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Lectures on the First Prayer Book of King Edward VI.

by Morgan Dix
Rector of Trinity Church, New York

New York: Young and Co., 1881.


I HAVE chosen, as the subject of my lectures this year, the First Prayer Book of the Reformed Church of England. That Book was put out, by authority of the Church in Convocation, and of the State in Parliament, Anno Domini 1549; it came into use, by the same authority, on Whitsunday of that year. It was the result of honest work of English minds and hearts; yet it was from the beginning, on account of its sound Catholic quality, a stumbling-block and a rock of offence, to a set of curious, mistaken, and mischievous men. Very soon superseded by a new and expurgated edition, it still retained a moral power which has deepened and strengthened with the lapse of time; nor, until one hundred and twelve years afterward, had any other English Book the same double sanction, and approval of Church and State. The story of that Book is one of the strangest and most melancholy episodes in our ecclesiastical annals: in undertaking to tell it, let me say what motives have led to the selection of this theme.

And, first, to speak of what was not in my thoughts: I do not entertain the idea that the Book, grand as it is, and full of wisdom, beauty, and truth, could be restored to its old place, either in the mother-country, or here, among us, the inheritors of the English traditions and the English Catholic faith and practice. Such a hope could not be seriously indulged. The objects sought in the present undertaking are less ambitious; of these, the first is to teach the people things which they ought to know.

It is my wish, then, to give information in this public way, about one of the most remarkable works in our literature. It has been pronounced, by a high authority, "the noblest monument of piety, of prudence, and of learning which the sixteenth century constructed." (Archdeacon Hardwick) I venture to add the opinion that it is the best specimen the modern world has seen, or is likely to see, of a true Catholic formulary of doctrine and directory of worship, a book of which this might almost be said, that it contains nothing which ought not to be in it, and that nothing which is in it ought to have been taken away. An intelligent churchman should be acquainted with the history and contents of so remarkable a volume as this; the student of liturgical science ought to know it almost by heart. On these accounts, first, it seemed proper to make it a subject of a few simple and unpretending lectures.

And, secondly, I had this in mind: to try to correct, with that Book as a text, a wide-spread and inveterate error about the "Principles of the English Reformation." Every one knows what mischief results from the abuse of phrases generally current, and how certain vain words come, in time, to carry with them the force of an argument. It is thus with the phrase just mentioned; we find it incessantly flaunted in our faces with a triumphant air by individuals or parties still enamored of the notions and worshipping the names of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and others of that ilk. But what are the Principles of the English Reformation? And where are they so plainly set down in black and white that he who runs may read? A careful and dispassionate study of the latter years of the reign of Henry Yill, and the disastrous episode of Edward VI., will shed new light on the question, and help to a right conclusion as to what those Principles were. I hope to show what, whether I succeed or not in making it clear, I certainly hold to be true: that the genuine principles of the English Reformation are embodied in the First Prayer Book of the English Church; and that the alteration and revision of that Book were the result of a departure from those principles. On one point, at least, I insist, that it is a matter of secondary importance what were the views of particular reformers on controverted questions of theology at a time when opinions were unsettled and men were passing from one idea to another every year. To argue that a view must be accepted as correct, simply because some particular person held it at some particular epoch, is a method of settling questions against which it is surely time to enter a vigorous protest, and worth while to keep it up. What may have been in the minds of the men who were responsible for the Church at that day of terrible trial is matter of interest rather than of importance. There is but one standard and measure of orthodoxy; by that we must all be tried. Our estimate of them depends on the question whether they were true to the Catholic Faith and the Catholic Traditions; whether they were faithful to the principles of a sound reformation; whether they maintained their position, and repelled from their presence those who delighted in confusion. Unfortunately there are some of them who cannot stand such a test. The ship is driving before the gale; on every hand are shoals and quicksands; borne on by radical influences, which threaten civil and religious order alike, they near the place at which, but for the interposition of Divine Providence, all traces of a religion deserving the name of Catholic, including, probably, the Episcopal order itself, were in danger of being swept away. We may pity the men who were caught in that tremendous flood, and whirled in the vortex; we may sympathize with them in their extraordinary trial, and honor the bravery with which some of them suffered; but it is another thing to justify all their acts, and accept them in their later days as true exponents of the religion which we love. Not to those, who stood, ti'embling, beside the dying bed of Edward VI., their hold on their old past gone, their convictions changing from day to day, their minds presaging- a dreaded future; not to those, who, on the accession of Queen Elizabeth, came back to England full of notions imbibed during exile at Frankfort, Zurich, and Geneva; not to any man whatsoever his rank, or any party, how eager soever their words, swirling in the eddies of acrimonious controversy, and driven with the wind and tossed, must we go, to know what the English Reformation was in its purity. We demand something fixed and settled; something that may be known and read of all men; and we find ifc in the First Prayer Book of our Church. One hardly can make out, so confused and contradictory are the records, what those six years were, while Edward, "the young Josiah" as some foolishly called him, was king. One while we see a mitigated Lutheranism, with what was really good in Lutheranism left out; anon, a bald, blank Zwinglianism appears; and by and by there comes a reaction in the shape of a more religious Calvinism, but among these tentative systems men seem to be bandied about; they look as if they were shooting down a slide, on which denominational way-marks are alternately displayed. King and Prime Minister, Primate and Bishops, Priests and Preachers of all kinds, fly across the stage of events, nor can one tell what next is coming; yet all the while one object is fixed, one great lantern tower in view, casting strong light on the storm-cloud and the troubled land. We hail that friendly beacon which thus assists the vision and directs the course; and by its radiance we learn what are the signs of a true Reformation, and what the limits within which such movements, to be salutary, must be restrained.

