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The Reformation of the English Parish Church.

The Reformation of the English Parish Church, by Robert Whiting. New York, Cambridge University Press, 2010. XX, 298 pp. $99.00 US (cloth).

In answer to that age-old undergraduate question of what English churches looked like before the Reformation, Robert Whiting provides elegant answers lavishly illustrated with his own photographs. This book, intended for the student and general reader as opposed to the professional academic, opens the doors of parish churches to the art, architecture, and material culture of English Catholicism and Protestantism. Here are to be discovered the meanings and uses of long-lost liturgical objects: the pyx, or locked box containing the host; the pax, or silver plate kissed by parishioners at mass as a ritual stand-in for the early christian kiss of peace, and the paten, the inverted silver dish covering the chalice of holy wine upon which consecrated bread was offered to communicants. Through these descriptions, the traditions of late medieval English Catholicism are brought to life.

Whiting rocks no historiographical boats in treating the Reformation both as a rapid process of spiritual conversion for literate people in English society, as well as a slower and gradual renunciation of older beliefs and traditions for "husband-men, labourers and paupers" (p. 235). He is ambitious in the collection--and interpretation--of material evidence ranging from the incidence of Old versus New Testament images in screens and stained glass, to levels of (re)investment in Catholic versus Protestant objects. Whiting traces the spread of Protestantism from 1530 onwards: with iconoclasm, the destruction of Catholic images, we have long been familiar, but lesser known routes of retreat from the old faith are also explored: the sale or conversion to Protestant and secular uses of sacred cloth; and the replacement of images, whether on walls, pews or funerary monuments with scriptural texts or coats of arms. Few would disagree that the cumulative effect and meaning of these changes, over time, constitutes a declining adherence to Catholic beliefs. What is more difficult to accept is that the active participation of artisans in the dismantling and replacement process is firm evidence of their commitment to Protestant ideals, and even more problematic is Whiting's equation of the community's passive acquiescence in these events as tantamount to an acceptance of the new faith.

Whiting acknowledges that conviction alone cannot explain the extent and pace of change in English churches. To the profit motive for businesses standing to profit from the material effects of liturgical and theological change, he adumbrates the innate respect of early modern English people for their civil and ecclesiastical authorities. Self interest and passive obedience thus appear as major players in the English Reformation. Its movers and shakers nevertheless remain the upper to middle class Bible-readers determined to make themselves and their neighbours over in God's new and improved image. Though the word "Puritan" does not appear, that is the spirit infusing much of this book.

Jennifer Mori

University of Toronto

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Author:Mori, Jennifer
Publication:Canadian Journal of History
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 22, 2011
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