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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 27

Mr. Chairman, Ladies, and Gentlemen,—

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Mr. Chairman, Ladies, and Gentlemen,—

I am to address you this evening on a subject which I may not so much as attempt to make entertaining. What I shall say will, I fear, be in part unwelcome and probably displeasing to some of you. I should deeply regret if I were supposed by you to be capable of seizing the opportunity to respond rudely and ungraciously to the honour which has been conferred upon me in being invited to deliver a lecture in this place. I desire, therefore at once to inform you that I am not responsible for the subject of this lecture, nor, indeed, for the manner in which I shall treat that subject.

When the invitation was given to me to lecture before the Scots Church Literary Association, the Rev. Charles Strong requested me to select a particular subject, and he assigned a reason for his request. The position of the Christian churches in the world at the present day; their relations to mankind and to one another; the relations of the clergy and the laity to each other in the several churches; the effects of existing disunion between the churches; and the prospect and the means, if any exist, of a return to unity; all these aspects of one most difficult and thorny subject are, we know, often present, and suggest disquieting and desponding thoughts to a large and increasing number of educated minds, both lay and clerical, in this day. But such thoughts rarely find adequate and complete expression; they never form the subject of friendly discussion or of deliberation with a view to active effort of any kind. "The disease requireth rest rather than any other cure "was the judgment of Bacon in reference to the internal causes of dispute about matters" not of the highest nature" in one of the churches. The indolence or hopelessness of educated men has led them tacitly to extend this judgment to "the high mysteries of faith," and "the great parts of the worship of God," to which its author intimates that he did not intend to apply it.

Most thinking men would agree that controversy, unfruitful at all times, could not be productive of any but mischievous consequences upon these the highest subjects. But may there not be free and also peaceful discussion without controversy? You may be of opinion, perhaps, that a young poet has spoken the word of practical wisdom upon this matter. "Men," said Keats, "ought not to debate or dispute about truth; but they ought to whisper results to one page 4 another." The Rev. Charles Strong thinks, as I understood him, that laymen should now whisper their thoughts to one another about the present state of the Christian churches; he is of opinion that the time has come when the laymen should confer together with freedom upon questions which affect the very existence for any useful purpose of one and all of the churches. Now, I am one of not a few laymen who believe that the Rev. Charles Strong has placed all laymen in this community under obligations to him, that his manifest sympathy with our difficulties as laymen commands our gratitude, and that his powerful, and, at the same time, highly courageous advocacy of the layman's right of free thought within the limits of the law binding on us all, entitles him to the united support of every one of us. And so when Mr. Strong expressed a desire that I should tell you, the lay members of this Society, my thoughts, as a layman, upon some one or another portion of this large subject, I felt it to be a duty to comply with his request, without considering my own inclinations. I need not tell you that Mr. Strong, although he lias brought me here, is not responsible for a word that I shall utter. Neither, indeed, do I hold myself responsible, for having accepted this task I have conceived it to be my sole duty to endeavour to place before you in plain speech my real thoughts, whether they be deemed by you to be right or wrong, and whether they be welcome or displeasing to you, without intentional reserve or suppression of my personal opinions and convictions. And if I succeed in doing this I know that I shall give voice and expression to the silent reflections of other laymen also. There is a certain kind of freemasonry between laymen upon these burning questions of religious thought. I believe that we all, or the majority of us, think and feel very much alike about them, and we dimly know it; but we shrink from outward acknowledgment of the fact. My belief is that I have no thoughts to submit to you to-night but such as have in one form or another passed through the minds of scores of the educated laymen whom I address, and are now seething and breeding anxiety, and even despair, in the minds of thousands of thinkers amongst both the clergy and the laity in the old land, to which we still find ourselves ever turning for intellectual companionship, and whence, too, we would fain draw light and leading, but they do not come to us.