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The day the shepherds were scattered

by
21 September 2012

On St Bartholomew's Day, 350 years ago, hundreds of ministers left Church of England livings in what was later known as the 'Great Ejection'. Arnold Hunt tells the story

And finally: This collections of farewell sermons by ejected clergy was a bestseller

And finally: This collections of farewell sermons by ejected clergy was a bestseller

THE dissident clergy insisted that they were loyal members of the Church of England. They claimed that they had been given assurances of an honoured place at the table. But, if the new legislation went through, their consciences left them no choice - they would have to leave the Church, taking many members of their congregations with them.

This was not the summer of 2012, with the Church of England inching its way towards a decision on women bishops; it was the summer of 1662. King Charles II was restored to the throne, episcopal government was restored to the Church, and the Presbyterian clergy faced the prospect of ejection from their livings, unless they made a public declaration of "unfeigned assent and consent" to the Thirty-Nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer.

We can follow the events of that summer through the diary of Samuel Pepys. On 17 August 1662, he got up early to hear the celebrated preacher William Bates deliver his farewell sermon. Pepys being Pepys, his attention wandered from the sermon to the sight of a young lady in the next pew ("and very pretty and sprightly she is"), but he took note of Bates's parting remark as he stepped down from the pulpit: "As to my nonconformity . . . it is neither fancy, faction, nor humour that makes me not to comply, but merely for fear of offending God."

 

The Presbyterian clergy were formally ejected the following Sunday, 24 August, St Bartholomew's Day. All was quiet at Pepys's own church, St Olave's, Hart Street, where "we had a lazy, dull sermon." At dinner that evening, however, he heard reports of disturbances in other London churches, "a thing which appears to me very ominous". He feared that if the bishops could not find enough good clergy to fill all the vacant livings, "all will fly a-pieces, for bad ones will not [go] down with the City."

PEPYS was right that the Great Ejection, as it came to be known, was a high-risk strat­egy. There was nothing inevit­able about it. At the Restoration, it had been widely assumed that there would have to be an inclusive settle­ment to keep the Presbyterians inside the Church of England, probably involving some version of "primitive" or "modified" episcopacy - a compromise scheme in which the bishops would have governed with the help of an advisory council of diocesan clergy.

What changed the situation was the huge upsurge of popular joy and relief that greeted the restoration of the monarchy. Senior churchmen, led by the Bishop of London, Gilbert Sheldon (soon to be appointed Archbishop of Canterbury), realised that, with skilful parliamentary man­agement, and by playing on fears of Nonconformists as rebels and regicides, they had the opportunity to restore the pre-war Church of England more or less intact, with no concessions to the Presbyterians.

 

So it was that on "Black Bartholo­mew Day", 350 years ago last month, the Presbyterian clergy preached their farewell sermons and prepared to leave their parishes, under the threat of imprisonment if they continued their ministry.

More than 900 parish clergy are estimated to have lost their livings in 1662, bringing the total number expelled or forced to resign as a result of the Restoration settlement to nearly 2000 - approximately one-fifth of all Anglican clergy.

In the words of the church historian Eamon Duffy, "1662 marked a parting of the ways as momentous as any event since the break with Rome." It was part of a raft of oppressive legislation, the so-called Clarendon Code, designed to criminalise Protestant Nonconform­ity and exclude Dissenters from public office. Much of this legislation remained on the statute-book until the 19th century.

FOR Presbyterians and Congre­ga­tionalists ("Old Dissent", as they came to be known, to distinguish them from Methodism), this was a defining event. Black Bar­tho­lomew Day was kept as a solemn anniversary, the ejected clergy were remembered and honoured as vic­tims of persecution, and 1662 was viewed, with hindsight, as the moment when the Presbyterian and Congregational churches came into being as separate denominations.

For the Church of England, too, 1662 came to be seen as a foun­dational moment, when the distinct­ive Anglican spirituality nurtured by Richard Hooker and Lancelot An­drewes finally came to fruition in the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. Iron­ically, the 1662 settlement - narrow and intolerant as it was - came to be cherished as the definitive expres­sion of Anglican balance and mod­era­tion.

