Life after Death? the Survival of the Church of England in the Seventeenth Century. (Talking Points)

By Morrill, John | History Review, March 1998 | Go to article overview

Life after Death? the Survival of the Church of England in the Seventeenth Century. (Talking Points)


Morrill, John, History Review


John Morrill re-examines a stormy period of religious history

Between 1643 and 1647 the Church of England was destroyed. Its system of government by `archbishops, bishops, deans, archdeacons etc.' (as a canon of 1640 expressed it) was scrapped; the Book of Common Prayer was proscribed and its use made a criminal offence; the celebration of the major Christian festivals -- Christmas, Easter, Whit etc. -- was also prohibited. The leaders of the church were all dead, in prison, in exile, or in hiding; the universities were ruthlessly purged; between a quarter and a third of the parish clergy were ejected from their homes and positions. Dioceses were replaced by county-wide ecclesiastical co-operatives, and cathedral churches were converted into prisons, shopping precincts, or large parish churches; and churchwardens and others were directed to remove all the `monuments of idolatry and superstition' (stained glass, statues, carvings on fonts and other furnishings) which had survived the first reformation of images in the mid sixteenth century. The lands and revenues of the Bishops and of the Cathedral chapters were handed over to the creditors of the state.

Little remained of the old system; and a new `presbyterian' system of government, a new Directory of Worship (not a prayer book but a manual for the construction of improvised worship), a new catechism and a new confession of faith were introduced. The rigidities of the new structures and the freeing of minds and of the presses led to clamours for liberty for tender consciences outside these new structures, for those convinced of the advantages of the `New England Way' or committed to the gathering of the godly into exclusive Christian communities. Mutual recriminations within a fractured and disintegrating puritan movement were only partly arrested by the conservative measures introduced by Cromwell at the end of his life.

The restoration of the Church of England in 1660 was as complete and almost as rapid as the restoration of the monarchy. Bishops and their officers, their courts and their cathedrals and their closes, their lands, their pomp, were all back in place by 1662. The Prayer Book was soon in use in every English and Welsh parish and rather more vicars and rectors were wearing surplices than in the days before proscription; and there were more men and women receiving holy communion in most parishes than ever before, and, while many attended church irregularly, the number who abstained wholly from the worship of the Church of England was little different from the numbers before 1640. But euphoria did not last long; and the unbendingness of the bishops in the 1660s and 1670s was to cost them clear in and after 1688. Yet the existence in 1700 of a Church of England with so many trappings of the Elizabethan Church was as unthinkable in 1650 as its abolition would have been in 1600.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about that fundamental continuities of the early and late Stuart Church is that the `trappings of the Elizabethan church' were so muddled. The Elizabethan Church was a sort of ecclesiastical vinaigrette, a mixture of naturally non-miscible Catholic oil and Protestant vinegar that separated out if not continuously shaken. The Elizabethan church had a system of government and discipline which owed everything to the medieval church and nothing to the Reformation: it was Catholicism without the pope. It had a theology of God, Man and Salvation which combined elements of different continental Reformed traditions, but was ambiguous between types of Protestantism, not between Protestantism and Catholicism. And it had a form of worship that was pure fudge: it looked Catholic and sounded Protestant as Conrad Russell recently put it. At the very heart of the holy communion service, for example, the 1559 prayer combined the words of the 1549 prayer book, in which Cranmer had wished to assert the real presence of Christ in the consecrated bread and wine, followed by the words of the 1552 prayer book in which he wished to deny it--asserting rather that those gathered around the table were recalling an act of salvation completed by Christ's sacrifice of himself on the cross and subsequent resurrection (`take, eat this in remembrance that Christ died for thee ...'). In a sense the minister was saying: here he is, no he isn't.

