Peter Doll discusses the enduring legacy of William Law

We gather together this day to give thanks to God for, and to honour the memory of, William Law. Our celebration is particularly poignant this year because it is the tercentenary of the publication of Law’s Three Letters to the Bishop of Bangor, in which, with what C.J. Stranks described as ‘acute argument, ruthless logic, sarcasm and a kind of solemn ridicule,’ Law reduced to rubble the flimsy edifice of Benjamin Hoadly’s Kingdom of God ‘not of this world.’ Although by this time a nonjuror and resigned from his fellowship because of his Jacobite loyalties, Law nevertheless continued to affirm the identity of the Church of England as part of the one, holy, catholic church of God. The reading from 1 Peter we heard as the epistle epitomizes a tragic dimension of Law’s life: ‘Honour all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honour the King.’ He longed to live out to the full these injunctions but, because of his loyalty to the House of Stuart, he was disbarred from exercising ordained ministry in the Church of England even while he profoundly shaped its identity through his disciplined life and ascetic writings, particularly his Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life. Law’s abundant gifts as a controversialist are best left to Richard Sharp’s attention this afternoon. Here, in this noble church in which Law worshipped all his life, we are better occupied in considering some aspects of how Law even now challenges us in our practice of the Christian faith that we share with him.

Just as in his Letters to the Bishop of Bangor, Law insisted on the continuity of the Church of England in faith and order with the Church since the apostolic age, so his spiritual writings reflect a consciousness of continuity with the Church from its origins. It is well known that the high churchmen of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries strove the keep the Church of England faithful to the primitive church of the patristic era. What is less appreciated is how great a continuity there was through the mediaeval Church in England, not least through the influence of Benedictine monasticism. Monastic missionaries from both the Celtic church and from Rome and that heritage of monastic cathedrals unique to England had an enduring impact on the reformed Church. The three essential characteristic elements of Benedictine spirituality, the Daily Office, the Eucharist, and the contemplative reading of scripture, form the governing structure of the Book of Common Prayer.

Whether consciously or not, Law’s writings are replete with echoes of St Benedict. For the sixth century monastic reformer, the essence of the Christian life is a daily striving after God, to walk in his way and to seek his face. He writes in the Rule, ‘The Lord is waiting every day for us to respond by our deeds to his holy precepts. And the days of this life are lengthened and a truce is granted us for this very reason, that we may amend our evil ways.’ Law in his Rules for Living a Holy Life likewise insists, ‘Remember, everyday you are hungering, for something either of this world, or Heaven, in so doing you are choosing where you want to spend eternity.’ In his Serious Call, Law is imploring his contemporaries, particularly those living a life of moneyed leisure, to take seriously the extent to which they are frittering away their lives in idleness, gossip, and vanity even when outward attendance at church, weekly and even daily was a fashionable way of passing the time. He encourages them to lives of discipline, prayer, and contemplation, a preparation here and now for the life of eternity. In Serious Call, Law interjects his exhortations with sharp, satirical sketches of the types of personalities he sees around him, like Calidulus, the assiduous man of business: ‘His prayers are a short ejaculation or two, which he never misses in stormy weather, because he has always something or another at Sea.’

Law encourages those who are serious about their faith to take part in the daily prayer of the church, morning and evening prayer at a minimum, but also prayer and contemplation of scripture at the third, sixth, and ninth hours. In this he is inspired by the example of the primitive church. Such regular, disciplined attention to prayer will strike most of us as extraordinary, even perhaps excessive, but what is striking is not how unusual Law’s practice was for his time, but how typical of the Church of England. He lived here at King’s Cliffe in a small community with Mrs Hutcheson, a devout widow, and Miss Hester Gibbon, the aunt of the historian, sharing a life of prayer, devotion, and charitable good works. In that era the Church of England was replete with religious societies in parishes and the universities, like Wesley’s Holy Club at Oxford, based on the common recitation of the daily offices and even the canonical hours, the study of scripture, and community service. Writers as diverse as Bishop George Berkeley, the colonial governor and plantation owner Christopher Codrington, and the novelist Samuel Richardson proposed the establishment of religious communities for men or for women as places of prayer, charitable works, and scholarship.

