The Ornaments Rubric, Again: A Friendly Critique of Recent Commentary

The Ornaments Rubric has been the subject of much discussion in Anglican circles, and with good reason. T. W. Perry has written that the Christian Church in all its historical liturgies has “practically enunciated a law—that Divine Service is to be accompanied with external accessories.” “The Rule given by the Church of England in applying this principle,” Perry reminds us, is as follows: “And here is to be noted, that such Ornaments of the Church, and of the Ministers thereof, at all Times of their Ministrations, shall be retained, and be in use, as were in this Church of England, by the Authority of Parliament, in the Second Year of the Reign of King Edward the Sixth.”[1]

So what exactly does this rubric say and what does it mean for the character of Anglicanism? Basically the rubric instructs the church to retain the Catholic “ornaments” of worship which were in use during the early years of Edward’s reign, prior to the changes introduced into the 1552 BCP. There, under the influence of the Swiss reformers, Thomas Cranmer had inserted before the morning prayer service: “And here it is to be noted, that the minister at the tyme of the Cōmmunion and all other tymes in his ministracion, shall use neither albe, vestment, nor cope: but being archbishop or bishop, he shall have and wear a rochet; and being a preest or deacon, he shall have and wear a surplice onely.” So rochets for bishops; surplices for priests and deacons at all religious services. It was then, the explicit purpose of the Elizabethan Ornaments Rubric to reverse this policy and go back in principle to the earlier status quo, though it leaves the door open to further liturgical adjustments. The rubric, found near the end of The Act of Uniformity, 1559, reads in full as follows:

Provided always and be it enacted that such ornaments of the Church and of the ministers thereof shall be retained and be in use as was in the Church of England by authority of Parliament in the second year of the reign of King Edward the Sixth, until other order shall be therein taken by the Queen’s Majesty, with the advice of her commissioners appointed and authorized under the great seal of England for ecclesiastical causes, or of the metropolitan of this realm; and also that if there shall happen any contempt or irreverence to be used in the ceremonies or rites of the Church by the misusing of the orders appointed in this Book, the Queen’s Majesty may by the like advice of the said commissioners or metropolitan ordain and publish such further ceremonies or rites as may be most for the advancement of God’s glory, the edifying of his Church and the due reverence of Christ’s holy mysteries and sacraments.[2]

It is clear that this rubric provides guidelines on two fronts, with an eye to Rome on the right, and the more radical Swiss Reformed sympathizers on the left. Elizabeth was trying to chart a path between these two extremes. As Gerald Bray notes: “The 1559 Act enjoined a Settlement which was clearly Protestant, though somewhat less radical than that of 1552. A number of minor concessions were made to traditionalist sensibilities, in the hope that those of Catholic sympathies might be reconciled to the new order.”[3] Diarmaid MacCulloch writes that, “royal Injunctions filling in the details of the Settlement allowed the use of many of the old vestments in services and remained diplomatically silent about destroying other items of liturgical furniture.”[4] At the beginning of her reign, Elizabeth had an eye toward conciliating Catholics both in England, and also abroad, for as Andrea Albright notes: “Elizabeth did not wish to alienate the Spanish king Philip II too rapidly by embracing Protestantism, nor did she wish to alienate the Genevan Marian exiles returning to England.”[5] An additional factor is Elizabeth’s personal religious sympathies, which clearly combined moderate Protestant theology with the traditional form of Catholic ritual. “There is indeed evidence,” MacCulloch admits, “that she wanted to restore not the Prayer Book of 1552 but the more ceremonial forms of the 1549 Prayer Book—Dr Roger Bowers has discovered that her Chapel Royal was using new choral settings of 1549 texts in the first year of her reign. Moreover the communion table in the Chapel Royal remained vested like an altar with silver cross and candlesticks.”[6]

