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Farewell to penny plain

The Arts of the Anglican Counter-Reformation: Glory, Laud and honour
Graham Parry

Boydell Press £45 (1-84383-208-9)
Church Times Bookshop £40.50

Alison Shell on a move back to decoration in Laud’s Church

IS IT legitimate to appropriate a Roman Catholic term, “Counter-Reformation”, when referring to the early-17th-century Church of England? And can one even talk of Anglicanism when referring to this period, given that the term was not an established one till later in the century? As ever with terminological issues, answers can vary enormously, and tempers can run high.

But everyone can agree that the Church of England, from roughly the late 1620s to the outbreak of the Civil War, experienced a change of mood that was strongly associated with William Laud, Charles I’s Archbishop of Canterbury.

Theologically, many writers and preachers moved away from em-phasising predestination to re-affirming the place of man’s free will in the process of salvation; and there arose a greater confidence in eccle-siastical authority, attributing higher value to the sacraments than had been characteristic of Elizabethan and early Jacobean Protestantism.

As so often, theological changes led to liturgical and architectural ones. Incense was reintroduced into church services by the Laudians, and under their authority decoration began to creep back into the plain Protestant interior. Cherubs, used in Solomon’s temple and thus unimpeachably biblical, became a particularly popular ornament.

The chapters on the architectural legacy of Laudianism are the most original in Parry’s book, vibrant with enthusiasm and containing an inspiring call to further fieldwork. This is all the more necessary be-cause one of the most moving and evocative of Laudian interiors, undertaken under the inspiration of John Cosin, survived until recent times in the parish church of Brancepeth, Co. Durham, but was destroyed by fire in 1998 — a loss that was surprisingly little lamented in the national press at the time, perhaps because it happened in the North-East.

The same would not have been true for the Oxbridge college chapels, which remain as an equally important reminder of Laudian ideals. Peterhouse chapel in Cam-bridge was immortalised in verse by Richard Crashaw, who subsequently became the curate of Little St Mary’s next door — another interior beautified by Cosin. There, to quote his biographer, Crashaw “lodged under Tertullian’s roofe of Angels”.

As someone who went over to Rome in the mid-1640s after a long period of confessional ambiguity, Crashaw might certainly by his life be seen as testifying to an Anglican Counter-Reformation. With other poets, such as George Herbert, the term seems less applicable, despite Herbert’s well-documented concern for decency and order in church. In such poems as “The Church-Floor”, he allegorises the fashion for diapered tiles: “Mark you the floor? that square and speckled stone Which looks so firm and strong, Is Patience: And th’other black and grave, wherewith each one Is checker’d all along, Humilitie.”

Jacobean and Caroline high-churchmanship has never wanted lay admirers, and academic interest in the period has burgeoned over the past few decades. So this is a splendid topic for an overview; and Parry has given us a well-illustrated, accessible, and elegantly cadenced treatment of what must have been a lavish multi-media experience. The subtitle to the book, “Glory, Laud and honour”, could equally well have been “O worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness”.

Dr Shell is a reader in the department of English at Durham University.

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