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The Homilies and This Edition

In the Introduction to the first newly reset edition of the Homilies since the nineteenth century Ian Robinson says that it would not be proper for the editor of one of the formularies of the Church of England to express his opinions of the book. He nevertheless has opinions and anyone who wants them can find them in this extended version.


The Homilies

During the first century of her separation from Rome, three English books were of supreme importance to the Church of England. The first, in a sense embracing the other two, was the English Bible, which from 1539, still in the reign of Henry VIII, was given royal sanction, so that versions close to Tyndale’s could be freely read (if only chained in churches) throughout the land. The second, the Book of Common Prayer, had to wait for the death of King Henry, who was far too reactionary a theologian to have countenanced it. These two books, in the form of the 1611 Bible, in direct descent from Tyndale, and the 1662 revision of the Prayer Book (with the Articles of Religion and the Ordinal usually bound in the one volume), are still in daily use.

The third member of the triad, the Homilies, appeared in 1547, and went through two major expansions as well as many minor revisions in numerous editions, between then and 1623, after which it was many times reprinted.

Archbishop Thomas Cranmer had much to do with all three books. The need for the Homilies must have been urgently felt by Cranmer’s generation, not excluding his anti-Reformation episcopal colleagues. The Prayer Book gave to the whole people (for Church attendance was at least in theory compulsory) in their own language, the liturgy of the Church, and forms of service to cover the major events of life, from baptism, by way of marriage, to burial. But a reliable and standard exposition of the Christian way, to be heard by all the people, was thought so urgently necessary that it preceded the first Prayer Book by two years.

The Homilies now republished differ from both earlier and later collections in their effort at complete coverage of essential Christian doctrine and life, and in their authority. In the near-century before the Civil War they were “appointed to be read in churches”. By Royal Injunction of August 1547 one of the Homilies was to be read every Sunday. Their authority is stated in Article XXXV as “a godly and wholesome doctrine, and necessary for these times”. They are therefore “to be read in Churches by the Ministers, diligently and distinctly, that they may be understanded of the people”. The 1801 edition of The Thirty-Nine Articles of the Episcopal Church of the United States of America reaffirmed the Article “so far as it declares the Books of Homilies to be an explication of Christian doctrine and instructive to piety and morals”, though it discontinued the instruction that they be read in churches, and “all references to the constitution and laws of England are considered as inapplicable.” In modern times it is unusual to hear one of the Homilies read in place of a sermon, but wherever the Anglican Way has gone and the Articles have been received as a Formulary in the new Province, the two Book of Homilies have naturally been included. So, for example, they are now part of the Standards of Faith of Anglican Churches in West and East Africa, from Nigeria to Uganda.

A move had been made in 1542, during the lifetime of King Henry VIII, to issue an authorised volume of homilies, but nothing came of it, perhaps because of the King’s rooted hostility to the doctrines of the Reformation. Under the new king Edward VI, a great need was still felt for the Christian way to be expounded to the people. The parish priests could not always be relied upon to do so, and those who were capable were not all in line with the reformed doctrines.

Not all parish priests in the reigns of the protestant Tudors were licensed to preach. Usually a university degree, which in those days meant Oxford or Cambridge, was required. Where original preaching was not possible, the Homilies were to be used, according to the rubric still found in the Communion service of the Book of Common Prayer: Then shall follow the Sermon, or one of the Homilies already set forth, or hereafter to be set forth, by authority. The likelihood must be that Shakespeare heard a part of one the homilies much more often than he heard a sermon.

The first Book of Homilies was published only six months after the death of Henry VIII, in the summer of 1547, which must mean that plans if not texts had already been made before Henry’s death. No documentary evidence is known to survive of the details of compilation and editing, but it is probable that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer was the editor, as well as himself the author of three of the most theological Homilies (of Salvation, Faith and Good Works). The Homily on Charity is known to be by Bishop Bonner, one of the principal ecclesiastical opponents of Cranmer. The aim of the first Book of Homilies was surely to present, as far as practicable, agreed Christian doctrine, and if an author could be included from the anti-Reformation camp, it was thereby demonstrated that about something as important as the understanding of Christian love there was no difference between the evangelicals, as they were known, and their conservative opponents. Bishop Gardiner of Winchester, however, later a great thorn in the flesh to Cranmer, declined to contribute. In the other direction, Bishop Bonner was able to include the Sermon on the Misery of All Mankind (by John Harpsfield) in a collection set forth in 1555, during the time under Queen Mary I when our Homilies were proscribed.