Having thus announced the design which I have in view, let me formally begin my task, by calling your attention to the history of this Book. Now, the first thing to do is to clear away rubbish. History, unless truly told, does not enlighten; it misleads, it deceives. Falsehoods, by lapse of time, take on the look of truth; and so venerable may an error become, after maintaining its place a long, long while, that he who would expose it appears to be guilty of impiety. But this thankless work must occasionally be done; and particularly when the history of dogma and doctrine is the matter in hand. As papers and documents long hidden, come to light; as the range of inquiry is extended with unlocked for results; as things are seen in more just proportions, it sometimes becomes evident that history must be written over again, if regard is to be had to truth. Now, as to what actually occurred, touching the reformation of religion, in England, in the time of Henry VIII., Edward VI., Mary, and Elizabeth, such revision and correction are imperatively demanded. Take, for instance, the notion, that the first Prayer Book of the Reformed Church was made up in a hurry, crudely compiled, published to meet an emergency, and regarded as so imperfect that it must, as a matter of course, undergo, as soon as practicable, a thorough revision. These ideas are far from being correct.

He who is familiar even with the rudiments of the history of Christianity in England knows how heavily, for many hundred years, the yoke of the Papacy pressed on the neck of the Church. He also knows how restless the English were under that dominion, and how the thought of revolt was with them a familiar idea long before the way was opened. At last, in the time of King Henry VIII., the rupture came, as we all know; and, breaking with the Vatican, because of the shameful business of his divorce, the King did this, at least, if little more: he set the English free to speak what was in their hearts, and encouraged them to hope for a full and general reform. But what they said and did had been in their minds and on their lips for many a day. Through long and anxious years they had been studying the problem of religious reform; men high in place, the most deeply interested. And as it always happens when questions gravely affecting Church or State are mooted, men took diverse lines.

