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I. Aux origines : Eglise et Etat aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles / The origins: Church and State in the 17th and 18th centuries

Edward Stillingfleet and the 17th Century Episcopacy



Le XVIIe siècle fut une période difficile pour les évêques d’Angleterre. Tout au long de ce siècle, l’Angleterre fut secouée par des conflits religieux et politiques d’une grande violence tant dans les débats que dans les conflits armés. Cette situation se trouva encore plus compliquée par les nombreuses factions divisant toutes les institutions du royaume, la monarchie, le Parlement ainsi que l’Église. L’Église elle-même, dans le sens le plus large, se trouvait divisée entre trois factions : les dissidents, les anglicans et les catholiques romains. À tour de rôle, tout au long du siècle, chacun de ces trois groupes maîtrisait l’équilibre du pouvoir ecclésiastique. Avant la chute de la Monarchie, l’épiscopat avait été aboli, même si les évêques n’avaient pas perdu leur statut clérical. Edward Stillingfleet (1635-1699), ordonné en 1658, avant la Restauration de 1660, croyait que le gouvernement épiscopal était le meilleur type de juridiction ecclésiale. Il notait que ni le Christ ni les Apôtres n’avaient institué de modèle de gouvernement spécifique pour l’Église. Si les Églises ou les pasteurs particuliers restaient fidèles aux pratiques et aux croyances généralement acceptées, le besoin d’avoir un mode de gouvernement épiscopal aurait été moins impérieux. Après la Glorieuse Révolution de 1689, Stillingfleet devint évêque de Worcester. Tout au long de sa carrière, Stillingfleet défendit toujours l’épiscopat contre les attaques des dissidents opposés à l’autorité épiscopale, et contre les catholiques romains qui sentaient que les évêques anglicans avaient abandonné la vraie foi.

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1The 17th century was a difficult time for bishops in England. James VI of Scotland (r.1567-1625) succeeded to the throne as James I (r.1603-1625) in 1603 after the death of Elizabeth I and the century ended with the joint reign of William III (r.1689-1702) and Mary II (r.1689-1694). Throughout this time, the Episcopacy faced changes in religious emphasis from the various monarchs. In addition, they had to negotiate their way through the decade-long Interregnum after the English Civil Wars when Oliver Cromwell ruled the Commonwealth (1649-1660). Edward Stillingfleet (1635-1699), who became Bishop of Worcester in 1689, believed that the Episcopacy was an important position within the Church and state. This was despite the fact that neither Christ, nor the Apostles, had put in place such a system of Church hierarchy. Nevertheless, Stillingfleet felt that Episcopal oversight was the best method to control Churches and Church leaders within certain defined areas or dioceses.

2When James VI of Scotland also became James I of England in 1603, there was concern that the Episcopal style of the Church of Scotland would be imposed on the Church of England. This style was essentially Presbyterian albeit overseen by bishops. Instead, James attempted to impose an Anglican style of worship in Scotland in 1618 with the Five Articles of Perth. These were unwillingly accepted by the General Assembly of Scotland and caused much resentment. This was exacerbated in 1637 when Charles I, with the assistance of the Scottish Episcopacy, attempted to introduce a version of the Anglican Book of Common Prayer (Campbell 145-170). This ultimately led to the expulsion of the Scottish bishops by the General Assembly in 1638 and the so-called Bishops’ Wars of 1639-1640. The defeat of Charles I allowed the Long Parliament in England to, in effect, accept the Root and Branch Petition which had been signed by 15,000 people of London. The Petition, dated 11 December 1640, had called upon the abolition of the Anglican Church hierarchy and a move towards a Presbyterian style of worship. The proposed Root and Branch Bill was defeated in Parliament in August 1641. However, riots in Westminster in late 1641 meant that the Bishops Exclusion Act came into force in February 1642 and the assets of the bishops were seized. By 1646, Parliament “tacitly assumed the bishops had ceased to function and congratulated itself rather prematurely on their abolition” as suggested in An Ordinance for Keeping of Scandalous persons from the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper, the enabling of Congregations for the choice of Elders and Supplying of Defects in former Ordinances and Directions of Parliament concerning Church Government, which was passed in March 1646 (King 523-537). In October 1646 the English episcopate was officially dissolved when the Ordinance for the abolishing of Archbishops and Bishops within the Kingdom of England, and Dominion of Wales was passed. However, it has been suggested that the Ordinance had as much to do with alleviating government finances as a wish to fully reform the Church (Kenyon 257).

