Revisiting Anglican Classics 6: Lancelot Andrewes’s Preces Privatae

For most of us, Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), bishop successively of Chichester, Ely and Winchester, is not much more than a name, famed for his great learning, and celebrated by T.S. Eliot, whose poem ‘Journey of the Magi’ draws on sermons, and whose essays For Lancelot Andrewes (1928) contain his public affirmation as a royalist and Anglo-Catholic.  Perhaps the greatest scholar of his age, and the presiding ‘genius’ of the Authorised Version, Andrewes was said to be King James I’s favourite cleric.  It was reputed that James even slept with a volume of Andrewes’s sermons under his pillow.

Andrewes certainly owed much of his spectacular success as bishop and court preacher to the patronage of James, yet no one could doubt the extraordinary and exhilarating depth and complexity of his theology.  His sermons abound in Biblical, Patristic and Classical allusions and quotations, dense in imagery and in tangled, subtle argumentation.  For a modern reader, they are hard going, and we owe a lot to a handful of modern scholars, including Nicholas Lossky, Marianne Dorman, and Raymond Chapman, for opening up insights into Andrewes’s theological world.  He had one of the highest profiles of the ‘avant-garde conformists’ of the early seventeenth century (a title preferred by some scholars to ‘Caroline divines’), celebrating church tradition, and the saints and in particular the Blessed Virgin Mary, and expressing a sacramental theology attuned to real presence. 

His sermons are mostly available only in selected editions, or in long-published second-hand editions.  They are rarely referenced in Anglican discourse today, largely because of the challenges of reading them.  This is less true of Preces Privatae, or ‘Private Prayers’, which are the prayers, notes and headings Andrewes developed for his devotional practice, and which have become probably his most influential writing.  They are, by any stretch of the imagination, an Anglican classic.  They have influenced subsequent prayers and devotional practices, been used as they stand for private prayer by many people, and also as texts furnished material for creative liturgical writing.  The intercessions used for many years at communion in King’s College Chapel, Cambridge, for example, were a synthesis of memorable passages from the Preces Privatae.  The edition almost certainly used to make that synthesis was published by the Anglican liturgical scholar, F.E. Brightman, in 1903, and that is the edition and which I use myself.

There are some difficulties in claiming that these prayers were literally as Andrewes prayed them.  They were never published in any form in his lifetime, and there is no evidence that he ever intended that they should be.  Though all the original material has good claim to come from him, there are four different manuscripts, in hands other than Andrewes’s, with different (though overlapping) content, and transcriptions of Greek and Hebrew texts of varying accuracy.  No comprehensive edition in the languages originally used was published until 1675, i.e. half a century after Andrewes’s death.  English editions, variously abridged, starting appearing from 1630 on, but heavily edited and abridged at first, and with other material interpolated.  Not until the nineteenth century, when translations of parts I and II were made respectively by John Henry Newman (1840) and John Mason Neale (1844), did the text largely as Brightman edited it became properly available, though he also went back to the Latin and re-translated it, drawing on their work.  Before then, in 1883 these earlier translations were re-worked by Edmund Venables, with texts from the Prayer Book and Authorised Version substituted for the equivalent quotations Newman and Neale had used.  So Brightman was building on the work of Newman, Neale and Venables, let alone a number of earlier editors.  It is striking that he did not try to modernize the language (apart from spelling); the text reads very much like a transcription of early modern usage.

That’s quite a complicated publishing history!  And, of course, the further complication is that we don’t know for sure whether Andrewes himself would have recognised or acknowledged the Preces Privatae as they were eventually published in English.  Nor do we know – obviously! – what was going on in Andrewes’s mind as he prayed with them, and so in effect how he actually used them, mentally I mean, in his daily devotions.  So there’s quite a wide gap between the knowledge that these prayers in some form were developed and used by Andrewes, and the conviction that what we have in Brightman’s edition is an entirely accurate rendering in English of what Andrewes himself prayed. 

I’m not sure that that matters, though.  Perhaps it matters for scholars of Andrewes’s life and thought.  But those coming to these prayers for personal guidance and inspiration shouldn’t be put off by the complications in manuscript and translation history.  The Preces Privatae have never become a really widely-used resource for private devotion, and that seems to me a great pity.  If you look at the text, you can see at once why they are difficult simply to pick up and use as written.  It’s said that Andrewes prayed for five hours a day.  One early account of his private prayer says that the text of these prayers – this refers to a manuscript we don’t have any more – was “slubbered with his pious hands and watered with his penitential tears”.  What we don’t have is a text laid out, for example, as are the daily offices of the Prayer Book and Common Worship, with full prayers, directions for use, and so on.  There are morning offices for the days of the week, but also generic morning offices.  We probably have to assume Andrewes used the Prayer Book for evening prayer – provision isn’t made here.  Then there are sections on individual themes such as ‘Penitence’, ‘Confession of Faith’, ‘Deprecation’, ‘Comprecation’, and so on.  Some prayers are written out in full.  Others are in the form of lists.  Others still have, seemingly, alternative biddings, sometimes polar opposites, as in the intercessions for Monday morning, which include the following:

“for the succour and consolation

            of all, men and women, suffering hardness in            {dejection




for the thankfulness and sobriety

            of all, men and women, that are in good case in        {cheerfulness




For personal use, it seems to me, you have to make a choice about what material you want to use and when, before you pray, because it would be difficult to find your way through them ‘as you go’.  Some prayers and texts, however, are really magnificent examples of thoughtful, compassionate, early modern prayer.  The intercession for Wednesday morning is one of the finest.  It’s long – over three pages – but contains some memorable phrases:

“Moreover we beseech Thee:

remember all, o Lord, for good,

have mercy upon all, o sovran Lord,

be reconciled to us all:

pacify the multitudes of thy people,

scatter offences,

bring wars to nought,

stop the uprisings of heresies:

thy peace and love

grant to us, o God our Saviour,

            Thou that art the hope of all the ends of the earth.”

I hope that quotation just gives a sense of the remarkable language of Andrewes and his translators here.  The language is not inclusive in a modern sense, and it is powerfully evocative of a theological world, let alone a social and political world, very different from our own.  Hierarchy is everywhere, heresies are deprecated, pagans or ‘paynims’ are to be converted, and so on.  But then, the same issue arises with the Prayer Book.  Whether you want to use this language or not depends, then, on whether you think it gets in the way of personal devotion.  It doesn’t for me.  I think we are more than capable of making the necessary mental adjustments when we pray with the Prayer Book, as I do regularly, and so with this text.  In fact, I’ve often used Andrewes’s prayers as a source for intercessions which can be used alongside the order of the Prayer Book.  They do reflect the same world and time as the Prayer Book.  But, like the Prayer Book, indeed like any historic Christian classic, they speak out of the past to us now, their very strangeness or unfamiliarity in a sense a prompt to reflection and meditation.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: