Monday, January 30, 2012

Problems for Preachers in Elizabethan England

A few amusing excerpts from The Elizabethan Sermon by Alan Fager Herr. How would you like to have been a preacher during this tumultuous time?

The sermons at Paul's Cross, and perhaps at a few other pulpits, were frequently made more amusing for the audience by the exhibition of people doing penance. At the Cross there was a regular platform, level with the pulpit, built for the penitents to stand upon and receive the jeers of the audience and the gibes of village wits. Sometimes the penitents simply stood up throughout the sermon and were considered amply punished. While Dean Nowell preached on February 10, 1560, a man thus stood up for committing bigamy. More spectacular was the man who stood wrapped in a sheet during the sermon of November 6, 1561, for charging Vernon, the Rector of St. Martin's, with incontinency, and on the 23rd of the same month another man was more deeply humiliated by being forced to kneel and beg Vernon's pardon for circulating a rumor that Vernon had been "taken with a wench." (24)

Before the preacher even mounted the pulpit steps the problem of vestments or habit had to be considered. So high was the feeling on this controversial point that no matter what the preacher wore of left unworn, somebody would find fault. . . .On April 7, 1566, the parish of St. Mary Magdalen in Milk Street asked the bishop to appoint a minister to celebrate Holy Communion for them. The minister came and wore a surplice, as he was instructed to do by the bishop. The sight of this surplice so enraged a member of the congregation that, after the minister had come down from the altar to read the epistle and gospel of the day, he sent his servant up behind the minister's back to seize and run off with the chalice of wine and the paten of bread! Holy Communion was that day precipitously discontinued. (32-3).

One minister felt that he should remark upon this [the lack of reverence among the audience] from the pulpit. "Further, Gods house is abused by them which bring hither hawks and dogs, which is faulted in our Church-homilie, and whereby peoples minds are diverted from their devotions." This same preacher protests against persons in the congregation lying down to rest in the church, tearing clothes off brides, laughing when marriage banns are read, or talking business, and against those who come to church to show off their new clothes and "seem to march as if they would exactly measure out the earth by their mincing, or else leade some pompous train upon the stage." (33)

At Paul's Cross the preacher had one or more companions in the pulpit with him; we might almost call them "seconds" when we consider the preacher's need of protection if he displeased too large a portion of the audience. Despite the presence of guards to keep the peace, daggers might be thrown, as happened early in the reign of Mary when Gilbert Bourne preached a sermon wherein he defended Bishop Bonner. Bourne's companion in the pulpit rose and caught the dagger in his sleeve. There was also the possibility that the pulpit might be stormed if the customary coughing and heckling seemed too mild a rebuke to an unpopular preacher. A type of protest against the sermon that was far more acceptable to the preacher took the form of writing objections on paper and throwing them into the pulpit. This was not considered a breach of the peace and so was allowed." (34-5)

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