The Homily against Adultery is proved to be the work of Thomas Becon, a chaplain of Cranmer’s, by its inclusion in his collected Works. I think it is rather more than a guess that Cranmer edited it as well as all the other contributions, for the style of this Homily is not the same as Becon’s elsewhere, and throughout the first collection a standard of effective expression is maintained which is of great importance in the history of English prose. The 1547 Homilies hardly ever lapse into the monstrous-length sentences which Bonner amongst others habitually wrote.

During the Roman reaction under Mary I all copies of the Homilies were ordered to be destroyed, but the survival of so many shows that the destruction was far from complete. The second Book, said to have been supervised by John Jewel, Bishop of Salisbury, first appeared in 1562, fulfilling a promise made at the end of the first Book to treat subjects it did not cover. The two volumes went on being printed separately for many years. In 1570, the year after the Northern Rising, the Homily against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion appeared separately and in 1571 was added to the second Book. From 1582, so as to facilitate binding in one volume, the two Books were sometimes printed uniformly, and in 1623, the most recent edition to be issued on authority, they were at last published as one volume.

The urgency behind the Homilies is not hard to understand. It is certainly untrue that there was no preaching in the Middle Ages, but equally, a new emphasis on preaching came in with the Reformation. The Bible is the Word of God, but it is necessary to expound the Bible, to explain how it can save. The Book of Common Prayer is itself a kind of résumé of the Bible and in fact includes it, except for some of the Apocrypha, by way of the lections. The Homilies make a fitting complement to the Book of Common Prayer in their expounding of Biblical doctrine, and in their range. They have a solid theological core, and explain salvation through grace by faith in language comprehensible to the ordinary worshipper but without oversimplification; there is subtlety as well as clarity in the reconciliation of Paul and James. And they inherit from the Middle Ages a determination to impart moral doctrine, moral in the widest sense of how to walk in the Christian way; and they go into practical detail.

The Homilies are “evangelical” in their theology but very characteristic of the Church of England of the sixteenth century in a catholic range of reference. The Bible is of course paramount, but for the English divines of the sixteenth century that included what we now call the Apocrypha. I have no statistics, but my impression (readers can check from marginal references) is that Ecclesiasticus is as frequently cited as Ecclesiastes, and the writers range the Apocrypha as freely as the Old Testament. They have another of Cranmer’s great marks, the very frequent appeal to the Fathers. St John Chrysostom is not as frequently cited as St John the Apostle, but is an authority often quoted. From pagan learning Plato is cited, and from the Schoolmen even at one point Duns Scotus, though not as having an authority equal to that of the Scriptures.

The Homilies ought to be generally available and read at least by anybody interested either in the Church of England or in English prose. They have been of profound historical importance, and a great help towards understanding the English mind of the sixteenth century, but that should not be taken to mean that they are of interest only as the “background” of history. A friend thought even this hope to be understated: “I think rather that they will be read with gratitude by anyone puzzled by the whole business—of the Christian religion, religion, . . . . What is Heaven? What is going there?” There should certainly be a variety of readers not all of whom will agree with my opinions of the Homilies. I nevertheless naturally have opinions, and offer them to anybody who thinks it worthwhile to listen.

That the theological and moral core of the Homilies is not out of date is a testimony to how much of what is eternal in the Christian way they manage to incorporate. It is still surprising how often the Homilies speak directly to a phase of civilisation very unlike their own. It might have been expected that adultery appeared less of a threat at a time of universal acceptance of Christianity, but the Homily against Adultery needs no change to be applied to the twenty-first century. (Perhaps the Homilist had court manners in mind; if so the message has become more commonly applicable.) The Homily of the State of Matrimony is offensive to modern ideas, but it is certainly Biblical in its doctrine as well as a very practical exposition of marital love and tolerance, by way of a candour and truth to life—just assuming that marriage/human relations generally is/are like this, and and getting straight to how we should deal with it—that any reader can recognise and enjoy. I would not have it changed!

The Homilies are nevertheless occasionally, and in ways characteristic of their age, now unusable. I do not mean the ones addressed to customs no longer current, like the charming Homily for Rogation Week. It is no longer the custom to beat the bounds of the parish; but the sound practical advice about charity in boundary disputes is not outdated. Nor am I much bothered by the quite uncommon occasions when Homily doctrine has been overtaken by natural science. It is unusual for science to have anything worth considering to say to religion, but the idea of Providence immediately controlling natural disasters, with the intention of punishing or admonishing us, can hardly still be accepted. If we know the natural causes of earthquakes we shall not think of them as what amount to special providences. The Prayer Book Visitation of the Sick takes illness to be “fatherly correction” personally administered by God. This is not the same as asserting that whatever befalls should remind us of the need not (in a great Homilies phrase) to fall from God. It is noticeable that on these subjects, both the Prayer Book and the Homilies are not as directly Bible-based as is their custom and do not sufficiently attend to “those eighteen, upon whom the tower in Siloam fell, and slew them, think ye that there were sinners above all men that dwelt in Jerusalem?” The emphasis there, of course, is not that disaster is undeserved but “Except ye repent ye shall all likewise perish.” This is a minor blemish.