It took two generations for this settlement to gain admirers; but much as both the hotter sort of Protestants and temperamental conservatives disliked it, the great majority of both found just enough in it for them to remain at least part-time members of the Church. And as those who knew, at first hand, what a fudge the settlement was, and as those who had experienced exile under Mary in the pure reformed air of the Swiss Cantons or the Rhineland, died out, a generation emerged who had known nothing else and were willing to live with the contradictions, even to celebrate them. Then it was that men like Richard Hooker (d. 1600) could claim that the Church of England was at once Catholic and Reformed--deriving its authority and teachings from a continuous chain traceable back to the apostolic age but without the corruptions that had crept into Roman Catholicism--which gave a second-generation credibility to the settlement. The Church of England entered the seventeenth century depleted in resources, unclear in its mission but increasingly accepted. When Bishops were abolished in 1646, few took any notice; but when the prayer book was abolished, silent protest grew. Ministers who refused to use it--especially for baptisms, funerals and holy communions--or who refused to celebrate Christmas and Easter were increasingly reviled across the country, and quietly but inexorably (often simplified) versions of prayer book services were restored--probably to a majority of parishes by the time of Cromwell's death. Certainly Easter was celebrated--and in style - in two thirds of all parishes a full fortnight before Charles II was recalled. The restoration of the Church anticipated the restoration of the king.

Nonetheless, uneasy lies the head that wears the mitre. Six of the eleven archbishops of Canterbury between the Reformation and the Glorious Revolution (Cranmer, Pole, Grindal, Abbot, Laud and Sancroft) died out of office, two of them executed, two deprived and two suspended. Only five died in their beds and in office (Parker, Whitgift, Bancroft, Juxon and Sheldon). Running the Church of England was never easy. One had to contend with moody monarchs; with Parliaments whose members believed they should define the Church's faith and practice; with a landed elite who had gained a dominant role in the appointment of parish clergy and the style of parish worship. One had to contend with those who rejected the Church (the Roman Catholics, who constituted between two and five per cent of the heads of households; and the most radical of the godly, numbered in thousands in 1600 and tens of thousands--mostly Quakers and Baptists--by 1700). One had to cater for the hundreds of thousands who worshipped in part within and in part outside the Church; and the rather more hundreds of thousands who were minimalist in their outward and perhaps in their inward commitment. The problems thus remained the same across the century, although their relative importance changed over time.

To trace the story of the Church over the century, we will take four freeze-frames at thirty year intervals: 1604, 1634, 1664, 1694. Each represents the first year of a new archbishop and each can therefore be seen as an audit point, as the Church of England hurtled towards extinction and then limped bravely from its grave.

Bancroft 1604

When Richard Bancroft arrived at Lambeth Palace as Archbishop in 1604, he was faced by two immediate problems: whether to advise James to conciliate a Catholic minority bitterly disappointed that he was not going to get rid of the savage laws which existed in England (but not Scotland) under which in recent years 200 priests had been tortured and executed, hundreds of laymen imprisoned and thousands mulcted financially. There was a realistic fear that failure to conciliate would lead to assassination plots or rebellions. He had to decide whether to advise acceptance of any of the requests for reform in the government, discipline or worship of the church sought by the godly in the `Millenary Petition'. And connected with that, he had to decide how far and how enthusiastically to embrace James's warm desire to bring the churches of England and Scotland into a greater conformity. Beyond that, he would want to bring a greater degree of clarity to the rules and regulations governing what was expected and allowed in matters of faith and practice by a codification of many different sets of canons and injunctions issued at various points of Elizabeth's reign; and he would want to stop the continuing haemorrhaging away of church property to the laity and the consequent impoverishment of the clergy.

Bancroft was to have a torrid first twelve months, but then to find things getting progressively easier. The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, horrific though it was, turned out to be the end of old-style Catholic subversion. The revulsion of most Catholics against the plotters, and the willingness of most Catholic casuists to urge easily-persuadable Catholic consciences that they could take the new Oath of Allegiance and hold a loyalty to James in everything except the practice of religion, inaugurated an era in which Catholics settled for life as second-class citizens -- denied access to Parliament, local office and the professions -- and double-taxation, but otherwise with freedom to absent themselves from church and to worship discreetly at home. The penal laws remained on the statute book but James ordered that the more severe ones were unused.

