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Devoted within reason

by
18 October 2013

Adrian Leak pays a birthday tribute to a Church of England layman who argued for the middle way with erudition and wry humour

"FOR my religion," wrote Thomas Browne, "though there be several circumstances that might persuade the world I have none at all, as the general scandal of my profession, the natural course of my studies, the indifferency of my behaviour and discourse in matters of religion, neither violently defending one, nor with that common ardour and contention opposing another; yet in despite hereof, I dare, without usurpation, assume the honourable style of Christian."

He might have put it more briefly, and simply told us that he was a physician who believed in Christ. But the glory of Thomas Browne's prose is that it was never simple, and rarely brief. The modern ear, fearful of the dependent clause, might be baffled by this opening sentence of Religio Medici. It needs, however, only a measure of perseverance before we pick up the rhythm, and are drawn into the mind of this engaging and wise scientist.

He takes us by the hand into his library for a leisurely exposition of his religious beliefs. His tone is confidential, almost deferential. We feel that he is a reticent man, and yet he desires our company, perhaps our approval. We are surprised that one so young (he is only 30) should have settled opinions upon such a wide variety of religious topics.

We are, perhaps, intimidated by his great learning, lightly worn. We are flattered, though, by his assumption that we can recognise, without recourse to footnotes, the allusions that illuminate his text.

What delights the reader is Browne's wry take on life. The "scandal of his profession", as he calls it, allows him to view the human condition from the oblique perspective of a GP. He had good precedent. St Luke, whose feast day we celebrate today, also a physician, lightened his narrative in the Acts with similar irony.

Rare among his contemporaries, Browne was able to bring a healing touch to the rancour of theological debate. At a time when feelings about the conduct of worship ran so high that men came to blows over whether to kneel at prayer, he was able to write: "I am, I confess, naturally inclined to that which misguided zeal terms superstition. At my devotion I love to use the civility of my knee, my hat, and hand."

As a layman, he was able to put the case for the via media of the Church of England with a clarity equal to Hooker's. "In brief where scripture is silent, the church is my text; where that speaks, 'tis but my comment: where there is a joint silence of both, I borrow not the rules of my religion from Rome or Geneva, but the dictates of my own reason."

We cannot, however, capture him and call him ours. He was of his time. He believed it was right to burn witches. He believed in the philosopher's stone, which could turn base metal to gold.

In an age of bitter religious strife, Browne's greatest achievement was to contribute to public debate more light than heat. He spoke and wrote with learning, eloquence, and the gentle irony that wins affection and heals division.

The Revd Adrian Leak was, until his recent retirement, Priest-in-Charge of Withyham, in the diocese of Chichester.


Sir Thomas Browne was born in London on 19 October 1605. He was educated at Winchester College, and Pembroke College, Oxford, and studied medicine on the Continent. He was a general practitioner in Norwich for nearly 50 years. His written works include Urn Burial, The Garden of Cyrus, and Religio Medici. He was happily married and the father of a large family. He died on his 77th birthday, 19 October, in 1682. He is portrayed here with his wife, Dorothy (née Mileham), in a painting attributed to Joan Carlile, c.1641-50


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