The Reformers were not all of one class. Some, while studying the problem" of reformation, remained good Catholics. [1] But then there was another class of men; a set of fanatics, ignorant of theology, inordinately conceited, crazy for novelty; as radical in their political as in their religious notions; nay, there were, even then, advanced republicans, communists, levellers; dangerous, revolutionary. Among those responsible for the existence of that vexatious class was William Tyndal, a man whom it is preposterous to claim as a representative of the Principles of the English Reformation, for he hated the Church, despised her Episcopacy, rejected her sacraments, and railed against her incessantly in his ribald publications. Now observe: the good, honest work was done, not by the Radicals, but by men who would now-a-days be called the "Old Catholics." They kept on with a steadiness which is admirable, considering how they were pestered by the extremists of that day. To them we owe what was worth having; while the Anti-Church faction appear as simply biding the time when they hoped to sweep away the English System, and build on its ruins a new thing to suit their own fancy.

The actual outcome of the work of reformation during the reign of Henry VIII. was, fortunately, small; what moves slowly, moves safely. Three books of private devotion, known as Primers, were put forth in the years 1535, 1539, and 1545. The Litany was translated into the English tongue, and arranged for saying and singing. Lessons from Holy Scripture in the Vernacular were appointed to be read during Divine Service, but otherwise no actual change was made in the public worship of the Church. These few matters, however, were the fruit of much quiet, careful study, and the sign of a larger work. Step by step that work went on, done by English Catholic Reformers, with little or no meddling on the part of those outside. The very repression exercised over them by the despotic Tudor monarch was perhaps a blessing; it kept back over-zealous spirits, enforced caution and patience, and dominated lawless agitators. And thus, when the reign of that odious tyrant ended, and the boy-prince, Edward, succeeded to the throne, and when, after many years of patient waiting, the order of Divine Service, complete and finished, made its appearance, men had what was worth having and worth keeping. It was no crude, hurried, and imperfect performance, not the work of a 'prentice hand, but rather the mature fruit of thought, and study, and intelligent conviction, guided by a loyal and reverent spirit. It may be said that the work of publishing the order of Divine Service in the vernacular began at least fourteen years before the death of Henry. That "Booke of the common prayer and administracion of the Sacramentes and other rites and ceremonies of the Churche after the use of the Churche of England," had been in fact thoroughly studied out and diligently prepared; and the date of its appearance is memorable in the history of the Christian Religion. It was adopted by Convocation, November 24, 1548. On the 9th of December following it was set forth by Parliament, by an Act of Uniformity, and thus, approved by the Secular and the Ecclesiastical Orders, it came into use through out the realm on Whitsunday, June 9, in that same year.

Now, observe that this was the work of Reformers, not of Deformers; of Conservatives, not of Radicals; of Catholics, not of Protestants; of men who intended to keep as much of the old system as they could, and to expunge only what was contrary to Catholic faith and practice. The signal proof of this is in the Reformed Communion office. What is held about the Sacrament of the Altar and done in celebrating and administering it, must always be the test of a religious body. Now, when the order for the Celebration of the Holy Communion in this book is compared with the ancient liturgies of the Church, such as those which bear the names of St. Mark, St. James, St. Clement, St. Chrysostom, and St. Basil, a substantial agreement will be found among them. That there is in the Holy Communion a Solemn Memorial before Almighty God, a true and proper sacrifice, a real oblation, is the idea expressed in every ancient liturgy of the Catholic Church. Now, in the Order for "The Supper of the Lord and the Holy Communion, commonly called the Mass" as it stands in our First Prayer Book, that idea is expressed in every way possible; by the words and acts, the rites and usages traditionally connected with the belief. And, moreover, in the Sacramental offices there are many points which, though not of the essentials of the mystery, are apt and fit to symbolize the powers of the world to come; these were retained from the old time. Nay, in general it is true that, where no directions were given to the contrary, the ancient uses were to continue, and all was to proceed after the manner understood by and familiar to the people. So that the volume was not revolutionary in any wise, but conservative; it was not intended to upset the people, but to keep them in the true and traditional religion, cleansed from such errors as unquestionably deserved the name; and this is so clear that Cranmer himself declared, and offered to prove, "that the Order of the Church of England, set out by authority of Edward VI., was the same that had been used in the Church for fifteen hundred years past."

