DESPITE being recognised by contemporaries and modern historians as one of the leading churchmen of his generation, the critical influence of Simon or Symon Patrick (1626-1707; the “y” in his Christian name was his chosen spelling) on the survival of the newly restored Church of England in the 1660s has been overlooked. With hindsight, he can be discerned as playing a crucial part in withstanding intense political and Nonconformist pressure that would have significantly refashioned the national Church.
Charles II regained the throne in May 1660, having raised an expectation that this would be accompanied by religious freedom. In the Declaration of Breda which he issued shortly beforehand, he offered immediately “a Liberty to tender Consciences”, which would be subsequently enshrined in an Act of Parliament “for the full granting that indulgence”.
It was expected that a national Church of England would emerge in which clergy and congregations would be permitted some leeway in terms of devotional practice, and that this would be accompanied by tolerance of those English Protestants who chose to remain outside that Church.
The resulting Act of Uniformity in 1662, however, rode roughshod over the concerns of those “tender Consciences”. All clergy now were to be episcopally ordained; the Cromwellian Solemn League and Covenant was to be disavowed and the Thirty-Nine Articles subscribed to; and, most exactingly, all clergy were required to give “unfeigned assent and consent to all and everything contained in and prescribed by” the Book of Common Prayer.
More than 900 beneficed clergy felt unable to conform to these requirements and left the Church of England, often with a proportion of their congregations, swelling what John Spurr has described as the “puritan penumbra” around the parish churches. The London churches, losing 50 ministers, suffered particularly through this, and the ensuing shortage of ministers was still being felt at the turn of the century.
THE Act of Uniformity was just one of a series of increasingly oppressive laws passed during the 1660s to suppress dissent. These become known as the “Clarendon Code”, after Charles II’s leading minister, Edward Hyde, 1st Earl of Clarendon, but bear all the fingerprints of Gilbert Sheldon, Bishop of London until 1663, and then Archbishop of Canterbury.
Sheldon, implacably hostile to dissenters, intended to crush Presbyterians, Baptists, and Quakers into oblivion, but this persecution served to strengthen rather than extinguish their resolve.
A problem for the Established Church was the lack of enforcement of the prohibition of building meeting houses, and the restriction on the number of Nonconformists who could gather for worship. Many of those responsible for the implementation were either Nonconformists themselves or sympathetic towards them.
In the wake of the Act of Uniformity, Samuel Pepys was convinced that “the present clergy will never heartily go down with the generality of the commons of England” (Diary, 9 November 1663). And, further, after the outbreak of the Great Plague in London in 1665, support for those clergy fell even further, because so many of them in the affected areas abandoned their parishioners, whereas Nonconformist ministers largely remained.
Symon Patrick, the Rector of the society church St Paul’s, Covent Garden, London, since 1662, was one of the notable exceptions who remained in his parish. Against this troubled background, he published a book that formed an apologia for the Established Church.
In The Parable of the Pilgrim (1665), written from an entirely different perspective from that of the Puritan John Bunyan in The Pilgrim’s Progress (1678, 1684), Patrick championed the via mediocrita, or middle way, occupied by the re-Established Church between the extremes of Nonconformity on the one hand and Roman Catholicism on the other. The popularity of this work, and the implicit support for its stance, is evidenced by the appearance of eight editions by 1687.
By 1667, the confidence of the national Church had further declined, as the King was thought to be promoting the comprehension of Presbyterians within it. Pepys charts the growing Nonconformist ascendancy between June 1667 and March 1669. He refers to “great endeavours of bringing in the Presbyterian interest”, and Nonconformists becoming “mighty high” (17 June and 21 December 1667). He observes that “there is great presumption that there will be a Toleration granted,’ and “Nonconformists . . . are connived at by the King”, who is “forced” to trust “them or nobody” (20 January, 11 August, and 23 December 1668).
Worryingly, he concluded on 16 March 1669: “The Bishops must certainly fall, and their Hierarchy; these people [Nonconformists] have got so much ground upon the King and Kingdom as is not to be got again from them — and the Bishops do well deserve it.”
