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This post continues the series on Percy Dearmer and his 1912 volume, Everyman’s History of the Prayer Book, first published by Mowbray in 1912.

It concerns the 1662 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) used in the Church of England.

My first post was on the value of liturgical prayer and the second was about the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles of Religion.

The third discussed how Anglican theology influenced the wording on the title page of the BCP.

This post explains more about the title page of the BCP, from Chapter 3 of Dearmer’s book. Excerpts and a summary follow, emphases mine below.

Dearmer breaks the BCP into five parts, or books:

(1) The Book of Common Prayer
(2) And Administration of the Sacraments,
(3) And other Rites and Ceremonies of the Church according to the use of the Church of England
(4) Together with the Psalter or Psalms of David pointed as they are to be sung or said in Churches
(5) And the Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons.

He describes the first book as being one of choir services:

Book 1. THE BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER. The “Common Prayer” is the name for those services which are conducted in the choir, (10) Morning Prayer and (11) Evening Prayer, which are therefore called choir services. There were formerly eight such services (see p. 150), and together they are called the Divine Service. Common Prayer also includes (13) The Litany, which is a service of Intercession after Morning Prayer, preparatory to the Holy Communion.

N.B.: Dearmer uses Mattins for Morning Prayer and Evensong for Evening Prayer below.

The second book concerns the sacraments. He explains how two — Baptism and Holy Communion — were decided upon:

Book 2. ADMINISTRATION OF THE SACRAMENTS.(16) Holy Communion at the holy Table or altar, and (17, 18) Baptism, at the font. In these Sacraments— outward signs bringing an inward gracesomething is done: at the altar Christians are fed with the spiritual Body of their Master; at the font non-Christians are admitted into the Catholic or Universal Church. There are other outward signs in which something is done, as Confirmation, Matrimony, and Orders (the Ordination of Ministers); but there was much disputing at the time when the Prayer Book was produced as to the number of the Sacraments, and the English Church therefore contented herself with laying stress on the two great Sacraments of the Gospel, Baptism and Holy Communion, leaving the “five commonly called Sacraments, that is to say, Confirmation, Penance, Orders, Matrimony, and extreme Unction,” in a separate category. There can be little doubt that this was the wisest way of settling an unhappy dispute; and it leaves us free either to include the “lesser Sacraments,” as they are sometimes called, under this head or to class some or all of them among the other Rites of the Church. (See pp. 45, 47.)

A selection of prayers for special occasions follows.

Then comes the section of Scripture readings. That section precedes the rite for Holy Communion:

The Collects, Epistles, and Gospels to be used at the Ministration of the holy Communion, throughout the year,” as they are described in the Table of Contents; the Collects, however, are used also at Mattins and Evensong.

Those readings are the ones which were traditionally used in the earliest Christian denominations until the two- and three-year Lectionaries came into widespread use in the 1970s. It is rare for the celebrant to read them now.

Following the rite for Communion are those for the lesser sacraments and other rites. Note that a small catechism is included, which precedes the liturgy for Confirmation:

Book 3. OTHER RITES AND CEREMONIES OF THE CHURCH. It will be noticed that both the Gospel Sacraments and the “other” Rites, are described as “of the Church,” services, that is to say, not of the Anglican Communion only, but of the whole Church; though their ritual (i.e. the manner of saying) and their ceremonial (i.e. the manner of doing) are according to the English Use. Furthermore, the Title-page does not say “All other Rites”; there are some which are not in the Prayer Book (pp. 47-52), such as the Coronation Service, or the Form for the Consecration of a Church, which are used under episcopal sanction.

These Rites consist of certain of the “five commonly called Sacraments,” namely (20) Confirmation, to which is prefixed (19) the Catechism, which is the preparation for Confirmation, and was only separated from it at the last Revision ; (21) the Solemnization of Matrimony; and (22) the Visitation and Communion of the Sick. Those who, like our brethren of the Eastern Orthodox Church to-day, look for seven Sacraments, will find on p. 45 how two of the lesser Sacraments come under this head, while the seventh is given in Book 5, the Ordinal.