These myths of origin can be hard to dislodge. It is only recently that historians have begun to reassess the 1662 settlement, and to question whether it really did mark an irre­voc­able parting of the ways. It is now becoming clear that, even after the Great Ejection, many Presby­terian clergy remained deeply attached to the Church of England, and even, in a few cases, managed to cling on to their livings.

One such was Ralph Josselin, Vicar of Earls Colne, in Essex, whose remarkable 300,000-word diary  - not published in its entirety until 1976 - allows us to know him almost as well as we know Pepys.

Josselin viewed the restoration of episcopacy with dismay, and fully expected to be put out of his living in 1662. On St Bartholomew's Day, he wrote dismally that he was "sad to see how the shepherds are scattered", and, a week later: "All hopes of suspension of the act of uniformity taken away. . . Oh Lord, provide for our security."

His diary for the next few months shows him agonising over whether to adopt the new liturgy. On 12 October, he came to church to find the Prayer Book "laid in the deske for mee"; the following Sunday it was "laid again and used in part in the morning, but in the afternoon taken away". Not until 1665 did he start using the Prayer Book service of holy communion. But, despite his reluctant and partial conformity, Josselin remained Vicar of Earls Colne until his death in 1683.

EVEN among the ejected clergy, there was a wide variety of responses to the 1662 settle­ment. Richard Baxter, a hugely re­spected figure, chose the path of Non­conformity, and spent the rest of his life working tirelessly for a more comprehensive settlement that would allow the Presbyterians to rejoin the Established Church. But not all the clergy followed Baxter's example of dignified suffering in the face of persecution.
 

One who did not was Samuel Cross­man, one of Josselin's neigh­bours in Essex. Crossman was ejected and briefly imprisoned in 1662 ("Mr Crosman preaching ac­tually sent to prison and some others in danger thereof", Josselin noted in his diary), but later conformed, and ended his life as Dean of Bristol. His most enduring legacy to the Church of England is his hymn "My song is love unknown".

Another case that defies easy cate­gorisation is that of the naturalist and botanist John Ray. Ray resigned his Cambridge fellowship in 1662 rather than subscribe to the Act of Uniformity, and has usually been counted among the ejected clergy. Yet he regarded himself as a loyal Anglican, and described himself near the end of his life as "a true though unworthy son of the Church by law established in this kingdom".

As these examples show, relations between Anglicans and Presbyterians were often very close, and it is hard to draw a clear dividing line be-tween the two. Many of the ejected clergy longed for reunion with the Church of England, and felt far more affinity with their Anglican brethren than with the radical fringe of sects such as the Quakers and Baptists. Nothing would have horrified them more than to be lumped together with George Fox or John Bunyan into a single category of "Dissent".

Long after 1662, some of the leading Nonconformist clergy, in­cluding Bates and Baxter, continued to attend sermons and receive the sacra­ment in their parish churches. This practice of "occasional con­formity", as it was known, expressed a genuine sense of divided loyalties. When they preached or met for worship, they took care to do so outside Anglican service times, so that their followers could attend church in the morning, and chapel in the afternoon.

THIS sense of a shared Pro­testant identity proved crucial in 1689, when the Noncon­formists spurned the offer of tol­eration from the Roman Catholic James II, in favour of solidarity with the Church of England. It was only after 1689, with the failure of schemes for religious comprehen­sion, that the Dissenters finally gave up hope of reunion with the Established Church, and started to think of themselves as separate denominations.

The scars of the Great Ejection remained very painful. Among the Dissenters there was a deep-seated resentment of Anglican power and privilege; and, on the Anglican side, a lingering guilt about the part played by the Church of England in religious persecution. The Evangeli­cal J. C. Ryle, later Bishop of Liver­pool, described the Great Ejection in 1853 as "an injury to the cause of true religion in England which will probably never be repaired".

In the 20th century, this led to a series of projects for corporate re­union, including the 1938 outline scheme for reunion between the Church of England and the Free Churches, and the 1957 report Rela­tions between Anglican and Presbyter­ian Churches in England and Scot­land. The latter came up with an ingenious proposal for modified episcopacy that would have glad­dened the heart of Richard Baxter, with the Moderator of the Church of Scotland replaced by a "Bishop-in-Presbytery".

