|Gerald Valerian Wellesley,|
canon of Durham Cathedral
and avid reader of the Times
Well, I have promised a number of faithful readers that I will get back to our series on the history of the Anglican Church—and so here we are, back in the last decade of the 17th century with a deposed King and a deposed Archbishop of Canterbury and a Church facing a crisis, a crisis which it will not navigate without banging itself on a few rocks that will leave it battered and weakened and with lifeboats setting out on the seas of evangelicalism.
In 1688 a coup d’etat replaced the Catholic King James II with his Protestant daughter Mary and even more Protestant son-in-law, William of Orange. Nine bishops, including Archbishop Sancroft of Canterbury, were deposed for refusing to wear allegiance to the new monarchs—they saw their support of the “Glorious Revolution” and the new co-monarchs (an oxymoron if there ever was one) William and Mary as being contrary to the oaths they took at their episcopal consecrations to be loyal to the King (in this case, James). It was a bitter irony as they were being deprived of their sees for loyalty to a Catholic King when to a man the bishops were rabidly anti-Roman. Anti-Roman, but not anti-Catholic in as that they were all High Churchmen who saw the Church of England as being a branch of that catholic (i.e.) universal Church along with the Greek and Roman Churches. But deprived and deposed they were. They are referred to as non-jurors as they would not swear (Latin: jurare) the oath of allegiance.
Now Mary was very devout, but while Protestant, wasn’t much interested herself in matters of doctrine, but her husband, William, was a passionate Calvinist. While Mary was the one with title to the Crown, William’s head was not graced with a “Crown Matrimonial,” i.e. he was no mere consort. He was, by the grace and invitation of Parliament, co-regent. In fact, given his domination of Mary and her willingness to leave politics to the husband whom God had set over her in authority (they were Protestants after all and thus unblinking subjects to the Word of God), William was the power figure in this equation. William was no fan of the High Church movement (which he considered too close to the Catholic theology) represented by the Caroline Divines and consistently appointed Latitudinarians to the episcopal bench.
High Churchmen represented a somewhat Catholic (though not Roman Catholic) school of thought that stressed the Prayer Book liturgy and sound patristic theology. They encouraged—and practiced—a devout personal life with a piety rooted in the Prayer Book offices and many showed an interest in the continental mystics. (The continental mystics tended, of course, to be Roman Catholics such as Francis de Sales, Archbishop Fenelon, Dom Augustine Baker, Brother Lawrence of the Resurrection and others, especially French and Spanish spiritual writers.)
The Church of England had been drained of most of its Low Churchmen at the Restoration when they tended to go with the various dissenters: Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists and others. Low Churchmen tended to look only to the Biblical text for theological guidance and were liturgical minimalists. Their piety was more rooted in evangelical preaching than the Prayer Book offices and they looked askance on the mystical tradition as being among the worst abuses of superstitious Romanism. But, as I said, their influence in the Church of England had been minimized with the definitive break of the Dissenters with the official Church in 1660.
The Latitudinarians or Broad Churchmen were somewhere in the undefined middle of these two extremes. The old couplet tells it all:
High and Crazy
Low and Lazy
Broad and Hazy
It is hard to pin down exactly what a Latitudinarian believes—or if they believe at all. They usually are inclined to ignore the sort of details of dogmatic theology in which High Church advocates of the time found their entertainment, but they also differed from low Church people in tending to like the various forms of biblical criticism that stretch the text to make it mean whatever you wish it to. When it comes to liturgy they follow the Prayer Book but without much enthusiasm, much less an imagination. I always think of the Reverend and Honorable Gerald Valerian Wellesley, brother of the Duke of Wellington and a canon of Durham Cathedral who was said to take the Times into choir with him tucked under his surplice and read it while the choristers sang Morning Prayer. Though coming towards the end of the period we are looking at, Wellesley’s morning reading is that sort of cavalier abandon that typifies the Latitudinarians. It wasn’t rooted in an indifference to matters religious as much as it was symptomatic of a religious liberalism that downplayed personal faith for intellectual abstractions.
After leaving off the series on the Church of England about eight weeks or so ago, I did a series on the Enlightenment because if we are to understand the malaise of the Church of England in this period we need to understand that intellectual environment that pervaded European society at the end of the 17th century and throughout most of the 18th. The Enlightenment’s contempt for the medieval period, a time which Enlightenment thinkers referred to as “The Dark Ages” (as if the sun had taken a thousand year hiatus), pushed philosophers and historians and even theologians into an intellectual corner where, if they wished to be thought at all critical in their scholarship, they distanced themselves from the sort of faith and piety characteristic of pre-Enlightenment societies. It is not unlike the supercilious phony liberal intellectualism of today when people think they have to dismiss millennia of wisdom in favor of abstract and cerebral theories they can parrot without comprehending.
This Enlightenment spirit infected the Church of England as its bishops and higher clergy were invariably members of the same clubs and traveled in the same social and intellectual circles as the various scientists and philosophers who were advancing the secularist thought of the time. (This intellectual contamination affected Scandinavian Lutheranism and Continental Catholicism as well, particularly in France, but also to some extent in the Austria and its possessions, as well as Spain and Portugal, but nowhere nearly as much as it did in England.) It was typical of many clergy and not a few bishops to belong to a Masonic Lodge and thus inevitable for some of the theological freethinking of the Lodges to find their way into the Church. Archbishop Tillotson, William’s nominee to succeed the deposed Sancroft at Canterbury, had to dispel rumors that he was a Unitarian, a not uncommon theological position among Enlightenment thinkers.
While they were soft on doctrine and often somewhat broad minded on personal (i.e. sexual) morality, the Latitudinarians were inclined to an excessive emphasis on social mores. They tended to espouse economic liberalism and Adam Smith ideas on Free Market Capitalism, but they regularly used the pulpit to call for reform of the Poor Law, educational reforms, and prison reform as well as hammering away at such social evils as slavery, alcoholism, prostitution, and child employment. By and large, the 18th century Church of England was a rather limpid thing whose appeal was primarily among the fashionable well-to-do’s and Whig part politicians. It would produce two important reactions: one in the eighteenth century and the other—and at the other extreme of the ecclesial spectrum—in the nineteenth.