The purpose of the Virtual St Paul’s Cathedral Project — and its companion project, the Virtual Paul’s Cross Project –– is to make available the experience of daily worship in the Church of England in the early seventeenth century.
The chief function of a cathedral in early modern England was to maintain the daily round of worship services according to the use of the Book of Common Prayer, both as an end in itself, as the embodiment of the diocese at prayer, and as a model of devotion and practice for other churches in the diocese. It therefore served as an example, and a standard, for parish churches in their own embodiment of this prescribed round of services. The style of cathedral worship was distinctive, with its use of organ and a professional choir of men and boys, but the services themselves were the same.
In recreating the experience of early modern worship, we emphasize the importance of understanding the practice of corporate worship in the post-Reformation Church of England, with its set organization of services, its prescribed rotation of Psalms and readings from scripture, its observation of the seasons of the Church Year, its practice of the sacraments of Baptism and Holy Communion, and its providing the liturgical context for the preaching of sermons.
This round of services included Divine Service, the services of Morning and Evening Prayer “daily throughout the yeere.” This practice was the foundation of public worship; in addition to acts of confession and absolution for sins as well as prayers of intercession and thanksgiving, it provided the liturgical framework for bringing the majority of scripture into the public soundscape, providing for repetition of the entire Book of Psalms once a month, the majority of the Old Testament once a year, and the majority of the New Testament three times a year.
To these Daily Offices was added the Great Litany “upon Sundayes, Wednesdayes, and Fridayes and at other times when it shalbe commanded by the Ordinarie” (the Bishop of the Diocese). Holy Communion was celebrated on Sundays and Holy Days throughout the year. The Calendar of Holy Days at this point in the life of the Church of England included, in addition to Sundays, 33 Holy Days, including the Feast Days of 21 Saints (all biblical figures) and 12 major festival days (such as Christmas, Easter, Whitsunday, Trinity Sunday, and All Saints Day).
All these special days were contained within the great cycle of seasons in the Christian Year, beginning with Advent (the four Sundays before Christmas), continuing with Christmas (twelve days) and Epiphany (January 6th until Ash Wednesday), moving on to Lent (the 40 days, plus Sundays, between Ash Wednesday and Easter ( the days between Easter Day and Trinity Sunday), then shifting from remembrance of Jesus’ life to the life of the Church with Trinity Sunday and the Sundays after Trinity.
Definitions of Christianity that focus chiefly on theological texts privilege the cognitive meaning-making of the faithful, thus isolating the faith in the work of the study, of the scholar or theologian alone, in the process of thinking and writing. The vast majority of participants in the liturgical life of the Church of England learned about their faith through corporate practice, through hearing and reciting and reflecting on the words of the liturgies they encountered in corporate worship.
Our emphasis on worship in this Project derives from our belief that liturgical worship’s mix of the fixed, the ephemeral, and the varied is essential to the character of public worship, hence is central to the creation of religious identity.
John Donne says, in the Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions, that he knows God is present to the faithful in Church, where scripture is read, the ancient Creeds are repeated, the Gospel is preached, the Sacraments performed, and all done decently and in good order. Donne knows God is there, where the people are gathered, in Church; God’s presence in Donne’s bedroom, where he is confined by his sickness, is, for much of the Devotions, a matter of speculation.
In taking this approach, we affirm what is of course at the heart of what it means to be Christian from the earliest days, the gathering of the Church’s members, continuing “the apostles’ teaching, the breaking of bread, and the prayers.” In other words, we attend to the significance of Cranmer’s emphasis on the Book of Common Prayer as a unifying force in the development of a national religious identity.
Our goals for this project have included exploring how the liturgies and sermons that survive for us in books and manuscripts served for Donne and his contemporaries as scripts for performance that achieve their true identity when enacted by clergy and their congregations in particular places on specific occasions, thus recovering interactive and performative elements in English worship.
Our development of an interface that gives us access to Donne’s preaching as an event helps us understand more fully his own personal transitions as lived events, as he came to recognize that “no man is an island,” that we are all involved with each other in a larger vision of humanity.