John Calvin and the Directory for Public Worship of God

It can be argued that John Calvin is among the most important liturgists in the history of the Christian church. Indeed, I have attempted to make the case that his Genevan Psalter of 1542 and its Form of Church Prayers established a norm for worship.

The Form’s stress on the ordinary means of grace (word, prayer, sacraments), its emphasis on preaching and congregational singing, its elimination of extra-biblical ceremonies, and its relative simplicity and austerity, have had a decisive influence on all subsequent worship, whether Presbyterian, Baptist, Methodist, Anglican, or even post-Vatican II Roman Catholic.

In contrast, the most important document among English-speaking Presbyterians, the Westminster Assembly’s Directory of the Public Worship of God (1645), has often been treated by scholars as a liturgical wrong-turn, a devolution, even dismissed contemptuously as being “the only liturgy to consist entirely of rubrics.” Among some conservative Presbyterians who care about well-ordered and reverent worship, it has been regarded as inferior to, if not a betrayal of, the pattern of worship established by Calvin.

However, I would argue that the Directory stands in continuity with Calvin’s Form and, indeed, represents true development from and even improvement upon the Genevan standard. The Directory, if properly utilized, is a superior guide to the worship of the Reformed church, over Calvin’s Form.

Continuity with the Form of Church Prayers
What does the Directory maintain that was standardized by Calvin’s Form? It maintains the basic elements that are characteristic of Reformed worship and does so in detail. The Directory is deeply indebted to its continental predecessor for the following: a full diet of biblical prayer; expository preaching; Scripture reading; psalm-singing; and administration of two sacraments. To these elements it adds nothing.

The Directory, like the Form, disallows extraneous ceremony and ritual, unauthorized postures and gestures, and extra-biblical symbols. Only “such things as are of divine institution” are allowed. Both the Directory and Form eliminate the various liturgical responses of congregation in the medieval mass (usually spoken by priests or monks). The sanctus (“Holy, holy, holy Lord…”), Kyrie eleison (“Lord have mercy, Christ have mercy), Gloria (“Glory to God in the highest…”), Sursum corda (“Lift up your hearts”), and other congregational responses (e.g. to the greeting, to Scripture readings), have been eliminated. In the Reformed service the congregation responds by singing. Calvin’s Form has more fixed elements: the Creed and liturgical prayers being two examples, while the Directory recommends only the use of the Lord’s Prayer. Yet the basic elements are the same, resulting in a worship that is spiritual, simple, and recognizably of the same liturgical family.

Positive Development

The most obvious distinction between the Directory and Calvin’s Form can be found in the fact that the Westminster Divines produced a directory and not a liturgy of set prayers. Some explanation is in order. Yet before doing so we should note that six basic prayers of Calvin’s Form are present in the Directory’s model (invocation, confession, thanksgiving, intercession, illumination, and benediction), and even the five-fold intercessions are evident (sanctification of the saints, Christian mission, civil authority, the church’s ministry, and the sick). This is substantial continuity, yet with positive development. The Directory’s prayers are considerably richer, fuller, and deeper than those of Calvin’s Form. Nearly one-third of the entire document is devoted to prayer. Who can fail to be moved by the Directory’s expansive model prayers for before and after a sermon?

Still, why a Directory rather than a set Form? Because the “long and sad experience” had proven that an imposed liturgy would suffocate spiritual vitality. Uniformity was sought, but not the limiting word-for-word uniformity of set prayers. Unity was the goal, but not a unity that stifled the work of the Holy Spirit. Calvin expresses the same concern for freedom, but not to the same degree. While not opposed to set prayers in principle, the concern for the exercise of the gift of prayer was paramount among the Westminster Puritans. The “Preface” to the Directory complains of “the reading of all the prayers” and the resulting “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.”[1]

This concern for free prayer persisted. It reappeared years later in the Presbyterians’ “Exceptions Against the Book of Common Prayer” presented to the Anglican Bishops in May of 1661. They urged that in a revised prayer book the liturgy not be “too rigorously imposed; nor the minister so confined thereunto, but that he may also make use of those gifts for prayer and exhortation” that Christ has given to the church.[2] When rebuffed and faced with the prospect of praying “in no words but are in the Common Prayer book,” they bitterly complained of the “brevity, ineptness, and the customariness” of those prayers and of their inevitable impact of taking “off the edge of fervor with human nature” and of preventing the “enlargedness, copiousness, and freedom as is necessary to true fervor.” They maintained that “A brief, transient touch and away, is not enough to warm the heart aright; and cold prayers are likely to have a cold return….” The resulting uniformity would produce unity, but this would be “to cure the disease by the extinguishing of life, and to unite us all in a dead religion.”[3]

Again, they were not opposed to liturgy or set prayers or fixed forms. The preface to the Directory complains of “the reading of all prayers”—not just some prayers but all, robbing the prayers of the church of urgency, fervor, and specificity. The models of prayer supplied by the Directory could be and indeed were turned into actual prayers as early as 1645 with the publication of A Supply of Prayer for Ships, intended for circumstances when no minister, that is, no one with the gift of prayer, was available. Rather, they urged in their “Exceptions” in 1661, “We would avoid the extreme that would have no forms, and the contrary extreme that would have nothing but forms.”[4] It was essential to the English Puritans throughout their history that place be given to free prayers, that the gift of prayer might be exercised. Alexander Mitchell (1822–1899) is right to clarify that “nothing was further from their intentions than to encourage unpremeditated or purely extemporary effusions.”[5] Rather, “they intended the exercise of prayer to be matter of thought, meditation, preparation and prayer, equally with the preaching of the word.”[6]

Liturgical scholar Horton Davies regards the Directory as “a notable attempt to combine the spontaneity of free prayer with the advantages of an ordered context or framework of worship.” Indeed, “It aimed at avoiding the deadening effect of a reiterated liturgy as also the pitfall of extempore prayer—the disordered meanderings of the minister.”  This latitude is a positive development from Calvin’s Form. The Directory allows both types of prayers, and yet, says Davies, “is itself the direct lineage of the Calvinist liturgies.”[7]