What’s the use of studying history?

The following reflection on what history is “for” comes from the conclusion of the three Cook Lectures delivered in 1990 at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, by G. R. Elton, the celebrated historian of Tudor England. The lectures were published in his Return to Essentials: Some Reflections on the Present State of Historical Study (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1991). (This passage is found on pp. 72–73.)

Elton takes issue with those who argue that the study of history allows us to discover the “laws” that govern human social organization and behaviour—laws that should be used to devise new and better schemes of government and economic regulation. Anyone who has really grappled with the facts of history, Elton argues, will see that such a view is both childish and dangerous. History, he says, gives us a chance to “grow up” and learn to carry ourselves wisely in a world that is fundamentally unpredictable.

Sir Geoffrey Rudolph Elton (1921–1994), Regius Professor of Modern History in the University of Cambridge. Image source: artuk.org

Human beings learn primarily from experience; if they are to think and act profitably—with positive and useful results—they need as wide a vision of the possibilities contained in any given situation and any present assembly of other human beings as they can acquire. An individual experience, of course, is always limited and commonly distorted by prejudice and self-interest: what men and women need is an enlarged experience against which to measure the effect of those disadvantages.

That experience is made available by the historian presenting the past in all its variety and potential, and all of it divorced from the immediate needs and concerns of the present. History provides the laboratory in which human experience is analysed, distilled and bottled for use. The so-called lessons of history do not teach you to do this or that now; they teach you to think more deeply, more completely, and on the basis of an enormously enlarged experience about what it may be possible or desirable to do now.

One of the most useful lessons so taught precisely contradicts what predicting historians would like to extract from our labours. Instead of telling us that certain conditions can be shown, from past experience, to lead to certain assured consequences, history for ever demonstrates the unexpectedness of the event and so instils a proper scepticism in the face of all those vast and universal claims. A knowledge of the past should arm a man against surrendering to the panaceas peddled by too many myth-makers.

This is known as growing up—outgrowing the arrogance of adolescence which, guided by moral principles unchecked by experience, will impose on suffering mankind the solution promoted by ignorance joined to faith. By enormously enlarging personal experience, history can help us to grow up—to resist those who, with good will or ill, would force us all into the straitjackets of their supposed answers to the problems of existence.

Thus I will burden the historian with preserving human freedom, freedom of thought and freedom of action, a burden he bears because he knows what happened before when supposedly inescapable schemes of thought and action were forced upon people.

Understand the past in its own terms and convey it to the present in terms designed to be comprehended. And then ask those willing to listen to attend to the real lessons of the past, the lessons which teach us to behave as adults, experienced in the ways of the world, balanced in judgement, and sceptical in the face of all the miracle-mongers.

Elton’s description of “the arrogance of adolescence” cuts close to the bone. My own adolescent self was indeed “guided by moral principles unchecked by experience—principles that I tried with passionate intensity to impose on those around me, until experience taught me that I couldn’t even live up to them myself. It is fortunate that we are rarely in a position to impose our wills on the world!

Some Memories of King’s for St. John’s, Elora


On July 23 I had the great privilege of preaching at the (Anglican) Church of St. John the Evangelist in the picturesque town of Elora, Ontario (a drive of an hour or two west of Toronto). My sermon concluded a fantastic choral Mattins sung by the Elora Festival Singers. I had heard of the Elora Festival before, but had never experienced it. Courtesy of St. John’s, I received complimentary tickets to a brilliant afternoon performance of Bach’s Brandenburg concertos 1 and 5 (the harpsichordist nearly set the place on fire with his virtuosity), with Cantata 140 (Wachet auf), and to an utterly stunning concert (in an empty road salt barn!) by the Choir of Trinity College, Cambridge. Most memorable for me, however, was the crisp, flowing Anglican chant psalmody of the Festival Singers under their director, Noel Edison. I have never heard a Canadian choir achieve such a standard — a perfection that would rival even the best English choirs. I am eager to return in the future to hear the celebrated parish choir, which I know only through its recordings.

