DRAFT: Continuity and Change

The European Reformation began as a protest against features of the medieval Church, hence “protestant” and “protestantism” became names for those who protested and the movement they created in protest. Soon, however, Protestant groups found it necessary to move from reaction to affirmation, by beginning to formulate systems of belief and forms of practice to define themselves as stand-alone religious traditions, in contrast both to the medieval Catholic church and to other developing Protestant groups. 

In Germany and Northern Europe, reasons for the break with Rome were primarily theological. In England, however, the specific catalyst for the Reformation was pragmatic: Henry VIII’s reaction to the Papacy’s refusal to grant him an annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon. Henry had responded negatively to Luther’s break with Rome in the early 1520’s (his 1521 anti-Lutheran pamphlet Assertio Septem Sacramentorum or Defence of the Seven Sacraments earned him the title of  title “Fide Defenso,” or “Defender of the Faith” from Pope Leo X).

Beginning in the late 1520’s, however, Henry sought a papal dispensation so he could divorce Catherine and marry again to provide security for the Tudor dynasty by provision of a male line of succession. By the early 1530’s, when Pope Clement VII refused to grant Henry’s request, the King chose the route of rejection of papal authority as a way to reach his personal and political goals of marriage to Anne Boelyn. 

This led to a series of legislative acts, most notably the Act of Supremacy, passed by Parliament in 1534, which officially severed the relationship between the Church of England and the Papacy by rejecting Papal authority over religious affairs in England and declaring Henry to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England. 

After a brief return to acceptance of papal authority during the reign of Queen Mary (1553 – 1558), the Church of England’s separation from Rome was reaffirmed by the Elisabethan Settlement of Religion (1559).

The Church of England was, from its beginnings, a national church. That is, with the monarch as its Supreme Head (under Henry VIII and Edward VI) or Supreme Governor (under Elizabeth and all subsequent English monarchs) and with the English Parliament as the governing body whose acts separated it from Rome and established it as the national church, the Church of England encompassed the entire population of the English nation. As such, it was mandated by Crown and Parliament to consider that membership in the Church included everyone born in the country.

England’s version of post-Reformation Christianity foregrounded the gathered community of the nation, parish by parish, and the corporate life of faith which its basic documents made possible. This universality of membership was reflected in the national legal system by such feaures as the legal requirement that every child born in the country was to be presented for baptism in the local parish church within 4 days of its birth and that everyone in the country was required to attend worship services in one’s parish church every Sunday and Holy Day and receive Communion there at least 4 times a year, and always at Easter.

In the Preface to the Book of Common Prayer of 1549, Archbishop Cranmer asserted that the purpose of this Book was wrote that “heretofore, there hath been great diversitie in saying and synging in churches within this realme: . . . Now from hencefurth, all the whole realme shall have but one use.”  XXX “shall serve the congregacion.”

John Jewel, in his Apologie of the Church of England,

The first Book of Common Prayer was put into use on Whitsunday in 1549, an appropriate occasion for introducing worship in a language “understanded of the people.” Whitsunday (AKA the Feast of Pentecost) commemorates the day, according to the Book of Acts (Ch 2. vss 1 – 8), when Jesus’ followers “were all with one accord in one place. And suddenly there came a sound from heaven as of a rushing mighty wind, and it filled all the house where they were sitting. And there appeared unto them cloven tongues like as of fire, and it sat upon each of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance. . . . . . [and those who were present] were all amazed and marvelled, because that every man heard them speak in his own language.”

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The Church of England experienced the Reformation in ways that fundamentally changed the life of the institution and the spiritual life of the nation. An emphasis on change, however, has a way of obscuring continuities between the medieval Church in England and the Church of England

Among the points of continuity are the following:

1. Preservation of the Church’s organizational structure and the three basic orders of ordained ministry (Bishops, Priests, and Deacons). The system of minor orders that flourished in the Middle Ages disappeared, but the historic orders remained.

2. Preservation of the Church’s organizational structure of Dioceses and Provinces, headed by the Archbishop of Canterbury as Primate of All England and the Archbishop of York as Primate of England. The world of monasticism and religious orders disappeared, but the parochial system remained.

