What did the Ornaments Rubric Mean?
by Philip Jones
‘Provided always … that such ornaments of  a church, and  the ministers thereof,
shall be retained and be in use as was [in use] in this Church of England by the authority of Parliament in  until other order shall be taken by the authority of the Queen’s Majesty or of the Metropolitan of this realm [i.e the Archbishop of Canterbury] …’ (Act of Uniformity 1558)
‘the Minister, at the time of the Communion, and at all other times in his ministration, shall use ornaments in the church, as were in use by the authority of Parliament in  according to the Act of Parliament [of 1558, above]’ (1558 rubric)
‘such ornaments of the church, and of the ministers thereof, at all times of their ministration, shall be retained, and be in use, as were in the Church of England, by the authority of Parliament [in 1549]’ (1662 rubric).
This question is phrased in the past tense advisedly. The Ornaments Rubric no longer means anything to the English law of public worship. The statutory authority that the Prayer Book rubrics once enjoyed was abolished by the Worship and Doctrine Measure 1974, except in respect of banns of marriage. This is discussed in a separate post, filed below.
However, the Ornaments Rubric was discussed at length by the Court of the Arches and by the Privy Council in two celebrated 19th century ritual cases
(1) Liddell v Westerton (1857) and
(2) Elphinstone v Purchas, later Hebbert v Purchas (1870-1)
Liddell concerned the ornaments of the church. A faculty was sought for the removal of various items associated with ritualism, such as cross and lights on the altar and colourful altar coverings.
Purchas concerned the ornaments of the minister. The Rev Mr Purchas was charged with ‘wearing … whilst officiating in the communion service … a vestment called a chasuble … [and] a certain vestment called an alb, instead of a surplice’ (p.167), i.e the catholic eucharistic vestments. Mr Elphinstone, the original prosecutor, died before the case reached the Privy Council, so Mr Hebbert had to be substituted. (Death was not allowed to frustrate the continued pursuit of Mr Purchas, such was the gravity of the case.)
The erudite Sir Robert Phillimore, Dean of the Arches and original author of the famous commentary on ecclesiastical law, had no difficulty with the Ornaments Rubric: ‘the construction of this Rubric according to general principles of legal interpretation … appear[s] to me as plain and simple as any which is to be found in any statutory enactment’ (Phillimore’s Ecclesiastical Judgments, p.162). He saw the irony of the Rubric being used to oppose ritualism when its original purpose was to protect the ornaments of church and minister from iconoclastic radical protestants who wished to get rid of them.
Phillimore also understood that the Rubric is expressed in mandatory, not prohibitive, terms. It provides that the identified ornaments must be used. It does not provide that only those ornaments may be used and no other.
Unfortunately the Privy Council interpreted the Rubric differently. It observed in Liddell that, upon the accession of Queen Elizabeth I in 1558, ‘a great controversy arose between the more violent and the more moderate reformers as to the Church service which should be re-established’ (Six Privy Council Judgments (1872) ed W.G Brooke, p.52). This controversy dated back to the reign of the Queen’s half-brother, the boy King Edward VI. During his short reign, two Prayer Books (or two different versions of the same Prayer Book) were published. The first Prayer Book, in 1549, was conservative and ‘catholic’ in character. As the political balance of power shifted in favour of the radical reformers, the second Prayer Book, published in 1552, was more avowedly protestant.
The Elizabethan settlement of 1558 was therefore a compromise between the two parties. Elizabethan public worship would use the forms of service in the ‘protestant’ 1552 Book, but retain the ornaments mentioned in the ‘catholic’ 1549 Book. Protestant services with catholic ornaments. That was the deal.
The Privy Council reasoned that ‘the word ‘ornaments’ applies, and in this Rubric [i.e the Ornaments Rubric] is confined to, those articles the use of which … is [positively] prescribed by [the 1549 Book]’ (p.52). Ornaments not prescribed by the 1549 Book could therefore not be permitted.
Thus the apparent conclusion was that the Elizabethan compromise still bound the Church of England, and the courts, 300 years later. If extra ornaments were permitted, this would be a breach of the compromise. The violent reformers would be short-changed.
The Privy Council was careful to state that the phrase ‘ornaments of the church’ did not refer to all physical items within Victorian churches. The Ornaments Rubric did not mean that all articles not expressly referred to in the 1549 Book are illegal. The ‘ornaments’ referred to in the Rubric comprised ‘All the several articles used in the performance of the services and rites of the Church’ (p.51). Items used to decorate the church rather than to perform liturgical actions were outside the scope of the Rubric, and so might be permitted. Therefore ‘crosses … when used as mere emblems of the Christian faith, and not as objects of superstitious reverence … may still lawfully be erected as architectural decorations …’, even though not referred to in the 1549 Book (p.65).
