jQuery Slider

You are here



By Roger Salter
Special to Virtueonline
December 1, 2018

Most gracious Father, we most humbly beseech thee for thy holy catholic Church. Fill it with all truth; in truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purge it; where it is in error, direct it; where anything is amiss, reform it; where it is right, strengthen and confirm it; where it is in want, furnish it; where it is divided, heal it, and unite it in thy love; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

This truly beautiful prayer is the excellent composition of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1633 until his execution." Ecclesiastical history records that the controversial Primate's notion of truth and reform differed greatly from previous generations of Anglican leadership that guided the English Church from Rome to Reformational confession and custom. "Educated at St. John's College, Oxford, emphatically catholic in persuasion, he reacted under the influence of the president, John Buckeridge, against the dominant Calvinism and became convinced of the importance of the episcopal organization of the Anglican Church, and of the observance of external order" (Joyce Horn, The New International Dictionary of the Christian Church. Zondervan, J.D. Douglas General Editor, Grand Rapids, 1978).

Laud was averse to Romanism and hostile to Protestantism in its Reformed guise. He yielded sympathetically to the bidding of the king, Charles I, to marginalize, if not erase, every trace of the Reformational witness in the Church of England. Laud's brand of Anglican Catholicism and ritualism (High Churchism) virtually oppressed, suppressed, and outlawed any representative of classic Augustinianism that previously had the full support of his predecessor George Abbot. The doctrine of divine foreordination, at the king's strong insistence, was banned territory for theological instruction or discussion, ostensibly both Calvinist and Arminian. Laud himself claimed to be agnostic on the issue, clearly favoring, however, the latter option. Ultimately, when the ban was bravely broken by the saintly John Davenant, Bishop of Salisbury, heavy humiliation was inflicted on this distinguished champion of the gospel of "The Love of God" - the content of his major literary work.

Laud abhorred the conclusions of the Synod of Dort and feared the influence of the good bishops and scholars who participated in the synod or advocated its findings. Some of the finest bishops and theological authorities in the land - and of all Anglican history - resisted the trenchant opposition of the dubious duo, Crown and Canterbury. No luminaries shine brighter in the annals of Anglicanism than John Davenant, Joseph Hall, Samuel Ward, and James Ussher.

As to the machinations and maneuvers of Laud and his agents in the island of Ireland it is difficult not to see a strong hint of malice that ran counter to the courtesy of Ussher, as conditioned by his respect for the institution of the monarchy. Earlier, under Ussher's guidance, the Irish church had set the tone for the Reformed churches of Britain, a tone which did in fact continue to endure, after Laud's rude assault upon the Puritan movement, through the Irish archbishop's massive influence among his peers and upon their confessional statements, although as a convinced royalist he did not escape the rebukes and disciplines of a parliament dominated by dissent and antipathy to Charles Stuart who so often failed to act according to better wisdom.


It is the suggestion of Hugh Trevor-Roper, the biographer of Laud, that the primate throughout his career was a rather imperious figure. Nowhere was his meddling more conspicuous than in his dealing with the Protestant Church of Ireland which he supposed should come into complete alignment and subjection to the Church of England in its Articles of Faith, liturgy, and Canon Law (as was his intent also with Scotland whose church rebuffed him). Through representatives of Crown and Canterbury Laud was able to engineer, if not the eradication of the independence of the Irish Church, at least its compliance with English ecclesiastical governance and the Thirty-nine Articles. The Irish Church agreed with the English Articles in a secondary sense, but its primary subscription happened to be to the Irish Articles based upon Archbishop John Whitgift's Lambeth Articles and eagerly agreed by the Irish Convocation following compilation by the primate of All Ireland James Ussher.

Ussher steadfastly maintained the Calvinism of the Church of Ireland and strongly resisted the threat of Arminianism until his life's end, but the machinations of Laud and his supporters managed to accomplish the exportation of like-minded clerics and academics to Dublin, the entirety of the Pale, and other locations in the country. Eventually even the Reformational stance of Ussher's beloved Trinity College was effectively reversed and transformed into something quite opposed to the convictions of its dedicated Augustinian founders. It was Ussher's contention that the Irish church should be a sister to the English church. It was Laud's ambition that the church of Ireland should be an adjunct to the English mother church. Tolerance was not a feature of Canterbury's stiff character and his intransigent views and polices led to enormously destructive consequences, even as a contributory factor to the bitter Civil War. Patrick Collinson described Laud as "the greatest calamity ever to be visited upon the English Church". This reputation may well be equaled by the current occupant of St Augustine's chair.

James Ussher settled in England for the remaining years of his acclaimed ministry due to the outbreak of rebellion on the soil in his native country and he continued to enjoy the reputation and prominence of one of Anglicanism's most highly regarded sons in Britain and throughout Europe. Cardinal Richelieu beckoned him to France to shepherd protestants there, and the University of Leyden beckoned him to join its faculty as leading theologian. But Britain was his preferred base. His influence was immense as a preacher, theologian, author, and academic, and among his closest colleagues, Hall, Ward, Davenant, Richard Sibbes, and John Preston, he was admired and held in huge affection for his love and loyalty to Christ and his redeeming truth. Invited to attend the Westminster Assembly he humbly declined because of the Assembly's clash with the king, but his influence was immense in that his Irish Articles formed the core of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Though not in attendance physically Ussher was a major voice in the deliberations of the Westminster Assembly, an ever-present force for orthodoxy.