Then follow other Rites, (23) the Order for the Burial of the Dead, (24) the Churching, or Thanksgiving of Women after Child-birth, and (25) the Ash Wednesday service called A Commination.

I wrote about the significance of the Churching of Women a few years ago. The ceremony disappeared in the 20th century because modern women disliked the idea of supplication and spiritual purification. A new ceremony replaced it: Thanksgiving for the Gift of a Child.

Sadly, people complaining about the Churching of Women overlooked the general tenor of the rite which is largely a joyful one, giving thanks for the mother’s health and her return to the congregation.

Back now to Dearmer. After the other rites comes the Psalter:

Book 4. THE PSALTER. The complete Book of the Psalms (26) which form the most essential part of Mattins and Evensong; they are arranged to be “read through once every month,” by grouping them under Morning and Evening Prayer for thirty days.

Two more rites follow. They are for special circumstances:

At the last Revision (1661) two sets of services were added— the Order of Baptism for those of Riper Years (18), and the Forms of Prayer to be used at Sea (27). The latter were inserted after the Psalter: it was doubtless felt that these sea services could not in the main be classed under “Other Rites,” and would be too prominent if printed after Mattins and Evensong. None the less their present position is a strange one, since they cannot be classed under Book 4 or Book 5. It would be better, perhaps, if they were printed among the Appendixes at the end.

Regarding the Order of Baptism for those of Riper Years, it now comes after the Order of Baptism both Publick and Private. Three amendments were made to the BCP: in 1964, 1965 and 1968, one of which no doubt accounts for the move.

The fifth book concerns ordination services:

Book5. THE ORDINAL (28) consists of three services, which were originally printed as a separate book, and published after the First Prayer Book was issued. These still have a Title-page (or half-page) of their own, in which they are described with definiteness and solemnity as ” The Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons according to the Order of the Church of England.”

I’m learning a lot from reading Dearmer’s book and hope that my fellow Anglicans are, too.

Next time — after Easter — we’ll look at Chapter 4, concerning the wider Church history of liturgy and prayer books for public worship.

This post continues the series on Percy Dearmer and his 1912 volume, Everyman’s History of the Prayer Book, first published by Mowbray in 1912.

My first post was on the value of liturgical prayer and last week’s was about the Anglican Thirty-nine Articles of Religion.

Before I go into Dearmer’s breakdown of the title page of Book of Common Prayer (image courtesy of Wikipedia), I wanted to point out a very important paragraph of his which relates to it.

First, carefully note the wording on the title page of the 1662 BCP.

Dearmer rightly points out (emphases mine below):

A truly admirable description! What a mass of ignorance would be removed if only people knew the Title-page of the Prayer Book! The notion, for instance, that “Priests” are a Roman Catholic institution, and the still common impression on the Continent of Europe that, the Anglican Church at the Reformation gave up the priesthood and is indifferent to Catholic order: the common idea, too, that “Sacramentalism” is a “high-church” idea foisted on to the Protestantism of England: or the notion that our proper use should be the Genevan Use, or the Roman Use, instead of that English Use which the Title-page orders. Certainly many widespread mistakes would never have come into existence had people but read the words that stare us in the face on this Title-page.

That is an excellent point, well made. All Anglicans — especially those who align themselves liturgically with Presbyterianism — should remember it.

The Anglican Church was never intended to be Presbyterian in liturgy or ritual. There is a small but vocal contingent of conservative Anglicans who say it was and would like to make it so even today. Those people point to the Puritans, who adopted a Calvinistic form of Anglicanism.

