In the Fourth Nocturn

What’s in a rubric?: Ornaments

The most infamously controversial rubric in the Book of Common Prayer is the ‘ornaments rubric’, found on the page immediately before the beginning of the order for Mattins. It reads:

And here is to be noted, that such Ornaments of the Church, and of the Ministers thereof, at all Times of their Ministration, shall be retained, and be in use, as were in this Church of England, by the Authority of Parliament, in the Second Year of the Reign of King Edward the Sixth.

Despite the apparently vague reference at the end, the meaning of this direction was largely uncontroversial from its authorship in 1559 until the 19th century. Everybody knew what the commonly-used ornaments of the Church and ministers were without having to refer to the second year of the reign of Edward VI: for ministers, at all services, a cassock and surplice, with a preaching scarf for ordained ministers, and a hood for graduates.

When the time came for revision of the prayer book after the Restoration, the Puritan party asked the bishops to simply delete this text, ‘forasmuch as this rubric seemeth to bring back the cope, alb, etc., and other vestments forbidden by the Common Prayer Book, 5 and 6 Edw. VI’. The bishops simply replied, ‘We think it fit that the rubric continue as it is’, and so we have it still printed today, though it is no longer of real relevance under modern canon law.

When ritualism came along in the 19th century, those who desired to re-introduce things like the eucharistic vestments into the service cited this rubric as their authority for doing so. (At the same time, liturgical historians wondered why the bishops had answered that they wanted to keep the rubric allowing the ‘cope [sic], alb, etc.’, but then made no effort to restore or encourage their use.) The most extreme ritualists pointed out that the first prayer book, with the ornaments it allowed, technically only came into use (rather than authorization) in the third year of Edward VI, and therefore that almost the full array of pre-Reformation ornaments were available to be used. More moderate ritualists were satisfied to take this as referring to the 1549 prayer book, which enjoined a good variety of ornaments such as the chasuble for the celebrating priest and tunicles for the deacons at the Holy Communion (though the list of ornaments mentioned therein is clearly not complete, so reference must be made to other contemporary documents). In the favour of the milder ritualists was the fact that the original form of this rubric (in 1559 and 1604) had an additional clause at the end, ‘according to the Act of Parliament set forth in the beginning of this book’, i.e. the Act of Uniformity 1559; and the regnal year of the first Act of Uniformity was, indeed, 2 Edward VI.

Anti-ritualists pointed out that the rubric had subsequently been superseded, or at least circumscribed, by the Elizabethan advertisements which prescribed instead ‘such seemly habits, garments, and such square caps, as were most commonly and orderly received in the latter year of the reign of King Edward VI’ (i.e. only the surplice), and the new canon law of 1604 which enjoined only the surplice, and the cope for the use of cathedral churches. Ritualists countered that these were clearly meant to be minimum standards, imposed at a time when Puritans were resisting even the surplice, and that the continued existence of the ornaments rubric up to 1604 and beyond was a sign that a more lavish approach to ornamentation was still allowed, even if rarely used.

Anti-ritualists then pointed to the Act of Uniformity 1559, which stated that the authority of the ornaments stemming from the 1549 book extended only ‘until other order shall be therein taken by the authority of the Queen’s Majesty, with the advice of her commissioners appointed’, and that the issuing of the advertisements clearly satisfied this requirement of the Act, and therefore that the permission for use of the 1549 ornaments had become a dead letter with the arrival of the Elizabethan injunctions. The ritualists disagreed, pointing out that the rubric survived into 1604 and 1662, long after the advertisements themselves had been made, and indeed become obsolete.

The theological core of the debate was whether or not the use of the chasuble at the mass implied a ‘Roman’ doctrine concerning the sacrificial nature of the eucharist. Evangelicals, thinking the Church of England to be primarily reformed in character with lip service paid to historic catholicity, wanted to avoid any aesthetic suggestions of Roman doctrines; Anglo-Catholics, thinking it to be primarily catholic while having reformed away a relatively small number of significant mediaeval abuses and superstitions, did not mind the idea of the mass being thought of as a sacrifice, and some didn’t see how the chasuble implied a sacrifice anyway.

The debate raged on into the 20th century, until the eucharistic vestments were finally to have been explicitly legalized by a rubric in the proposed 1928 prayer book. Unfortunately, the evangelical party succeeded at defeating that in Parliament; but the unofficial authority the bishops gave to the 1928 book essentially put an end to arguing about whether the vestments were legal, and shifted the debate to the more clearly doctrinal question of whether they were proper.

Finally, in the 1960s the Church of England took the approach of creating a compromise with which nobody was happy but on which everyone could agree: in revising the Church’s canon law for the first time since 1604, they allowed the eucharistic vestments while explicitly stating that they have no doctrinal significance, and thereby also allowed the eucharistic vestments to be used at non-eucharistic services — thus we nowadays see e.g. Evensong wrongly yet lawfully ministered in an alb and stole. Even so the doctrinal debate is still pushed by certain factions within the evangelical wing who continue to think the eucharistic vestments improper.

What other ornaments were in use before the Oxford Movement?

