- Worship and the Parish Church in Early Modern Britain ed. by Natalie Mears and Alec Ryrie
It is a commonplace that in early-modern Britain religion fundamentally shaped daily life, yet we still know little about what went on in the parish church, the arena where British people received their religious education and where the principles of the Protestant faith were hard-wired into the minds of the laity. This welcome collection of essays, whilst acknowledging the difficulty of trying to recover the ways in which religion knitted with people’s lives, seeks to fill in some of the blanks by exploring the “lived experience” of worship in Britain.
The collection is not intended to share any unifying vision, but there are some recurring aspects. As may be expected, a particular concern for the contributors is the liturgy. For example, Hannah Cleugh does an admirable job of elucidating the mismatch between official doctrinal positions concerning soteriology and the theology conveyed in the Book of Common Prayer. Judith Maltby investigates set, conceived, and extempore prayers in England, suggesting that the minimalist liturgy of the Directory during the Interregnum probably led to a downturn in quality of worship, though it was also an unprecedented opportunity for liturgical experimentation.
Close attention is paid to continuities, particularly with the Catholic past. On occasions, bitter theological controversies did not always translate into radically divergent lay experiences. Alec Ryrie shows that the attempt to reform and retain the well-established practice of fasting resulted in something “remarkably similar to what had gone before,” an experience shared by Puritans, conformists, and Laudians [End Page 647] alike (p. 108). Reversing the model, Jonathan Willis demonstrates that Catholics and Protestants of all shades enjoyed a shared inheritance of musical discourse that acknowledged both the dangerous and seductive power of music but extolled its ability to edify and ennoble the soul. Here theological consensus resulted in divergent practice.
We also encounter migrations across the blurred divides of the sacred and secular, and public and private. This is the case in two fascinating chapters that perhaps bring us closest to lay experience. Christopher Marsh’s exploration of bell ringing demonstrates the growing popularity of the activity for “recreation,” particularly amongst groups of male youths. Marsh suggests that ringing in a sacred setting might be seen as a new outlet for socio-religious instincts that had previously been channelled into guilds and church ales. John Craig charts the ways in which the mechanics of prayer changed over time, noting the meanings that were associated with ritual gestures. In the practice of capping and kneeling the secular and sacred were one, for the Elizabethan requirement that men kept their heads covered during the service allowed them to doff their hat both to their social superiors and to do courtesy when the name of Jesus was spoken.
The extent to which lived experience of the parish was constantly evolving is particularly striking, a reminder that despite the prescriptive pattern of worship set out in the Book of Common Prayer, there was still plenty of room for flexibility and irregularity. There were decisions to be made about gesture and etiquette, timely ringing of bells, the place of music, and the ornamentation and orientation of church furniture. But it was not just local clergymen, churchwardens, and parishioners who complicated the meaning of “conformity”; the local bishop or the incumbent monarch might also intervene to introduce the relative novelty of special forms of prayer or even alternative liturgies, as Natalie Mears shows in her chapter on nationwide worship. We are left with the impression of an interaction or continuing conversation, where change took place both in response to “official” dictates but also according to lay preferences and popular fashions, resulting in an ongoing process of adjustments, amendments, and experiments in worship.
This is a varied and engaging collection that does much to improve our understanding of what happened in the early-modern parish church, and...