Liturgy in the Time of Richard Hooker
From Holy week 1559, lay people were again allowed to take wine at the communion service. In the City [of London] seven cups survive made during the 1559 hallmarking year. Elizabeths new Bishop of London, Edmund Grindal, pressed his archdeacons throughout the diocese to ensure that mass chalices were altered to communion cups.... 1562 was obviously the peak of his campaign. Very many of the Elizabethan communion cups in and around London were made in that year.
The fluid capacity of chalices had become smaller and smaller in the years prior to the Reformation, since in most cases no one but the priest partook of the consecrated wine. Now those chalices were melted down, and reshaped to hold a goodly quantity of wine. This procedure gives us another glimpse of what churchgoing would be like for the ordinary parishioner: When they did receive Communion (which wasnt very often) they would receive in both kinds, and there would be sufficient in the cup to serve everybody in the church.
The arrest of Jesuit infiltrators, the spoiling of the churches, and the melting down of chalices were all actions on a grand scale. But, what about the small stuff, the life and opinions of the ordinary people in the villages?
In 1577 an enquiry was launched into the extent of popish sympathies among the people, and unfortunately neighbours were encouraged to inform on one another. The resulting accusations were sometimes quite bizarre, and often had more to do with personal vendettas than with high-level theology. One such (possibly spurious) indictment includes a humorous, but telling portrait of a man who continued to use his old, Latin, guide to prayer, when he went to Sunday services: rebellion is rampant, goes the accusation, attendance at church is contemptuous, and John Hareley reads so loud upon his Latin popish primer (that he understands not) that he troubles both minister and people.4
I am reminded of a member of my own congregation who continues each week to use the prayer book he was given in his youth. This is not, you understand, the current official version of the Canadian Anglican prayer book, but its predecessor, discontinued in 1962. My parishioner is deeply attached to this old prayer book, and he delights to keep it in use. Surely something similar was in play for John Hareley, so long ago in Hereford.
By 1577 people like Hareley were also dying out. Despite the terms of this accusation, you can tell that he is the only one in the church using his Latin book. The service is in English, and most of the people were taking part in a cooperative spirit.
There is a sense, though, that public worship in that ordinary parish church was never entirely quiet and attentive. Hareley did not offend the others simply because he was reading something different from what was going on up at the front, but by reading it so loud, and by reading something that was in Latin, and thus something that was popish. There are a few hints like this from various sixteenth century sources that when people went to the church they talked to one another, and caught up with the news, and didnt always attend to what was happening in the liturgy.
Bishops often made Visitations to their dioceses, which were actually semi-judicial investigations wherein enquiry was made about the quality of worship and parish life. The bishop would formally ask whether the statutes were being obeyed. Equally, the people would levy complaints against their clergy, and against one another. Some records of these visitations have survived,5 and make fascinating reading.
Very often the bishops questions would include something like this: are the people coming in when the service is in progress, and saying their prayers, or are they standing around inside and outside, lost in idle and irreverent chatter? On the principle of where there is smoke there is fire, I think that if bishops have to ask, theyve probably been prompted to do so by actual and accurate rumour that this is in fact the case.
It is from the record of episcopal visitations that we also get some direct indication how carefully and seriously the 1559 Act of Uniformity was being enforced. As late as 1586, we get Bishop Binkeley of Chichester checking to see ...whether [churchwardens] do levy for not coming to the church to hear Divine Service upon Sundays and Holy Days twelve pence for every person absent without lawful cause?6 Evidently churchwardens had the unenviable task of levying from their neighbours the twelve pence fine specified in the Act of Uniformity, and ran the risk of excommunication if they refused to do it.7
It is fairly clear, therefore, that those who thought the split from Rome was wrong, at this juncture were obliged to attend the national church of a Sunday. The most serious and dedicated of them probably did not read their popish primers aloud in church, but instead went underground, occasionally and in secret receiving the sacrament at the hands of a fugitive Roman priest, and hoping for better days ahead. It might have been different for them if the clergy of the local parish had been sympathetic, but in some cases there was no parish priest at all, and in places where there were active clergy, these had come into ordained ministry under the new regime, and if they had any sympathies at all they were with Geneva, and not with Rome.
When Elizabeth came to the throne almost 40% of the dioceses - including Canterbury itself - had no bishop.8 Given the tumult of the previous years, we can assume that a proportionate number of parishes were also without clergy. Those priests who had loved the olden days of late medieval catholicism, were old, tired, good at keeping their heads down, dispirited, or dead. Clergy with a commitment to reform, on the other hand - although now they didnt have to keep their heads down quite the same way - were not very numerous either, the most able and educated having perished in the bloodletting under Henry VIII and under Mary Tudor.
