Hew their bones in sunder

Eamon Duffy

  • Lancelot Andrewes: Selected Sermons and Lectures edited by Peter McCullough
    Oxford, 491 pp, £90.00, November 2005, ISBN 0 19 818774 2

Much of the modern reputation of Lancelot Andrewes stems from an essay T.S. Eliot published in 1926, in which he ranked the sermons with ‘the finest English prose of their time, of any time’. Eliot’s essay marked the tercentenary of the death of a contemporary of Shakespeare, who between 1588 and his death had been successively or simultaneously vicar of St Giles Cripplegate; master of Pembroke College, Cambridge; prebendary of St Paul’s; dean of Westminster; and bishop of Chichester, Ely and, finally, Winchester. What must have seemed a surprising tribute from the premier poet of Modernism to a relatively forgotten cleric was of course part of Eliot’s own journey towards a conservative (and at times cod-English) Christian identity. He underwent Anglican baptism the following year, and in 1928 reprinted the essay in a manifesto volume entitled For Lancelot Andrewes. In its preface he nailed his own colours to the mast as being (like his clerical hero) ‘classicist in literature, royalist in politics and Anglo-Catholic in religion’.

For Eliot, as for many Anglo-Catholics, Andrewes was an iconic ancestor figure. Along with Richard Hooker, George Herbert and William Laud, this ‘right reverend Father in God’ seemed to embody Catholic continuity and spiritual moderation. The English Church, these men believed, had maintained amid all the upheavals of the Protestant reformation a via media between the various fanaticisms of Geneva and of Rome, and Andrewes was the supreme embodiment of that middle way. His writings had been edited for a mid-Victorian High Church readership in 11 scholarly volumes in the Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology, but Eliot appears to have worked from a popular selection of 17 Christmas sermons, published for the use and emulation of Anglo-Catholic clergy in 1887. One of his illustrative quotations, from Andrewes’s sermon on the role of the Magi in the Nativity story, preached at the court of James I at Christmas 1622, was to be incorporated virtually word for word into the opening lines of the 1927 poem ‘The Journey of the Magi: ‘A cold coming they had of it, at this time of the yeare; just the worst time of the yeare . . . the waies deep, the weather sharp, the days short . . . the very dead of Winter.’ Eliot also worked phrases from other passages cited in his essay into other poems, notably Ash Wednesday.

There was more to all this than shared churchmanship. In a celebrated comparison between Andrewes and John Donne, Eliot maintained that Andrewes was a ‘medieval’ rather than a ‘modern’ writer. He valued Andrewes because his magnificently dense prose subordinated personality to the demands of text, community and tradition. Andrewes bypassed subjective feeling in favour of a brilliant and demandingly close linguistic analysis, designed not to publicise his own interior drama, but to extract every drop of meaning from the sacred page. He exemplified what Eliot himself aspired to be, a sophisticated and objective intelligence in touch with its own deepest cultural resources, able to ride the flux and moral turmoil of modernity: ‘The voice of Andrewes is the voice of a man who has a formed visible church behind him, who speaks with the old authority and the new culture.’ By contrast, the sermons of Donne were marred, Eliot thought, by their proto-modernity, an excess of self-indulgent personalism. Donne, ‘the religious spell-binder . . . the flesh-creeper, the sorcerer of emotional orgy’, had about him the whiff of ‘impure motives’ and ‘facile success’. Interestingly, in developing this comparison, Eliot mobilised against Donne not only the language of suspect sexuality, but some of the traditional tropes of anti-Catholicism. Donne’s preaching, Eliot thought, betrayed the early Jesuit influences of his papist upbringing, ‘in his cunning knowledge of the . . . weaknesses of the human heart . . . and in a kind of smiling tolerance among his menaces of damnation’.