In two more important matters the Homilies are badly damaged by failure of judgement. Length is a bad sign: the two longest are the two worst. The Homily of Obedience in the first Book is a clear and unchallengeable statement of the New Testament doctrine about our duties to the civil powers, and does all that is necessary. There was no need to recur to the subject, and the original second Book does not. But then came the last Homily, Against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion, grossly misjudged in the importance it gives to the matter as well as to the permanence of the occasion—a minor rebellion which as the Homilist reminds us caused very little loss of life. The idea that rebellion is the worst sin because it encourages all others is surely unorthodox. Many sins encourage others (“the fire of lechery / That is annexed unto gluttony” and so on) without being taken to include them. Then the Homilist actually argues that rebellion is hardly ever successful, despite the Queen’s well-established interest in the history of the rebellion of Bolingbroke against Richard II. If this is an exception it was one that figured large in the Elizabethan consciousness. The whole cumbrous Homily is evidence of unnecessary panic. Passive obedience is all very well, but I sympathise with the congregation that may have heard this Homily on six successive Sundays. I wonder whether anyone was disobedient enough to walk out or whether the more common antidote was sleep. When this Homily was read after 1660 I doubt whether the situation was much improved, for their worst enemies could hardly impute to the Cromwellians the vices the Homily attributes to all rebels.

More seriously, there is the attitude to the Church of Rome. It might have been expected that, given the political situation in the 1540s, hostility to the Pope would have been very prominent in the first Book, but in fact it comes to the fore much more insistently in the second, and leads to loss of focus. It is not quite the sin against the Holy Ghost to make the Whit Sunday Homily an occasion for attacking Rome, but at best it is a badly missed opportunity to preach about Him. The Homily against Idolatry—by far the longest in the whole book, and with parts much longer than normal—is off target for the same reason. I do not believe that simple idolatry, the worshipping of images, was much of a problem then or now, but the Homilist goes on about it intemperately and at inordinate length, because he associates idolatry with prayer to the saints, and that brings in the irresistible lure to attack Rome. It would have been quite right to point out that prayer to the saints is an abuse and that there is no Biblical foundation for prayer through the saints, so that at best it could never be required as an article of faith. But the much more useful line of the Homily should have been the well-established one of taking idolatry to be the love of anything that supplants God in the heart: the worship of money, for instance, far more of a danger then and now than statues.

In my lifetime one of the few genuine advances in Christianity has been the attitude to one another of the Christian denominations. We have our serious differences but they no longer, for the most part, make us hate one another, thank God! The main thing wrong with the anti-Papal element of the second Book of Homilies is the worst thing that could be wrong with any Christian document: absence of charity. There is nothing like the beautiful Prayer Book Good Friday collect (now disapproved of in some quarters) for God to have mercy on all Jews, Turks, Infidels and Heretics and fetch them home to be made one fold under one shepherd, Jesus Christ our Lord.

Having said which: what other book have we that tells us so clearly and strongly what it is to follow the Christian way? If we had anything like the vigour of the fathers of the sixteenth century a revised edition of the Homilies would be issued on authority. Against Wilful Disobedience and Rebellion would be dropped and Against Idolatry much shortened and rewritten, but I think the whole first Book should still be current, not much edited. We are unlikely to improve it. A new edition should have some new Homilies. There should be one for instance on the stewardship of wealth, probably to include our duty not to abuse the earth, and perhaps a separate one Against Gambling; another on civic duty in a democratic age, and another on education and faith. It might be thought advisable to have one or two on modern heresies like materialism and scientism. It is a mark of the feebleness of the contemporary Church of England that any such proposal would be fantastic: there would be no agreement about doctrine and no new text would speak with authority. Failing that, we should gratefully use what we have. It is imaginable that even today there are occasions when it would be more edifying than the sermon to hear a reading of one of the Homilies.

The possibility is a tribute to the prose of the Homilies. Few sixteenth-century prose works could be read aloud without intolerable floundering, the main exceptions being the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer. The first Book of Homilies is of great historical importance as anticipating the Prayer Book in its achievement of a genuinely modern prose: that is, a prose not confined to short sentences linked by conjunctions but genuinely syntactic, and at the same time easily fluent and forceful. (I treat this subject in my book Cranmer’s Sentences.) I have recorded my opinion that Cranmer was the guiding light (and with him, I think, Ridley) but it is a test of genuine prose to be the possession of more than a few individuals of genius, a test which the first Book passes by its known multiplicity of authors—whatever rewriting Cranmer did.

The Homilies of the second Book are generally inferior in style. They have many strong, memorable phrases and some well-conducted arguments, but they do tend to lapse into the ponderous, monstrously long sentences the Latin-dominated learned then thought required of them. Very occasionally they get lost altogether: I have annotated a few examples. The later Homilies are nevertheless all readable-aloud, which means in itself that the inferiority is strictly in comparison with the first Book. The 1547 collection provides a standard of excellence for English prose in general; which is not just a remark about imitable technique. The Homilists have an urgency to get the Word spoken, now, in English. This explains—is—the generally clear language.


This Edition

The text reprinted here is revised from that of John Griffiths, Oxford, 1859. Though it is a long time since Griffiths did his work, his excellent edition is still unlikely to be superseded. He established his text with such immense care that in the present edition only two typographical errors have been corrected. The present edition follows Griffiths in using modern spelling but reproducing proper names in their sixteenth-century forms. Griffiths also italicised Bible quotations which, as an aid to seeing how strongly Bible-based the Homilies are, I have also retained. This is wholly editorial. Italics were not used in the modern way in the original editions, and there are a few moments when a modern text cries out for emphasis, but I judged that it was worth foregoing this resource.

Griffiths’s edition is based for the first Book on the first Elizabethan edition, of 1559, the first edition of the second Book, and the second edition (the first to be divided into six parts) of the Homily against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion. But as Griffiths knew well, there is no such thing as one best authentic text of the Homilies. In the sixteenth century spelling was the preserve of the individual compositor and there could be a great number of different old-spelling texts. At first there were three publishers (the same three who published the first Prayer Book of 1549, Grafton and Whitchurch in London and Oswen in Worcester) and they had their different practices, as well as themselves varying from one edition to the next and even between copies of the same edition. It is quite possible that no two sixteenth-century copies of the Homilies are identical. Editions frequently differed in paragraphing and punctuation, as was normal in the sixteenth century. There was never any tendency to treat the text as unalterable, as the 1611 Bible has been since the eighteenth century, and any new edition between 1547 and 1623 would as a matter of course make minor alterations. In succeeding editions archaisms were replaced as they were noticed.

The 1547 collection was revised in 1549, to accompany the first Prayer Book, mainly by the division of homilies so as to make them of more acceptable length. One of the influential Martin Bucer’s last acts was to oppose this, but the work was done with stylistic smoothness, so that the paragraphs introducing the newly divided sections do so on the whole without disrupting the flow of thought—though on one occasion half a quotation would be heard one Sunday and the rest the next.

When in 1559 the first Book was reissued under Queen Elizabeth I the text was considerably altered, with the aim of making it more easily comprehensible to the ordinary congregation; and it is this edited text that Griffiths prints. Anglo-Saxonate words were substituted for Latinisms, or added in parentheses. In my opinion these alterations were often ill-judged and have not stood the test of time. In the twenty-first century we do not need to be told that the word convert means turn; transformed need not be changed to changed and we probably find the 1559 cracking harder to understand than the 1547 ostentation. The additions also sometimes clumsily damage the rhythm of this prose which, let us remember, was designed like that of the Prayer Book to be read aloud. I have frequently reinstated the 1547 text at these points. I have, however, allowed the Elizabethan substitution of Queen for the Edwardian King to stand at places where the English monarch is referred to.

The second collection was never revised so drastically, but time and again, especially in the 1623 edition, modern words were substituted for what had become archaic. If there is no compelling reason to use the older text I have frequently followed 1623 so as to make the text more reader-friendly four centuries later. I have not, however, taken the process of modernisation any further. There is room for the continuing replacement of archaic words, but the present edition does not attempt it.

So the present text of the first Book is closer to the Edwardian editions than Griffiths’s in often rejecting the later glosses, but throughout closer to 1623 in accepting replacements for archaisms.

