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Uncovering early ways of worship

19 July 2013

Raymond Chapman on an enriching study of customs long ago

Worship and the Parish Church in Early Modern Britain
Natalie Mears and Alec Ryrie, editors
Ashgate £65 (978-1-4094-2604-2)
Church Times Bookshop £58.50 (Use code CT469 )

RECENTLY there has been much examination of the Church in the 16th and 17th centuries. This has concentrated largely on disputes about the use of the Book of Common Prayer, and the growing tension between the Establishment and the Puritans. There have been conflicting opinions, similar to those that the previous generation of scholars held about the nature of the English Reformation itself.

The main lines are still clear, but there is also much scope for amendment and addition, as appears in this book of essays. It is clear that corporate worship was centred on the parish church, and that it followed the words and rubrics of the 1559 Prayer Book. But practice and official belief did not always coincide. The doctrine in the Homilies and the Articles of Religion was not always fully consonant with those of the Prayer Book, and reflected more strongly the general belief in predestination to life which was held by most people in both parties.

At the same time, much more was happening than simply hearing and speaking the authorised words at set times of service. Individual worshippers still had their own space and preferences, in matters such as posture during prayers, eyes open or closed, or even the possible deployment of the hat to cover the face. These and other matters are discussed by John Craig.

The Prayer Book was protected and enforced by the Act of Uniformity, but it was not a closed book, and did not contain all that might be said in the parish church at various times during the period. Special prayers and services were often declared for national emergencies and other occasions, of which Natalie Mears gives many examples. For private devotions, there was a large and permitted publication of primers, not identical with the medieval books that had disappeared with the Reformation, but retaining some more Catholic approaches, and noted by Brian Spinks.

The medieval rules of fasting had gone, together with a large number of special festivals, but fasting made its way back, sometimes as a personal choice, sometimes as a national fast officially proclaimed, and eventually on mainly secular grounds. As Alec Ryrie shows, it could be regarded by Puritans as a kind of evangelical discipline.

Music and singing were by no means confined to the metrical Psalms. Peter McCullough proves that, while some people opposed any kind of music in church, others invoked even classical pre-Christian writers in defence of music's spiritual value. Church music attracted some of the finest composers of the Elizabethan age, including those, such as Thomas Tallis, whose settings are still loved today.

Bell-ringing in churches was generally anathema to Puritans, but it was rapidly increasing in popular esteem. The development of change-ringing gave new impetus to its purely recreational practice, welcomed by many, but sometimes opposed by parish clergy. As Christopher Marsh demonstrates, then as now there were disputes with the ringers, though the present reviewer has never witnessed an incumbent hitting recalcitrant ringers with a "small cudgel".

The last two essays in the book are particularly illuminating. Trevor Cooper describes the worship and ambience of Nicholas Ferrar's chapel at Little Gidding, giving a fascinating insight into the appropriation of Laudian practices on the eve of the Interregnum. Judith Maltby writes about the years that followed, when the Directory for Public Worship was introduced, the Book of Common Prayer was proscribed, the freedom of individual ministers in conducting services was increased (and in some cases ran riot), and the long dispute between set and extempore prayers reached its climax.

This is revisionist history in the best sense, not seeking to reverse received ideas, but to increase our understanding through close research into original sources. The great names - Jewell, Hooker, Cartwright, Cosin, Laud, and others - still provide points of focus for the many changes and controversies of the period. But we can learn much from the voices of the majority, those who lived through the changes, happily, bitterly, or with grumbling resignation, speaking to us now from parish records, court cases, and personal letters.

Ideas about religion in early modern Britain have not been discredited, but have been considerably enriched by this book, which is the latest volume in the commendable series, St Andrews Studies in Reformation History.

The Revd Dr Raymond Chapman is Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London.


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