15 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (9) The Caroline Divines

We are going to race through two and a half centuries of history in a matter of a few short paragraphs. It will be a little like rushing quickly through a picture gallery, but perhaps we may have time to stop and look for a few moments at least at some of the more prominent portraits.

We begin in 1603 with the accession to the throne of James I. Within the church many of the competing forces which had been held in balance under Elizabeth were looking for power and James had hardly been crowned when he was presented with the Millenary Petition, a moderate request on the part of many of Puritan conviction for some changes to the church. Because he was Scottish and had lived all his life under Presbyterian influence, the Puritans may have expected the king to be sympathetic to their case. The reality was quite the opposite. In January 1604, a conference was held at Hampton Court, at which the king made his sympathies clear. “If this is all they have to say, I will make them conform themselves or I will harry them out of this land or else do worse.”

James’ high-handed treatment of the Puritans succeeded only in alienating a large portion of the populace, who once had been loyal to both church and king. The Hampton Court Conference did make one major accomplishment, however. It set in motion a new translation of the Bible, the Bible which has left an imprint on the English language no less than that of Shakespeare and the Book of Common Prayer and which we now call the King James Version.

One who played a major part in the final editing of the King James Bible was Bishop Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626). Like Jewel and Hooker before him Andrewes developed a powerful apologetic for Anglicanism, this time based not on reason but on history and tradition. Like the work of Jewel and Hooker it was measured an irenic in tone and held a place for those who did not share his belief in the episcopate: “Even if our order be admitted to be of divine authority, it does not follow that without it there can be no salvation, or that without it a church cannot stand. Only a blind man could fail to see churches standing without it. Only a man of iron could deny that salvation is to be found within them.” Andrewes is perhaps best known for a work that appeared after his death, a collection of remarkable private devotions entitled Preces Privatæ, whose prayers have found a use in the church second only to the Book of Common Prayer.

Contemporary with Andrewes was John Donne (1573-1631), dean of St Paul’s Cathedral in London, whose sermons and poetry reveal a depth of passionate conviction that would be remarkable in any age, expressed in an eloquence that has never been surpassed. The dark themes of sin, judgement and death give a sombre background to the message of Christ’s redemption.

The reign of James I saw the flowering of another of brilliant poet in the person of George Herbert (1593-1633). A country parson who faithfully drew his parish together for prayers twice daily, Herbert’s poetry gives voice to a deep and abiding love for Christ and for his church.

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