A Relation of the Conference Between William Laud, Late Lord Archbishop of Canterbury and Mr. Fisher the Jesuit, By the Command of King James, by William Laud, Forgotten Books, 2012, a reproduction of the Oxford, Oxford University Press, 1839, edition.
At the very core of the progressive activism which since the French Revolution has been known as the left is the idea of the sovereignty of man. Liberalism stresses the sovereignty of the individual, modern democracy the sovereignty of the people, but both assert the sovereignty of man against the sovereignty of God and the authority which He has delegated on earth to kings and His Church. It is Satanic in nature, a continuation on earth of the rebellion which Satan began in heaven in the primordial past. As Dr. Johnson so astutely put it, “the first Whig was the devil.”
At three notable moments in its sordid modern history, the English Civil War, the French Revolution, and the Bolshevik Revolution, the left lifted its violent hands to shed the blood of a royal monarch. In each case they then proceeded to unleash bloodshed on a scale that demonstrates that those willing to shed the blood of the highest person in the commonwealth will not hesitate to kill anyone and everyone of lower stature who stands in their way. In each case the king – or Tsar – was declared an “enemy of the people” by the left, despite the fact that he was loved by his people and had been actively working to improve their conditions through reforms. In each case the king took seriously his role as protector of the Church in his country – the Church of England, in the case of Charles I, the Roman Catholic and Russian Orthodox Churches in the cases of Louis XVI and Nicholas II respectively. In each case this contributed significantly to the intense hatred his enemies felt towards him.
The first of these royal martyrdoms, that of Charles I of England and Scotland, was proceeded by another martyrdom, that of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury. He was beheaded on January 10th, 1645, four years and twenty days before his king met the same fate. (1) His enemies were the same as those of the king, and the accusations they made against him were similar. These enemies were the Puritans – hyper-Protestants, for whom the reforms made by Thomas Cranmer et al. in the Edwardian era, and reinstated as the established status quo for the Church of England in the Elizabethan Settlement, did not go far enough and who insisted that the Church’s theology, organization, and worship be restructured after the model established by John Calvin in Geneva. While the content of their belief system is obviously worlds apart from that of their secular descendants, the same spirit of seditious rebellion against lawfully established authority that turns to tyrannical oppression once it has succeeded in usurping power that showed itself in the Jacobins and Bolsheviks was also clearly manifest in the Puritans. Their animosity towards Laud went back as far as his student days. While pursuing his doctorate at St. John’s College of Oxford University in the last year of the reign of Elizabeth I, he incurred the ire of the University’s Vice Chancellor, a leading Puritan named George Abbot, who would later become Laud’s immediate predecessor in the See of Canterbury and the primacy of the English Church. Laud, in a sponsored lecture at his College, defended the position that Christ’s Church had continued to be both present and visible in the world from Apostolic time onward, being represented prior to the Reformation by the Latin, Greek, and Oriental Churches. This convinced Abbot, who thought otherwise, that Laud harboured longings to bring the English Church back under the rule of the pope. The Puritans would make this same accusation against him, with increasing intensity, throughout his career. The pettiness of the grounds of these accusations increased with their intensity. When he was made Dean of Gloucester Cathedral in 1616, for example, he instructed that the communion table be moved back from the nave to its pre-Elizabethan position at the east end of the chancel and a communion rail placed around it. For the Puritans this was irrefutable evidence of “popery.” Most of the Puritan “evidence” of Laud’s supposed hearkening after Rome was of this nature and pertained only to matters concerning the external aesthetics of worship.