We can now proceed to answer some fundamental questions about the intent and application of the Ornaments Rubric. First of all, what is “the second year of the reign of King Edward the Sixth”? That much is easy. Since Edward took the throne on January 28, 1547, the second year would take us to January 28, 1549. This much of the dispute is settled.[7] Secondly, do we know what “ornaments” were in use at that time, insofar as it bears upon liturgical attire? Fortunately, this too is a matter of historical record, for it can be ascertained from four sources: 1) the ancient canon law; 2) the Salisbury Missal; 3) the 1549 BCP; 4) the Inventories of Ornaments which were taken in 1552.[8] This matter was investigated by the committee of clergy who were tasked with revising the prayer book in 1662.[9] Albright notes: “The committee examined the ancient Edwardian Inventory lists of ministerial ornaments and found the standard vestments in usage at that time to be: cope, chasuble, dalmatic, alb, stole, maniple, amice, rochette and episcopal habit, surplices, tippet, and hood.”[10] So the Ornaments Rubric includes the full array of Eucharistic vestments in its scope, however much flexibility was envisioned in its future implementation (which is where all the ambiguity lies). As Collinson writes: “No doubt sensing that what Bishop Jewel was to call ‘the scenic apparatus’ of worship would impress both her more ignorant subjects and foreign observers at least as much as its doctrine, the queen ambiguously required the use of the eucharistic vestments which were in use in the second year of Edward VI.”[11]

Finally, is the rubric still in effect? Here we do not mean any reference to the outcome of the Folkestone Ritual Case (or Ridsdale Judgment) in 1877. As P. T. Marsh has noted:

The Ridsdale judgment seemed too obviously an expedient compromise to be respected as a detached interpretation of the law. This impression was confirmed when the public later heard that at least one of the judges had disagreed with the majority verdict and thought that it was influenced by policy as much as by law. In fact three of the judges had dissented but had been prevented from pronouncing their opinion in court by the Lord Chancellor. Determined ritualists felt no hesitation in ignoring the verdict.[12]

Here is what we mean then. When the whole assortment of Catholic ornamentation was gradually restored in the nineteenth century in the Church of England, was this a legitimate implementation of the Ornaments Rubric? Or was it a specious appeal to a rubric which had long ago ceased to be in effect? When we turn to the 1662 edition of the Book of Common Prayer we find instructions that repeat almost verbatim what had been inserted before the Orders for Morning and Evening Prayer in 1559. In the 1662 edition it reads: “And here is to be noted, that such Ornaments of the Church, and of the Ministers thereof, at all Times of their Ministration, shall be retained, and be in use, as were in this Church of England, by the Authority of Parliament, in the Second Year of the Reign of King Edward the Sixth.”[13] We have already noted that the committee which revised this version of the prayer book checked the Edwardian Inventory lists in order to ascertain what ministerial ornaments were in use at the time specified by the rubric. Why would they have bothered to do that if they thought that the rubric itself had become null and void? And why would they insert that rubric in 1662 before the Orders for Morning and Evening Prayer?[14]

It has been argued by the Young High Churchman in an essay entitled, “The Ornaments Rubric Explained: Did pre-Reformation ceremonial legally exist after 1559?” which appeared on The Porcine, that the Ornaments Rubric has been nullified by the Injunctions of 1559 and The Advertisements of 1566. Is this accurate however? Before looking at the Injunctions and Advertisements, we would do well to scan the opinion of Anglican churchmen on this topic during the three centuries between the time of Elizabeth and the Oxford Movement. Fortunately this has been catalogued by John Wickham Legg in his helpful volume, English Church Life from the Restoration to the Tractarian Movement.[15] Legg demonstrates: “With only two exceptions authors declare that the rubric means what it says, that it directs the use of the ornaments of the first book of King Edward the Sixth. The two excepted authors hold that the Edwardine vestments may be strictly legal, but they have fallen into desuetude, and thus no clergyman can be required to wear them.”[16]

A few illustrative examples will serve our purposes here. Bishop Matthew Wren wrote out a paper at the time of the revision of the Prayer Book in 1662, within which we find the following remark: “But what is now fit to be ordered herein, and to preserve those that are still in use, it would [should] be set down in express words . . . The very words too, of that Act, 2. Edw. VI, for the Minister’s Ornaments, would [should] be set down, or to pray to have a new one made; for there is somewhat in that Act that now may not be used” (italics added). Legg notes: “Dr. Wren seems to think that at that moment, before the Acts of 1662, the Ornaments of the First Book of King Edward were the lawful ones; but to avoid dispute he advises that a new rubric should be made.”[17]

Cornelius Burges wrote in 1660: “The Book of Common Prayer of 2 Edw. 6. is in some things referred to, and particularly as to Ornaments and Rites, both by the Rubrick before Morning-Prayer in the present Liturgy; and by the Stat. of I. Elis. 2. So that, as to this point, so much of the first Book is still in force by Law” (italics added at the end). Legg notes that Burges “acknowledged the legality of the ornaments of the First Book of King Edward, but at the same time asked to have liberty granted in using these ornaments.”[18]

The renowned Church historian Edmund Gibson wrote in 1713 regarding the potential limitation of the rubric: “Until other order] which other Order (at least in the method prescribed in this Act) was never yet made; and therefore legally, the Ornaments of the Ministers in performing Divine Service, are the same now as they were in 2. E. 6.”[19] In summary, after surveying the literary landscape of several centuries, Legg remarks: “That the Ornaments Rubric directed the use of the ornaments of the first book of Edward the Sixth may be claimed as the general opinion of the Church of England.”[20]

We now turn to the specific question of the Injunctions of 1559. The Young High Churchman has argued that we can use the actions of the Royal Commissioners in enforcing the Injunctions to interpret the Ornaments Rubric—taking them as an enactment of the “other order” alluded to in the Act of Uniformity. In this he is mistaken, as can be seen from the wording of the Injunctions; it is also contradicted by published scholarship on the actions of the Royal Commissioners, which does not see their destructive behavior as reflective of the policy intended by Queen Elizabeth in the Act of Uniformity. After noting the Catholic ornaments (altar, crucifix and lighted candles) in Elizabeth’s Chapel, Collinson notes:

The Chapel Royal was an example to the whole Church, and the queen’s gesture implied a reversal of the vigorous instructions with which the royal visitors had been sent out in the summer of 1559, and which they had interpreted by the systematic removal and destruction of rood-lofts, crucifixes and vestments. It is in the light of this episode that we should view all ‘relics of popery’ entertained in the early Elizabethan Church. It was no doubt the way that Elizabeth intended they should be taken.[21]

Likewise MacCulloch has noted the influence that the radically iconoclastic Marian exiles exerted among the clergy:

Official commissions in which these clergy were prominent toured the Provinces of Canterbury and York in 1559 repeating the campaign of Edwardian destruction of Catholic devotional objects, and occasionally seeing this iconoclasm get out of hand as old religious scores were settled locally—these commissions conveyed a very different message about the future of the Church from the tone of the royal Injunctions.[22]

There is obviously no doubt that the Injunctions are an official implementation of the Act of Uniformity.[23] But they do not involve any removal of the primitive ornaments of the Church as were in use in the second year of Edward the Sixth. Quite the opposite. Catholic images and vestments are explicitly allowed and protected. What is forbidden is the setting forth or extolling of images for superstitious purposes: “they shall not set forth or extol any images, relics or miracles, for any superstition or lucre, nor allure the people by any enticements, to the pilgrimage of any saint or image” (2). Images are allowed but not to be kissed or licked (3). Religious shrines are forbidden as they foster superstition (23). But far from being forbidden, Catholic vestments are to remain in use as was customary in the second year of Edward the Sixth. All clergy “shall use and wear such seemly habits, garments and such square caps as were most commonly and orderly received in the latter [second] year of the reign of King Edward the Sixth” (30). Records are to be kept in every parish of “vestments, copes or other ornaments, plate, books and specially of grails, couchers, legends, processionals, hymnals, manuals, portuals and such like, appertaining to their church” (47). These inventories are not to catalogue such items for pillage and destruction, but to ensure that they remain in use and unmolested as ordered in the Act of Uniformity.[24]

