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Angela Tilby: UK is now in the hands of the Puritans

28 October 2022


Liz Truss gives her fairwell speech outside Downing Street on Tuesday

Liz Truss gives her fairwell speech outside Downing Street on Tuesday

ONE of the best sermons preached by Martyn Percy when he was Dean of Christ Church, Oxford, was on the tyranny of too much choice. Why, he asked, when we are looking for car insurance, or broadband, do we have to spend hours comparing deals and prices and conditions, often every year?

We know the answer: competition prompts lower prices, and puts the consumer in charge, theoretically enhancing our freedom. Only it doesn’t always work like that. Liberty does not guarantee efficiency, and it does not reduce anxiety.

Liz Truss said that she was a true libertarian, both in her Lib Dem days and as a Tory. The libertarianism she espoused had religious roots in the Puritan tradition, and political roots in the Enlightenment. The Puritan contribution was the insistence that liberty was one of the great promises of the Reformation, and must not be compromised by idolatrous human traditions: for example, the wearing of vestments, the authority of bishops, or retention of a set liturgy. The Spirit must not be quenched. Genuine churches were gatherings of the Redeemed, full of the power and connectivity that came from the exercise of spiritual freedom and the warmth of fellowship.

Today’s political libertarians are Roundheads, not Cavaliers. They insist on free choice even when some may find freedom more a burden than a release. Brexit was supposed to unleash our mighty potential as a trading nation, tearing up petty rules and regulations to make our country a hospitable environment for foreign investment. Except it hasn’t — not yet, anyway. And some of the foreign investment comes with problems.

There is a good reason why the more Charismatic elements of the Puritan tradition did not survive in the Church of England. The C of E has an instinct for social solidarity, for communities small enough to know each other and yet strong enough to form a national ethos. Some disenchanted Puritans departed to plant new colonies in the fresh air of the New World, where religious competition anticipated free market capitalism. As it did here. Most of the entrepreneurs of the Industrial Revolution were free churchmen.

I cannot help reflecting that our crisis of government is mirrored in the decline of the Church. Church leaders, like some of the Conservative Party, have opted for a libertarian strategy, promoting new “strategic” initiatives while tearing up the rule book, abandoning parishes, sacking clergy, and hoovering up parish assets.

They have taken on much of the Puritan theology, too, as we can see in liturgy-light worship and encouragement of “every member” ministry. No wonder many yearn for the comparative lack of excitement of the Book of Common Prayer, for its sense that we are members of one another, not just competitors, and its longing that we may (please!) be godly and quietly governed in State and Church.

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