'Roaring' John Rogers of Dedham
In the last three weeks at the St. Peter’s Summer School, I have well and truly shot my bolt with three presentations to kick off one of the four tracks, entitled ‘Reformation 500’. This is, of course, the 500th anniversary of the event that triggered the European Reformation – Martin Luther pinning up ’95 Theses’ on the door of his local church in Wittenburg in eastern Germany on October 31, 1517. Celebrations in Europe are well under way, as our Mission Partner, Martin Reakes-Williams, assures us from Leipzig, and they are wonderfully ecumenical. However, I think celebrations in England will peak in the autumn. Certainly, St. Peter’s will have a Sunday evening preaching series in September/October echoing Luther’s ‘Here I stand’ on the great truths rediscovered and reaffirmed at the Reformation, and also a visit of the Bible Society’s drama ‘Reformation Re-mix’.
My three talks to launch us into Reformation 500 at our Summer School have been: Martin Luther and the European Reformation, Thomas Cranmer and the English Reformation, and (only this last Tuesday) The Ordinal and the Bible at the heart of the Reformation. Henry Ford thought ‘History is bunk’. Well, 47 people (the biggest of the four tracks) have implied ‘Henry is bunk!’, because, in spite of information overload and mental melt-down, we have found the story of the Reformation brilliantly fascinating. Most folk admit to a fair degree of illiteracy about it all, but the plot-turns are staggering and often defy imagination. However, it goes a huge way to explain where we are (as a Church) and how we got here.
Last Tuesday our Curate Jonnie was ordained ‘presbyter’ in the Church of England. ‘I thought it was priest,’ I hear you say. ‘Isn’t it Bishops, priests and deacons in the C of E?’ But then you don’t really believe in priests in the Church, do you? I mean, priest as a minister in the New Testament Church isn’t a word that is used, At least Bishop (Greek episcopos = overseer), presbyter (Greek presbuteros = elder), and deacon (Greek diaconos = servant) are NT words. And anyway Christ as our ‘great High Priest’ has done away with sacrifices and sacrificing priests by his once-for-all (Greek hapax) sacrifice of himself, never to be repeated. Yes, all that! That was why we called it ordination as a presbyter.
But that was why, before the service itself, we had a presentation on The Ordinal, the service of Ordination. The Ordinal is one of the C of E formularies or foundation documents explicating its beliefs about the faith and the gospel and, therefore, what the ministry of the Church is and is meant to be. This was a great way to get into the service and its high meaning and impact. You should have been there to hear!
Pre-Reformation, the high point of the Ordination service was when the Bishop placed the ornamental priestly vestment, the ‘chasuble’, on the deacon and pronounced ‘Receive power to offer sacrifice to God’. Cranmer’s Ordinal of 1550 and 2nd Prayer Book of 1552 changed the words and whole focus by substituting the gift of a Bible. The words are still used at the heart of the Ordinal today: ‘Receive this Book, as a sign of the authority that God has given you this day to preach the gospel of Christ and to minister his holy sacraments’. The focus on the sacrificing priest has given way to the pastor and teacher feeding the flock with God’s Word. If robes are worn (as they were rather unusually for St Peter’s on Tuesday!), then they are not vestments, but robes – the simple cassock and surplice, with scarf and academic hood (originally one item) signifying one’s appropriate education to be a teacher. (You can read some of these details and more in ‘The Story of the English Prayer Book’ by Dyson Hague, Church Book Room Press, 1949)
We have to remember what the ‘rediscovery’ of the Bible was like in England. Hearing it read and preached in the language of the people, English, for the first time in 1000 years was a massive draw.. It was central and it was electrifying. You cannot understand the Reformation and the Reformers, still less the Puritans who came a generation later, without understanding their love, their passion for the Bible. I have heard of nothing better than an incident told of John Rogers, the Puritan Vicar or ‘Lecturer’ of Dedham (1605-1636 – succeeded by Matthew Newcomen, who later lost his living in the Great Ejection of 1662 because of his non-conformity). He was known as ‘Roaring’ John Rogers for his dramatic and theatrical preaching style (perhaps specifically so called for ‘imitating the screams of the damned in Hell’!). I first heard this incident retold by Mike Reeves in his short broadcast talks on the Reformation and the rise and demise of Puritanism (you can find them currently on the website of The Christian Institute – latterly I discovered the full text of his quotation lifted straight from ‘The Genius of Puritanism’ by Peter Lewis, Carey Publications, 1975, pages 22-23). ‘Yer ‘tis:
‘Mr Rogers was on the subject of the Scriptures. In that sermon he falls into an expostulation with the people about their neglect of the Bible. He impersonates God to the people telling them, “Well, I have trusted you so long with my Bible: you have slighted it; it lies in such and such a house all covered with dust and cobwebs. You care not to look at it. Do you use my Bible so? Well, you shall have my Bible no longer.” And he takes up the Bible from his cushion and seemed as if he were going away with it and carrying it from them …. but immediately he turns again and now impersonates the people to God, falls down on his knees, cries and pleads most earnestly, “Lord, whatever thou dost to us, take not thy Bible from us; kill our children, burn our houses, destroy our goods; only spare us thy Bible, only take not away thy Bible”. He then impersonates God again to the people, “Say you so? Well, I will try you a little while longer; and here is my Bible for you. I will see how you use it, whether you will love it more, whether you will value it more, whether you will observe it more, whether you will practise it more and live more according to it”.’
The witness continues: ‘By these actions he put all the congregation into so strange a posture that I never saw any congregation in my life …. the place (as it were) deluged with their own tears … (and I) was fain to hang a quarter of an hour upon the neck of my horse before I had the power to mount, so strange an impression was there upon me and generally upon the people upon having been thus expostulated with for neglect of the Bible’.
Roaring John Rogers was certainly one of the most forceful and ‘awakening’ preachers of his age. The Puritans can be charged or mocked for their eccentric, fanatical or ‘abandoned’ preaching, but it was solid in substance and transparent in earnestness. ‘We do well to remember that an absence of emotion and a coldness in delivery was no mark of the Puritans in their pulpits’.
Yes, we cannot begin to understand the Reformers and especially the Puritans for their passion for the Bible and for preaching the Bible. The Bible was central to the Reformation, central to The Ordinal and other formularies of the Church of England, and indeed central to the Coronation Service – ‘this Book …. the most valuable thing this world affords’.
David Banting, Vicar (23.6.2017)
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