Friday, 24 May 2013

The Spirit descended from heaven like a ...

I know exam bloopers are the lowest form of wit. Even so, some are irresistible. I discovered this morning that England in the 1650s was troubled by the appearance of an alarming new sect: the Quackers.

Wednesday, 22 May 2013

Aude de Mezerac-Zanetti

A piece of unalloyed good news: this former doctoral student of mine has landed a permanent academic job, at Lille University.

Aude's PhD was a really outstanding piece of work on the liturgy in Henry VIII's England. Everyone has known for a long time that Henry VIII got his clergy to scratch the Pope's name out of the service books. What Aude did, which no-one else has done before, is actually go through all (well, almost all) of the surviving service books to see exactly how they were defaced. What she might have found was evidence of a consistent policy. What she did find was much more interesting: the lack of any consistent policy, with local bishops, magistrates and individual priests working out how best to interpret the vague instructions coming from the centre.

So one result is that she can track the changing perceptions of Henry's perennially unclear religious policies in the books. Take this one, for example, which she found in a missal used in Salisbury diocese:

Here the word 'pope' in a prayer for him has been blotted out completely, with the word 'metropolitan' inserted instead: this priest thought he might pray for the Archbishop of Canterbury in place of the Pope, as indeed the king briefly considered in the spring of 1533. But the king, and then this priest, quickly thought better of it, lining through the whole prayer to replace it with a simpler prayer for the king.
More excitingly (for me at least), Aude's work has shed light on official policy itself, and drawn our attention to liturgy as a means by which that policy is expressed. The fact that Henry's regime never settled on an official text for the liturgy, nor indeed (as she points out) ever formally defined the doctrine of Royal Supremacy over the Church which it insisted on so ferociously, points to a deep instability at the heart of Henry VIII's government, and indeed probably also at the heart of Henry VIII.
It's a terrific piece of work which will, I think, change the way we understand the period. The book should be out before too very long, I hope. In the meantime, it's very satisfying when talent is recognised on the job market.

Thursday, 16 May 2013

London's burning, fetch the theologians

Andrew Spicer was in Durham a couple of days ago to give the first of a new annual lecture series on Protestantism in the British Isles, hosted in very civilised fashion by Van Mildert College. As he often does, he approached the subject architecturally, with gems I'd never heard of like the earl of Leicester's church in Denbigh, in North Wales:

If it had ever acquired a roof, it would have been the largest church built in Britain between the Reformation and the Great Fire of London.

One of the lecture's themes was the feedback between architecture and (with apologies to OMD, not morality but) theology. The post-Reformation English church inherited a stock of Catholic church buildings, which were adapted more or less thoroughly to Protestant use but whose history could not be shaken off. When Protestants designed and built new churches for themselves - as they did of necessity in France, and as they sometimes did in Scotland, where the existing church buildings were often very inadequate - they came up with very different buildings, preaching houses which would not have tempted anybody to reintroduce a ceremonial life. Take the one in Burntisland in Fife, for example (Andrew spent a while on this one with us):

So did the English church remain relatively conservative and ceremonial in its Protestantism because it was adapting existing buildings; or did it adapt existing buildings because it was relatively conservative? Both, no doubt. But I was left with a counterfactual question:

Imagine that the Great Fire of London had happened in 1566, not 1666. And that half of the city's churches had needed rebuilding in the later 16th century. English Protestantism would have been forced to develop an architectural style of its own, which given London's importance, would have become a model for the rest of the country (as 'London style' did after the Great Fire). - How would that have changed English Christianity? I suspect, profoundly: the country would have been set on a more explicitly Protestant, even Puritan course culturally. And given the huge tug of inertia which architecture exerts, it would have been difficult to divert it thereafter.

Alternatively, given the financial starvation of the post-Reformation church, the penny-pinching penury of the Elizabethan regime, and the known fact that old St Paul's was left half-ruined for more than a century before the Great Fire, fifty historic parish churches might have been replaced with a handful of jury-rigged barns, of which we'd be ashamed down to the present.