Monday, 6 July 2015

Historic formularies

Fresh from a great workshop in Stratford-upon-Avon celebrating the 30th anniversary of the late, lamented Pat Collinson’s lecture on so-called ‘iconophobia’ in Reformation England. Briefly, we all agreed that he was wrong, but that few of us could ever hope to be so interestingly, provocatively and fruitfully wrong.

                Lovely contributions from a range of people – Helen Pierce on popular print and AngelaMcShane on a rich but virtually unknown seam of Puritan ballads stood out – but the oneI’m going to single out was from a young Swiss scholar named Antoinina Bevan Zlatar, who’s working on Milton but who spoke today about a Star Chamber case from 1632, in which one Henry Sherfield was tried for destroying a stained glass window containing several depictions of God the Father.

                The outcome was predictable enough – good order and decency trumped any Calvinist scruples about idolatry. William Laud, then bishop of London, was one of the judges, and commented that removing images from churches was ‘distasteful’ (Antoinina managed to convey his fastidious disdain wonderfully well).

                What struck me was the comment of another judge, Richard Neile, the archbishop of York and another ceremonial enthusiast. He considered the awkward fact that the Edwardian Homilies – an authoritative text for the early Stuart church – bluntly condemned images of this kind. Neile’s answer was to relativise them:

As for those divine Homilies … set forth in king Edward’s days, … we know the times did not bear them: nor are they to be taken or understood, as not to allow any manner of pictures or images (though it may seem so) of Christ upon the Cross; but it is like the forbearing of food for a time. … I say that for the crucifix, there may be a very good use made of it.

The image of food is beautifully provocative: linking the attacks on ‘popish’ images  to a ‘popish’ devotional practice which Puritans like Sherfield had made their own, and at the same time implying that images were an essential part of a normal Christian life, only abandoned for a while until England had recovered from an intemperate late-medieval bout of binge-idolatry.

Nowadays Anglican ministers have to do no more than nod towards the Church of England’s ‘historic formularies’ – the Prayer Book and Ordinal, the Homilies and the Thirty-Nine Articles – leading some to mutter that this is indefensible relativism. Which perhaps it is. But it’s been going on for a long time.

Updated 7 July

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