I said, some time ago, that the Book, of which the history has thus been briefly given, is the true type and genuine norm of the principles of the English Reformation. I repeat it; and I rest the claim on two facts, about which, fortunately, there can be no dispute.

The first is the statement, by those who put forth that Book, that the work had been done with great care, and, as they believed, under special aid from above. The Act of Uniformity may be taken as the grateful testimony of the Laity of the Church to the wise and satisfactory labors of the Clergy. They state that the Book had been prepared with "an eye and respect to the most sincere and pure Christian Religion, taught by the Scripture, and to the usages in the Primitive Church," and moreover they declare their conviction that it had been compiled "by the aid of the Holy Ghost," and was "so godly and good" as to "give occasion to every honest and conformable man most willingly to embrace it." Now this is the testimony of the most intelligent persons of that day to the purity, orthodoxy, and value of a Book, which, as we shall see hereafter, retained for the Holy Communion the old name of "the Mass/'which had in it prayers for the faithful departed, which sanctioned auricular confession, and prescribed the use of vestments, the sign of the cross in public and private devotion, and the unction of the sick. And I think that they were better judges of the true design and original intention of the English Reformation than those restless folk who, setting up a simultaneous howl abroad and at home, denounced the volume as still full of soul-destroying error; or than any since that time who criticise unfavorably whatever cannot be squared with their own standard of orthodoxy.

Now for the second fact. It is this: that the persons who, unfortunately, consented to a revision of that First Prayer Book, admitted that it needed none. You will see as we proceed how the English Radicals, reinforced by foreign Protestants, began an outcry and a clamor, protesting that the Reformation in England had not gone far enough, and demanding that the Book just set forth should be put aside and replaced by another acceptable to themselves. You will also see that the "Old Catholics," who ought to have resisted those attacks and asserted their position, weakly yielded to alien influences--alien in the civil and the ecclesiastical sense alike, and gave assent to the disgrace and undoing of their own noble work. Finally, you will see that this assent was given ungraciously, nay, petulantly, and with that species of apology which condemns him who makes it. They said that the doubts and difficulties raised about the Book came "rather by the curiosity of Mistakers than of any other worthy cause;" which means that no one could object to what was contained in it, unless he were "curious" i.e., fussy, meddlesome, captious, and withal a "mistaker," not knowing what he was talking about. The testimony is all that we could desire; it tells wofully, however, against the witnesses. One must ask, what induced them to give up their goods to such a class of agitators as they have so well hit off in their description? Or how could they hope to escape the severe judgment of posterity in making so shameful an avowal? To confess that there was no good reason why the Book should have been altered, was to set their seal, first, to its purity and sterling worth, and secondly, to their own weakness in permitting it to be wrested from their hands.