In exchange for all this, and further generous hospitality, my hosts received the following sermon:

A Sermon Preached at Choral Mattins in the Church of St. John the Evangelist, Elora, Ontario, July 23, 2017

by Jesse D. Billett, Assistant Professor, Faculty of Divinity, Trinity College, Toronto

Appointed Scriptures: Ps. 148, Isa. 55:6–11, Luke 6:37–42

When Canon Hulse kindly invited me to preach at this festival Mattins, he suggested that you might like to hear some stories from my time as a choral scholar in the choir of King’s College, Cambridge, where I sang from 2001 to 2004. At least among people who know about choral music, especially in the English tradition—and I get the sense that today I am among such people—that tends to be the most interesting line on my CV. For three years I sang Evensong day after day in that breathtaking late medieval chapel, with its gravity-defying stone ceiling and vast stained glass windows, in a choir famous around the world for its annual BBC World Service broadcast of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols on Christmas Eve. I was nervous about Canon Hulse’s suggestion, because as a choral scholar I endured a lot of guest preachers who wanted to give their “King’s College sermon,” and talk about the music, and the windows, and the ceiling, and not talk much about Christ or the Christian life. But it occurred to me that my time in King’s College Choir had provided me with some potentially interesting analogies for the Christian life. If I were going to go back to the very beginning, I could tell you about how I got into the choir in the first place. My audition and academic interview were such unmitigated disasters that they would serve as a good illustration of unconditional election and salvation by grace alone! But instead I would like to share with you some parallels between the life of a King’s choral scholar and the Christian life as it is summarized in the fifteen-hundred-year-old classical schema known as the “Threefold Way,” which sees the Christian pass through three stages: the Purgative Way, the Illuminative Way, and finally, the Unitive Way.

First, then, let us look at the Purgative Way. This is the first phase of Christian growth, devoted to getting rid of habitual sins and acquiring virtues in their place. (Today’s second lesson’s teaching about “removing the beam from our own eyes” describes a part of this phase.) As a new choral scholar, I found myself subjected to a level of discipline unlike anything I have experienced before or since. Rule 1: Never, ever, be late. When my future wife Jill and I were courting, I once left her bleeding at the side of the road after she fell off her bicycle, because I couldn’t be late for choir practice. (I still have nightmares in which I’m almost late for choir practice and can’t find my music or my cassock.) Rule 2: Never ask to miss a service or a practice. “You need to go to a funeral? How closely related were you to the deceased?” Rule 3: Never arrive not knowing your music note-perfect. If that means spending several hours a day studying at the piano (as it did for me in my first year), then that’s what you do. Rule 4: If, God forbid, you make a mistake in a service or performance, apologize in person to the director.

People tend to be a bit shocked when I describe this discipline. It all sounds so unreasonable. Yet without this discipline we could never have made music at the level that was expected of us. We knew that an individual lapse in discipline would cause our music to suffer and would let the whole choir down.

The world’s reaction to the Purgative Way in the Christian life is similar. The work of acquiring virtue, the pain of avoiding sinful habits, the humiliation of confessing one’s sins—it all sounds so unreasonable. That is because the world’s idea of a good life falls well short of the Christian life. The Christian life does not consist in “being good” or “nice” or even in “following the teachings of Jesus.” It is, rather, the extension here and now of the very life of Jesus of Nazareth—crucified and risen—in the members of his mystical body, the Church. The life of Christ must take root in me, grow up in me (Gal. 2:20; Eph. 4:15–16). And that life cannot co-exist with sin. The two are incompatible (1 Cor. 10:21; 2 Cor. 6:14ff.; Eph. 5:5). And so ultimately a choice must be made: Christ or myself; Christ or the world. Just as we choral scholars had a vision of musical perfection to which we sacrificed our youthful freedoms, so the Christian chooses Christ and his discipline before all else. “If any man come to me, and hate not his father, and mother, and wife, and children, and brethren, and sisters, yea, and his own life also,” says our Lord, “he cannot be my disciple” (Luke 14:26). I’m not suggesting that you leave your sweethearts bleeding in the ditch to make it to church on time. But you must be ready to sacrifice anything that kills the life of Christ in you. As St. Paul says, “I count all things but loss for the excellency of the knowledge of Christ Jesus my Lord” (Phil. 3:8).