Recent writing on the English Reformation by Peter Lake, Nicholas Tyacke and others has exploded Eliot’s account of Andrewes as the voice of a tranquil via media, a man whose confidence sprang from the settled possession of ‘a formed visible church behind him’. His early religious opinions took shape in the godly Protestantism of mercantile London and Puritan Cambridge. From 1571 he was a scholar of Pembroke Hall, along with the young Edmund Spenser, under its Puritan master William Fulke, and he effortlessly took on the colouring of his Cambridge environment. He was a valued member of a formidably learned biblical seminar conducted by the leading university Puritans, and the godly of Cambridge flocked to his afternoon catechetical lectures on the Decalogue. Though these youthful works included many hints of some of his later theological and ritual concerns, such as the need for external reverence in prayer, they also insisted on such flagship Protestant causes as the impermissibility of images, and the strict observance of the Sabbath. Circulating in dozens of manuscript transcripts for three generations, the catechetical lectures were eventually printed by a Puritan bookseller at the start of the English Civil War, with a pointed dedication to the Long Parliament in which the editor recalled Andrewes’s popularity among the Elizabethan godly: ‘He was scarce reputed a pretender to learning and piety then in Cambridge, who made not himselfe a disciple of Mr Andrewes.’ In 1586 he became chaplain to Henry Hastings, Third Earl of Huntingdon, the ‘Puritan Earl’ who, as president of the Council of the North, was commander-in-chief in England’s northern Catholic badlands, in the battle between popery and a beleaguered and pugilistic Elizabethan Protestantism. Andrewes’s duties under Huntingdon included the attempted (and apparently often successful) conversion of stubborn recusants. His surviving sermons from this period assume the framework of the conventional predestinarian Calvinism which was the theological default position of most convinced Elizabethan Protestants.

By the 1590s, however, Andrewes’s opinions were on the move. Steeped in the ancient languages of the Bible and, perhaps more significantly, in the writings of the Greek and Latin Fathers, he had come to feel the aridity of a religion which seemed at times to consist of nothing more than preaching: ‘All our holiday holinesse, yea, and our working day too, both are come to this, to heare (nay, I dare not say that, I cannot prove it) but, to be at a Sermon.’ His own sermons fell silent about predestination, and emphasised instead the need for perseverance in faith and good works. Increasingly he insisted on reverence for hierarchy and order, and a high sacramentalism, which included the value and even necessity of priestly absolution. In contrast to most of his contemporaries, including the other great father figure of the Anglican via media, Richard Hooker, he preached the objective presence of Christ in the eucharistic elements of bread and wine independent of the faith of the recipient, he taught the sacrificial character of the eucharist, and, like Continental Lutherans but unlike most English theologians, insisted on the power of the material elements to forgive the sins of the communicant. Scorning Protestant irreverence and lack of ceremony in church, he insisted on kneeling for prayer and at the sacrament (God, he declared, ‘will not have us worship him like elephants, as if we had no joints in our knees’). He practised a heightened ritualism: incense was used in his episcopal chapels.

The language in which he advocated such views could be very risky indeed. Peter McCullough draws attention to a passage in one of the sermons included here in which Andrewes complains about cheap and unworthy communion tables, no better than ‘oyster-boards’, and demonstrates that the immediate source for the phrase lay in Roman Catholic denunciations of Protestant irreverence as retailed in John Foxe’s Actes and Monuments, a daring adaptation (and endorsement) of Catholic attacks on the ritual poverty of the new religion. He translated that critique into practice. Already in the 1590s, as vicar of the London suburban church of St Giles Cripplegate, he seems to have placed rails round the altar and introduced a monthly communion service. During his incumbency, consumption of communion wine doubled, an indication of the increased frequency of communion services, and perhaps of increased attendance at them.

