Lancelot Andrewes was a Stepney schoolboy, Barking born, who rose to have an extraordinary influence in and upon the Church of England. His preaching style has been variously described as ‘dull’, ‘portentous’ and ‘pedantic’. Yet one of the greatest poets in the English language claimed he was moved to Christianity by reading of Lancelot Andrewes’ sermons. A titan of science fiction paid homage to him as ‘the greatest writer in the English language’. And in a curious footnote, Guy Fawkes and his fellow plotters might long ago have passed into history had it not been for the efforts of this industrious prelate. Andrewes’ legacy rests largely on his role as one of the translators of the Bible into the ‘Authorised’ King James version, and his translation of a particular psalm.
Andrewes was born in Barking in 1555. His father Thomas was the Master of Trinity House, set up just 30 or so years before by Henry VIII and the authority in charge of England’s lighthouses to this day. The Thames and the London docks were Thomas’s home territory and he sent his sons to Cooper’s School, now out in Upminster, latterly in Bow, but in those days in the hamlet of Ratcliff (long since swallowed up by Stepney). A precociously talented scholar, Lancelot went up to Pembroke College, Cambridge at 16, became a fellow of the college at 21, and took holy orders at just 25.
Andrewes then undertook the typically peripatetic existence of the learned cleric of the day. He was a chaplain to the Earl of Huntingdon; he returned to London to serve as the vicar of St Giles, Cripplegate, then became the prebendary of St Pancras in St Pauls. He became Master of Pembroke College and a chaplain to Archbishop John Whitgift. By 1590 he was a chaplain to Queen Elizabeth, but his outspoken sermons saw his career stalling. Andrewes was typical of the new Anglicans, in a Church torn between the old Catholicism and the new ascetism of Calvin. He was a fierce defender of the power of the Bishops, and turned down Elizabeth’s offer of the bishoprics of Salisbury and Ely, considering that they made him beholden to the Crown rather than his conscience.
The death of Elizabeth and the accession of James I saw an immediate turn in his fortunes. James liked his stodgy preaching style, and Andrewes’ habit of speaking favourably from the pulpit on the Divine Right of Kings did him no harm with the monarch either. He was first on the list of the committee to translate James’s new version of the Bible, and in 1605 made his start on translating Genesis.
That same year came the Gunpowder Plot. English Catholics had been persecuted under Elizabeth but hoped for greater freedoms under James. Two years into the new king’s reign, frustrations found their outlet in a plot to blow up the House of Lords during the State Opening of Parliament. Guy Fawkes and his cohort were thwarted of course, captured and killed to a man. The events, dramatic as they were, might have faded in the popular memory, but Andrewes decided that the events should be commemorated as a warning to Catholics and Anglicans alike. On the following November 5th, Andrewes preached a sermon outlining his plans – the ringing of church bells each year and the solemn rereading of his own sermon. Four centuries later we’re still following Andrewes lead, albeit with fireworks rather than bells.
Many of Andrewes’ sermons are unlistenably wordy to modern ears but his High Church approach to Anglicanism swayed TS Eliot, who described him as “the first great preacher of the English Catholic Church.” (to the Anglo-Catholic convert Eliot, the C of E would always be a ‘Catholic’ Church).
Kurt Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse Five and numerous other comic, satirical and science fiction works was an unlikely fan. The American writer was a humanist and fiercely critical of religion describing it variously as ‘obvious bunkum’, ‘fantasy’ and ‘an escape for lonely people’. He did, however, consider that nobody had written in English better than a 17th century priest from Stepney. As evidence, he cited Andrewes’ words to the 23rd Psalm ‘The Lord is my shepherd’ – words familiar to anybody who has picked up a Bible or spent time in a church.
The 23rd Psalm
The Lord is my shepherd;
I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures:
he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul:
he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies:
thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over. Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life:
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.