The deeper knowledge of Christ is the goal of the second phase of the Christian life, the Illuminative Way, in which the mind dwells more and more in meditation and contemplation on the mystery of Christ in his incarnation, in his suffering and death, and in his resurrection. (We caught something of this in today’s first lesson: “My thoughts are not your thoughts.” We have to conform our thinking to God’s.) Near the end of my first year in King’s College Choir, I gradually realized that I was no longer struggling just to keep my head above water. Submission to the purgative common discipline had given me a little mental room to consider this music that we were singing, to observe more carefully its craftsmanship. In this I was helped by the notes that previous choral scholars had left in the music copies. Not all of these were serious; some were screamingly funny. This morning we’ve just heard Jonathan Harvey’s luminous anthem “I Love the Lord,” which, you’ll remember, begins with the high voices sustaining a G-major chord for the first few pages. In my King’s copy of that anthem, someone had scribbled out the title “I Love the Lord” and had written, “I Love This Chord.” My favourite was in my copy of the Byrd versicles and responses, where above the priest’s words “Let us pray,” someone had drawn a picture of a head of lettuce with fangs, chasing a mouse (the “prey” of the “lettuce”). I didn’t just follow what others had written, of course. I had my own process of study and discovery, too. We were once preparing to give a concert of late fifteenth- and early sixteenth-century music from the Eton Choirbook, a repertory both glorious and very difficult. I was struggling terribly. Not with the notes (in accordance with Rule 3, I had faithfully learned those in advance!), but with making architectural sense out of the longer musical phrases. I’ll never forget the moment when it occurred to me that I had to stop trying to sing these lines as if I were Bryn Terfel, and start trying to sing them as if I were a renaissance bass viol. My style of singing had to bend to the innate character of the music. I was still just a beginner, but I was becoming aware that a much deeper level of understanding of the music was possible. We once performed the Penderecki Cherubic Hymn, a wickedly difficult piece (and with lyrics in Old Church Slavonic, if you please!). To be honest, I didn’t know how we were ever going to pull it off. But as we were about to perform it in Evensong, I saw our director of music, Mr. Cleobury, almost transfigured before my eyes. He was able to communicate to us every rhythmic subtlety, every dynamic shading, every entrance, every cut off, the shape of every line, so that all we had to do was follow him. It was the most magnificent display of the conductor’s art that I have ever witnessed. He had entered so deeply into the complexity of the music, that the music had in fact taken possession of him.

The Illuminative Way in the Christian life is something very like that. Trained and disciplined by the Purgative Way, we are ready to enter more deeply into the mysteries of our faith and to be transformed by them. We encounter the Lord in the pages of scripture, guided by the hints and signposts left by his saints who have gone before us. The goal is to be progressively shaped in the image of Christ that we discover there. As St. Paul says, “we all, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image from glory to glory” (2 Cor. 3:18). And as St. John says, “we know that, when he shall appear, we shall be like him; for we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). To make this sort of progress it helps to have a teacher who knows the way—a bit like an inspired conductor. My one bit of practical advice to all of you today is that if you wish to make progress in the spiritual life, you must have a spiritual director, a father or mother in God who can teach you how to meditate and pray in such a way that you will be progressively transformed into Christ’s likeness. This doesn’t have to be complicated. There is a wonderful story of the Curé of Ars, St. John Vianney, asking an aged agricultural worker who spent a great deal of time in front of the reserved sacrament: “My good father, what do you say to our Lord in those long visits you pay Him every day and many times a day?” “I say nothing to him,” was the reply; “I look at Him, and He looks at me.” The secret is that in looking at Christ we come to love him, and in loving him we are moved to imitate him. (Alfred Monnin, Life of the Curé of Ars, trans. H. E. Manning [London: Burns and Lambert, 1862], pp. 55–56.)

We come now to the final stage of Christian growth, the Unitive Way, in which the desire for God has moved beyond study and technique into a continual state of love and yearning, accompanied by a transfigured view of the world. Concerning this stage, I ought to say very little, because I have so little direct experience of it myself. But in this too, I think that my time as a King’s choral scholar at least taught me what to look out for. You have probably heard elite athletes speak about being “in the zone”: the goalie who makes perfect glove saves on shots he can’t even see for the crush of bodies in front of him; the rock climber who finds the perfect handhold every time exactly where she needs it. It’s a state of responding correctly to the demands of every moment, almost without thinking about it. As a choral scholar, I occasionally experienced something like that while singing. The effort required to get the music right receded into the background, and my mind’s inquiry into the music’s structure and meaning was quieted. Instead, I noticed things like how the light had changed in the chapel with the passage of time, from the darkness of December when the Rubens painting of the Adoration of the Magi was illuminated above the altar, to the brightness of Holy Week when the sun shone through the great east window’s scene of the crucifixion. I felt myself to be part of a great cosmic stream of praise flowing through time and out of time, in silence and in sound—not unlike what was described in today’s psalm, in which sun and moon and dragons and deeps join in the praise of God. I would struggle to describe what it was like. It certainly wasn’t a feeling. It might be accompanied by elevated feelings; but it might also arise in the midst of agony, as in the singing of Rachmaninov’s Liturgy of St. John Chrysostom, which inflicts considerable physical suffering on low basses like me! It was more a conviction that I, as part of that music, was fulfilling, for that moment, exactly what I was meant to do with my life.