Although a convinced servant of the royal personage in the Cranmerian vein, a factor, in part, of his courteous yielding to the preferences of the king through his agent William Laud, the Primate of All Ireland was accorded a state funeral by the Lord Protector Oliver Cromwell in spite of tumultuous years of disfavor and deprivation meted out to him as a royalist during the years of civil war. Ultimately the high esteem in which Ussher was held by all parties transcended the conflicts of his time.

Anglicanism is immeasurably indebted to the thought, labor, and fealty to Scripture of good Archbishop Ussher, courageous and courteous in the cause of his Saviour. If well-deserved recognition is ever restored to his ministerial achievements, Ussher has much enrichment and encouragement to bestow upon advocates of Reformational Anglicanism. Anglican theology and proclamation needs to be more muscular in its expression. It is greatly enfeebled by the jettisoning of bold, balanced, biblical doctrine such as Ussher's. It is limp in its language and life of witness. Very few public pronouncements of contemporary Anglicanism, e.g Canterbury, York, and much of the House of Bishops, gain respect. It is a shame to see the divergence from sound tradition that has developed in the repudiation of our ancestors in the faith. A house of Usshers would not fall so spectacularly.

The role of William Laud crystalized the incipient Catholic tendencies quietly harboring in our Reformed Church. Laud's influence formalized and fixed the bifurcation of Anglicanism into two major streams i.e. the Ritualist/Sacramentalist, romantic catholic, pre-Reformed version of Christianity, and the vital Augustinian Evangelical approach to the knowledge and service of God. Each may evince pluses and minuses from various perspectives and comprehensive assessment, but each, maintaining their essential integrity, cannot camp on, and advance from the same turf. It is largely due to Laud's policies that Anglicanism is a riven body split between sacramentalism and pre-Refomational sympathies and Augustinian Evangelicalism.

Two separate houses, exercising mutual neighborly respect, would be ideally preferable, rather than the polite curtailment of the full flourishing of each tradition in an impossible working union. But that measure is impracticable. History has taken its course and our Communion lives with its contradictions, and in the providence of God the best of each expression possibly can, with patience and humility, learn from the other. There is no denying the immaturity of much evangelicalism, and the spiritual depth and wisdom of certain Anglican catholics who happen to be greatly informed biblically and exceedingly astute in the matter of communing with God.

The strength of Evangelicalism lies in its clear, cogent message as to how Christ may be grasped (see Calvin, the English Reformers, the 18th century Awakeners and their successors in subsequent centuries). The forte of Catholicism, cleansed from the serious errors of Rome, is the devout inculcation of the experience of Christ. It may be fanciful or even fictitious to muse that a truer and deeper unity may be found in a shared union with Christ that transcends limitations, prejudices, and honest short-falls in understanding.

What evangelical could wholly reject the spiritual wisdom of Anselm, Bernard, Acquinas, Contarini, Thomas A'Kempis, Blaise Pascal, Luther's mentor Johann Staupitz, and the like - so many other godly Catholics in the Augustinian tradition? What Catholic cannot be allured by the personal and sweet immediacy of attachment to Christ by the thought of the free favor of God correctly understood and articulated by so many of their own pastors in former, purer times, and who are now joined by the advocates of the Reformers' passion for the truth of salvation by grace through faith alone? Protestant compositions and sentiments are included in Catholic hymnals, and reference works such as Johannes Baur's Encyclopedia of Theology (Sheed and Ward, London,1976) cite Reformed scholars with warm and respectful approval. Is there such a vast and insuperable difference between the warm devotional life of the original "Italian spirituali" (Juan De Valdes, Ochino, Vermigli, Vittoria Colonna) or a Bernard of Clairvaux and a Puritan such as the truly sublime Thomas Goodwin?

We must all look to Christ more keenly and more clearly for his touch upon us all. Cardinal Contarini and Martin Bucer looked for Christian unity together and got fairly close at the Council of Ratisbon (1541). Each of the mainline Reformers believed that members of the elect could be found in the Roman communion. We must not give up the enterprise of poring over Scripture together in honest adherence to truth and perseverance in prayer. The truth is in the Bible. There is to be no surrender of Scriptural principle, nor any pasting over of differences. Only grace can consolidate the Anglican Communion in loyalty to divine revelation. Evangelicals must pray like Laud and Laud must respect the thought of Usher and his expertise in Scripture, Patristics, and practical godliness. Sin is rampant in all the churches of our time because the membership is comprised of sinners more wicked than they actually recognize themselves to be.

Objectively, Catholicism, even stripped of its grosser superstitions and distortions of doctrine, carries many faults and flaws, falsehoods that obscure the gospel, and Evangelicalism is riddled with cliche, celebrity worship, pride, and arrogant activism. Through habitual and glib familiarity and superficial handling of Holy Scripture it frequently takes the Name of the Lord in vain and cheapens piety. We all need the indwelling Christ to refashion us in his holiness in the realization that the Lord Jesus is continually rooting out our stubborn indwelling sin and warped and inconsistent thinking. The petitions of the Litany need to be restored to a prominent place in our practice of prayer.


Get a bi-weekly summary of Anglican news from around the world.
comments powered by Disqus
Prayer Book Alliance
Trinity School for Ministry

Land of a Thousand Hills Coffee

Drink Coffee

Do Good

Sustainable Ministry

Coffee, Community, Social Justice


Go To Top