Preaching as a Profession: Against Ignorance and Sedition

The canons of 1603 provided that the Christian religion should be taught from:

(1) the Catechism contained in the Book of Common Prayer

(2) the authorised books of homilies and

(3) sermons preached by authorised preachers.

Clergy were required to ‘examine and instruct the youth and ignorant persons of [the] parish, in the Ten Commandments, the Articles of the Belief [i.e the Creed], and in the Lord’s Prayer: and shall diligently hear, instruct and teach them the Catechism set forth in the Book of Common Prayer’ (canon 59).  This duty was shared with licensed schoolmasters (canon 79).  Familiarity with the Catechism was an essential precondition of confirmation: ‘none shall be presented to the Bishop for [confirmation] but such as can render an account of their faith, according to the Catechism …’ (canon 61).

There are two authorised books of homilies, dating from 1547 and 1571 respectively.  The canons of 1603 anticipated that further homilies would be authorised in the future.  Thus canon 49 refers to ‘the Homilies already set forth, or hereafter to be published by lawful authority …’ (see also canon 46).  Every church was required to possess copies of the homilies, as well as the Bible and the Book of Common Prayer (canon 80).

As a general rule, the teaching function of the clergy was limited to (1) and (2) above.  They were required to teach the Catechism and to read the authorised Homilies to their parishioners, but not to preach their own sermons.  Not only were clergy in general not required to preach, they were positively forbidden to do so.

It is easy to forget this now.  However, as the Court noted in the case of Colefatt v Newcomb 92 English Reports 296, ‘By the old canon law preaching was not part of the minister’s office … but only reading mass and administering the sacraments: and nobody preached then without licence of the bishop, but he appointed preachers’.

This is confirmed by Lyndwood’s Provinciale (circa 1432), which provides that

‘no [ordained clergyman] which is not authorised by the law, or otherwise specially privileged, to preach the Word of God shall take upon himself the office or use of preaching the said Word of God … except he first present himself to the Diocesan [bishop] of that place where he intendeth to preach and … be then sent to preach by the Diocesan unto one certain parish, or unto many, as it shall seem expedient …’ (Book 5, Title 1, Chapter 1).

The reformers appreciated the importance of preaching, but there were difficulties, as Phillimore records:

‘The clergy in Queen Elizabeth [I]’s time being very ignorant … and moreover the state having a jealous eye upon them, as if they were not very affected to the Reformation none were permitted to preach without licence, but they were to study and read the homilies … and they that were instituted subscribed a promise to the same effect’ (Ecclesiastical Law, 2nd edition 1895, p.786).

The situation had evidently not improved when King James I succeeded to the throne.  Another commentator observed that ‘The canons of 1603 have many provisions on the subject of preaching, there being at that time a close association between the pulpit and sedition’ (The Book of Church Law, 10th edition 1905, p.120).

Preaching was indeed closely regulated by the 1603 canons.  Preachers were the clerical elite.  Cathedral dignitaries were ex officio preachers (cf canon 43).  However, other clergy required a special licence to preach from a bishop, the Archbishop, or from Oxford or Cambridge Universities (cf canon 51).  At the very least they required permission to preach from their diocesan bishop (canon 49).

Thus canon 49 provided that ‘No person whatsoever, not examined or approved by the Bishop of the diocese, or not licensed … for a sufficient and convenient preacher, shall take upon him to expound in his own cure, or elsewhere, any Scripture or matter of doctrine: but shall only study to read plainly and aptly (without glossing or adding) the [authorised] Homilies ….’.

Incumbents who were also licensed preachers were supposed to preach in their churches every Sunday. Unpreaching incumbents were required to ‘procure’ sermons at least once a month (canon 47). A non-resident incumbent was expected to supply a preaching curate ‘if the worth of the benefice will bear it’. If no preacher was available, an authorised homily would be read instead of the sermon. Cathedral dignitaries were required to preach in their own churches (canon 43).

Preaching was allowed in private or institutional chapels, and in private houses when ministering to those too ill or frail to attend church (canon 71). However, preaching ‘in market towns or other places’ was forbidden ‘without the licence and direction of the Bishop … first obtained and had under his hand and seal …’ (canon 72).

All preaching activity was carefully controlled.  Incumbents and churchwardens ‘shall [not] suffer any man to preach within their churches … but such as, by showing their licence to preach, shall appear unto them to be sufficiently authorised thereunto’ (canon 50).  Cathedral chapters were likewise obliged to forbid unlicensed preaching in their cathedrals (canon 51).  Visiting preachers were required to sign a special register recording the date of the sermon and the name of the preacher’s licensing bishop (canon 52).