Bancroft also survived the Hampton Court Conference of 1604 in which the Bishops were required to defend the status quo with proponents of the Millenary Petition, and to listen as all the Church of England's dirty linen -- pluralism, absenteeism, the many ministers unfit to preach, abuses in the church courts -- was aired, and he had to listen to James demand improvements; but the Bishops also heard James rather theatrically denounce the suggestion that the English had anything to learn from the Scots about structures of church government or the merits of presbyterianism. It was a carefully stage-managed demonstration that James intended to be an effective Supreme Governor of both British Churches. He therefore gradually worked to strengthen royal control of the Scottish Church through the development of a Scottish episcopate and the introduction of a Scottish Court of High Commission based on the English model; and he sought to create an all-graduate, all-preaching clergy in England not least by the promotion of leading Scots preachers as role-models in many cathedrals and major towns throughout England. And he drew the sting of godly complaint by permitting a diversity of practice: puritans were allowed to make their worship look more Protestant so long as they did not seek to impose their preferences on the whole church. James practised tolerance even if he did not attempt a formal toleration. The standard puritan view of James's church was that he was moving it too slowly in the right direction; and that is not a seedbed of rebellion.

Laud 1634

In 1633 William Laud was translated to Canterbury after five vigorous years as Bishop of London. He had no problems (yet) with Charles I: both men had near-identical views that the Church had to be reinvigorated. Their priorities were to restore to the Church much of the wealth misappropriated by the laity over the past century, to restore the Church's jurisdiction and authority to enforce those things proper to it, and above all to restore reverence and awe to worship. Laud resented the diversity of practice permitted by his immediate predecessors, and the fact that many puritans supplemented their minimalist observance of the public services of the church by a diet of private and closed services (Fast Days, lectures [midweek sermons and discussions]) which were not contained in the Prayer Book. Laud wished to establish the principle that it was not local clergy or local vestries that should decide on the appropriate furnishings of a church (especially the location of the communion table) or the local pattern of worship: it was to be the diocesan bishop. Laud initiated a policy to enforce literally and fully the prayer book and all its rubrics; and to confine people to the services of the prayer book. In place of a regime of local self-determination, with Bishops only involving themselves where there were disputes within a parish community, Laud ordered a policy of zero tolerance of puritan practice. And bishops of the old school were bullied into line: `Mr Angler, I have a good will to indulge you, but I cannot', Bishop John Bridgeman of Chester wrote to one puritan, `for my Lord's Grace of Canterbury hath rebuked me for permitting two nonconformist ministers, one of them yourself. And I am likely to come into disfavor on that behalf. You are a young man and may doubtless get another place. And if you were anywhere at a further distance I could better look away from you.'

Laud's obsession with enforcing the parts of the liturgy which `looked catholic' (`The altar is the greatest place of God's residence upon Earth, greater than the pulpit, for there tis Hoc est corpus meum, [this is my body]; but in the other is at most but Hoc est Verbum Meum, [this is my word]; and a greater reverence is due to the body than to the Word'); his determination to separate church from state and to restore an independent power to the church; his willingness to see the Roman Catholic Church, not as his predecessors had, as an anti-Christian church, an evil empire, but as an errant sister-church (`The Protestants did not get that name by protesting against the Church of Rome, but by protesting, and that when nothing else would serve, against her errors and superstitions. Do you but remove them the Church of Rome and our Protestation is ended and the separation too'), led to a widespread conviction that he was a papist in his heart and the King who indulged him at the very least someone unaware of, or uncaring about, the threat of popery. By 1640, Laud was the most hated man in England. There were aspects of his policy which could have had widespread appeal -- not everyone wanted to endure two lengthy sermons every Sunday; many appreciated worship that appealed to all the senses and not just to the ears -- but the priestcraft, the clerical triumphalism, the expense, and the intolerance turned most off. When a respectable puritan lawyer, Harbottle Grimston -- referred to Laud in the Long Parliament as `the sty of all pestilential filth' there were audible grunts of approval from all around the Chamber. Laud (with Charles beckoning him on, indeed encouraging him to go further and faster than even he thought prudent) destroyed all good will. Enough people believed that a church so easily subverted by the enemies of Protestant truth and practice was a church in need of root-and-branch reform to prevent it ever happening again. Parliamentarianism by 1642 was synonymous with the elimination of Bishops, the Prayer Book and the celebration of Christmas. The practice of zero tolerance by one wing of the church provoked an equal and devastating zero tolerance in the other wing.

