Thursday, August 20, 2015

Foundations of the Anglican Church CXXII

John Wesley (1703-1791)

I was going to do my next posting continuing on the theme I began several posts back of the Church facing Postmodern culture, but Peter Williams has called me to task for not doing enough straight history.  So I will do my next posting on the History of the Anglican Church and then look at the Church and Postmodernism.  Just as well as I am still not sure that I am grasping the geist of Postmodernism whereas 18th century Anglicanism is more a matter of dissecting a corpse, 
I had already covered how the Church of England, so vibrant under the influence of the Caroline Divines and particularly in the Restoration phase (1660-1688) went into a malaise after the Glorious Revolution replaced James II with his Protestant daughter and son-in-law, William and Mary.  The Low Church/Evangelical faction had pretty much abandoned Anglicanism for the non-Conformists in 1660.The High Church party was decimated—actually far worse than decimated—when the non-Jurors refused to swear allegiance to the new monarchs and were replaced in their leadership by the Latitudinarian prelates favored by the Whigs.  It was Enlightenment Liberalism at its worst.  There was neither the theological continuity of the High Church nor the evangelical fervor of the Low Church but only the sort of blasé Gentleman’s Club culture of the ecclesiastical arrivistes.  The traditional doctrines of the Christian Church were subjected to the rational autopsies of men who were more inclined to the physical sciences and natural philosophy than metaphysics and mysticism.  The empty positivism of the Enlightenment allowed no room for Original Sin—or subsequent sin except on the most general levels of social disorder.  Without a strong notion of sin, original or otherwise, Christianity collapses into little more than feelings of universal good will.  I think it was H. Richard Niebuhr who went after the liberal Protestantism of his day (the fifties and early sixties) with the caricature of its theology:
A God without anger
Led a People without sin
Into a kingdom without judgement
Through the ministry of a Christ without a Cross. 
18th century Anglicanism devolved into this vapid moralism of a natural ethics society.  Sermons were long and tedious, read in a monotone and concerned with the most abstract of ideas. Liturgy was perfunctory at best.  The sacraments were largely uncelebrated.  And religion became no more than a support for the established order and irrelevant in the lives of the underclass. 
Perhaps most tragic is that God had become more or less impersonal, a somewhat elegant abstraction not much unlike that to which “The Crown” had been reduced from the sort of charismatic leaders who had once worn it.  And just as the Georges I, II, and III had been more or less relegated to domesticated fops, Jesus was no longer Saviour but only the speaker of inoffensive aphorisms of a general good will. 
Such as situation was bound to trigger a reaction and it came with the First Great Awakening.  In 1729 a group of Oxford scholars led by the brothers John and Charles Wesley, formed “The Holy Club.”  Other members included John Clayton, James Hervey, Benjamin Ingham, Thomas Brougham, George Whitfield and John Gambold.  The members of The Holy Club were in some way a revival of the Caroline Divines in as that they were serious High Churchmen of not inconsiderable piety.  “High Church” at this point of Anglican history has not the significance about “smells and bells:” that would only come in the 19th century.  To our taste today they would be impossibly Low, with black gowns and tabs and never a surplice to be found.  In the 18th century to be High Church meant to be serious scholars of Patristic theology, familiar not only with the scriptures but how they had been interpreted in the Tradition of the Church before the East/West schism of 1054.  This Patristic heritage made them aware of the centrality of a rich sacramental life as well as the role of Christian mysticism in the faith.  Unlike run of the mill Anglicans who might dine at the Holy Table three or four times a year,  High Church Anglicans favored frequent reception of Holy Communion and members of the Holy Club celebrated the Eucharist several times a week.  They also encouraged fasting on the traditional days of Wednesday and Friday.  Such pious customs as the examination of conscience and meditation were re-introduced.  Some went so far as to reintroduce a form of confession of sin, either private or within the group.  They also understood the relationship between faith and good works, visiting the sick, educating orphans and children of the poor, assisting those incapable of supporting themselves. 
The movement spread within the Church of England and became highly evangelical as some of the leading members began preaching to huge crowds, mostly of the underclasses who had been feeling somewhat estranged from the Established Church because of its ties to the rich and the powerful. 
Eventually Wesley’s followers would separate from the Church of England as the Methodists, another non-conformist denomination, but that would only be at the end of the eighteenth century.  By that time there had been somewhat of a revival in Anglicanism spurred on by the success of the Wesleys and others in what is known as the First Great Awakening.  While the Wesleys were High Church in their orientation towards Patristic Theology and sacramental life (though a fairly unritualistic sacramental life), many of their successors at the end of the 18th century were more “Low Church,” sticking to the biblical text without patristic commentary and somewhat indifferent to any sacramental piety.  The Low Church party also embraced a return to the Calvinism of early Anglicanism with an emphasis on the depravity of human nature and the idea that God predestined some to eternal life and others to eternal punishment.  In a religion with such predestination, sacraments lose their importance as they cannot be of any help when one’s final disposition is already predetermined.  Also predestination makes any work among the poor—other than the “spiritual ministration” of preaching irrelevant as charity is incapable of saving one, and indifference to the needs of the poor won’t change one’s final destination either.  By the end of the eighteenth century then the Church of England had its Latitudinarian hierarchy with its colossal indifference to things religious and its preoccupation with gentry life; its High Church party centered among the educated elite and at the universities, and its Low Church party of evangelical preachers.  Methodism had robbed the Church of England of many in the working class who wanted an evangelical emotionalism but found the doom and gloom of Low Church evangelicals too joyless.  But a major revival was at hand.  


  1. Thanks for the return to the history of Anglicanism - great post. The ending reminded me of a question that used to be on Church History examinations - "Why did the Church of England lose the working clasees in the age of Methodism?" - The answer: Because they never had them in the first place. The Church of England was the Church for the aristocracy and upper classes if they bothered at all!

  2. you're welcome Peter will try to keep a balance in the future