Anthony Gelston on some important aspects of the life and ministry of a
leading Anglican divine who continues to be an exemplar to our own day

Lancelot Andrewes was a leading Anglican divine in the early seventeenth century. After a period as Fellow and Master of Pembroke Hall, Cambridge, he served as Vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate and prebend at St Paul’s Cathedral, and then as Dean of Westminster. He enjoyed the favour of James I, who appointed him Bishop successively of Chichester, Ely and Winchester. In this article we shall not be concerned with his sometimes controversial involvement in public affairs, but concentrate on aspects of his life and ministry for which he is chiefly remembered today.

A popular lecturer

Andrewes was an industrious scholar, with a knowledge of Latin, Greek, Hebrew, Aramaic and Syriac, as well as of a considerable number of modern languages. This linguistic equipment enabled him to become proficient in the study of the Scriptures and of the Fathers, and during his years at Cambridge he was a popular lecturer among the divinity students.

He was a strict timekeeper, reserving the morning hours after his devotions for his studies. His secretary and biographer, Henry Isaacson, records that he would say ‘He doubted they were no true scholars that came to speak with him before noon.’

He was not, however, unwilling to make himself available at other times. At St Paul’s he would walk in the south aisle, welcoming any who wanted to speak with him, and offering pastoral counsel or hearing confessions as required. During his time at Westminster he would invite the senior scholars from Westminster school to his lodgings for private tuition, and enjoyed the company of younger boys during his afternoon walks.

Andrewes’ scholarship inevitably led to one of the most important pieces of his life’s work. In 2011, the quatercentenary of the Authorized Version of the Bible, it is particularly appropriate to remember Andrewes, who served as chairman of the committee responsible for the translation of the first part of the Old Testament, from Genesis to Kings. Work of this nature requires the resolution of many problems of text and interpretation, and the quality of this particular translation is reflected both in the passing of more than two and a half centuries before any suggestion of its replacement in public worship, and in its profound influence on the development of the English language itself.

During his lifetime Andrewes was probably best known for his ministry in the pulpit. He was an assiduous preacher, Isaacson reporting the quaint remark that ‘he was quick again as soon as delivered’, and his reputation as ‘an angel in the pulpit’.

Profoundly Anglican

The style of his sermons makes them less immediately appealing to the modern reader, but there can be no doubt of the thoroughness of his understanding and exposition of the biblical text. One well-known passage from a Christmas sermon of 1620 depicts the hardness of the journey undertaken by the Magi, and inspired T.S. Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi’. Eliot indeed described Andrewes’ sermons as ‘ranking with the finest English prose of their time’.

Andrewes’ churchmanship was profoundly Anglican in character. He held to the universal Christian faith, appealing to the Vincentian canon: ‘Let that be reckoned Catholic.. .which always and everywhere and by all was believed.’ The boundaries of the Anglican faith, he said, were to be found in ‘two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries, and the series of Fathers in that period.’ He renounced Roman Catholic accretions, but did not seek innovations. He never preached on the controversial subject of predestination. His only doctrinal intervention in the Hampton Court conference of 1604 was his defence of the use of the cross in baptism, on the basis of the patristic sources to which his learning enabled him to appeal.

Preces Privatae

Perhaps Andrewes’ best and most lasting legacy is that of his Preces Privatae, a handwritten book of personal devotions, in which many quotations from the Bible, the Fathers, the ancient liturgies of East and West and other sources are combined with his own prayers. Much of it is set out in the form of an order of prayer for the days of the week, each day being provided with an act of adoration, a confession of sin, a prayer for grace, a confession of faith, an intercession, particular thanksgivings and an act of praise. One is immediately struck by the profundity of the penitential sections, and the wide comprehensiveness of the intercessions. The whole collection breathes the air of utter sincerity, and attests a strictly disciplined devotional life. This work was compiled for his own private use, and was published only after his death, but it has inspired many Christians of later generations.

Worship, devotion and sacred study

Andrewes’ times were very different from our own. Yet the pressures of public life and the numerous responsibilities of the various offices he held made many demands on him. The secret of his life and influence is surely to be found in the paramount importance he attached to public worship, private devotion and sacred study. These provided the resources which informed his preaching and pastoral work, and in this he remains an exemplar to our own day.

Dr Tony Gelston is Emeritus Reader
in Theology at the University of Durham ND