Wednesday, August 04, 2010

The Anglican Tradition of Common Prayer—Part 6

By Robin G. Jordan

Does it matter how a church is decorated and furnished?

In the sixteenth century those seeking to reform the Church of England believed how a church was decorated and furnished did indeed matter. They went to great lengths to expunge all traces of the idolatry and superstition of the pre-Reformation Medieval Church from the English parish church. What we see in some contemporary North American Anglican churches is far removed from the typical English parish church of the later half of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Plain wooden crosses were not tolerated much less the crucifixes and Christus Rex crosses seen in these modern day churches. “A Homily against the Perils of Idolatry and the Superfluous Decking of Churches” from the Second Book of Homilies of 1563 strongly condemns not only images and paintings in churches but also wooden crosses. It also with equal vehemence condemns the superstitious practice of burning candles before images and hanging waxen legs, arm, or other afflicted body parts on the images. The proposed Book of Canons of 1571 direct the parish wardens to remove all wooden crosses and relics of superstition and the “sollars” in which they stood and to whitewash the walls of the church. They are to provide a “ioyned handsome table” to serve for the administration of Communion and “a clean carpet to cover it.” They are also to provide a “convenient pulpit, whence heaunly doctrine may be taught.”

The modern-day Anglo-Catholic parish church with its reredos carved with the images of the saints, its statue of the Blessed Virgin in its alcove near the entrance to the nave, its nine candlesticks on the reredos and the Lord’s Table, its Christus Rex cross suspended from the ceiling, its perpetual sanctuary light, its gilded tabernacle, its banks of flickering votive candles, and its holy water font bears no resemblance to the unadorned Elizabethan parish church. A number of ornaments seen in the modern-day Anglo-Catholic parish church come not from the pre-Reformation Medieval English Church but from the post-Reformation, Post-Tridentian European Church. For example, pre-Reformation Medieval English parish churches did not have tabernacles for the reservation of the sacrament. This is a Continental practice. They had aumbries or flying pyxes.

The English Reformers believed that the kind of ornaments that we see in modern-day Anglo-Catholic parish church foster idolatry and superstition. “A Homily against the Perils of Idolatry and the Superfluous Decking of Churches” articulates their position, which is also the position of the reformed Church of England.

English parish churches were quite plain in the reign of Elizabeth I and James I, as were the churches of the French and Swiss Reformed Churches. The whitewashed walls of Elizabethan churches were “decked with chosen sentences of holy Scripture, that by the readyng and warnyng thereof, the people may be moued to godlynes” [See the Proposed Book of Canons of 1571]. The Canons of 1604, adopted at the beginning of the reign of James I, direct “that the Ten Commandments be set upon the East end of every Church and Chapel where the people may best see, and read the same, and other chosen sentences written upon the walls of the said Churches and Chapels, in places convenient….” The early seventeenth century English poet-priest George Herbert in The Country Parson describes how the parish church of his day should be decked: “…there be fit, and proper texts of Scripture every where painted, and that all the painting be grave, and reverend, not with light colours, or foolish anticks.”

Plain churches and chapels were not unknown in pre-Reformation Medieval England. They were found in the stricter monastic communities.

As for furnishings a pulpit, a communion table, a font, a reading desk, and an alms chest, or “Poor-mans Box,” were mandatory. The font was to be of stone and to be set in the “ancient usual places,” that is near the West door. The communion table was to be placed where “the Minister may be more conveniently heard” and where “the communicants also more conveniently, and in more number, may communicate with the said Minister…” The communion table was to be “covered, in time of Divine Service, with a carpet of silk or other decent stuff, thought meet by the Ordinary of the place, if any question be made of it, and with a fair linen cloth at the time of the Ministration, as becometh that Table…” (See the Canons of 1604). In describing the special care that a Country Parson should give his church, George Herbert notes, “there be a fitting, and sightly Communion Cloth of fine linnen, with an handsome, and seemly Carpet of good and costly Stuffe, or Cloth, and all kept sweet and clean, in a strong and decent chest, with a Chalice, and Cover, and a Stoop, or Flagon; and a Bason for Almes and offerings….” The alms chest completes Herbert’s list of early seventeenth century church ornaments.

The “carpet” to which the Proposed Canons of 1571, the Canons of 1604, and George Herbert’s Country Parson refers is the Jacobean or Laudian frontal, which hangs down on all four sides of the communion table to the floor. It pre-dates the Jacobean and Laudian periods but it is often associated with these periods. It was usually red or crimson. The “fair linen” used in the Elizabethan period and early seventeenth century is a full white tablecloth that also hangs down on all four sides of the table.

We learn from George Herbert’s The Country Parson that at great festivals English parish churches might be “strawed, and stuck with boughs, and perfumed with incense.” For Christmas parish churches were often hung with evergreen boughs and sprigs of rosemary. Herbert makes no reference to the use of flowers. Burning incense was used to fumigate the church before the service and not during the service.

