Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Bishop Gilbert Burnet and Latitudinarian Episcopal Opposition to the Occasional Conformity Bills, 1702-1704 (1)

Academic journal article Canadian Journal of History

Bishop Gilbert Burnet and Latitudinarian Episcopal Opposition to the Occasional Conformity Bills, 1702-1704 (1)

Article excerpt

On November 4, 1702, William Bromley and Arthur Annesley, Tory members of parliament for the two universities and the acknowledged spokesmen for the High Church clergy in the House of Commons, introduced a bill into the house to prevent the "inexcusable immorality" of occasional conformity. This bill was designed to tighten up the Corporation and Test Acts (1661 and 1673 respectively), which required all holders of local and national public office to receive communion according to the rites of the Church of England. The assumption behind the Corporation and Test Acts was that those who dissented from the Church of England for conscience-sake could not receive the sacrament of the Lord's Supper in an Anglican church merely for the sake of office. By the 1690s, however, the reliability of this assumption was being sorely tested by the increasing number of Protestant Dissenters taking communion in an Anglican church just often enough to qualify themselves for public office. It was to put a stop to this loophole that the bill to prevent occasional conformity was introduced in 1702.

The bill passed in the Tory-dominated House of Commons, as did similar bills in 1703 and 1704, but all three were wrecked or rejected by the Whig majority in the House of Lords. At first glance the defeat of the occasional conformity bills between 1702 and 1704 can be seen simply as one event in the long struggle for power between Whigs and Tories in the reign of Queen Anne. This is the view accepted by most contemporary commentators and, indeed, by many historians since then. And it is largely correct. However, one element in the defeat of the bills that is often overlooked is the role played by the bishops, who, after all, held the balance of power in the House of Lords and played a crucial role in speaking and voting against the occasional conformity bills. In 1703, in the only direct vote held on the occasional conformity bill in the House of Lords, 23 of the 26 bishops cast ballots, out of a total of 129 votes cast (the bishops thus made up 17.8 per cent of the total number). Fourteen bishops voted against the bill and nine in favour. If six of those fourteen bishops who voted against it had voted for the bill it would have passed. (2) So why did fourteen bishops oppose the occasional conformity bills? Were these bishops nothing more than party hacks in the service of Whig political goals? This was certainly the opinion of the Tories. And while it is true that the bishops who opposed occasional conformity were the same ones who could usually be counted on to vote in parliament with the Whigs, this fact hardly seems sufficient to explain their behaviour on an issue of such importance to the Church. (3) Indeed, a careful examination of the motives of the bishops who opposed the occasional conformity bills confirms that there was more at stake for them in the controversy than simply party politics.

While to most members of parliament the political ramifications of the bills were of primary concern, to the bishops in the House of Lords the religious implications were of immense importance. Since 1689 two factions had been fighting a protracted and occasionally vicious war for control of the Church of England. On the one hand, the Latitudinarians, who were in a minority amongst the clergy of the Church of England but had gained an ascendancy on the episcopal bench during the reign of William and Mary, were noted for the latitude with which they approached matters of doctrine and worship, and had long been sympathetic towards the Dissenters. On the other hand, the High Church party, who made up the bulk of the lower clergy, were more rigid, or in their view "orthodox," in doctrine and worship, and were fiercely opposed to the Dissenters. So, put into the ecclesiastical context of the first few years of the eighteenth century, the occasional conformity bill can be viewed as yet another episode in the long-running feud between the Latitudinarian and High Church factions of the Church of England. …

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