The First Book of Homilies
The Church of England’s Official Sermons in Modern English
Lee Gatiss (ed.)
Lost Coin Books, 2021 (ISBN: 978-1-7399376-0-7, 200pp, £11.99)
Sincere interest in the Books of Homilies is a valuable mark of true churchmanship. Knowledge of the key formularies (prayer book, ordinal and articles) is at a low ebb, even (perhaps especially) among the ordained leaders of the church. Those who do consider these standards of our faith note that the thirty-fifth article incorporates by reference the homilies, even featuring a list of the twenty-one in the latter book thereof. Thus what may appear on its face the shortest of our formularies and one of the briefest confessions of the reformed world is in fact an iceberg of divinity.
Going beneath the waves to explore, let alone to use, the homilies was frustrated for large parts of the last century by the books being out of print. The definitive Victorian edition came in 1859 from the Rev John Griffiths, a fellow and tutor at Wadham College, Oxford but it enjoyed only intermittent print runs in succeeding decades. The modern dearth was partially remedied in 2006 by a version from Ian Robinson, a lecturer in Swansea, who died last year after a long retirement. Robinson’s revision was sufficiently reactionary that it, inter alia, rejected many updates to the text of the first book from as early as 1559, reverting to the 1547 original. This ‘purist’ attitude coloured most of Robinson’s academic and literary career and, though in some sense admirable for its doggedness, did little to endear him to contemporaries. Robinson’s was soon followed by a reprinting of Griffiths in 2008 from Regent College Publishing and then in 2015 by the magnificent critical edition from Gerald Bray. Bray noted that Griffiths’ edition, by then over 150 years old, remained the most recent and, with resignation, that the homilies ‘are now more of historical than of doctrinal interest’. With the latest in submarine technology, Gatiss attempts to shake that grim prognosis.
The homilies were completed in 1571 when the twenty-first was added to the second book, twenty-two years after the initial publication of the first prayer book. A slightly longer span of twenty-seven years separates the Church Society’s modern English presentations of the prayer book and first book of articles. 1994’s An English Prayer Book might be judged a great success insofar as when it appeared, Common Worship did include as one of its four eucharistic offerings a modern language version of the prayer book rite. Should any similar degree of success attach to this edition of the homilies it would be a cause for great thanksgiving.
The most notable feature of this edition is its gender-neutralisation. The ruckus caused by the 2011 NIV’s move in this direction still echoes around many churches and denominations. Though Robinson may be turning in his grave at this treatment to the text of the homilies, the adaptive spirit of Cranmer may take a more indulgent view. Gatiss himself pleads the approach on the commendable basis of removing potential distractions and impediments to a modern audience.
But how many modern audiences will actually get to hear a homily? Robinson was undoubtedly correct in his assessment that ‘even today there are occasions when it would be more edifying than the sermon to hear a reading of one of the Homilies’. The greatest barrier to such readings seems to be the length of sentences and density of theological ideas in the text. Language may be updated as much as we please but too great a volume of information relayed orally will always prove a challenge. Bray admitted that this quality rendered the second book ‘more like a set of theological essays than a collection of sermons’ and the same may also unfortunately be said of large parts of the former book.
This edition is the best possible attempt to render the homilies usable in today’s church and it will be interesting to see whether this is extendable beyond the private studies of a very select group. Nonetheless we look forward to further underwater adventures with a similar updating of the second book and meanwhile wish this edition every success.
Edward Keene, Little Shelford