Bleak Midwinter: why we need an Old High Church Advent

Of all the old festivals, however, that of Christmas awakens the strongest and most heartfelt associations. There is a tone of solemn and sacred feeling that blends with our conviviality, and lifts the spirit to a state of hallowed and elevated enjoyment. The services of the church about this season are extremely tender and inspiring. They dwell on the beautiful story of the origin of our faith, and the pastoral scenes that accompanied its announcement. They gradually increase in fervour and pathos during the season of Advent, until they break forth in full jubilee on the morning that brought peace and good-will to men.[1]

So said Washington Irving in his 1819 essay ‘Christmas.’ Long before the Oxford Movement resulted in ritualism and what is often deemed its enrichment of Anglican worship, Irving experienced the “fervour and pathos” of Advent. Irving was not alone. A range of late 18th and early 19th century High Church sources recognized a meaning in Advent that might be surprising considering the rather minimalist liturgical observance of the season in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. In a 1764 sermon, for example, George Horne (later Bishop of Norwich) said of “the holy season” of Advent that in it the Church’s “services dispel the gloom of melancholy, and put gladness into the hearts of all her children.”[2] In 1848, a young Edward White Benson (a future Archbishop of Canterbury) would testify to the continued post-1833 significance of the Old High Church Advent when, in a letter to his sister, he referred to “this Advent month, when the Church’s heart pours itself forth in a diviner eloquence than at almost any other time.”[3]

What is particularly striking about this Old High Church reverence for Advent is that the season would have been observed without liturgical color, additional rites or ceremonies, or Advent carols. The appearance of such things in Anglican worship occurred later in the 19th century. Public worship during an Old High Church Advent would have been Mattins, Ante-Communion, and Sermon. The parson would have been vested in surplice, tippet, and hood. Outside of cathedrals, metrical psalms may have been sung, but nothing more. The one liturgical marker of the season would have been the use of the Advent collect throughout these weeks. The only seasonal color would have been the greenery that may have decorated the parish church. From a 21st century Anglican perspective, it all seems very sparse and bare indeed. We find it difficult to imagine Advent without liturgical purple, Advent wreaths, ‘O come, O come Emmanuel,’ and seasonal propers. An Old High Church Advent might initially strike us as so sparse and bare as to be indistinguishable from any other time of the liturgical year.

As has been shown, however, this was not the case with those who experienced the “fervour and pathos” of the Old High Church Advent, that “holy season.” What were the roots and the causes of this experience of Advent? The Old High Church appreciation of Advent was certainly rooted in and a continuation of earlier Anglican experience. In a 1619 sermon, Donne referred to “the celebration of the advent, before the feast of the birth of our Saviour,”[4] while Cosin described Advent Sunday 1626 as “this holy feast which now we celebrate.”[5] During the dark years of the Interregnum – with the Prayer Book and its calendar prohibited – Evelyn’s diary continued to mark Advent Sunday,[6] as did Jeremy Taylor in his preaching.[7] Between the Restoration and the Revolution of 1688, Advent references can be seen in the preaching of both ‘High Church’[8] and ‘Latitudinarian.’[9] In other words, the late Georgian Old High Church observance of Advent was nothing new. All this, of course, only pushes the question back chronologically, for the same apparently bleak and bare liturgical context certainly applied to Jacobean, Caroline, and Restoration Anglicanism. What was it, then, that led Anglicans in these various eras to regard the observance of Advent as distinguished from other times of the liturgical year?

The answer is the Book of Common Prayer. Without liturgical color, additional rites or ceremonies, or Advent carols, the Advent provision of the Prayer Book could still shape the piety and the imagination of Anglicans. This was not least because, as Irving identified, Advent was understood to be a preparation for Christmas and the celebration of the Lord’s Nativity. Thus Anthony Sparrow’s mid-17th century commentary on the Prayer Book stated:

Before Christmas are appointed four Advent-Sundays, so called because they are to prepare us for Christ his Advent or coming in the flesh. These are to Christmas-day, as S. John Baptist to Christ forerunners to prepare for it, and point it out.[10]

