Well, enough for now about Cardinal Burke and his proclivity for dressing up like Maggie Smith in Downton Abbey. Let’s get back to the Church of England and the Caroline Divines. There is a character there of some confused personality as well. Actually there are several, but we will deal with one today.
William Laud came from a merchant family in Reading and was born on October 7, 1573. His origins were strictly bourgeois but high-bourgeois with his maternal uncle being Lord Mayor of London when Laud was 18. William Laud was sent to Oxford where he took the Bachelors, Master’s, and Doctorate in Divinity. He was ordained a priest at 28. He never married; like many a churchman before and since he was discrete about his homosexuality and could make celibacy look like an option for holiness rather than a cover for psychological struggles.
He began his career in his college of Saint John’s at Oxford where he was elected president in 1611. With the patronage of Richard Neile who was Clerk of the Closet to James I Laud was named Dean of Gloucester in 1616. (The Clerk of the Closet is the chief advisor to the King on matters of ecclesiastical appointments.) At Gloucester Laud began introducing liturgical reforms that moved away from the Puritan/Calvinist austerity towards practices which would become known as “High Church.” James was not fond of Laud—the King was quite Calvinist in his preferences for worship. Moreover, Laud’s lack of genteel family background went against James’ favor of aristocracy. Nevertheless, Neile was persistent in his pushing Laud for advancement and in 1621 managed to obtain for him the somewhat obscure Bishopric of Saint David’s in Wales.
While Bishop of Saint David’s Laud switched horses and linked his cart to George Villiers, 1st Duke of Buckingham. Buckingham was the “favourite” (read: “lover”) of King James. (James a man of varied sexual preferences—he fathered seven children born live and two miscarriages, but there is little question of his having a string of male lovers throughout his life and Villiers was perhaps the most formidable of them.)
When James died, Villiers managed to have great influence of his son, Charles, who succeeded to the throne. Laud was named Dean of the Chapel Royal which made him a regular preacher to the King, but Charles—unlike his father—preferred more formal liturgy and was little interested in sermons. A King with High Church sensitivities was a perfect opportunity for Laud to advance his agenda of moving the Church of England away from its Puritan identity and towards a more solid theological foundation.
When I say a “more solid theological foundation” I mean a theology and practice more in accord with the patristic tradition. Laud is often presented as a closet Catholic but he was anything but that. Laud looked not to the continental Catholics for reshaping the Church of England but to the Greek Orthodox with whom he established some early ecumenical contact. Laud wanted to Reform the Church of England—and especially its Liturgy—based on a sound appreciation for the theology of the Church Fathers. The end result made it more “Catholic” but the route was not through the Tridentine Reforms of Catholicism but through the tradition preserved in the Greek Church.
Meanwhile Laud had moved from Saint David’s to being Bishop of Bath and Wells (1626-28) and then in 1628 Bishop of London. It was no secret that he would ascend the chair of Saint Augustine at Canterbury when it became vacant as it did in 1633. Once Archbishop of Canterbury, Laud was quick to move to ensure that every parish church in England faithfully conformed to the Prayer Book Liturgy. At the same time, he was working for a new edition of the Prayer Book—one that would undo Cranmer’s weird Order of Service in the 1552 Book (and which was retained in the 1559 Book) for a more patristic liturgy. That liturgy would look far too Catholic for the Puritan faction and that would bring down the entire house of cards.
The die was cast in 1637 when Laud persuaded Charles to impose a Prayer Book on the Church of Scotland. James had reintroduced Bishops to the Scots Church, taking away its Presbyterian character. But the Prayer Book proposed for the Church of Scotland reflected Laud’s High Church theology and that was far too much for the Scots to bear. The Scots rose in rebellion—the so-called Bishops’ Wars—and in the end would trigger the English Civil War which would cost both Charles and Laud their heads.
There will be more about William Laud in future postings as we continue to Look at the Caroline Divines and the English Civil War, but he marks a turning point in the Church of England—a turning from the radical Protestantism of Cranmer’s era and the subsequent Puritan domination of the Church to a serious and scholarly approach to Church life that is rooted in a somewhat sophisticated approach to the ancient Christian tradition. That split in Anglicanism grows wider and wider throughout Laud’s time and will eventually fracture the Church into the Anglican Church and the various other Churches that spring from it in varying degrees of radicalness.