Anglicans have traditionally found their identity in the Anglican formularies – the Elizabethan Book of Homilies, the Thirty-Nine Articles, the 1662 Ordinal, and the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. These formularies contain the coherent theology of Anglicanism.
Unfortunately, the study of these formularies largely has disappeared, as congregations have attempted to place their “Anglican” identity in various theological movements or in their own experiences. While many people are still somewhat familiar with other formularies, the Book of Homilies especially has fallen into severe disuse.
According to the “Preface,” the Book of Homilies is designed to (1) help people learn their duties to God and their neighbor, (2) guard against false doctrine, (3) instruct in true doctrine, and (4) instruct other ministers. To summarize, the Book of Homilies “contain[s] certain wholesome and godly exhortations, to move the people to honour and worship Almighty God, and diligently serve him, every one according to their degree, state, and vocation.”
Queen Elizabeth I commanded that the Homilies should be read “after the Gospel and the Creed, in such order and place as is appointed in the Book of Common Prayer.” She charged “all Parsons, Vicars, Curates, and all other having spiritual cure […] to read and declare to their parishioners, plainly and distinctly” the Homilies contained therein. This was done so that all people, of every degree and condition, might “learn how to invocate and call upon the name of God, and know what duty they owe both to God and man; so that they may pray, believe, and work according to knowledge, while they shall live here, and after this life be with Him that with his blood hath bought us all.”
In The Book of Common Prayer: A Biography, Alan Jacobs comments that the Book of Homilies expounds on the theology found in the BCP. He states:
Read the Bible and you will learn of the “misery of all mankind,” that since Adam’s fall all suffer under the power of sin; you will also learn that God has made one plan for ‘the salvation of all mankind’ in the death and resurrection of his son Jesus Christ; and you will further learn that the only way to grasp this salvation is by having a “true and lively faith” in Christ as your Savior. Moreover, “good works” do not lead to this faith, they follow from it: a genuine faith will “break out and shew itself by good works,” but salvation is by God’s grace alone and again, this grace is appropriated by the believer through faith alone.
During the next few months, the Anglican Way will be summarizing and commenting on each homily in the Book of Homilies. While these posts will not be an in-depth treatment of the Homilies, we sincerely hope that they will help revive an interest in this work by explaining the theology of the Anglican Way.