The other principal departure from Griffiths’s excellent text is in the punctuation. Griffiths uses modern punctuation (that is, of the age of Dickens) as well as modern spelling. By our standards Victorian punctuation can be fussy, using commas we would do without. Griffiths’s punctuation, however, is by the standards of his own age very sparse, and at a number of places it seems to me the text demands additional punctuation by any modern standard. Griffiths’s punctuation is nevertheless thoroughly modern in being syntactic. The first function of modern punctuation is to show relations within and between well-formed sentences, even where these relations are not expressed aloud by a pause or phrase-end. The examples that come to mind are the use of commas after the that of reported speech or after a conjunction, followed by a subordinate clause, which do not represent any pause in ordinary reading aloud. I have deleted most of these. The present edition nevertheless uses very many more commas than Griffiths, as do all the original editions—though not always in the same places as one another, for there was no more a standard Tudor punctuation than a standard spelling. In the sixteenth century, punctuation was still as much rhetorical as syntactic. Students of Shakespeare get used to commas or major punctuation where any punctuation would now be incorrect. The Homilies, especially the first collection, come at a critical moment for the emergence of modern prose, and though they are certainly written (unlike much medieval prose) in modern complex sentences, the writers equally certainly had the speaking voice consciously in mind; the editors and compositors punctuated accordingly. In texts designed for reading aloud the rhetorical commas are, I think, an aid we should use, and so I have retained many—not following any one edition precisely, but in the spirit of all the editions. An example of authentic original punctuation will be found in the first paragraph of page 86, for which there is only one edition as an authority. Particularly in the second Book, which has so many more very complex and long sentences than the first, I hope the hints given by old-style punctuation will be a help—once one gets used to it. For instance it is incorrect now to put a comma between subject and verb or verb and direct object, but such commas are found countless times in sixteenth-century texts, and in the present edition. Read aloud, phrase as indicated by the punctuation, and the modern reader will find the Homilies much easier to follow than in the presto silent reading we now habitually practise. Connoisseurs may nevertheless notice that the punctuation of the second Book is in this edition rather sparser than of the first; which represents my opinion that in the fifteen years between the two collections English prose had moved (not always to its advantage) in the direction of the long, complex, rather Latinate sentences habitually written by the Elizabethan learned.

Griffiths gives a very full textual apparatus, recording all significant variants in all the editions, and extensively quoting sources in original languages. This is all on the page, not tucked away at the back, and the 1859 edition is a triumph of Victorian typography as well as Victorian scholarship, using different systems of reference for margin, footnote textual notes and footnote explanatory notes. Griffiths’s edition is indispensable for scholarly use, but not the ideal one for the general reader or for reading aloud. The original editions gave marginal references to authorities quoted—principally the Scriptures but also numbers of the Fathers and lesser authorities. The present edition discards Griffiths’s variant readings and scholarly apparatus but retains these original marginal notes. Griffiths identified a large number of Bible quotations and references not noted in the original editions, and since his use of italics for Bible quotations looks strange without a marginal reference most of Griffiths’s additional references have been retained, though his references to passing glances not involving direct quotation have not. He was monumentally thorough. I may have supplied as many as three Biblical references he overlooked, but perhaps fewer. Griffiths also expanded the references of the original editions by including verse as well as chapter numbers, and I have followed him here, though a more modern system of referencing has been used. The abbreviated name of the Bible book is followed by chapter and then after a colon verse, all in arabic numerals. The original references to the Psalms are to their medieval numbering. Griffiths reports both these and modern Protestant numbering; in this edition the latter has been used. Samuel, Kings and Chronicles in the margins replace the Vulgate names and numbers, so there is occasionally what looks like a clash between text and margin. (A short list of unfamiliar versions of names will be found after the select Glossary.) It is surprising how little the Homilists depended on the then new English translations of the Scriptures. The writers tended to use their own ad hoc translations often from the Vulgate Latin, the version of the Bible that must have been second nature to the first-generation Reformers, and so their phrasing will not always ring a bell with the modern reader.

Griffiths’s edition complete with scholarly and textual apparatus can be found at the following website: www.footstoolpublications.com/Homilies/Homilies.htm The present text is edited from Miss Irene Teas’s transcription of Griffiths’s text found there. It would have been tricky to scan Griffiths, because of the very extensive textual complications, and without Miss Teas’s text, which has needed fewer corrections than I expected, I doubt whether the present edition would have been attempted.

It is hardly possible that no errors have remained or that no new ones have been introduced, but I have done my best in the time at my disposal. The Publishers would be grateful to be informed of any remaining misprints, with a view to correction in any reprint.

The 1623 text is available at the University of Toronto English Library website, www.library.utoronto.ca/www/utel/index.html and an annotated old-spelling but modern-punctuation edition of the first Book, together with the Homily against Disobedience and Wilful Rebellion, was edited by Ronald B. Bond and published by University of Toronto Press in 1987.


Ian Robinson

Trinity 2006

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