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Natalie Mears and Alec Ryrie (eds.), Worship and the Parish Church in Early Modern Britain, (Ashgate, 2013)

Natalie Mears and Alec Ryrie (eds.), Worship and the Parish Church in Early Modern Britain (Farnham: Ashgate, 2013). ISBN: 978-1-4094-2604-2, 272 pp. Hbk. £63.00.

Reviewed by Naya Tsentourou

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[1] Mears and Ryrie’s introduction to the collection ends by placing the reader firmly within the location and experience that the volume seeks to reconstruct: ‘the ordinary parish church on a Sunday morning’ (p. 10). The deceptive simplicity of this premise and the contributors’ varied and stimulating responses, spanning the period from the start of the Elizabethan era up to the upheavals of the 1640s and 1650s, mark the volume as a significant contribution to the field of early modern religion. The collection creatively combines recent criticism on the Book of Common Prayer, its reception and its cultural impact, with critical work on popular religion during the English Reformation to illuminate aspects of parish worship that foster a dichotomy between prescription and practice. As the editors argue, ‘we cannot understand official prescriptions about worship (public or private) without investigating to what extent, and why, they were followed (or resisted). Equally, the lived experience cannot be fully understood without addressing what was legally required or customarily expected’ (p. 5). Driven by such concerns, the collection sheds new light on ways we can read sixteenth- and seventeenth-century institutionalised worship not as a fixed arena against which individuals negotiated their private devotions but as a flexible, unstable, and often ambiguous ground of devotional experience.

[2] The ten chapters examine the parameters of the ‘Sunday morning’ occasion from a variety of perspectives such as the theology and application of liturgical texts in services; the challenges institutional directions posed to ministers; the contentions inherent in baptism, burial, and fasting; lay and clerical attitudes to music and bell-ringing; posture and gestures in worship; and the interior architecture of parish churches. The range of sources and material examined is one of the strengths of the collection and it allows for a lively discussion of the diverse and contradictory nature of institutionalised public devotion, while foregrounding the shifting cultural contexts that shaped parishioners’ experience.

[3] The first chapter, by Hannah Cleugh, is concerned with the discrepancy between the often exclusionary theological principles set by the Articles of Religion, such as the doctrine of predestination, and the theological justification of the Prayer Book liturgies, which aimed at establishing an inclusive communal identity. Cleugh convincingly questions the notion of orthodoxy in baptism and burial services and she sets the tone for the collection’s major concern with unresolved tensions between belief and practice. Natalie Mears’ chapter is one of the highlights of the collection. It offers an engaging analysis of the cultural and political significance of commissioning prayers for special occasions in England, Wales, and Ireland during the period 1533-1642, as well as a valuable extensive table of special worship appended at the end of the chapter (pp. 58-72). Mears’ argument, that ‘special worship was a form of state-sponsored nonconformity’ (p. 55), is intriguing and far-reaching as it undermines traditional interpretations of conformity and non-conformity in worship.

[4] The picture of an unstable religious settlement in the Elizabethan period is complicated by Bryan D. Spinks, who charts the transition from using primers in private devotion to using a new genre of publications. Investigating private prayer collections in the 1570s which gradually replaced Elizabethan primers, he argues that the process of ‘devotional weaning’, or else the gradual change from Catholic to Protestant worship, was accompanied by ‘the weaning from a need for private engagement with the public offices of the Church […] to the need for private devotional prayers for the family and the individual’ (p. 82). Alec Ryrie’s chapter is concerned with fasting as a site of tension in the period. Examining the meaning and moral attributes of fasting in godly living, Ryrie emphasizes the gap between the Protestant demands on abstinence and the failure of subjects to uphold such demands in private. Ryrie’s most intriguing claim comes towards the end of his chapter where he argues that the reason public fast days were in fact preserved in parts of England and Scotland could be the mutual support between Lent and the fishing industry. That public fasts were retained as a matter of both religious and civic policy invites new considerations on the social contexts of pious practices.