3Edward Stillingfleet (1635-1699) was brought up in the household of William Cecil (1591-1668), the Second Earl of Salisbury, where Stillingfleet’s father was the housekeeper. In 1649, the year that Charles I was executed, Stillingfleet was admitted to St John’s College Cambridge upon the nomination of William Cecil. In 1652, Stillingfleet took his Bachelor of Arts, and the following year he was elected a fellow of College. He took his Masters in 1656. During his time at Cambridge, it is very likely he knew the Episcopacy had been replaced by a Presbyterian form of Church hierarchy. It is important to note that during this period, the deprived bishops had not been defrocked or lost their clerical status. However, in theory, there was no Church for them to be recognised as such. The theologian Richard Baxter (1615-1691), in his work Gildas Silvanus, the Reformed Pastor printed in 1657, writes of bishops “being invisible, or inaccessible” (Baxter Chap IV Sec III). In addition, during the Parliamentarian times, no new bishops were consecrated. By 1658 the average age of the remaining bishops was over seventy. However, Baxter’s criticism does not take into account the various vicissitudes experienced by the bishops. Difficulties of travel in addition to the memory of the strictures of the 1640s meant that the fate of the bishops could have been worse (King 534). Indeed, there is evidence which suggests that bishops were active, albeit to a lesser degree. During this period, most ministers were elected by a ministerial group or elected to their position by the congregation concerned (Nankivell 4-5). Nevertheless, one area in which the bishops continued to operate was that of ordaining priests. Even so, those ordained would not have been able to exhibit their Letters of Orders since the ordaining bishop would certainly have been prosecuted or imprisoned in the Tower of London. Although the bishops had different views of churchmanship and episcopal understanding, it did not preclude them from ordaining ministers or, when necessary, working together. There was no recognisable wing of the Church of England acting to create a phalanx with which to confront Parliament. The small numbers of ordinands may also suggest there was not a concerted effort to restore the Church of England, nor was there an attempt to create a form of Church policy and direction. Rather, it seems that for various ministerial candidates, episcopal ordination was important in their ecclesiastical understanding. Indeed, it may be speculated that the bishops and clergy were responding to a call from congregations who wished to have an ordained minister. In 1654, additional hurdles were put in the path of the bishops by the passing of Ordinances creating the Triers and Ejectors. These ordinances were driven by Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) in his new position as Lord Protector (1653-1658). Cromwell took an active interest in the Church settlement at important moments and often his “personal authority proved decisive” (Collins 26). Whilst the Triers’ purpose was to investigate new nominees to Churches, the Ejectors’ Ordinance “effectively brought the entire ministry under Cromwell’s sway” (Collins 28). Indeed, the Ejectors had jurisdiction over all incumbents supported by tithes, and these incumbents could be ejected for several reasons. These were, inter alia, the statement of opinions which were punishable under the Blasphemy Act 1650 or which denigrated God, immoral activities or the encouragement of such activities, use of the Book of Common Prayer, Popery or “writing, preaching, or otherwise publishing any disaffection to the present Government” (An Ordinance for ejecting Scandalous, Ignorant and insufficient Ministers and Schoolmasters, 1654). It is likely that the authorities were aware of the ecclesiastical ordinations taking place; however, unless priests displayed their Letters of Orders and/or used the Book of Common Prayer or criticised the government, the suggestion is that they were left in peace.

4On 2 January 1658, Edward Stillingfleet was ordained by Bishop Brownrigg, the deposed Bishop of Exeter, and was approved by the Triers four days later, which allowed him to accept the living of Sutton, Bedfordshire. It is interesting that these two, supposedly contradictory, events took place so close together. This indicated that Stillingfleet favoured Episcopal government, although at the time there was no suggestion that either the bishops or the Church of England would be re-established.

5In the years 1657-1659 the number of those ordained increased considerably. This may be evidence that the focus of the Triers was on ejecting inadequate ministers rather than rooting out those with Episcopalian leanings. Indeed, such ordinations may suggest a covert Episcopacy, as demonstrated by Bishops Brownrigg and Ussher together with other bishops, who attended conferences which discussed possible toleration, and on occasion visited Cromwell in person (King 526, Milton 164). However, although the Ordinance of November 1655 prohibited without exception the use of the Book of Common Prayer, leeway was still offered “… towards such … as shall give a real testimony of their godliness and good affection to the present government, so much tenderness shall be used as may consist with the safety and good of the nation” (Cromwell By the Protector). This would suggest that Cromwell was more concerned that the bishops concentrated on their pastoral role to ministers and congregations, rather than any involvement in political activities.