Judging at least by what I have read about them, Christians in the Unitive Way experience something very similar. They have reached a point where conforming their lives to the will of God has become, not exactly easy, but obvious and intuitive. It is not so much they who respond to the world around them, as Christ who responds in and through them. This unity was the object of the great prayer of Christ: “that they may be one, even as we are one: I in them, and thou in me, that they may be made perfect in one” (John 17:22). “Without me,” that is, outside of me, “ye can do nothing,” says our Lord (John 15:5). But in unity with him, “I can do all things through Christ which strengtheneth me” (Phil. 4:13). This unity is not a “feeling”—still less is it a good feeling, or what the world calls happiness. For this unity is with the one who cried out on the cross, “My God, my God, why has thou forsaken me?” It is a unity with the life of God himself—a life that is not self-satisfied, but self-emptying. A few years ago, when the diaries of Mother Theresa were published, many were scandalized to learn that for many years she had not felt God’s presence. “So she was a fraud,” many exclaimed. I would suggest, rather, that she had advanced so far into the very life of God that it had become as imperceptible to her as water to a fish. The true keynote of the Unitive Way is not happiness, as such, but joy—the same joy that possessed our Lord himself, “who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame” (Heb. 12:12). We can begin to taste the same joy in this life, and we will have it in its fulness in the next, when all things are gathered into one in Christ (Eph. 1:10).

It is the promise of this consummation, the end of the Purgative Way, the Illuminative Way, and the Unitive Way, for which we pray in the collect for this sixth Sunday after Trinity: “O God, who hast prepared for them that love thee such good things as pass man’s understanding: Pour into our hearts such love toward thee, that we, loving thee above all things, may obtain thy promises, which exceed all that we can desire; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

Further Reading

Those interested in the stages of Christian development, and how to grow in them, may find it helpful to read Martin Thornton’s Christian Proficiency, recently reprinted by Wipf & Stock. It dwells in particular on the “Illuminative Way,” the stage of what St. Thomas Aquinas and others call “proficients.” On the true nature of the Christian life as the “extension of the Incarnation,” an excellent and compelling summary is Bede Frost, The Art of Mental Prayer (London: SPCK, new edn 1940), part I, chapter 2 (pp. 15–25).

Upcoming Conference: Anglicanism—Catholic and Reformed

In a few days I will be travelling to Savannah, Georgia, where I have been invited to give a paper at a conference sponsored by the Prayer Book Society of the USA and the Elliott House of Studies, February 16–18, 2017:

Anglicanism: Catholic and Reformed; Revisiting the Reformation Legacy, 1517–2017


A fuller explanation of the purpose and themes of the conference is here. There is also a draft programme of sessions available, but I gather that there have been a few adjustments. I myself am now tentatively scheduled to speak on Friday, February 17, at 1:45pm.

I plan to speak on the Book of Common Prayer as a “catholic” liturgy, arguing that an irreducible (even aggressive) Swiss Protestantism discerned in the book by scholars ever since Bishop and Gasquet’s ground-breaking book Edward VI and the Book of Common Prayer isn’t the only, or indeed the obvious, explanation of Cranmer’s work. Rather, a pre-Reformation Erasmian philosophia Christi, giving priority to the simple Gospel message of scripture, found expression in a re-presentation of the Catholic tradition limited by a “biblical compass.”

This made possible the characteristic (and sometimes incoherent) “comprehensiveness” of Anglicanism. But once the continuity of the Prayer Book with Catholic tradition is recognized, the interpretation of the book will depend absolutely on an”ecclesial” reading of Scripture within that tradition. The Prayer Book says no more and no less about worship and sacraments than what scripture says. But scripture, as interpreted by the Church’s collective mind, says a great deal about these things indeed!

UPDATE: An audio recording of my paper at this conference can now be heard here: https://anglicanway.org/2017/05/22/audio-drs-joan-odonovan-george-westhaver-jesse-billet-pbs-conference-2017/

Crouse Memorial Lecture


On January 15, 2016, I had the honour of delivering the inaugural Robert Crouse Memorial Lecture in the chapel of the University of King’s College, Halifax. (Gallery of photos.) I never met Fr. Crouse, but his writings have been a great help and inspiration to me in my own work and faith. It was a privilege to spend a few days in the community that was so profoundly shaped by his thought and example.