The ultimate answer to the Puritans’ false charge that Laud sought to undo the work of the English Reformers and place the English Church back under the papal system is the book with which we are concerned here. A brief telling of the events that led to its publication is in order. George Villiers was a favourite courtier of King James I. He was made a Duke in 1623 and is the same Duke of Buckingham, a highly fictionalized version of whose alleged romance with French Queen, Anne of Austria, and assassination at the hands of the disgruntled Puritan soldier, John Felton, features in Alexandre Dumas père’s The Three Musketeers. In 1622, while still at the rank of marquis, his household was shaken with religious controversy. His mother, Mary Beaumont, Countess of Buckingham, announced that she intended to join the Church of Rome and his wife who had converted to the Anglican Church at their marriage had returned to the Roman Church, hoping to persuade her husband to join her. King James intervened and arranged for a three day conference to take place in the royal presence between the Jesuit who had been instrumental in the Countess’ conversion, John Percy, SJ, who went under the alias Fisher and representatives of the Anglican Church. Obviously, the Buckingham family was present also. The royal chaplain, Francis White, argued the Protestant cause on the first day of the conference, King James took up the Anglican cudgels himself on the second, and on the third and final day William Laud was the representative of the Church of England. This intervention, while temporarily successful, ultimately failed to prevent the Countess’ conversion to Rome and Percy published his account of the affair in which he comes across as having had the upper hand in the debate. White and Laud both disputed this account, of course, and a pamphlet war between Percy and White began. Laud’s own narrative in response to Percy’s account was first published pseudonymously in 1624. Two years later someone, presumably Percy, published a reply under the name “A. C.” In 1639, the final version of Laud’s Relation, expanded, at the request of King Charles I, to include his rejoinder to “A. C.”, was published under Laud’s own name.
That anyone could have knowledge of this book and still take seriously the Puritans’ accusations of crypto-Romanism against Laud is difficult to believe. For while Laud clearly comes across as being Catholic in the primitive sense of the word, that is to say the sense in which it was used in the early centuries of the Church before any lasting schism, it is just as clear that he was thoroughly Protestant. It is a much more skillful response to the Roman Church’s claims against the English than Jewel’s Apology, and it is no wonder, therefore, that when, just prior to his martyrdom, King Charles I summoned his daughter Elizabeth to him and told her that he was about to go to his death “for the laws of the land and for maintaining the true Protestant religion” he presented her with a copy of this book, along with Richard Hooker’s Lawes of Ecclesiastical Politie and Lancelot Andrewes’ Sermons.
In his answers to the Jesuit he made full use of the St. John’s education, built “upon the noble foundation of the Fathers, the Councils, and the Ecclesiastical Historians” of which the bishop who had ordained him, Dr. John Young of Rochester, had spoken so highly. The central theme is the Roman Church’s claim to infallibility which appears to have been what attracted the Countess to it. Laud systematically, rationally, and with ample use of his encyclopedic knowledge of the Fathers, argued against papal infallibility and the infallibility of general councils. The primacy of the See of Rome that was acknowledged early in the history of the Church, was not regarded as conveying supreme authority over other bishops, much less the other patriarchs, by anyone other than the bishop of Rome himself for a millennium, and was originally based, not on who had founded the patriarchy – St Peter had also been the first bishop of Antioch and that prior to his period in Rome – but upon Rome’s being the first city of the Empire. The Roman Church is a true Church, he argued, albeit one riddled with error, but not the true Church, i.e., the Catholic or whole Church. No particular Church, is the Catholic Church, he argued in an early, and more inclusive, version of William Palmer’s “branch theory”, but rather each particular Church – the Roman, Eastern, and Oriental, as well as the English and other Protestant Churches, at least those of the Magisterial Reformation are themselves daughters of the mother or Catholic Church. Rome may be one the elder daughters, but she is not the oldest – it was from Jerusalem, that the faith spread out to all nations, the disciples were first called Christians in Antioch, and, Laud noted “Nor is it an opinion destitute either of authority or probability, that the faith of Christ was preached and the sacraments administered here in England, before any settlement of a church in Rome”, citing Gildas the Wise as saying that Christianity had come to Brittany before the end of the reign of Tiberius. The English Reformers, in rejecting the pope’s usurped authority over the English Church, had simply restored the more ancient custom, in which the Church is part of the commonwealth and subject to the civil prince. The guilt of schism in the Protestant Reformation, he argued, belongs to the Church of Rome because she, in her stubborn clinging to error and refusing to undergo necessary reforms, had forced the Protestants out.
