The Aberdeen Assembly

Aberdeen Cathedral

Over the last couple weeks Anglican and Presbyterian doctrine have been on my mind. While the differences between Presbyterian and Anglican faith sparked the Great Rebellion, these two churches nonetheless share a common interest for establishment under the same Crown, and, when squared against Independents like Cromwell and fifth monarchists, Presbyterians finally joined ranks with Anglicans to ensure the continuation of a national church in both Scotland and England by the restoration of Charles II (sic.,  treaty of Breda). Therefore lines of fraternity can be surprising. Nevertheless, the WCF stems from a family of Swiss confessions proven generally impatient of the 39 Articles and oftentimes hostile to the BCP.   If certain differences in ‘faith and order’ can ever be bridged, two reforms would be considered: 1) the historical complaints lodged by  Presbyterians against the English BCP; 2) the reforms proposed by the 1616 Aberdeen Assembly as a starting point for any principled engagement.

Prayer Book Protests:
The stirrings of the Puritan party began under Edward VI, encouraged by the 1548 landing of Swiss Reformers who fled the Augsburg Interim. Upon Mary’s reign, this party left England and was further radicalized in Geneva and Frankfurt, “everything which had been used under the old regieme was unclean in the eyes of the more ardent reformers who had foreign ideals before them and communicated with Switzerland rather than Germany” (Procter and Frere, p. 70).

The second part of the 16th century therefore witnessed an escalation of puritan grievances, initially directed at vestments but later the entire prayer book if not the very constitution of the CofE. In 1562, through Parliament, Puritans first presented six articles requesting the abrogation of all holy days, sign of the cross, kneeling at communion, eastward celebration,  readings from the apocrypha, and all vestments except surplice. By 1571 Puritan complaint had widened to propose replacing the English BCP with the 1560 Scottish if not 1556 Geneva Liturgy. The same dislike was repeated in the Admonitions of 1584 and ’86 which described the Elizabethan BCP as “an unperfect book, culled and picked out of that popish dunghill the Portuise and Mass book, full of all abominations” (p. 114).  Dr. Montague somewhat hyperbolically described the Puritans at the 1601 Hampton Court conference as ridiculously  ‘opposing every ceremony’ (p. 139).  More precisely they opposed  “bowing towards the altar, setting tables up altarwise, setting candlesticks upon it, images or crosses on altar cloths, distributing communion at rails, reading the litany in the midst of the church, using credence tables for ‘diverse use’, offeratories distinct from alms for the poor, singing canticles or hymns cathedralwise, standing up during song, to read all pslams in the ‘new translation’ (KJV) vs. largest volume (Bishop’s Bible), removing gloria patri at end of psalms, to omit canticles, no oil or sign of cross in ceremony, to take away prohibited times of marriage, to change the words of absolution, etc.” (pp. 154-6)

The way toward a total repudiation of common prayer under the aegis of Solemn League was prepared in 1640 when Puritans seized Parliament,  adopting an ‘outline of worship’ rather than a specific liturgy in 1645. England was actually placed on lines more radical than Scotland, inaugurating an anti-liturgical trend amongst Reformed through the introduction of the 1645 Westminster Directory of Worship.  Perhaps evangelical Anglicans today would do well to note the path which Westminster standards  paved– i.e., the repudiation of the prayer book in exchange for ‘free worship’.

The Aberdeen Assembly:
If Westminster was a raised banner for Puritanism in England, then Aberdeen was that counterpart for Anglicans in Scotland. Upon James I’s ascension unto the English throne, ecclesiastical policy in Scotland sought alignment with England. James tried effecting such reforms gradually, shifting powers of canon and ceremony away from the General Assembly toward himself. By 1616 the Assembly approved revision of canons, worship, catechism and confession (Sprott, pp. xix-xx). Despite the pressures exerted by James I and his scottish prelates, the divines appointed to revise CofS standards rejected an English-based liturgy. What instead followed was a mild reform of Knox’s Form of Prayers (go to p. 294), but the  calvinistic doctrine was left untouched. Double-predestinarianism and iconoclasm, for example, remained part of the catechism (called God and King) as well as the Cowper’s longer Confession. The real change was not doctrinal but conforming church government to England. As a consequence, state prayers praising the King’s supremacy in matters ecclesiastical is given throughout.

