The choir of Salisbury Cathedral. In this
sort of space, Cranmer wanted the
communion tables positioned lengthwise.
If you go to George Washington’s Pohick Church in Fairfax Virginia or Bruton Parish Church in colonial Williamsburg—or Saint Helen’s Bishopsgate in London—you will get a taste of 18th century Anglicanism and see just how Protestant those Episcopalians used to be. For the most part they don’t like to be reminded of it—which is a pity because there are elements in the Anglican tradition that are marvelously rich in theology and, in particular, in prayer.
We have seen that Cranmer’s 1549 Prayer Book left much of the Catholic trappings intact. Cranmer’s foe, the orthodox (but schismatic) Stephen Gardiner went so far as to say that the 1549 liturgy was “patient” of a Catholic reading—that is, that there had been sufficient material retained from earlier rites that a Catholic understanding of the Eucharist could be found in the work. In fact, it was an ambiguous work. Yes, there were elements that seemed to speak of the Real Presence. And while all reference to Sacrifice had been deleted from the revised Canon (or Prayer of Consecration), overall there was still some impression that the Mass (the 1549 Book still used the term) was something of a sacrifice. But Cranmer never intended his 1549 liturgy to be the definitive Liturgy of the Church of England. It was meant to be a stop-gap measure that would break the hold of the Traditional Rites (England had at least four distinct Rites and the Roman was not one of them) before introducing a far more Protestant liturgy. Egged on by such Continental Reformers as Peter Martyr Vermigli and Martin Bucer, Cranmer had begun preparing a new and far more extreme book that was published in 1552.
In the meantime, stone altars had been replaced by wooden communion tables and images of Christ, Mary and the Saints had been removed from the churches. The 1552 book directed that the “table” be placed, not in what had been the presbyterium or sanctuary of the churches, but in the choir or in the nave. (The choir is that space in Anglican, Lutheran and some Catholic Churches—mostly in Europe—between the nave and the sanctuary where “stalls” (or seats) for the clergy and male choristers are arranged not facing the altar, but facing each other to facilitate the antiphonal singing of the psalms. In North America we tend to see such an arrangement only in abbeys, some cathedrals, and the chapels of some religious communities.) Cranmer wanted the communion table positioned in the center aisle of the choir lengthwise and directed that the priest should stand on the north side—that is on the left long side of the table. In this position he would be facing those gathered in the seats on the south side, while those seated on the north side would have his back. What Cranmer did not want was for the priest to be standing in such a position where the congregation—or at least half of them—could not clearly see him as he said the Prayer of Consecration over the gifts. The table was to be covered with a “fayre white lynnen clothe;” no mention was made of cross or candles. Crosses and crucifixes had been done away with; candles could be use if needed for light but not for devotion.
Moreover, with the 1552 Prayer Book, the priest was no longer to wear the alb with cope or chasuble, but only the surplice over his black gown. Bishops did not wear the surplice but the rochet—a white linen gown with voluminous sleeves like the surplice, but longer and with the sleeves gathered in cuffs. As somewhat of a conceit, academic regalia—the hood, the tippet (scarf), and for bishops the chimere were added to the prescribed dress. (Academic types are always anxious to play the peacock and show off their academic accouterments.)
The book directed that
And to take away the supersticion, whiche any person hothe, or myghte have in the bread and wyne, it shall suffyse that the bread bee such, as is usuall to bee eaten at the Table wyth other meates, but the best and purest wheate bread, that conveniently maye be gotten. And yf any of the bread or wine remayne, the Curate shal have it to hys owne use.
The bread was ordinary table bread—of the best quality available, but ordinary bread and what was left over was returned to ordinary use. The wine—and it was wine, not grape-juice—was no longer in chalices made of precious metal but in cups (or, for large congregations, flagons) made of pewter or tin. There was a great pedestrianization of the Liturgy. There was almost no vernacular music to replace the medieval chants though composers such as Byrd and Tallis (both Catholics) would eventually write music of the highest caliber for the Anglican services. Of course, it takes trained choirs to perform their work—not your typical parish singers and so only in Cathedrals could one find that level of music. The Cranmer liturgies were dreadfully devoid of any beauty except for one factor: their use of the English language. Other than Shakespeare, Thomas Cranmer was probably the finest craftsman of the English tongue that has been known. His prayers—both original compositions and his translation of older prayers from the medieval liturgical books—are exquisite in their beauty.
What were the effects of Cranmer’s reforms? Well, in the first place it would take Anglicanism several centuries to recover the aesthetics of worship. Up through the early nineteenth century, Anglican worship was devoid of any architectural, artistic, or musical richness. (The Cathedral churches with their choral offices being the exception, at least as regards music.) The liturgy was top-heavy with words—glorious in their composition but relentless in their loquacity. Going to church was to be bombarded with words and even the best of words are given to monotony when repeated incessantly week after week. However, the English were never known for the sophistication of the French or the sensuality of the Italians, and the urban professional and business classes embraced the reformed religion. They liked the moral black and white the reformed religion bespoke. It gave them guidelines on how soberly to use their newly acquired wealth and the Prayer Book bespoke a piety that set them right before God and over and against those godless people in Spain and France who were given to rank sensuality and religious superstition. The upper classes were somewhat divided. Many of the old families, especially in the North, discreetly remained Catholics and retained priests as tutors to their children and unofficial chaplains to their households. The newer families, rising from the bourgeoisie into government service or even into the peerage, tended to favor the new religion, but like many of a political bent, wore all religion somewhat lightly. The rural masses and the urban poor found themselves bewildered by the new ways. They were not given to the theological fine points but simply wanted religion. Where Catholicism survived, in the North and West in particular, some degree of the “old religion” survived among the common folk, but by and large the ordinary people, deprived of the religion they had known and not at home in the new ways, simply drifted away from the formal practice of religion. To any extent they were compelled by law to attend church and receive the Sacrament, they did, but they could hardly be said to be avid churchmen.