In the reign of Charles I the Catholic Reaction and Archbishop William Laud’s so-called church reform campaign, or “Thorough,” introduced a number of changes in English parish churches. Communion tables were placed against the East wall and fenced off from the congregation with rails. The rails were ostensibly to protect the table from the attention of stray dogs that wandered into the church. Churches were decorated with wooden crosses, stained glass windows, and gilded angels, and candles and altar crosses were placed on the communion table. The Catholic Reaction was not a popular movement. It was confined to Charles I, his courtiers, the nobility, the landed gentry, their clients and retainers, and those seeking royal patronage and preferment. A large part of the general populace was Puritan and disliked the so-called reforms. Charles’s queen was a Roman Catholic French princess who brought her chaplains with her and had her own chapel. The services in the chapel were often attended by those courting her favor and through her the favor of the king. The ornaments in the queen’s chapel were public knowledge. The ornaments that Archbishop Laud was imposing upon the English Church were too close to those of the queen’s chapel for the English people. They saw Laud as attempting to reintroduce papalism in the Church of England. Even the Roman Catholic Church saw Laud’s reforms in the same light and offered him a cardinal’s hat if he persuaded Charles I to return the English Church to the Roman fold. In the minds of both the English people and the Roman Catholic hierarchy how the church was ornamented did matter.

The ornaments seen in the modern-day Anglo-Catholic church have little to do with the seventeenth century Catholic Reaction. They can be traced to the nineteenth century Oxford Tractarian movement and the Ritualist movement that followed in its wake. The former introduced Roman Catholic doctrine into the Church of England and the latter Roman Catholic practice. Together they represent a Counter-Reformation movement in the English Church and its daughter churches. They sought to undo the English Reformation.

Ritualism exercised a tremendous influence upon the Protestant Episcopal Church in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. Even churches that did not embrace its theology adopted its practices. However, these practices are by no means theologically neutral. They give expression to a particular theology and any church adopting them will come under the influence of that theology.

In the twenty-first century we see Anglican clergy claiming to be evangelical wearing Catholic vestments, leading worship in churches decorated and furnished like Catholic churches and using service books that are Catholic and liberal in doctrine. The clothes on their backs, their surroundings, and the book in their hands belie their claim of being evangelical. They themselves fail to see the incongruity between what they themselves say and what these things say.

Church decorations and furnishings do matter. Anglican congregations and Anglican ministers who uphold Protestant and evangelical principles will want the settings in which they worship to echo and reinforce these principles, not contradict them. They will want a worship environment that expresses who they are and what they believe. They will need to rethink their use of candles, altar crosses, torches, and processional crosses. They need to ask these questions, “Do these things really say who we are? Do they say what we believe?” They may want to adopt ornaments more consistent with who they are and what they believe.

In the late twentieth century we saw a trend in seeker-sensitive or seeker-friendly churches to do away with everything that made the meeting place of a church look like a traditional church sanctuary. The theory behind this development was that the traditional church turned off the seeker. It evoked too many negative associations for him. This trend can also still be observed in a number of twenty-first century churches.

Another trend seen in the twentieth century and also still seen today is associated with the Ancient-Future Church or Worship Renewal Movement. The late Robert Webber was a leading figure in this movement. Webber encouraged the revival of practices of the early Church in the worship of contemporary churches, seeing their use as a way of enriching the worship of these churches. Webber, however, was not as attentive as he should have been to the differences between the theology behind these practices, the teaching of the Bible and the doctrine of the churches in which he was promoting their revival. The result was churches adopting practices that were at odds with what they believed. This trend has had its effects upon how churches are decorated and furnished.

A third trend was first seen in the so-called emerging churches in the early twenty-first century. These churches have discovered that people with a post-Christian, post-modern mindset are attracted to what Dan Kimball in The Emerging Church: Vintage Christianity for New Generations describes as “vintage worship.” A vintage worship experience is organic, multi-sensory, interactive and participatory, and community-oriented. The scriptural theme woven throughout the service is the focal point of the worship gathering. The teaching is spread throughout the whole gathering and not limited to the preaching portion of the gathering. The visual format of scriptural teaching is as important as the spoken word. There are multiple ways to participate in the message as a community and multiple opportunities for the participants to experience God. This approach to worship involves the use of the arts, candles, and even incense. This trend has had its effects upon the arrangement of churches and their decoration and furnishing. Among its developments are the use of flexible worship spaces permitting freedom of movement during worship gatherings, the placement of the band behind the congregation, the elimination of the platform and pulpit, and the setting-up of prayer stations around the periphery of the worship area.

All three trends have implications for Anglican congregations and Anglican ministers who uphold Protestant and evangelical principles. On one hand, they will want to create worship environments that reflect their identity and their beliefs. On the other hand, they will also want to consider their ministry focus groups in the creation of these environments. For example, if post-Christians, post-moderns are one of their ministry focus groups, they may want to add visual elements to such environments that are consonant with biblical teaching.