Wheatly in the early 18th century similarly compared Advent to the preparations for the other great feasts:

For the greater solemnity of the three principal Holy-days, Christmas-day, Easter-day, and Whitsunday, the church hath appointed certain days to attend them: some to go before, and others to come after them. Before Christmas are appointed four Advent-Sundays.[11]

This relationship of Advent to the celebration of Christmas was not understood to be a lessening of the eschatological themes of the collects and readings of these four Sundays. Sparrow, for example, describes the Gospel of the Second Sunday of Advent – part of the Lucan apocalypse – as “an excellent meditation to prepare us for the welcome and joyful entertainment of Christ’s first coming.” Wheatly also highlighted how eschatological emphasis of the Prayer Book Advent was suitable preparation for the festive season:

they assure us of the truth of Christ’s first coming; and as a proper means to bring our lives to a conformity with the end and design of it, they recommend to us the considerations of his second coming.

This understanding of the Prayer Book Advent provision would continue to shape Old High Church piety of the late Georgian era. In his 1815 A Manual for the Parish Priest, Henry Handley Norris of the Hackney Phalanx recommended clergy “following the order of the Collects” in their Advent preaching:

The four weeks set apart for considering the Advent of the Redeemer, he may well employ in the manner pointed out by the Church; in, preparing the minds of his flock, to make a proper use of the approaching celebration of the first coming of Christ, by turning their reflections to His second coming to judge the world.[12]

John Henry Hobart, in a series of sermons published in England in 1824, demonstrated how this Old High Church Advent piety was also present in PECUSA. Echoing the emphasis of the Prayer Book commentaries, he described “the holy season devoted to the commemoration of the first and second Advent of our Lord” while also acknowledging the eschatological emphasis of the Prayer Book provision:

The second coming of the Saviour in power and great glory to judge the world, is the subject proposed by the Church to our serious meditation at this holy season.[13]

This Old High Church appreciation of the Prayer Book Advent provision continued to be recognised in Tractarianism. Newman would declare in a sermon of the late 1830s:

The frost or the rain comes again; the earth is stripped of its brightness; there is nothing to rejoice in. And then, amid this unprofitableness of earth and sky, the well-known words return; the Prophet Isaiah is read; the same Epistle and Gospel, bidding us ‘awake out of sleep,’ and welcome Him ‘that cometh in the Name of the Lord;’ the same Collects, beseeching Him to prepare us for judgment. O blessed they who obey these warning voices, and look out for Him whom they have not seen, because they ‘love His appearing!’[14]

Keble would likewise state:

I do not know that we can well find a more profitable subject for our meditations … this Advent, than the four collects appointed by the Church for the four several weeks.[15]

It should be noted that Tractarian liturgical practice at this point was, of course, largely indistinguishable from that of the Old High Church tradition. The same apparently sparse liturgical context continued to sustain a lively Advent piety.

What might contemporary Anglicans learn from an Old High Church Advent? Few of us, I suspect, would want to give up the Advent Procession or John Mason Neale’s Veni, veni Emmanuel. That said, the sparse, almost bare nature of the Old High Church Advent surely has some advantages over the current liturgical style. The contemporary thematic approach for each Sunday tends to obscure the eschatological emphasis of the season; liturgical texts can offer an unhelpful range of variants (the Church of England’s ‘Common Worship’ provides a choice of seven Advent proper prefaces, together with a choice of four wreath prayers for each Sunday of Advent); and there is often an unrealistic expectation of what the liturgy for this short season can pastorally sustain (not least if it is regarded as competing with and entirely distinct from festive preparations).

Against this background, the sparse nature of an Old High Church Advent could provide a vigorous alternative. The bare nature of the liturgical provision for the season in the classical Prayer Book tradition – no Proper Preface, no seasonal antiphons or canticles, no Advent Wreath prayers – echoes the winter landscape and thus with vigorous, uninterrupted voice the liturgy calls us into deep eschatological hope. We are not overwhelmed or distracted by additional material and numerous themes. Rather, like the winter landscape, we are brought to realize our entire dependence on the Lord’s Advent for life and light.

