"Their decrees savoured wholly of moderation": the roots and relevance of the Tillotsonian vision

The ten-volume 1820 Works of Tillotson opens with the 1753 'Life of Tillotson' by Thomas Birch.  Praising Tillotson as a leader amongst "those divines, who were stigmatized with the name of Latitudinarians, by persons of very opposite characters", Birch offered an apologia for the "moderation" represented by this school:

Moderation in churchmen and church-governors must be allowed to be a great virtue, as well as in other Christians. This might be shewed from the example of our Saviour ... His government is compared to the meek and gentle conduct of a shepherd, which imports great moderation; his kingdom is typified in the peaceable kingdom of Solomon, which was predicted and deciphered Psal. lxxii . He came to ease the church of those heavy burdens which Moses had laid upon it, to remove the ceremonial law, and moderate the rigour even of the moral law itself, and turn it into the royal law of liberty. He proposed himself as a pattern of great gentleness and condescension to ecclesiastical governors, Matt. xx. 25, 26, &c. Now, what was this but practising and teaching moderation, and recommending it to all his ministers and ambassadors? And this pattern of his was followed by his apostles, every one of them singly; and even when they were met in council, their decrees savoured wholly of moderation, and tended to preserve peace and unity in the church: "It seemed good unto us," say they, "being assembled together with one accord: it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things," &c. Acts xv. 25; which were but few, and necessary for the peace of the church at that time: so that if we consider these great and undoubted patterns, it appears, that moderation, gentleness, indulgence, and great condescension, are very considerable virtues in churchmen.

This is not, of course, the only characteristic required in the life of the Church and its ministers.  It is, however, one of those characteristics and with deep roots in the Gospel.  What is more, it is a characteristic which was consistently a feature of what would become known as Anglicanism.  In other words, such 'moderation' also has deep roots in the life of the reformed ecclesia Anglicana.  Consider Birch's description alongside the key sources below.

From Thomas Cranmer's 1549 'Concerning Ceremonies', on the need to reduce the number and extent of ceremonies:

Some are put away, because the great excess and multitude of them hath so increased in these latter days, that the burden of them was intolerable; whereof Saint Augustine in his time complained, that they were grown to such a number that the estate of Christian people was in worse case concerning that matter, than were the Jews. And he counselled that such yoke and burden should be taken away, as time would serve quietly to do it. But what would Saint Augustine have said, if he had seen the Ceremonies of late days used among us; whereunto the multitude used in his time was not to be compared? ... And besides this, Christ's Gospel is not a Ceremonial Law, (as much of Moses' Law was,) but it is a Religion to serve God, not in bondage of the figure or shadow, but in the freedom of the Spirit; being content only with those Ceremonies which do Serve to a decent Order and godly Discipline.

From Hooker's Laws, his rejection of the call for extensive examination and testing of Roman Catholics before they are admitted to receive the Sacrament in the Church of England:

in imposing upon the Church a burden to enter farther into men's hearts and to make a deeper search of their consciences than any Law of God or reason of man enforceth ... in repelling under colour of longer trial such from the mysteries of heavenly grace as are both capable thereof by the laws of God for anything we hear to the contrary, and should in divers considerations be cherished according to the merciful examples and precepts whereby the gospel of Christ hath taught us towards such to show compassion, to receive them with lenity and all meekness, if anything be shaken in them to strengthen it, not to quench with delays and jealousies the feeble smoke of conformity which seemeth to breathe from them, but to build wheresoever there is any foundation, to add perfection unto slender beginnings, and that as by other offices of piety even so by this very food of life which Christ hath left in his Church not only for preservation of strength but also for relief of weakness (LEP V.68.9).

From James I 'Directions Concerning Preachers' (1622), exhortations to avoid theological controversy in the pulpit:

That no preacher of what title soever under the degree of a bishop, or dean at the least, do from henceforth presume to preach in any popular auditory the deep points of predestination, election, reprobation or of the universality, efficacity, resistibility or irresistibility of God's grace; but leave those themes to be handled by learned men, and that moderately and modestly by way of use and application, rather than by way of positive doctrine, as being fitter for the schools and universities, than for simple auditories ... 

That no preacher of what title or denomination soever, shall causelessly and without invitation from the text, fall into bitter invectives, and indecent railing speeches against the persons of either papists or puritans; but modestly and gravely (when they are occasioned thereunto by the text of Scripture) free both the doctrine and discipline of the Church of England from the assertions of either adversary, especially when the auditory is suspected to be tainted with one or the other infection.

From the 'Preface' of 1662 on how moderation serves the Church's unity and peace:

It hath been the wisdom of the Church of England, ever since the first compiling of her Publick Liturgy, to keep the mean between the two extremes, of too much stiffness in refusing, and of too much easiness in admitting any variation from it ... we have endeavoured to observe the like moderation, as we find to have been used in the like case in former times ... Our general aim therefore in this undertaking was, not to gratify this or that party in any their unreasonable demands; but to do that, which to our best understandings we conceived might most tend to the preservation of Peace and Unity in the Church.

Such roots explain the attractive quality of the earlier moderate - rather than the later radical - 'Latitudinarianism' (mindful of the ongoing debate regarding the usefulness of this term).  An ecclesiastical modesty, a rejection of excessive clerical claims, a generous orthodoxy, a commitment to ecclesial and civic peace: such a 'Tillotsonian' vision (not least because it was promoted through the Old High Church tradition) became a significant part of the Anglican experience.  It has a continued relevance in a cultural context deeply suspicious (at best) of religious claims and institutions, demonstrating how the Christian Faith does not require unreasonable, excessive ecclesial or clerical authority, or a sectarian commitment which unsettles communal and civic peace.


Popular Posts