Lancelot Andrewes and the Changing of the Word

Lancelot Andrewes (1555–1626) was an English clergyman and scholar during the reigns of Elizabeth I and James, during whose reign his name was at the top of the list of divines responsible for the translation of the Authorized Version of the Bible. He was consecrated Bishop of Chichester in 1605.

Andrewes was one of the most erudite churchman of his generation. His sermons, noted for their rhetorical peculiarities, contain much that is beautiful and profound. His prose style is a reflection of his religious thinking, which was grounded in a reformed Catholic sacramentalism that was far removed both from the hostile superstitions of the Papists and the Puritans.

In the November 2007 issue of Renaissance Studies, Noam Reisner argues that Andrewes’ sermons themselves are aiming at achieving a kind of sacramental transformation in the very act of his preaching of them:

“Such sermons are self-consciously anti-sermonic, because their aim is not merely to confer grace through the preaching of the Word, but to offer a literary ‘sacramental’ experience through the process of rhetorically capturing and conveying the numinous presence of the religious mystery at hand.”

Here is an extract of one of Andrewes’ sermons, preached before the King at Greenwich, 1607.

But be ye doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving own selves.
James I. xxii

To be a doer of the word is, as St. Gregory saith well, convertere scripturas in operas, to change the word which is audible into a work which is visible, the word which is transient into a work which is permanent.

Or rather not to change it, but, as St. Augustine saith, accedat ad verbum, unto the word that we hear let there be joined the element of the work, that is, some real elemental deed; et sic fit magnum sacramentum pietatis, and so shall you have ‘the great mystery’ or sacrament of ‘godliness.’ For indeed godliness is as a sacrament; hath not only the mystery to be known, but the exercise to be done; not the word to be heard, but the work also to be performed: or else, if it be not a sacrament it is not true godliness.

Which very sacrament of godliness is there said to be the manifesting of the word in the flesh; which itself is livelily expressed by us when we are doers of the word, as it is well gathered out of our Saviour Christ’s speech to them which interrupted Him in His sermon, and told His mother was without. ‘Who is my mother?’ saith He. These here, that hear and do My words are My mother, they ‘travail’ of Me till I am fashioned in them. Hearing, they receive the immortal seeds of the word; by a firm purpose of doing they conceive, by a longing desire they quicken, by an earnest endeavour they travail with it, and when the work is wrought, verbum caro factum est, they have incarnate the word. Therefore to the woman’s acclamation, ‘Blessed be the womb that bare Thee;’ True, saith Christ, but that blessing can extend but only to one, and nor more. I will you how you may be blessed too: blessed are they that so incarnate the written word by doing it, as the blessed Virgin gave flesh to the eternal Word by bearing It.

Lancelot Andrewes, Sermon IX


David Hurley