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Reviews > Book reviews >

Foiled by anti-clerical politicians

These attempts at reform were worthy, but, alas, doomed, says Alec Ryrie

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Religion, Reform and Modernity in the Eighteenth Century: Thomas Secker and the Church of England
Robert G. Ingram
Boydell & Brewer £45 (978-1-84383-348-2)
Church Times Bookshop £40.50

IF WE THINK of the 18th-century Church of England at all, we don’t think much of it: a venal, self-satisfied husk of a Church, trapped in formalism. In our minds, the age’s intellectual energies were rationalist and liberal, and its spiritual zeal Nonconformist or Methodist.

Robert Ingram is impatient with these prejudices and the hindsight that forms them. In this invaluable book, he argues that the Established Church was alive and kicking; and he uses Thomas Secker, Archbishop of Canterbury 1758-68, to prove it.

The Secker whose life Ingram traces (though this is more than a biography) mixed moderation and firmness in a manner typical of the age: that is, he was a Whig to his fingertips, for good or for ill. Raised a Dissenter, he converted to Anglicanism in his twenties. The circumstances are opaque, but dislike for Nonconformist Trinitarian specu-lation seems to have been a key. Ingram suggests that Secker’s medical studies were important here, as current theories of life seemed to support a traditional doctrine of the bodily resurrection.

As an Anglican convert, Secker’s rapid rise (he was a bishop at 42) was a matter of luck, political skill, and robust defence of his new faith. His contemporaries found him a powerful preacher. Walpole thought him a touch fanatical; but Ingram prefers his self-description — “orthodox”: willing to reform the old ways, the better to defend them.

Secker was wary of Methodism (like any bishop), but recognised its value. His real enemies were those who would dissolve the Church of England into undogmatic nothing-ness. It was said that he kept two notebooks, one black and one white, into which he entered the names of those of whom he disapproved and approved theologically.

Orthodox church reform along Secker’s lines was, Ingram argues with some passion, a plausible and honourable project in its own time. The only problem is that (as he has to admit) it was utterly doomed.

The Church-state alliance — which, as Ingram points out, was really a Church-Whig alliance — was (as always) an unequal match. All of Secker’s sinuous compromising could not lure the Whig Establishment, profoundly anti-clerical as it was, into honouring the bargain. His dearest project (a bishop for the American colonies) was not worth the potential political cost; the state’s needs in an age of warfare overrode Anglican preferences. The substantial achievements of Secker’s “orthodox church reform” seem very scanty. He could, and did, put the Church’s own house in order, but on the national stage he looks like yet another fall guy for the Establishment.

Ingram tells this dispiriting tale with scholarly caution, but he also has an eye for arresting phrases in his sources. His conclusion, which centres on Secker’s all-but-invisible memorial in a deconsecrated church, is fittingly bleak. But it is his achievement to make us see the 18th century through this all-too-moderate archbishop’s eyes, and even — for a moment — to believe that he might have succeeded.

Dr Ryrie is Reader in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University.

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