Sheldon 1664

By 1664, when Gilbert Sheldon took over at Canterbury, the Church of England was restored pretty much lock, stock and barrel. Ninety per cent of the population were obediently worshipping in their parish churches where the Book of Common Prayer was in use; diocesan courts and the traditional visitations by Bishops' officers and archdeacons were functioning much as before. Perhaps one in four of the Interregnum clergy and one in six of the population were complaining, but only tiny numbers were so embittered as to be contemplating resistance. And yet this represented something of a defeat for a king who wanted a quiet life. He had hoped for a settlement based on `comprehension' (one which permitted those `puritans' who wanted to be part of a national settlement to subsist within a broad and relaxed church able to accommodate itself to a variety of styles of worship, under Bishops who were chairmen of diocesan boards of governors rather than autocratic line-managers) and on `toleration' (freedom of religious assembly for those -- Catholics as well as tender-conscienced puritans -- who could not be full members of the Church). Charles had laid out his preferred plans in the Worcester House Declaration of October 1660, but by 1662 he had been forced to accept a much more restrictive settlement by the determination of the Cavalier Parliament to impose the good old days. There was a reaction against `enthusiasm', against the arrogance of puritan preaching, together with the unreasonableness of those spokesmen of the `puritan' ministers called in to advise on the final settlement (for example, at the Savoy conference called to review the Book of Common Prayer, they refused to settle for the creation of optional forms and demanded the acceptance of a new book of their own devising).

By 1664 more than a fifth of the clergy in post in 1660 had been removed and many of them were holding illegal religious assemblies, often alongside a spasmodic attendance at their parish churches. Some -- like the deprived Cheshire Puritan minister Adam Martindale -- were listening to their successors' sermons and then critically rehearsing them before old friends on the Sunday evening. For twenty five years, government policy oscillated between seeking to incorporate the disaffected minority by policies of comprehension and toleration and policies of repression, such as those sponsored by Sheldon in 1664/5: a conventicle act to lay financial penalties on those who organised or led religious gatherings outside the Church, and a Five Mile Act to remove deprived ministers from the parishes in which they had served and also from major established centres of non-conformity. As time passed, the number of non-conformists who preferred a clean break and looked for toleration grew and the number yearning for reincorporation into a church which made no unreasonable demands on their conscience shrank. But the total number of those exiled from their parish church remained less than ten per cent.

Sheldon and his friends paid a heavy price for the re-establishment of the Church in the 1660s. They got episcopacy and all its accoutrements back, they got the prayer book with all its rubrics back; they got the surplice back and even -- in a surprising proportion of all churches -- east-end altars and `Laudian' altar rails. But they got it at the expense of surrendering all effective power to the laity. Sheldon abandoned the right of the clergy to vote taxation on themselves, and as a result successive monarchs ceased to call the Convocations that voted the clerical taxes (but also to make canons and to promote other changes in the church). For well over 200 years the Church lost its legislative arm. The Long Parliament had abolished the Court of High Commission, the only church court which could impose civil penalties for religious offences; and the Court of Star Chamber, a body of privy councillors, judges and bishops that had regularly backed up church authority. Neither was revived in the Restoration. The Act of Uniformity which restored the old structures contained a clause that unambiguously claimed for Parliament the final determination of the content of Anglican worship (that clause was invoked as late as 1928 to prevent the Church introducing a new prayer book that most MPs disliked). All the legislation policing conformity and non-conformity in the Restoration -- including the Acts of 1664-5 -- were enforceable only by laymen in lay courts. The Church was from 1660, as it had never been before, little more than a department of state.

