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.