D.A.N. Jones

  • Old Catholics and Anglicans: 1931-1981 edited by Gordon Huelin
    Oxford, 177 pp, £12.50, April 1983, ISBN 0 19 920129 3
  • Anglican Essays by C.H. Sisson
    Carcanet, 141 pp, £6.95, April 1983, ISBN 0 85635 456 2
  • The Song of Roland by C.H. Sisson
    Carcanet, 135 pp, £7.95, October 1983, ISBN 0 85635 421 X
  • The Regrets by Joachim du Bellay, translated by C.H. Sisson
    Carcanet, 147 pp, £4.50, January 1984, ISBN 0 85635 471 6

There is a church in Fleet Street, almost opposite El Vino, where Richard Baxter used to preach in 1660. Baxter’s reconciling, ecumenical attitude toward churches and public worship is still maintained here, at St Dunstan’s-in-the-West. The first thing you notice is an exotic Rumanian screen, for St Dunstan’s is much used by members of a Rumanian Church in communion with the Church of England. There are gramophone records of Rumanian church music on the table, next to a pile of prayers composed by John Donne (who also preached at St Dunstan’s). This sturdy English church is encircled with chapels for several of the independent Churches which are in communion with the Church of England, Coptic and Ethiopian, Polish (with a figure of the redoubtable Black Madonna of Czestochowa) and Old Catholic.

The Old Catholics are pretty well spread about the world. During the last war they were helpful to Anglicans in Java and even in Nazi Germany: their Dutch and Swiss congregations support an Anglican diocese in South Africa. They have been in full communion with the Church of England for 50 years, and Gordon Huelin’s collection of essays, Old Catholics and Anglicans 1931-1981, celebrates the success of this broad-church enterprise in a pleasant manner which would delight Baxter.

C.H. Sisson writes about Baxter in Anglican Essays, with respect but little enthusiasm. He is reviewing a recent book about him by N.H. Keeble (who was responsible for the excellent Everyman edition of Baxter’s autobiography in 1931) and makes play with the title, Richard Baxter: Puritan Man of Letters. ‘If this is the Puritan man of letters,’ writes Sisson, ‘then, worthy though the model was, we need some other.’ This will seem a mild complaint to Richard Baxter after his fierce clashes with Oliver Cromwell, and his denunciation by Judge Jeffreys:

Oy! Oy! What ailed the old stock-cole, unthankful villain that he could not conform? Richard, Richard, dost thou think we’ll hear thee poison the court? Richard, thou art an old fellow, an old knave; thou has written books enough to load a cart, every one as full of sedition, I might say treason, as an egg is full of meat.

C.H. Sisson, likewise, feels that Baxter wrote too many books and was too broad-church and ecumenical for ‘this realm of England’.

Is it fair to call Baxter a ‘Puritan’? He admired the people called Puritans but thought it ‘an ambiguous ill-made word’. His account of his quarrel with Cromwell does not accord with our usual notion of Puritans. Baxter had suffered ‘a long and tedious speech’ from the Protector, about ‘God’s providence in the change of Government’. Baxter writes: ‘When he had wearied us all with speaking thus slowly about an hour, I told him it was too great condescension to acquaint me so fully with all these matters which were above me. But I told him that we took our ancient monarchy to be a blessing and not an evil to the land, and humbly craved his patience that I might ask him how England had forfeited that blessing.’ This took some nerve. Baxter remarks that he had thoughtfully said ‘monarchy’ rather than ‘King Charles’ for prudential reasons: ‘I was fain to speak of the species of government only, for they had lately made it treason by a law to speak for the person of the king.’ Really, C.H. Sisson ought to have appreciated Baxter’s useful skill with language, his bold loyalty and (especially) his heavy irony – since Sisson himself has similar virtues. Instead, Sisson amusingly compares Baxter with ‘some wise old general secretary of a trade union, of the old school’, who has ‘attained a beautiful complacency’. But then, Sisson used to be a civil servant in the Ministry of Labour. (How like to a Pauline epistle is that form of words: ‘For there is a ministry of labour, as there is a ministry of works ...’ In the modern version we have a department of unemployment.)

No, Baxter would not be called a Puritan. ‘Catholick’ and ‘Independent’ were favoured among his labels. Once he wrote: ‘You could not (except a Catholick Christian) have truelier called me than an Episcopal-Presbyterian-Independent.’ This is relevant to the 1931 Bonn Agreement between the Anglicans and the Old Catholics, when ‘each church recognised the catholicity and independence of the other.’ No easy matter. Robert Runcie, the Archbishop of Canterbury, writes in Old Catholics and Anglicans about the difficulty of trying to be both catholic and independent. But that is what Baxter claimed to be – and thought the Church of England should be.

N.H. Keeble has written: ‘To those who wished to know which was the true church – “Is it the Protestants, the Calvinists or Lutherans, the Papists, the Greeks, the Ethiopians?” – Baxter replied: “Why it is never an one of them, but all together that are truly Christians.” This was to argue for a church too broad and too comprehensive to be recognisable as a church at all by most of his contemporaries.’

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