Tenison 1694

By 1694, when Thomas Tenison began a long reign as archbishop, priorities had changed again. He and a majority of the Anglican clergy -- with solid support from the gentry -- had passively resisted the Catholic James II and had lifted less than their little fingers to prevent James's flight and `abdication'. There had been a schism in the church, seven bishops (headed by archbishop Sancroft) and some hundreds of parish clergy resigning or being deprived of their livings rather than swear allegiance to William III and Mary II, and these Non-Jurors were to be relentless promoters their own self-righteousness and of the apostasy of the majority for decades to come; but it was a problem less bothersome to Tenison than he was able to believe in 1694. The Toleration Act of 1690 which gave the heirs of the puritans freedom to worship in licensed premises if their ministers took certain oaths of obedience and of trinitarian orthodoxy was more of a problem (more than 1,000 buildings were licensed between 1690 and 1694 [a figure which had doubled by the end of Tenison's Primacy]), and it broke the illusion of a confessional state. But only those who held certificates of annual reception of Anglican communion were entitled to hold public office or attend the universities or inns of court. An uneasy compromise had been reached which, despite ill-will from both sides, was to endure for 150 years. Mean-spirited figures amongst the clergy and gentry would try to limit the rights of dissenters -- by passing acts of parliament to require regular rather than occasional conformity as the test for office, or to limit the benefits of the Toleration Act by refusing the Dissenters the right to open schools or bury their dead in their own churchyards.

But in the event, the greater catastrophe of the Toleration Act for the church was not that it allowed the godly to worship elsewhere but that it allowed the ungodly to worship nowhere at all. If between 100,000 and 200,000 of the population worshipped in licensed nonconformist chapels, more than a million stopped worshipping at all on a regular basis. A Nottinghamshire vicar, William Sampson, who kept meticulous records from 1676 to 1696, saw the proportion of his adult parishioners who received Easter communions slump from more than 80 per cent before the Toleration Act to less than 40 per cent thereafter. And, combined with this, new rationalist trends led to the emergence of a strident theological minimalism, deism and atheism within and without the church. No longer was there a theological spectrum that ran from Christian humanism via liberal Swiss Protestant ideas to an austere Calvinism. There arose a spectrum that ran from those who retained an austere Calvinism to those who denied the divinity of Christ, rejected the Trinity and proclaimed that Christianity could be reduced to a few broad ethical principles, to those who believed in a Creator-God who had left the world he created to its own devices.

Outwardly, the Church of England left the seventeenth century with almost all the structures it had had at the outset. Everything abolished by the Long Parliament had been restored. And it still had members committed to the same values and principles. But it was also a Church that had lost its way; too many of its leaders longed for the past, resented the present and feared for the future. There was never a good time to be archbishop of Canterbury. But there were better times than the turn of the eighteenth century.

Books on the Seventeenth-Century Church

J. Morrill (ed.), The Oxford Illustrated History of Tudor and Stuart Britain (Oxford University Press 1996)

K. Fincham, The Early Stuart Church 1603-1642 (Macmillan 1993)

J. Spurr, The Restoration Church of England 1646-1689 (Yale University Press 1991)

D. Cressy and L-A. Ferrell (eds), Religion and Society in Early Modern Britain: a sourcebook (Routledge 1996)

John Morrill is Reader in Early Modern History at the University of Cambridge and a Fellow and Vice Master of Selwyn College. He has written extensively on many aspects of the early modern period and a collection of his essays -- The Nature of the English Revolution (1992) -- gives an indication of his range of interests.

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