Bible Hub explains Puritan theology:

It is not too much to say that the ruling theology of the Church of England in the latter half of the sixteenth and the beginning of the seventeenth century was Calvinistic. [1154] The best proof of this is furnished by the ‘Zurich Letters,’ [1155] extending over the whole period of the Reformation, the Elizabethan Articles, the Second Book of Homilies (chiefly composed by Bishop Jewel), the Lambeth Articles, the Irish Articles, and the report of the delegation of King James to the Calvinistic Synod of Dort. [1156]

This theological sympathy between the English and the Continental Churches extended also to the principles of Church government, which was regarded as a matter of secondary importance, and subject to change, like rites and ceremonies, ‘according to the diversities of countries, times, and men’s manners, so that nothing be ordained against God’s Word’ (Art. XXXIV.). The difference was simply this: the English Reformers, being themselves bishops, retained episcopacy as an ancient institution of the Church catholic, but fully admitted (with the most learned fathers and schoolmen, sustained by modern commentators and historians) the original identity of the offices of bishop and presbyter; while the German and Swiss Reformers, being only presbyters or laymen, and opposed by their bishops, fell back from necessity rather than choice upon the parity of ministers, without thereby denying the human right and relative importance or expediency of episcopacy as a superintendency over equals in rank. The more rigid among the Puritans departed from both by attaching primary importance to matters of discipline and ritual, and denouncing every form of government and public worship that was not expressly sanctioned in the New Testament.

The Bible Hub essay goes on to explain the differing views of episcopacy — governing the denomination through bishops — that Anglican clergy had at that time. In short, the Puritans opposed episcopacy, which would have given the Anglican Church a Presbyterian polity.

Bible Hub cites an American Episcopalian, the Rev. Dr. E. A. Washburn, of New York, describing him as a modern-day ‘divine’ (esteemed, very learned theologian), therefore, highly knowledgeable in this subject:

‘The doctrinal system of the English Church, in its relation to other Reformed communions, especially needs a historic treatment; and the want of this has led to grave mistakes, alike by Protestant critics and Anglo-Catholic defenders …

‘The Articles ask our first study. It is plain that the foundation-truths of the Reformation — justification by faith, the supremacy and sufficiency of written Scripture, the fallibility of even general councils — are its basis. Yet it is just as plain that in regard of the specific points of theology, which were the root of discord in the Continental Churches, as election, predestination, reprobation, perseverance, and the rest, these Articles speak in a much more moderate tone …

‘We may thus learn the structure of the liturgical system. The English Reformers aimed not to create a new, but to reform the historic Church; and therefore they kept the ritual with the episcopate, because they were institutions rooted in the soil. They did not unchurch the bodies of the Continent, which grew under quite other conditions. No theory of an exclusive Anglicanism, as based on the episcopate and general councils, was held by them. Such a view is wholly contradictory to their own Articles. But the historic character of the Church gave it a positive relation to the past; and they sought to adhere to primitive usage as the basis of historic unity. In this revision, therefore, they weeded out all Romish errors, the mass, the five added sacraments, the legends of saints, and superstitious rites; but they kept the ancient Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene in the forefront of the service, the sacramental offices, the festivals and fasts relating to Christ or Apostles with whatever they thought pure. Such a work could not be perfect, and it is false either to think it so or to judge it save by its time. There are archaic forms in these offices which retain some ideas of a scholastic theology. The view of regeneration in the baptismal service, decried to-day as Romish, can be found by any scholar in Melanchthon or in Bullinger’s Decades. We may see in some of the phrases of the communion office the idea of more than a purely spiritual participation, yet the view is almost identical with that of Calvin. The dogma of the mass had been renounced, but the Aristotelian notions of spirit and body were still embodied in the philosophy of the time. The absolution in the office for the sick, and like features, have been magnified into “Romanizing germs” on one side and Catholic verities on another … The satire, so often repeated … that the Church has a “Popish Liturgy and Calvinistic Articles,” is as ignorant as it is unjust. All liturgical formularies need revision; but such a task must be judged by the standard of the Articles, the whole tenor of the Prayer-book, and the known principles of the men. In the same way we learn their view of the Episcopate. Not one leading divine from Hooper to Hooker claimed any ground beyond the fact of primitive and historic usage … The Puritan of that day was as narrow as the narrow Churchman of our own.

