Laudians, defenders of the reformed ecclesia Anglicana

I recently came across this post on 'Stuart Anglicanism' by the admirable W. Bradford Littlejohn (of the equally admirable Davenant Institute).  Amidst some excellent points about the nature of conformity in the Jacobean and Caroline Church, it was noticeable that the old myths about Laudianism were perpetuated:

They ... saw their church as something of a via media between mainstream Protestantism and Catholicism. They carried the enthusiasm for liturgical ceremony and episcopal polity considerably further than the Ceremonialists, turning ceremony from an adornment of worship to its main focus, and developing strong jure divino claims for the institution of bishops. 

Each of these points can be challenged.  The notion of the ecclesia Anglicana as a via media between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism is a later Tractarian myth, not evident at all amongst the Laudians who regarded their Church as the jewel amongst the Churches of the Reformation and definitively Protestant.  Conformity and uniformity rather than ceremony was their focus, with their approach differing little to that of Cranmer or Hooker.  And while they did articulate jure divino claims for episcopacy, this was against jure divino claims for the presbytery, was moderated by their understanding of the Royal Supremacy, and reconciled to generous understandings of the ministry of other Churches of the Reformation.

Littlejohn's conclusion that the Laudians were outliers in 'Stuart Anglicanism' because they were a "Catholicizing Tendency" simply does not reflect theological realities.  To give an example of why this is so, we can turn to an 'advanced' expression of avant-garde conformity, Richard Montague's A New Gag for an Old Goose (1624).  When discussing the Eucharist with his Roman interlocutor, Montague refutes the suggestion that Protestants believe "That the Bread of the Supper is but a figure of the Body of Christ":

Mad Papist, that imputest to poor Protestants, an Idol, a Chimera of thy own brain; that The bread is but a figure, and no more, of Christs body. Protestants say it not: they never said it. 

Against this, Montague offers an account of the Sacrament that gives every indication that it was lifted directly from Hooker:

Sir, we acknowledge right willingly, and profess, that in the blessed Sacrament (as you call it, of the Altar) the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ is really participated; communicated; and by means of that real participation, life from him and in him conveyed into our souls. This we believe and profess knowing, that he is able to effect it, who hath spoken it, by that mighty working, whereby he is able to do whatsoever he hath said. We are not solicitous for the manner how he worketh it; not daring to pry into the secret Counsels of the most High. We have learned, that Revealed things are for us; secret things are for God. Therefore we wonder, why the world should be so much amused at, and distracted with, those inexplicable Labyrinths of Con-substantiation and Trans-substantiation, which only serve to set the world in division; nothing to piety, nor yet information. As we therefore condemn that presumptuous definition of Trans-substantiation, in the Lateran Council: so we do not like nor yield assent unto that jejune and macilent conceit of Zwinglius and Oecolampadius: whereby men account of this Sacrament, but only as of a bare shadow, empty & void, and destitute of Christ; but ingenuously profess, that by this Sacrament Christ giveth vs his very body and blood, really and truly in feeding our souls unto eternal life.

There is absolutely no indication of any "Catholicizing Tendency" in Montague's account of the Eucharist.  Instead, following Hooker, there is a classically Reformed emphasis on a "real participation" in the Lord's Body and Blood in reception of the Sacrament.  He again takes from Hooker when, in another common Reformed theme, stressing the unity of purpose of Baptism and Eucharist:

John 6. 51. The bread that I will give is my flesh; which I will give for the life of the world. Therefore his flesh is the Bread of life. Most true; but not therefore his flesh by Trans-substantiation. You find not that in the Gospel, or any where else. Life, begun in Baptism by the Laver of Regeneration, is confirmed and sustained in the holy supper by his body and blood.

In discussion of Justin Martyr on the Eucharist, Montague again repeats a well-established Reformed interpretation of patristic teaching:

Thus that ancient Father, not fully represented by your director: who saith not any thing that Protestants deny: For they confess, They eat the flesh of the Son of God and drink his blood: they are one with him, and he with them; but cometh not home to the Papists Resolution, that we eat it and drink it by Transubstantiation; but the contrary: for, but four lines before, he calleth it Bread and Wine after Consecration.

In light of this classically Reformed account of the Eucharist by a theologian identified with 'advanced' Laudianism, talk of the Laudians as a "Catholicizing Tendency" within Stuart Anglicanism is frankly nonsensical.  The Eucharist was a - perhaps the - key post-Reformation dividing line between Lutheran, Reformed, and Roman.  It is abundantly clear that, following Hooker, Montague is giving a Reformed account of the Sacrament.

A rather different description of Laudian allegiances, identity, and concerns is thus called for.  According to Littlejohn:

These were men who were actively hostile to Calvinist doctrine, and actively wanted to downplay their Reformed identity.

Certainly not on the issue of the Eucharist.  On jure divino claims for government by presbytery, yes, they were hostile to Calvinist doctrine.  So too was Hooker and every other episcopalian conformist theologian.  On the Calvinist scholasticism which emerged in controversy with Arminianism, yes, the Laudians were actively hostile.  So too was Elizabeth I in her rejection of the Lambeth Articles.  Against this background, the Laudians were conservative defenders of the Elizabethan Settlement (as Laud himself declared).

As for downplaying the "Reformed identity" of the ecclesia Anglicana, it is essential to remind ourselves that "Reformed" was - from the outset - a contested, not a settled, category.  Torrance Kirby provides a brilliant analysis of this in his account of "Reformed orthodoxy" in the Elizabethan Vestiarian Controversy:

On our reading of Vermigli’s and Bullinger’s contribution to the vestiarian controversy, however, the question is raised whether the claim to orthodoxy may in fact lie more plausibly with the Queen and her loyal bishops.

It cannot be meaningfully claimed that the Laudians were hostile to the Reformed identity of the ecclesia Anglicana when the meaning of that identity was contested and when, on key doctrinal points of the English Reformation (Eucharist, Royal Supremacy, the 'superstition' of the cult of the saints), the Laudians reflected the mainstream of Reformed thought if that mainstream is defined - as it can be legitimately - by the norms of the ecclesia Anglicana ("with the Queen and her loyal bishops"). 

The Laudians, rather than being a destabilising "Catholicizing Tendency" in Stuart Anglicanism, thus become conservative defenders of the reformed ecclesia Anglicana against an assertive Reformed scholasticism greatly narrowing the concerns of the tradition, against a revolutionary assertion of jure divino government by presbytery, and against an agitation which sought to undo the conformity and uniformity called for by the Elizabethan Settlement.


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