Westminster & Ordination: The Directory of Worship

Contemporary efforts to enrich public worship inevitably emphasize increased “congregational participation”. This may mean employing special music, or returning to set prayers in which congregation has a unison voice, but the desire is to move beyond a feeling of clerical monologue. Others blame modern egalitarianism and individualism for this desire – though that objection hardly sticks to set prayers given their premodern origins. But perhaps it isn’t the first time there was debate over “congregational participation” as an enhanced vocal or visible function for people in the pews.

The Westminster Assembly, famous for the Confession of Faith and Shorter Catechism, also produced the Directory for the Public Worship of God (1645). The preface explains its monumental displacement of the Book of Common Prayer almost 100 years into the English Reformation. Specifically, it charges “the Liturgy” with encouraging “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 pleaseth to furnish all his servants whom he calls to that office.”[i]

Devotees of the Prayer Book will take little comfort in the Directory’s allowance that this was an unintended consequence, and may reciprocate by pointing out unintended consequences in the Directory’s insistence on spontaneous prayer. However, our interest is in the Directory’s elevation of the office and gifts of ministers as essential to not only preaching, but also the public prayers of God’s people. Where the Prayer Book had congregants repeating after ministers in various places, and so vocalizing prayer, the Directory restricts vocalization to the clergy, the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm singing excepted.

The Directory urges Christians to prepare their hearts before worship and to unite in each element during it, rather than conducting private devotions as was done during unintelligible performances of the Latin Mass. Thus, the whole congregation engages in public worship. Nevertheless, the minister alone calls the people to worship, prays, reads the Scripture (unless a student “allowed by the presbytery,”)[ii] gives the benediction, and administers Baptism and the Lord’s Supper “as the steward of the mysteries of God.”[iii] Under preaching, much is made of a minister’s training, study, preparation, and public performance. Modern efforts to spotlight laity are irrelevant to the Assembly’s concept of “congregational participation.”

Today, offertories are often where non-ordained people are placed front and center, whether by mission’s updates, special music, or simply calling attention to the ushers. The Directory acknowledges collections in connection with the Lord’s Supper, but does not treat them as an element of worship or describe them in detail. There are perhaps two places where the minister’s work is muted for other emphases: family worship, which is led by heads of households, and burials, which are stripped of religious ceremony to avoid superstition. But these are familial and social settings, not church gatherings.

In his public prayers, a minister must “endeavour to get his own and his hearers hearts to be rightly affected.” Ministers are “the mouths of the people unto God” who must pray so that “both themselves and their people may be affected, and even melted thereby.”[iv] Through preaching and praying, ministers mediate both sides of a dialogue between God and his people, even in regard to the believer’s inward experience.

The only examples of vocalized participation by the whole congregation in the Directory are the Lord’s Prayer and Psalm singing. As to the latter, its treatment at the end of the document suggests it was not in use everywhere, and only one or possibly two Psalms a service are prescribed.[v]  Psalmody is also the only place (other than the exception for ministerial students) where a non-ordained person may be appointed by the elders to fulfill a public function, namely, to read the Psalms out line by line for the illiterate. Such allowances are the exceptions to the rule. The Directory highly elevates the minister’s role in public worship, disregards modern notions of “congregational participation,” and eliminates the premodern practice of set prayers. Is the last of these, part and parcel of rejecting “the Liturgy” (which, after all, means, “the work of the people”)?

Steven McCarthy is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church in Walton, NY, and a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Pittsburgh, PA. He is currently a Th.M. student at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, MI. He and his wife have two boys and are expecting their third child.

[i] “The Directory for the Public Worship of God,” in The Confession of Faith (Glasgow: Free Presbyterian Publications, 1973), 374.

[ii] Ibid., 375.

[iii] Ibid., 381.

[iv] Ibid., 376, 392.

[v] Richard A. Muller and Rowland S. Ward, Scripture and Worship: Biblical Interpretation & The Directory for Worship (Phillipsburg, NJ: P&R, 2007), 125, 135.


Steven McCarthy