Saturday, June 4, 2011

Making Sense of Our Anglican Heritage: The Laudians

By Robin G. Jordan

The three chief historic Church of England formularies are the Articles of Religion of 1571 from the reign of Elizabeth I and The Book of Common Prayer of 1662 and The Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons of 1661 from the reign of Charles II. The first is a product of the Elizabethan Settlement; the second and third are products of the Restoration Settlement. They form together the classical Anglican standard of doctrine and faith.

When I consider the implications of these facts, it is evident to me that we cannot completely exclude the High Churchmanship of the Laudians from historic Anglicanism. We cannot make the Laudians into the Papists into which their Puritan detractors sought to make them, and then dismiss them altogether. The Laudians were certainly given to ritualism and they revived a number of customs and practices that the English Reformers had suppressed. However, they had no sympathy for the Church of Rome or for papacy and the papal system.

The Laudians thought that the customs and practices that they were reviving were those of the Primitive Church. They concluded from the writings of the early Church Fathers that these customs and practices were ancient and allowable. Where the Laudians may be faulted is that their fascination with antiquity resulted in an uncritical approach to the Patristic writers. They were not as cautious as the Edwardian and Elizabethan Reformers in their reading of the Patristic authors.

The Laudians in part represent a reaction to the growing radicalism of the Puritan movement in the Church of England. The Puritan movement would in turn grow more radical in reaction to the High Churchmanship of the Laudians. The Puritans associated the Laudians’ High Churchmanship with Papistry even though the Laudians were not themselves Papists or Papistical.

The Laudians would create a serious obstacle to the aspirations of the Puritans who wanted to establish a presbyterian form of church discipline and governance, modeled upon that of the Church of Geneva. They wanted to further revise The Book of Common Prayer or do away with the Prayer Book altogether.

Some would write off the Laudians and claim the Puritans as the true sons of the Church of England; others would write off the Puritans and claim the Laudians as the English Church’s true sons. However, both schools of thought have a place in historic Anglicanism. It must also be noted that, while certain writers treat the reign of Charles the First as if it was divided into these two camps, their views are an oversimplification of that period in English Church history. There were all kinds of Puritans during that period and we cannot and should not lump them altogether. The same thing can be said in regards to the Laudians. Puritan and Laudian provide convenient labels but we should resist the temptation to pigeonhole every seventeenth century churchman in Charles I’s reign into one of these categories.

It is tempting to attribute Puritanism to the influence of the Church of Geneva or Laudianism to the influence of the Church of Rome and to present one or the other as foreign and un-English. Both Puritanism and Laudianism, however, are very English and cannot be dismissed as an alien intrusion into the English Church.

It is also tempting to attribute Puritanism and Laudianism to a division that existed in the Church of England from the earliest days of the Reformation. This too would be an inaccurate representation of developments in the English Church in the sixteenth and seventeenth century. The divisions that we see in the reign of Elizabeth I and James I are between two wings of the reforming party. One wing was for the most part satisfied with the reforms that would be achieved. The other wing wanted to further reform the English Church. Here again we should take care not to draw a too sharper dichotomy between the two groups. There were blurring and overlapping of boundaries between these groups.

During the reign of Elizabeth I we also have a queen who wished to prevent religious strife, establish political stability, and secure her throne. While Elizabeth at times catered in her Council and in Parliament to those who wished to further reform the English Church, she also opposed them through her bishops. She saw in them a potential threat to her throne. She did not forget John Knox’s The Monstrous Regime of Women and John Calvin’s endorsement of Knox’s views. We have in addition a Recusant population that decided that its best chances of survival lay in not drawing attention to itself.

The Laudians do not emerge as a definable group in the Church of England until the reign of Charles I and the subsequent translation of William Laud to the See of Canterbury. During this period they gained the patronage of the king and rose to prominence and power in the English Church.

Precursors of the Laudians are Bishops Lancelot Andrews and John Overall. They would influence the thinking of key members of the group of Caroline divines that historians have labeled the Laudians after their most prominent figure—Archbishop Laud.

It is tempting too to claim that Puritanism or Laudianism represent the true character of Anglicanism. In the latter case those advocating this position are apt to treat the Edwardian and Elizabethan Reformers and the Puritans as if they did not exist—skip over them and go to the reign of Charles I and the period of the Caroline divines. Or they may claim the existence of a High Church tradition in the Church of England from the Elizabethan Settlement on. To do so, however, they are forced to stretch or lop the facts to fit the Procrustean bed of their theory. One faction in the Oxford Tractarian movement claimed that the Church of England underwent no changes in the reign of Edward IV and would have remained High Church and Anglo-Catholic except for the outbreak of the English Civil War and the establishment of the Commonwealth. This theory did not gain the support of the other factions in that movement. It simply was untenable.