So what should be made of the Advertisements of 1566? Did this effectively cancel the expectation of a return to primitive Catholic ornaments in public worship? No it did not, for as is widely acknowledged in the scholarly literature, this measure was a purely pragmatic compromise, which represented a relaxation of the expectations of the Act of Uniformity, not their implementation. As Collinson explains, “the bishops made an informal and unauthorized decision to require no more than the cope for the communion and the surplice for all other administrations.”[25] This expediency was necessitated by Puritan recalcitrance, and the Advertisements by no means reflect a strict implementation of the intent of the Ornaments Rubric—nor do they in any way cancel out its regulative role under normal conditions. The situation is fully explained by Perry whose words deserve to be cited at length:

But it is not difficult to understand, what seems to have been the case, that it was no easy task to deal with the prevalent disorder, encouraged as it was by a not inconsiderable body of persons (including many Clergy and some Bishops) who had a violent dislike of the prescribed Ritual and Ceremonial. Nor is it surprising to find that the Bishops, in order to promote uniformity, contented themselves with insisting upon the observance of only such of the existing requirements as they thought necessary for the decent conduct of Divine Worship. This minimum requirement was embodied in the Advertisements which, about a month later, were submitted to the Queen for her approval, that so they might be issued with the full force of Ecclesiastical Law; yet, anxious as Her Majesty was to stop irregularities, the requisite authorization was withheld; and when, after some delay, they were permitted to be published, their enforcement seems to have depended upon the general authority of the Ordinaries; nor is it at all clear that they afterwards obtained that Royal sanction which alone could have armed the Bishops with adequate powers to compel their observance. There does not appear to be any very precise information on the matter, but the little which is available seems to imply that the Queen (if not also some of her Council) was dissatisfied with so low a standard of conformity as the Bishops had set up; and also that there was an unwillingness to supersede the Rubric on Ornaments, and its corresponding clause in the Act of Uniformity, by legalizing what probably it was then hoped would be no more than a temporary step towards attaining a further compliance with the Ecclesiastical Law under more favorable circumstances.[26]

We are left then with only one final question, and that is why do we not see a greater return to the primitive apparatus of Catholic worship at the time of the Restoration, especially given the retention of the Ornaments Rubric in the 1662 BCP? Albright attributes this to three influences which dominated the post-Restoration period: 1) the rise of Latitudinarianism; 2) the infrequency of Holy Communion in the parish churches; 3) the overall dilapidated state of church facilities in the latter half of the seventeenth century. These factors “combined to create an atmosphere in which vestments were not a priority.”[27] This state of affairs continued into the eighteenth century with little attention being paid to the aesthetic beauty of public worship in England. The attire of ministers was often in a “sad state of repair” and “altar accessories and church furniture were described as inferior to what would be found in middle-class homes and often treated with less respect.”[28] Holy Communion typically took place only three or four times per year, and in the meanwhile “the altar table was often shoved in the corner and used for a storage shelf. Such situations existed due to the overall laxity in the Church.” It is little wonder then that under these conditions, “little notice was given to the condition of the church, or its vestments.”[29] It was into this drab and spiritually barren environment that the Oxford Movement was born on July 14, 1833.[30]