Another area of minor reform was replacing free with fixed prayer in ordinary worship. The proposed book was otherwise known as Howatt’s book (see p. 117). Unfortunately, the book was little used, and it eventually followed demise with the Perth articles in 1620. What might be said about Howatt vs. Knox’s liturgy was the former would have introduced a truly ‘set’ and uniform usage. Lawson, quoting a Dr. Cook, says,

“The injunction in this General Assembly, to prepare a form of prayer for general use in Divine Service, may be considered the first important public intimation of the introduction of such a form. Dr. Cook appropriately observes– ‘In the Scottish Church there had been from the Reformation certain forms of prayer which it was lawful to use, but every minister was at liberty to depart from these, and to substitute such prayers as he thought the circumstances of his congregation required’. To this may be added, that the use of a Liturgy does not necessarily preclude the substitution of such prayers after the service of the Church. Dr Cook thinks that, as it respects the particular act of the Aberdeen Assembly, the ‘design of this new regulation was to take away this liberty, and to introduce, as in England, a Liturgy invariably to be repeated.'” (Lawson, pp. 360-1)

What is probably not known about Scotland’s worship in the late 1500’s was it had a liturgical basis that later Presbyterianism largely jettisoned. The 1560 book was the product of a mixed Anglican-Presbyterian congregation in Frankfurt which Knox pastored for a time. At Frankfurt Knox combined  Genevan and Edwardian prayer books.  The structure of the Forms of Common Prayer therefore was warm to the canon tradition the Edwardian liturgies were based upon.  Inside Knox’s book (and therefore Hewatt who copied it) can be found a surprising number of suggested prayers ready for confession, communion, occasional prayers, with an example prayer of whole church, the creed, some fixed exhortations, sentences, and even a couple collect. However, Knox did delete many catholic and English aspects such as the canticles, gloria, absolution, kalendar, sursum corda, introit, propers, and offertory. The omissions are somewhat compensated ‘time-wise’ by lengthy, usually rambling prayers. Lastly, Knox’s book contains details for rites like burial, baptism, and matrimony. The 1564 version of Common Order even has a ‘reformed penitentiary’ inside. Today these forms have been mostly forgotten by ‘conservative’ presbyterian churches like PCA, OPC.

If Presbyterianism is to be counted as part of northern catholicism– aka., original/true protestant (these terms “northern catholic” and “true protestant” should be interchangeable)– Aberdeen would be a natural starting point. However, for Presbyterians this would require a number of changes. If Aberdeen gives any charitable measure, a limited revision of canons, confession, and worship book would be required, leaving most Knoxian practice untouched, while opening room for prelacy in government.

But it gets more complicated. For the English Crown, polity and ceremony went together– the importance of bishops linked to preserving a degree of Latin rubrics. For example, the later Carolinian reforms impressed hierarchic church order through ‘beauty of holiness’, namely contesting the location and orientation of tables, rebuilding rails, and requiring bodily kneeling/bowing w/ respect to chancel ornaments (i.e., the altar).  At least this would be the connection between Articles of Perth and the Aberdeen Confession/catechism. Indeed, the five articles of Perth where sent to the Scottish bishops to be after James I received the Aberdeen Acts. Unless ‘Reformed’ iconoclasm can somehow distance itself from divine command toward English principles of general edification and order, such a revision would be impossible.  Furthermore, a renewal of historical, canon-orientated worship– e.g., the 1560 Scottish Book– would be needed just to generate a cultural affinity with traditional liturgy.  The end result might resemble Hungarian or Irish episcopacy, both of whom were calvinistic in doctrine but adiaphora-centered regarding iconoclasm for ceremony. Anglican evangelicals should not be naive about this.

