The Church Times (which may be some readers’ favourite journal) carried an article recently by Dr Nicholas Fisher, ‘Standing down the Puritan Penumbra’, celebrating the work of Symon Patrick, who played a crucial part in defending the settlement of the Church of England after the Restoration. It is not just a subject of interest to church historians but it contains a strong lesson about the nation’s social and political divisions in our own day.
The history and the conflict
In the 17th century, the Church of England commanded the moral teaching of the nation and potentially its whole social outlook, and so control of it was key to controlling the ideology of England. The Church’s official doctrines included freedom of conscience in that only the Bible is an absolute standard, but secular authorities would frequently find an excuse for punishing dissentient speech. (Thomas Hobbes was accused of atheism for some of his ideas even though fully concordant with the Bible.)
Therefore the church in England and in Scotland was a battleground, much as media regulation is becoming a battleground for us today, and dissent from the established church would be punished not for doctrinal reasons, but to control preaching.
At the Civil War, Parliament’s Puritan faction changed the polity of the Church of England, abolishing bishops and replacing dioceses and bishops with presbyteries and assemblies. It was a classic political case of the means to an end which became an end in itself, or the fringe demand, put just to be sacrificed in negotiation, which became an unshakable demand.
The old order was restored at the Restoration but it was not a
foregone conclusion: Pepys in his diary confides that the King may be forced to
concede to a Presbyterian church. In the event, the bishops returned, clergy
were required to conform, huge numbers of clergy left to form non-conformist
congregations, but it was not over: strong
voices still pressed for the abolish prelacy, to turn the Church of England
into a Presbyterian church.
The pressure for Presbytery was strong and growing, and each
fault in a bishop, or any slippage towards ceremonialism was held as proof of
lapsing towards Roman ways. The move to Presbyterianism was made to feel
inevitable. That is echoed in every age:
imperfection is held up as utter corruption and the word ‘inevitable’ breaks
resistance. You may think of your own examples.
Into this stepped a clergyman, Symon Patrick. He could see that
the Puritans were gaining the upper hand, and so he wrote ‘The Parable of the Pilgrim’, about a pilgrim trying to travel to
Jerusalem, and first seeking a reliable guide.
I cannot say the Patrick’s Parable
is a gripping read. It is for from Bunyan’s
Pilgrim’s Progress. (written in the
same age). It was popular though, and is
credited with convincing the King and the establishment that Presbytery was not
inevitable nor the will of the people, and that the public mood was for the old
The argument and the outcome
Patrick’s theme in essence was that the Church of England is a reliable guide, and the non-conforming Puritans are a violent, extreme faction who were responsible for the Civil War and would cause another one.
He does not claim that the episcopal version of the Church had the sole claim on truth and does not accuse the non-conformists of false doctrine, except in as far as they claimed to have a monopoly of the way to salvation and of acceptable practice. This then is a key: we are the reasonable men; they are dangerous extremists; remember the horror of the late war, as a revival of it looms in their counsels.
The result was effective: public opinion turned strongly in
favour of the bishops, and the Puritans shrank back. However it also encouraged the secular
authorities to impose malicious penalties on non-conformity. Whether Symon Patrick had that in mind I
cannot say, but it makes it uncomfortable to read the triumphalist tone in the Church
Times article, perhaps just an echo of the inevitable affection of a biographer
for his subject.
Ill-treatment of non-conformists was unprincipled and counter-productive. Since the Restoration, the non-conformist churches and the Church of England have had a mutually supporting role in their mutual antagonism: the non-conformists are often the conscience to admonish the Church of England when it goes wrong, as it frequently does, and they allow preachers to speak out, on matters such as slavery and false doctrines, where the Anglican structure encourages silence and bland following of liturgy. At the same time, the Church of England provides a structure and written standard against which the non-conformist churches may be measured in case they are tempted to stray, as they do without structure: the Quakers have ceased to be Christian in any meaningful sense.
The lessons into modernity
In our own day, the moral teaching of the nation is secularised. Novel, irreligious doctrines coming out of nowhere are established and pressed upon us by secular authorities and those who set themselves up as authorities. Even of the Church of England is complying.
The argument in Patrick’s Parable holds good today: the Puritans who claim a monopoly of truth are dangerous, and while their positions and arguments may be within the wide cast of honest opinion, they cannot be allowed in charge.
However the position of our own day is reversed from the Restoration period: the establishment has been seized by secular Puritans, little different from those Patrick describes in his Parable of the Pilgrim. They act in the way he warns, and without any apparent sense of irony the New Puritans are ready to accuse dissenting, conservative-minded folk of being dangerous extremists, and spit hatred at them in the name of opposing hate.
The New Puritans are not a myth, as case after case demonstrates: careers ruined, businesses closed and intimidated, others harassed by lawsuits. In this, the radical New Puritan may act as legislator, judge, jury and executioner. After the Long March Through the Institutions, establishment positions are held by left-wingers, so there is little resistance.
Now we need non-conforming commentators. A secular Symon Patrick in our own day would face ostracism, even in the cowed Church, as he would be writing outside the establishment. Maybe it would be coming too late: Patrick wrote to prevent a takeover, but for us, that takeover has happened.