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Article 35 — Of the Homilies

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Posted by Gerald Bray, 8 Apr 2017

Gerald Bray explains the background and usefulness of the Anglican Homilies, referred to as “godly and wholesome” in the 39 Articles.

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.
7. Of Prayer.
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.
11. Of Alms-doing.
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.
19. Of Repentance.
20. Against Idleness.
21. Against Rebellion.

Article 35 reminds us that there are two books of Homilies, or Sermons, first issued in 1547 and 1563 respectively, that form part of the basic documents of the Church of England. They are of considerable importance for understanding both its history and its doctrine, but few people now read them, and to all practical purposes they have gone out of use in the church.

In some ways this is a pity, because the Church of England was the only branch of Reformed Christendom that incorporated sermons into its statements of faith, reminding us that what we believe must also be applied in our lives. The Homilies are thematic in nature, which makes them especially important for establishing the Church’s doctrine and shaping its practice.

Some of them expound the great doctrinal themes of the Reformation for the benefit of those who did not understand why the church had changed. They expound the nature and use of Holy Scripture, the fall of mankind, salvation by Christ, the relationship between faith and good works, and the central importance of love in the Christian life. Others are disciplinary, designed to raise the moral and spiritual standards of church members who were prone to swearing, brawling and other forms of anti-social behaviour. There is an entire cycle in the second book that covers the main festivals of the Christian year from Christmas to Pentecost, teaching us what they mean and why we should continue to celebrate them.

In addition to these, there are miscellaneous Homilies that deal with subjects like marriage and adultery, the need for repentance, and the danger of idleness. A few are dedicated to the devotional life of prayer, fasting and public worship, including the need to be reverent in church and to avoid venerating relics and statues, a medieval practice that was regarded as a form of idolatry. Finally, two of the Homilies are openly political, preaching in favour of civil obedience and against rebellion.

Sixteenth-century England was a rough place in many ways, and the Homilies were designed to inculcate Christian behaviour in everyday life. Some of them, like the one for Rogation Sunday, seem rather quaint today, but the doctrinal sermons are still as fresh as they were when they were first written.

The Homilies were intended to provide churchgoers with teaching about what the Church of England stood for and why it had embraced the Reformation. Thanks to them, the sermon as a means of establishing what we believe and communicating it to church members was deeply ingrained in the Anglican psyche, and it has always been central to our devotional life. Modern congregations are unlikely to read or listen to the Homilies in their original form, although the language is not nearly as old-fashioned as we might think. The problem is that some of them are very long and the formal style of writing is hard for us to follow in the age of the sound bite.

But this does not mean that the Homilies are of no use to us now. Properly adapted and mined for hidden treasures, modern preachers can still use them as a resource for their own sermons. They remind us that the teaching role of the church covers every aspect of the Christian life and cannot be reduced to a few favourite topics. The Homilies keep us on our toes as Christians and continue to challenge what we believe and how we behave, reminding us that the one leads to the other and that we need both if we are going to live in a way that will bring glory to God.

Gerald Bray is Director of Research at the Latimer Trust and the editor of a critical edition of the Homilies available here. You can also find our series of blogs on the Homilies, in modern English, here.

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