Laud’s arguments against the Roman doctrines of papal and conciliar infallibility are also a masterful defence of the first of the cardinal doctrines of the Reformation – sola Scriptura. Not the perverted form of this doctrine that the Puritans inclined to, in which everything between the close of the canon and the Reformation was to be thrown out, but as the first Reformers originally intended it, that the Holy Scriptures, as the written Word of God, are the only infallible authority and are therefore supreme over the Church, and all of its teachings, practices, and traditions. That the Scriptures as the written Word of God are infallible – what today, would be called the “fundamentalist” view of the Scriptures by those who for rationalistic reasons reject this view – was taken by Laud as a point on which the two sides were in agreement, while he carefully dissected the Roman claim that the Church is the source of the Bible’s authority, rather than the other way around. He demonstrated that neither did the Fathers hold the Roman position, nor were contemporary Roman theologians consistent with regards to it. His response to what Roman apologists often regard as the clinching argument in their case, i.e., that there is no list of the canonical books within the Scriptures themselves and so we must know what they are by means of another authority, the Church, is superb. It is quite possibly the best Protestant response to this argument ever written, certainly the best that I have ever read. Our knowledge of what books constitute the infallible Scriptures, he argued, rests upon multiple grounds, and while the tradition and teaching of the Church may very well be that which bring us to our initial faith that these books are God’s authoritative revelation, it is by means of the character of the books themselves, their inner light, that the Holy Spirit confirms and strengthens that faith as we recognize in them the quality which the Church claims for them. Laud illustrated this point with the account of the Samaritan woman at the well in the fourth chapter of the Holy Gospel According to St. John. She initially told her townspeople about Jesus and after they had encountered Him themselves they said “Now we believe, not because of thy saying: for we have heard him ourselves, and know that this is indeed the Christ, the Saviour of the world.”
Since Laud’s focus, like that of the original conference, was upon this question of which is supreme, an infallible Church over the Scriptures or the infallible Scriptures over the Church, less space is devoted to other matters of difference between Rome and the Reformers, but they do come up, especially in the supporting arguments to Laud’s extended answer to Fisher’s position that since Laud, and other Protestants, conceded the possibility of salvation within the Roman Church, while the Roman Church denied it to those outside of their own fellowship, it was safer to join the Roman Church since both sides agreed salvation was possible within her. Laud’s expert answer demonstrates that this form of reasoning, if consistently applied, would support the Donatist position against the Catholic position in the fourth century – both sides agreed that baptism administered by the Donatists was valid, while the Donatists did not acknowledge Catholic baptisms as valid. He also argued that this reasoning could be used support the Arian position against the Orthodox, since both sides agreed about the humanity of Jesus while the one side denied His full deity. He showed this very form of reasoning to be fundamentally flawed and in the course of arguing his case made clear his Protestant positions on a number of matters, including that salvation is based upon the merits of Christ alone rather than those of the believer. He quoted the Roman apologist Bellarmine as saying “that in regard of the uncertainty of our own righteousness, and of the danger of vainglory, tutissimum est, it is safest to repose our whole trust in the mercy and goodness of God”, to which he immediately answered:
And surely, if there be one safer way than another, as he confesses there is, he is no wise man, that in a matter of so great moment will not betake himself to the safest way. And therefore even you yourselves in the point of condignity of merit, though you write it and preach it boisterously to the people, yet you are content to die, renouncing the condignity of all your own merits, and trust to Christ’s. Now surely, if you will not venture to die as you live, live and believe in time as you mean to die.
These are unmistakably the words of a man who stood with Luther and Cranmer on the four remaining solas of the Protestant Reformation. He explained that his concession of the possibility of salvation in the Roman Church is based upon that Church’s having an orthodox foundation in the Creeds, but that the structure of error that Rome has erected upon that foundation is great hindrance to it.
