This is part of my commentary series on The 39 Articles of Religion. Article 35 states:
XXXV. Of the Homilies
The second Book of Homilies, the several titles whereof we have joined under this Article, doth contain a godly and wholesome Doctrine, and necessary for these times, as doth the former Book of Homilies, which were set forth in the time of Edward the Sixth; and therefore we judge them to be read in Churches by the Ministers, diligently and distinctly, that they may be understanded of the people.
Of the Names of the Homilies
1.Of the right Use of the Church.
2.Against peril of Idolatry.
3.Of repairing and keeping clean of Churches.
4.Of good Works: first of Fasting.
5.Against Gluttony and Drunkenness.
6.Against Excess of Apparel.
8.Of the Place and Time of Prayer.
9.That Common Prayers and Sacraments ought to be ministered in a known tongue.
10.Of the reverend estimation of God’s Word.
12.Of the Nativity of Christ.
13.Of the Passion of Christ.
14.Of the Resurrection of Christ.
15.Of the worthy receiving of the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ.
16.Of the Gifts of the Holy Ghost.
17.For the Rogation-days.
18.Of the State of Matrimony.
During the Reformation, there was a great deal of controversy flying about as different sects taught different doctrines. Many reformers preached what they’d heard and learned in Geneva, from the likes of John Calvin. Others preached what they’d received from the Lutherans. Others, still, argued for unreformed medieval customs and doctrines. And beyond these were a handful of divergent views as people, both learned and unlearned, spouted their opinions among the people, looking for support and favor.
One of the ways this milieu was addressed was by the publication of a set of sermons, or homilies, that the majority of the Bishops of England could agree upon. To this end, Archbishop Thomas Cranmer and others assembled a Book of Homilies by 1547, just two years before the first Prayer Book was promulgated. For a period of time, these homilies were mandated to be preached from every pulpit. This accomplished two things at once: the people of England all heard the same doctrine taught in their churches, and the many clergymen who had not been properly educated (be they Papist or Protestant) were equipped to preach accurately the Word of God.
A second collection of homilies was assembled by the next generation of English bishops and published in 1571, and that is what Article 35 here addresses. Both Books of Homilies are identified in this Article as containing “godly and wholesome Doctrine” and thus to be preached diligently so all may understand them. It therefore follows that the contents of the 21 sermons listed here (plus the 12 sermons in the first Book) form a valuable treasure of “official” (or at least “authorized”) Anglican teachings. This places them among our Anglican formularies – documents that formulate the basis of our interpretation of Scripture.
But there are two major obstacles that hold the Books of Homilies back from functioning in this manner today. First, this Article identifies the Homilies as being “necessary for these times” – that is, in 1571. By linking the need for these Homilies to their particular moment in history, it may follow that they are less relevant or needed in our own day. They may address the controversies of the mid 16th century, but the controversies faced in other centuries may not be the same. Nevertheless, in so far that these Homilies deal with doctrine and morals, they should retain their teaching value in any age. The second obstacle to the usefulness of the Homilies is the fact that they have not been extensively used since the 16th century, nor have any major re-translations of them been made. If you think the King James Bible of 1611 is difficult to read, which was translated carefully and masterfully by a team of scholars, consider how much more challenging these homilies are to read, having been written by one author each, 50-100 years before the King James Bible!
As a result, study of the Books of the Homilies today is almost entirely relegated to historical interest. Perhaps, in the course of the 21st century re-reformation of the Anglican tradition, the Homilies will finally be re-visited and made readily accessible to the reading public?