I shall proceed hereafter to a detailed account of this Book, and a particular statement of its contents. Such an analysis will show how well it deserves the praise of piety, prudence, and learning, which was given to it at its first publication. There is but one more thing to be done at present. Few are aware that it retained its moral authority for upward of a hundred years, although superseded by the Second Book of Edward VI. a very short time after it came into use. A true sovereign remains a sovereign still, even though unjustly deposed. A sound principle, a righteous maxim, asserts its claim to obedience, in foro conscientiae, even though a majority may have rejected it. A national Liturgy, once adopted by the civil and the ecclesiastical authorities in a State where the two are united and ought to act as one, may be said to have a valid claim, until by that same double authority another Liturgy be set forth. Now the First Book of Edward came into use, as we have seen, A.D. 1549, when put forth by Convocation and authorized by Parliament. No other Prayer Book had the like sanction of both orders till the year 1661. During those one hundred and twelve years, other Books were in use. The travesty of an old Catholic Liturgy, to which I have so often referred, came out in 1552. Another was set forth in the reign of Queen Elizabeth; and in this last some alterations were made in the reign of James I. But it was not until the time of Charles II, that a Prayer Book, revised and improved, was imposed upon the realm by the consent of both houses of Convocation, and by Act of Parliament ratifying that action of the Church. This is a remarkable fact; it brings out certain other facts very clearly. The general upset which occurred in the reign of Edward VI., during which reign corruption increased, crimes multiplied, religion was despised, and the Church of England descended to the lowest ebb of her existence, was brought about mainly by the tyranny and rapacity of the state government. The prominent agents in the national distress and disgrace were a Sovereign, who, though little more than a child in years, had the imperious temper of his race; a Prime Minister, in full sympathy with Calvin, whose correspondent and friend he was; and a clique of nobles, who have been aptly styled the "pirates of the court." Part of the evil work was the revision of the Prayer Book; it had not the sanction of the Church in Convocation. With the accession of Queen Elizabeth the usual high-handed measures proceeded; the assent of the Church was taken for granted, perhaps, but not waited for; and again the Crown overrode the Cross. It is a way they have in England; it is the inevitable result wherever Church and State are bound together; the State always gets the upper hand. Even now, our brethren of the Clergy and faithful Laity are harassed, persecuted, and thrown into the common prison, by force of an Act of Parliament regulating Divine Worship, to which the Church has never been so much as asked to give her consent. What is done under Victoria, was done under Elizabeth, and under Edward VI; the State usurps a function of the Church, and pushes her aside. That may be one reason why the First Prayer Book of King Edward has ever had so strong a hold on the hearts and consciences of true men. It has that moral power which, thank God, is stronger than physical force; a power the more deeply felt, the better the history is known. Some of the brightest lights and purest spirits in the Church of England have avowed their wish that it could be restored to use. By a long line of witnesses, among our theologians its value is attested. Comment is freely made on the shameful manner in which we lost it; and to that comment there is no better reply than vituperation. That noble Liturgy remains to this day a living power wherever the Anglican Communion spreads its arms abroad. It is like the great masterpieces of old religious art; we do not dream of seeing them reproduced in our own day, yet our students learn from them what cannot be learned of later and inferior schools. Nor has such study been barren of practical results. Every revision of the English Prayer Book, since the accession of Queen Elizabeth, has been in the direction of return to that old standard of orthodoxy, each step, when taken, has been taken in the way where the old treasure lies. Our own branch of the Church affords a striking instance of the influence of which I am speaking. We have, in our order for the Celebration of the Holy Communion, the one, the very thing most to be admired in that First English Prayer Book, the part which, of all others, it was most impious to erase: the full Canon, with Oblation and Invocation added to the words of institution and the Manual acts, substantially as it stands in the Ancient Catholic Liturgies, and nearly word for word as it is in King Edward's Book. We recovered it through the Church of Scotland, whose Liturgy is closely conformed to that; we owe its possession to the exertions of that illustrious Prelate, Seabury, first of American Bishops, who promised his consecrators to use his utmost endeavors to have their order of Celebration adopted in the American Church, and was enabled, by God's help, to secure to us that precious boon.

It shall be my next object to unfold to you the glories and beauties of the Volume which forms the subject of these lectures. Let me only add, in concluding my remarks on the present occasion, that this subject will constitute an education for any one who, by diligent reading and reflection, should have mastered it. So long as men hold in honor the name and title of Catholic, and so long as they believe in the religion taught under that name, so long will the First English Prayer Book challenge our veneration, and continue to be a light to lighten those outside of our fold, and the glory of the people to whom it belongs.

[1] Such was John Colet, Dean of St. Paul's, the friend of Cardinal Wolsey, the founder of that great school for boys of which Knight has given so entertaining an account. Such was Alexander Barclay, a noted satirist of the evils of his day, a bold denouncer of the frauds and errors of the time, yet loyal to the Church and the Catholic Faith.

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