THE COST OF KEN’S CONSCIENCE
Three hundred years ago a saintly man living in the West Country found himself forced to give up his home, income and his privileges on a point of vital principle. It was a time of great unrest, when not a little blood was shed, and sensible people kept their heads low and said nothing. But Thomas Ken (1637-1711) was not a sensible man: he was a Christian of outstanding conviction who always practised what he preached. He became for this reason the best loved of all the Bishops of Bath and Wells, and for this reason too, spent many years of his episcopacy confined to a room in Longleat House, where his friend Lord Weymouth gave him shelter.
Thomas Ken was known for his personal kindness and generosity. Whenever he dined at home on a Sunday, twelve poor men and women were invited to share his meal. In the aftermath of Monmouth’s rebellion (1685) he was so shocked by the treatment of those taken prisoner that (as he told the Privy Council in 1696 when arraigned before them) he visited them night and day. “I thank God that I supplied them with necessaries myself, as far as I could, and encouraged others to do the same.” Yet these were men whom he believed were “ill men, and void of all religion”, but whom he considered it his duty to relieve.
This was not his first controversial move. While still Charles II’s chaplain, he had refused to lodge Nell Gwynne, the King’s mistress, in his house. “A woman of ill-repute ought not to be endured in the house of s clergyman.” ** Larger issues came later with James II. Thomas Ken was one of seven bishops who opposed his Declaration of Indulgence (to promote religious toleration), not because he was intolerant nor illiberal, but as a protest against the King’s high-handedness in sidestepping Parliament. Nevertheless, shortly after being acquitted of treason in 1688, he proved his loyalty by backing the King’s legitimacy against the growing support for William of Orange.
When Parliament offered William the crown, Thomas Ken found himself bound by his previous oath to James II whom he recognised as the lawful monarch. Parliament was acting without authority, and so he had no choice but to take leave of his diocese, sell his possessions and go into local exile. At Longleat he was increasingly crippled by rheumatism, but he could not in conscience attend the public worship of the Church so long as prayers were being said for William as King. On Queen Anne’s accession in 1703 Ken turned down the possibility of taking up his see again, saying “my distemper disables me from pastoral duty”. He lived for a further eight years, but his name and his reputation for holiness, and the integrity for which he stood, will long outlast those lesser men who were his detractors.
** One can imagine an amendment to this sentiment being tabled in General Synod! (After the word ‘ought’ delete ‘not’, and substitute the word ‘affirmed’ in place of ‘endured’.)
Rodney Schofield, is Director of Ordinands, in the diocese of Bath and Wells.