Christopher Trundle on the history of the great Anglican preaching tradition

Preaching at the royal court was, until relatively recently, a largely ignored area of study for historians and scholars. The preaching of sermons before the Sovereign, his household and members of court on Sundays and feasts is not, of course, a specifically Anglican phenomenon, but it did nonetheless play a central part in the lives of the most influential figures in the nation, and not least in the devotional lives of the Supreme Governors of our Church.

One of the most interesting periods of court preaching is the seventeenth century during the reigns of James I and Charles I, when Lancelot Andrewes, John Donne and William Laud (among others) preached regularly. Each of these men held distinctly catholic and sacramental views which formed the foundations of their preaching. The frequency of Andrewes’ sermons at court, for example, not only suggests that he was King James’ favourite, but also that he had a great deal of influence on the spiritual lives of members of the royal household.

Carefully constructed

Sermons of this period were, of course, rather longer than those we are used to today, but were carefully constructed and rich with scriptural exegesis, patristic references, Latin and Greek (particularly in Andrewes) and sacramental theology. Attention paid to the scriptural text and its translation was often so great as to seem tenuous to us today; but these tools were often deployed to teach catholic theological themes.

Take, for example, this extract from one of Andrewes’ sermons: ‘of the peace-offering, the flesh was to be eaten. Part God had, and part the offerer eat, in sign of perfect peace and reconciliation between them. Christ’s blood not only in the basin for Baptism, but in the cup for the other Sacrament. A sacrifice – so, to be slain; a propitiary sacrifice – so, to be eaten’ (From a Sermon preached before King James I at Whitehall, Easter Day, 1612).

The contrast between these and some other sermons at court is indicative of the wider debates and tensions at work in the Church of England in the seventeenth century, a time when Puritanism vied with more sacramental-focused piety. Royal patronage of High Churchmen was not always appreciated by the nation at large (Laud would be unjustly tried and executed for his loyalty to the King and his High Church views), and matters of doctrinal and political controversy were often addressed by preachers, sometimes to the kings’ discomfort (in 1622 King James issued special orders forbidding mention of matters of state and controversial doctrine in sermons).

Awesome responsibilities

In this era the court sermon was a space where the development of the Church of England was acted out; religion and faith were openly accepted as public matters worthy of attention. Perhaps most importantly, however, it was a space where the great Anglican preaching tradition developed, and we are reminded that preaching need not stand over and against devotion to the sacraments. We are reminded too of the awesome responsibilities laid upon preachers in our own days, and of the opportunity for teaching and formation. The work of recalling the Church of England to its roots and to unity with the wider Church is surely one of the most compelling tasks the preacher faces today.

‘And now I cannot but wonder what words Saint Paul, were he now alive, would use, to call back ‘unity’ into dismembered Christendom. For my part, death were easier to me, than it is to see and consider the face of the Church of Christ scratched and torn, till it bleeds in every part, as it doth this day’ (William Laud, From a Sermon preached at the Opening of Parliament, 17 March 1628). ND