Monday, July 25, 2005

Something Completely Different: The Elizabethan Homilies

A few days ago my good friend, David Bailey, asked about the Homilies, and their role in the Anglican tradition as seen through English eyes. As in the midst of this heatwave it is far too hot to go outside and do anything, I am sitting in the air conditioned comfort of my study and getting a reply out to his question.

Article XXXV of the Thirty-Nine Articles reads, "The Second Book of Homilies, the several titles whereof we have joined under this Article, doth contain a godly and wholesome Doctrine, and necessary for these times, as doth the former Book of Homilies, which were set forth in the time of Edward the Sixth; and therefore we judge them to be read in Churches by the Ministers, diligently and distinctly, that they may be understanded of the people."

There was a reworking appended to Article XXXV by the General Convention of 1801 was
valid, building upon the principle of comprehension found in the original Article itself: "This Article is received in this Church, so far as it declares the Books of Homilies to be an explication of Christian doctrine, and instructive in piety and morals. But all references to the constitution and laws of England are considered as inapplicable to the circumstances of this Church; which also suspends the order for the reading of said Homilies in churches, until a revision of them may be conveniently made, for the clearing of them, as well from obsolete words and phrases, as from the local references."

The Homilies were model sermons introduced into what had been essentially a non-preaching, non-biblical tradition of the old, unreformed Catholicism that preceded the establishment of the Church of England as an entity separated from the papacy. Also, not every priest by any means was licensed to preach, but they were given the Homilies to address to their congregations. As someone has pointed out, they did a pretty good job in their impact upon the English people because the generation who listened to them the most was the generation of Hooker, Spencer, Shakespeare, Marlow, and Sidney!

The Homilies tended to disappear from common use in the 17th Century especially under the influence of the Puritans, who were preachers par excellence, and many of whom considered these to be somewhat watered down theology! However, it ought to be remembered that those older Puritans had also be shaped by being expected to listen to the Homilies, thus shaping the English preaching and expository tradition.

Today the Homilies are more of historic interest than anything, but as Stephen Neill pointed out in his history of Anglicanism, what Cranmer was doing when he created these resources was to revive an ancient Catholic practice of providing homilies to be read in churches where there would otherwise be no preaching.

Neill continues:

"Hearers today (he was writing in 1958) would probably regard the homilies as long, tedious, complex, and unintelligible. But we note once again Cranmer's confidence in his fellow-countrymen's ability to understand and to resond to a reasoned exposition of the Christian faith. In those days everyone had to go to church, whether he wishes or not; in many churches no sermon was ever provided other than the reading of a homily. There is little doubt that, through constant hearing, the
substance of many of these discourses, like that of the Bible and the Prayer Book itself, passed into the consciousness of the hearers, and helped to fashion the characteristically Anglican attitude toward Christian faith."

They also helped promote the gradual acceptance of the notion that the Scriptures are the ultimate standard in all matters of faith and conduct. This latter reality has been lost in the "I feel..." kind of preaching that we hear today that often has no bearing on what the Word says.

While Americans delight in the glories of their written Constitution, it has to be remembered that the Church of England developed in the same way as English Common Law, by the accumulation of precedents -- and they glory in that. I suspect that if the British had been asked to vote on the new-defunct European Union Constitution, there would probably have been quite heated battles about the pros and cons of a Common Law approach to constitutional life, compared to a written consitutition.

The Church of England in its style reflects the nation in so many ways, so it can be said that the Homilies were part of the "Common Law" precedent approach to ordering church life. They provided a model and a precedent, and whether we realize it or not, we stand on the shoulders of those whose lives were formed by these treasurers -- indigestible as many of them might be.

If you want to read the Homilies you can find and download them at http://www.anglicanlibrary.org/homilies/

1 comment:

who, me? said...

Wow. Many-many decades ago, I almost did my literature thesis at Duke on the Homilies. Ended up instead with George Herbert's The Country Parson.

Now we meet again.

Many's the sermon I've sat through in the intervening mean times that would have been vastly improved by 100% erasure and the substitution of an approved homily!