Objects of Devotion and Idolatry

Altars Restored: The Changing Face of English Religious Worship, 1547-c.1700

by Kenneth Fincham and Nicholas Tyacke
2008 Oxford University Press, 450 pages, 153

The English reformation was not kind to altars and art. Along with the dissolution and destruction of the monasteries, other acts of iconoclasm were perpetrated during the reign of Henry VIII. Under his son, Edward VI, a plan was put in place to transform the liturgy, the theology, and the art of the English church. Central to the reformers’ goals was the destruction of altars and altar-rails. In their stead they placed lengthwise wooden tables in the middle of the nave. Crucifixes, statues, paintings of saints, and stained glass were destroyed because they were objects of devotion and fostered idolatry. In spite of the short-lived Catholic Restoration under Queen Mary (1553- 1558) in which some churches brought back altars and images, the crown supported iconoclasm during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. However, not all agreed with the Puritan or Calvinist direction being promoted, including the chapel royal which tended to have a higher liturgy. Under Charles I, Bishop Laud promoted the return of altars to a raised sanctuary surrounded by altar-rails, a liturgy closer to Rome, and even imagery in special cases. Laudianism was fought against by prominent bishops, clergy, and laity who considered it idolatrous and popish. The English Civil War, and the rule of Oliver Cromwell ended the British Counter-reform. However, with the restoration of Charles II many of the ideas of Laud came back into currency and eventually became seen as traditional. The fire of London in 1666 and the subsequent rebuilding of fifty-one of eighty-seven churches by Sir Christopher Wren (whose family were Laudians) saw the reintroduction of the wooden “Protestant altar” and the rail. This book helps to explain the liturgical battles between low and high church during the first 150 years of Anglicanism, while offering a surprising parallel with events in the Catholic Church during the twentieth century.