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Altars Restored: The Changing Face of English Religious Worship, 154-c1700.

Altars Restored: The Changing Face of English Religious Worship, 154-c1700

Kenneth Fincham and Nicholas Tyacke

Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007

ISBN 978 0198207009, 450pp, h/b, 75 [pounds sterling]

The English Country House Chapel: Building a Protestant Tradition

Annabel Ricketts

Reading: Spire Books, 2007

ISBN 978 1904965053, 336pp, h/b, 45 [pounds sterling]


These two books are both valuable contributions to the study of liturgical space in the reformed Church of England. They cover the same historical period, are well illustrated and well written, and are the fruit of decades of research, but in the end are not of equal value. Fincham and Tyacke ably rise to the challenge of the ambitious breadth of their thesis, but Ricketts' work reflects the narrower confines of hers.

There is no other book on country house chapels, so this volume, with its comprehensive gazetteer, will remain a key work, but Ricketts approaches the chapels as an architectural historian who has tried but not quite succeeded in coming to terms with the theological issues at stake. This weakness is epitomised on the front of the dust jacket, illustrating the lavishly decorated chapel of Chatsworth House (which would be perfectly at home in the palace of Versailles) as representing a built 'Protestant Tradition'. Protestantism is too varied a phenomenon, its expression too variously nuanced, for it to be used as a blanket term covering chapel building in the period between the Reformation and the early 18th Century. The Church of England straddled uncomfortably (as it continues to do) the catholic and the reformed, and that was evident in these buildings. Ricketts however assumes that the development of a distinctively Protestant form of church decoration should self-evidently have been the goal of the builders of the chapel and expresses disappointed surprise when 'there was little interest in developing the use of biblical scenes that reflected specifically Protestant ideas or ethics' (p. 148). Although she acknowledges the significance of symbolism and typology in the decoration of chapels, her grasp of symbolic vocabulary is sometimes shaky. She draws a false distinction between symbols and biblical images, not recognising that cherubim, doves, grapes, commandment boards, and clouds are all in fact symbolic biblical images. The image in plate xxxiv, which Ricketts claims to be God the Father, is much more likely Christ in Majesty. If she had simply drawn in for purposes of comparison contemporary Roman Catholic chapels, it would be evident that there was little about many Anglican chapels that made them distinctively 'protestant'.

Fincham and Tyacke's research is exhaustive and their treatment of it comprehensive. This work takes full account of the revisionist scholarship of the last thirty years and sets the agenda for a comparable period. They establish how fully dominant the Puritan liturgical programme (typified by the communion table set east and west in the body of the chancel) had become in the first 50 years after the Reformation, with only Elizabeth's Chapel Royal (altar set north and south up steps and furnished with candles and even a crucifix) as the lonely exception that proved the rule. This was despite the queen's desire that the holy tables should be kept at the east end at least outside of the time of communion. Rather than presiding over what has been seen as an Anglican via media, Elizabeth fought a largely unsuccessful campaign against the thoroughgoing iconoclasm of the Edwardian reaction against Mary' restoration of Catholicism.

But just when the Puritan triumph seemed complete, there emerged in the last decade of Elizabeth's reign an 'avant-garde' of clergy, led by Richard Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes, 'committed not just to greater ceremonialism in worship but who increasingly questioned what passed for [Calvinist] doctrinal orthodoxy' (p. 74). The movement in the 1600s for the beautification of churches anticipated the Laudian programme for the enforcement of (for example) railed eastern altars in the 1630s. Laud's programme (justified primarily by an appeal to the example of the Chapel Royal) was undoubtedly revolutionary and radical in character in light of the prevailing orthodoxies in belief and worship established between 1558-1625, and the stark contrast with what went before goes some way to explain why the puritan counter-revolution of 1640-41 was as brutal as it was.

One of the greatest strengths of this study is that Tyacke and Fincham show how deeply the laity as well as the clergy were actively engaged both in Edwardian iconoclasm and in the Laudian quest for the 'beauty of holiness'.

Their examination of wills and other forms of bequest reveal the extent to which lay attitudes reflected a lay understanding of theological disputes on salvation, sacramentalism, Calvinism and Arminianism, and images.

The restoration of the monarchy and the episcopate in the 1660s did not lead to the automatic restoration of the Laudian programme. The bishops were made too cautious by the experience of the Civil War to attempt again to enforce liturgical compliance by juridical force. Gradually over time, however, Laudian ideals came to predominate in the church. In part this had to do with the secession of many Puritans to Nonconformity, and Wren's City churches in London undoubtedly played an important role in setting architectural and liturgical fashion (Wren's father and uncle were both outstanding Laudian high churchmen). An east-end, railed altar had by 1700 become a standard feature of Church of England churches in a way that would have been inconceivable a century before.

These studies have prompted me to reflect on the extent to which liturgical orthodoxies are overturned again and again over time. When we look at the reassessment of the liturgical changes from Vatican II now ongoing (some fifty years after the council), it seems not so much a betrayal of the principles of the Council as part of an historically predictable (indeed necessary) process of revision and assimilation with what has gone before. Each generation assumes the possession of the fullness of knowledge on the 'right and natural' way of enacting the liturgy, but its successors always find something new to say, even if it isn't 'new' at all. Our own times are no exception.

Peter Doll is Canon Librarian at Norwich Cathedral and a member of the A&C Editorial Board
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Title Annotation:The English Country House Chapel: Building a Protestant Tradition
Author:Doll, Peter
Publication:Art and Christianity
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2009
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