A note in John Cosin’s Particulars, reproduced in G. J. Cuming’s edition of the ‘Durham Book’ (a heavily-annotated copy of the 1604 prayer book used by the bishops while preparing the revision in 1662) suggests that perhaps a small number of ministers at their were using some ornaments other than the ones which have often widely been assumed to have been in use at the Reformation:

But what those Ornaments of the Church and of the Ministers were, is not here specified, and they are so unknown to many, that by most they are neglected.

Unknown to many, and neglected by most? Who, then, was not neglecting some of the ornaments allowed by that rubric? Which ornaments were they using which were not used by ‘most’ others? Was anyone using the alb and tunicle, or wearing chasubles?

Cosin also wrote in his Advices (another book of notes on the rubrics he wanted to revise),

The very words of that Act (2 Edw. VI) for the ministers’ Ornaments, would be set down, or, to pray to have a New One made; for there is somewhat in that Act, that now may not be used.

So clearly Cosin felt that the authorization of some of the ornaments of 1549 had lapsed, presumably as a result of the canons of 1604. But, at least for a time, he didn’t think that the eucharistic vestments were among them, since he glossed the 1559 Act of Uniformity in his second series of notes on he prayer book thus:

Provided always, and be it enacted, that Such Ornaments of the Church (whereunto the adornment and decent furniture of the Communion-Table relate), and of the Ministers thereof (as the Alb or Surplice, the Vestment or Cope, with the Rochet and Pastoral Staff before mentioned), shall be retained and be in use, as was in this Church of England by Authority of Parliament in the Second (not the fifth) Year of the Reign of King Edward the Sixth; until other Order shall be therein taken by the Authority of the Queen’s Majesty, with the Advice of her Commissioners appointed and authorized under the Great Seal of England, for Causes Ecclesiastical, or of the Metropolitan of this Realm. Which other Order so qualified, as here it is appointed to be, was never yet made.

At some point, though, concludes Cuming, he began to have doubts whether such an order ‘was never yet made’, thinking that the canon law counted as such an order. (He may also have been unaware of the Elizabethan injunctions, although this seems unlikely.) He therefore proposed simply to add the words ‘that is to say — A Surplice &c.’. Cuming also suggests, however, that this ‘&c.’ may be an attempt at a compromise between his personal interpretation on the legality of ornaments (including all those of 1549) and the common understanding and use of his time, to avoid further controversy with the Puritan party, with whom the 1662 book was supposed to be a compromise, and not reflective of an acceptance that the surplice was the only legal garment of the time.

Cosin had certainly done quite a bit of research into this rubric, but we’re still no closer to understanding which ornaments ‘most’ people at his time ignored, and who were the people who were using them.

Given that Cosin himself was apparently unsure about the legality of sacramental vestments, it seems unlikely that these were among them. But he was, for instance, certain that lights upon the altar were legal and in use at that time, enjoined by Edward VI in 1547:

Among other ornaments of the church that were then in use, the setting of two lights upon the communion-table or altar was one, appointed by the king’s Injunctions. (‘Notes on the Book of Common Prayer’, Second Series)

I’m not sure how common this was in Cosin’s time, but this is significant given that the placement of lights on the altar at other times than when needed for illumination at night was later the cause of ritual prosecutions, it apparently having fallen entirely out of use by the 19th century.

Incense, too, was in use in the Cosin’s time, presumably under the authority of this rubric; Percy Dearmer writes in the Parson’s Handbook that:

There are many instances on record of its use under the Elizabethan Prayer Book and our own.1 It was recommended by Herbert, used by Andrewes and Cosin, and many other seventeenth-century divines […] and, when our modern ritualists revived it, there were men living who might have seen it burnt at Ely Cathedral. (11th edn, p. 29)

Thus the amount of time during which incense was out of use entirely was clearly confined to less than a single lifetime, yet in this time its lack of use came to be taken as being because it was illegal.

Things such as these are probably what Cosin is referring to by ‘most’ ministers not using the full ornaments. The (mainly high church) bishops who ultimately controlled the revision of the 1662 prayer book presumably, then, thought it best that the ornaments rubric continue not in order to safeguard the legality of eucharistic vestments which were by their time long out of use, but rather to ensure that ornaments of the church which were in use, but were uncommon, could continue to be undoubtedly legal. These ornaments they themselves presumably liked to use, and they could perhaps see that with no rubric at all on ornamentation, there would be an increased danger of suspicion by the Puritan clergy that high churchmen of the era were already propagating illegal liturgical practices.

It is thus small wonder that the legal arguments of the anti-ritualists of the 19th century had to be based on a presumption that the ornaments rubric had ceased to have any force. Just as the bishops likely suspected, when the explicit statement of the legality of the ornaments of 1548–9 is taken away, and there is no direction considered to have effect, then what is considered lawful becomes equated with what is normal — and what is normal naturally evolves over time, the tendency being to decay rather than growth.

Thus we have not only an answer for what Cosin meant by ornaments being mostly neglected at his time, but also for why the bishops allowed the continuation of a rubric which seemed, for the liturgical historicals of the 19th century, to be about ensuring the legality of vestments which they never actually attempted to use.

  1. Dearmer adds in a footnote, vindicating the legality of incense under the ornaments rubric, that around 35% of churches inventoried in 1552 (before that year’s new BCP was introduced) had a thurible.