THE BOOKS OF HOMILIES OF 1547 AND 1571:
THE FORGOTTEN FORMULARIES
By Jordan Lavender
The Books of Homilies are those seemingly forgotten volumes, which, together with the Articles of Religion of 1571 and the Prayer Book of 1662, make up the corpus, or body of works, which define Anglican theology, most commonly called the Formularies. For whatever reason, most Anglican clergy and laity, including the most zealous advocates of the Prayer Book and Articles, have sadly forgotten the Homilies. I have to admit that I was one of those zealots who upheld the Articles and Prayer Book with religious diligence; yet, I neglected the Homilies, both as works, which exhort the Christian to godly piety and also build up biblically sound theology in the believer.
The tendency in some circles is to attach particular significance to the decisions of the Church universal over and (perhaps) against the Church particular, or national. This plays out especially in dealing with the Homilies, which are seen as regionally bound documents by some and therefore not really as authoritative as, say, a general council. The Homilies also construct doctrine in a different manner than the Articles of Religion. It is often said that the Articles are a negative response to the Council of Trent or certain medieval abuses. The Homilies, while offering criticism of the abuses of the medieval church, are expressly intended to teach important doctrines of the Church of England. The Homilies are very much foundational to our identity as Anglicans and contain therein the core theology, which shapes us as Anglicans. In referencing the Fathers and councils above, the Homilies (and other Formularies) are the lens through which we read these other documents.
It is important to remember that the Homilies do not possess an individual authority on their own. They derive their strength from their presentation of biblical doctrine for it is the Bible that governs our lives as Christians and from thence we derive our theology. The Homilies are a faithful exposition of God’s Word written and for this reason we owe them our allegiance as Anglicans.
The Homilies are best understood as the flesh to the skeleton of bones of the Articles of Religion. The Articles are not a stand-alone document but were written in conjunction with other documents. The Articles are the theological skeleton to the system of theology known as Anglicanism, which is the particular (or national) application of universal, biblical truth in the British Isles. The “flesh” of the Homilies strengthens the skeleton of the Articles, which are the Articles taken to the pulpit. The Articles reference the Homilies for further exposition of particular topics, for instance, Article XI refers us to the “Homily on Justification” (actually titled “Salvation” in the Books of Homilies) for a further treatment of the subject of our justification by faith only. Likewise, as the Homilies are the Articles taken to the pulpit, the Prayer Book is the Articles acted out, from the chancel to the home. These are intertwined documents that govern our hearts, minds, and souls because they are the living embodiment of pure doctrine as found in Holy Scripture.
A brief history of the publication of the Books is due to understand the context of their composition. The first volume was composed during the reign of Edward VI, first published in 1547, under the title Certain Sermons and Homilies Appointed to be Read in Churches, though, probably composed some time before that. They are mostly the work of Thomas Cranmer. The purpose of the Homilies was to provide instruction in the Christian faith as the liturgy was still in Latin at that point and the majority of the clergy were not properly trained in the faith and many opposed the reforms of the Church – many clergy even lacked basic theological training. For these reasons, the Homilies were composed so that they could be read in parish churches (as they are instructed to do in Article 35) for the exhortation of the people. The first volume focuses on basic, Reformed doctrines such as the supremacy of Scripture and justification by faith alone, although with some sermons on morality and good works. The second volume was mostly the work of Bishop John Jewel and was not published until 1571 under the title, The Second Tome of Homilees: of such matters as were promised, and intituled in the former part of homilees. Set out by the aucthoritie of the Queenes Maiestie: and to be read in euery parishe church agreeably. The second volume is much longer and contains more theological works or treatises that expound more thoroughly certain corruptions of the Roman Church.
Now, let us turn to the Articles of Religion where the Books of Homilies are explicitly mentioned and given legal and doctrinal authority in the Church of England. The text reads:
XXXV. Of Homilies.
THE second Book of Homilies, the several titles whereof we have joined under this Article, doth contain a godly and wholesome doctrine and necessary for these times, as doth the former Book of Homilies which were set forth in the time of Edward the Sixth: and therefore we judge them to be read in Churches by the ministers diligently and distinctly, that they may be understanded of the people.
Of the Names of the Homilies.
1. Of the right Use of the Church.
2. Against peril of Idolatry.
3. Of the repairing and keeping clean of Churches.
4. Of good Works: first of Fasting.
5. Against Gluttony and Drunkenness.
6. Against Excess of Apparel.
7. Of Prayer.
8. Of the Place and Time of Prayer.
9. That Common Prayers and Sacraments ought to be ministered in a known tongue.
10. Of the reverend estimation of God's Word.
11. Of Alms-doing.
12. Of the Nativity of Christ.
13. Of the Passion of Christ.
14. Of the Resurrection of Christ.
15. Of the worthy receiving of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ.
16. Of the Gifts of the Holy Ghost.
17. For the Rogation-days.
18. Of the state of Matrimony.
19. Of Repentance.
20. Against Idleness.
21. Against Rebellion.
According to Article XXXV, the Homilies are as equally authoritative in determining correct doctrine in Anglicanism as the Prayer Book or the Articles of Religion are. As the Article explains, and as resonant with English theology in general, the Homilies are authoritative because they “contain a godly and wholesome doctrine”, which is agreeable to Holy Scripture, the source of all true doctrine. Their neglect follows suit with the general neglect of the Anglican formularies in general. Their preciseness is the “muscle” which is lacking in contemporary Anglicanism.
As with the other formularies, the Homilies were crafted for a particular purpose, that being to be read in church, specifically by ministers not authorized to preach. However, they are not limited in use to these cases. It is this public use, which first must be discussed. To be used as the authors intended them to be used, the Homilies must be read in church. It is true that some of them are a bit lengthy, especially in comparison to modern sermons, however, that should not intimidate the minister from using them.
In addition to public reading in church, the Homilies should be read privately by Anglicans, both for their edification and to teach sound doctrine. Individuals or families could read them in conjunction with the private reading of the daily offices from the Prayer Book in private homes. In the case of a communal reading in family, the evening office could be read together and a portion of the Homily after it.
In summary, the Homilies are inherently and indivisibly part of the Anglican heritage and as authoritative for understanding correct doctrine as the Prayer Book and the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion. The neglect of reading the Homilies, either publicly in divine service or other functions in the church, and privately by individuals, has led to the gradual erosion of our Anglican identity. To properly reclaim this heritage, we must read and engage with the Homilies in a naturalistic setting by listening to them as sermons and reading them privately as doctrinal statements.