In order that there be orderly Sunday worship of any kind in many a parish church, the new leadership under Elizabeth resorted to the concept of readers. These were, simply put, lay people who knew how to read. Their duty was to stand up in church of a Sunday morning, and read the service out of the book. They were not permitted to preach, but rather, if a sermon was required, they were to read one of the official homilies published nationally for the purpose. (I might add that — judging by the small number of books of homilies that have been preserved from that era — the congregation must have heard many of these homilies several times.)
The readers were not a great success. Today, when a congregation is too small or otherwise unable to obtain paid clergy leaders, well loved and spiritual persons from the congregation itself are encouraged to read the services, and even to express their personal faith at the time of the homily. By contrast, the readers of the Elizabethan era were sometimes hired flunkies, unknown to the local people, and - given that they had no licence to preach - their spiritual and personal worth was scarcely likely to become known. Records survive from Archbishop Parkers formal Visitation of Canterbury in 1573, wherein the parish of Lytton in the Archdeaconry of Dover complained, ...there Vicar dothe not serve them every sonday, but hath placed a Reader there whose name they knowe [not] otherwise then Henry.9
In this complaint about Henry, we get a glimpse of another important factor affecting the church of Hookers day. Some of the clergy available for parish appointments were not very high-minded, and in fact saw church leadership as an easy way to get rich, or to rise in public life. The vicar who inflicted Henry on the parish of Lytton may have been such a one, getting appointed to a number of parishes, then hiring cheap labour to read the services. In Book V of the Lawes of Ecclesiastical Polity, Richard Hooker defends the practice of absentee vicars, and vicars with multiple parishes, on the grounds that people of ability had to be available in the universities, and to give leadership at a diocesan and national level,10 but he seems (to me) to have been a little sanguine here — many clergy were not away because they were serving at a higher level, or because they were studying and would benefit the church later, but because they were living high off the hog, and paying Henry and his like to drone on each Sunday at the parish church in their behalf.
Actually, I mislead you slightly. By the 1590s, when Hooker was writing the Polity, the practice of using non-ordained readers such as Henry had fallen away. Most of the people reading the services in behalf of absent vicars were now ordained. However these people were not much improvement over Henry. The numbers of the ordained had increased largely because the educational qualifications for ordination had been lowered. As Hooker puts it: ... is it not plain that unlesse the greatest parte of the people should be left utterlie without the publique use and exercise of religion there is no remedie but to take into the ecclesiasticall order a number of men meanelie qualified in respect of learning?11 These under-educated clergy were able to preside at the sacraments, but they, like Henry the reader, were not licenced to preach.
Infrequency of Communion
The modern Anglican, used to the Eucharist being celebrated every Sunday, may well approve of this, thinking that with priests in place the Sacrament could now be more frequently celebrated. Actually, not so. In England before the Reformation the mass was celebrated with great frequency, but few actually ate and drank of it. The church had taught that receiving the Sacrament required so much rigorous self-examination, repentance, and confession, that the vast majority of people would only want to go through the process at the most once or twice a year. Long before the Reformation, therefore, Sunday church attendance was an act of hearing the service, rather than receiving the sacred meal. After reform had come, the type of prayers one listened to were changed: one heard the prayers of Matins, or Evensong rather than the words of the Eucharistic liturgy, but the concept of actually receiving Communion was retained as an occasional act for which intense spiritual preparation was required.12 Until very recently, this remained the official position of many non-Roman Catholic denominations.
A book that few could actually read for themselves
Another important factor that we must keep in mind when we try to discern what worship was like in those days is literacy — or rather the lack of it. Today, when a new book of liturgy comes out, churches endeavour to get a copy for each person in the congregation. Then, on the Sunday morning, the presider will announce a page number, and everyone begins to worship with their noses in the book, reading out their lines as they come along.
On June 24, 1559 (that Feast of the Nativity of Saint John Baptist on which the Elizabethan Book of Common Prayer became the official and only option for the English church) there would have been no point in supplying copies for every member of every congregation, because so few would have been able to read them. Rather, the service would be presented — either read, or sung — from the front. The congregation would listen. Where the Prayer Book did specify that everyone speak the prayer together — such as in the general confession — this was to be done by repeating the lines, one by one, after the presider.13 However, for the most part the liturgy remained the work of a handful of people who could read, while the rest of the people listened. It is not difficult to imagine, therefore, that a secret Catholic would stand or sit there silently, while the prayers went on at the front... present physically but mentally disengaged; or that the not terribly spiritual person, simply avoiding a twelve pence fine, would hang about the door and catch up on the village news.
