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