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The habits of obedience

27 September 2013

Jessica Martin ends a series on Jeremy Taylor, Anglican divine

Jeremy Taylor's book The Great Exemplar first appeared in print in the troubled year 1649. It was a life of Christ, but it was not a biography. Its form was threefold: first, a narrative section, which would tell a chunk of Jesus's life-story in chronological sequence; then some discursive or meditative prose consideration, which arose from that chunk of narrative; and finally a prayer on the theme.

Taylor borrowed his structure from an older tradition. But there were more modern influences on his book. His structure made use of the threefold form of the Ignatian meditation, which brought to bear on a sacred subject the potentially holy faculties of memory, understanding, and will. So, as you read the book, it read you back.

First, you imagined - visualised - the circumstances and accidents of a part of Jesus's life: for example, his baptism and temptation in the wilderness. This visualisation would be external to you, a story passing before the eyes of your mind, while you played no part in its events.

That is surface reading. But, as you return and consider the same events again, you find yourself falling into the story. So here is Taylor pulling us into events:


[Jesus] would need be baptized by his servant [John], and though he was of purity sufficient to do it, and did actually by his baptism purifie the purifier, and sanctifie that and all other streams to an holy ministery and effect, yet he went in, bowing his head like a sinner, unclothing himself like an imperfect person, and craving to be washt, as if he had been crusted with an impure leprousie, thereby teaching us to submit ourselves to all those rites which he would institute; and although some of them, be like the baptism of John joined with confession of sins, and publication of our infirmities, yet it were better for us, to lay by our loads, and wash our ulcers, then by concealing them, our of vainer desires of impertinent reputation, cover our disease until we are heart-sick and dye.


Taylor marks Jesus's perfection as a reason for our obedience, and al-lows us into the experience of baptism by eliding Jesus's experience with the healing of Naaman the Syrian, and then pointing out all the ways in which our own pride and rebellion might be like Naaman's.

It is up to us to make the act of recognition - but once we have made it, we cannot stop there. We have a responsibility to act on our understanding through intercession, although it may wholly change our relationship with ourselves and the world to do so.

"Let me not return to the Infirmities of the old man . . . who was buried by thee in Baptism," runs Taylor's prayer, "nor renew the crimes of my sinful years, which were so many recessions from baptismal purities, but let me ever receive the emissions of thy Divine Spirit, and be a Son of God."

Within three pages of this three-volume work, we, the readers, have been moved - from refusal and rebellion to adoption by grace into the image of God's Son. At least, that is part of it. Taylor's Jesus is very Johannine, especially around the crucifixion; he does not despair; he never loses his authority. And, although Taylor is clear that people sin and need forgiveness, the command "Be ye perfect" holds surprisingly little terror for him.

Growing into the likeness of Christ is largely (although not entirely) a matter of habit and practice. Conversion is a process, not a moment, and is born out of the habits of obedience. Perhaps that is why his book is not short, and goes through so many cyclical motions alongside its linear trajectory. He provides a means for the exemplary book of Christ to read its readers, and, through reflection as well as refraction, transform them, chapter by chapter, into the divine image.

This is an edited extract from a sermon preached by the Revd Dr Jessica Martin, Priest-in-Charge of Duxford, Hinxton, and Ickleton, in the diocese of Ely, at Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, last term.

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