Arthur Middleton on the necessity of aids to personal devotion

During his lifetime, one of the Venerable Bede’s former students became Archbishop of York. Bede challenged the Archbishop to find priests for the many vacant parishes in the North of England. His concern was that the people in these parishes had no one to teach them the Apostles’ Creed, the Lord’s Prayer and the Ten Commandments and administer to them the Sacraments. These texts contain the doctrines of the Christian faith, the way of Christian prayer and how Christians are to live and behave in relation to God and others. To know these texts not only in our minds but in the subconscious depths of our hearts is to possess a pearl of great price, a rich treasure, the divine life in which we are called to live.

In an age when greater numbers of people are ignorant of these texts, even among practising Christians, the time has come to provide manuals of devotion for today. Such manuals would collect together what lies scattered through our liturgical books in the hope that whoever uses such manuals will memorize them and instruct others in them that they may be an inspiration to devotion.

The Primer, dating from the beginning of the fourteenth century, became an important and popular book of devotion that contained elementary religious instruction in a style of personal devotion inherited from the past and expressed in liturgical language. There is a rich tradition of such Christian literature, not only in the universal Church but in our Anglican tradition. These Primers soon acquired their own identity as books of personal devotion when other material was added. This additional material included the Little Office or Hours of the Blessed Virgin Mary, the Beatitudes, some Psalms (usually penitential), the Ten Commandments and the ‘fifteen Os’ of St Brigid. In Marshall’s Primer he claims that Christian people should learn ‘by heart’:

‘the Ten Commandments of Almighty God, and the Belief, called the Creed, the Prayer of the Lord, called the Pater Noster. For truly he that understandeth these three, hath the pith of all those things which holy scripture doth contain, and whatsoever may be taught necessarily unto a faithful Christian, and that not only purely and plentifully, but thereto so briefly and clearly, that no man can complain or excuse himself justly, since that knowledge, which is of necessity required to that attaining of the life eternal, is neither tedious, nor yet so hard, but that it may be well had and gotten of all that have grace.’

Informal and personal

The prayers in these Primers had great popularity and they re-occur in almost every reformed manual for a hundred years. Their informality, their application to day-to-day need, the personal note in them recommended them to both sides in the theological battles of the Reformation. The same principle is at work in the Manuals of Devotion produced for personal use by Lancelot Andrewes, William Laud, Thomas Ken and John Cosin. The Non -Jurors gathered prayers from these manuals into their The Church of England Man’s Guide to the Closet.

In the wake of the Oxford Movement such manuals of personal devotion began to reappear in The Treasury of Devotion (ed. T. T. Carter 1869) and revised by Dom Robert Petitpierre in 1957. Other publications began to appear ,such as the Catholic Book of Private Devotion and The Centenary Prayer Book to mark the Centenary of the Oxford Movement. Various Communicant’s Manuals also appeared, such as the St. Hugh’s Prayer Book, given to new communicants. In the wake of the Sixties this type of devotional manual fell into disuse.
Practical divinity

Times may well have changed but the need for aids to personal devotion and edification remains. A New Treasury of Devotion would assist the translation of devotion and doctrine into Christian living, into practical divinity. This understanding of the purpose of a devotional manual, a latter day Primer, is the mind at the heart of it, to produce a sum of divinity where doctrine and devotion are not separable.

Such a New Treasury of Devotion can have a cumulative effect in building up Anglicans in their faith when outwardly all seems lost. The aim is to make this a book to be carried in the pocket, to be available for use, wherever, in queue, in bus or in train. ND