3. Preservation of the medieval Church’s system of Canon Law.

4. Continuation of formal liturgies, organized into “one use” by Thomas Cranmer in the Book of Common Prayer.

5. Continuation of specific formal rites for the traditional seven sacraments of the medieval Church. The reformed Church of England affirmed Baptism and Eucharist as the only Biblically-supported sacraments but supplied rites for the other five (Confirmation, Marriage, Ordination, Unction [in the form of rites for Visitation of the Sick and Communion of the Sick], and Penance [incorporated into public rites for confession and absolution and into the rites for Ministry to the Sick]).

6. Continuation of services of the Hours (simplified from the 7-Hour structure of the Medieval monastic day to the two services of Morning and Evening Prayer). Therefore, continuation of the essentially Benedictine character of English spirituality.

7. Continuation of a formal rite for Burial of the Dead.

8. Continuation of celebrations of Saints’ Days (reduced to the saints who appear in the New Testament) and other special days like Ash Wednesday, Annunciation Day, Ascension Day, Trinity Sunday, and All Saints’ Day.

9. Continuation of the Christian Year, with its seasons of Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, and Sundays after Trinity Sunday.

10. Continuation of worship in Latin (although restricted to chapels at Oxford and Cambridge Universities and other places where Latin was understood as well as English.

11. Continuation of a formal organization of programs of reading the Bible in services of public worship, as organized by the Daily Offfice and Eucaristic Lectionaries.

12. Continuation of use of Cathedrals as buildings and organizations outside the structure of parochial congregations.

13. Continuation of the use of formal choirs and sung services at Cathedrals and Collegiate churches like Westminster Abbey.

14. Continuation of the use of distinctive vestments for clergy, including copes (in Cathedrals), surplices, tippets, and clerical caps (use of chasubles, although authorized by the Elizabethan Settlement of Religion, did go out of fashion).

The British Church

I JOY, deare Mother, when I view
Thy perfect lineaments, and hue
                        Both sweet and bright :

Beautie in thee takes up her place,
And dates her letters from thy face,
                        When she doth write.

A fine aspect in fit aray,
Neither too mean, nor yet too gay,
                        Shows who is best :

Outlandish looks may not compare ;
For all they either painted are,
                        Or else undrest.

She on the hills, which wantonly
Allureth all in hope to be
                        By her preferr’d,

Hath kiss’d so long her painted shrines,
That ev’n her face by kissing shines,
                        For her reward.

She in the valley is so shie
Of dressing, that her hair doth lie
                        About her eares :

While she avoids her neighbours pride,
She wholly goes on th’ other side,
                        And nothing wears.

But, dearest Mother, (what those misse)
The mean thy praise and glorie is,
                        And long may be.

Blessed be God, whose love it was
To double-moat thee with his grace,
                        And none but thee.

Long before today’s St Paul’s Cathedral, long before Christopher Wren, long before the Great Fire of London in 1666, Paul’s Cross stood in Paul’s Churchyard. The cathedral itself had a Norman Nave dating from around 1200 and a Gothic Choir built to replace the original Norman Choir around 1400. From 1448, in the northeast section of Paul’s Churchyard, stood Paul’s Cross, a small roofed building, shown here in a painting by John Gipkin from the early 1600’s and in our reconstruction of it, based on a late 19th century archaeological survey of the foundations.


The Paul’s Cross Preaching Station was used chiefly as the site for delivery of an open-air sermon every Sunday and some weekdays for two hours, from 10 in the morning until noon. Here, from the 1530’s until the building was torn down in the late 1630’s, Paul’s Cross was the site at which the theological, social, and political changes brought about by the English Reformation were proclaimed and debated.

So, on the ground we entered at the beginning of this paper and found few people, open space and an air of calm, we now find 350 years earlier crowds, noise, contention, and passionate rhetoric. If we seek a sense of the sacred akin to that we find today, we might need to go back another two hundred years, to the early 1400’s to the world of the high Middle Ages, when the layout of Paul’s Churchyard looked something like this:

Here we see the wall that surrounded Paul’s Churchyard and the location of the Cathedral itself, set back substantially further from the street – Paul’s Chain – that runs along the south wall – than today’s St Paul’s is set back from Cannon Street. The wall makes the cathedral precinct a much more distinct part of London, more removed from the city around it, than today’s building. Accessible only through passages and gateways – Paul’s Gate, to the north (see below) – Augustine’s Gate to the east, Paul’s Chain to the south, and of course Ludgate itself to the west.