Howatt’s Prayer for the King:

O Lord who are the God of order, the author of Government, from whom is the preferment of the sons of men, Thou that hast given to kings and rulers Thy own throne and place upon earth, and hast communicated with them Thy own style in calling them “Gods;” look mercifully upon the kings and rulers of the earth and learn them that first and chief point of wisdom, to kiss Thy Son, and submit themselves to the sceptre of Jesus Christ, lest He grow angry and they perish in the way. Among those rulers we remember especially before Thee the estate of him whom we may call Thy own chosen servant upon the earth, our Gracious Lord and Sovereign James, by the Thy Grace, King of Great Britain. O Lord, Thou has taken him from the womb, Thou haddest a special eye t him when he did suck the breasts, and as fro that time to this day his dangers and perils have been many, so Thy preservations have been so wonderful, and Thy power and outstretched arm so lifted for his safety and defence, that we may say, “he is joyful in Thy strength, Thou hast given him his heart’s desire, and not withheld from him the request of his lips.” O Lord, make strong his trust in Thee that he may not be moved. Let Thy hand O Lord find out his enemies, who being enemies to Thee and hating him for Thy cause, let his life be more precious in Thy sight. Bend Thy bow and shoot Thy arrows against all that would spoil him of his life, and lay his honor in the dust. Bless him wit ha long and prosperous reign over us, that in his safety we may rejoice, and in the name of Thee our God display our banners. Bless him O Lord with these blessings which Death shall not take from him, even with Thy spirit to guide him here, and with felicity after this, whith that crown of glory which cannot fade or fall away, which is the purchase of Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior. To whom, with Thee and the Holy Ghost, be honor, praise, and glory, for now and ever. Amen.

  • Procter and Frere, A New History of the Book of Common Prayer. Mamillian 1951
  • Rev. George W. Sprott, Scottish Liturgies of the Reign of James VI. Edinburgh 1871
  • John P. Lawson, The Episcopal Church of Scotland. Edinburgh

9 responses to “The Aberdeen Assembly

  1. Pico Ultraorientalis

    I just stumbled into this blog and it is truely a marvel of beautiful scholarship. It seems to be almost exclusively historical however. I wonder how contemporary Anglicans could appropriate some of say, Van Til’s epistemology, without having to ascribe to the narrow Calvinism which seems to be implicit in his work. That kind of thing would be interesting. But even the purely historical scholarship that I have seen on this blog is a beauty unto itself.


    • thank you Pico. I think Fr. Hart, at the Continuum, has said a good theologian is also a good historian. I am not too knowledgeable about Van Til and his presuppositionalism. However, the ‘no neutrality’ idea is echoed in John Milbrank’s Radical Orthodoxy. Milbrank, an Anglican philosopher, develops this thesis from the idea of creation and sacrament, approximating an idea of divine sovereignty such that man is always engaged in a kind of covenant– either in the negative sense of refusing sacramental grace or the positive sense of accepting that same grace by faith. The modern Anglican treatment, interestingly (unfortunately?), avoids propositional thinking (more characteristic of Van Til) by emphasizing the personality of Christ through an extreme incarnational theology. I believe this model poses certain weakness w/ respect to ascertaining God’s will, opening a subjective space filled by Christian neo-mysticism. IMO this explains Milbrank’s liberal theodemocracy. Milbrank has been accused of a radical neo-platonism.