An Old High Church Advent also would allow us to take cognizance of a warning issued by Rowan Williams in an Advent sermon. The “richness of religious eros” permeating Advent, with its “beautiful, elegiac” tones, can dangerously combine with “the power of our urge to idolatry.” We need, he said, Advent in its “deeper aspect … pushing us back into the experience of Israel and Israel’s unconsoled rejection of idols”, that we may be confronted and challenged by the One who “brings our idolatry – philosophical and mythological alike – to judgment.”[16] We need, in other words, that stark daily proclamation throughout the season of Advent: “when he shall come again in his glorious Majesty, to judge both the quick and the dead.”

The Advent collect, what one late 17th century High Church preacher termed “our incomparable Collect proper for the Season,”[17] stands at the heart of an Old Church Advent. In many contemporary liturgies it has been relegated to merely the collect for the First Sunday of Advent, rather than the determining liturgical text of the season. Other seasonal material crowds these four short weeks. In an era when Anglican liturgy and preaching remains too influenced by the legacy of mid- and late-20th century theologies committed to an unconvincing and unsatisfying overly-realized eschatology,[18] perhaps we do need to rediscover the Old High Church Advent, stripping away some liturgical riches that we might see the bleak midwinter of souls, standing with the sparsest resources of our own, bare of any merits, before the refining judgment of the Advent of the Lord.

  1. Washington Irving, ‘Christmas’ in The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819).
  2. George Horne ‘The Prince of Peace’, an Advent Sunday sermon preached before the University of Oxford, 1764.
  3. Quoted in Arthur Christopher Benson, The Life of Edward White Benson (1899).
  4. John Donne, Sermon CXLIX, 16th June 1619.
  5. John Cosin, ‘A Sermon at the Consecration of Dr. Francis White, Bishop of Carlisle’, 3rd December 1626.
  6. See the entry for 3rd December 1654.
  7. In Jeremy Taylor, XXV sermons preached at Golden-Grove being for the winter half-year, beginning on Advent-Sunday, until Whit-Sunday (1653), Sermons I-III.
  8. See, for example, Denis Grenville, ‘A sermon preached in the Cathedral Church of Durham’, 2nd December 1685.
  9. See, for example, Simon Patrick’s ‘A sermon preached before the king, on the second Sunday in Advent, Decemb. viii, 1678’.
  10. Anthony Sparrow, A Rationale Upon the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England (1655).
  11. Charles Wheatly, A Rational Illustration of the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England (1722).
  12. Henry Handley Norris, A Manual for the Parish Priest: Being a Few Hints on the Pastoral Care to the Younger Clergy of the Church of England; from an Elder Brother (1815).
  13. John Henry Hobart, Sermons on the Principal Events and Truths of Redemption, Volume 1 (1824): see Sermons I-IV.
  14. John Henry Newman, Parochial and Plain Sermons, Volume 5 (1840), Sermon I.
  15. In Sermons from Advent to Christmas, by the late Rev. John Keble, (1875).
  16. Rowan Williams, Open to Judgement: Sermons and Addresses (1994), Sermon 1, ‘Advent’.
  17. Denis Grenville, ‘A sermon preached in the Cathedral Church of Durham’, 2nd December 1685.
  18. See Sam Brewitt-Taylor’s analysis of the “centrality of eschatology to radical Christian concepts of ‘the secular world’ in his Christian Radicalism in the Church of England & the Invention of the British Sixties, 1957-1970 (2018), p.46f. He goes on to note that this vision of ‘secularization’ of eschatological hope was already experiencing “exhaustion in the early 1970s” (p.49).

 



Laudable Practice

Laudable Practice is a "poor priest" (c.f. Herbert's 'Aaron') in the Church of Ireland, living in Jeremy Taylor country, and enjoying the poetry of Wendell Berry. 'High and Dry', blogging on the riches of the 'Old' (Luke 5:39) High Church tradition, he is a historian by background, and particularly delights in leading Sunday Prayer Book Mattins in the parish. He blogs at http://laudablepractice.blogspot.com.


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