Life inside the medieval Churchyard was almost totally devoted to maintaining the worship life of the Cathedral. Buildings surrounding the Cathedral provided housing for the Dean [1]The Dean of a cathedral is responsible for the overall internal management of the cathedral and presides at meetings of the chapter of canons or prebends. The dean is president of the chapter and has … Continue reading and the other there chief officers of the Chapter – the Treasurer, [2]The Treasurer is responsible for the cathedral’s fabric and furniture; he also provides bread and wine for the Eucharist as well as candles. He also regulates the ringing of the bells and other … Continue readingthe Chancellor, [3]The Chancellor of the Cathedral has oversight of its schools, as well as of other educational programs. He also is in charge of the reading of Lessons at worship services and is the secretary and … Continue reading and the Precenter. [4]The Precentor is the priest responsible for regulating the musical portion of the services Group housing was provided by the Cathedral for the members of the Choir – the Vicars Choral and the Minor Canons.

Other housing – in St Peter’s College, Holmes College, and Lancaster College – sheltered clergy who spent their days in the Cathedral’s chantry chapels, saying Mass daily for the repose of the souls of those who had endowed this practice.         Estimates of the number of priests living at St Peter’s College range as high as 54 men. Chantry chapels lined the cathedral’s Nave and the side aisles of the Choir. At the cathedral’s east end stood the Shrine of St Erkenwald, the patron saint of London and the goal of pilgrimages to the shrine. We are told that St Erkenwald did not attract the kind of attention among those who would go on pilgrimages that the Shrine of St Thomas Beckett did at Canterbury, but he did have his devotees.

            In spite of the sense one gets that the focus of attention for those living inside Paul’s Churchyard in the late Middle Ages was entirely on what one might call “Holy Work,” there were connections between the cathedral precincts and the larger city around it. People living in houses adjacent to the Churchyard were members of parishes whose churches were inside the Churchyard.

St Gregory’s Church stood adjacent to the southwest front of St Paul’s Cathedral. St Faith’s Church was actually in the basement of the Cathedral, underneath the choir.

This map of parish boundaries shows the areas of London from which these parish churches drew their congregants; St Gregory beside St Paul’s drew folks from the south and west of the cathedral, while St Faith’s drew on residents who lived to the north and east of the cathedral. The chief responsibility of a cathedral is maintaining the regular round of worship services, yet the cathedral itself had no formal congregation, since it was, in effect, the church of the entire Diocese of London, so, presumably, on many occasions the only people in the Choir for regular services were the cathedral’s clergy and its musicians. [5]Cathedrals are called cathedrals because they house the “cathedra,” or chair that is one of the symbols of the Bishop’s office. A formal seating of the Bishop in his cathedra, inside his … Continue reading Nonetheless, they were, presumably, joined on occasions by visitors to the cathedral, especially pilgrims coming to worship at the Shrine of St Erkenwald.

The medieval cathedral’s role in the larger community is illustrated further by the fact that it was always on the path of the Lord Mayor of London’s annual procession through the city, as well as a part of the occasional royal procession as well. The churchyard was also the site of acts of public penance as well as for executions of those convicted of capital crimes. Citizens of London could also request burial in Paul’s Churchyard; later their bones would be unearthed and moved to the Charnel House in the northeast side of the Churchyard.

Nonetheless, the English Reformers found enough commercial and very worldly activity going on at St Paul’s and other churches in the country to make the financial corruption of the medieval church a chief target of their reforming energies. The chantry priests were supported by money left by the well-to-do in their wills so that Masses could be said so that God would count the good deed of saying Mass against the departed’s sentence of years in Purgatory, a doctrine the Reformers rejected out-of-hand. The Reformers also rejected the value for one’s salvation of activities like veneration of the saints, going on pilgrimages, owning relics of the saints, purchasing pardons and indulgences, and adoring paintings and depictions in stained glass of the saints.

