Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Retrogression Part II

In the previous post, I mentioned a discussion between two Reformed friends; and I was one of them. I also mentioned that I requested his permission to post our discussion on my blog for future record, and that my request was granted favorably. Also, as noted before, the discussion was heading in the direction of a major dispute until the point in which I asked some questions. My questions focused upon his assumption that certain reformed leaders, such as  John Calvin, John Knox, and John Owen, were all opposed to formal liturgical worship services. In essence, I was questioning his belief that "The Reformers" (as he called them) were anti-liturgy.

My friend also proceeded to argue that most of the Westminster Divines were opposed to liturgy, but for the remnant who favored formal liturgical worship throughout the reformation, they were allegedly stuck in the rut of "medieval thinking" and "popish" traditions without enough discernment to realize the dangers inflicted upon future generations by their cowardice. Again, the claims of cowardice, as noted in the earlier post, are his words, not mine.

Well, I had a few more words to discuss with him about the convenience of using such loaded derogatory claims as "medieval thinking" and "cowardice", especially without any further evidence - other than his claims - to present in defense of his position. But now that the week is over and I've had some more time to reflect upon our discussion, I feel like I can focus upon his concerns by posting a few relevant insights that are not my own, but rather are from a very well respected Reformed Christian scholar. Robert Letham is that scholar, and he has written a tremendous book about the historical context surrounding the Westminster Assembly, detailing many of the controversies surrounding the Calvinist communities of England, whose theology continued to be the backbone of the Church of England until the 18th century.

In his book, The Wesminster Assembly: Reading its Theology in Historical Context, Letham writes concerning the modern 21st century notion that the regulative principle, as presented within the Westminster confessional standards, was anti-liturgy:
We need to appreciate how the regulative principle functioned in the historical context of the [Westminster] Assembly. ...The focus of these statements cannot be understood apart from the draconian legislation that governed worship in the Church of England, whether it was observed more in the breach or not. The Act for the Uniformity of Common Prayer (1559), which restored the Book of Common Prayer of 1552, specified:
That all and singular Ministers, in any Cathedral, or Parish-Church, or other place, within this Realm of England, Wales, or marches of the same... shall... be bound to say and use the Mattens, Evensong, Celebration of the Lord's Supper,... and all their common and open Prayer, in such order and form as is mentioned in the said Book.1
If any Minister decided to rebel against this legal demand and refuse to use the precise order and form of the latest edition to the Book of Common Prayer, or even "declare or speak anything in the derogation... of the said Book ...and shall be thereof lawfully convicted, according to the laws of this Realm, by verdict of twelve men, or by his own confession ...[that person] shall lose and forfeit... all his Spiritual Benefices, or Promotions, coming or arising in one whole Year next after his Conviction."2

Letham points out that an offender would also face imprisonment for six months without bail for the first offense, and upon the conviction of a second offense, the penalty was imprisonment for one full year and the removal of all ministerial promotions. On a third offense, the person would receive life imprisonment. Even the layman, the common ordinary person with no ministerial status, could be punished for sedition against that Act of Uniformity. The fines for publishing articles or pamphlets against the Book was punishable by a fine of 100 marks, the second offense by 400 marks, and the third offense requiring the offender to "forfeit to our Soverign Lady, the Queen, all his Goods and Chattels, and shall suffer Imprisonment during his life."3

Letham then concludes with these interesting observations:
When we reflect on the drastic imposition of the Book of Common Prayer by the Elizabethan settlement and its aftermath, we see why the Assembly produced a directory of worship giving freedom to individual ministers to conduct worship services within the boundaries of the regulative principle of Scripture. It was the binding legal requirement, imposed by the crown, with penalties attached, that was the real nub of the problem with the liturgy for Puritan minds. While opposing the legal imposition of set liturgies, the [Westminster] Assembly was not abandoning liturgies as such. The Directory for the Publick Worship of God [produced by the Westminster Divines] contains a range of model prayers to be used in the regular service, at the start, before the sermon, after the sermon, before and after baptism, during and after communion, at the solemnization of marriage, in visiting the sick, and at public solemn fasting. Even John Owen, a few years too young to have been appointed to the Assembly, when writing on liturgies, stressed that he was not opposed to them or to the Book of Common Prayer, but to their imposition by law, with the forbidding of the slightest deviation from the set words. The standard practice of the Reformed churches had been to have a liturgy with set prayers; the problem for the divines was the rigid imposition and the repressive, punitive sanctions for failure to comply.4
But what about the Divines antagonism to liturgy, and the "medieval thinking," "popish traditions," and generally ill-discerned "cowardice" of those who sympathized with liturgical forms of worship? My friend has yet to post the sources of information in favor of his perspective.

1.  Robert Letham, The Westminster Assembly: Reading its Theology in Historical Context [P&R Publishing: Phillipsburg, NJ; 2009] p. 301-302
2.  Ibid. p. 302
3.  Ibid.
4.  Ibid., pp. 303-304 Explanations in brackets are mine

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