  2. Pico Ultraorientalis

    I can see I am going to have to make a study of Milbrank. Radical neo-platonism si, theodemocracy no…its the “demo” stuff that I find objectionable…


    • It’s not so much Milbrank but the liberal Christianity in the CofE which managed to fuse itself to 19th century catholic revival. What I know about Milbrank is through JKA Smith’s book. Smith is Reformed, and he criticizes Milbrank for basing his epistemology on a kind of sacramental pantheism which tends to mitigate man’s ‘fallen nature’, shifting emphasis from redemption to creation. But this is less a critique of Milbrank and more one of liberal catholicism, e.g., Lux Mundi. What’s funny is Milbrank is relatively conservative compared to some of his Anglican colleagues who are just as inclined to base an epistemology on Taoism as antique neo-platonism. At least Milbrank is trying to apply a methodology common to fathers?


  3. Pico Ultraorientalis

    Hi again Charles,
    I went to Milbank’s ( check, but I think you added an ‘r’) foundation’s blog and read one of his working papers on rights theory. I found it extremely problematic. He’s definitely some sort of communitarian. Although I am a cradle Anglican and not such a wingnut that I conflate communitarian with communist, I think the reformed writers on political economy have got this one right. According to Milbank Christendom must somehow ‘repent’ of political economy. I don’t get this…isn’t science supposed to be a good thing? Even Van Till’s radical criticism of the Western philosophical tradition is really only a criticism of metaphysics, not of the right, nay duty, of the human race to explore and understand the human and natural sciences. So either Milbank has lost it or I’ve lost Milbank’s argument at some point.



    • No, I think you got it. Milbrank is trying to christianize post-modernism, and he’s probably carrying forward a number of assumptions germane to marxist revisionism. After all, the PM school of thought is just a less optimistic version of Critical theory?


      • Actually the project of Christianizing post-modernism is a worthy one, provided it was done decently. After all, provided only one is sufficiently anti-modernist then “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” and all that. I think the question is peoples confusion of just what the distinguishing characteristics of modernity are. Most people seem to be under the impression that it has something to do with the rise of capitialism and the bourgeois class…and indeed it does. But from there they make the invalid inference that money and exchange are not natural institutions, but rather historical novi. I think this is wrong, and that you have to disagregate International Monetary Fund-ish merchantilist capitalism from from the primordial notions of legal personality and property which make the market, and hence wealth accumulation in a society, possible. Milbank seems to be critical of Christainized versions of “primitive communism” (e.g. in Franciscanism) but on the other hand he doesn’t like the word “right.” Go figure. He also makes a lot of detailed distinctions between various forms of scholastic thought which I am rather hazy on. All I know is that it differs from the standard histories that I am familiar with which emphasize the role of the School of Salamanca in the articulation of natural law theory.



  4. This is a pretty big subject, somewhat wandering from Anglican compatibility w/ Van Til. But do you think the obstacle with embracing a market economy is how far ‘usury’ might be applied against profit? Or more specifically, defining ‘risk’ in a manner where loss is shared between investor and businessman? Between medieval and the early-modern it seems a shift of meaning of ‘usury’ occurred, “unfettering” accumulation from the older morality. Where is the English Reformation located in all this, or was the return to older morality more coincidental with the 19th-century catholic revival? My guess, as in many things, the CofE held a rather mixed record. Nonetheless, England’s take on modern political economy is very important. Any links or books would help. I am getting my spin on usury from S.C. Mooney’s Usury: the Destroyer of Nations where he refutes the idea of excessive interest, defining it instead as ‘gain without labor or tangible risk’. This seems very close to the utopian-mutualist position?


  5. Pico Ultraorientalis

    Sorry, as is my penchant, I have wondered into more and more ample congitive spaces, making the art of tying up the thread of discourse look incresingly like a “summa.” Well, that probably shows that it has gone on too long. With regard to references, the only thing I have sitting around on hand is Alexjandro Chafre’s book Faith and Freedom which describes the development of natural law in the context of the School of Salamanca. Its purely a “principles” book and never really gets down to the nitty gritty of the usery problem…perhaps because it was written to show that (contrary to the Weber hypothesis) the free market ethos as being rooted in scholasticism rather than, or more precisely beyond, Calvinism.


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