This year, I have been running a series of posts on Percy Dearmer‘s 1912 volume, Everyman’s History of the Prayer Book, published by Mowbray.

These are the previous posts in the series:

Percy Dearmer on the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles of Religion

Percy Dearmer on the title page of the Book of Common Prayer

Percy Dearmer on the title page of the Book of Common Prayer – part 1

Percy Dearmer on the title page of the Book of Common Prayer – part 2

Percy Dearmer on the earliest church service manuscripts

Percy Dearmer’s interpretation of St Paul on prophecy and tongues

Percy Dearmer on elements of worship in the New Testament

Percy Dearmer: how several prayer books became one liturgical book

Percy Dearmer on Reformation, royalty and the Book of Common Prayer

Percy Dearmer: first Anglican Prayer Book ‘too fair-minded’ for a violent era

Percy Dearmer on the effect of Edward VI’s reign on the Church of England

Percy Dearmer on the Second Prayer Book’s Calvinistic bent

Percy Dearmer on the Third Prayer Book and Elizabeth I

One of the themes that Percy Dearmer returns to in his history of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer is the fact that early English Protestants enjoyed many of the aspects of liturgy, church adornments and vestments that Calvinist reformers — Puritans — wanted to dispense with.

These fell under the category of adiaphora and the question arose whether they should be allowed because they are not mentioned in Scripture.

A number of fundamentalist denominations and independent churches today believe that if Scripture does not mention an aspect of adiaphora, believers should not be using those liturgies, adornments and vestments.

The Puritans wanted to get rid of everything that even suggested the Catholic Church. Yet, many English Protestants enjoyed attending church services for those very reasons. In their opinion, there was no need to throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Dearmer agreed with the lowly pewsitters. So do I.

In the second half of Chapter 8 he takes issue with the Puritans, some of whom were unduly influential in the Anglican Church during the reign of Elizabeth I. Excerpts and a summary follow, emphases mine.

The Third Prayer Book restored some of the adiaphora of the first book. Some clergy refused to use it for that reason. ‘Convocation’ below refers to the Convocation of the Church of England:

efforts were made, in Convocation and in Parliament, to abolish those beautiful and helpful ceremonies which stirred some men to a strangeness of opposition in this era of religious reaction. The sign of the cross in Baptism, kneeling at communion, the wedding-ring, every sort of vestment, including the black gown and college cap as well as the cope and surplice, were bitterly attacked.

In 1562, the lower house of the Convocation put a proposal to the vote which would have abolished all these things, including the church organ. Elizabeth I was strongly opposed to such reform. Fortunately, in the end, it lost by only one vote: hers.

Dearmer wrote his book in 1912. In his view, the anti-adiaphora movement was dying in England. Yet, it persists elsewhere in the English-speaking world.

Dearmer strongly objected to what he saw as:

this madness which fastened upon England — a madness which is only becoming extinct in the 20th century. It was the insanity of a wild reaction, a kind of Romanism turned inside out.

Dearmer wrote that by abolishing the adiaphora, the Puritans rid the English Church of her beauty. I couldn’t agree more with his analysis. Plainness can drive people away from church. Furthermore, in their zeal, the Puritans made a false connection between the papacy and beauty. Therefore, they went out of their way to make English churches ugly, a trend that was reversed only centuries later:

Because the Roman Catholic Church (in common with the whole of Christendom up to the 16th century) acted on the obvious truth that beauty is a good thing, the majority of Englishmen paid Rome the compliment of embracing ugliness for her sake. They magnified Rome so much that they shaped their conduct by running into opposites. They threw away the wealth of popular devotion, which made her churches living houses of prayer with open doors and thronged altars, and which is still her real strength to-day; they did not know that such devotion had always been the note of all Christendom, and was (as it still is) even more marked in the Eastern Churches than in those in communion with the Pope. They thus set themselves against the mind of Christendom, as well as against one of the profoundest truths of God’s universe — the inspiring virtue of beauty. They invented the notion that the devotional ways of fifteen hundred years and the use of any loveliness of symbolism in the service of God were connected with the autocracy of the Pope — a notion which would have been impossible even to their narrow minds, had not the Eastern Churches been in their time both weak and remote (for Moscow itself was in the hands of the Romanist Poles in 1610). They thus in their blindness presented to the Papacy an enormous reserve fund of power, which has served it ever after for whatever recoveries the Papacy has made since have been due not to the peculiar doctrines of Romanism, not to the autocracy of the Pope, but to the fact that, in Western Christendom as a whole, men have believed that Catholic devotion and beauty in worship are a prerogative of the Papacy. As if the beauty of garments, or organs, or altars, or prayerful cathedrals, made by man, was more Popish than the beauty of the humblest flower which God has made!

Dearmer reminds us that the Puritans gained not only theological but also political strength for the next century, which culminated in the English Civil War in the 17th century:

… it was the power of Calvinism that was to bring King Charles I and Archbishop Laud to the block. Yet with Calvinism there were identified many great and noble things, and the struggle of Puritanism against royal absolutism was in its measure a struggle for human freedom.

For these reasons, no one in England wants another civil war — or Calvinism.

Dearmer has an interesting breakdown of who was and was not a Puritan during the Elizabethan era:

The greatest men — Shakespeare, for instance — stood contemptuously aside from the “precisians,” and the great Elizabethan era went its own way, worshipped its Queen, and admired its Prayer Book. But the middle class, brought up on Foxe’s Book of Martyrs and the Geneva Bible (p. 103), was largely Puritan; many of the bishops withstood the Queen in its interests as much as they dared — they had long since pulled down the altars.

Therefore:

The most the Church could do was to fight hard for the very idea of liturgical worship, and for a few things that preserved the principle of ceremonial, modest as they were — such as the surplice, the cope in great churches, the cross in baptism, kneeling for communion, the organ, the vested altar, and the wedding ring.

Fortunately, in the 19th century, beauty returned to the Church of England:

At the present day the Anglican Church is the great standing witness in the West and in the new countries against the notion we have described — that devotion and beauty are a monopoly of the Churches in communion with Rome. It is for this reason that she is still so strenuously opposed from both sides. But her witness is to-day so evident because during the last two generations a movement, now practically universal in all parties, has been at work to revive the spirituality and beauty of worship, by restoring in some measure the orders and ornaments of the Prayer Book — such orders, for instance, as those requiring daily services and frequent catechizing

Now that the civilized world has at least come to see the inward power and outward beauty of catholic worship, she is able to set her churches in order again; and this is being done, not slowly.

In between these two historical periods, the Puritans wrought more change.

The next entry in this series will look at the Fourth Prayer Book and the King James Version of the Bible.

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