'That the unity of the Church is carefully maintained': Laudians, Cambridge Platonists, and the character of 18th century Anglicanism

From Discourse XXVI of Cambridge Platonist Benjamin Whichcote, 'That the Unity of the Church is carefully maintained by all those who are sincere Christians':

'Tis a great mistake in zeal for truth, to let it run out in some smaller matters, which have scarce been thought of by the whole series of Christians of all ages, but only of late. Some allege the severity of some of the ancient prophets, as Elijah, Elisha, and the Baptist. But the dispensation wherein such carriage and practice was not unusual, from extraordinary persons, is now changed into a new one, whose distinguishing character is charity. We are carefully to bridle all motions of distempered heat, the effects whereof are as unjustifiable, as itself. Christ hath made it the cognisance of his disciples, to love one another.

This, of course, is characteristic of the Cambridge Platonists.  What comes next, however, is perhaps rather surprising:

Archbishop Laud says, the church of England is not such a shrew to her children, as to deny her blessing, or to denounce anathema against them, if some peaceably dissent in some particulars remoter from the foundation.

This is interesting as it reflects both Laud's own apologia - that his actions were "Just, Moderate, and according to Law" - and more recent historical accounts of his approach to issues of ceremony.  As Kevin Sharpe notes:

'Moderate ways' more than harshness or fanaticism characterized Laud's campaign for liturgical conformity as they had his attempts to secure doctrinal peace.  

Whichcote takes care to say of his emphasis on charity over zeal, "I intend not by this the patronage of the refractory and presumptuous".  Rather, the emphasis on charity becomes a foundation for a manifesto for conformity:

I therefore caution four things

1. Great reverence is to be given to superiors. Government is not to be disturbed upon pretence of private judgment: that is to be confined to the direction of the inferior man.

2. No disturbance must thence arise to the church of God, 1 Cor. xi. 16. If any seem to be contentious, we have no such custom, neither the churches of God.

3. Suppose the worst; 'tis safer to err in an error that is common, than in an error that is personal.

4. It becomes the modesty of particular persons, where their sentiments are singular, to bethink themselves better; to ask themselves, this sober question. How went the spirit of God from the generality of his worshippers, and determined itself to me? which being done, these good things will find place; caution and wariness; more diligence in enquiry; expectation of being further informed. These instead of conceitedness, fondness of our own opinions, self-confidence and peremptoriness.

Whichcote's 'cautions' are suggestive of how the Laudian vision of conformity could have drawn on a more widely-shared commitment to the Church's peace, rejecting agendas intent on "determining too many things; and making matters of necessary belief, which had gone for many hundred of years before, only for things of pious opinion".  The 'cautions' listed above could quite easily have been penned by Laud.  The opposition to "determining too many things" also summarises the response of Charles and Laud to the debates over predestination.  

The inability of Charles I and Laud to harness this more widely-shared commitment to conformity - and, indeed, the fact that they alienated advocates such as the Cambridge Platonists - had, of course, very significant consequences.  It also stands in contrast to the Restoration settlement which, despite the Great Ejection, embraced both those who had accepted the ecclesial settlement of the Protectorate and those who did not; Arminian and moderate Calvinist; those who had been identified as Laudians and those who were not; 'Latitude-men' and 'Narrow-men'.  Simon Patrick's famous A brief account of the new sect of Latitude-men (1662) gave an account of conformity which is difficult to distinguish from Laud's vision:

they conceive there ought by all means to be a settled Liturgy, it having alwayes been the practice both of the Jewish and Christian, and more or less retained by all reformed Churches; that there can be no Solemnity of publick worship without it ... As for the Rites and Ceremonies of Divine worship, they do highly approve that vertuous mediocrity which our Church observes between the meretricious gaudiness of the Church of Rome, and the squalid sluttery of Fanatick conventicles ... In like manner they have a deep veneration of her Government, which they stedfastly beleive to be in it self the best, and the same that was practised in the times of the Apostles. They did alwayes abhor both the Usurpation of Scottish Presbytery, and the confusion of Independent Anarchy ... for the Doctrine of the Church, they do cordially adhere to it, as doth sufficiently appear by their willingness to subscribe to the thirty nine Articles, and all other points of Doctrine contained either in the Liturgy or book of Homilies.

As another example of 1662 representing a shared Laudian-Cambridge Platonist commitment to conformity and the Church's peace, we might also point to the preacher at the funeral of the Laudian champion Jeremy Taylor being the Cambridge Platonist George Rust (who had been ordained and appointed to a senior post by Taylor in his diocese).  All of this is also suggestive of other concerns shared by Laudians and Cambridge Platonists: an emphasis on practical piety; a rejection of Calvinist predestinarianism; and a rich natural theology.  

Both Laudians and Cambridge Platonists had been chastened, in different ways, by the experience of the 1640s.  For Laudians, those years exposed the folly of reliance on the Crown's prerogative, of the dangers of being perceived as the clericalist vanguard of absolutism, of the importance of avoiding the accusation of being ecclesiastical innovators. For the Cambridge Platonists, what Tillotson described in Whichcote's funeral sermon as the "bad years", "those wild and unsettled times", were seen to be hostile to "a sober sense of religion".  From these experiences emerged a commitment - shared by Laudian and Cambridge Platonist - to conformity and the Church's peace, the foundation of the Anglicanism of the 'long 18th century'.  Here were the origins of what William Gibson has described as the "unity and accord that lay at the heart of eighteenth-century Anglicanism", which "survived the Revolution of 1689, and flourished in the years after 1700".  


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