PATRICK recognised that the survival of the Church of England in its present form was at stake. In a withering attack on Nonconformity, he issued a sequence of polemics, A Friendly Debate between a Conformist and a Non-Conformist. This work was a phenomenal success — even more popular than The Parable of the Pilgrim. Written in dialogue form, it explains in simple language the areas of disagreement between the two representatives, and uses humour to present a convincing argument for conformity.
First appearing late in 1668, within a year it had expanded into a second part, and reached ten editions. A third part and an appendix followed in 1670, and, finally, just months before the death of King Charles II, a “corrected and enlarged” sixth edition appeared in 1684.
It can be argued that had Patrick not seen a national need for a defence of the Established Church when he did, then the increasing stridency of Nonconformist voices might well have persuaded Charles II that, in the interests of domestic peace, the Church of England needed to accommodate the Nonconformists through some form of a compromise. It is difficult to see how this could have been achieved without the removal of bishops and the adoption of a presbyterian form of church government, an outcome that Pepys certainly believed was inevitable.
But, with the success of Patrick’s Parable of the Pilgrim, and especially the Friendly Debate series, Charles II could not but recognise the strength of public opposition to such a fundamental transformation. He would have also realised at the time of the latter’s publication that an exercise of the royal prerogative by a Declaration of Indulgence would be both unacceptable to the House of Commons and viewed more widely as constitutionally controversial.
When, in 1672, preparatory to launching war against the Dutch Republic, the King sought to buy the loyalty of Nonconformists by issuing a Declaration that suspended all penal laws against them, Parliament forced him to withdraw it a year later. Twenty years later, James II’s attempt to challenge the position of the Church of England in relation to Nonconformists and Roman Catholics by a similar Declaration led directly to the Glorious Revolution and the loss of the throne.
AFTER the success of Patrick’s Friendly Debate, Samuel Parker, a former chaplain to Sheldon, who would be appointed Bishop of Oxford by James II, published his exceptionally virulent attack on dissenters in A Discourse of Ecclesiastical Politie (1670).
By this time, the Nonconformist threat had, for the time being, receded, as Parliament passed a second Conventicle Act (1670), the apogee of the Clarendon Code. Famously described by the poet and satirist Andrew Marvell as the “quintessence of arbitrary malice”, it increased the penalties for which Nonconformist ministers were liable, and provided for rewards for those who informed against them. But, in the same parliamentary session, attention began to be given to the threat posed by Roman Catholics, and a Bill designed to prevent their holding office was considered.
What is not in doubt, therefore, is that, virtually single-handedly, Patrick preserved the status of the Church of England so effectively that, although further Bills for comprehension and toleration would be considered and rejected, Charles II made no further attempt during his reign to compromise the position and character of his Church.
A momentous change in how the State regarded Nonconformists and Roman Catholics, however, was not long in coming. The Toleration Act, passed in 1689 during the early months of the reign of William and Mary, secured the freedom, under certain circumstances, for Dissenters to worship in public.
Unfortunately, in dealing the death-blow to the ideal of a single, inclusive national Church, which had been the objective in 1660, this Act brought about neither the “comprehension” of moderate Dissenters within the Established Church, nor the “indulgence” of religious toleration which had been hoped for before its passage, and which would have allowed the Church of England to once more be the Church in England. That missed opportunity was regretted by Patrick, who had come to believe in the rightness of comprehension of those Dissenters.
Religion and politics were inseparable in 17th-century England, in a sense that is no longer true today. The Established Church was defined then by Members of Parliament rather than by committed church members. It followed its chosen “middle way”, independently of Christians of a different complexion. A recognition that they might be travelling in the same direction, but along a different path, would have been inconceivable to Patrick and his colleagues.
That is no longer the case. The work on Anglican-Methodist unity, and through ARCICs, shows evidence of not only a shared sense of direction but also the possibility that, in the future, the different paths will merge.
But, regardless, the Church of England owes Patrick an enormous debt of gratitude for ensuring, through his Parable of the Pilgrim and Friendly Debate, that the Church that he passionately cared about retained, in his lifetime, the character of the reformed Church initiated by Edward VI’s 1552 Book of Common Prayer — and still does in the 21st century.
The Revd Dr Nick Fisher is the Vicar of the Windrush Benefice, in the diocese of Gloucester. His book Symon Patrick (1626-1707) and His Contribution to the Post-1660 Restored Church of England is published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing at £64.99.