Religion and Parliament

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Religion and Parliament
Part 4 Simon Frame

or '[They aim] to change the whole frame of the government in State as well as Church' (Clarendon)


In spite of the opposition to 'Arminianism' and the existence of 'Root and Branch' petitions1, which had been put forward in 1640 and 1641 before being debated in Parliament, most MP's were not in favour of abolishing episcopacy, despite the support of people like Nathaniel Fiennes. In fact, 1641 saw a flood of pro-bishop petitions, perhaps as a conservative backlash to the stories of iconoclasm (tearing down images) and interruptions to services, but more probably because of the perception of an inevitable link between the collapse of the church hierarchy and social order. (Social disorder at this time was most likely due to economic conditions, rather than any relaxation of ecclesiastical control.) The debate about episcopacy was curtailed by the Lords, who refused to consent to the 'Exclusion Bill's' proposal to exclude Bishops from the House of Lords (8th June 1641) and the whole issue stalled when the Grand Remonstrance of November 1641 said that the 'Westminster Assembly of Divines' (a group of ministers) would look into it. They didn't start until July 1643.

Catholicism wasn't really a central issue, except when connected with Ireland, and confrontation with Charles Stuart on religious issues was via his wife. On 24th June 1641, the 'Ten Propositions' (Parliament’s starting point for negotiations) were accepted by the House, and a number of these addressed Henrietta Maria, her religion and her contact with foreign governments and papal agents. They should have been more concerned about her being French. Amongst the other propositions were those concerning the suitability of the king’s advisers and who should control the militia, which combined with events in Scotland and Ireland, led to war.....

SCOTTISH RELIGION AND THE CIVIL WAR

or 'The English were for a civill League, we for a religious Covenant' (Robert Baillie) Scotland's route to Protestantism as the official religion zigzagged in a far more tortuous (literally) manner than post-Henry VIII England's, but mention must be made of one of the leading lights of the Protestant cause in Scotland; John Knox. He was a former Catholic priest and Anglican Royal chaplain, who had spent some time as a French galley slave. Knox opposed Mary Tudor and Mary of Guise2, against whom he wrote the anti-women-in-government publication 'The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women' in 1558. He had had to flee to Geneva in 1553 where he met Calvin and from where he communicated with Scottish Protestant nobles, returning to Scotland in 1559 to help a Protestant revolt against the regency. His preaching turned cities to the Protestant side and after a combination of aid from Elizabeth I, Mary of Guise dying and her French allies withdrawing, there was parliamentary acceptance of the Protestant Reformation in August 1560. Some more religious uncertainty followed when Marie Stuart returned but Knox eventually triumphed and Scotland became Presbyterian.

Presbyterianism (from the Greek presbyteros, or 'elder') had its roots, like 'Congregationalism', in John Calvin's theologies and the 'Puritan' movement. It only really became prominent in England after 1640 when Charles Stuart had to call the 'Long Parliament' and the Presbyterians forced him to remove the Bishops Temporal's officers and powers of arrest and imprisonment. Presbyterians believed that God alone is the Churches' head and all others were equal under him. All who hold office, such as the church elders, (based on the New Testament concept) do so by election of the people. The Scottish Presbyterian Church, also known as 'The Kirk' had authority which existed in parallel with that of the State, but episcopacy had been 'persuaded' onto the Scots by James I in 1610 in order to further royal power.

By increasing the power of the Bishops and by introducing the 'Arminian' practices which had taken root in the Anglican church, in inimitable Stuart style Charles was able to undo James's efforts and alienate large numbers of Scots. From 1629 Laud had tried to have the English prayer book introduced into Scotland, but it wasn't until 1633 that Charles was determined to go ahead despite his only supporters being the Bishops, as no-one else was consulted. This move by a monarch to introduce 'English' religious practices brought religion and nationalism together in opposition, and the imposition of a new book of canons in 1635 and the command to use the new prayer book in 1637 caused many who had previously accepted the status quo to rebel. On 23rd July 1637 there occurred the famous near riot in St Giles Church in Edinburgh3 and when one William Annan conducted the new-style service in Glasgow he was 'beaten sore' outside by 'some hundreds of enraged women'. In February 1638 the National Covenant was drawn up, which opposed the new canons and prayer book but didn't object to episcopacy, but Charles's obstinacy forced moderates into the camp of those supporting the Covenant and in November 1638 episcopacy was also to be abolished.

