Christopher Trundle on the writings of Jeremy Taylor and his admirable confidence in the Anglican tradition

‘Suppose every day to be a day of business; for your whole life is a race and a battle, a merchandize, and a journey; every day propound to yourself a rosary, or a chaplet of good works, to present to God at night… Receive the blessed sacrament as often as you can: endeavour to have it once a month, besides the solemn and great festivals of the year.

‘Confess your sins often, hear the word of God, make religion the business of your life, your study and chiefest care; and be sure that in all things a spiritual guide take you by the hand.’

These words of Jeremy Taylor (1613–67) from his Great Exemplar are as relevant today as they were when he wrote them in 1649. Private prayer, good works, frequent communion and confession of sins form the backbone of the Catholic life, and it is a great encouragement to us that this devotional practice has continued in our Church of England long since.

Taylor is known, among other things, for his devotional books designed to give advice and guidance on the spiritual life. This work, and those which followed in successive years, The Rule and Exercises of Holy Living and The Rule and Exercises of Holy Dying, have retained a great degree of popularity. Taylor was a man of immense learning, which not only made him a gifted preacher, but also enabled him to write on theology and ethics. Indeed, his Discourse of the Liberty of Prophesying propounded an argument for toleration well before John Locke. But whatever we read, we encounter a mastery of prose and imagery which makes his work particularly vivid and effective even now.

Taylor lived through the turbulent period of the English Civil War and its aftermath. He had been a favourite of Archbishop Laud, and became a chaplain to King Charles I and his army, for which he was imprisoned several times during Cromwell’s rule. Throughout his early life he was suspected by many to have a secret leaning to Roman Catholicism, possibly because of his friendship with Laud and with a Franciscan chaplain to Queen Henrietta.

After imprisonment, Taylor lived quietly in Wales as a private chaplain for some years before resuming an earlier academic career and moving to become a lecturer in Ireland. Not long after the Restoration he was appointed to the bishoprics of Down and Connor, and Dromore, where he faced intense disputes with both Presbyterians and Roman Catholics. To the Presbyterian ministers he offered either submission to episcopal ordination or deprivation, and consequently after his first visitation declared a great number of churches to be vacant. As for the Roman Catholics who did not understand English and were wholly attached to their traditional worship, they were made to attend Anglican services which they resented and did not understand. Bishop Heber, the editor of Taylor’s complete works, suggested that he might have enjoyed better results (not to mention an easier ministry) by encouraging his clergy to learn the Irish language.

Taylor, though, espoused an admirable courage and confidence in the Anglican tradition (if, perhaps, to the detriment of some of his people), and the emphasis he clearly placed on Holy Orders, the Apostolic Succession, and on the sacrament is as important now as it was then.

‘For as God descended and came into the tabernacle invested with a cloud, so Christ comes to meet us clothed with a mystery. He hath a house below as well as above; here is his dwelling and here are his provisions; here is his fire and here is his meat; hither God sends his Son, and here his Son manifests himself… He hath told us where he would be, behind what pillar, and under what cloud, and covered with what veil, and conveyed by what ministry, and present in what sacrament’. ND

Jeremy Taylor, The Worthy Communicant, 1660