‘… Lutheranism and Calvinism did each its part in the development of a profound theology. The English Church had a more comprehensive doctrine and a more conservative order. It placed the simple Apostles’ Creed above all theological confessions as its basis, and a practical system above the subtleties of controversy …’

The beginning of the Bible Hub essay summarises Anglicanism well:

The Reformed Church of England occupies an independent position between Romanism on the one hand, and Lutheranism and Calvinism on the other, with strong affinities and antagonisms in both directions

The Reformation in England was less controlled by theology than on the Continent, and more complicated with ecclesiastical and political issues. Anglican theology is as much embodied in the episcopal polity and the liturgical worship as in the doctrinal standards. The Book of Common Prayer is catholic, though purged of superstitious elements; the Articles of Religion are evangelical and moderately Calvinistic. [1142]

In closing, the essay has this gem on the English:

The English mind is not theorizing and speculative, but eminently practical and conservative; it follows more the power of habit than the logic of thought; it takes things as they are, makes haste slowly, mends abuses cautiously, and aims at the attainable rather than the ideal.

Well said. Such characteristics gave us the Church of England and other churches in communion with her around the world.

Last week, I introduced Percy Dearmer and his 1912 volume, Everyman’s History of the Prayer Book, first published by Mowbray in 1912.

I mentioned Dearmer was an avowed Socialist. He seems to have been a bit to the left theologically, too.

In Chapter 3 of his book, he introduces the title page. This alone is worth about three posts, so I shall focus on Dearmer’s dislike of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, painstakingly written and agreed upon in 1563 by a convocation of Anglican bishops.

(Image credit: Wikipedia)

Archbishop Cranmer (1489 – 1556) wrote most of the Articles, the number of which varied depending on the monarch. Under Henry VIII, there were ten, then six. Under his successors, they increased to 42, then decreased to 39 in 1563, under Elizabeth I. She subsequently removed Article XXIX, which denounced transubstantiation. She did not want to offend her Catholic subjects.

In 1571, Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth I. Article XXIX was reinstated.

The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion are the official positions of the Church of England. Dearmer might have objected to them because they state particular things that could offend Catholics (the nature of Holy Communion) and Anabaptists (no mandate for commonly-held property).

You can read the full list here, along with the introduction. Today’s Anglican clergy downplay them a lot and actually discourage people from even reading them. Yet, they are still obliged to affirm at ordination that they accept the Articles.

However, as the Church Society notes:

the wording of the declaration is now such that many feel able to say it without meaning what a simple reading might suggest. 

The Thirty-nine Articles have their basis in Holy Scripture. I have no problem in affirming them, although I will never be asked to do so. Wikipedia states:

the Articles are not officially normative in all Anglican Churches …

Now on to Dearmer, who points out that the Thirty-nine Articles are not on the title page of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, although they are included in it:

It makes no mention of the Thirty-nine Articles; for they form no part of the Prayer Book. They are bound up with it …

Their inclusion bothered him, because they are not binding on Anglican churchgoers:

it is a mistake of the printing authorities to compel us to buy the Articles whenever we buy the Prayer Book; and it gives Church folk the impression that the Articles are binding on them, which is not the case — for a layman is perfectly free to disagree with the Articles, if he chooses.

However, I found them helpful when I was converting. I wanted to know what this denomination believed and why before I made a commitment. It took me some time and reading to understand what a few of the Articles meant and why they were included.

Dearmer was of the impression that they were a living document and should have been updated to reflect the times:

Nothing has been done to improve them. The needs of modern thought have indeed been partly met by altering the terms in which the clergy (and they alone) have to give their assent; but this does not help the average Briton, who, moreover, is without the assistance of the learned commentaries which alone can prevent serious misunderstandings ; while in other countries, both East and West, the presence of the Thirty-nine Articles in the Prayer Book continues to do grave harm, by giving to other Churches a false idea of the Anglican theology.