But another force was at play. The one that gave rise to Richard Hookers work.
When Elizabeth came to the throne, the bishops and clergy who were eventually found for service in the dioceses and parishes of the land, obviously had to be happy to worship in English, and to be separate from Rome. Many such people, as they stood up to read on a Sunday morning, began to feel that the changes had not gone far enough. For one thing, being open to the new ideas flowing through the land meant that they were used to thinking for themselves, and they delighted in the experience of studying, learning, and being mentally stretched. Reading the liturgy, without being required to think or to contribute anything to it, bothered them. For another, if it was possible and morally justifiable to challenge the authority of the church of Rome, perhaps other forms of ecclesial authority needed to be challenged as well.
The religious attitude now known as Puritanism was on the rise. The main battles would be fought in the arena of church authority, some of which the Puritans would win, at least for a while, in the following century. However, the authority of the bishop, as much as it troubled the mind of the Puritan, and for all the intellectual energy Richard Hooker spent in defending it, is not the responsibility of this paper. Worship is our theme, and we must now turn to Puritan attitudes towards the Book of Common Prayer, and the impact of those attitudes upon its use.
By far the best feature of Puritanism was the element of spiritual renewal it brought with it. Those who were deeply enriched by their study of the Bible and the exciting free exchange of ideas, were anxious to tell others, to preach and to teach the new ways. Their attention became focussed on the sermon, eventually to the detriment of anything else in the Sunday service. And because they questioned the authority of the bishops, they came to resent the rules which restricted preaching by means of the bishops licence.
The equivalent of the modern house church grew up, where Bible study and searching for the truth of God went on freely and untrammelled by official prayer books and preaching licences. These meetings came to be known as the prophesyings. Although this name in our culture might suggest a charismatic revival, it would be incorrect to think of them that way. For one thing, the agenda was largely educational, and included much preaching of sermons; for another, the speaking was done by clergy and not by the ordinary person.
The prophesyings didnt stay at home very long, either. Soon the clergy involved were shortening the liturgical prayers in their churches, and placing more and more emphasis on the sermons.
Elizabeth was not amused. She saw this as a challenge to public order, and issued instructions that the prophesyings were to be suppressed.14 When Edmund Grindal, as Archbishop of Canterbury, argued in support of something akin to the prophesyings, Elizabeth virtually put him under house arrest, where he stayed until he died.15
Under pressure from Elizabeth, the Puritan clergy conformed, at least externally. But frequently in a parish where tinkering with Common Prayer was unwillingly discontinued, there would be a prophesying later on in the day.
Many bishops, like Archbishop Grindal, were sympathetic to the Puritans, particularly in their concern for more and better education. But the problem was that the Puritans wouldnt stop at merely studying the Bible. Increasingly they became opposed to episcopacy itself, and to the Book of Common Prayer. John Whitgift, successor to Grindal as Archbishop of Canterbury, in the 1580s tried to enforce an oath upon all clergy, on pain of removal from their parishes, to say that the Prayer Book and ordinal contained nothing contrary to Gods word. However, Puritanism had now made such gains in England that privy councillors and other influential laymen persuaded Whitgift to back off.16
The power and influence of the Puritans continued to grow. Soon they had organized themselves into a parallel church organization — presaging the system later known as “Presbyterianism” — in which clergy functioned in presbytries, setting their own standards for doctrine, worship, and even ordination. Indeed, they went so far as to conduct ordinations of one another, and only in order to retain their eligibility for parish employment did they accept ordination by a bishop.17 Their agenda was to work within the church to bring about an end to episcopacy, an end to any form of church ornament or vestment that might be suggestive of the church of Rome, and an end to the Book of Common Prayer.