War was to be Charles's only option to pursue his aims but no-one wanted to support him or lend money, so he was forced to conclude a truce at Berwick on 18th June 1639. The Scots didn't disband their army, and when the cost of another war was put at £300,000, Charles had to call Parliament which met on 13th April 1640 (the Short Parliament). The failure to defeat the Scots militarily was replaced by legal attacks in parliament in the shape of new laws regarding forms of worship and the requirement for all clergy and selected laymen to take an oath never to alter the Anglican hierarchy. You'd have thought that he'd learned something from all this.

The possible cost of coat and conduct money associated with another war astounded the Commons, and no method, however ingenious, could raise the money required to fight the Scots so nothing was resolved before Parliament was dissolved. The Scots promptly invaded on 20th August and Charles had to accept a humiliating truce; the next Parliament would last a little longer......

PARLIAMENT, PRESBYTERIANS AND INDEPENDENTS

or 'It was not for a service book or for abolishing episcopacy that this war was made' (Lord Saye & Sele)

Congregationalist (a generic term or one used to describe certain 'puritan' churches) and Independent (called Separatists in the C16th) churches were a group of churches that believed that the congregation should make its own decisions about its affairs ('Christ is invested in the church'). This independence meant that there was no common credal statement, but common grounds existed like ordaining their own ministers and the church being independent of state or higher authority, which together could be described as 'congregational Presbyterianism'. Like-minded individuals who had been spiritually reborn (again, 'the elect') should form their own congregations ('the gathered church') and not have to be lumped together on a territorial basis like the Anglican Church parishes.4 This made them opponents of episcopacy and enemies of the monarchy and gentry who felt that the breaking of the church-state bond would lead to anarchy. Freedom of conscience and voluntary adherence were paramount. Congregationalists advocated separation from, rather than reformation of the Anglican church. For these views many were persecuted and fled abroad and a number of the Mayflower separatists originated from English exiles in Holland. Congregationalists eventually drew away from the Presbyterian church and moved closer to the Fifth Monarchists and Baptists.

The Scots considered that bringing Presbyterianism to England was the best way of preserving their church, whichever way the civil war went, so after Parliament approved a letter to the Scots which agreed to abolish episcopacy, the 'Solemn League and Covenant' was signed between the English commissioners and the Scots on 7th August 1643 and the Scots hoped to establish Presbyterianism in England. However, Parliament thought that the Kirks' secular powers were too evocative of Laudian Arminianism, so before the treaty was ratified, it was slightly altered and the differences over religion were referred to that dead-end of debate called the Westminster Assembly of Divines. The subsequent lack of progress made by this august body caused the Scots to think that Parliament had no intention of introducing Presbyterianism. The Scots' military lethargy/ineptitude made Parliament wonder if they weren't trying to arrange a deal with Charles Stuart along the lines of exchanging military support for the protection of Presbyterianism, so that the Covenant was undermined. In fact, by November 1644 this was the case, and some mad English MPs wanted to support Charles in order to oppose the Scots and other religious radicals.

The activities of the Westminster Assembly had been held up by a worthy minority, known as the 'Dissenting Bretheren', supporting religious toleration for Independents against Presbyterian demands for a uniform church. The majority eventually won and in January 1645 Parliament approved the abolition of the Book of Common Prayer and its replacement by the Presbyterian Directory of Worship. The Divines then proposed that the church, rather than state should appoint the clergy, like the Scottish Kirk. The Commons and Lords weighed up widespread disapproval of Scots Presbyterianism against the benefits of Parliamentary control of the English state church and settled for the latter, and by March 1646, the ordinance establishing this had passed Parliament.

FOOTNOTES

  1. Which required 'the said government [episcopacy] with all its dependencies, root and branches, may be abolished' and that congregations should have a say in church affairs.
  2. Regent to Marie Stuart, Queen of Scots.
  3. Although only one stool was actually thrown.
  4. Some congregationalist churches operated a communion of like churches, for instance, in 1658, deputies from 120 congregations met at the Savoy Chapel in London and issued the Savoy Declaration, which covered a confession of faith and a guide to discipline.