The Westminster Assembly's Directory of Worship
by Wm. Stanford Reid, M.A.
[excerpted from Bible Christianity, 3.9 (October 1938): 3]
On July 1, 1643, an assembly of the leading divines of England was convened in King Henry VII's Chapel at Westminster. This assembly, called by the English Parliament, came together for the purpose of revising and changing the doctrine, liturgy and government of the Church of England.
At the time of the meeting of the assembly the country was in the throes of civil war. Charles I was determined to rule as an absolute monarch, and to maintain the Church of England as the only officially recognized church. Parliament, however, was just as determined that it would rule, and that prelacy and episcopacy would be removed from the country. To accomplish the latter objective the assembly was called. The Kirk of Scotland was invited to send delegates also, and this it did.
One of the first things dealt with was the question of public worship. It was felt that the public worship of the Church of England should be made to agree with that of the Reformed churches in Scotland and abroad. By Dec. 27, 1644, the Directory of Public Worship was completed. It was then ratified by the English Parliament. Following this, it was sent to Scotland where it was accepted both by the Scottish Parliament and the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. Since then, it has usually been considered a model for directories of worship among English-speaking Presbyterians.
According to the Act of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland by which this directory was accepted, it would look as though the directory were to be followed very closely. Each congregation was to have a copy of the directory, and was to use it. The presbyteries were to "take special notice of the observation or neglect thereof in every congregation within their bounds, and make known the same to the Provincial or General Assembly as there shall be cause." One might reasonably suppose from this, that the Directory was to be used as a ritual. But when we turn to examine the work itself, we find that this is not the case.
Directory states expressly that there is no intention of making the minister follow the forms word for word. The "meaning therein being only, that the general heads, the sense and scope of the prayers, and other parts of public worship, being known to all, there may be a consent of all the churches in those things that contain the substance of the service and worship of God." It was to be a general pattern which the ministers were to follow. In this the Assembly followed exactly the line marked out by such men as Calvin and Knox.
With reference to the matter of read prayers, we find that the Directory rejects such things entirely. A reference is made to the burdensomeness of reading prayers. And then we are told that the tendency to read prayers has been "to make and increase an idle and unedifying ministry, which contented itself with set forms made to their hands by others, without putting forth themselves to exercise the gift of prayer, with which our Lord Jesus Christ doth please to furnish all his servants whom he calls to that office."
When we turn from the preface of the Directory to the actual contents of it, we find that the principle of freedom has been followed consistently. There is not one prayer set down in full. The effort has been made to give only a general idea of what the prayers should contain. The prayer before the sermon is given very fully, and yet it is obviously not to be followed closely. At the end of the material suggested for the prayer it is stated that the minister may alter it to fit the occasion or his own desire.
But it is well to note that above all else, the sermon is the important part of the worship. In the directories of Calvin and Knox it had been the same. There is no thought of the Lord's Supper being the main element of the service, nor the principle part of the worship. Their emphasis had been upon the preaching of the Word of God for the instruction of the hearers. The Directory sets this forth as "one of the greatest and most excellent works of the ministry of the Gospel." Sacramentarianism is ruled out completely and the preaching of the Gospel is the main part of the service.
It is interesting to not that the Directory was received unanimously by the Scottish Church. Some would attempt to prove that Knox's order was being used by the church at this time as a prayer book. Some would even claim that Henderson, one of the Scots commissioners to the Westminster Assembly, regarded the Scottish order as a prescribed ritual. But if this is so, how can one explain the general acceptance of such a liberal directory as that prepared in London? If the Scottish Church had been so used to a prescribed ritual, surely one would find objection taken to this new directory which allowed so much freedom. But there is no such objection. It is only reasonable to conclude that the new directory did no more than follow the practice common in Scotland at that time and previously.
The Directory was not only accepted by the Scottish, but when the Presbyterian Church in Canada was formed in 1875, it was adopted as the official directory of worship. This has never been changed. To-day the Presbyterian Church in Canada stands in line with the other great English-speaking Reformed churches, with regard to worship.
In closing it might be well to point out some of the main elements of public worship as conceived of by Reformed theologians.
In the first place worship is to be free. This means that it is not to be bound by any prescribed prayers of ceremonies. The minister is given full liberty to lead the service as he sees fit, except that he is to introduce no Romish rites and is to do everything decently and in order. In the eyes of the Reformers this meant that the minister was limited to the elements prescribed in Scripture: prayer, praise, reading and exposition of Scripture. But nothing was laid down as to the prayers to be offered except in very general terms.
In the second place it is well to notice that the minister is to lead as the ordained representative of God, and the people are to follow him and listen to what he has to say.
Finally, it is quite plain that the reading of Scripture and the exposition of it, are the two main parts of the service. The tendency to-day is very often towards an emphasis on the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. The communion-table is placed in the most important part of the church, and the pulpit is placed to one side. The truly Presbyterian position, however, is for the pulpit and the Word of God to be in the center. The Bible is to be at the center of the worship of God's people. When this is not done the spiritual welfare of Christians is being neglected.