In the Church of England today, we are seeing an upsurge of new interest in the religious life, including new forms of monasticism, not least the Community of St Anselm established by the Archbishop of Canterbury at Lambeth Palace. Although Law’s writings emerged from a distinctly high church tradition, in the next generation he had a profound impact on John Wesley’s Methodism, a movement that emerged from nonjuror spirituality into an evangelical movement, whose sons would in another century be inspired to lead a high church revival in the Oxford Movement. Why should not the new monasticism, itself emerging primarily from evangelicalism, in time prompt a comparable catholic revival?

In the meantime, it would be good if some of this engagement with daily liturgical worship could take root in more of our parish churches. I find it curious that, in the midst of a culture so committed to encouraging patterns of healthy living with daily physical exercise and disciplines of mindfulness, church people can be so neglectful of the importance of daily prayer and the contemplative reading of scripture. I can’t help thinking that devotees of the Book of Common Prayer could not better fulfil Cranmer’s and Law’s vision for the Church than by forming lay communities for praying the Daily Office in their parish churches.

Although Law regards prayer as the foundation of Christian living, he by no means neglects the more practical aspects of holy living, noting that we ‘must always worship God, though not with our lips [only], but with the thankfulness of our hearts, the holiness of our actions, and the pious and charitable use of all his gifts.’ As a nonjuror, Law was unprepared to make any compromises over his allegiance to the Stuarts, so as a believer he was not prepared to compromise the rigorous demands of the Gospel. For Law, almsgiving was not simply an occasional virtuous exercise, but an absolute and daily requirement of Christian living. After exercising our ‘sober and reasonable wants, all the rest of our money is but like spare eyes, or hands… something that can only be us’d well, by giving it to those that want it.’ In the King’s Cliffe household, the biblical precept ‘to give to him that asketh of thee’ was literally observed. Law had no concern with whether those who asked of him were ‘deserving’ poor or not. No one was sent empty away. This practice was not popular with other inhabitants of this village, and the rector repeatedly preached against indiscriminate charity, but to no effect. For Law it was his duty to give; if others should misuse his gift, that was not his lookout. Here, once again, we see reflected the life and priorities of the early church. As St Ambrose preached, ‘The earth was given to all, rich and poor’ [de Nab. 1] and poverty is an insult to his munificence. Almsgiving was seen as a universal duty and a victory over greed, though Law, like the early Fathers, counselled against charitable giving as a source of pride and self-satisfaction.

In the second part of the twentieth century, the state took over the responsibility for social welfare that had been part of the ministry of the Church since the very beginning. Now, as the welfare state continues to retrench, it falls to Christian and other communities to address the social wounds in our communities, to heed the immemorial biblical injunction in both testaments that God’s justice demands our care for the widow, the orphan and the stranger within our gates, that is, the vulnerable among us. ‘Inasmuch as you have cared for the least of my brethren, you have done it for me.’

We give thanks to God today not just because William Law was able so effectively to put Bishop Hoadly in his place by insisting on the catholic identity of the Church of England in her obedience to the faith uniquely revealed in the Holy Scriptures and set forth in the Catholic Creeds, but also because he so effectively encourages Christians across traditions to take to heart and live out the Gospel to which they have been called. Let us heed his call to fill our lives with prayer and praise as we go about our work, to remember that whole-hearted devotion to God is the only way to true peace and happiness. As he concludes the Serious Call, ‘There is nothing wise, or great, or noble, in an human spirit, but rightly to know, and heartily worship and adore the great God, that is the support and life of all spirits, whether in heaven or on earth.’ Amen.

The Revd Dr Peter Doll is Canon Librarian at Norwich Cathedral. He was speaking at All Saints and St James, King’s Cliffe on 16 September 2017