For St Paul’s, a center for these practices, the consequences were significant. While the core organization of the Cathedral – its Chapter of Canons, its organizational structure of Dean, Precentor, Treasurer, and Chancellor, its staff of Minor Canons and Vicars Choral all remained. But the chantry chapels were torn down or abandoned, their clergy dispersed; the Charnel House and its chapel were torn down and the bones carted off; the Shrine of St Erkenwald was dismantled; the Cloister in the north central part of the Churchyard was demolished, stained glass windows were smashed; wall paintings were whitewashed over. The financial cost to the cathedral soon became evident; the Cathedral’s spire was struck with lightning in 1561 and was never replaced. By the early years of the seventeenth century, people recognized that the fabric of the cathedral was in serious need of refurbishing, yet fundraising efforts never succeeded in bringing in enough money to secure the building.

The creation of new space made other changes possible, perhaps the most interesting of which is an event which took place in 1554, five years after the dissolution of the chantry system, when the Stationers Company took over the property of the now vacant Peter’s College and established the Stationers Hall, which served as their headquarters until they moved to Ave Mary Lane in 1606.  The existence of the Stationers Hall in this space reflects the technological development of the printing press, given organizational form in a system of production to support the cultural shift toward printed books from handwritten manuscripts through the development of the book trade in early modern London.


As a result of the development of printing, the world of a new kind of commerce moved aggressively into Paul’s Churchyard. The location of the Stationer’s Hall in the abandoned residence of chantry clergy in Peter’s College encouraged the development of the book trade in Paul’s Churchyard. This started in the area around the Paul’s Cross preaching station with sales from horse-drawn carts, then from freestanding bookstalls, then from the ground floors of mixed use houses that sprung up around the sides of Paul’s Churchyard, then along the sides of the North Transept.

Interesting to note that when the Stationers Company moved out of the former Peter’s College, the property next became the Feathers Tavern – surely a telling transformation in the concept of the sacred, as the site of dwelling for priests who spent their days consecrating bread and wine eventually became a place for selling a dramatically different kind of food — whatever is the early modern equivalent of fish and chips, or bangers and mash, or Scotch eggs, with good English ale to wash it down.

Such transformations outside the cathedral – constituting, as they do, the flourishing of a commercial space in a formerly sacred space – need to be seen as reflecting a shift away from an understanding of the Churchyard as sacred space, a narrative that can be further supported by the consequences of the Reformation inside the cathedral. For, post-Reformation, the Nave of St Paul’s   was no longer needed to provide space for festive religious processions, or for side altars where the Chantry priests could ply their trade. So this space – the largest enclosed space in London – became available to be repurposed for other activities.

And so it was, becoming in the next few decades the infamous Paul’s Walk, where Londoners of fashion came to see and be seen, and where lawyers and prostitutes gathered seeking clients  “Paul’s Walk,” wrote John Earle, “is the land’s epitome,” but not a place in which worship was (or was able to be) conducted:

It is a heap of stones and men, with a vast confusion of languages . . . . .         The noise in it is like that of bees, a strange humming or buzz, mixed of     walking, tongues, and feet. It is a kind of still roar or loud whisper. It is the great exchange of all discourse, and no business whatsoever but is here stirring and afoot. . . . . It is the general mint of all famous lies, which    are here, like the legends of popery, first coined and stamped in the       church. All inventions are emptied here, and not few pockets. [6]From John Earle’s Microcosmographie, cited from John Dover Wilson, Life in Shakespeare’s England (London, 1964), 124.

So our search for the sacred inside St Paul’s thus shifts to the Choir of the Cathedral, seen in here, in our reimagining of it for the Virtual St Paul’s Cathedral Project. 


1 The Dean of a cathedral is responsible for the overall internal management of the cathedral and presides at meetings of the chapter of canons or prebends. The dean is president of the chapter and has charge of the celebration of the services, taking specified portions of them by statute on the principal festivals.
2 The Treasurer is responsible for the cathedral’s fabric and furniture; he also provides bread and wine for the Eucharist as well as candles. He also regulates the ringing of the bells and other similar activities.
3 The Chancellor of the Cathedral has oversight of its schools, as well as of other educational programs. He also is in charge of the reading of Lessons at worship services and is the secretary and librarian of the chapter.
4 The Precentor is the priest responsible for regulating the musical portion of the services
5 Cathedrals are called cathedrals because they house the “cathedra,” or chair that is one of the symbols of the Bishop’s office. A formal seating of the Bishop in his cathedra, inside his cathedral, is part of the ceremony through which a new Bishop of a Diocese is installed.
6 From John Earle’s Microcosmographie, cited from John Dover Wilson, Life in Shakespeare’s England (London, 1964), 124.