Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Benign and Comfortable Air of Liberty and Toleration

Edward Carpenter used this quote from a eighteenth century Archbishop of Canterbury (Herring, I think) as the title for his chapter on the eighteenth century. Writing in the mid-1970s he saw it as representing the complacent and self-satisfied attitude of the Hanoverian Church. But this liberty and toleration reflected a society that was at peace with itself, and had decided that it could also live with the Almighty without the "odium theologicae" setting man against man in the name of God. Looking at it now, in 2010, after forty years of theological and moral revisionism I find that I have a sneaking sympathy for George II's Archbishop when he patted himself on the back for living in an era when the fires of fanaticism were extinct. O that my lot as an Anglican bishop now were as peaceful as that of my eighteenth century spiritual forefather.

For most in the Church of England, both at home, and in the American Colonies, the eighteenth century was the era of Rational Orthodoxy. The tendency of conventional historians has been to concentrate on the odd-balls, rebels, and innovators, and to ignore the everyday. Thus we hear a good deal about Benjamin Hoadly, the scandalous political Bishop of Bangor, or Dr Samuel "the Arian" Clark, whose "chop job" on the Articles of Religion curiously anticipates Newman's magnum opus of 1841, and very little about the everyday life of the Church. As a result of this tendency to concentrate on the "weirdos" of the Hanoverian Church, they tend to ignore the role played by "rational orthodox" in keeping Church principles alive in the Age of Reason.

Rational Orthodoxy was a theological movement which framed the Anglicanism in terms of the appeal to Scripture informed by the Creeds and the writings of the Early Fathers. It was a period when Anglican scholarship, in spite of the neglected state of the universities, achieved a high pitch of proficiency, and became the "stupor mundi" of legend. Of the various eighteenth century Archbishops of Canterbury, two were identifiable as High Churchmen - John Potter (1736-46) and John Moore (1783-1805) - and they presided over a Church where the principles and theology of the Caroline Divines was far from forgotten. The "High" doctrines of Apostolic Succession, Baptismal Regeneration, and the Real Presence, couple with a restrained and disciplined spiritual rooted in "The Complete Duty of Man" and the works of William Law were passed on from generation to generation of Churchmen. It was a spirituality that was rooted in the rational acceptance and implementation of the Gospel in one's daily life. However, it was also a spiritual reticent tradition that took seriously Our Lord's admonition to do in secret in the hopes of receiving a reward from Our Father who sees in secret.

At its best, the Hanoverian Church could produce figures in the same spiritual tradition as the Carolines and the Tractarians. Even run of the mill parsons took their work seriously. One "run of the mill parson" we know a good deal about is the Rev. James Woodforde (1740-1803), the diarist and Rector of Weston Longville, Norfolk. He is often criticised for being a trencher man, and something of a sportsman, but his diary reflects a non-nonsense approach where religion is integrated into everyday life. Alongside his record of his meals, wins and losses at cards, and the minor trials and tribulations of a life quietly lived are moving accounts of his pastoral ministrations - taking food to sick parishioners, administering Communion to the dying, and "bedding down the dead." Like most resident parsons of the day, he was an essential part of his community. How many can say that today, when Christianity has become so marginalised?

The story of Anglicanism over the past 180 years has been one of marginalisation and decline. This is largely because we have lost the idea of being what my Lutheran brethren used to call a "Volkskirken" - the Church of the People - hallowing and directing aright the lives of ordinary people. Instead we have embraced the concept of "the holy huddle" content to accept a measure of marginalisation as we obsess about "Church stuff." However, orthodox Christianity, and especially orthodox Anglican Christianity is too important to be merely the hobby of the holy huddle. We need to reassert the need for God in the everyday world. This was something our Hanoverian forefathers intuitively understood, but we have lost. Until recently, there were a large number of common phrases in our language that were drawn from the BCP and from the King James Version of the Bible. These were perhaps the ultimate testimony to the impact of Anglican Christianity on our culture.

1 comment:

Canon Tallis said...

And without that learning and spirit of duty the Tractarian revival would have been, if not impossible, more difficult. Pusey tried to prepare the English Church for what was to come, the difficult part of dealing with the doctrines of the merely "humanists" and secularists but once the excitement was over his real call was ignored and the Church daddled while Christendom burned.

An excellent post.