Laud, as was first evident in his restoration of the dilapidated Gloucester Cathedral when he was made Dean and much more evident in his reforms upon attaining the primacy of the English Church, was a man who held to a strong aesthetic of worship, believing that the outward form of the Church and its worship should reflect as much as possible the inward “beauty of holiness” of which the Psalmist wrote. The Puritans saw in this defection from their impoverished aesthetic of simplicity a tendency towards Rome but when it came down to the substance of the disagreement between the Roman Church and the Reformers on this issue, Laud clearly stood with the Reformers. After arguing that Rome had defected from the practice of the early Catholic Church, which commemorated the martyrs but did not invoke them, and taking the position that the Church should look for its prayers to be answered on the basis of the merits of Christ rather than the intercession of the saints, Laud wrote with regards to the adoration of images:
And for adoration of images, the ancient church knew it not. And the modern church of Rome is too like to paganism in the practice of it, and driven to scarce intelligible subtilties in her servants’ writings that defend it; and this without any care had of millions of souls, unable to understand her subtilties or shun her practice.
After offering several evidences in support of this contention, culminating in a quotation from a Roman apologist to the effect that images of Christ, the Virgin, and the Saints are not worshipped for any inherent deity, but merely as representations, of which he made the comment “And what, I pray, did or could any pagan priest say more than this?” Laud wrote:
And now I pray A. C. do you be judge, whether this proposition do not teach idolatry, and whether the modern church of Rome be not grown too like paganism in this point. For my own part I heartily wish it were not, and that men of learning would not strain their wits to spoil the truth and rent the peace of the church of Christ, by such dangerous and superstitious vanities; for better they are not, but hey may be worse: nay, these and their like have given so great a scandal among us, to some ignorant, though, I presume, well meaning men, that they are afraid to testify their duty to God even in his own house, by any outward gesture at all. Insomuch that those very ceremonies, which by the judgement of godly and learned men have now long continued in the practice of this church, suffer hard measure for the Romish superstition’s sake.
It appears quite evident that Laud was capable of distinguishing between “Romish superstition” on the one hand and ancient ceremonies and traditions on the other and that he rejected the former while contending for the latter against those ignorant men, whom he charitably presumed to be “well meaning”, i.e., the Puritans, who incapable of making this distinction wished to throw all ancient ceremonial out.
Laud believed and taught the Real Presence of Christ in the Sacrament of the Eucharist. To the Puritans this was tantamount to embracing the entire doctrine of the Roman Church regarding the Mass. Laud, however, had made it quite clear what he thought of the doctrine of Transubstantiation, which is the Roman Church’s claim that when the priest pronounces the words of institution the substance of the bread and wine is replaced with the body and blood of Christ and only the appearance of the former remains. This, he maintained in the context of his argument against conciliar infallibility, “was never heard of in the primitive church, nor till the council of Lateran; nor can it be proved out of scripture; and taken properly cannot stand with the grounds of the Christian religion.” He was even more scathing with regards to the Roman practice of withholding the wine from the laity, which he quite rightly said violates both the practice of the ancient Church and the direct commandment of Christ. When he articulated his own understanding of the Real Presence, moreover, he was willing to affirm no more than what the English Church affirms (see Article XXVIII) which in his words is “that in the most blessed sacrament the worthy receiver is by his faith made spiritually partaker of the true and real body and blood of Christ, truly and really, and of all the benefits of his passion.” Transubstantiation, he went on to say, was how the Roman Church explained the “manner of this his presence” just as Consubstantiation was how the Lutherans explained the same, but the English Church was willing to leave the matter unexplained and so was he. This was most embarrassing to his Puritan opponents for these regarded themselves as strict followers of John Calvin and his view was closer to John Calvin’s own than theirs. Indeed, he pointed this out himself in his answer to Bellarmine’s claim that Protestants deny the Real Presence:
And for the Calvinists, if they might be rightly understood, they also maintain a most true and real presence, though they cannot permit their judgment to be transubstantiated; and they are protestants too…For the Calvinists, at least they which follow Calvin himself, do not only believe that the true and real body of Christ is received in the eucharist, but that it is there, and that we partake of it vere et realiter, which are Calvin’s own words…Nor can that place by any art be shifted, or by any violence wrested from Calvin’s true meaning of the presence of Christ in and at the blessed sacrament of the eucharist, to any supper in heaven whatsoever.
