Wednesday 25 October 2017

The Presbyterian Church Instrumental Music Controversy pt 3


I am inclined to think that the tie in the decision of '72 intensified rather than lessened the interest and excitement of the controversy during the interval of next Assembly. But that is just the one year in regard to which I am unable to write with personal recollections of the controversy and of Ulster, Presbyterial or otherwise. That was the first year of my temporary divorce from Belfast and its life and controversies in either Church or State. But if I was detached from Ulster controversies, ecclesiastical and political, I did not escape controversies in regard to both. My earliest experiences of Dublin were in connection with an ecclesiastical controversy, but developed in a civil Court, perhaps the most remarkable before or since. It was the celebrated case of O'Keefe and Cullen, compared to which most other controversies of the kind with which I was associated were mere leather and prunella. The Rev. Mr. O'Keefe, a parish priest in the South of Ireland, possessed a spirit of independence rare in ecclesiastics of that Church. Cardinal Cullen, who introduced Ultramontanism into Ireland, with such baneful and divisive results, had suspended “Father O'Keefe” for some assertion of independence which did not meet with the approval of the Cardinal, and involved some violation of canon law, which brought on him the vials of ecclesiastical wrath and judgment. The suspension or removal of the priest involved the loss of his income, and the resolute priest appealed to the law of the land as against the law of the Church. The trial lasted a week, with Chief Justice Whiteside as the Judge, and a strong Bar, with Mr. Gerald Fitzgibbon, Q.C., as leading counsel for the parish priest, and Mr. John O'Hagan, Q.Q., afterwards Judge, as leader for the Cardinal. The case lasted for a week, and ended in a triumph for Father O'Keefe, the jury and Judge holding that the deprivation of Father O'Keefe's income was an act in violation, of British law, and that he was entitled by that law to his income or compensation for its loss. I have no recollection of the ultimate fate of Father O'Keefe and the legislation; but there were two dramatic incidents that come into my mind which the reader will, I hope, excuse my further breaking the continuity of my Assembly life to refer to.

The first was the appearance of two canonists from Rome as witnesses on canon law on behalf of the Cardinal. Both these were gentlemen in the prime of life, of fine appearance and address, and full shoulders and chest one is accustomed to associate with Italians. Their voices were rich and musical, and their appearance that of the most robust health and joy of life. As neither understood English, the celebrated Father Burke appeared on the table as interpreter. Father Burke was one of the most celebrated orators and preachers of his time, with a rich, full, and pleasing voice. He wore the garb of a Dominican, and was as lean and ascetic looking as the Italians were the reverse; and having regard to his almost absence of chest one wondered where or how the rich resonant notes were produced. But though I have not much of a musical ear, I listened spellbound to the sounds that emanated alternately from the canonists and Dominican. It was more like an entertainment in musical sounds than a trial in a court of justice, so much more enjoyable. To me the sound was more intelligible than the sense. The pleasure I experienced from the sound is revived almost to the point of reality as I think of it now.

It fell to the lot of Mr. Fitzgibbon to cross-examine these canonists, and what struck me at the time was the counsel's apparent familiarity with the canons in their original language. Frequently when he asked for a certain canon., and the canonist would read it in the original, Mr. Fitzgibbon, if it happened not to be the one he wanted, would stop him and say, “That is not the canon I mean.” And apropos the canon law, I may mention that afterwards in his speech, one of the most brilliant and memorable I ever listened to, Mr. Fitzgibbon pointed out that it was impossible to catch the Church or its high authorities on any of its canons. If you found a canon that would apply to what you wanted (in the relation of the individuals in the Church to it), you found there was an exception in favour of a bishop; then another exertion in favour of an archbishop; and still another in favour of a cardinal. This was said in connection with the liberties given or the restrictions opposed on the various grades of ecclesiastical authority.

