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Unpredictable preachers

12 October 2012

Euan Cameron enjoys the history of a pulpit and its occupants

Kneeling before the Trinity: Cecily Neville, Edward IV, and Elizabeth Woodville in an image from The Luton Book which is reproduced in the new edition of Peter Bramley's A Companion and Guide to the Wars of the Roses (History Press, £16.99 (£15.30); 978-0-7524-6336-0)

Kneeling before the Trinity: Cecily Neville, Edward IV, and Elizabeth Woodville in an image from The Luton Book which is reproduced in the new editi...

Politics and the Paul's Cross Sermons 1558-1642
Mary Morrissey
OUP £63
Church Times Bookshop £56.70 (Use code CT812 )

IT IS a rare tribute to say of a book derived from sermon transcripts that it is an absorbing read. Yet so it is with Mary Morrissey's Politics and the Paul's Cross Sermons 1558-1642. The book analyses one of the most important and complex institutions of public preaching in the history of the Church of Eng­land in the Reform­ation period.

Public open-air sermons were delivered at least weekly from a large, free-standing wooden struc­ture - a sort of homiletic band­stand - built in the mid-15th century to the north of the choir of Old St Paul's Cathedral. The Bishop of London's chaplains and officers selected, appointed, and paid the preachers. After Bishop Aylmer of London (d. 1594) endowed the preachers' expenses, the series was well-supported: preachers included many bishops and deans, prominent theologians, and occasional former Roman Cath-olics received into the Church of England and recanting their beliefs, as well as fellows and students of the universities.

The Paul's Cross sermons were once described as a public notice­board for the religious and political Establishment of Tudor and Stuart England. Morrissey shows that this impression over-simplifies matters. The Bishop could not always predict what would be said (until William Laud insisted on seeing the texts beforehand), and preachers were a heterogeneous group. The element of unpredictability made it attrac­tive.

The book concentrates on the topical and controversial material rather than bread-and-butter sermons of doctrine, exegesis, and exhortation. Paul's Cross witnessed sermons on politically sensitive crises, on state anniversaries of events such as the monarch's acces­sion or the Gunpowder Plot, and a steady stream of controversial theo­logy. Protestants attacked Roman Catholics, and conforming dis­ciplinarian clergy reproved "puritan" disturbers of the peace. Morrissey's analysis offers sensitive, well-balanced interpretation of these difficult texts, showing deep appreciation of the controversial historiography.

It emerges just how much the Church of England under Elizabeth and James was a Church of the Word. Even the most sacramental clergy supported, delivered, and even listened to extremely long and complex sermons. Preachers de­voted time and trouble to their texts, often, though not invariably, published. Until the Laudian move­ment in the 1630s, the theology of Paul's Cross fell broadly within that spectrum of Calvinistic Protestan­t­ism which conforming Prayer-Book Protestants and radical "hot gospellers" alike affirmed.

Paul's Cross gives a compelling insight into the contested identity of the Church of England in the first 80 years after the Elizabethan Settlement, and it is thus that Morrissey presents it.

Dr Euan Cameron is Henry Luce III Professor of Reformation Church History at the Union Theological Seminary, New York.

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