As I noted earlier, there was a blurring and overlapping of boundaries between the two wings of the reforming party in the reign of Elizabeth I. While the Vestarian controversy was one of the earliest divisions between the two groups, the group that would eventually labeled the Puritans included clergy who wore the surplice for church services and those who wore street clothes. The early Puritans pressed for further revision of the Prayer Book. The movement to dispense with a Prayer Book and to place the entire service into the hands of the minister would come later. Even in the reign of Charles I the boundary was not quite as sharp as some might like to claim. There were, for example, both episcopal Puritans and presbyterian Puritans in England. There were congregationalist Puritans in North America.

The Puritans and the Laudians receive a lot of attention in histories of the reign of Charles I, the English Civil War, the Commonwealth, the Restoration, and the reign of Charles II. One would think that everyone in this period belonged to one or the other of these camps. The group that is ignored are those folks who were satisfied with the reforms of the reigns of Elizabeth I and James I. They had no objections to the surplice, the Prayer Book, or to episcopacy. They conformed to the doctrine of the Articles and the Prayer Book. We overlook them because they were not agitating for a Genevan form of church discipline and governance like the successors of the more radical wing of the reforming party. They were not attempting to make changes in the Church of England, which were perceived as a retreat from the church reforms in implemented in the reigns of the two previous monarchs, and using heavy-handed measures to affect these changes and to suppress opposition to them.

This overlooked group is the group that stands in continuity with John Jewel, Matthew Parker, Richard Hooker, and John Whitgift. They may be described as the successors to the moderate wing of the reforming party.

The Laudians do represent a retrograde movement in the Church of England. While it is inaccurate to describe them as seeking to return the English Church to the bosom of mother Rome and to restore the authority of the Pope in England, they did try to bring back a number of usages that the Elizabethan Reformers had rejected and disowned on Scriptural grounds. They argued that these usages beautified the worship of the church and were the usages of the Church in antiquity. There was support for them in the Patristic writings. They further claimed that they were not inconsonant with Scripture. This and their theology, which with some notable exceptions was Arminian, are two of a number of things that sets them apart from the Elizabethan Reformers.

The latter, while they may have retained the surplice and the cope and used a Prayer Book, removed the images, reliquaries, and roodscreens and dismantled the stone altars that had been restored during the reign of Elizabeth’s older sister Mary. They did away with the elaborate ritual and numerous ceremonies that characterized the celebration of the Latin Mass. The only candles seen in Elizabethan churches were those lit for illumination. Stone altars were replaced with honest wooden tables, which were placed at the entrance to the chancel or in the nave. The table was set lengthwise and the minister stood at the north end or side so that the congregation could hear and see what he was saying and doing. The only decorations permitted in churches were passages of Scripture painted in a non-whimsical fashion on wooden boards. The interior walls of churches were whitewashed.

To folk accustomed to the plainness of the late sixteenth century—early seventeenth century English parish church, the chapels and churches of the Laudians were a shock—elaborately carved furnishings, gilded images of angels, colored stained-glass windows, the holy table placed against the east wall of the chancel and surrounded by railings, and candles flickering on the table. So were the clergy bowing and bending before the table, which they called an altar. While some may have been attracted to this “sensuous worship” as nineteenth century Bishop of Liverpool J. C. Ryle would have described it, others recoiled from it in horror. In their eyes it was Papistry.

It is further tempting to read back into English Church history the conflicts of the nineteenth century between the Evangelicals and the Ritualists-Romanists with the Puritans representing the Evangelicals and the Laudians the Ritualist-Romanists. While similarities may exist between the conflicts between the Evangelicals and the Ritualists-Romanists and the conflicts between the Puritans and the Laudians, significant dissimilarities also exist.

In my opinion it is best to treat each period of English Church history as distinct and unique, and to resist the temptation to place everybody and everything in neat, tidy categories. We may take of note the similarities and dissimilarities between the periods but we should be very cautious about what conclusions we draw from them.

Historic Anglicanism may be described as an amalgam of beliefs and practices from the sixteenth and seventeenth century. It is not a synthesis. It is not a via media. A hodgepodge, or hotchpotch, might accurately describe it. A hodgepodge is a dish of many ingredients. Like a West Indian pepper pot some new ingredient may be added from time to time. This description may be disconcerting to those who prefer a neat, tidy system. However, historic Anglicanism is not neat or tidy.

I am not advocating or supporting an evolutionary theory of Anglicanism in which whatever the Anglican Church believes and does in a particular historical period is Anglicanism. Even a hodgepodge has a recipe. There are regional variations. The recipe may be altered over time as new ingredients become available and old ingredients loose their popularity. However, a hodgepodge is recognizable from a Hungarian goulash or a Creole gumbo.

Historic Anglicanism bears a similarity to the English constitution. The English constitution is a puzzle to Americans who are accustomed to a written constitution. The English constitution is comprised of old customs, rights, and usages, as well as Acts of Parliament, Orders in Council, and judicial rulings. There is no single document forming the basis of the law. Instead of a lengthy general confession historic Anglicanism has a number of formularies. One of these formularies is a confession of faith—the Articles of Religion of 1571. It affirms three other confessions of faith—the Apostles, Nicene, and Athanasian Creeds.

