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A WEEK OF HOPE?

At the end of the Protectorate of Cromwell, father and son, those years of utter religious confusion and near anarchy in the English church, someone wrote: the “differences of honest Protestants” were confidently judged “but small compared to the bonds of union, in which they do agree as to doctrinals, morals and essentials.” (John Gauden) There remained great hope that when King Charles II came home from his journeys the English Church might be reunited in the shape in which it found itself before the Laudian reforms destroyed its compact. Archbishop Laud and his friends, with the help of Charles I attempted to introduce certain practices, largely to do with furniture and millinery which caused great offense and charges of popery. For their innovations both men were judicially shortened.

It is perhaps odd to think of the High Church martyr archbishop as an innovator, so used we are to elaborate choreography and drapery in contemporary worship, and yet the Laudian reforms, as innocuous as enforcing the use of the surplice, copes in cathedrals, Godes Board placed altar-wise against the “east” wall and fenced to prevent dogs “pissing” thereon,as cause for offense and yet these liturgical innovations acted as potent symbols of something worse. Laud and his friends, it was alleged, were undermining the Reformation, and the godly settlement of religion undertaken in the reigns of Elizabeth of blessed memory and even, in the safety of hindsight, of “good” King James I.

I was thinking of this as I watched the ordination and consecration of my friend Greg Rickel as Bishop of Olympia, a romantic title if ever there was one. Greg and I served together in the Diocese of Arkansas and I came to understand him to be a person with whom there is no guile.

Some elements of the rite would have thrown most Episcopalians into a fit of the vapors forty years ago, whether they were the standard run of the mill Low Church people or one of those exotic birds who frequented the regions of the biretta belt. Here were variously clad bishops sploshing people with holy water using some kind of plant as an aspergilium. Loaves of bread and glasses of wine were consecrated and who knows who consumed the elements afterwards all to a rite not contained in the Book of Common Prayer but rather culled from various permitted and innovative manuals of devotion.

There again, the use of a Table drawn close to the people would have gladdened the more Puritan Anglican of the early 17th Century. What links Greg’s consecration with the fears of the anti-Laudian party is the suspicion that beneath all these innovations in rites and ceremonies, millinery and furniture lies a radical revision of religion. No one can accuse the innovators of papism, as they did the Laudian party, but those who are disturbed by the trends in official religion, for Laud was an official as is our present Presiding Bishop, also look back in sorrow as do many in our church today to the days when Johnson or Nixon were kings and the church looked different and sounded different.

After the upheaval of the Cromwellian years, as the king prepared to return the English Church was given an extraordinary chance to reconcile factions and reunite. Surely moderate puritans like Richard Baxter, offered a bishopric by the king at least at first, might be found a place in a restored church?

Sadly between 1660 and 1662 optimism about reconciliation was submerged by a victorious and vengeful Cavalier party intent on instituting the Laudian innovations and punishing those who had supported the Commonwealth. So came the Act of Uniformity, the 1662 Book of Common Prayer, the great ejection of over four hundred clergy from their parishes and punitive acts against those who stubbornly stayed outside the Established Church. The price of such conformity was the loss of any real claim of the Church to be the Church of All England. Gradually denominationalism, such as we see in America overtook the vision of one church in one nation. The Established Church, established to this day, never really recovered numerically from the losses during and after the Civil War.

Our bishops inherited a comprehensive church, granted less comprehensive liturgically than it once was, yet still a church of diverse custom, and opinion. Some Provinces in the communion enjoy this heritage, while others, where missionaries of one party or another were ascendant, have a more monochrome aspect. It was once thought that diversity was one of Anglicanism’s gifts to ecumenism. It was possible for people with seemingly mutually exclusive beliefs to dwell in one house together, not always without discord and rows, but nevertheless as one family. What united us was the diocesan and parochial system and Prayer Book worship. What preserved this often fragile unity was an unwillingness to promulgate and enforce doctrines, or practices which would violate the conscience of a significant constituency or “party”.

Such a compact did not mean in practice that doctrines were not taught and practices not indulged which were controversial or even taxed the patience and consciences of those opposed to them. What it did mean was that such doctrines and practices received no official sanction. In this seemingly anarchical playground, space and room was given to allow new and old ideas to be presented, tried, amended and often discarded without their becoming the subject of formal legislative debate, at least until a Gamaliel judgement was given time to do its work. That is what reception used to mean to an Anglican.

If our bishops, meeting in New Orleans wish to follow the bad example of the Cavaliers in 1662, our church will become narrower, less diverse and less tolerant. On the other hand if our bishops take extraordinary steps in extraordinary times to preserve our comprehensive heritage, who knows what God will do in our midst?

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