Monday, May 24, 2010

Toleration, not Freedom of Religion

On May 24, 1689 Parliament passed an “Act for Exempting their Majesties Protestant Subjects dissenting from the Church of England from the Penalties of Certain Lawes” as part of the legislation enshrining the so-called Glorious Revolution. Obviously Catholics were not included in this law, and some Protestant dissenters, Quakers and Unitarians were also excluded.

This law did not establish religious freedom in England; there were still religious tests for holding government office. It did allow freedom of worship to Protestant dissenters who would swear an Oath of Supremacy and allegiance and deny Transubstantiation while assenting to the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. Quakers could not swear the oath; Catholics could not deny Transubstantiation, and Unitarians did not believe in the Trinity.

James II, before the invasion of England by William of Orange, had proposed not just toleration, but freedom of religion and liberty of conscience for both Catholics and dissenting Protestants. He had tried to force several bishops of the Church of England to read his toleration act from their pulpits, but they refused—because they did not think James would guarantee that the Church of England remained the established church. James was in the midst of working to elect a pro-indulgence Parliament when his son was born. The specter of a Catholic successor to the first Catholic monarch since Mary I—or, ever so briefly, Charles II who was received into the Church on his deathbed—was too much for some members of the nobility. A group of them invited William of Orange who arrived on November 5 (Guy Fawkes Day), 1688 (100 year anniversary of the Spanish Armada). William became king with his wife Mary, James II’s elder, ungrateful daughter as queen and Parliament set about ensuring that no Catholic would ever reign again, nor be married to a monarch.

Many Catholics fled to France with James, his wife Mary Beatrice of Modena and his infant son, James Francis Edward to live in exile as guests of Louis XIV at St. Germain-en-Laye. Catholics became an ever-dwindling minority in England, suspected for their involvement in Jacobite plotting to restore the Catholic Stuarts to the throne.

The Church of England, which might have sought protection from William and Mary, was actually weakened by the defection of the Non-jurors and by this act of toleration which did not include a statement of religious faith beyond the assent to the Trinity and the denial of Transubstantiation. To cite my own book (p. 115):

The Church of England had no control over who would be tolerated, since the religious test consisted of an oath of Loyalty to the Crown, not to any confession of faith, and involved no examination of doctrine or sacramental initiation.

It was not personal, but corporate; the Act of Toleration discounted the notion that Truth in religious doctrine mattered. It was legislation of what Newman called the "anti-dogmatic" spirit, of Liberalism in Religion!

Or, as Alister McGrath notes in his study of Protestantism, Christianity's Dangerous Idea, the Glorious Revolution and the Toleration Act "neutralized the power of religion in English public life" (p. 145). He also refers to the act's unintended consequence of not only granting the right to worship in Baptist or Congregationalist chapels but the right not to worship anywhere at all!

Eventually, the Church of England would be further reduced in power and influence by the Hanoverian dynasty’s latitudinarian and Whig religious policies when George I succeeded Queen Anne in 1714.


  1. Once I talked to a young Anglican who was defending the validity of Anglican orders. (Now mind you, this was a late-nite Hogarthian conversation in a bar, just before closing) This fellow claimed that some Anglican bishops accompanied James in his exile, and were later received into the Church without re-ordination - thus messing up the French churches apostolic pedigree. I do know about the famous non-juring bishops who initially gave James such a hard time, but then lost their sees for refusing allegiance to James' usurpers-but that is a whole other subject.
    I have never been able to google anything up on any such bishops who fled with James, and I was wondering if you ever heard such a legend?

  2. Tubbs, no, I have not heard of such a legend--the non-jurors, as you noted, refused to take oaths when William and Mary came to the throne after James was on the Continent. One of my sources on the Jacobites in France is "A Court in Exile" by Edward Corp. There were Anglicans and Anglican clergy to serve them in James II's court at St. Germain-en-Laye, but Corp does not mention any bishops.

  3. And Tubbs, if the young man was defending the validity of Anglican orders vis-a-vis Catholic or Orthodox orders, since the 39 articles of the Church of England deny and decry the Real Presence of Jesus in the Eucharist and the Sacrifice of the Mass, he must have been addled by strong drink! As Pope Leo XIII determined in 1896, the Anglican rite of ordination is deficient in intention and in form and has been since the Edwardine ordinal.

  4. What I've always failed to grasp is the (supposed) ambiguity of the 39 articles. High Church types always claim this ambiguity, along with their 'via media' claims. To me, the CofE is clearly Genevan, with orders replaced by offices.
    I've recently read some fair counter/apologetics against Leo's Bull, and I could always arch an eyebrow at the thought of "Holy Mother Church" denying the validity of another Church's orders. But the recent apostasy of the mainstream Anglicanism seems to make the issue moot. The true Church was founded by Christ on the rock of Peter, not on the codpiece of the English Nero.

    Thank you so much for that reference to Corp's book. You've answered my question about any such bishops. AND THANK YOU (or should I curse you!?!) FOR YOUR WONDERFUL BLOG WHICH I'VE ONLY DISCOVERED A COUPLE HOURS AGO.

    History blogs, a terrible addiction for me.

  5. You're welcome, Tubbs! Anglicanorum Coetibus has probably provoked some of the lastest discussion, I'm sure.
    The 39 Articles have some ambiguity in them, but you are correct, when they are really clear, they are Calvinist. The High Church leg of the CofE is awfully wobbly. As to the via media, Newman found out it was a very hard path to find or follow, even as he was trying to construct it/repair it!