Whilst I agree that the average Briton does need learned commentaries, I just did my own research. Anyone interested in doing so can. Clergy in Dearmer’s day could also have held classes on the Thirty-nine Articles so that the congregation could better understand them.

Where I disagree with Dearmer is that the Articles could be somehow improved. He could not have been more wrong! An Anglican who follows the Thirty-nine Articles will end up much further along the road to sanctification in thought, word and deed.

I much prefer what the Church Society says about them in fewer words (emphases in the original):

Officially the Church of England accepts the full and final authority of Holy Scripture as the basis for all that it believes. Some of these beliefs were summarised in the historic creeds, and at the time of the Reformation the Church adopted the Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion as giving a concise and systematic statement of the teaching of Scripture.

It’s a pity that more Anglicans do not understand the Articles or believe, as clergy are wont to say, that they are ‘historical artifacts’.

For decades, Anglicans have believed anything they want. Some of them are more Quaker, Baptist or Methodist than Anglican.

Dearmer did have excellent insights on the title page of the Book of Common Prayer, more about which next week.

The other day, I ran across an old link to Percy Dearmer‘s Everyman’s History of the Prayer Book, first published by Mowbray in 1912.

Percy Dearmer was an Anglican priest who lived between 1867 and 1936. He was a High Church Anglican, although one who championed the English Use rite used before the Reformation over Roman Catholic rubrics.

Dearmer was an avowed Socialist (unfortunately). That said, he served in various London parish churches and wrote several books about the Book of Common Prayer, liturgy as well as a history of King Alfred and a travel book about Normandy. In later years, he was a canon at Westminster Abbey, where his ashes are interred.

Dearmer was also a lecturer in ecclesiastical art at King’s College, London from 1919 until his death at the age of 69.

He was also interested in composing and compiling hymns. He and Ralph Vaughan Williams published The English Hymnal in 1906. Two more hymnals followed: Songs of Praise in 1926 and the Oxford Book of Carols in 1928.

Incidentally, when Songs of Praise was expanded in 1931, Dearmer wanted a hymn of daily thanksgiving, which is how Morning Has Broken (made famous 40 years later by Cat Stevens) first became known:

In Songs of Praise Discussed, the editor, Percy Dearmer, explains that as there was need for a hymn to give thanks for each day, English poet and children’s author Eleanor Farjeon had been “asked to make a poem to fit the lovely Scottish tune”. A slight variation on the original hymn, also written by Eleanor Farjeon, can be found in the form of a poem contributed to the anthology Children’s Bells, under Farjeon’s new title, “A Morning Song (For the First Day of Spring)”, published by Oxford University Press in 1957. The song is noted in 9/4 time but with a 3/4 feel.

“Bunessan” had been found in L. McBean’s Songs and Hymns of the Gael, published in 1900.[3] Before Farjeon’s words, the tune was used as a Christmas carol, which began “Child in the manger, Infant of Mary”, translated from the Scottish Gaelic lyrics written by Mary MacDonald. The English-language Roman Catholic hymnal also uses the tune for the James Quinn hymns “Christ Be Beside Me” and “This Day God Gives Me”, both of which were adapted from the traditional Irish hymn St. Patrick’s Breastplate. Another Christian hymn “Baptized In Water” borrows the tune.

Dearmer, his wife Mabel and their two sons all served in the Great War. Dearmer and his wife were stationed in Serbia where he was a chaplain to a British Red Cross Ambulance unit. Mabel served as a nurse with that unit and died of enteric fever in 1915. Their younger son Christopher died in battle that year. However, their elder son, Geoffrey, survived and died at the age of 103, and, at that age, was one of the oldest surviving war poets.