How a church is decorated and furnished often reveals how a particular ecclesiastical tradition or a particular congregation and its minister sees and understands the Church. The chancel of a church may be elaborately decorated and furnished, and filled with flowers every Sunday, while the body of the church may be bare and unadorned. Except for Christmas, it may never be decked with anything. The pulpit may be raised high above the congregation so that the minister always speaks down to the people. The communion table may be hidden from the view of the congregation by the choir stalls and an ornate carved wooden rood screen. Or the congregation may be seated on three sides of a low thrust platform upon which stand a simple wooden ambo and a simple wooden communion table. Baskets of flowers may be scattered around the entire worship space.

How a church is decorated and furnished does matter. The decoration and furnishing of a church convey a message as strong as any message that may be preached in that church. Such decoration and furnishing should never be left to chance. It should be carefully thought out, consistent with the identity and beliefs of the congregation that gathers in the church on Sunday and other occasions, and sensitive within reason to the ministry focus groups that it is seeking to reach with the gospel of Christ.


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Fr. Chris Larimer said...

I think one of the principle dangers of current evangelicalism is docetism and gnosticism - not in how the faith is spoken of but rather how it is lived and perceived. The multi-sensory approach of catholic worship (yes - the kind practiced before the Reformation in England and even before the Norman conquest) is an appropriate antidote both to that error in protestantism (writ large) and a retooling of the secular mind to embrace biblical symbology.

Robin G. Jordan said...

For readers unfamiliar with the terms Docetism and Gnosticism.

Docetism--An opinion especially associated with the Gnostics that Jesus had no human body and only appeared to have died on the cross.

Gnosticism--The doctrines of certain pre-Christian pagan, Jewish, and early Christian sects that valued the revealed knowledge of God and of the origin and end of the human race as a means to attain redemption for the spiritual element in humans and that distinguished the Demiurge from the unknowable Divine Being.

The only Docetists that I have encountered were Roman Catholics whose perceptions of Jesus was that he walked two inches off the ground and was surrounded by a nimbus. All the evangelicals that I know believed that Jesus was the Son of God incarnate in human flesh and he actually suffered and died on the Christ.

The only Gnostics that I have encountered were New Agers. All the evangelicals that I know believe that the Scriptures are perspicuous and self-interpreting and contain no hidden or secret meaning.

Catholic worship may be multisensory but so is Wiccan ceremonial and ritual. Both suffer from the same flaw. They convey false teaching.

Reformation said...


1. Much enjoying and using the Psalter-set of Anglican chants from St. Paul's, London. Pricey perhaps, for some, but worth the investment by way of purchase and use.

2. Calvin wanted "plainsong" for the Psalter to give pre-eminence to the "Word." There was an edition with 4-part harmonies, I believe, that was used for family use and small gatherings besides the Sabbath service.

3. Cranmer also wanted one-note-per-syllable for congregational Psalm-singing, rather than Renaissance polyphony, many notes per word (it has its place, in the Cathedral tradition, e.g. the Anthem).

4. This CD-set marvellously has one note-per-syllable using the 1662 BCP. Also, an ever-present undergirding from the organ. But the "Word," like the book of Acts, yeah like Psalm 119, is central. Also, the soprano, alto, tenor and bass sing the melody in unison.

5. A marvellous tool for private use. God-willing, will use till death for Mattins and Evensong.

6. As to Docetism, Gnosticism, and multi-sensory concerns, the Prayer Book, itself, as well as the English Reformers were "Word-centred." It "was what it was."

Joe Mahler said...


You said, "The multi-sensory approach of catholic worship (yes - the kind practiced before the Reformation in England and even before the Norman conquest) is an appropriate antidote both to that error in protestantism (writ large) and a retooling of the secular mind to embrace biblical symbology." I wonder if you think that would have been a good argument for the Aaron and the Israelites to use against the Moses and God. Multi-sensory, such as strange incense and other outright acts of defiance against God's Word. Let's build statues (cdrucifixes) and bow before them are they are carried down the aisle. How about crucifixes that open their eyes and wave their arms? We are instructed that the redeemed believer is delivered from the slavery of sin to do righteousness. The Law is the teacher of righteousness. But, so what, let's engage all our senses in following our own traditions, after all, it engages all our senses.

Reformation said...

"It was then, in the Reformation, what it isn't now" with the post-TEC, post-traumatic leadership.

"It was, in the Reformation, what it won't be," without new leadership. Ackerman? Iker? (insert laughter)

"It is what it is."

Welcome to Babylon.

Reformation said...

To all, hate to sound pessimistic.

But it "is what it is," a maelstrom of conflict, tension, contradiction, and--at places--laughable folly (Rick Warren and Metropolitan Jonah at the opening ceremonies for ACNA, Bedford, the latter chiding the Reformation...a real howler).

"It will be what it is."

Robin G. Jordan said...

Plainsong is much better suited for congregations than Anglican chant, which is sung best by a choir. With plainsong the congregation must learn to sing antiphonally,that is from side to side. Plainsong has been decribed as recitation to music. The tones are not difficult.

Actually singing one note to a syllable is more difficult than sing two or more notes to a syllable. The problem with polyphony was it was sung in such a way as to prevent the recognition of the words of the hymn or Psalm.