the nation now assembled in Parliament." May we feel, as often as we hear that bidding prayer, how real it is! May we recognise that under every form of human government the Lord God is still our King! May our senators have wisdom to realise the grandeur of their duties! May they hand on, unquenched, that torch of freedom which, across the dust and darkness of many centuries, has been handed on to them ! May they preserve unimpaired the high prestige and dignity and honour which are their illustrious heritage! May they refer every question to the Law of Righteousness, as read by the light of conscience,—never giving up to party what was meant for mankind, or to a province what is the heritage of a kingdom, or to a section what is the prerogative of a race;—never forgetting that each vote of theirs will tend, in its measure, to make England a greater and better, or a weaker and poorer, land ; always on their knees asking God that they may use the power entrusted to them, not for private interests, not for transient ambitions, not for factious triumphs, but always with sternest integrity, and in His faith and fear. So shall we be able to hold our own against every force which can be brought against us; so shall we realise more and more the Psalmist's golden picture of national prosperity, that " truth shall flourish out of the earth, and righteousness look down from heaven. Yea, the Lord shall show loving-kindness, and our land shall give her increase. Righteousness shall go before Him, and He shall direct her going in the way".
Ephphatha Sermons, p. 259.