Since I first began to observe the season of Lent, one of my favorite disciplines has been to find an edifying book or collection of writings from Church history to read as part of my devotions. Most years, I revisit a forty-day reading plan of the Church Fathers. That was one of my first introductions to actually reading Patristic literature, rather than simply reading about it.
This year, in honor of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, I decided to read through the Books of Homilies, the oft-neglected official sermons of the English Reformation. Most Anglicans I know, including clergy, are completely unaware of the Homilies beyond their mention in Articles XI and XXV of the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. According to Gerald Bray, the First Book of Homilies was largely the project of Archbishop Cranmer, and was published in 1547. The Second Book was published in 1563, and reads more like a collection of theological essays than actual sermons. In light of the Reformers’ emphasis on the importance of preaching in the life of the Church, the Books of Homilies were intended to be a way of equipping the clergy and disciple the people in the key doctrines of the Reformation.
A Note on the Texts
When I first started looking for a copy of the Homilies last year, I was surprised at how difficult it was to obtain a modern edition in print. I ended up finding a paperback reprint from 2008 by Regent College Publishing of the 1859 Oxford University Press edition edited by John Griffiths, which includes some scholarly notes regarding the Patristic and biblical references. While the print itself is not of the highest quality, it was adequate for my purposes. About a week or two into my reading of the First Book, I stumbled upon Gerald Bray’s A Fruitful Exhortation: A Guide to the Homilies. I would highly recommend this little handbook for anyone who wants to begin studying the Homilies. Bray presents historical background, summaries, and useful commentary in an accessible manner. I also discovered that he has recently published a critical edition that includes a third book from the counter-Reformation of Mary I.
About two weekends ago, I finished the First Book. From my formal and informal studies of the Reformation, Reformation theology, and the churches that came from the Reformation, some aspects of the Homilies were exactly what I expected. Others were quite a surprise. Here are a few reflections on each.
The Patristic Connection
While there is a stereotype among some modern Christians that the Church Fathers belong to the Roman Catholics and have nothing to do with Protestants, the Reformers themselves took the Fathers quite seriously and often appealed to them in their apologies for the needed reforms. One of the first things I noticed about the Homilies is how often they quote from the Fathers. Other than the Scriptures themselves, the primary source of illustrations is from the Fathers, often called the “ancient doctors” of the Church. In making their points, the Homilies typically will state a position, discuss it logically, illustrate it from Scripture, and then illustrate it from the Fathers. The effect of this technique is to show the catholicity of the Reformed English Church. Rather than departing from the past, Anglicanism has always seen itself as a continuation of the ancient church, albeit purged of medieval abuses. The Apocrypha is also often quoted in the Homilies. Some argue that this use is almost indistinguishable from the Homilies’ use of the canonical Scriptures, supporting a more Roman or Eastern approach to the Canon. I noticed, however, that the Apocrypha quotations are rarely in isolation, and typically support points made from the canonical Scriptures, reminiscent of Article VI of the Thirty-Nine Articles. That said, the First Book of Homilies predates the Articles as we have them, and issues of canonicity are beyond the scope of this reflection. While this reliance on the Fathers and the Apocrypha was not surprising, it does perfectly compliment the example of similar uses found in the Prayer Book and the Articles.
Topical, not Expository
The First Book of Homilies consists of twelve sermons, each of which is divided into two or three parts:
- Reading the Holy Scriptures (in two parts)
- Sin and Death (in two parts)
- Salvation by Christ Alone (in three parts)
- True Christian Faith (in three parts)
- Good Works (in three parts)
- Christian Love (in two parts)
- Against Swearing and Perjury (in two parts)
- Falling Away from God (in two parts)
- Against the Fear of Death (in three parts)
- Civil Order and Obedience (in three parts)
- Against Adultery (in three parts)
- Against Brawling (in three parts)
One of the more well-known aspects of preaching in the Reformed tradition is the emphasis on expository preaching, where a text of Scripture is explained and applied systematically. As can be observed by the list above, the Homilies, by contrast, are topical sermons, in which a specific topic or issue is explained, with various parts of Scripture informing and supporting the topic. Considering the well-documented affinity Cranmer and the other English Reformers had with the Reformed tradition, I found it surprising that their official Homilies departed from the most prominent feature of Reformed preaching. While I have yet to finish the Second Book, it is similarly topical rather than expository.
More Law than Gospel
While the Anglican Formularies are usually classified as being part of the Reformed tradition, the influence of Lutheran thought and theology is also very present. In fact, parts of the Articles were copied almost verbatim from the Augsburg Confession! The most prominent feature of the Lutheran preaching tradition is the emphasis on the distinction between Law and Gospel. A surprising aspect of the First Book of Homilies is how often parts of any given homily will preach Scripture as Law without including the promises of the Gospel. While one is tempted to see this as a dangerous assuming of the Gospel, the occasional absence of the Gospel may be due to the splitting of each homily into two or three parts. That is, taken as a whole, each topical homily does include both Law and Gospel, though individual parts may not. Bray suggests that the parts were a later feature of the Homilies to make them more manageable for parish use. This is how I read through the First Book in my Lenten devotions: each day I would read one part, a process of ten or so minutes.
Archaic yet Edifying
The first six homilies present the core doctrines of the Reformation in a way that are in perfect harmony with the Book of Common Prayer and the Articles, as is to be expected. It should be no surprise that they are just as edifying for modern readers as they would have been in the 16th century. Indeed, I cannot overstate the joy and encouragement these homilies brought me. However, the other half of the First Book addresses more specific pastoral concerns of the time. As such, I expected them to be somewhat divorced from more modern concerns and only of academic interest. In fact, I found the opposite to be true. Even if some of the specific issues were a bit foreign, it was not difficult to find modern applications that were indeed edifying. I expect to revisit the First Book of Homilies often in the future, both for sermon illustrations and personal edification.
While the Homilies ought not have the same status as the historic Prayer Book, Ordinal, and the Thirty-nine Articles, they are an important part of our history. Indeed, they were once considered one of the core Formularies of Anglicanism, though few would consider them to be so today. At the very least, clergy should study them in Seminary, and probably have a copy in their libraries. Lay teachers and catechists may also find a basic familiarity with them useful, especially the first half of the First Book. Indeed, it is encouraging that the rise in interest in “classical Anglicanism” has coincided with a rising interest in our historic resources, including the Homilies.