Dearmer remarried in 1916. He and his wife Nancy had three children: two daughters and a son. Sadly, their son died in active service with the RAF in 1943.

The reason Dearmer’s book Everyman’s History of the Prayer Book caught my eye is that the second chapter is called ‘The Question of Set Forms of Prayer’.

One of my personal bugbears is going to a traditional liturgical service and hear a priest substitute his own improvised prayers for the special intentions which precede the prayer of consecration. If he (or she) simply prayed them out of the Prayer Book, he would find that all his prayer needs were satisfied outside of names of national leaders or the sick and dying.

Their waffling — ‘uhh, mmm’ — and their poor prose has me praying for patience and calm just as we are about to reach the apex of the service with Holy Communion.

This is what Dearmer had to say about that and also dispensing with set prayers altogether. Remember, he wrote this in 1912, so this is somewhat surprising (emphases mine):

It is worth while, therefore, asking ourselves at the outset, Is liturgical worship a good thing, or ought the minister to make up his own prayers?

Now, there is very much to be said for extemporaneous worship in church; it is often a most useful instrument in mission work, it is an indispensable way of bringing the idea of worship to the ignorant, it secures the necessary element of freedom; furthermore, it may bring spontaneity and vitality into a service, and be a good corrective to formalism …

Nor is there anything alien to Church ways or wrong in principle about extempore services. Indeed in the earliest days of the Church the celebrant at the Eucharist used to pray thus. The service went on certain general lines, but the “president” filled it in according to his own ideas, and offered up “prayers and thanksgivings with all his strength,” the people saying “Amen” (as is told on p. 185). it was only by degrees that the prayers thus offered became fixed. Those, therefore, who argue that everything which was not done in the first two or three centuries must therefore be wrong, should logically include liturgical worship among the things they condemn. But perhaps sensible people in the 20th century no longer argue thus.

Well, often, that was because the celebrant could not read very well. Also, parchment was highly expensive and there were no printing presses until much later, in 1439.

Dearmer then mentions John Milton, an irregular churchgoer. Milton was all for extemporaneous prayer. Dearmer points out:

Milton’s mistake, was, in fact, a very simple one. He thought that every minister, would be a Milton. He did not realize what a deadly thing average custom can be, what a deadly bore an average man can make of himself when compelled to do continually a thing for which he has no natural gift. He did not foresee the insidious danger of unreality and cant. We should all, of course, flock to hear Milton praying extempore, if he were to come to life again ; but there are many mute, inglorious ministers whom we would rather not hear.

To put the prayers as well as the sermon in the hands of the officiating minister is indeed a form of sacerdotalism which the Church most wisely rejected many centuries ago. We know what a joy and help it would be to hear an inspired saint, with a genius for rapid prose composition, make up prayers as he went along; and opportunities for extemporization do exist outside the appointed services. But the Church has to provide for the average man, and has to guard against that form of clerical absolutism which would put a congregation at the mercy of the idiosyncrasies and shortcomings of one person. For extempore services, which should be a safeguard for freedom, can easily degenerate into a tyranny.

Indeed!

Before defending a set liturgy, Dearmer points out the importance of a sensory church service, one which will escape people who worship in plainly:

history and a wide knowledge of Christendom show us that good ceremonies are a great preservative against Pharisaism. The reason for this is that action, music, colour, form, sight, scent, and sound appeal more freely to the individual worshipper, and more subtly, relieving the pressure of a rigid phraseology, and allowing the spirit many ways of rising up to God, unhampered by the accent of the workaday voice of man. It is only thus that the wonderful intensity of devotion among the Russian people, for instance, can be accounted for: we have no popular religious affection in the West which can compare with the evangelical spirit of this hundred million of Christians, who yet have used nothing but their very ancient forms of prayer during the thousand years since their race was first converted.

Precisely. This is what old school churchgoers refer to as the mysterium tremendum, which is very rare in our time.

