Rescuing the bishops

Blair Worden

  • The Religion of Protestants: The Church in English Society 1559-1625 by Patrick Collinson
    Oxford, 297 pp, £17.50, January 1983, ISBN 0 19 822685 3
  • Reactions to the English Civil War 1642-1649 edited by John Morrill
    Macmillan, 257 pp, £14.00, November 1982, ISBN 0 333 27565 9
  • The World of the Muggletonians by Christopher Hill, Barry Reay and William Lamont
    Temple Smith, 195 pp, £12.50, February 1983, ISBN 0 85117 226 1
  • The Life of John Milton by A.N. Wilson
    Oxford, 278 pp, £9.95, January 1983, ISBN 0 19 211776 9
  • Complete Prose Works of John Milton. Vol. 8: 1666-1682 edited by Maurice Kelley
    Yale, 625 pp, £55.00, January 1983, ISBN 0 300 02561 0
  • The Poet’s Time: Politics and Religion in the Works of Andrew Marvell by Warren Chernaik
    Cambridge, 249 pp, £19.50, February 1983, ISBN 0 521 24773 X

The publication of Patrick Collinson’s The Religion of Protestants is a stirring event in the rediscovery of Early Modern England. Unmistakably the work of a historian who has reflected on his subject for the better part of a working lifetime, the book consists of six wide-ranging essays which were originally delivered as the Ford Lectures when Professor Collinson visited Oxford in 1979, and which have now been revised, expanded and tightened – although the speculative tone of the lecture-hall has been appropriately retained. Many other scholars have recently explored the development of the Church of England over the two long reigns of Elizabeth I and James I, and one of Collinson’s achievements, executed with singular modesty and generosity, has been to draw their conclusions together and to set them in perspective. But the findings which count for most are the author’s own. To the non-specialist reader, two warnings should be offered. The opening chapter, about Church and State, may seem the hardest: begin with Chapter Two. Secondly, do not expect tidy answers. Collinson’s thesis, although lucidly and vigorously presented, is honourably complex and tentative. This is the modern manner, history with its head down: patient, unpretentious, suspicious of the swift and brash generalisations that stole the headlines a decade and more ago.

Collinson has written two earlier major works, one on Elizabethan Puritanism, the other a life of Edmund Grindal, Elizabeth’s defiant Archbishop of Canterbury. Here he moves forward into the reign of James I. This has been the dark period of the Church of England:

the middle ground lost between books on the English Revolution and the Elizabethan Church on the one side, and studies of religion in the English Revolution on the other. Lancelot Andrewes and John Donne are subjects: literature has seen to that. And so is Puritanism: America has seen to that. But not the ordinary mainstream history of the Jacobean Church.

We still tend to see that history through Victorian eyes, our understanding of early Stuart Arminianism and ceremonialism coloured by the 19th-century Anglican legacy. We may have read too much Trollope, from whose pages it would not be hard to construct the familiar caricature of a worldly, corpulent Jacobean clergy, basking under the lax supervision of courtly bishops.

Then there is the hindsight problem. Some distinguished accounts of early Stuart religion have been prompted by questions which, however legitimate, have produced inevitable distortions. In The Rise of Puritanism (1938) – that classic work to which Collinson supplies both a corrective interpretation and a sociological dimension – William Haller unblushingly declared himself concerned less ‘with the links that connect Puritanism with the past than with the ways which Puritanism marked out for the future’. By ‘the future’, Haller meant the Puritan Revolution. Collinson is interested in the origins of the Puritan Revolution too, and the shadow of that upheaval falls across his book. But his argument shifts the main burden of explanation, as William Lamont and Nicholas Tyacke have shifted it, onto the reign of Charles I and the regime of Archbishop Laud, ‘the greatest calamity ever visited upon the English Church’. Although that verdict is unlikely to go unchallenged, even those who question it should welcome Collinson’s determination to view the Jacobean Church as it would have seemed to contemporaries, who did not know that civil war lay round the corner. Collinson has done for early 17th-century religion what Conrad Russell has done for early 17th-century politics. He leaves the Church in the late 1620s where Russell has left Parliament – a very long way from revolution.

The Jacobean Church was a broad church. Collinson shows it to have had an unexpected spiritual vitality, and to have accommodated a wide range of that voluntary evangelical activity which we habitually associate with Puritan opposition. It was a surprisingly self-confident church, too. In its infancy, under Elizabeth, its very survival had been doubtful. The improvised combination of Calvinist theology and episcopal government had seemed frail and eccentric. But as the decades passed, the morale and the standing of churchmen rose. Presbyterianism was parried, popery contained; the Anglican via media gave England the long peace denied to envious European states; the recruitment of graduates improved the quality of the parochial ministry; and the lay rulers of the shires found reasons both of conviction and of self-interest for supporting the Protestant establishment. Hooker gave the Church an intellectual justification, and the learned Jacobean divines gave it an international intellectual reputation. By the 1620s, as Laud signally failed to grasp, the Church had acquired the authority, the resilience and the flexibility of an effective national institution: the sort of institution that, in the traditional Tory scheme of history to which Collinson gives unwitting succour, will guarantee stability so long as those who control it understand and protect the bases of its support.

Collinson’s rehabilitation of official Jacobean Protestantism challenges the terms in which earlier discussion has been conducted. He particularly laments the ‘primitive’ use by historians of the word ‘Erastian’ to portray a clerical estate beaten into submission by the secular powers. The early Elizabethan bishops, far from meekly accepting an unlimited royal supremacy, saw themselves as the heirs of St Ambrose, who by rebuking and humbling emperors had made them willing instrumemts of God’s will. Returning from the exile they had endured under Mary, newly-created bishops like John Jewel and John Aylmer saw before them a brave new world. They and their fellow prelates would at last be ‘relieved from that royal pomp and courtly bustle’ which had filled the days of the ‘oily, shaven, portly hypocrites’ whom they had succeeded. The new episcopate would be free to concentrate on its pastoral mission and to follow the Biblical ideal of the godly bishop.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

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