Sermon preached at the third special Evensong to mark 500 years of the Reformation (15 October 2017) by The Reverend Canon Michael Hampel, Precentor
Focusing on King Edward VI, Canon Michael Hampel explores the changes made to the liturgy, with services said in English rather than Latin and the construction of the Book of Common Prayer.
Henry VIII died a Catholic. Yes, he had separated the Church in England from papal authority in Rome and he had been excommunicated by the Pope, but Henry VIII died a Catholic. And he died 30 years – an entire generation – after the start of the events we are commemorating this year on the five hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s series of challenges to the Church hierarchy. That’s as long ago from now as Margaret Thatcher winning her third General Election.
The Reformation was no mere event: it was a long and complicated period of time in history and, when Henry VIII dies in 1547, the best – or the worst – is yet to come, here in England.
So, Henry VIII’s son Edward VI accedes to the throne. This is the young nine year old whose procreation had necessitated a divorce and a beheading, a break with Rome, excommunication, the assertion of the divine right of kings, rebellion, and a lot of tiptoeing round the King.
What did this nine year old know about politics and theology? Probably a lot more than the average nine year old does today (apart, of course, from our nine year old choristers here at St Paul’s) but the fact remains that his youth necessitated a slightly wider group of guardians who certainly knew what they knew – or at least knew what they thought they knew – about politics and theology, particularly if it enhanced their own power and authority.
One of these guardians was his uncle, John Seymour, Duke of Somerset, and the other was John Dudley, Duke of Northumberland. Both were vigorous reformers; Edward himself had been raised as a Protestant by his mother, Jane Seymour; he is said to have been pious, and scrupulous in his study of scripture and attendance at divine service; and the man he trusted most was Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, who oversaw the full implementation of reform such that, in the short years of Edward’s reign, England changed from being essentially Catholic – albeit without papal authority – to being essentially Protestant, with Edward VI as Supreme Head of the Church of England: the ‘godly imp’ as John Foxe called him.
But how did all this look to the person in the pew? What did your predecessors experience as they sat in the mediaeval St Paul’s building in the late 1540s?
The Bible had already been translated into English and indeed authorised by Henry VIII to be read in church. And, while that was still hugely controversial, it was not new when Edward VI came to the throne. But the language of worship was still Latin. And an English liturgy was next on the agenda of the reformers.
Thomas Cranmer had already written a Litany in English in 1544. And the genesis of this particular liturgical text in English kind of says it all. A litany is a set form of prayer and response which would have been prayed by priest and people in procession often out and about within the parish boundaries. In 1543, Henry VIII had ordered such penitential processions across the realm at a time of a series of troubles which England was experiencing but his orders fell largely on deaf ears because public response was poor. Why the poor response? Because the people complained that they didn’t understand what was being said. When England was simultaneously at war with both France and Scotland, however, the King needed a show of public support and wanted everyone out there praying so – suddenly – a piece of liturgy in English didn’t seem such a bad thing. Political expediency kicked in and there was the Litany in English.
Which, of course, spurred Thomas Cranmer on in his own desire to impose a single book of services in English on the Church.
One book, one set of services, one language, everyone doing the same thing and saying the same thing, in every church in England. Like a kind of national curriculum for the liturgically sound.
And so he constructed the Book of Common Prayer and Administration of the Sacraments and other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church according to the Use of the Church of England in 1549 for use for the first time on Whit Sunday of that year.
So, one week, the people experience one or other of a whole range of Latin rites, and the next week it’s the Book of Common Prayer in English, whether you like it or not. And some people liked it – and others didn’t. Some, perhaps even many, yearned for the old services and the old faith; others thought it was still too Catholic and insufficiently Protestant; and others thought it was just the ticket. But it was those who didn’t think it went far enough in the cause of reform who prevailed and a revised, more Protestant, version was published only three years later in 1552. And it’s that version, with some revisions in the late seventeenth century, which comes down to us today and is the liturgy used in this service.
So now the picture was complete: when you went to church, everything – liturgy, bible reading and preaching – was delivered in English, straight to your ears and thus to your brain and heart. Now you could think for yourself – and is not freedom of thought a basic human right?
Now there’s a question? Was all this about human rights? Were Martin Luther and William Tyndale and Thomas Cranmer campaigners for human rights? Yes, to a certain extent they were. But they would also claim to have been campaigners for God’s rights over and above those of the Roman Church hierarchy – but inasmuch as they were believers in the incarnation, they understood that God’s rights and human rights could be said to be related and that certainly a direct relationship between God and God’s people was the essence of scriptural teaching.
But, if you love God, you keep God’s commandments and the rejection of Roman Catholic moral theology by the reformers made room for a return to first principles and the Ten Commandments as the starting point for Christian moral life. And that was the dominant theme in both the liturgy and the preaching of the Church – such that, when the composers of the day set biblical texts to music for divine service, they selected passages of scripture which invoked the primacy of God’s commandments, obedience to them, and the call to lead a good life based on love of God and love of neighbour. Hence the three short anthems we heard earlier in this service.
So, here we are in 2017, in a service of Choral Evensong which uses the liturgy of 1552 and whose choral music, today at least, is entirely that of the composers working under Edward VI – such that we experience echoes of Reformation rolling down the years and sounding across the centuries. And, while the Church of England has recalibrated its position between Catholic and Protestant and has found a middle way through the two, and while we use modern forms of service too, the effect of reformation under Edward VI and the resulting Book of Common Prayer has crafted the shape and feel of all our worship so decisively that we can take it for granted that, when we go to church, the service will be led in our own language.
But we must never forget that people died that it might be so – not least under the reign of the next monarch in our series, Mary I.
Because Edward VI, while still a minor, at the age of 15 fell ill and died and it was his Catholic sister Mary who was waiting in the wings.
In his preface to the Book of Common Prayer, Thomas Cranmer wrote of the different factions competing for centre stage in church politics: ‘it was thought expedient, not so much to have respect how to please and satisfy either of these parties, as how to please God, and profit them both.’
Now there’s a thought.