In Elizabethan and Jacobean England, these were all highly contentious matters, and Andrewes became the most prestigious spokesman for an avant-garde High Church theology which to many of the godly reeked of popery. After his death two of the most prominent and aggressive of his High Church disciples, William Laud and John Buckeridge, as part of a campaign to roll back the advance of Puritan opinion and practice within the Church of England, published 96 of Andrewes’s sermons. These had mostly been preached at court on great liturgical or state occasions such as Christmas, Easter and on such political ‘feast days’ as the annual commemoration of Gunpowder Treason. XCVI Sermons was arranged round the liturgical days on which the sermons had been preached, a provocatively Catholicising polemical gesture by the campaigning editors, emboldened by Charles I’s direct patronage of the project. Here, with a vengeance, was the High Church Andrewes, father of Laudianism and of later Anglo-Catholicism. Puritans, unwilling to relinquish possession of the most famous preacher of the age, but constrained by royal backing for this High Church monopoly of Andrewes’s works, retaliated with samizdat editions of the early and more apparently Protestant writings.

The contest for Andrewes’s legacy would rumble on for a generation, and in 1650, at the height of Cromwell’s ascendancy, a High Church edition of the Cambridge catechetical lectures would appear, with the ‘Puritanical’ sections carefully offset by extracts from Andrewes’s later writings on the same subjects, designed to ‘correct’ his youthful lapses. With the Restoration, it was the High Church Andrewes of the XCVI Sermons who won out, and so the five volumes of sermons included in the Victorian Library of Anglo-Catholic Theology were a modernised reissue of XCVI Sermons. A deliberately contrived posthumous manifesto for an ideologically risky and pugnacious theological coup d’état had thus become a canonical monument of Anglican tradition.

Peter McCullough’s splendid selection from the sermons, with its exemplary notes and scholarly apparatus, is the first attempt to go behind XCVI Sermons to recover a sense of the complexity and range as well as the controversial character of Andrewes’s preaching. Laud and Buckeridge made their choice overwhelmingly from court sermons preached in the reign of James I. By contrast, more than half McCullough’s selection is taken from sermons preached in the reign of Elizabeth, and so covers the whole career. He provides three outstanding examples of the great set-piece Jacobean liturgical sermons, but the bulk of the selection is given over to less familiar material. This includes extracts from the Cambridge catechetical lectures: a ferociously clericalist Latin sermon, in contemporary translation, against lay appropriation of church property (and by implication an attack on the Henrician Reformation), preached in Cambridge in 1590 as part of the exercises for Andrewes’s doctorate of divinity. From his London career we are given a charity sermon (fascinatingly, in two different versions, the sermon as written and as actually delivered, perhaps from a listener’s transcript) preached in 1588 before the merchants of London at St Mary’s Hospital, Spitalfields. This is one of the few sermons in which, perhaps accommodating himself to the advanced Protestantism of his London mercantile audience, he praises Calvin. From his time as vicar of St Giles Cripplegate comes a remarkable parish eucharistic sermon preached in 1598; his prebendal career at St Paul’s is represented by a lecture on the creation of Eve; and there are a couple of outspokenly anti-Calvinist sermons preached before Elizabeth I. From the reign of James I, McCullough includes court sermons for Christmas, Easter and Whitsunday, and two political sermons, one on the divine right of kings, and one preached on the first anniversary of the Gunpowder Plot.

These two sermons against treason take us to the heart of Andrewes’s not altogether creditable involvement in court politics. He had come to royal favour under Elizabeth through the fame of his preaching, and as one of the 12 royal chaplains he preached often before her: one such sermon included here, on the text ‘Remember Lot’s wife,’ ends in a brilliantly opportunistic though probably heartfelt celebration of the queen’s constancy and perseverance in faith, which, in contrast to Lot’s wife’s wavering inconstancy, has been the salvation of the nation. His appointment as royal almoner to James in 1605 involved regular preaching at court on the great holy days. He valued this access to the monarch, and when eventually his other promotions obliged him to relinquish the almonership, fought to retain his sermon ‘slots’ at court. Andrewes’s learning and dialectical brilliance led James to co-opt him as chief controversialist against the great Counter-Reformation polemicist Cardinal Robert Bellarmine, and questions of political allegiance and the relative powers of king and pope loomed large in their controversies. Andrewes undoubtedly held a very high religious theory of monarchy, but his role as most favoured court prelate occasionally required accommodations of conscience which troubled even so ardent a royalist.

