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Milton, Hobbes, and the liturgical subject

Studies in English Literature, 1500-1900Wntr, 2004   by Timothy Rosendale

The authors of the first fully English liturgy in 1549 sought to negotiate and stabilize a set of profound conflicts that lay at the heart of the English Reformation and early modern English culture. They endeavored--on a matrix defined by evangelical theology, national uniformity under royal control, and the vernacular--to reconcile the competing claims of Protestant individualism and the centralizing early modern state. Central to this effort was the remaking of the Eucharist into a newly representational event in which the identity and authority of nation and individual are mutually and reciprocally constituting--an explicitly interpretive mode of redefining the relationships of human and divine, church and state, subject and nation.

The Book of Common Prayer contains two seemingly contradictory discourses, each of which was fundamental to the larger discursive situation of the English Reformation. (1) The Prayer Book is unmistakably prescriptive of sociopolitical order and hierarchy. Liturgical form itself is an order-based discursive mode, restricting improvisation and randomness by imposing set formulae of religious expression on those under its aegis. The legislative coercion of uniform Prayer Book use in the various Acts of Uniformity further amplified this function, as it sought to control the dangers of religious diversity by imposing a single, state-appointed form of worship on the entire nation. Furthermore, the Prayer Book's discourses of order asserted both an autonomous identity for England in a multinational Europe and a fairly rigid sociopolitical matrix within the realm; both the royal supremacy and the maintenance of the episcopal hierarchy attest to the continuing importance of vertical structures of authority in the Church of England. Individual engagement in Prayer Book worship, compulsory though it was, constituted a tacit acknowledgment of the legitimacy of the multiple orders it construed and of the necessity and propriety of the individual's subordinate position within them. In short, the Prayer Book established hierarchical order as the natural and authentic context for individual identity and conduct.

The hierarchical nature of this discursive order is counterpoised in the Prayer Book by its more radical theological discourse of Protestant individuality. In it, the Supreme Head coexists with personal competency, and the religious vernacular functions simultaneously as a mode of unified national identity and a means of unmediated private grace. In the Eucharist, the theological move away from transubstantiation was accompanied by a shift in sacramental emphasis from elements to participants, from institutional objectivity to individual subjectivity. Fundamental to this shift--and additionally significant for its connections to evangelical vernacularism--was a reconception of the Eucharistic elements as signs, representations, texts, whose saving grace was conveyed and internalized through acts of self-conscious interpretation. Receiving the Reformed sacrament (as it would clearly be by 1552) was the ceremonial counterpart to the study of scripture; in both cases, divine grace and truth were made available in textual form, as systems of referential signs, and their internalization was an essentially interpretive act with both individual and communal consequences.

The Prayer Book thus attempted to navigate the profound cultural crisis of the Reformation by enfranchising the Reformed subject and establishing a permanent dialectic in which the authority and identity of nation and individual were mutually constituting. This negotiation took place on the ground of representation and interpretation, a mode that, as the contact point of divine grace, became simultaneously epistemological and soteriological; central to both of these potentialities are the beliefs that sign and referent are not copresent and that meaning and identity are thus created and mediated through representations and their interpretation. It is in this tenuous textual and hermeneutic balance that the Prayer Book (as a textual paradigm of the English Reformation) sought to synthetically reconcile the contradictions of a system that upheld both a politics of centralized vertical authority and a theology of dispersed individual competence.

But the Book of Common Prayer proved tragically unable to fully contain the conflicting energies it sought to synthesize. In the latter half of the sixteenth century, the individualizing logic of reform contributed to the continuing growth of an aggressively evangelical strain of Protestantism, which, even in Elizabeth's reign, came to see the Prayer Book as an empty, popish form that impeded authentic religious expression and supported monarchical and prelatical tyranny. The reactionary rise of Laudianism in the seventeenth century founded itself in the set form and ceremonial of the Prayer Book and its implied corollaries of royal and ecclesiastical hierarchy. These two poles, defined substantially and not at all coincidentally around liturgical issues, developed into the parties whose growing conflict eventually resulted in civil war and the beheading of a king. The Prayer Book was originally an attempt to textually mediate the powerful oppositions within one revolution in the sixteenth century; this resolution proved insufficiently flexible to prevent another revolution in the seventeenth.


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