Nigel Aston discusses the historical singificance of the non-jurors

While Christians worldwide this year commemorate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, it would be unfortunate if 2017 passed without recalling the 300th anniversary of an event that would prove devastating for the patrimonial predecessors of today’s Catholic Anglicans: the prorogation of the Convocation of Canterbury (and, indeed, York) in 1717. Except for the legal formalities required at the start of each new Parliament, the two would not meet again until 1858 and 1861, respectively, and their indefinite suspension cleared the way for the extension of Erastian pressures within the Church of England. Prorogation confirmed what the Protestant Hanoverian Succession of 1714 had presaged: that the High Church revival in the Church of England, one that was at once sacerdotal and pastoral, political and polemical—what the late Gary Bennett called with some degree of aptness an ‘Anglican Counter-Revolution’—was ebbing away.  

The government’s decision to, in effect, shut down Convocation was precipitated by the preaching of arguably the most controversial sermon ever articulated in eighteenth century England: that of Benjamin Hoadly preached on ‘My Kingdom is not of this world’ [John 18: 36], first delivered before George I at Hampton Court on 31 March 1717. Hoadly had been a brilliant Low Church apologist for the Hanoverian Succession and the Whig party during the reign of what would prove to be the last Stuart, Queen Anne (1702–14), and he received his reward only months into the new dynasty’s enjoyment of the British throne with the bishopric of Bangor. Preferment did not make him more circumspect, for in this notorious sermon he denied the existence of the visible Church and by extension questioned the authority of the clergy and exalted the supremacy of temporal authorities. The controversy generated by the Bishop of Bangor, the ‘Bangorian Dispute,’ rumbled on for several years and showed clearly that, even among Church Whigs, Hoadly’s views were those of a minority. Ministers had anticipated—reasonably enough—that the sermon would generate a fire storm in the Lower House of Convocation, so they cancelled its next meeting (for another 141 years as it turned out), which was due to confirm sanctions against the bishop; but even in its absence, the intensity of the discussion and the sheer volume of pamphlet literature on all sides of the question amounted to the most extensive theological exchange—or wrangling if you prefer—in eighteenth century Anglicanism.

One of the most decisive responses to Hoadly, certainly the best known, came from the pen of William Law (1686–1761), whom the Church of England remembers in its cycle of prayer each year on 10 April as ‘priest, spiritual writer’ (the fact that Law only ever held deacon’s orders is wryly indicative of how easily the established Church has forgotten its past). Law ‘s Three Letters to the Bishop of Bangor, published in 1717 (and to 1719), were a distinct sign of his intellectual quality, his gift for gentle satire, and the breadth of his appeal as a writer. He had nothing to gain as a careerist from taking on a bishop whose views and ambitions stood in such contrast to his own, for Law was a non-juror, one who had resigned his Fellowship at Emmanuel College, Cambridge in 1715 because he could not in conscience take the oath of allegiance to George I. Like others of that persuasion, Law stood at a small remove from his allies who had remained in the Church of England and drew on the same sources of inspiration—scripture, tradition and patristics—and, denied any possibility of a post in either church or state, made his bread as best he could teaching the father of the great historian of the Roman Empire, Edward Gibbon, and publishing works with religious themes at regular intervals.

William Law settled at King’s Cliffe in north east Northamptonshire in 1740, and in his secluded household tried to carry out in daily practice the ideas he had developed in his most celebrated publication, A Serious Call to a Devout and Holy Life, dating from 1728; a book which so profoundly influenced the Wesley brothers and Samuel Johnson to mention two of its most famous readers. Law’s ‘rules’ centred on charitable giving, simplicity of life, neighbourliness, and attention to the smaller virtues, and there can be no question that he was known and respected well beyond King’s Cliffe for embodying them in his own life and witness. Law’s mysticism became more pronounced in the last two decades of his life for, like others of that bent, both Catholic and Protestant, he became fascinated by the mysticism of the early seventeenth century Bohemian author, Jacob Boehme.

But, in 2017, it is not Law’s mysticism and A Serious Call that are to be commemorated, but his engagement with Hoadly and what it tells us about Law’s values as a non-juror that can both nurture our spiritual lives and give us, as Anglicans seeking to uphold and renew the whole Church in the apostolic faith, a fresh understanding of our ancestors in that faith and a new sense of their continuing importance to us today. And with those things in mind, the Society in the diocese of Peterborough is holding an event to commemorate William Law the non-juror at King’s Cliffe on Saturday, 16 September, to which all are cordially invited. There will first be a Solemn Mass celebrated by Fr Oliver Coss SSC (rector of All Saints’ church, Northampton) in King’s Cliffe parish church at 12 noon and it will be a very rare opportunity to participate in a service liturgically constructured around the non-jurors’ eucharistic order of 1718, usually referred to as the Usagers’ rite. By that date, a large proportion of non-jurors had become aware of the extent to which the communion service of 1662 was out of step with the majority of the universal Church, especially Eastern Orthodoxy, and sought a return to a liturgy more akin to that of the 1549 Prayer Book. The 1718 rite was an effort to put right the perecived deficiencies of the 1662 service by moving to a mixed chalice, an unambiguoius sacrificial emphasis, the invocation of the Holy Spirit on the oblations, and prayers for the faithful departed. The peacher at the Mass will be the Canon Librarian of Norwich Cathedral, Fr Peter Doll.

Making the non-jurors mainstream again and bringing them back to our collective memory as Catholic Anglicans is surely a timely and deserving thing to do this year, one which has just seen the publication of a wide-ranging and up-to-date survey of our collective past: the Oxford Handbook of the Oxford Movement (OUP). And what better way to do it than by joining us at King’s Cliffe on 16 September to thank God for the life and witness of William Law and of the non-juroring community of 300 years ago; men and women who put conscience before career and who, in their time, offered much to the whole Church through their capacity for lucid and learned theology, spiritual discipline and insight, and ecumenical contacts with Orthodoxy. Other events will follow the Mass, including a talk by Richard Sharp placing Law clearly within the context of the non-jurors, a guided exploration of the places in King’s Cliffe village associated with Law, Evensong in the parish church, and a wreath laying with prayers at his tomb in the churchyard to close the commemoration at about 4 p.m. For more details see the Peterborough FiF website:

Nigel Aston is Lay Chair of Forward-in-Faith Peterborough and a member of the Catholic Group on the General Synod.