  1. T. W. Perry in The Annotated Book of Common Prayer, edited by John Henry Blunt (New York: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1907), 63.
  2. Gerald Bray (ed.), Documents of the English Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 1994), 334.
  3. Bray, Documents of the English Reformation, 329. For a different view cf. Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History (New York: Penguin, 2003), 280-81.
  4. Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Later Reformation in England, 1547-1603 (New York: PALGRAVE, 2001), 26. Elsewhere (see note 3) MacCulloch apparently excludes the Eucharistic vestments (chasuble, stole, amice, alb, girdle, maniple, tunic and dalmatic) though he does not explain further. Perhaps he simply means that the use of the Eucharistic vestments was initially left ambiguous, though they were not to be destroyed until further decisions were made about them. This would explain his later remark that “the bishops’ unhappy efforts to avoid conflict reduced the requirements of the Advertisements to the surplice for services”—meaning that Elizabeth’s hope of a return to 1549 standards was effectively dropped (The Later Reformation, 30 italics added).
  5. Andrea S. Albright, “The Religious and Political Reasons for the Changes in Anglican Vestments Between the Seventeenth and Nineteenth Centuries,” M.A. thesis, University of North Texas (1989), 34. It is easy to forget that Queen Elizabeth I was not excommunicated by Rome until 1570.
  6. MacCulloch, The Later Reformation, 25. Likewise Patrick Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement (London: Jonathan Cape, 1967), 32, who adds the additional benefit of “the even greater proximity of 1549 to the religion of the Augsburg Confession.”
  7. Albright, “Changes in Anglican Vestments,” 129.
  8. Perry, The Annotated Book of Common Prayer, 70-71.
  9. Perry, The Annotated Book of Common Prayer, 64, 72.
  10. Albright, “Changes in Anglican Vestments,” 71. Cf. Perry, The Annotated Book of Common Prayer, 71.
  11. Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, 34.
  12. P. T. Marsh, The Victorian Church in Decline: Archbishop Tait and the Church of England 1868-1882 (Philadelphia: Routledge, 2016), 224.
  13. The expression “be in use” always provided flexibility in the implementation of the rubric. Unlike the 1552 BCP, it allows for the use of all the old vestments, but without strictly requiring them in every circumstance.
  14. “Though the 19th cent. courts upheld that the Advertisements were covered by the Act of 1559, there are good grounds for questioning this opinion, one of the most cogent being the survival of the rubric in the BCP of 1662” (F. L. Cross (ed.), The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (Oxford: OUP, 1958), 20).
  15. John Wickham Legg, English Church Life from the Restoration to the Tractarian Movement: Considered in Some of Its Neglected or Forgotten Features (New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1914).
  16. Legg, English Church Life, 351.
  17. Legg, English Church Life, 351.
  18. Legg, English Church Life, 352.
  19. Legg, English Church Life, 356.
  20. Legg, English Church Life, 359.
  21. Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, 35.
  22. MacCulloch, The Later Reformation, 27.
  23. For the text see Bray, Documents of the English Reformation, 335-48.
  24. Drew Keane is simply mistaken when he claims, “If the proviso means ministers ought to wear the sacerdotal vestments of the second year of Edward VI, then the Injunctions flatly contradict the Act of Uniformity” (“The Strange Story of the Ornaments Rubric,” May 25, 2020, The North American Anglican). Rather, the Injunctions flatly contradict Keane’s May 25 article.
  25. Collinson, The Elizabethan Puritan Movement, 65.
  26. Perry, The Annotated Book of Common Prayer, 65-66.
  27. Albright, “Changes in Anglican Vestments,” 76. Though she notes that, “in the university churches and those close to court, beautiful vestments, especially copes and altarcloths, were being added to the Church treasuries.”
  28. Albright, “Changes in Anglican Vestments,” 107, 108.
  29. Albright, “Changes in Anglican Vestments,” 108.
  30. Cross (ed.), Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, 1002.


Paul Owen is Professor of Bible and Ministry at Montreat College. He earned his Ph.D. in New Testament studies at the University of Edinburgh, and is a Lay Reader at All Saints Anglican Church in Mills River, NC (a congregation in the Anglican Province of America).

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