[5] The next three chapters share a concern with music and the sounds of public worship, exploring the ways in which these can be situated in liturgical, philosophical, and cultural contexts. Peter McCullough focuses on the fine, yet short-lived, balance between music and preaching that Lancelot Andrewes achieved in his sermons. His chapter serves as an important correction to the established view that preaching and music collided in public worship in the Jacobean period. Surveying Andrewes’ sermons, McCullough persuasively argues that ‘Andrewes was promulgating a combination – rather than opposition – of sermon and song’ (pp. 116-7), and he shows how his sermons were often conceived with and demonstrated an acute sensitivity to music and musical language. Jonathan Willis’s chapter takes a broader and perhaps more well-trodden approach to discussing music and Protestantism, focusing on the continuous appeal of music for English Calvinists and discussing how sixteenth-century English and continental reformers tried to negotiate the place of music in public worship. As Willis argues, reformers drew on classical discourses of music to establish its spiritual qualities for healing and pacification, and to accommodate the potentially corrupting effect of music with its divine nature.

[6] Christopher Marsh’s chapter on the intersections of religious and recreational bell-ringing in early modern England offers a lively and thoroughly entertaining account of ‘lay-clerical relations and the ways in which these were mediated through bells and, more broadly, through the church buildings’ (p. 162). Marsh presents insightful examples of the power relations negotiated in the parish’s belfry, and he paints a vivid picture of the predominantly masculine and disorderly culture of recreational ringing that caused anxiety to the ecclesiastical authorities. Despite its seeming connotations of resistance to worship and secular character, Marsh argues that ‘the belfry was a meeting point of pleasure and praise, a place in which worldly joy was made godly’ (p. 171), epitomising this largely neglected practice and its performative location as an original and crucial cultural space for the study of popular religion.

[7] Popular religion is the subject of John Craig’s chapter which revisits and expands on his previous study on the sounds of the English parish church. What is captivating about Craig’s work in general is the close attention paid to what he calls ‘the mechanics of prayer’ (p. 178), and in this chapter the mechanics consist in the use of voices, eyes, and hats in public prayer. Voice and its alternatives, sighs and groans, are examined as part of the debate on set versus extempore prayers, and the Protestant practice of praying with one’s eyes shut is shown to reveal the subject’s need for marking a space for private devotion in public, a privacy that often implied rejection of corporate worship. The final part of the chapter, on male headgear, is an excellent discussion on the conflict between hats as markers of social significance and the ecclesiastical injunctions for uncovering heads during service. While critical work on clothes in church in the period tends to focus on the controversy over clerical garments, Craig’s analysis opens up new considerations for the intersections between fashion and religion.

[8] The last two chapters are concerned with the expectations of formal public worship in the 1630s and 1640s and their negotiation, or resistance, by individuals. Trevor Cooper’s chapter focuses on the Ferrar family and their setting and habits of worship at Little Gidding. Cooper gives a detailed introduction of the devotional customs of the Ferrars and, in particular, of the head of the household Nicholas Ferrar. He examines in considerable detail the church at Little Gidding, its architecture and interior design. Details such as the medieval eagle lectern, the absence of screens, and the portable organ, illustrate how ‘the Ferrars were constructing a church interior to reflect their life of corporate prayer’ (p. 210). As Cooper’s study on the largely inoffensive material conditions at Little Gidding’s church shows, a family’s conformist public worship might have differed significantly from their private habits. The final chapter by Judith Maltby is concerned with the burden the Directory for the Public Worship of God placed on ministers after its authorization by the Parliament in 1645. The chapter summarizes significant work Maltby has published in the past and which has enlightened our understanding regarding the anxiety the Directory caused for ministers who now had to devote much time and spiritual concentration on praying extempore. Maltby offers a useful and concise comparison between the Prefaces of the two liturgical texts, the Book of Common Prayer and the Directory, which consolidates her argument that the Directory was ‘an exclusively clerical text’ (p. 229) and its implementation dramatically reduced lay participation in the church service.

[9] Overall, the collection is successful in its aim to draw attention to the conflicts and mismatches between religious practice and institutional instruction that characterized ‘an ordinary parish church on a Sunday morning’ (p. 10). In this respect, it is a valuable addition to studies of popular religion and public worship, and of particular interest to theologians, cultural historians, and historians of early modern religion. Yet, the scope is predominantly historical and not as interdisciplinary as the editors seem to suggest. It is worth noting here that the collection is the sister volume to Private and Domestic Devotion in Early Modern Britain (Ashgate, 2012), edited by Jessica Martin and Alec Ryrie. The difference in scope of the two volumes seems to have invited a difference in the choice of contributors: with the exception of one, the contributors here are from the disciplines of History and Theology as opposed to many literary scholars included in the first volume. While Mears and Ryrie’s study opens up fruitful ground for discussion, the collection is also a reminder that there is still room across the academic disciplines for different methodologies to be employed towards reconstructing the public experience of early modern parishioners.

Lancaster University, April 2014