Although he allows for some extemporaneous prayer, Dearmer concludes:

we may be confident that liturgical worship is the best of all. There is some loss in the use of printed words; but there is a greater gain. We have in them the accumulated wisdom and beauty of the Christian Church, the garnered excellence of the saints. We are by them released from the accidents of time and place. Above all we are preserved against the worst dangers of selfishness: in the common prayer we join together in a great fellowship that is as wide as the world; and we are guided, not by the limited notions of our own priest, nor by the narrow impulses of our own desires, but by the mighty voice that rises from the general heart of Christendom.

Our Lord had the ancient forms of the Church in which he lived often on his lips, and in the moment of his supreme agony it was a liturgical sentence, a fragment of the familiar service, that was wrung from him— “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” We have a richer heritage, for it is a heritage dowered by his Spirit; and from our treasure-house come things new and old …

… there is a place and a real use for extemporary prayer, and a still greater use for the silent prayer which is above words altogether. These very things will keep fresh and sweet for us those old set forms, in which we can join so well because we know beforehand what they are about, and in which for the same reason all the people can come together in the fellowship of common prayer.

My advice — and my hope — for clergy improvising their own prayers is to sit down and write out the text in full, revising and perfecting it for however long it takes.

I was a member for several years of a large Episcopal church which had perfect prayers. The curates wrote them themselves or read them from books by other ministers. They were beautiful prayers, worthy of God. The congregation also listened and silently prayed intently. You could hear a pin drop.

Here in the UK, things are different. I blame it on the seminaries. However, if they feel it so necessary to express themselves, Anglican priests should take up the challenge to have an outstanding set of prayers of their own that fit with the language being used in the liturgy.

Jesus is our friend, but let us not forget the many Bible verses about our rightful awe we owe to Almighty God. This is the second part of Ecclesiastes 12:13 (ESV):

Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man.

One of the most famous English carols of the past two centuries is ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’. King’s College Cambridge sing it for their televised carol service every year. Below is the video from 2008:

‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ was one of the ‘new’ carols composed in the late 18th and 19th centuries, creating a modern collection of Christmas hymns with a nod to the England before the Industrial Revolution.

The earliest publication of this particular carol was in 1760 and it was included in a compilation of these modern (at the time) Christmas songs which appeared between 1780 and 1800.

However, another source says that the lyrics are ‘traditional olde English’ and go back to the 15th century. If so, in its earliest incarnation, ‘God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen’ could well have been sung by town watchmen who supplemented their income by carolling at the houses of the local gentry.

The title translates today as ‘may God keep you happy, gentlemen’ with the promise of His Son Jesus Christ. Although there are slight variations, the lyrics are largely consistent. British churches and choirs use the version which Oxford University Press (OUP) published in Carols for Choirs (1961), part of which appears below:

God rest you merry, gentlemen,
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Saviour
Was born upon this day,
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray:
O tidings of comfort and joy,
comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.

From God our heavenly Father
A blessed angel came,
And unto certain shepherds
Brought tidings of the same,
How that in Bethlehem was born The Son of God by name:
O tidings …

This is my favourite carol, largely because it is written in a minor key which evokes a centuries-old song tradition. Listening to it sung to a complex arrangement for organ makes the lyrics all the more meaningful and personal.

Indeed, this creation of carols which hearkened back to an older era was part of a Victorian movement known as Merry (Merrie) England. It was controversial then as it is now, derided by the Left (as it was by Friedrich Engels) and embraced by traditionalists of whatever political persuasion. It inspired the left-leaning William Morris and the Arts and Crafts Movement. The Anglo-Catholics of the mid-19th century Oxford Movement were also drawn to it in their quest for greater social equality with a nod towards utopianism.

