A neglected treasure
A review of Gerald' Bray's 'A Fruitful Exhortation: A Guide to the Homilies'
When the first lockdown started, I was bored one Saturday morning, and decided to ‘do something constructive’ by sorting through my filing cabinet. It was, by and large, about as exciting as you’d expect. But stuffed away at the back, or lurking in the wrong file, I turned up the odd gem that I’d forgotten I had. A talk I had lost, ideas for a sermon series I could use, my best man’s speech from my best friend’s wedding (it was a corker, even though I say so myself).
I felt a little like that as I read Gerald Bray’s book A Fruitful Exhortation: A Guide to the Homilies. I knew the Homilies existed, but I had never looked at them in much detail. I may not be the only one. Dr. Bray shows that this part of our Anglican heritage is a neglected treasure that has much to offer us today, even if we never preach the Homilies as they stand.
The scene is set with a brief introduction to the historical setting and original purpose of the Homilies. They ‘form part of the constitutive documents of the Church of England and are therefore of considerable importance for understanding both its history and its doctrine’ (p. 1). Article 35 of course declares that the Book of Homilies ‘doth contain a godly and wholesome doctrine’. In reality, the Homilies serve as something of an exposition of the Articles, and therefore offer a uniquely detailed exploration of Anglican doctrine.
As Dr. Bray says, the language and syntax used makes them hard for many to read. His book therefore proceeds to offer a summary of each one, with a few choice quotes that might be used in a sermon or talk today. There is, indeed, much that is of striking contemporary relevance.
In the first homily on the Bible, which Bray calls ‘the most extensive exposition of the doctrine of Scripture to be found in any official Anglican document of the Reformation era’ (p. 7), Cranmer argues that Scripture teaches us ‘to know ourselves, how vile and miserable we be…we may learn also in these books to know God’s will and pleasure’ (p. 8). The recovery of this understanding of the purpose of the Bible, and of the nature of humanity, would bring considerable clarity to the current Living in Love and Faith process.
Other topics addressed in the Homilies that are of particular relevance in our Covid-riddled world include the question of civil disobedience – the argument put forward is that it is never lawful to disobey even unjust commands from duly appointed civil authorities; the importance of taking communion in both kinds; and the way to cure our fear of death.
Reading through the summaries of each homily is both encouraging and, at times, puzzling. There are edifying, strongly evangelical treatments of prayer and the Lord’s Supper. There are thought-provoking approaches to preaching at the major Christian festivals, including an excellent Christmas sermon that takes in the whole sweep of the biblical narrative. There are also some questionable sections on the attitude of husbands to their wives, and the reasons why Jesus threw the money-changers out of the temple. I was also unaware that a few of the Homilies in the First Book were not written by men in sympathy with the Reformation. It would be interesting to have the doctrinal implications of this spelled out more clearly. The overwhelming impression one is left with, however, is of the reassurance that this neglected treasure offers us. Here is meat on the bones of the Articles, fleshing out and bedding in the nuanced, reformed, Anglican, Biblical theology on which we gladly take our stand.
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