Two of the formularies are books containing forms of service—The Book of Common Prayer of 1662 and The Form and Manner of Making, Ordaining, and Consecrating of Bishops, Priests, and Deacons of 1661. These two books were compiled by the Restoration bishops most of whom were Laudians. The Church of England in placing these books among its formularies has recognized that the Laudians do have a place in historic Anglicanism.

One of the reasons that these books were placed among the Church of England formularies is that the Restoration bishops made only modest changes in the English Prayer Book and the English Ordinal. The two books are substantially the Prayer Book and the Ordinal that preceded them. The Restoration bishops exercised surprising restraint.

A number of the changes, however, are significant. For example, the Baptismal Service includes a blessing of the water in the font, which was added to the service because the ancient liturgies and the 1549 Prayer Book contain such a blessing. The 1552 Prayer Book and its 1559 and 1604 revisions omitted a blessing of the water as superfluous since God had sanctified all water for the purposes of baptism. Alterations to the Litany and the Ordinal emphasize that the office of bishop is different from that of the office of presbyter. Some would argue that these changes also stress that bishops and presbyters are not of the same order. The changes were clearly directed at the presbyterians in the Church of England.

Since the Church of England has recognized the Laudians as having a place in historic Anglicanism, what is that place? Here we find considerable difference of opinion. At one end of the spectrum we find a number of the Evangelical Episcopalians in the nineteenth century. This group takes the position that the Laudians whom they associate with the nineteenth century Ritualists-Romanists has no place in Anglicanism. The same group would form the Reformed Episcopal Church.

In reading their writings I have noticed a number of things. The nineteenth century Evangelical Episcopalians are prone to accepting the claims of the Ritualist-Romanists that they were the successors to the Laudians. Ritualist-Romanists’ interpretation of the writings of the Caroline divines exerted a strong influence upon their own interpretation of the Laudians. As I have noted elsewhere, the Ritualist-Romanists’ interpretation of the 1789 Book of Common Prayer influenced their interpretation of the American Prayer Book.

The nineteenth century Evangelical Episcopalians are apt to read into the Laudians’ writings opinions that a more careful reading of the Caroline divines does not support. Their thinking in regard to the Laudians is not only colored by their contemporaries—the Ritualist-Romanists—but also by the Caroline divines’ contemporaries and detractors—the presbyterian Puritans.

Nineteenth century Evangelicals in the Churches of England and Ireland and the Church of England in Canada, on the other hand, tend to regard the Laudians more favorably than their cousins in the Protestant Episcopal Church in the USA. This may be attributable to their better acquaintance with the works of the Caroline divines. They do not necessarily agree with the theology of the Laudians but they do not view them as the seventeenth century equivalent of the Ritualist-Romanists.

At the other end of the spectrum are the nineteenth century Ritualist-Romanists themselves. They claim that the Laudians were the forerunners of their own movement, a claim that both nineteenth century and twentieth century scholars have shown to be far from the truth. The Oxford Tractarians are notorious for their selective use of the Caroline divines’ works to support their positions on a number of key issues. When the Laudians’ writings are subject to closer examination, it is only too clear that they do not support the Oxford Tractarians’ positions.

Modern-day Anglo-Papists represent a third view of the Caroline High Churchmen. They regard them as not true “Catholics.” To the modern-day Anglo-Papists acceptance of the doctrine of Transubstantiation and the authority of the Pope are the marks of a true “Catholic”. The Laudians rejected both.

The following articles, “Laudian Theology,” and “Non-Juror Leaven in the Church of England and Oxford High Anglicanism,” are taken from An Protestant Dictionary, edited by Charles H. H. Wright and Charles Neil, and published under the auspices of the Protestant Reformation Society by Hoddard and Stoughton in 1904.

For those who may wish to read further on this subject, Frederick Meyrick’s An Appeal from the Twentieth Century to the Sixteenth and Seventeeth Century, or The Faith and Practice of the two first Centuries of the Reformed Anglican Church, is on the Internet at:

Canon Meyrick’s Old Anglicanism and Modern Ritualism is on the Internet at:

His Scriptural and Catholic truth and worship, or, The faith and worship of the primitive, the mediaeval and the reformed Anglican churches is also on the Internet at:


  1. Thank you these three articles. It does my heart good to see that you don't just write the High Churchmen off.

  2. hello Robin,
    This is a very important post you've written. I believe one reason we can't agree upon the constitution of "Anglicanism" is due to a widespread dislike of establishmentarianism, and, therefore, too often derogatory views of the Crown as head of the English church.

    We've also allowed the term "high church" to be a misused appellation for anglo-papism. Originally, 'high church'was that party that resisted comprehension and wanted conformity. Thus, high church was the King's party, and they consequently were marked by high views on subscription, royal authority, and canons. If there was a confessionalist party in England, High Church was it. You rightly identify their prominent members-- Hooker, Jewel, Overall, Bancroft, and Hall.

    In my opinion, reviving Old High Church is the only way to steer between puritanism and laudianism, namely, using royal seal to rank standards combined with a strong identification with the Jacobean church as most representative of the royal Settlement. Part of this involves some 'differentiation', playing up our distinctives as Protestants?