How do we know what Anglicans believe? One crucial way is to look at the teaching contained in our foundational documents. These include the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Book of Common Prayer and the Ordinal. But less well-known than these are the two books of Homilies – published sermons for clergy to preach to their congregations in the early years of the English Reformation.
The Homilies were designed to introduce the biblically-starved people of the sixteenth century to doctrinally-healthy teaching in their own language. Word-for-word agreement with them was not demanded, as if they were in themselves infallible, but clergy were told that they should not preach anything contradictory to the Homilies. In this way, they functioned as a doctrinal formulary, a standard of teaching for the church, and as such they have been valued and used throughout the centuries.
In the careful way that Cranmer has arranged the order of the Homilies in the first book, they move from scripture to sin, and then from salvation to sanctification. The later homilies outline the life of faith, hope, and love which a justified sinner is delighted to lead. The two homilies on falling away from God, and the fear of death are more pastoral and spiritual in focus. Life is always precarious and uncertain, as the recent global pandemic has surely reminded the twenty-first century, but in the sixteenth century, anxiety about death could be an ever-present reality.
This first book of Homilies concludes with two sermons that have striking contemporary resonance for the church, with a classic statement of Anglican sexual ethics in the Homily on adultery and sexual sin, and a lament over disunity in the “Homily Against Contention and Brawling”. It is disappointing that the Church of England’s recent book on sexuality, Living in Love and Faith, makes no mention of the doctrine outlined in the first of these.
My new edition of the first book of Homilies in modern English is a lightly edited version of the original 1547 text in modern English, with a few subsequent clarifications and divisions from later authorised editions. I have tried to retain as far as possible the literary beauty and force of the original, for the sake of those who need and want to have access to the edifying doctrine of this book. After all, Article 35 says that the Homilies are meant to be “understanded of by the people” (sic), not puzzled over and deciphered.
At a time when Anglicanism worldwide seems to be in the midst of an identity crisis, what is needed is not to give in to doubt, division, or despair, but to return to the stabilising roots from which Anglicanism has drawn its vital spark, its vivacity, and its vigour. We face again what the original preface to the Homilies calls the great decay of Christian religion and the utter destruction of innumerable souls through hypocrisy and harmful doctrine. This is what makes returning to the Homilies such an invigorating and useful thing to do today. As Charles Simeon said in the nineteenth century:
The Homilies are a pattern of simplicity and godly sincerity. Never was truth more plainly stated than in them. The language in which they are written is indeed antiquated; in consequence of which, the use of them has been discontinued: but, in their mode of stating divine truth, and enforcing it upon the conscience, they never have been excelled by any composition whatever. It were well if they were more regarded as a pattern for popular addresses at this day: for, in comparison of them, the great mass of public addresses, if viewed with candour and with Apostolic zeal, would be found, it is to be feared, exceedingly defective, both in energy and in scriptural instruction.
The First Book of Homilies edited by Lee Gatiss is now available from Amazon and direct from Church Society in Hardback and Paperback and Digital editions. You can also listen to Dr Gatiss preach through each part of the Homilies himself on YouTube.