This paper will address the conference themes of ‘space, place and context’ with an examination of the development of preaching at St Paul’s Cathedral in London, over the course of two hundred years. Completely rebuilt after the Great Fire of 1666, on a scale which was intended to rival St Peter’s in Rome, the new St Paul’s was explicitly designed as a Protestant cathedral. Preaching, therefore, was highly valued. Yet, despite the adoption of Wren’s ‘preaching box’ plan, speaking in the colossal space, potentially to a congregation of many hundreds, presented considerable challenges. As one would expect over a two-hundred-year period, the content of the sermons changed very considerably. This reflected the changes taking place in Church and State, as well as the evolution of St Paul’s as a public and religious institution, which became gradually seen as the ‘parish church’ of both the British nation and the empire. Among the surviving published sermons, many were preached in aid of the Corporation of the Sons of the Clergy, and extolled the Protestant virtues of a married clergy. Others were preached for the support of charity schools, in order to raise funds for the education of the ‘lower orders’, which was also seen as a Protestant priority. Still others were preached to mark particularly significant anniversaries, such as the sermons of 5 November, in commemoration of the discovery of the Gunpowder Plot (1605) and the landing of William of Orange (1688) or of the Great Fire, in September. These events survived in the Cathedral’s calendar until 1859. By 1870, however, the preaching priorities had changed. The Dean and Chapter were now mainly supporters of the high church ritualist movement, and no longer saw themselves as the upholders of Protestant tradition. Two of St Paul’s most celebrated preachers of this period (H.P. Liddon and Henry Scott Holland) both had Anglo-Catholic sympathies. Their sermons were more focused on biblical exposition within a liturgical framework, and, in the case of Holland, on social questions.

The paper will show that even a brief analysis of some of the St Paul’s sermons can provide useful critical insights into some of the most fundamental changes that occurred at the heart of the Church of England in the period from 1700 – 1900.

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