Now, the ecumenical landscape looks very different. The report Healing the Past, Building the Future, produced by a joint Anglican and United Reformed study group in 2011, noted a sense of unfinished business, but also, with commend­able honesty, acknowledged "a waning of ecumenical energy and enthusiasm in both Churches at the moment". The focus has now shifted from corporate reunion to local partnership (see panel).

Dr Rowan Williams's sermon at the service of mutual reconciliation held at Westminster Abbey earlier this year, marking the 350th anni­versary of the Great Ejection, sums up this new approach to the legacy of 1662. Both Anglicans and Dissenters, he suggested, benefited from sep­aration in ways that could not have been foreseen at the time. Anglican complacency was challenged by "the questioning presence of English Dissent", while the Dissenting Churches in their turn were able to forge "a new kind of political identity" without the trappings of establishment.

The year 1662 was not the final parting of the ways, but it was the moment when Anglicans lost their monopoly as the sole Protestant Church in England. As such, it was a crucial step towards a religiously pluralist society. This no longer appears to be the tragedy that Bishop Ryle believed in 1853. From the perspective of 2012, it looks more like something to be celebrated.

There is, perhaps, a further mes­sage for the Anglican Communion, as it looks ahead to an uncertain future and the possibility of a global re­structuring. Schism is not some­thing that any Church would wish for. As the Great Ejection demon­strates, it can be painful, brutal, and unjust, with clear winners and losers. But when the dust has settled, it can also prove to be an unexpected liberation.

Dr Arnold Hunt is a curator of manuscripts at the British Library, and author of The Art of Hearing: English preachers and their audi­ences, 1590-1640 (CUP, 2010).

 

Ruth Whitehead is joining together two churches that were once put asunder.

SHARING a minister among several churches is a fact of life for rural areas. So it is not surprising that, as a United Reformed Church minister in Whittlesford and Pampisford, two villages south of Cambridge, I have charge of four churches. What is unusual is that I am United Reformed Church minister to two congrega­tions, and also Priest-in-Charge of two par­ishes in a local ecumenical partner­ship that dates back to 1988.

In one village, I take services at 8 and 9.30 a.m. in the Anglican church, and then cross the village green to the URC church for another, at 11.15. I am Churches Together in Whittlesford!

The ecumenical partnership was formed by a formal covenant between the local churches, the Eastern synod of the URC, and the diocese of Ely. The strength of this arrangement is that it allows mutual recognition of the minis­tries of both Anglican and United Reformed ministers.

We have some shared services, but mostly each church worships within its own tradition - al­though sometimes URC members will come to services at the An­glican church, and vice versa. This leaves me, a URC minister, whose forebears were ejected from the Church of England, cele­brating com­munion using the Book of Com­­mon Prayer at least once a month. I have grown to love the phrase which speaks of God "whose property is always to have mercy".

 

I don't feel I'm doing something different, whether I am presiding at communion in one church or the other, even if the practicalities are different. I am still a priest, and I am still me. It helps that I wear the same vestments - a cassock, alb, and stole - in both, but the congregation are not getting a "compromise" service. I have no agenda to change people's minds through the liturgy.

Liturgically, the two denomina­tions have moved much closer together since the 1960s and '70s. And most people in the communi­ties I serve don't really know - or care - which one I represent. I'm just the local minister; so they know who to call when they need help. This makes all sorts of sense locally - it is better than having both an Anglican and a URC minister, who would then each have to travel much further, to more villages, and be less present in all of them. All my congregations are within a bike ride.

We are one church theologic­ally, if not ecclesiologically.  And to the outside world, our different histories make very little sense.

We've come a long way since 1662, and I hope that what we are doing in Cambridgeshire stands as an emblem of the degree of reconciliation that has taken place. My feeling is that if a Great Ejec­tion were to take place now, it would be on very different grounds than it was then. But, in Whittlesford and Pampisford, our ecumenical vision echoes the prayer of Jesus: "That they may all be one, that the world may believe. . ."

Forthcoming Events

25 September 2021
Festival of Faith and Literature: Food for the Journey
With Stephen Cottrell, Peter Stanford, Lucy Winkett, and Rowan Williams.

20 October 2021
Does the parish need saving?
Warnings that the parish is under threat date back decades. But are claims that it is now being dismantled accurate? Join our panel for a lively online debate.

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