The worst of these was the notorious Essex divorce case, when Lady Frances Howard, favourite of James I, sought an annulment of her childhood marriage to the Earl of Essex, to marry another royal favourite, Robert Carr, Viscount Rochester. The lurid case involved spectacular bedroom revelations, allegations of (selective) impotence and the probable practice of witchcraft by Lady Frances. The grounds advanced for the proposed annulment were extremely suspect. George Abbot, the disagreeable but outspoken Archbishop of Canterbury who headed the divorce commission, courageously refused to countenance the divorce. By contrast, Andrewes, who shared Abbot’s religious misgivings, said nothing, and abjectly acquiesced in the majority decision to give the countess and the king what they demanded.

Compliance with royal demands determined the subject-matter of much of his preaching as well as his votes in council and commission. It was an age of political assassination (the most famous victims were William of Orange and Henri IV of France), and Andrewes preached no fewer than eight of the anniversary sermons for the state celebrations of King James’s deliverance in August 1600 from an alleged murder attempt by the Earl of Gowrie and his brother. But inconsistency and improbable detail in the official accounts provoked suspicion that the ‘Gowrie conspiracy’ had been fabricated or exaggerated by James to bolster his own authority. Andrewes evidently shared these misgivings, and is reputed to have thrown himself at the king’s feet on one occasion and begged to be excused from preaching ‘that he might not mock God unless the thing were true’. This was an unusually direct gesture for so cautious and even serpentine a character, but the king’s assurances were evidently enough to calm his conscience. Andrewes’s Gowrie sermons are extravagant set-piece expositions of the divine right of kings, recycling both the official accounts of the conspiracy and the arguments on obedience and royal authority aired more systematically in his writings against Bellarmine. The text for the Gowrie sermon included here is characteristic: ‘Touch not mine anointed.’

When Andrewes was selected to preach the Gunpowder Treason sermons at court, he probably did so with considerably more conviction. He had been consecrated Bishop of Chichester just two days before Guy Fawkes’s explosives were due to go off. Had they done so, he would have been vaporised as he took his seat for the first time in the House of Lords. From ten surviving Gunpowder sermons, McCullough chooses the one for the first anniversary of the plot, in which Andrewes not only dwells on Catholic disloyalty and God’s providential care for Protestant England, but improves the occasion with characteristic excursuses on the general legitimacy of church feast days, and the importance of church music. McCullough detects in Andrewes’s Gunpowder preaching a careful restraint, rooted in his general ecclesiological position: ‘He does not allow anti-Jesuit satire to spill over into wholesale anti-Catholicism’ – though the generalisation hardly fits all of the Gunpowder sermons, which contain many sneering sideswipes at Counter-Reformation devotional practices. The example McCullough provides is also unusually restrained in its handling of the details of the dreadful deaths of the plotters. Several of the later Gunpowder sermons elaborate in gruesome wordplay the details of the slow disembowellings and dismemberments which marked these and other executions of Catholics:

Nay, would they make men’s bowels fly up and down in the air? Out with those bowels . . . Would they do it by fire? Into the fire with their bowels, before their faces. Would they make men’s bones fly about like chips? Hew their bones in sunder . . . Their delight was in cruelty, let it happen to them: they loved not mercy, therefore let it be far from them.

