Monksthorpe Baptist Chapel inLincolnshire England
Well, back to our overview of the history of the Church of England. My last posting about the tension over the consecration of women bishops that led the Archbishop of York to recuse himself from consecrating the Rt. Rev. Philip North as the Bishop of Burnley out of (what I think is a misguided) respect for North’s objection to the ordination of women in favor of consecrators who have so far refused to participate in the consecration of the (to date) sole woman Bishop in the Church of England, demonstrates the sort of ecclesial breakdown that the English and other Protestant Reformations led to. Once the unity of the Church is no longer an absolute value, differences of theological opinion will inevitably open fissures in the Body of Christ. And the breakdown of unity in the Church is quite literally the devil’s work.
Our word “devil” comes from the French diable from the Latin diabolus from the Greek διαβολειν comes from the Greek to divide or to scatter. The Devil is the one who divides, sets people against one another. The Kingdom of God gathers all creation into One in Christ; the kingdom of the Evil One is set upon shattering that unity.
We left off the saga of the Church of England with the abolition of the episcopacy and the emergence of Separatist groups that began to erode the unity of the Church in the mid-seventeenth century. With the abolition of Bishops and the adoption of a Presbyterian form of Church governance, the Congregationalist faction became dominant in the Church of England, but even this development did not satisfy more radical believers. We saw how the Baptists emerged from the Puritan movement. Baptists rejected any liturgical forms whatever, even the very Calvinist forms of worship suggested by the Directory for Public Worship. There had to be an explicit warrant found in the New Testament for any thing done in worship. Some did not even permit the reading of scripture since the scriptures were translations of the received texts and thus of human origin. Sacraments were replaced by “ordinances” (those things mandated or “ordered” by Christ in the New Testament, namely baptism [“go baptize all nations”] and holy communion [“do this in memory of me”]). Baptism was performed by full immersion and only to those able to make their own confession of faith.
But even the Baptists didn’t satisfy the desire of many for a more radical approach to Christianity.
Among many of the adherents of the more radical sects emerging from the various Reformations that continued to divide and subdivide Christianity in Western and Central Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth century there was a strain of anti-clericalism. The Reformation ideal of the priesthood of all believers made the idea of an ordained clergy seem somewhat a frivolous excess that was an unnecessary encumbrance on the right of each believer to interpret the scriptures for him or her self. This was certainly true in England where while the Congregationalist/Presbyterian establishment retained clergy and even the Baptists normally had recognized preachers, among the various dissenting sects the option was to allow each believer to have his (and sometimes her) own say about what was true Christian faith and practice. Any sort of sacramental practice usually fell away in such priest-less assemblies and congregations pretty much focused on Bible Study and discussion. Without a theologically trained clergy religion most usually became an intellectual free-for-all with opinions and beliefs ranging from pure rationalism to illuminist mysticism shot through with unbridled psychosis. Often these groups, unfamiliar with or rejecting of the historic Creeds devolved into an anti-Trinitarianism or at least a practical Arianism which demoted Christ from the Divine Nature and led to theological unitarianism (not to be confused with modern Unitarian/Universalism) that remained Christocentric but not Christotheistic. Dissenters also often embraced the idea of an immanent return of Christ to establish his Kingdom on earth in a radical and egalitarian social upheaval. The doctrine of Original Sin also faded from belief among the various dissenter groups along with the doctrine of pre-destination so essential to the Calvinist Anglicans of Elizabeth’s and James’ reigns. In place of an anthropology of fallen humanity was a certain quasi-Pelagiaism that emphasized the essential natural goodness of human nature. There also was a certain ambiguity about the afterlife with a collapse of the traditional ideas of heaven and hell. All this was sometimes complicated by a fascination with the theories attributed to Hermes Trismegistus, a mystical writer of the Graeco-Egyptian culture of late antiquity whose writings paralleled the development both of Christianity and Gnosticism and have elements in common with each. As can be imagined, Dissenters devolved from orthodox Christianity into a variety of confusing and often mutually contradictory beliefs. It was a theological Woodstock—electric, creative, free of rules and structure, and off the flipping wall.
One of the groups that emerged out of this theological chaos were the Seekers. They really weren’t a sect in as that you could be a Seeker and belong to another sect. There were no defining creeds, no sacraments. They saw “The Church” as a voluntary association of believers, without a fixed creed, free of State coercion or supervision, and anxious to evangelize. They expected Christ to return to earth and their spirituality was to prepare themselves for his Second Coming. Their worship was to meet and to sit in silent expectation of God to reveal himself to the individual soul. Quakerism, which we will talk about in our next posting on this subject, grew out of the Seekers.