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Picture of Philip Edgcumbe Hughes

Theology Thursday: How shall they hear?

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Posted by Ros Clarke, 13 Jul 2017

One from the Churchman archives: Philip Edgcumbe Hughes, writing in 1975, gives a helpful outline of the problems of preaching in the early years of Reformation England.

The Dawn of the Reformation in England found the church with a clergy that was largely untrained,  incompetent,  and unconcerned about the wellbeing,  spiritual or material,  of the congregations whose pastors they were supposed to be. Absentee rectors were well content to enjoy the income from the parishes that had been placed under their tender care, while paying a mean pittance to inconsequential substitutes as they themselves sought the distractions of this world or the favours of high society elsewhere. It is hardly surprising that the widespread ignorance of the clergy and with it the dearth of preaching in England had brought about a state of affairs in which the people were,  to the extent that they were religious,  thoroughly superstitious and theologically (as well as in other respects) illiterate. This was the daunting scene that faced the Reformers who were intent on instilling the doctrines of the Gospel into the minds and hearts of the populace.  The famine of preaching especially was a serious obstacle to the achievement of this end,  for,  as St.  Paul had long since dramatically asked, ‘how are people to hear without a preacher?’  (Rom.  10:14f.).  Of course,  the Reformers themselves,  like St.  Paul,  were indefatigable preachers.  They regarded preaching as a principal means of grace both practised and commanded by Christ, and they were determined that it should be restored to its rightful place in the church. But this was not something that could be done in the short term.

Publication of the Book of Homilies, prohibitions on preaching, and pleas to the Queen all formed part of the strategy for getting good gospel preaching into the Church of England. Read more of this article from the Church Society archives: “Preaching, Homilies and Prophesying in Sixteenth Century England”, Churchman 89/1 (1975).


Ros Clarke is Associate Director of Church Society

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