6Edward Stillingfleet came to prominence with his first work Irenicum, published in 1661, after the Restoration of Charles II (r.1660-1685) and the re-establishment of the Church of England. He believed that the early Church had not proscribed any particular form of Church government, and that bishops and presbyters might be considered to have equal status. However, the more Stillingfleet considered the role and status of bishops, the more he came to realise their role and importance in the structure of the Church. He stated that

Having found nothing, either in our Saviours practice, or in the rules laid down by him (conceived to respect Church-Government) which determines any necessity of one particular Form; the onely argument remaining which can be conceived of sufficient strength to found the necessity of any one form of Government, is, the practice of the Apostles, who were by their imployment and commission entrusted with the Government of the Church of God (Irenicum 230)

7and that

I conclude then that in all probability the Apostles tyed not themselves up to one certain course, but in some Churches setled more or fewer Officers as they saw cause, and in others governed themselves during life; and that at their death they did not determine any form, is probably argued from the different customes of several Churches afterwards. (Irenicum 341)

8Stillingfleet’s final conclusion was that “That Prudence must be used in setling the Government of the Church” and that the form of government should be that which “…tends most to the advancing the peace and unity of the Church of God” and “…contains nothing repugnant to the Word of God” (Irenicum 414-416). Therefore, whilst Stillingfleet accepted that no specific form of Church government had been decreed by either Christ or the Apostles, the office of bishop was the most effective method to oversee a group of Churches in a particular area, rather than allowing each local Church its own individual jurisdiction. Undoubtedly this was a suitable means to control any Church that may have succumbed to heretical preaching and practices. Thus, in his later works he defended the Anglican Church from the attacks of dissenters who felt there was no need for Episcopal oversight and of Roman Catholics who considered Anglican bishops to have departed from the true Catholic faith. Indeed, Stillingfleet declared in 1685 where he referenced Irenicum, that he had ‘endeavour’d to recommend the Episcopal Government, as having the Advantages of all others, and coming nearest to Apostolic Practice’ (Works, Volume 1 358).

9However, the division between Church and state did become slightly blurred as was demonstrated by Stillingfleet’s response to the capital case of Lord Danby’s impeachment in 1678 (The Grand Question). The bishops had insisted that they had a right to vote in the preliminary proceedings. However, the was a difference of opinion as to whether bishops should be allowed to be involved in capital cases at all, not allowed to be involved with the sentencing aspect, or be allowed to absent themselves, if they so wished, from the point when a sentence was passed. Stillingfleet accepted that bishops could sit in the House of Lords, and thus could vote in all cases, including capital cases. A central discussion point revolved around the interpretation of the Constitution of Clarendon, 1164, section 11, which stated

Archbishops, bishops, and all persons of the kingdom who hold of the king in chief have their possessions of the lord king as a barony, and answer for them to the Justices and servitors of the king, and follow and perform all the customs and duties as regards the king; and, like other barons, they ought to be present with the barons at the judgments of the court of the lord king, until it comes to a judgment to loss of life or limb. (Henry II of England)

10Both sides of the argument believed this section supported their view of the rights of bishops. Stillingfleet acknowledged and proved to his own satisfaction that the bishops had always been accepted as Lords Spiritual by the Lords Temporal. This implied that the status of bishops should not be questioned and in fact the only group entitled to question this were the bishops themselves.

11Thus, the legitimacy of the Episcopacy had been established for many centuries notwithstanding the difficulties faced during that time. In addition, Stillingfleet affirmed this legitimacy when he emphasised there was no issue with the bishops creating a Third Estate within parliament. Importantly, Stillingfleet separated the role of bishops within the House of Lords into two entities: “… their Spiritual Capacity, by which they represent; and their Civil Capacity as Barons, in which they vote, according to the Rules of the House” (The Grand Question 177). Bishops sat in the Upper House by reason of their status per baronium and the original Writs of Summons, thus were part of the overall Third Estate of the kingdom representing both the clergy at large and their flocks.