Merry England is thought to represent the nation between the years 1350 and 1700, so, from the late decades of Catholicism into the English Reformation, and, later, the restoration of the monarchy to the end of William and Mary’s reign. The focus, however, was on English life between the 14th and 16th centuries:

“Merry England” is not a wholly consistent vision but rather a revisited England which Oxford folklorist Roy Judge described as “a world that has never actually existed, a visionary, mythical landscape, where it is difficult to take normal historical bearings.”[1] By contrast, Ronald Hutton‘s study of churchwardens’ accounts[2] places the creation of “Merry England” in the years between 1350 and 1520, with the newly-elaborative annual festive round of the liturgical year, with candles and pageants, processions and games, boy bishops and decorated rood lofts. Hutton discovered that, far from being pagan survivals, many of the activities of popular piety criticised by sixteenth-century reformers were actually creations of the later Middle Ages and that “Merry England” reflects historical aspects of rural English folklore that were lost during industrialization.[3] Favourable perceptions of Merry England reveal a nostalgia for aspects of an earlier society that are missing in modern times.

‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen’ evokes this atmosphere. The carol became so popular that, by 1843, Charles Dickens included it in A Christmas Carol:

…at the first sound of — ‘God bless you, merry gentlemen! May nothing you dismay!’— Scrooge seized the ruler with such energy of action that the singer fled in terror, leaving the keyhole to the fog and even more congenial frost.

William B Sandys (pron. ‘Sands’) was an English solicitor (lawyer) who compiled a selection of these ‘new’ yet seemingly ancient carols in Christmas Carols Ancient and Modern (London, Richard Beckley, 1833). Emphases mine below:

Among the carols that made their first appearance here are the classics The First Noel, God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen, I Saw Three Ships, Hark the Herald Angels Sing. Some have the traditional forms of carols. Others are recognizably composed. In the current atmosphere of “Merry England” that included the revival of Christmas that was signalled by Charles DickensA Christmas Carol (1843), they all quickly developed their present reputations for being sixteenth century or earlier.[2]

A few decades later, Rev. Henry Ramsden Bramley (1833-1917) and Sir John Stainer (1840-1901) published their popular Victorian compilation of carols called Christmas Carols, New and Old. Both men were employed by Magdalen College, Oxford. Bramley was a Fellow and Tutor whilst Stainer was the College’s organist. Some carol books carry Stainer’s name next to ‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen’.

Their songbook became so widely used that the Revd Percy Dearmer — who earned his Bachelor of Arts degree at Christ Church, Oxford — referred to it and the two men in his preface to The Oxford Book of Carols, Oxford University Press, 1928, pp. xvi-xvii:

The second chapter of the revival [of the carol] in the nineteenth century opens in 1871 with the publication of forty-two Christmas Carols New and Old by the Rev. H. R. Bramley, Fellow of Magdalen College, Oxford, and Dr. John Stainer, then organist of the college. The influence of this book was enormous: it placed in the hands of the clergy…a really practicable tool, which came into general use, and is still in use after nearly sixty years. The great service done by this famous collection was that it brought thirteen traditional carols, with their proper music, into general use at once…It is…mainly to Bramley and Stainer that we owe the restoration of the carol

Those in search of a term paper or thesis topic on the Victorian era, Merry England or Christmas carols will find a rich seam of associations with Oxford University‘s literary and musical heritage. Bramley and Stainer were influential in popularising carols which hearkened back to an older England. Dearmer endorsed them. The Anglo-Catholic movement, which also had its origins at Oxford, drew on Merry England’s kinder influences of community and charity. Both extended into the 20th century. J R R Tolkien (pron. ‘Tolkeen’), Professor of Anglo-Saxon at Pembroke College, Oxford, also borrowed elements from Merry England:

Rather than a celebration of a narrow, anachronistic idealism, Tolkien’s works hinge upon his characters moving beyond that place of idealism into a broader, more complex interaction with the world.

Perhaps that is an idea we can transport from our Christmas experiences into our Christian walk in the year ahead.

Certainly, ‘God rest ye merry, Gentlemen’ carries joyful messages which are perfect for communicating the personal message of the Gospels, the Good News of Jesus Christ.

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