Some of Richard Hookers arguments with respect to worship
Hooker weighed into this with his extraordinary logic, and with not a little dose of humour. He is notoriously difficult to quote, since his arguments flow seamlessly from page to page, but his attack on the Puritan fondness for extempore preaching, and their assault on the non-preaching clergy, is worth re-constructing. First he defines preaching as presenting the Gospel, then he suggests that reading the Scriptures is a wonderful way to present the Gospel, so it, too, must count as preaching. Having established that the reading of Scripture has a value in and of itself, he goes on to muse about whether or not a written sermon is a bad thing. He wonders whether a foolish thought, spoken off the cuff, is really better than a wise thought that is written down. Here let me quote Hooker directly:
If substance of matter, evidence of thinges, strength and validitie of argumentes and proofes, or if anie other vertue els which wordes and sentences maie conteine, of all this, what is there in the best sermons beinge uttered, which they loose by being read?18 But [the Puritans] utterlie denie that the readinge either of scriptures or homilies and sermons can ever by the ordinarie grace of God save anie soule. So that although we had all the sermons word for worde which James, Paul, Peter and the rest of theapostles made, some one of which sermons was of power to convert thousandes of the hearers unto Christian faith; yea although we had all the instructions, exhortations, consolations which came from the gracious lipps of our Lord Jesus Christ him selfe, and should read them ten thousand tymes over, to faith and salvation no man could hereby hope to attaine. Whereupon it must of necessitie followe that the vigor and vitall efficacie of sermons doth grow from certaine accidentes which are not in them but in theire maker; his virtue, his gesture, his countenance, his zeale, the motion of his bodie, and the inflection of his voice who first uttereth them as his own, is that which giveth them the forme, the nature, the verie essence of instrumentes availeable to eternall life.19
Forgive me for repeating his central point in my own words: Puritans, being so certain that the reading of sermons is bad for the hearers — in fact they were known to refer to church readers as murderers of souls — must by the logic of their view be forced to agree that even if a printed sermon were found that had been given by James, Paul, or Peter, or even Jesus himself, it would not be edifying to read it! Hence, and this was Hookers punch line, if the content is not important for bringing people to God, then it must only be the personality and mannerisms of the preacher, and not their content, that brought folks to salvation.
Reducing the spiritual value of extempore preaching to the facial tics and manners of the preacher is vintage Hooker, and his point is well taken: good content read out in church is often more edifying and spiritually beneficial than foolishness spoken without notes. However, I must say he does miss one of the points proffered by those who value extempore prayer and speech within the Christian church: we are to be persons to one another in Christ, and as such, an individual who is present to the congregation as he or she speaks from the heart, has something of deep value to offer, even if their words are not as logical or as finely crafted as they might have been were they to be written down.
Another piece of vintage Hooker comes in his arguments concerning the wearing of ecclesiastical vestments. Again, he builds slowly, thus making it rather cumbersome to print an appropriate illustration in its entirety here; but I will once more try to give rough summary in my own words.
First, you must know that Puritans preferred to preach and lead worship in civilian clothes. They felt that even the simple surplice is spiritually very dangerous. Hooker begins his argument by quoting their views about the surplice in some detail. He cites Puritan writers who assert that while clothes have no moral worth in themselves, the surplice, because it is worn exclusively for liturgy might just give a wrong impression to the weaker sort of parishioner. That parishioner might suppose that the presider, by wearing something white, is purer than the normal person, and — much worse — they might think that this garment (being so similar to those worn within Roman Catholicism) is an endorsement of the hated popish church. Thus — and Hooker is merely continuing to quote the Puritan attitude — a vicar wearing a surplice might just send a weaker sort of person to Hell.
At the same time, Hooker knows full well that in order to get a preaching licence a Puritan must consent to wear the surplice, and so, in their need to get their message heard, they choose to wear it and thus retain their licence; but then to preach vigorously against its use. Now Hooker pounces. Isnt it odd? he might say (were he to speak in modern English), You sincerely believe this garment will send the weaker soul off to Hell, and yet you risk his eternal existence by wearing it so that you can preach at him? It is as if (and now these are Hookers actual words) a man openlie professe that he putteth fire to his neighbors house, but yeat so halloweth the same with prayer that he hopeth it shall not burne.20
While we read and enjoy Hookers logic and debating skills, it probably hasnt escaped your notice that we are also adding to our knowledge of what worship might have been like for the ordinary parish and individual in Hookers day. Here, for example, we can see the simplicity of clergy vestment - with some Puritans attempting to conduct worship in their civilian clothes, and the rest, at most, donning only the white surplice as a sign of their responsibilities. As well, we see that the officially accepted norm was a church in which prayers, and scriptures, and even sermons would be read to the congregation, rather than spoken in a person-to-person idiom. In Hookers own parish at Bishopsbourne, I can see him, Sunday by Sunday, carefully preparing the arguments of his sermon, then reading every last word of them to his people, as well as the service and the lessons.
I also learned from Hooker how long I might expect to be in church of a Sunday. He tells us that a Sunday service normally takes at least two hours. The Puritans, for all their love of a good sermon, thought this much too lengthy, and preferred theirs to last an hour and a half. Hooker thought the half hour difference was not of very great consequence, indeed he speaks with dripping irony about that dangerous extra half an hour, teasing his Puritan readers for their tendency to reduce service times not by cutting down on the sermon, but by reducing the amount of prayer.21
Hooker understood that there was a virtue in prayer quite apart from the benefits to be derived from teaching and preaching. And, even in a ministry where every last liturgical word, and every scrap of the homily, was read out of a book, he believed that the calling and the responsibility of the worship leader, whether ordained or lay, was a profound and holy thing.
