One of the 39 Articles of the Anglican Church states that: 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.
It is not, to my knowledge, still the custom anywhere in the Anglican communion to read these homilies during services of public worship. But recently I was asked how influential they are, and I had to reply that although lip service is paid to the idea that they contain a “godly and wholesome doctrine,” most Anglicans would be hard pressed to tell you what that doctrine actually was.
So, as much for my own education as for your amusement, I decided to work my way through the homilies and comment briefly on them here. In each case, I’ll be looking for the main point of the homily and asking, does it contain a godly and wholesome doctrine, necessary for these times? And if it does, how might I present that doctrine in my own preaching today?
So, first up: An homilie on the right use of the church or temple of God, and of the reverence due unto the same.
The bumper sticker version of this homily would be: Go to church. And pay attention while you’re there. And fundamentally, it’s pretty hard to argue with that. The homily argues that the church, as the place of common and public prayer, is the place for the people of God to gather, to hear God’s holy word, to call upon his holy name, to give him thanks for his innumerable and unspeakable benefits bestowed upon us, and duly and truly to celebrate his holy sacraments, and that this is our “most bounden duty.”
So far so good. The way that the supporting arguments are presented is perhaps, a little bit dated; today we would likely not argue that our having seasonable weather is dependent on our church-going, but I would be more likely to set our church-going within a wider horizon of hope and of equipping us to participate in the mission of God. (But then, I don’t minister within a national, Established church, either, and that would change how one sees the relationship between God, the Church, and the state…)
And where the homily presents the role of the laity in their church going as relatively passive (stressing their role as quiet and reverent hearers of Scripture and the public prayers as said by the minister), I would be more likely to present the church as the arena in which we all have a role to play and a contribution to bring, and to encourage people not to leave the community the poorer without their presence.
There is, I think some use of Scripture which today we would find questionable; we would not likely draw an equivalence between the ancient Jewish temple and contemporary Christian church buildings, as if they were identical in purpose and function; and I think we would be more likely to understand “Church” first as the body of the believers, and only as the institution or building or worship service in a secondary sense. The distinction isn’t always clear in the homily, and more work could be done on teasing that out, in contemporary preaching.
But those are, perhaps, questions of culture as much as anything else. The fundamental point remains; worshipping together is good.
A side note: one element of the homily which surprised me was its open praise of the Jews, even to the point of saying that the Jews were far superior to the Christians, in their diligence at worship; while criticising the Christians for their slackness and contempt of the importance of worship. No doubt this was making a powerful rhetorical point to its original hearers, but I thought it was quite refreshing as an example of the opposite of anti-Semitism enshrined in “godly and wholesome doctrine”!