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Monday, 16 January 2012

The Struggle for Religious Freedom 1. – The Great Ejection

This is the first of three blogs about significant events in the struggle for religious freedom in the history of British Unitarianism which are marked in 2012.

2012 is the 350th anniversary of what became known as “The Great Ejection” when nearly 2000 clergyman were ejected from the Church of England. The Act of Uniformity which became law on 19 May 1662 laid down that all clergymen that had not complied with its requirements by the following 24 August would automatically forfeit their livings or positions. The Act made compulsory the use of the new Book of Common Prayer, much of which was not acceptable to many puritans in the national Church. It required immediate re-ordination of all clergymen who had not been ordained by a bishop; this cast doubt on the validity of the ordination of many who had been ordained by their fellow ministers following the abolition of the episcopacy in 1647. It rendered the Solemn League and Covenant to maintain the Reformed Religion, imposed on all adult Englishmen in 1644, as not binding nor indeed lawful.

The ejected could not remain within the national church in true conscience. They went out into the wilderness with, according to Diarmaid MacCulloch in “Reformation”, the hard-line stance of the re-established Church of England creating “Dissent” out of those who had been part-and-parcel of the pre-war united church. From these events was formed “nonconformity” as a permanent feature of English religious life, ironically laying the basis for the religious freedom and diversity we know today.

We should not forget the courage of these men in giving up so much – including financial security, social status, and freedom to pursue their calling. Their integrity speaks out loud and clear. Many refused to keep quiet and suffered persecution in the years ahead with more punitive legislation being enacted.

About of half of current Unitarian congregations in England and Wales owe their origins to this period of religious ferment, being founded before or as a result of the Toleration Act of 1688, when the dissenters’ right to freedom of worship was finally recognised. Many lay people followed their ministers out into the wilderness and stood by them for many years until congregations were established.

It is a mistake to believe that any of the 2000 were followers of unitarian thinking and ejected for denying the doctrine of the Trinity. This is unlikely; indeed some of them had previously criticised Oliver Cromwell for his leniency towards the Unitarian John Biddle (see “The Struggle for Religious Freedom 3.” forthcoming). In the main they were “Presbyterians”, with a desire to maintain the catholicity of the Church of England.

Just down Fleet Street, a few hundred yards from Unitarian Headquarters (Essex Hall) is the church of St Dunstan’s-in-the-West. Its clergyman from 1656 to 1162 was Dr William Bates. On 17 August 1662 Dr Bates spoke for the last time to his congregation, with the diarist Samuel Pepys standing in the gallery. He chose as his text Hebrews XIII. 20,21 on “the Everlasting Covenant” between God and Man. Bates refused to accept the Act of Uniformity. “It is neither fancy, faction, nor humour that makes me not comply but merely fear of offending God”.

Let the words of John James Tayler (the distinguished son of James Tayler, the first minister at High Pavement Chapel in Nottingham openly to declare his Unitarianism) define the situation (quoted by C G Bolam in “The Inquirer”, 14 April 1962):

“We became non-conformists not from choice, but from necessity; not because we wished to restrict other men’s liberty, but because we could not forego our own; not because we desired to impose our dogma on the Church, but because the Church would force hers on us; because we saw before us the possibilities of a future when the Spirit of God might demand a freer utterance and a wider agency, and when, if we still maintained communion with a system so tightly fenced in with creeds and articles, we must either remain ignominiously dumb when the Spirit bade us speak in accordance with our convictions, must belie the professions that we had solemnly taken on ourselves, and blight all our efforts for truth and liberty with the withering taint of inconsistency.”

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