Ben Underwood returns to considering the purpose of going to church. This time round he digs into the Prayer Book and Homilies.

Ben Underwood is an Associate Minister at St Matthew’s Shenton Park, WA

In an earlier essay1 I sought to expound the views of John Piper and Broughton Knox on the purpose of church — what Christian congregations are supposed to be doing when they gather and why. I ended that essay saying, “I can’t read what [Piper and Knox] have to say without being challenged to examine what I am thinking and feeling and seeking when I go to church on Sunday. And I have a hankering to read what some of the reformers had to say on this topic.” This part two is the eventual result of that hankering to read some reformers. I am Anglican, so, in following my hankering, reading the Book of Common Prayer, the 39 Articles and the Homilies seemed to be an obvious thing to do. I find Calvin, in his Institutes, to be a lucid and concise expounder of doctrine, so I have read relevant sections of that work too. Here’s what I have found in my dipping into Anglican sources. I’ll turn to Calvin in a future instalment.

Thomas Cranmer et al: Church is for
a great advancement of godliness

By daily hearing of Holy Scripture … inflamed with the love of his true religion
The Anglicans get straight to the point in the preface of the prayer books of 1549 and 1552. Here’s the opening of the preface to the 1549 prayer book:
‘There was never any thing by the wit of man so well devised, or so surely established, which (in continuance of time) hath not been corrupted: as (emong other thinges) it may plainly appere by the common prayers in the Churche, commonlye called divine service: the firste originall and grounde whereof, if a manne woulde searche out by the auncient fathers, he shall finde that the same was not ordeyned, but of a good purpose, and for a great advauncement of godlines: For they so ordred the matter, that all the whole Bible (or the greatest parte thereof) should be read over once in the yeare, intendyng thereby, that the Cleargie, and specially suche as were Ministers of the congregacion, should (by often readyng and meditacion of Gods worde) be stirred up to godlines themselfes, and be more able also to exhorte other by wholsome doctrine, and to confute them that were adversaries to the trueth. And further, that the people (by daily hearyng of holy scripture read in the Churche) should continuallye profite more and more in the knowledge of God, and bee the more inflamed with the love of his true religion.’2
My italics pick out the phrases that express what end the activities of church are to serve in those assembled. Cranmer’s conviction is that going to church should produce godliness in Christians. In particular, being in church is to stir up Christians to godliness, to inflame them with love of God’s true religion. Church is to kindle the affections of Christians for godliness.

Further, church does this by ‘the daily hearyng of holy scripture’, by which the people will ‘continuallye profite more and more in the knowledge of God, and bee the more inflamed with the love of his true religion’. Cranmer sees this as the intention of the ‘auncient fathers’ which had been corrupted prior to his time.

Cranmer’s great esteem of the hearing and knowing of Scripture is also on show in the First Book of Homilies (1547). Homily 1: ‘A frvitfvll exhortation to the reading and knowledge of holy Scripture’ opens thus:

‘To a Christian man there can bee nothing either more necessarie or profitable, then the knowledge of holy Scripture, forasmuch as in it is conteyned GODS true word, setting foorth his glory, and also mans duety.’3

And soon goes on:
‘there is nothing that so much strengtheneth our faith and trust in GOD, that so much keepeth vp innocency and purenesse of the heart, and also of outward godly life and conuersation, as continuall reading and recording of GODS word’4

For the peculiar service done to his majesty

But Cranmer’s convictions about the importance of knowing Scripture do not mean that church is simply an exercise in hearing Scripture read, other things are integral to church fulfilling its purpose. Not only are we acted upon by the reading of Scripture, but we also act towards God together in various modes of prayer. In 1552 this exhortation was added to morning prayer:

And although we ought at al times humbly to knowledge our synnes before God: yet ought we most chiefly so to doe, when we assemble and mete together, to rendre thanks for the great benefytes that we have receyved at his hands, to set foorth hys moste worthy prayse, to hear his most holy word, and to aske those things which be requisite and necessarye, as well for the body as the soule.’5
This exhortation mentions four other congregational exercises besides the hearing of God’s word: confession, thanksgiving, praise and petition. To these modes of common prayer we should add the use of the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper, together forming the basic and accustomed activities of church.6