12Overall, this was indicative of the importance of the Episcopacy as Stillingfleet understood it. In 1680, he preached a famous sermon which argued against the views of the Dissenters which, in their view, offered justification to separate from the Church of England. A particular point was the difference between bishops and presbyters, and whether the two roles could be considered as equal. Stillingfleet wrote that

if we look over the ancient Canons of the Church, we shall find two things very plain in them, (1.) That the notion of a Church was the same with that of a Diocese; or such a number of Christians as were under the inspection of a Bishop. (2.) That those Presbyters who rejected the Authority of their Bishop, or affected separate meetings, where no fault could be found with the Doctrine of a Church, were condemned of Schism. (The Mischief of Separation 29)

13This sermon attracted a number of critical responses, including from Richard Baxter (1615-1691), a renowned English Puritan minister (Answer To Dr Edward Stillingfleet's Charge Of Separation). Stillingfleet answered a year later where he reiterated his position when he wrote “Mr. B. knows very well in Church-History, that Presbyters were rarely allowed to Preach, and not without leave from the Bishop” (The Unreasonableness of Separation 152). To support this claim, Stillingfleet offered the example of Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (c.296 – 373) with regard to the Churches within the area of Alexandria, when he wrote

All this we have expressly from Athanasius himself, whence we observe, (1.) That here were true Parochial Churches; for so Athanasius calls them Churches, and not bare Oratories. (2.) That these had Presbyters fixed among them, who performed divine Offices there. (3.) That these were under the immediate inspection of the Bishop of Alexandria, so that the whole Government belonged to him. (4.) That these were at that distance, that they could not have local Communion with their Bishop in his Church at Alexandria. Which is directly contrary to Mr. Baxter's Episcopacy. (The Unreasonableness of Separation pp. 253-254)

14This was a definite statement that bishops and presbyters were not equal, indeed presbyters as a group were at a lower level than bishops. The point was emphasised by Stillingfleet who stated that in earlier times bishops had been assisted not only by ‘…Archdeacons, but likewise of Archpresbyters or Rural-Deans, who had some inspection into the several Deanaries…’ (Ecclesiastical Cases 147). Therefore, it was bishops who had the power to ordain and had jurisdiction from the earliest times for local groups of Churches within a certain area. To emphasise this point to his own clergy after his appointment as Bishop of Worcester in 1689, Stillingfleet wrote that ‘… we have no greater Assurance that [the] Epistles were written by St. Paul, than we have that there were Bishops to succeed the Apostles in the Care and Government of Churches’ (The Bishop of Worcester’s Charge 6). In 1696, Stillingfleet went further when he wrote to the clergy of the Diocese during a visitation when he stated that at the Council of Clovesho, it was written that bishops placed presbyters in various places “distinct from the Episcopal See” (Ecclesiastical Cases 127-8). This was a declaration of Stillingfleet’s firm conviction of the true hierarchy of the Church stemming from earlier times.

15Not only did Stillingfleet affirm his belief in Episcopal oversight in the Church of England, he also had cause to defend Anglican bishops against the suggestion that in earlier times their views supported Roman Catholic practices. This juxtaposition was clear in that the Anglican Church, and the bishops in particular, were attacked by the dissenting Churches for suggesting that conformity with the Church of England was not difficult. Similarly, the Anglican Episcopacy was attacked by Roman Catholics, as it was seen to have been opposed to a Universal Church headed by the Church of Rome. Certainly, during the 1670s, Stillingfleet was involved in controversy with Roman Catholics over idolatrous practices, and in terms of the English Reformation he asked of an opponent (Thomas Godden 1624-1688)

And I desire him, or any one else, to produce any one Bishop or Divine of note in the Church of England, who during all her [Elizabeth I’s] Reign did deny the Church of Rome to be guilty of Idolatry’ (An Answer To several late Treatises sig.f2v)

16He also stated that, at a wider level, it was clear that the term Universal Church as used by Roman Catholics should not mean just the Church of Rome and “That the Church of England in Reforming her self did not oppose any just Authority then extant in the World” (An Answer To several late Treatises 280-284). This suggested that the role of bishops within the Anglican Church could not be considered invalid, nor could the validity of ordaining priests be denied.

