Margaret Laird turns for guidance to Thomas Traherne
PRAISE GOD for the Advantage of our Disadvantages’. This is the prayer of Thomas Traherne who grew up during the religious conflicts of the middle of the seventeenth century. Born in 1637, he began his ministry as a Commonwealth Conformist but after the Restoration of the Monarchy, he received episcopal ordination and held the living of Credenhill in Herefordshire until his death.
Much of Traherne’s writing did not come to light until the last century and it may well be that further manuscripts have yet to be discovered. ‘Select Meditations’ from which the title quotation is taken was first published in Great Britain in 1997 and is generally thought to be an early work. The many references to the political situation in England seem to date its composition to the beginning of the reign of Charles II, for the memory of the Civil War and the religious struggles were fresh in the writer’s mind. He was obviously anxious to uphold the ecclesiastical settlement of the Restoration, which in the early years of Charles II was still under threat from the Restoration nonconformists; ‘Those’ who in the words of Traherne ‘make divisions and are despisers of union, peace and external flourishing.’
A firm upholder of the National Church which he described as a ‘blessing provided by God in his mercy’, Traherne believed that the spiritual life of the nation would be renewed not by abolishing the established Church but by reforming it. He accused those who despised the concept of a national Church ‘of ingratitude’ because in so doing ‘they kicked at heavenly treasures with which our fruition is lined, they sell that in the time of abundance, which in the day of distress, martyrs would have sought with their dearest blood.’
BY LAW ESTABLISHES
The question of disestablishment is almost certain to be debated by the new General Synod. Many, even some Bishops, think that establishment is disadvantageous to the life of the Church but is this really the case? To discuss too lightly the advantages which the establishment offers is a mistake, for a national Church can provide what Traherne describes as ‘heavenly treasures’. He lists them as ‘religion established by laws, monarchs and magistrates turned from paganism, the freedom of the Gospel’, and to that might be added, a Parliament in which Bishops have a role in the law-making process, and through which by law, the rights of all Her Majesty’s subjects to pastoral care are provided through the parochial system. For example, if when pastoral reorganisation is proposed, parishioners feel that due attention is not being given to their pastoral care or needs, appeals may still be made (with leave) to the Judicial Committee of the Privy Council. A recent case demonstrated clearly that this process is not simply an historic anachronism which is no longer used. These rights are upheld at the present time by the Pastoral Measure, which is to be reviewed in the near future, but any changes proposed will have to be approved by Parliament as well as by the General Synod. The frequent use of the suspension of benefices has somewhat blurred the principles on which the Pastoral Measure is based but it would be a great pity if the Synod overlooked the Measure’s main aim, which is the protection of the rights of parson and people.
THE VERY FABRIC
Another aspect of the establishment which some see as disadvantageous to the Church, is Parliamentary concern for the protection of Church buildings. The financial problem which results from the vast number of the nation’s Churches, the majority of which are listed, is another issue which is constantly raised at the General Synod. The procedures for declaring a Church redundant, or for proposing a change of use, or for demolition, are regarded by many as irksome, complicated, tedious and time consuming. Churches however are ‘community buildings’. They were built and exist not merely for the convenience of the worshippers but for all the inhabitants of our towns and villages. The Government’s emphasis on the value of Church buildings for village communities in the Rural White Paper which has just been published, clearly recognizes this fact. The Churches are of course part of our national heritage but above all, for church people, they act as symbols of the Christian faith in both townscape and landscape. ‘It was through looking at Churches that I realised why Churches were built’, wrote John Betjeman, the 20th century poet with a consuming interest in Church architecture. It was too the symbolism of a Church building which so appealed to Traherne.
‘When I see a little church environed with trees how many things are there which mine eye discerneth not. The labour of them which in ancient ages builded it; the conversion of a kingdom to God from paganism, its protection by laws, its subjection to Kings, its relation to Bishops, usefulness and convenience for the entertainment of Christians, the Divine service, the office of the ministry, solemn assemblies, prayers, thanksgivings, for the sake of which it is permitted, is governed, standeth and flourisheth. Perhaps, when I look upon it, it is desolate and empty, almost like an heap of stones, none of these things appearing to the eye, which nevertheless are the spiritual beauties which adorn and clothe it He that cannot see Invisible Things cannot enjoy nor value temples’ (churches).
