Peter McCullough

Changes in Liturgy, Preaching, Building and Governance from the Reformation to the Civil War as exemplified in St Paul’s Cathedral

(A review by John Davies)

A lecture by Professor Peter McCullough of Lincoln College, Oxford.

It is unusual (and welcome) to have a teacher of English literature to speak to the society; even more so when this distinguished lecturer (UCLA, Princeton and Oxford) appeared before us as an historian and archivist and one who celebrated the continuing connection between Lincoln College Oxford, founded by Bishop Fleming, and the Diocese of Lincoln.

Until recently a lay canon of St Paul’s Cathedral, Professor McCullough used relatively inaccessible documents from St Paul’s Cathedral archives as well as from its library, to paint a vivid picture of continuity and change.

We heard about the life of the cathedral from Henry VIII’s reign through that of Protestant Edward VI (1549 – 1551), Catholic Mary (1557 – 1558), ostensibly Protestant Elizabeth (1558 – 1603) and early into James I’s reign. During these reigns, doctrine and worship changed; yet many of the Cathedral’s staff, residentiary canons, minor canons, vicars choral, bellringers and vergers, continued in their posts and through the wills of residentiaries, not even names to us until Professor McCullough told us about them. We heard of elaborate catholic provisions for the repose of the testator’s soul, including much expense for tapers (actually big candles) chantry priests who prayed for the dead (there were more than 40 of these at the Reformation) as well as generous provisions for colleagues and for the poor. The former included immensely valuable books probably in the latest editions by Erasmus.

As the Reformation proceeded from Edwardian extremism to Elizabethan moderation and compromise (my interpretation) – our lecturer eschewed generalisations – there were tugs of war and implicit (or explicit) disagreements between such as the long serving Dean Nowell who was from the Presbyterian end of the Church of England (who knew that we’d ever had one? Not this writer) and Lancelot Andrewes, a member of the chapter, and Bishop Bancroft. The record of the Bishop’s visitation and the interviewing of cathedral staff, residentiaries, vicars choral, vergers etc. are most revealing. The singers confessed to dodging sermons. Others complained of the misbehaviour (including begging) of choirboys during services, while the noise of visitors – tourists in fact – who’d paid to go up the steeple, often interrupted worship.

And what were life and worship like at St Paul’s after the Reformation? There were no processions (Edward VI’s regime had banned them – they only returned to the Church of England in the 19th century), no candles – the great rood (or cross), an object of veneration and focus of devotion for the common people for centuries, had been removed. There was one service of holy communion in a month (in most churches at this time there were only two a year). Much of the cathedral was in decay. Sermons were separate from services proper. Originally a major means of Protestant teaching, they were adopted by Catholics under Mary Tudor and heard outside the cathedral at St Paul’s Cross. The greatest preacher of all, perhaps, was Dean John Donne. Professor McCullough gave us brief but vivid insights into the utterly arresting rhetoric and power and originality’s of this great poet’s preaching. Scripture quotations became arrows aimed at the hearts and minds of individual worshippers. Sermons in this period were great events – they lasted for about an hour and people in their thousands were not bored but many went home and made notes of what they had heard.

The pattern of worship as we know it stems in many ways from 19th century attempts to revive mediaeval, pre-Reformation practices. There are still in the Church of England tensions between those who are ‘low’ and ‘high’. Professor McCullough showed us the origins of these in the history of one great English Church, Old St Paul’s – for as his excellent powerpoint images reminded us, he was speaking about the cathedral which was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. It was more like our cathedral than Wren’s new building (itself the result of compromise, we learnt). During a period often looked back to by 19th and 20th century churchmen as decadent, faithful, orderly, devout worship continued through manifold dangers and changes. In a decaying building, the actual worship area was well maintained and much used. Christian people, ordained and lay, while differing profoundly about ceremonies for the dead and the means of salvation, continued to worship God in Trinity.

For me, the climax of the lecture was illustrated by two visual images – one of a first edition of Tyndale’s New Testament in St Paul’s library – a gift of the 18th century. Most copies of this were publicly burnt outside the cathedral, so there is a certain irony in this – and the other of John Donne, Catholic-Protestant divine, preacher and poet.

Professor McCullough gave us a very clear picture of continuity and change through the eyes of many little-known persons. He clarified complexity without selling it short and gave us a rich insight into our own origins as Catholics, Anglicans and, implicitly, free church Christians, insight into who we are today and where we came from.

It was a memorable evening.