The course of Puritanism was not swayed by Hookers reverence, or by his logic. Although the English government and the bishops maintained a fairly firm hand on what was to be said, and what was to be worn, in churches, and the Puritans kept their jobs by conforming externally, the movement continued to strive for more and more civil power with which to change the things that they detested. Eventually, forty four years after Hooker died, this determined drive led to civil war in England, to the public execution of both the Archbishop of Canterbury and the King, and to the production of an official prayer book in which not a single prayer, not even the Lords Prayer, was provided to be read aloud.22
Meanwhile, because of their external conformity in the years which we have been discussing, the Book of Common Prayer, whether adhered to grudgingly or faithfully, became more and more part of the wallpaper, more and more part of the daily and weekly life of the ordinary person. The librarian who answered my first enquiry was fundamentally correct.... Liturgy in the time of Richard Hooker? That would be the 1559 Book of Common Prayer.
In all of this the common theme is the reading of public worship. Again and again the source material — episcopal visitations, royal edicts and the like — uses the phrase reading the service as the normal way to refer to liturgy. And, as we have seen, a large part of Hookers argument with respect to common prayer centers upon the spiritual value of a service read out by the few and listened to by the many. Church buildings in Hookers time were despoiled and bare; colour and ceremony were at a minimum; powerful preaching was rare and tightly controlled; learned teachers were few and far between. All people had was a book — three books, really: the Prayer Book, the Bible, and a book of Homilies — from which selections were read with varying degrees of competence week by week.
The Puritans thought this stultifying and deadly for the soul. The authorities thought it good for the unity of the country, and for the unity of a fractious church. And Richard Hooker defended and celebrated this reading church on the grounds that great thoughts read are always better than foolish thoughts spoken with sincerity.
I find myself to be with the Puritans in their value of the authenticity, and the inter-personal immediacy of a good sermon spoken without notes, but I am with Hooker on the great benefits of finely crafted prose in a church whose worship leaders are not all of very great ability. I happen to think that the Book of Common Prayer is one of the jewels of Christian spiritual literature, and I know that because it was read faithfully wherever Anglicans have gathered to worship, a rich legacy of prayer has been passed along to the people of our day.
1 The 1559 Act of Uniformity was printed in the front of several editions of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer, and may be found in many places today. On the Internet it is available at
In hardcopy, see Clay, William Keatinge, Liturgies and Occasional Forms of Prayer set out in the Reign of Queen Elizabeth, (Parker Society, Cambridge, 1847, reprinted by the Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1968), p.27 ff. (back...)
5 20th Century editions of these documents include: Frere, W.H., and Kennedy, W.P.M., Visitation Articles and Injunctions of the period of the Reformation, London (1910) (Alcuin club collections, volumes 14-16), and Archbishop Parkers Visitation of Canterbury, 1573 - Archeologia Cantiana, Vol 29 (London, 1911), p.273ff. (back...)
12 Rubrics of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer, and the 1552 book which it replaced, prescibe that all people receive Communion ... at the least three times in the year: of which Easter is to be one... As well, it insists that no service of Holy Communion may be held ... except there be a good number to communicate with the priest.... These rubrics are printed on the pages immediately following the rite of Holy Communion. Episcopal visitations carefully checked that the prescription of thrice per year Communion was being followed. I myself have read those of Archbishop Grindal, in York, 1571, and Edmund Sandys, bishop of London, also in 1571 (reprinted in Frere & Kennedy, Volume III, pages 275 and 307. In this environment, some parish churches went a very long time without a Eucharist; few would have services of Holy Communion more than once per month. (back...)
13 Hooker and his adversaries both give a glimpse of this. Book V, Chapter 36, begins with a quotation of the Puritan complaint that speaking after the minister results in a confused noise of the people one speakinge after an other... and then Hooker saying, in 36.1, Twice we appoint that the wordes which the minister first pronounceth the whole congregation shall repeate after him. As first in the publique confession of sinnes, and againe in rehearsall of our Lordes prayer... (back...)
16 Fincham, Kenneth, Clerical Conformity from Whitgift to Laud, in Lake, Peter, and Questier, Michael, Conformity and Orthodoxy in the English Church, c. 1560-1660, (Bury St Edmunds, Suffolk, 2000), p 131. (back...)