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Anglican piety in time of trial

21 February 2012

The beauty of holiness is the theme here, says Raymond Chapman


A Following Holy Life: Jeremy Taylor and his writings
Kenneth Stevenson, editor

Canterbury Press £24.99
Church Times Bookshop £22.50

JEREMY TAYLOR is best known for two works, by their short titles Holy Living and Holy Dying. He was, in fact, a prolific author, whose collected writings run to ten volumes, including liturgy, pastoral theology, and practical advice to the clergy. His long work The Great Exemplar, in 1649, opening the way towards his more popular later books, was the first Anglican treatise in the medieval tradition of the “Imitation of Christ”, relating matters of church worship and personal faith to the Gospel narratives.

His life (1613-67) extended over one of the most formative, persecuted, and triumphant periods in the history of the Church of England. From being a favourite of William Laud, who made him one of his chaplains, he suffered imprisonment during the Commonwealth, and after the Restoration was rewarded with an Irish bishopric, where he became embroiled in disputes with the largely Presbyterian clergy.

He was one of the Anglican clergy who remained loyal under persecution; he openly defended the Book of Common Prayer against the Puritan Westminster Directory. Yet his general attitude was moderate and tolerant; today he might have been described as a “liberal Catholic”. He was associated with the Great Tew circle of Christian thinkers who took a broad and latitudinarian attitude to the fierce religious disputes of the time, and he kept a sense of proportion through years of bitter controversy.

Taylor had a strong sacramental faith, notably a belief in both the eternal and transcendental nature of the eucharist and the reality of its corporate worship by Christian believers on earth. In his writing on ethics, he was more frank and practical than was usual for his time about human sexuality, as good in itself when properly directed.

Kenneth Stevenson extracted a comprehensive and accessible selection from a great mass of writing. The extracts are mostly fairly short, and are arranged by theme rather than chronology. This is entirely right, since Taylor was not a systematic theologian, but a conveyor of miscellaneous reflection and counsel. The introduction to Taylor’s life and thought is masterly, and puts in perspective a Christian thinker whose reputation has generally been limited to two books that today are probably more often mentioned than read.

Stevenson, a former Bishop of Portsmouth, died last year. He was himself a noted writer on liturgy and doctrine, and it is fitting that his last book was a celebration of the beauty of holiness.

The Revd Dr Raymond Chapman is Emeritus Professor of English in the University of London.

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