Differences in Worship
As we saw in the last post on this topic, the competing beliefs between Anglicans and Puritans had practical consequences in Christian worship. Horton Davies lists five differences between Anglican and Puritan worship.
- Anglicans were free to use the customs of the ancient church, provided Scripture did not veto them, whereas Puritans demanded a positive warrant in Scripture for all their ordinances and even for the details of their organization.
- The chief means of grace for the Anglicans were the sacraments, especially Holy Communion, while for the Puritans it was unquestionably the lively oracles of God in preaching.
- There was a deep loyalty to liturgical worship in Anglicanism and more than a little suspicion of its formality in the Puritan tradition.
- Anglicans kept such ancient vestments as the surplice and the cope, and such time-honored ceremonies as kneeling for the reception of Holy Communion, the signing of the Cross in Baptism, and the use of the ring in marriage. All these vestments and ceremonies were rejected by the Puritan iconoclasts as the remnants of Romish superstition.
- The Christian calendar, celebrating the events in the life of the incarnate Son of God and commemorating the Virgin and the leading saints, was retained in streamlined form by the Church of England, but was discarded by the Puritans, although they had their own special days such as the weekly Sabbath and special days of humiliation and thanksgiving, by which they marked the judgments and the providences of God as related to the nation or the family. (Worship and Theology in England, 69-70)
Puritans Ideals in Worship
John Foxe gives us a taste of the Puritan antipathy toward Roman Catholic worship practices.
“Neyther it is easye to saye whether the doinges and procedinges of the papistes were more to be lamented for their detestable absurditye, of graue persons, or els more to be scorned and derided for their so trifeling & extreme follye. What Democritus or Calphurnius could abstaine from laughter, beholding only the fashion of their masse, from the beginninge to the later end, wyth suche turning, returning, halfe turning and hole tourning, such kissinge, blissing, crowching, becking, crossing, knocking, ducking, wasshing, rinsing, lyfting, touching, fingring Whispering, stoping, dipping, bowinge, licking, wiping, sleping, shifting, with an hundreth thinges mo. What wise man, I saye, seing such toysh gaudes can keepe from laughter? And what bee all the Popes doynges, with the whole circumstance of his religion, and maner of his popelinges, but matters almoste to bee laughed at. &c.” (John Foxe, Actes and Monuments )
Later, we find a nostalgic and hagiographical account of the "Old English Puritan" which nonetheless gives us insight into the Puritan ideals of worship.
“The Old English Puritane was such an one that honoured God above all, and under God gave every one his due. His first care was to serve God, and therein he did not what was good in his own, but in God’s sight, making the word of God the rule of his worship. He highly esteemed order in the house of God: but would not under colour of that submit to superstitious rites, which are superfluous and perish in their use….He made conscience of all God’s ordinances, though some he esteemed of more consequence. He was much in praier; with it he began and closed the day. In it he was exercised in his closet, family and publike assembly. He esteemed that manner of praier best, where by the gift of God, expressions were varied according present wants and occasions; Yet he did not account set forms unlawful. Therefore in that circumstance of the Church he did not wholly reject the liturgy but the corruption of it. He esteemed reading an ordinance of God both in private and publike; but he did not account reading to be preaching….The Sacrament of Baptism he received in Infancy, which he looked back to in his age, to answer his ingagements, and claim his priviledges. The Lord’s Supper he accounted part of his soul’s food: to which he laboured to keep an appetite. He esteemed it an ordinance of nearest communion with Christ, so requiring most exact preparation.” (John Geree, The Character of an Old English Puritan or Nonconformist )
The Puritans spoke of public worship often, but perhaps the best single document which expresses their ideals for worship is the Directory for the Publick Worship of God, adopted in 1645 in Scotland and recommended by English Puritans.
The North Star of Puritan worship was the "regulative principle." The Westminster Confession of Faith expresses it this way:
“The acceptable way of worshiping the true God is instituted by himself, and so limited by his own revealed will, that he may not be worshiped according to the imaginations and devices of men, or the suggestions of Satan, under any visible representations, or any other way not prescribed in the Holy Scripture” (XXI, i).
The Puritans took a stand to keep the Word of God as their final authority, which was a crucial and commendable position. However, this does not mean that they always took their stand in the best way. By making the standard for worship that which is "prescribed" in the Bible, some Puritans actually posited a more rigid form of the regulative principle than the earlier continental reformers had embraced. Martin Bucer argued that "nothing should be introduced or performed in the churches of Christ for which no probable reason can be given from the Word of God." This is a wiser way of stating the principle. There must be positive biblical warrant for what God's people do in worship, but this warrant can be given in more ways than simply what is prescribed. The Anglicans were quick to see discrepancies in this Puritan way of stating the principle, and the Puritans backed themselves into a corner with this attempt to uphold biblical authority in a way that is difficult to defend from the Bible itself.
As the last paragraph indicates, there were stubborn wrinkles in the Puritan ideals for worship which were difficult to iron out. One wrinkle was a tendency to make radical dichotomies between outer and inner, between external and internal, between soul and body, between word and thing, between symbol and reality, between objectivity and subjectivity. Of course, this problem is not unique to the Puritans and has been a perennial problem in church history. The Puritans' earnest desire was to know God in an experiential way, and this drove them toward a deep interiorizing of their faith. For some, this led to difficulties in finding assurance of their faith. For others, at a church level, this dichotomizing contributed to difficulty in handling the sacraments. If everything that really matters about our relationship with God takes place "in the heart," then what meaningful role do the sacraments, as inescapably external ritual actions, play in our relationship with God? (E. Brooks Holifield, The Covenant Sealed: The Development of Puritan Sacramental Theology in Old and New England, 1570-1720, reprint ed. [Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 2002]) It is at least plausible to think that the Puritan fear of formalism may have fed into the rising mysticism and rationalism of the "early modern" era.