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The Virtual St Paul’s Cathedral Project enables us to experience worship and preaching at St Paul’s Cathedral as events that unfold over time and on particular occasions in London in the early seventeenth century.

The post-Reformation Church of England placed corporate worship at the center of its religious identity. The worship practices of the gathered community provided the context for understanding Christian faith and the vocabulary of belief.

The Book of Common Prayer provided the scripts for performing the rites of public, corporate worship through which the nation, gathered in prayer, could join in unison in its address to God, could find assurance in times of trial, and faith that its worshippers were “very members incorporate in the mystical body [of Christ] and heirs through hope of [God’s] everlasting kingdom” (BCP, Holy Communion, Post-Communion Prayer). 

To make it possible to understand the full experience of corporate public worship in the post-Reformation Church of England, the Cathedral Project recreates worship services from the Book of Common Prayer (1604) on two representative days in the Church of England’s liturgical calendar.

The central event is a recreation of worship for Easter Sunday 1624, a festival occasion. The day begins with Sung Mattins, continues with the Great Litany and Holy Communion, including Bishop Lancelot Andrewes’ sermon for that day, then concludes with Evensong and the sermon John Donne, Dean of the Cathedral, preached at the cathedral on that day in 1624.

The second day of services is for the Tuesday after the First Sunday in Advent in 1625, an ordinary (or ferial) day on the calendar of the Church of England, a day defined only by the observation of Mattins and Evensong. These services are set within a detailed model of the cathedral itself, as well as the buildings and spaces that surrounded it in Paul’s Churchyard, as they were  until they were all swept away by the Great Fire of London in 1666.

Physical spaces are important, in part because they define what people see when they gather, and how well they can hear, and what distractions they might encounter. Worship is always embodied worship, taking place in specific sites, with specific gatherings of people, and on specific occasions in the Church Year and in the individual and corporate lives of the clergy and their congregations.

We focus attention on John Donne, the English poet and essayist who was born into a Roman Catholic family but who became a priest of the Church of England in 1615 and served as Dean of St Paul’s from 1621 until his death in 1631. Most famous for his poetry, Donne preached dozens of sermons in his lifetime, creating a body of religious prose that dwarfs the scale of his secular writings.

Donne became a priest of the Church of England nearly 60 years after the Elizabethan Settlement of Religion (1559) had established the basic institutions, structures of authority, ceremonial practices, and beliefs of the reformed Church. The Elizabethan Settlement had survived the challenges of those who believed it was insufficiently reformed, as well as the uncertainties posed by the transition from the reign of Elizabeth I to the reign of James I. The Elizabethan Settlement had been reaffirmed by the Hampton Court Conference of 1604. It, along with James I, had escaped the potentially catastrophic aftermath of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605.

By the time Donne became Dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in 1621, the religious life of England had had six decades of public worship and spiritual formation enabled by use of the Book of Common Prayer. Language and practices that in the early 1560’s were startlingly new had become familiar and habitual. They had, in Eamon Duffey‘s words, “entered and possessed [the] minds [of Englishfolk], and became the fabric of their prayer, the utterance of their most solemn and their most vulnerable moments.”

In addition, by 1621, especially in cathedrals like St Paul’s, the English choral tradition had also made the transition from Latin to English as new generations of singers and musicians had discovered ways of enriching Prayer Book worship through choral settings of Prayer Book canticles and other texts as well as through anthems based on biblical texts.

The St Paul’s Cathedral Project enables us to explore how through use of the Prayer Book, the Bible was received into the public worship of Englishfolk through the public performance of lectionary readings, through public preaching from biblical texts, and public performance of biblically-derived Prayer Book liturgies.  Hence, through the performance of relational events, Englishfolk were formed as post-Reformation Christians and developed their understanding of the faith through their practice, mostly leaving theological controversies to occupy the spare time and extra energies of the learned and the privileged.