Saturday, April 24, 2010

Peter Lake: Joseph Hall, Robert Skinner and the rhetoric of moderation at eh early Stuart court

Peter Lake, Joseph Hall, Robert Skinner and the rhetoric of moderation at the early Stuart court, in The English Sermon Revised; Religion, Literature and History 1600-1750, Manchester University Press, Manchester and New York, 2000.

England, however, had been spared such a fate by the wisdom of King Charles, who, faced with the increasing frequency and animosity of predestinarian dispute, had, in Skinner’s words, stretched forth his ‘sacred and blessed hand’ and interposed for peace and silence by his royal and most religious declaration… and so, God be thanked and a gracious king, all in effect was hushed on a sudden.’ / Skinner was all the more grateful for this royal ban on predestination dispute since, for him, the issues at stake were of the second rank, ‘neither fundamental nor of any such necessity to salvation’. There would always be something unknowable about the inner mysteries of the divine will, Skinner concluded, and ‘it were best to leave this high speculation and to confess with the psalmist… our lord dwelleth in the thick darkness which our feeble eyes cannot pierce unto’. (168)

Skinner was praising, in this sermon, the policy of Charles I, first adopted in 1626, reaffirmed in 1628 and followed more or less consistently throughout the Personal Rule, to impose a ban on all predestinarian dispute. He was echoing language used some ten years before by Josephy Hall, both in sermons at court and in his Via Media, a tract on the disputes consequent upon the writings of Richard Montague, written between 1624 and early 1626 and licensed for the press in the latter year but never published. There too hall had talked the language of moderation and peace. Like Sinner he distinguished between what he termed ‘Christian articles and theological conclusions’; ‘Christian articles are the principles of religion, necessary to a believer; theological conclusions are schools points, fit for the discourse of a divine. Those articles are few and essential, these conclusions are many and unimportant (upon necessity) to salvation either way.’ (168)

In a number of sermons to court and convocation with printed titles like ‘The Beauty and Unity of the Church’, ‘The True Peacemaker’ or ‘Noah’s Dove bringing an Olive of Peace to the Tossed Ark of Christ’s Church’ Hall applied this distinction to the topics of peace and unity in the Church at home and abroad. He preached peace among Protestants, characterizing most of the differences between them as not about the substances of true belief at all but only ‘the skin’, indeed the very ‘garment’, of religion. (168)

Hall went on to use the same distinction between fundamentals and things indifferent or disputable to make irenic noises toward even the papist. ‘When all is done,’ Hall observed, ‘in spite of all dissensions, the church is colomba una, one dove’ … although the leaders of that Church, who had first created and now sustained the errors of popery, were almost certainly damned, ordinary Catholics, simple believers ‘that follow Absolom with an upright heart’, might well be saved. (169)

Turning to the predestination issue, Hall, like Skinner, saw the threat posed by such disputes to the English Church as considerable. … Hall saw his task as putting out the flame of dissension before it spread too far … Like Skinner, Hall saw that option as merely opening the breach in the Church’s unity still wider. / ‘It is not disputation, it is not counter writing that can quench it. These courses are but bellows to diffuse and raise these flashes to more height and rage… There is no possible redress but in a sever edict of restraint to charm all tongues and pens upon the sharpest punishment from passing those moderate bounds which the church of England, guided by the scriptures hath expressly set or what both sides are fully accorded on. (169)

Hall presented his project as characteristic of a moderation, a search for the stable common ground upon which genuine Christian unity could be built, that Hall presented as entirely typical of the English Church. Here was a position which, he claimed, distinguished perfectly between the core of Christian articles necessary for orthodox belief and the periphery of theological conclusions and speculations which were not necessary for salvations, remained inherently and inevitably disputable and were hence subject to the silencing power of the Christian magistrate. (169)

Indeed, on his own account, [Hall] was denounced more than once at court, during the 1630s, as a favourer of Puritanism and in a defense of himself distinguished tellingly between ‘modern puritanism’ as it was increasingly being defined and harassed by the Laudians and the old definition of the beast as ‘a refractory opposition to the government, rites and customs of the church’. (170)

Skinner, on the other hand, …was clearly one of the common men of the Personal Rule and perhaps unsurprisingly, at least from the late 1620s, an intimate of Laud’s. (170)

On the face of it, then, Skinner and Hall were very different in their attitudes, connections, theological styles and doctrinal principles. They seem to fit in fact rather neatly inside that very influential view of the late Jacobean and Caroline theologico-political scene which sees it as increasingly polarized between, for want of better shorthand labels, ‘Calvinist’ and ‘Arminians’ or, in another variant of the accusatory slang or shorthand of the time, cryto-papists or crypto-puritans. And yet here we have both of them adopting what appears, at least at first sight, to be precisely the same policy towards the predestinarian disputes of the period, and using the same language of the avoidance of extremes, moderation, peace and unity, and the same distinction between doctrines essential to salvation and peripheral subjects of abstruse theological dispute, to do so. Here, then, is a seemingly powerful corroboration of that view of the spectrum of religious opinion in the early Stuart Church that eschews the doctrinal labels of Calvinist and Arminian and stresses instead a common middle ground of Anglican moderation and agreement. Outside this common Anglican via media are a group of extreme puritans whose puritans is taken to be synonymous with the extreme Calvinism of their views on predestination. (173)

Kevin Sharpe… in his massive study of the Personal Rule… On Sharpe’s view, Laud and with him the mass of English divines, and, indeed, of the informed laity (rather worryingly typified, at one point, by Lord Herbert of Cherbury) remained largely agnostic on abstruse questions of theology like predestination. They were concerned instead to achieve unity and uniformity within the prescribed patters of belief and worship contained in the Articles of Religion, the canons of 1604 and 16040 and the Book of Common Prayer. This, these authors claim, was a policy conceived at the time, and now recovered by their own recent writings, as a quintessentially English middle way. (173)

In the rest of this chapter I want to place Hall and Skinner’s use of the language of moderation in the wider context of their own works and of the political and ideological circumstances to which those works spoke. My aim will not be to argue that their recourse to the rhetoric of moderation was insincere, a simple mask for more partisan and engaged policies and commitments, nor that the rhetoric was mere common coin, a necessary form used by nearly all the parties to the disputes of the day, which we can effectively ignore as we rush to lay bare what they were really saying. Mr. White has taken that to be my position and I want to make it clear that what I am doing in this chapter is both a good deal more limited and, I hope, a little more subtle than that. All I want to claim here is that we cannot hope to recover the resonance of this rhetoric, the purposes for which it was used, the positions it was enlisted to legitimate and to excoriate, unless we set it in the context of the works of the [174] author in question and the situations that he was addressing. It follows, therefore, that we cannot assume straightforward agreement whenever we find that rhetoric or language deployed, as I think both Mr White and Dr Sharpe tend to do. That is altogether to short-circuit the process of historical interpretation to which such sentiments need to be subjected before we can happily enlist them to support other, larger visions of the period. (173-4)


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