17Stillingfleet was always eager to support the Episcopacy, based upon his view that it was the most prudent form of Church jurisdiction, but in 1688 he needed to give forceful advice to the bishops. His counsel ended, perhaps unexpectedly to Stillingfleet, with the Trial of the Seven Bishops and may have even contributed to the Glorious Revolution. The two opposing forces of Dissent and Roman Catholicism that caused difficulties for the Anglican bishops were highlighted at this time. James II (r.1685-1688), who had converted to Roman Catholicism, wished to allow toleration and freedom of worship to both Roman Catholics and Protestant Nonconformists. In 1687 James II issued the Declaration of Indulgence which would permit this freedom together with a removal of any religious oaths previously required to hold a government position. However, as little was done to advance the Declaration, James II reissued it, but this time with an Order that the Anglican bishops should arrange to have it read in every Church. Therefore, the bishops had a problem: if they supported the Declaration, they could be accused of supporting Popery to the detriment of Dissenters; alternatively, if they opposed the Declaration, they could be accused of being intolerant towards dissenters and treasonable against the king. Discussions ensued between the bishops and London clergy in how to respond to the situation. Symon Patrick wrote that “We were in great perplexity about the reading of the declaration for liberty of conscience which all my acquaintance seemed to abhor” (Patrick 131). A list of London clergy who did not wish to read the Declaration was compiled, which amounted to seventy ministers, and communicated to Archbishop Sancroft. On 18 May 1688, a group of five bishops and five clergy, which included Stillingfleet, met at Lambeth and agreed on the words of a petition which was to be presented to James II. Rather than the bishops taking the lead “…it would seem that the London clergy were continually forcing the hands of the Bishops in presenting the petition, and therefore the content must owe a great deal to their influence” (Fawcett 15). Clearly Stillingfleet had worked hard in the background for him to be involved in the final decision on how the petition could be best phrased. The petition, signed by seven bishops, stated they could not in conscience be linked with the Declaration, which they considered an illegal document. This was based on Parliament having previously declared that monarchs could not use a dispensing power in ecclesiastical matters. The seven bishops were tried for seditious libel but found not guilty to the jubilation of much of the populace. James II fled the country, which allowed the succession of William III and Mary II, known as the Glorious Revolution in 1688.

18However, this created more problems for some bishops, as well as some clergy, who felt they could not sign an Oath of Allegiance to William and Mary, having already sworn allegiance to James II. These became known as Non-jurors. A specific example was Thomas Ken (1637-1711), Bishop of Bath and Wells. He was one of the seven bishops whom James sent for trial. Ken believed he was still bound by his oath of allegiance to James and so was deprived of his bishopric. He was replaced by Dr Beveridge (1637-1708) who first accepted the position, but then declined as he felt it was illegal to appoint new bishops where the previous incumbents had not committed any ecclesiastical crime. Stillingfleet immediately declared that, bearing in mind the prevailing political and religious situation, a refusal of a bishopric for such reasons was intolerable and nothing could either justify it or excuse it, particularly as Beveridge had “…submitted to the Government, and sworn allegiance to their present Majesties…” (A Vindication of their Majesties Authority 8). Church and state were interconnected; therefore, it was within the law to deprive bishops who were disinclined to swear allegiance to the rightful monarch who was the head of the Church. Importantly, this demonstrated Stillingfleet’s continual commitment to the state and its role in ecclesiastical system oversight, whilst allowing the Church to oversee its internal affairs. As Bishop of Worcester, he affirmed this belief of the value of the Episcopacy by his various letters and works sent to the clergy of his diocese (Ecclesiastical Cases).

19However, one of Stillingfleet’s comments, made soon after he became Bishop of Worcester in 1689, is perhaps the most pertinent. When he wrote to the clergy of his diocese in 1690 during his first Visitation, he suggested that if clergy fulfilled their role in a proper and correct fashion, “there would be less need of any such Office in the Church as that of Bishops” (The Bishop of Worcester’s Charge 3). Stillingfleet had always felt that an Episcopal form of Church jurisdiction was the best method to control Churches in a particular area as he originally stated in Irenicum. However, it was only required in order to ensure that all Churches stayed within the strictures of national Church. This was the thrust of the argument against the Dissenters regarding the position of bishops. The message to his diocesan clergy was that he would be happy if they acted in a correct fashion and were true to God and the Church of England, but if necessary, his role as bishop would be paramount.

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Oxford Brookes University
Nigel Sharp graduated BA (Hons) in Theology and Religion from Oxford Brookes University in 2014 before preparing a PhD in History at the same University. His delivered papers include Edward Stillingfleet, (Institute of Historical Research, London. 2015) and The Importance of the Invisible Bishops (Oxford Brookes University, 2016).

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