Reading certain homilies, there is a strong sense that these exercises are regarded as the duties a Christian owes to God, the right service and worship that Christians are bound to offer to God. So church is not just a forum for Christians to be stirred up to godliness, but is also a place where we must go to honour God through our prayer and praise. As the Second Book of Homilies (1563) Homily 1: ‘The Right Use of The Church’ says:

‘the materiall Church or Temple is a place appointed as well by the vsage and continuall examples expressed in the olde Testament, as in the New, for the people of GOD to resort together vnto, there to heare GODS holy Word, to call vpon his holy Name, to giue him thankes for his innumerable and vnspeakeable benefits bestowed vpon vs, and duely and truely to celebrate his holy Sacraments: (In the vnfained doing and accomplishing of the which, standeth that true and right worshipping of GOD afore mentioned) and the same Church or Temple, is by the holy Scriptures both of the Olde Testament and New, called the House and Temple of the Lord, for the peculiar seruice there done to his Maiestie by his people, and for the effectuous presence of his heauenly Grace, wherewith hee by his sayd holy Word endueth his people so there assembled.’7

The strong note sounded throughout this homily (and others in the second book) about the Christian’s obligation to engage in these congregational exercises stood out to me. In an age where we believe so much in our individual freedom to find our own way, I hesitate to talk this strongly:

‘And to the said house or Temple of GOD, at all times, by common order appointed, are all people that be godly indeed, bound with all diligence in resort, vnlesse by sickenesse, or other most vrgent causes they bee letted therefro.  And all the same so resorting thither, ought with all quietnesse and reuerence there to behaue themselues, in doing their bounden duetie and seruice to Almightie GOD, in the Congregation of his Saints.’8

Ignoring any modern squeamishness over the schoolmasterly tone, it is enough to recognise that Anglicanism’s founders taught that not only are we acted upon through hearing the Bible, but we also act, and discharge a duty to God, offering him service and worship in our communal thanksgiving, praise, prayer and celebration of the sacraments. Perhaps among Christians focused too much on what church can do for us, and easily distracted from going along, a greater sense that for us to engage with God in common prayer honours God, being worship we owe him, would help us offer common praise and prayer more faithfully, to our benefit and to God’s glory.

And for the effectuous presence of his heavenly grace

But we must journey back to where we began, namely the benefit of church for us: a progress in our godliness. At church we receive gifts from God that bind us in love to him. These gifts of his heavenly grace come by his word, and also in the sacraments. There is a lovely opening to the ‘Homily On Common Prayer And Sacraments’ (Book 2 Homily 9):

‘Among the manifold exercises of GODS people (deare Christians) there is none more necessary for all estates, and at all times, then is publike prayer, and the due vse of Sacraments.  For in the first, wee beg at GODS hands all such things, as otherwise we can not obtain. And in the other, hee imbraceth vs, and offereth himselfe to bee embraced of vs.’9

This is a strikingly intimate and personal way to speak of the use of the sacraments (and surely God’s embrace will inflame our love for him!). The theme of the church as a place of embrace of God by human beings is also found in this description of the benefit Simeon received by his going to the Temple in the ‘Homily on the Place and Time of Prayer’ (Book 2, Hom 8)

‘in the Temple hee saw Christ, and tooke him in his armes, in the Temple hee brake out into the mighty prayse of GOD his Lord’10
The homily draws out the lesson of Simeon (and Anna) thus:

‘This blessed man, and this blessed woman, were not disappointed of wonderfull fruit, commodity and comfort, which GOD sent them, by their diligent resorting to GODS holy Temple’11

And so we should go to church expecting his efficacious presence, expecting the wonderful fruit, commodity and comfort of seeing Christ, and (so to speak) taking him in our arms.

