Tracing the history of Anglicanism

The Oxford History of Anglicanism, VOL II, 1662 TO 1829 Jeremy Gregory (ed) OUP, hb, £95.00 In many ways the final of the five volumes of the oxford History of anglicanism to be published is the most interesting. As a number of contributors have pointed out, it covers a period in which the shortcomings and failures of the Church of England have received more attention from historians than its successes.

It has been seen as pastorally ineffective and led by undistinguished bishops who were in debt to their Whig masters. Both Tractarians and evangelicals in the 19th Century were agreed that matters were in a bad way in the Church until one or the other movement got underway.

Although there were historians such as Norman Sykes who tried to present a more balanced picture it was not until the 1980s that a revisionist approach gathered strength. A seminal collection of essays edited by John Walsh and Stephen Taylor played a key role in changing attitudes to the church in the ‘long 18th century’. The present work does justice to the achievements of Anglicanism in this period as well as to its weaknesses.

‘Establishment’ and ‘Empire’ (the spread of the church to other parts of the world) are seen as key factors shaping the church although it is acknowledged that ‘Enlightenment’ and ‘Evangelicalism’ were also important.

Among the myths laid to death is the idea that the bishops were creatures of Whig politicians. The Church may have been the junior partner in its relationship with the state but even when faced with the deeply anti-clerical Stanhope-Sunderland ministry Archbishop William Wake and later Walpole’s ‘church minister’, Bishop Edmund Gibson, fought hard against measures they considered harmful.

Sykes and historians of a previous generation underestimated the continuing importance of parties in the 18th Century. JCD Clark describes the continuing role of the high church party, emphasising doctrinal orthodoxy and the importance of episcopacy, and a low church party that was Erastian and emphasised the importance of reason.

Only in the 19th Century did the term low church start to be applied to the evangelicals and a broad church party emerged that championed some of the old low church ideas.

Clark sees the high church party as strong in theology and liturgy even when it lost political influence under the early Hanoverians although a new age dawned with George III. To the right of the Tories were the non-jurors and the Jacobites.

The Episcopal Church in Scotland remained Jacobite until 1788 and the death of Charles Edward Stuart. In an otherwise informative chapter on the Anglican background of John Wesley and of his life-long relationship with Anglicanism, David Wilson fails to mention that his mother, Susannah, was a non-juror.

In one of the most interesting chapters of this book BW Young discusses theology in the Church of England. Mark Pattison and Leslie Stephen were successful in establishing a picture of this being a period when little interesting theology was written.

Young shows that while this may indeed have been the ‘Age of Reason’ there were theologians who emphasised ‘mystery’ and who were more interested in the church fathers than they were in Locke. There were even more ‘catholic-minded’ Anglicans who were influenced by the revised Augustinianism of the Jansenists and by Pascal’s Lettres Provincials (translated at Christ Church, Oxford, by Henry Hammond).

Liturgy, sermons, church architecture, music and art all have chapters devoted to them. There are accounts of Anglicanism in England, Ireland, Wales, Scotland, North America, the Caribbean, India, Africa, and Australia and New Zealand. Anglicans have some unpleasant truths to face when it comes to slavery.

They can be proud of the role Wilberforce played in ending the slave trade but in Virginia in the 18th Century 81 Anglican ministers were slave owners and at one stage SPG had more slaves than it had missionaries. Some of the failures of the Church were not always its responsibility.

Archbishop Secker wanted a bishop for North America but politicians were not prepared to quarrel with the puritans. Pluralism was sometimes made necessary by low incomes. Who was responsible for appointing English bishops in Ireland and for the failure of Anglicans in this period to use Irish is a more complex problem. But one of the achievements of this book is to make clear that the 18th Century church had its successes as well as its failures and that sometimes failures were forced on it by circumstances.

Paul Richardson