The second was the, to me, startling and theatrical but really brilliant and picturesque scene when Cardinal Cullen, with the then Bishop Vaughan, a splendid specimen of manhood, I am sure six and a half feet high and built in solid, not gross, proportion, afterwards Cardinal Vaughan; and I think another bishop, with all their ecclesiastical officers, garbed in their robes and vestments, marched into court one morning in full state and dignity, which seemed for the time to cast those of the Judge and Court into the shade. It was a very picturesque and very dramatic sight; and whether it had the influence on Court and jury that was intended, I cannot say.

The other controversy was political, connected with the early days of Home Rule. The Home Government Association was a puny child, the offspring of a union between certain Trinity College professors and other Episcopalians to take revenge for the passing of the Irish Church Act, and of Roman Catholics who were always ready to take part in anything that would be “agin” the Government. The founders numbered less than twenty, and the majority were Episcopalian Protestants, chiefly Trinity College professors, with Isaac Butt as the official head and parent. I have personally seen the original document founding the association, with the signatures. Mr. Butt was one of the greatest lawyers of his time, who had missed his way to the Bench, for which he was better qualified than many who attained it by personal characteristics of unreliability and irresponsibility, and hoped to find in this new movement a means of vengeance, if not a path to power. It is possible the lore of the time may give a different account of the leader and the circumstances; but I think this is the most unvarnishedly truthful of any given. It was a puny child at first, and received careful nursing to keep it alive. Its meetings in my time were held in a room in Great Brunswick Street, with Mr. Robert Butt (son of Isaac) and Professor Galbraith, of Trinity College and Mr. A. M. Sullivan, and others as bright particular occasional stars. Often at the hour fixed for the meetings to commence the attendance were very small, and whips would be sent out to the adjoining public or other houses in search of “enthusiastic” votaries of the new movement. It was at this time that Mr. Parnell, at least in name, appeared first on the horizon. He was selected to contest one of the two county divisions of Dublin in opposition, if I remember aright, to Colonel Taylour, who had been before (or was perhaps after) the Conservative whip. I was present at nearly all the election meetings held in the interests of Mr. Parnell in the county, and I never heard Mr. Parnell open his mouth. Professor Galbraith usually apologised for his absence at each meeting on the ground that he was at that time addressing a meeting in distant parts of the county. Such an apology was made for him at a meeting a few miles from Dublin, at the foot of the Wicklow Mountains.

When the reporters, who were the last to leave the field, reached the road a gig containing a lady and gentleman drove past, and we were told that was Mr. Parnell. That was all I saw of the modest and retiring candidate, whose subsequent lack of modesty and reserve are matters of history. So if I escaped the instrumental music controversy for that year, I had enough of controversy to lay a good foundation of the characteristic condition of Ireland.

For the year's account of the controversy I am obliged to fall back upon the Minutes and the newspapers for what occurred. But it is interesting reading. As I have said, the division of 1872 ended in a tie and an understanding that nothing would be done during the year either to put in or put out an instrument. I was not in a position! to follow the controversy in the Press and in pamphlets; but I suspect there was a great deal, from some reference in the debate. Rev. Wm. Johnston (afterwards D.D.) was the outgoing Moderator; but he made no reference to the controversy in his retiring address. He and the Rev. Geo. Bellis were nominated for the Moderatorship — there were other names, but the contest was between these two, and Mr. Johnston was elected by a large majority. On Tuesday he intimated that he hoped there would be no discussion on the instrumental music controversy, but if there was it would take place on the following day (Wednesday). The ladies of the Church did their best to promote harmony in the Assembly by inviting the members to a couple of breakfasts during the sittings; but even that failed to avert the discussion. It began on that same day. The Moderator, when he found discussion inevitable, suggested that the leaders should be limited to three-quarters of an hour; and though I was not there, I am sure they occupied the full time.