There to work at how to be in charity with your neighbour

After then lamenting the neglect and corruption of the true use of church, and the ascendancy of the ‘great Turke, this bitter and sharpe scourge of GODS vengeance, […] greedily gaping to deuoure vs, to ouerrunne our countrey, to destroy our Churches also, vnlesse wee repent our sinfull life’12, the Homily on the Place and Time of Prayer says,

‘Churches were made for another purpose, that is, to resort thither, and to serue GOD truely, there to learne his blessed will, there to call vpon his mighty Name, there to vse the holy Sacraments, there to trauaile how to bee in charitie with thy neighbour, there to haue thy poore and needy neighbour in remembrance, from thence to depart better and more godly then thou camest thither.’13

Which brings us full circle, but not without adding a new thought; that church should be a place where we ‘trauaile’—i.e. travail, struggle, work at—‘how to bee in charitie’ with our neighbour. Loving your neighbour is a struggle, and it can be hard to see how to do it. Church is supposed to be a place where we engage in that struggle. This may not be the most optimistic way to draw our fellow Christians into a vision of what church is for, but I can hardly gainsay its realism. The awkward presence of your neighbour with you in church, the difficult thought that comes to you during church of the neighbour who may not even be present—church is an opportunity for us to figure out better ways to live in love with our neighbours.
At church we should also have our ‘poore and needy neighbour in remembrance’. No doubt almsgiving is meant to be a central part of this remembrance, but, in addition to this, being in church, not just with our friends who are like us, but all and sundry from the community, prompts us to think about how to live in love towards those who need the help of the community. They will always be with us, and we cannot neglect them and still imagine our faith is genuine (Jas 2:15-16, 1 Jn 3:17). In this way too, church is for a ‘great advancement of godliness’.

From thence to depart better and more godly than you came

And so we arrive where we began, with the thought that church is something that goes to work on us, to increase our godliness. This happens as we are acted upon: as, hearing the Scriptures, and thus profiting in the knowledge of God, we are inflamed with love of God’s true religion; as, using the sacraments, we receive God’s embrace, and God offers himself to be embraced by us. This increase of godliness is also worked out in us as we act: as, in acknowledging sin, giving thanks to God, praising him and calling on his name for our need, we honour God as we ought to. And godliness is also increased in us as we act to work out how to live in love with each of our neighbours, especially the poor and needy. In all these ways church is to work so that we depart better and more godly than we came in.


I summed up John Piper’s take on church as being for worship, and Broughton Knox’s take on church as being for fellowship. In my rough and impressionistic reading of the prayer book and homilies, I’ll sum up foundational Anglicanism’s take on church as being for greater godliness. The formularies haven’t got a theology so obviously guided by one big idea, as Piper and Knox do, but they do have an idea of what church is for that is coherent, serious, rich, evangelical and worth reflecting upon. On this score, I’m glad to be Anglican.


1 in Essentials Autumn 2015.
2 Taken from http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1549/front_matter_1549.htm#Preface accessed 31 Dec 2015. This paragraph is retained in the 1662 preface under the heading ‘Concerning the service of the church’.
3 ‘Homily On The Reading Of Scripture’ Short Title Catalogue 13675 Renaissance Electronic Texts 1.1. copyright 1994 Ian Lancashire (ed.) University of Toronto. http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/ret/homilies/bk1hom1.html accessed 21 Jan 2016
4 Ibid
5 Morning Prayer 1552, http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/1552/MP_1552.htm accessed 21 Jan 2016. Again, note that this exhortation appears in the 1662 BCP in both morning and evening
6 The prayer book also provides for pastoral and occasional services too: confirmations, weddings etc.
7 ‘ Homily On The Right Use Of The Church’ from Short-Title Catalogue 13675. Renaissance Electronic Texts 1.2. © 1994, 1997 Ian Lancashire University of Toronto http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/ret/homilies/bk2hom1.html, accessed 21 Jan 2016
8 Ibid.
9 ‘Homily On Common Prayer And Sacraments’ from Short-Title Catalogue 13675. Renaissance Electronic Texts 1.2. © 1994, 1997 Ian Lancashire (ed.) University of Toronto http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/ret/homilies/bk2hom9.html accessed 21 Jan 2016.
10 ‘Homily On The Place And Time Of Prayer’, from Short-Title Catalogue 13675. Renaissance Electronic Texts 1.2. © 1994, 1997 Ian Lancashire (ed.) University of Toronto. http://www.library.utoronto.ca/utel/ret/homilies/bk2hom8.html accessed 21 Jan 2016.
11 Ibid.
12 Ibid.
14 Ibid.