That Parliament shows a protective attitude towards church buildings is surely what Traherne would have regarded as another ‘heavenly treasure’. This Parliamentary concern can certainly make itself felt when the future of a listed building is in doubt. If, for example, there is a proposal for the demolition of a listed church, there could be a demand from the government for a non-statutory enquiry. This is to ensure that a building of outstanding architectural value or of historic importance is preserved for posterity. Parliament also demonstrates its interest in church buildings by contributing to their maintenance through English Heritage and the Churches Conservation Trust, although it must be admitted that until the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s promise for the reduction of VAT on church repairs materialises, the present level of VAT is more or less equal to that of the aid provided by the State. However, this recent step is further evidence of Parliamentary concern.
A HOUSE DIVIDED
Traherne was no stranger to the consequences of division within the Church. He felt acutely the sense of alienation from those he described as ‘once, our companions’. Debates on women Bishops and Anglican-Methodist Union will certainly lead to disagreement amongst members of the new General Synod and within the Church at large and as a result, those who uphold traditional Anglicanism will inevitably feel marginalised. In Traherne’s lifetime in the seventeenth century however, it was the Protestant non-conformist who suffered from this experience.
As the tide of liberalism sweeps through the Church, moral issues will lead to further division but Traheme, like many Anglicans today, knew full well what it was like to feel as if you were swimming against the tide; which he describes as ‘floods going down to a final end, which is destruction, against which I must swim’. He encourages his readers who find themselves in this predicament with these words:
‘By how much the greater the difficulty, by so much more glorious the soul is that overcomes it. And by how much the greater care and fidelity ought we to use in continual endeavours. And according to these shall our acceptance be. All things are treasures and therefore are we to praise God for the advantage of our disadvantages.
What is the advantage of our disadvantages for Anglicans in the contemporary climate of Church life? In ‘The Way of Blessedness’ Traherne writes:
‘All a man’s life put together contributes a perfection to every part of it, and the memory of things past is the advantageous light of our present condition.’
ONE, HOLY, CATHOLIC
For many Anglicans, the most significant memory of the past is that of a Church of England, acutely aware and loyal to her Catholic roots, a thought which also dominated the faith of Traherne. For him the Restoration Church, the national Church, was the Catholic Church in this land.
‘The Holy Catholic Church is the Bride of God, which He tends and shields and loves and governs in this world, about which all His actions and thoughts are conversant that she may be exalted, that she may be beautified. In all times, ages and generations, He was always loving her, He made her the end of all His doings, and the Temple and Bridegroom of her. Thou must needs be desolate if thou do not love her, for God Himself cannot be without her. Prize her therefore and rejoice in her.’
CHRIST OUR FUTURE
Traherne’s beliefs about the Church gave him hope for her future, when ‘God will bring Her into His Kingdom with the joyful acclamations of innumerable angels attending upon Him.’
It was the ‘Christ our Future’ Eucharist at the London Arena last June which gave 10,000 orthodox Anglicans a renewed vision of the Church and inspired them with confidence and hope for her future in the new century and the next millennium.
Such a hope however is not without its demands, the most important of which is to uphold and proclaim the Articles of our Faith. ‘The great advantage of our disadvantages’ for traditional Anglicans has been the growing determination in our integrity to take the responsibility for teaching the faith more seriously. On the Articles of our Faith, Thomas Traherne must have the last word:
‘The Articles of our Faith…. we ought to know as clearly as our own faces, as familiarly as our goods, as fully as our houses.. .the world is our land, God, our house and these (the Articles of our faith) our jewels.’ Such a knowledge and such a conviction will surely result in the triumph of orthodoxy, even against the greatest odds.
Margaret Laird was until recently Third Church Estates Commissioner.