Preachers shared a collective responsibility for the Church’s preaching ministry.  They were required to refrain from controversy inter se.  A preacher was not supposed to ‘impugn or confute any doctrine delivered by any other preacher in the same church, or in any church near adjoining’ without the bishop’s permission (canon 53).  Thus any doctrinal disputes were supposed to be referred to the bishop for resolution, not fought out from opposing pulpits.  As canon 53 wisely observed ‘upon such public dissenting and contradicting there may grow much offence and disquietness unto the people’.  The bishop could impose silence on a controversial preacher.  Preachers who refused to submit to professional discipline lost their licences (canon 54).

In Gates v Chambers (1824) 162 English Reports 259, the Court of the Arches observed that, by the early 18th century, this old regime of preaching had fallen into desuetude and that licences to preach ‘are now included either in letters of orders or in the licences of ministers to particular cures’ (p.264).  Writing in the late 19th century, Phillimore noted cheerfully that ‘the bishops do generally and justly forbear to put the [1603] Canons as to [preaching] in execution: and every priest is permitted to preach, at least in his own cure …’ (ibid, p.786).

The Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974 provides, somewhat vaguely, that the Prayer Book Catechism, being a ‘form of service’ contained in the Book of Common Prayer shall ‘continue to be available for use in the Church of England’ (s.1(2)).  The revised Canons are vague too.  The Prayer Book Catechism is no longer specifically referred to.  Reference is made only to ‘the Church Catechism‘ (canons B26(1) and B27(2)), but this is not identified further.  It is not made clear whether any other Catechism has been authorised, or when, or where such Catechism is to be found.

The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd edition 1998) relates that a revised Catechism ‘was in 1962 commended by the Convocations for use during a period of 7 years, which has been repeatedly extended’.  To have proper authority, any revised Catechism will now require the approval of the General Synod, by a two-thirds majority in all 3 Houses (canon B2).

No further books of homilies have been authorised since 1571.

The modern legal regulation of preaching is rather more perfunctory than that of 1603.  Canon B18(1) provides that at least one sermon shall be preached on Sunday, ‘except for some reasonable cause approved by the bishop’.  The purpose of a sermon is said to be ‘to minister the word of truth, to the glory of God and to the edification of the people’ (B18(3)).  The modern liturgical book Common Worship suggests excitingly that ‘the sermon [can] include … the use of drama, interviews, discussion, audio-visuals’.

Licensed lay ministers may now preach (see canons E4 and E7).  Canon B18(2) also provides that ‘another person’ besides an ordained or lay minister, may preach at the invitation of the incumbent, though the permission of the bishop is required, either specifically or in accordance with diocesan directions.

The revised canons confirm that Oxford and Cambridge Universities can still grant licences to preach, notwithstanding that both were separated from the Church of England and secularised in the 19th century. Canon C8(2)(c) even provides that a minister who has such a licence ‘may preach the Word of God in any diocese … throughout England … without any further authority from the bishop thereof’. However, this privilege is hard to reconcile with s.15 of the Act of Uniformity 1662, which provides that a person is not permitted to preach in any place of public worship without the approval and licence of the appropriate bishop or Archbishop.

Although lay ministers may now preach, the administration of the 7 traditional sacraments is still reserved to ordained ministers.  Lay ministers may only assist the ordained to administer the sacraments (though any layperson may administer baptism in an emergency.)

In the Roman Catholic Church, by contrast, only clergy may preach at the Eucharist (Code of Canon Law 1983, canon 767).  This is not because clergy are necessarily better preachers than laypeople, but because of ‘the closely connected functions of teaching and sanctifying’ (cf Instruction on the Collaboration of Non-Ordained Faithful in the Sacred Ministry (1997)).  Only ordained ministers are capable of combining those two functions, which are both celebrated at the Eucharist.  (It should be remembered that ‘clergy’ in the Roman Catholic Church include married permanent deacons, as well as priests and bishops, and the function of permanent deacons may be hard to distinguish in practice from that of licensed lay readers.) Laypeople may preach on other occasions outside the Eucharist if this is ‘necessary or … advantageous’, subject to local law (canon 766).

Ignorance and sedition may not be the serious problems that they once were, but it is possible that a more exact and detailed regulation of catechesis and preaching might improve the quality and efficacy of the Church of England’s teaching ministry.