The title of my lecture was “A Spirituality of the Word: The Medieval Roots of Traditional Anglican Worship.” In it, I took issue with the consensus of modern liturgical scholarship that it was a “Reformation Fallacy” (as Robert F. Taft dubbed it), undreamt of before Martin Luther, to put the reading of scripture at the centre of the Divine Office. I argued that this characteristically monastic mode of prayer was integral to English liturgical spirituality for a thousand years before the Reformation, and that one of the Reformation’s aims was to make it possible for the laity to participate in it fully.

I suggested that the fundamental turning point was in the fourth and fifth centuries, when the psalter in particular ceased to be treated as readings to be listened to, and was transformed into a collection of prayers to be recited as one’s own. (This had a significant musical impact: a whole choir of monks chanting the psalms together as prayer needed a much simpler, more regimented singing style than had been used by solo cantor-lectors. I sang some examples to illustrate the difference.)

In this new understanding, reciting the words of scripture became the principal means both to learn how to pray, and also to be transformed into the kind of person who can pray these words—an insight later picked up by Richard Hooker in his defence of the Book of Common Prayer. As someone suggested to me afterwards, praying the scriptures in the Divine Office “offers all that is needed by the human soul for its ongoing conversion, sanctification, and ultimate deification.”

Apart from such serious considerations, it was great fun to go over some of the complaints by medieval bishops and preachers about clerical misbehaviour during the liturgy. The canons of Exeter in the fourteenth century seem to have been especially incorrigible!

I hope that the text of the lecture will be published in due course.

[UPDATE: A lightly revised and expanded version of my lecture has now appeared in Pro Ecclesia: A Journal of Catholic and Evangelical Theology 27, no. 2 (Spring 2018): 157–79. Google Preview (alas, not including my article) here.]

A New Authority in Pontifical Studies

Parkes, Henry. The Making of Liturgy in the Ottonian Church: Books, Music and Ritual in Mainz, 950–1050. Cambridge Studies in Medieval Life and Thought, 4th ser., 100. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2015. (Google Books preview)

Reviewed: Billett, Jesse D. Journal of the American Musicological Society 69, no. 3 (Fall s2016): 831–35

Outstanding and highly readable book, destroying the hitherto universally accepted theory that the so-called Romano-German Pontifical (as reconstructed by the brilliant Michel Andrieu) was created in mid-tenth-century Mainz. The “RGP” turns out not really to have existed as a clearly defined book, and the texts found in it were circulating well before Mainz only entered the story near the end of the tenth century. Mainz already had a clearly defined “use” of its own, which was undergoing fascinating development in the tenth century, as Parkes shows in a series of illuminating manuscript case studies.

See also

Parkes, Henry. “Questioning the Authority of Vogel and Elzes Pontifical romano-germanique.” In Understanding Medieval Liturgy: Essays in Interpretation, edited by Helen Gittos and Sarah Hamilton, 75–101. Farnham: Ashgate, 2016. (Google Books preview)

Parkes has created a website that makes it easier to see how the standard edition of the RGP makes use of the comparatively few manuscript witnesses on which it is based:

“PRG Database: A Tool for Navigating Le pontifical romano-germanique, ed. Cyrille Vogel and Reinhard Elze.” http://database.prg.mus.cam.ac.uk

Liturgical Convergence?

Last month, I had the pleasure of giving the concluding address at a one-day symposium at Trinity College, Toronto, entitled “Healing Chalcedon: The Quest for Restored Communion Between the Eastern Orthodox and the Oriental Orthodox Churches 25 Years After the Agreed Statements.” The talks were recorded (with unfortunately very bad audio), and here is mine:

I spoke on “Liturgical Convergence as a Path to Christian Unity?” The question mark was important: my studies of medieval and Reformation liturgy have led me to conclude that the modern fad of receptive ecumenism has been deeply damaging to the true ecumenism that can only arise when we seriously engage with our own traditions, as well as those of separated Christians.

I would here note my indebtedness to Fr. Daniel Findikyan of St. Nersess Armenian Seminary, who kindly sent me a copy of his article “Liturgical Usages and Controversy in History: How Much Diversity Can Unity Tolerate?” St. Nersess Theological Review 1, no. 2 (1996): 191-212. We sadly do not subscribe to this journal in Toronto! Persons familiar with Fr. Daniel’s work will recognize that several of my more memorable examples were drawn from this paper.

Another section of the talk relied on John H. Erickson’s “Beyond Dialogue: The Quest for Eastern and Oriental Orthodox Unity Today” (2000, here).

It was a marvellous occasion, and it is hoped that all the papers will be published in some form.