History: St Paul's and the Reformation

Today at the Cathedral View More
8:00am Morning Prayer
8:30am Doors open for sightseeing
8:30am Eucharist
12:30pm Eucharist
4:00pm Last entry for sightseeing
5:00pm Choral Evensong
5:30pm Cathedral closes

History: St Paul's and the Reformation

From the Reformation to today

As the spiritual heart of London, and the seat of a Bishop, St Paul's Cathedral found itself right at the heart of the debate and radical ideas which arrived from the continent.

From the 1200s Paul's Cross had been the national centre for debate and was a place at which civil and religious pronouncements were made, sermons were printed and distributed, and where heretical books were burned, including William Tyndale's English translation of the New Testament. Violent mobs were formed around St Paul's to sack churches and even some of the Gunpowder Plotters were executed here. The inscription on the current monument to Paul’s Cross reads: 'Amid such scenes of good and evil as make up human affairs the conscience of Church and nation through five centuries found public utterance'.

At Paul's Cross, arguments both for and against reform were articulated by the great theological figures of their day, and by looking at the sermons preached there we can partially detect the direction of theological thinking. The noted Victorian London historian, E Beresford Chancellor said: "If it were possible to secure a complete collection of the sermons delivered at Paul's Cross, we should have a history, almost complete, of the Anglican Church'.

Up to the Reformation St Paul’s was a Catholic cathedral in which the celebration of the Mass, the preaching of sermons, the veneration of many saints, the observance of Saints' feast days, Masses for the dead said in chantry chapels, a wooden cross known as a rood, and a chapel devoted to the Virgin, shrines, reliquaries and numerous other chapels all played a part in the liturgical life of the building. Its prominence and  size - at one point the tallest building ever built anywhere in the world - meant it would not escape the destruction of the times. The reign of King Henry VIII saw the beginning of the end for many aspects of the religious life of the building associated with Roman Catholicism. The shrine of St Erkenwald was plundered and waves of iconoclasm followed in which shrines and images were destroyed. The Bell Tower, which housed the Jesus Bells, had supposedly been lost by Henry in a game of dice to Sir Miles Partridge, who demolished the tower and sold the materials. 

The full suppression of Catholic worship and fittings was carried out under Edward VI - all altars were removed, the stone reredos was demolished, as were all the chapels and chantries and the stonework around the altar.

This was the beginning of the end for Old St Paul's. Certain relics were restored under Mary I, and a reconstruction of the upper sanctuary was begun, but it fell down due to speed of construction. In 1561, early in the reign of Elizabeth I, a fire meant the loss of the spire and it was to fall into an increasing a state of disrepair for another century until its complete destruction in the Great Fire of 1666. 

What came next was a building which epitomised the Reformation. Under Sir Christopher Wren a great new domed cathedral in a new English Baroque style was constructed on the same site, the first major building of its type anywhere in England. Where its predecessor had more than 30 side chapels, very much in line with Catholic churches across Europe, the new church had just one. And in its styling the effects of the Reformation were clear. The Cathedral was built at a time when the Civil War and Protectorate had again heightened sensitivity to the confluence of art and Protestantism. What constituted appropriate decoration for the Cathedral was the subject of great debate. The stonework carvings were of fruit and foliage, and not decorated or gilded in any way. The great dome paintings of Sir James Thornhill were executed in muted colours. It wasn't until the Victorians that more decoration was added, notably the mosaics in the quire.

The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor of St Paul's:

The Church of England is said to have been born out of a book. That book was the Book of Common Prayer first published on Whit Sunday 1549. Its principal architect was Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, and it presented the liturgy or worship of the Church in English.

Much of the controversy surrounding the ecclesiastical and political history of the Reformation arises out of the desire to translate the Bible into the language of the people (as opposed to Latin) but the same controversy applied to the language in which people worshipped God in their church services.

And the new liturgy was novel not only because it was in English but also because this one book replaced a whole series of services books which had been necessary before. In his Preface to the new book, Cranmer said that hitherto it was more work to find out what the priest was supposed to say in the service than it was to say it when it had been found out.

The Book of Common Prayer was modified in 1552, a few years after its first publication, and, although it was revised again – not least in 1662 when the Church of England’s liturgy was restored at the same time as the monarchy, the 1552 version is pretty much what we know today.

And that is because the Book of Common Prayer has survived to this day. It is still used every day at St Paul’s Cathedral for the service of Evensong and, on Sundays, it is also used for the early celebration of Holy Communion at 8am.

The Church of England’s liturgy was revised and modernised during the twentieth century and most churches use the contemporary service book, Common Worship, but this book is merely an alternative to the Book of Common Prayer and does not replace it.

That means that the book which arose out of the Reformation is not only the foundation document of the Church of England but is also still – nearly 500 years later – its principal service book.

When the priest, at the start of Evensong, sings ‘O Lord, open thou our lips’, we hear an echo from the height of the Reformation years sounding across the centuries.

Of course, here at St Paul’s, it was a different building in which those words were first heard so that here it is the liturgy which provides the continuity between the sixteenth century and the twenty-first century. But that’s how it should be when we worship God who is the same yesterday, today, and for ever.

What did the Reformation mean to us at St Paul’s? It meant many things of course but it meant the first use of a book of services whose earthy language – however rarefied it may seem today because of its age – was the language of the city urchin as much as it was the language of the Lord Mayor of London: a language ‘understanded of the people’ to quote Cranmer but, as we say today in the service sheet you are given when you come in, it is language which ‘may sound old-fashioned but whose meaning is not out of date.’

Come and join us for Evensong here every day weekday at 5pm and on Sundays at 3.15pm and hear the Reformation come alive.