Anglican Notables – John Cosin (Divines, Theologians) – 15 January

[This is a series of biographical sketches of Anglican men and women whose lives have been exemplary in virtue and/or have made significant contributions to Anglicanism’s expression of the Gospel.  Written from the perspective of full communion with the See of St. Peter, including such papal statements as St. John Paul II’s encyclical on ecumenism, Ut Unum Sint, this series will occasionally acknowledge differences between Anglicans and Catholics where they exist and will do so in a spirit of charity and respect.  However, the intent is to focus less on differences than on opportunities for mutual enrichment between the Anglican and Catholic traditions and on shared spiritual treasures that already unite us.]

John Cosin

Born: 30 November 1594 (Norfolk, England) – Died: 15 January 1672 (Westminster, England)

[The image is of a painting of Cosin by an unknown artist.  Ca. 1635.]

John Cosin, who survived the Interregnum to become the bishop of Durham, is perhaps most notable for his contributions to liturgy and ecclesiastical architecture.  (His translation of the Veni Creator Spiritus, sung at every coronation since that of Charles I, is another of his achievements.[1])  These contributions as well as Cosin’s successful tenure as the prince bishop of Durham—where he was able to put his liturgical and charitable ideals into practice in so important a see—have “established him as one of the fathers of Anglo-Catholicism in the Church of England.”[2]

Though it is much more characteristic of our era than of Cosin’s to divide scholarship into areas of expertise, Cosin nonetheless leaned more heavily towards the study of liturgy than towards what we would now call systematic theology.  He “knew the Sarum rite, the Roman rite and the rites of the Reformation, but above all else he knew the Prayer Book, that of 1549 being his model and source of inspiration.”[3]  Cosin is the primary influence on the 1662 Prayer Book revision, which has been the longest-lasting version.  Indeed, “no single man since Thomas Cranmer has exercised such an influence on the English Liturgy.”[4]

As a graduate of Durham University, I am grateful to Bishop Cosin for several reasons.  One is that he has left an example of Christian charity in the form of the Almshouses on Palace Green.[5]  (Follow this link to see a video on Cosin’s lasting presence in a number of Durham’s most important buildings.)  As of 2006-2008, when I was in residence at Durham as a postgraduate, the Almshouses had been transformed into a café.  But the building is identified as “Bishop Cosin’s Almshouses,” thus reminding us that though England’s bishops wielded much political power through history—and the prince bishop of Durham was meant to exercise military power for the sake of administering the north—they were never to forget the importance of caring for the poor.

Another reason I appreciate Cosin’s contributions to Durham University is that he was a notable scholar.  I do not know whether he was one of the first bishops of Durham to establish the tradition of scholar bishops filling that see, but he contributed to that tradition with distinction.  He also had a building constructed on Palace Green to house his significant library.[6]  (The building continued to serve as a library—that of the university—when I studied there.)  This tradition of scholar bishops of Durham certainly played a role in finally establishing, in 1832, a distinguished collegiate university, the third oldest in England.  Though I, as a Catholic, would not have been welcomed as a student at Durham had the university existed in Cosin’s day, I was nonetheless grateful for Cosin’s role in fostering the place of scholarship not only in Anglicanism in general but for Durham in particular.

The third reason I appreciate Cosin’s influence in Durham is that as one of those charged with restoring the Church of England’s old ecclesiastical buildings and constructing new ones following the depredations caused by the Puritan Interregnum, Cosin consciously reclaimed England’s architectural heritage from the Middle Ages.  Having spent time in exile in Paris with the royal family, Cosin could easily have brought the Baroque with him to Durham.  Instead, his understanding of liturgy was among the factors that encouraged him to regard England’s Norman and Gothic heritage not merely as architectural styles but as concrete expressions of English spirituality and thus worth preserving.  Now it is true that Cosin’s preference was for a combination of the Gothic with “contemporary Jacobean forms” and, one suspects, some inevitable influences from the French court, all of which made for a “sumptuous fusion.”[7]  But as I have noted elsewhere, especially concerning the Anglican choral heritage,[8] English spirituality never fully warmed to the Baroque.  Cosin’s exile in Paris must have included an intense home-sickness for the magnificence of Durham’s Norman cathedral and the prayer it had fostered across the centuries.

Br. John-Bede Pauley OSB, PhD


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cosin

[2] https://www.britannica.com/biography/John-Cosin

[3] Ivan Aquilina, “The Eucharistic Understanding of John Cosin and His Contribution to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer” (PhD diss., University of Leeds, 2002), 2.

[4] Ivan Aquilina, “The Eucharistic Understanding of John Cosin and His Contribution to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer” (PhD diss., University of Leeds, 2002), 3.

[5] Cosin�s Almshouses   Durham World Heritage Site

[6] Palace Green Library   Durham World Heritage Site

[7] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Cosin

[8] Anglican Notables – John Blow (Musicians, Authors, & Poets) – 1 October – St. Benet Biscop Chapter of St. John’s Oblates (wordpress.com)

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

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

Google photo

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

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s