Rev. T. Y. Killen moved that a small committee be appointed to confer and, if possible, bring in a resolution which might be unanimously adopted by the Assembly. But Mr. Petticrew leaped at once into the trench, and moved the following amendment:—

“It having been referred to this committee to consider whether it would be necessary for the Assembly to legislate at present on the subject of the use of instrumental music in the public worship of God, and if so to suggest what the legislation should be, the committee report that they find the Assembly of 1868 declared ‘that the common law of the Church excludes instrumental music in the public worship of God and that Presbyteries be instructed to see that congregations conform to this law;' the committee are of opinion that no additional legislation is necessary and that any departure from the uniform practice of the Church in this matter would create discord among brethren, and wound the conscience of many.” The debate was continued with great vigour and apparently with much heat during the entire morning and evening sederunts of Wednesday and the greater part of Friday. Amongst the speakers in support of Mr. Petticrew's amendment, following in the old paths were Revs. Archibald Robinson, N. M. Brown, Joseph Corkey, Wm. Dobbin, J. B. Rentoul, Dr. J. G. Murphy. Among the “Liberty” speakers were Mr. Thomas Sinclair, Revs. Professor Killen, Robert Ross. Mr. Petticrew's position was that no additional legislation was necessary or expedient; that instrumental music was no part of worship in the Old Testament outside the Temple, and had no part in the New or Christian Church for the first seven hundred years. The arguments and illustrations were many. Mr. Sinclair's position was that instrumental music in worship was allowed in the Old and not repealed in the New. He was willing to forego the liberty, but he did not want to be compelled. He did not want to force any instrument on any church, but he would resent any attempt to coerce him or hedge in his liberty. Professor Killen was of opinion that the reason there was no instrumental music in the primitive Church was that they had no opportunity, and Dr. Murphy said instrumental music was not part of the ceremonial law, of the moral law, or the law of the Church. It had been in harmony with the old worship and was not congruous with the new, which was more spiritual in form. Mr. Robinson said that those who regarded instrumental music as merely a circumstance wanted liberty to introduce it — to introduce what many of their brethren regarded as a sin. Dr. Smyth, while in favour of the old paths and old form of worship, was also in favour of liberty, though he expressed himself opposed to both motion and amendment. He said that things were commanded in the early Church that were not commanded now. For instance, he said, in the early Church it was positively enacted that people should greet one another with a holy kiss; that command was not enforced now; it was left entirely as a matter of discretion. In place of the motion and amendment he was prepared to move that a portion of the petition to King Charles the First of the 2,000 Nonconformists who were expelled from the Church for Nonconformity be put on the minutes of the General Assembly.

At the opening of the sederunt on Friday a letter was read from one of the most respected elders of his own or any day, Mr. Charles Finlay, stating that at the Evangelical Alliance on one occasion, when some difficulty arose, the members devoted five minutes to silent prayer, and suggested that the Assembly should follow the example before further discussing the question. The suggestion was complied with, and after a period of silent prayer the Moderator, after a few sentences explaining that with one section it was against conscience to use instruments and with another it was against conscience to refuse liberty to use them, having regard to the common desire for the peace and prosperity of the Church, submitted the following resolutions:—

“First — To abstain from passing any law in relation to the service of praise.

“Second — To give up and abstain from the use of instrumental music in the public worship of God.

“Third — To address ourselves with increased diligence to improve the Psalmody of the Church.”

Some of the leaders on both sides expressed themselves satisfied. Dr. Kirkpatrick said the resolution might be tried in good faith for a year. Mr. Robinson said he clearly understood it would be a permanent settlement, and the Moderator said he proposed it as a permanent settlement, adding — “Let us be swathed together in the baptism of love.” The resolutions were then passed unanimously, and the Assembly engaged solemnly in prayer.

Some readers may think I am giving too much detail, but I think it is best to show as far as I can by what slow degrees and by how many attempts at compromise the question reached its final stage. This was the fifth year of the controversy; yet it was not till 1874, when “The Witness” was started, that I was most closely and directly connected with it. The agitation, the excitement, the controversies of the first five years were nothing to those that followed. For myself it seemed an eternity before the end came.

To be continued...

From The Witness, 26th October 2017

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