Tim Handley draws a lesson from the seventeenth century and fears that our future may be in our past

I wish to share with you a story. It is a story some of you, perhaps all of you, should recognise, for it concerns us all. If you’re all sitting comfortably, then I shall begin.

Once upon a time there was a Church which did something some people thought it should not have done. The Church said, “Don’t worry: everything will be alright, you’ll soon get used to what we’ve done.”

But a group of people didn’t think so and they refused to accept the change which the Church had made. They organised themselves into a group to fight the change, even though most of the people in the Church had accepted it, even if they secretly hadn’t really agreed with it.

But fighting against the change was hard and without much chance of getting the decision reversed, they began to form themselves into a sort of Church within a Church. They had their own bishops, clergy and people. They knew that things would never be the same again, so they began talking to other Churches to see if they could become friends. It was very hard work but nothing came of it in the end.

After a while they began to fight among themselves, because different people had different ideas about what the group should do. They began to split up into different groups, all of which did things differently to each other. Everyone else thought they were rather a sad group of people.

It wasn’t very long before the fighting got so bad that the different groups didn’t speak to each other any more. And because they were so busy with their own problems, they didn’t work properly as a Church any more and they began to die out, until, not so very long after all the trouble had started, they were no more. And the church of which they had been members carried on as if nothing had happened.

That’s the end of my story. Perhaps you know it? Is it a potted history of Forward in Faith with a sombre prediction of the end which awaits us? Actually, no. For this is no piece of fiction. It has already happened. In the Church of England.

Students of history will no doubt have heard of the Non-Jurors, but to many people they are an unknown page of the history book of the Church of England and one which we would do well to re-read if their fate is not to become ours.

The story of the Non-Jurors is a sad one. In 1688, the Catholic King James II was forced from the throne and replaced by the Protestant William of Orange and his wife Mary, for the most part with the active approval of the hierarchy of the Church of England, terrified as it was of the Romanising tendencies of James. On March 1, 1689, the clergy were required to take a new oath of allegiance to William and Mary. When the day arrived, a number of Bishops were absent from the House of Lords. Parliament passed an Act making the oath compulsory on pain of deprivation. A number of Bishops, led by the Archbishop of Canterbury himself, refused on the grounds that the King – James – was still the lawful sovereign and the taking of a new oath was therefore impossible. The Archbishop, Sancroft, and five other Bishops – Ken, Turner, Frampton, Lloyd and White – were duly deprived of their Sees. Around four hundred clergy followed their lead. The effect was catastrophic. Deprived of their livings, many clergy faced starvation with their families and no prospect of ever serving the Church of their birth again unless they changed their views.

The Non-Jurors were only ever a small minority. Most of the clergy of the Church of England took the new oath, even though some harboured grave reservations about the whole affair. Gradually formed into a virtual Church within a Church, the Non-Jurors had their own parishes, consecrated their own Bishops and attracted widespread sympathy. At one time, talks began with the Orthodox Churches on a possible scheme for reunion, but this broke down when the Czar of Russia who had supported the plan died. It should also be noted that doctrinal differences (over, for instance, Transubstantiation, the use of Images and the authority of Church Councils) also added to the lack of progress.

Without a clear plan of action for the future, the movement began to fragment. In 1718, the Non-Jurors divided into the Usagers and Non-Usagers, two groups divided on the form of Liturgy they should use. Different groups consecrated their own Bishops, and the only thing which held them all together was their enmity for the Church of England. By the time of the accession of George III their days were numbered and on the death of Bishop Boothe in 1805, the Non-Jurors became extinct.

Without doubt, there are many similarities between Traditionalist Anglicans today and our forebears in the Non-Jurors. For them, the whole problem of taking a new oath to the new monarch was one of authority. John Moorman, in his History of the Church of England writes: “Where should the seat of authority lie?… Conscience demanded that they should make their stand for what they believed, whatever the cost might be… They were prepared to lose all for the sake of what they thought to be right.”

And yet the dangers inherent in such a stand are as real today as they were then. The danger of fragmentation and a lack of a unified vision for the future were the nails in the Non-Juror’s coffin. And according to some reports, the movement of those opposed to the Church of England’s decision to ordain women to priesthood is now looking down the throat of the hammer (if I may be excused the mixed metaphor!).

A recent article in the Tablet (6/13 April, 1996) warned of “infighting, defensiveness and the threat of schism” within Forward in Faith. Is history repeating itself, and if it is, what is to be our response? Will we, like the Non-Jurors, be extinct within a century, worn out by internal division and external isolation from the large mass of the Body of Christ? Or do we have a greater vision? One which seeks something altogether bigger and more glorious, rather than one which merely seeks to make our lives as Traditional Anglicans within the Church of England as comfortable as possible until the funeral bell tolls our demise, be it in ten years’, fifty years or a hundred years?

And if we are not convinced by the arguments of our history, what of the contemporary situation? What of those who have taken stands like our own in America, Canada, Sweden, Norway? Is simply stating, “But that sort of thing will never happen here” enough? How often have we said that, only to be proved wrong in spectacular style?

Doubtless there is a degree of self-interest here. As an ordinand shortly to be ordained deacon, and with a good thirty years’ ministry ahead of me, I am, like my peers, understandably concerned for a long-term vision for Traditionalist members of the Church of England, and uneasy at the current lack of one. And as I talk to people around the country, I too often hear examples of short-termism (“We’ve got Flying Bishops so we’re alright, Jack!”) and of a theology bordering on the congregationalist (“We’re alright here at St. Bogs, so what’s the worry about?”)

What is our vision? What will be our epitaph? The Traditionalist Roman Catholic, Archbishop Marcel Lefebre, is once reported to have said that the past is the church’s future. I agree with him, for we ignore it at our peril.

Tim Handley is an ordinand at St. Stephen’s House, Oxford and is on the National Council of Forward in Faith. He is soon to be ordained deacon to serve in St. Marychurch, Torquay