Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Before Hooker: The Material Context of Elizabethan Prayer Book Worship*

Academic journal article Anglican and Episcopal History

Before Hooker: The Material Context of Elizabethan Prayer Book Worship*

Article excerpt

The second Book of Common Prayer did away with medieval stone altars, long the centerpiece of English Christian worship. The priest was directed, by rubric, to celebrate the Lord's Supper at a wooden table. Further, Thomas Cranmer, who revised the 1552 prayer book, wanted the communion table set in an east-west orientation rather than the north-south position of the old altar. The minister was to stand on the "north syde."1 By pulling down altars and replacing them with tables, the Reformed archbishop meant to jettison the Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation. Along with almost all his contemporaries, Cranmer connected an intangible idea with a tangible object. A stone altar gave credence to the notion that a mass priest could conjure up the body and blood of Christ. The 1552 minister was thus to stand on the north side of a wooden table to celebrate the Lord's Supper free of unwanted "popish" beliefs.

Words are not always needed to communicate ideas. The materials present in any given environment can convey meaning. Silent cues given to men and women by their surroundings can deeply affect their understanding of an event. Objects can instruct; symbols can teach. Words only partly contribute to perception. At the beginning of the sixteenth century, English Christians understood their relationship with God not simply by listening to the Latin words sung at mass. They watched slow moving processions of chasuble-clad priests sending clouds of incense to the almighty around a glorious altar. Richly sculpted, this stone monument would be laden with brocaded paraments, candles, and a crucifix. Our English Christians would peer through the squint holes of a rood screen to see the body of Christ arrayed upon a silver paten and the savior's precious blood filling an ornate chalice. By the end of the century, a new form of worship added to the same peoples' total experience. Now English men and women would watch their parish priest pray in a surplice alone without the gilt vestments. From a wooden table, these Christians would receive the wine of Holy Communion in a simple cup.

The Swiss reformation, to which Edward VI's religious program owed its greatest debt, desired a simplified worship, one that could draw the Christian community together and end divisions between clergy and lay. To this end, iconoclasm was standardized and only a black gown distinguished the pastor. With the accession of Elizabeth in November 1558, those who had fled to continental safety during the reign of Queen Mary returned home with the prospect of finishing the work only begun before Edward's untimely death. Elizabeth's reign, however, began with a compromise settlement. Room was made for both older patterns of devotion and elements of the new Reformed style of worship. A long-standing interpretation models the established 1559 church as a distinct entity equally balanced between Geneva and Rome, presumably to reach a peaceful national consensus. This historiographical paradigm has been anachronistically termed a via media.

Recent scholarship in the field of the English reformation has established a paradigm shift in the interpretation of the via media. This new analysis portrays Elizabeth's Church of England in far greater continuity with the Genevan reformation than had been thought.2 Thus the civil war a century later was the result of justified populist rage against the innovations of Charles I and Archbishop William Laud.3 To add to this discussion and to contrast with logocentric approaches to prayer book history and theology, this paper will consider the physical context of the Elizabethan church. The year 1559 witnessed an affinity for Calvinist teachings within senior clerical circles. However, the retention of older forms of worship included both an ordered uniform liturgy and a number of traditional ornaments. In a recent article, Dewey Wallace stated that "by the late Elizabethan period the Church of England was generally Reformed or Calvinist in its theology, even if the queen and many bishops resisted demands for further changes in polity, liturgy, and discipline. …

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