All Andrewes’s virtues as a preacher are on display in the dozen sermons included here. Eliot identified the most characteristic qualities: his mastery of the short sentence, his ability to coin the ‘flashing phrases which never desert the memory’, above all the way in which he ‘takes a word and derives the world from it: squeezing and squeezing the word until it yields a full juice of meaning which we should never have supposed any word to possess’. That latter quality is dazzlingly exemplified both in the sermon on Lot’s wife, an extended exploration of every nuance of meaning in the Greek, English and Latin for ‘remember’, and in the 1597 court sermon for Good Friday, in which the text ‘They shall look on me whom they have pierced’ is expanded into a verbal icon of the crucifix; in the process, Andrewes finds all the connotations of meaning in the Greek, Latin and English verbs ‘to look’. (He quoted the Bible as often from the Latin Vulgate as from any English translation.) Andrewes did not carry his learning lightly: behind every sermon stands an encyclopedic recall of the most obscure biblical passages, a lexicon of languages, and a library of classical, patristic, medieval and early modern sources. McCullough’s notes identify all these for us, and extended headnotes trace the textual history and outline the distinctive features of each sermon.

Verbal elaboration and omnivorous learning are well-known aspects of Andrewes’s style, but by no means exhaust his power as a writer, as McCullough is at pains to point out. Consider the perfect match of sound to sense in this passage celebrating the virtues of pregnant brevity. The text he is discussing is ‘Remember Lot’s wife’:

The words are few, and the sentence short; no one in Scripture so short. But it fareth with Sentences as with coynes: In coines, they that in smallest compasse conteine greatest value, are best esteemed: and, in sentences, those that in fewest words comprise most matter, are most praised. Which, as of all sentences it is true; so specially of those that are marked with Memento. In them, the shorter the better; the better, and the better carried away, and the better kept; and the better called for when we need it. And such is this here; of rich contents, and with all exceeding compendious: So that, we must needs be without all excuse, it being but three words, and but five syllables, if we doe not remember it.

He was also master of sarcastically humorous vernacular speech, reminding us that he was the contemporary of Shakespeare and Jonson, as in the passage evoking the scene from Chapter 2 of the Acts of the Apostles, where the crowds think that the inspired Apostles are drunk on new wine: ‘Ye may heare them speake (at the 13th verse): Well fare this same good new wine; these good fellows have been at it, and now they can speake nothing but outlandish: some little broken Greek or Latin they had, and now out it comes.’

Perhaps most striking of all is Andrewes’s ability to unite feeling and thought in vivid utterance which recalls the great Metaphysical poets who were his contemporaries. He possesses a power of unexpected tenderness united to a deadly serious intellectual playfulness. This is the dominant characteristic of the wonderful sermon for Easter Day 1620, with which McCullough closes his selection. It is a meditation on the encounter of Mary Magdalene with the risen Christ on Easter morning, when she mistakes him for the gardener. Consider the build-up to the clinching final sentence of the following paragraph, and the resolution of a verbal argument into a single sensuous image:

Well now, He that was thought lost, is founde againe, and founde, not, as He was sought for, not a dead body, but a living soule, nay, a quickening Spirit, then. And that might Marie Magdalen well say. Hee shewed it, for he quickened her and her Spirits, that were as good as dead. You thought you should have come to Christ’s Resurrection today, and so you doe. But, not to his alone, but even to Marie Magdalens resurrection too. For, in very deed, a kind of resurrection it was, was wrought in her, revived, as it were, and raised from a dead and drowping, to a lively and cheerfull estate. The Gardiner had done his part, made her all greene, on the soddaine.

One small complaint. I am sorry that McCullough has excluded from his selection the sermon on the Magi, which Eliot’s essay and poem have made the most famous of all Andrewes’s utterances. There are perfectly plausible reasons for this decision. It is far from the best of the Christmas sermons, and McCullough wants to broaden our sense of Andrewes’s achievement. But scholarly austerity here has overcome common (and commercial) sense. Anyone interested in Andrewes at all is likely to have encountered him via Eliot, and that Magi sermon is no longer available in any modern edition. It is frustrating that what will deservedly be for many years the standard point of entry into Andrewes’s sermons should exclude the text on which his modern reputation rests.