It is quite apparent from a serious reading of this book that the charges of repudiating the theology of the Reformation which the Puritans first leveled against Laud in the early seventeenth century and which their admirers like J. C. Ryle, first Bishop of Liverpool, unthinkingly regurgitated in the nineteenth, were complete malarkey. Laud was a Catholic, to be sure, when this word is taken in its primitive sense of referring to the teachings, practices, and discipline of the Church of the earliest centuries, especially those of the Fathers, but he was also a Protestant who held the Bible to be the infallible authority to which all Church authority and tradition must bow the knee, who rejected the doctrines of Transubstantiation and Purgatory, the practices of invocation of the saints, adoration of images and administration of the Sacrament in one kind, and the claims of the papacy to supremacy over all the Church of Christ, and who held that the safe way of salvation was to trust entirely in Christ’s merits rather than our own. The only way to give the Puritan charge against Laud the remotest resemblance of substance is to reduce the theology of the Reformation to Zwingli’s view of the Eucharist, the doctrine of Predestination, and simplicity in the externalities of worship. To make Zwingli’s view of the Eucharist the definitive position of Reformation theology is to exclude the entire Lutheran tradition and the early Calvinists, including John Calvin himself. While both Luther and Calvin affirmed the doctrine of Predestination, and it featured into the famous debate between Luther and Erasmus, it was by no means central to the dispute between the Reformers and Rome. Lutheranism and Calvinism took the doctrine in very different directions and while the Anglican Church affirms Predestination in Article XVII it is worded in such a way as to allow for either the Lutheran or Calvinist interpretation – there is no mention of reprobation and, indeed, the second paragraph would seem to suggest the Lutheran rather than the Calvinist understanding. The Calvinist understanding of the doctrine, therefore, much less the narrower, more extreme, version of the same found in the Lambeth Articles of 1595 and the Canons of the Synod of Dort of 1618-1618, which the Puritans insisted upon, cannot be rightly regarded as an essential element of the theology of the Reformation and Laud cannot be rightly accused of abandoning the Reformation for insisting upon the universal love of God, His sincere universal desire to save, and the universal availability of grace, all of which Dr. Luther and his followers had always affirmed simultaneously with Predestination.
In reality, what lay beneath the Puritan accusation that Laud was trying to undo the work of the English Reformers was their recognition that he, who like Richard Hooker and Lancelot Andrewes before him was a true heir of the conservative English Reformers who sought to restore the Church of England to primitive Catholicism rather than throw the baby of the entirety of the richness of the Catholic tradition out with the bathwater of latter Roman corruptions, stood in the way of their plans to totally makeover the English Church after the Genevan model. For this, for his loyalty to the King against whom these regicidal enthusiasts were stirring up ungodly sedition, rebellion, and strife, and for the social reforms that he was promoting in the face of the objections of the avaricious and rapacious class of mercantile nouveau riche who backed the Puritan movement, (2) he was slandered and abused, arrested and incarcerated, and ultimately sent to his death, a martyr’s death.
It is fitting that we remember him on this the anniversary of that death, which the Anglican Communion has appropriately dedicated to his memory.
(1) Although this is more of a book review than a biography I consulted Charles Webb Le Bas, The Life of Archbishop Laud, London, J. G. & F. Livington, 1836 and Charles Hare Simpkinson, The Life and Times of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, London, Murray, 1894 for the biographical details.
(2) See chapter four of Anthony M. Ludovici, A Defence of Aristocracy: A Textbook for Tories, London, Constable, 1915, 1933 for more information on this point. On page 110 Ludovici wrote "But, as might have been expected, all three — Charles and his two lieutenants — lost their lives in this quixotic struggle against a mob of unscrupulous shopkeepers, and in the end, as we shall see, only the loyal nobles and the poor clustered round their King to defend him." Laud is one of the two lieutenants in question, Wentworth was the other, and the author goes on to substantiate this with details.
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