So much for the ornaments of the church. In Purchas, the Privy Council proceeded to examine the ornaments of the minister.
Prima facie the ritualists were on stronger ground here. The 1549 Book provided that, at the holy communion, ‘commonly called the masse’, the officiating priest ‘shall put upon him … a white alb … with a [eucharistic] vestment or cope’. Any clergy assisting him were required to wear ‘albs with tunicles’.
The Act of 1558, as quoted above, suggests that the Ornaments Rubric was intended to be a temporary provision only. It was to apply only ‘until other order shall be taken’. Yet the 1662 rubric, which was authorized over 100 years later, is almost exactly the same wording as the 1558 rubric. This may suggest that no such ‘other order’ was ever taken, and that the compromise of 1558 was revived in 1662 without alteration.
This was Phillimore’s view. Certain ‘Advertisements’ concerning public worship were published in the 1560s, but Phillimore held that ‘the Queen never gave her official or legal sanction to these’ (p.169). The canons of 1603 make no reference to eucharistic vestments, and provide that ‘Every minister saying the public prayers, or ministering the sacraments [including holy communion] or other rites of the Church, shall wear a decent and comely surplice’ (canon 58). At holy communion in cathedrals, likewise, the officiating clergyman was required to wear ‘a decent cope’, but again no eucharistic vestments (canon 24).
However, as Phillimore pointed out, the canons of 1603 were promulgated under the Submission of the Clergy Act 1533, a quite different statute from the 1558 Act of Uniformity. Moreover, they did not have the sanction of the Archbishop of Canterbury, as the 1558 Act required, because the See of Canterbury was vacant at the time they were promulgated. The Bishop of London had presided instead of the Archbishop.
Thus, while the canons of 1603 might permit clergy to officiate at holy communion in a surplice, they could not forbid clergy from wearing eucharistic vestments. The canons of 1603 could not replace or override the 1558 Act.
Once again, the Privy Council disagreed. It held that the Advertisements of the 1560s did have royal authority, and so did constitute ‘other order’ under the 1558 Act. Moreover, they were enforced by royal commissioners. The practical effect of this was ‘that within a few years after the Advertisements were issued the [eucharistic] vestments … entirely disappeared’ (p.170). There was no attempt to revive them before 1662. The canons of 1603 ‘ordered surplice only to be used in parish churches’ (p.176).
Although the wording of the 1662 rubric may seem almost identical to the 1558 wording, the Privy Council detected a critical difference. The 1558 rubric contains a specific reference to holy communion. It distinguishes between the ornaments of the minister ‘at the time of the communion, and at all other times’. The 1662 rubric, by contrast, makes no separate reference to holy communion.
This means, or so the Privy Council reasoned, that in 1558 clergy were expected to wear different ‘ornaments’ when officiating at holy communion and when officiating at other acts of worship. In 1662, by contrast, clergy were expected to wear the same vestments (i.e surplice only, or surplice and cope) at all acts of worship, including holy communion.
The Privy Council therefore held, with ruthless logic, that ‘If the minister is ordered to wear a surplice at all times of his ministration, he cannot wear an alb and tunicle … if he is celebrating holy communion in a chasuble, he cannot celebrate in a surplice’ (pp.178-9).
Chancellor Bursell described this interpretation of the Ornaments Rubric as ‘rigorist’. It was unjust to Mr Purchas. It may well be true that Eucharistic vestments were officially discouraged and fell into disuse in Elizabethan times, and that there was no wish to revive them in 1662. It may also be true that the 1662 rubric envisages that clergy will officiate at holy communion in surplices.
However, the 1662 rubric does not forbid clergy from wearing eucharistic vestments. The Rev Mr Purchas had been charged with an ecclesiastical offence. In deciding his case, the Privy Council was exercising a disciplinary, indeed a ‘criminal’, jurisdiction. He should not have been convicted of using Eucharistic vestments without a clearly worded rule positively forbidding such use. The wording of the 1662 rubric is not nearly clear enough.
The Privy Council’s treatment of the canons of 1603 was also anachronistic. The canons did not positively forbid Eucharistic vestments, any more than the rubric. On their wording they do not order surplice only. They were not directed against 19th century ritualists, but to upholding minimum liturgical standards against a radical Protestantism that wished to do away with all ecclesiastical vestments.
While the original Elizabethan provision for ornaments may have effected a stable compromise, the Privy Council’s interpretation of the Ornaments Rubric merely resulted in anarchy. Its judgments were ignored by the Church of England, and the study and reputation of ecclesiastical law never recovered.