Monday, January 10, 2011

Death on a cold day

Chesterton once wrote that while everyone was seeking to accommodate themselves to the spirit of the age, most progress in history had occurred at the hands of men who refused to accommodate themselves to anything.

William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, died on this day in 1645, on Tower Hill by the headsman's axe, on orders of Parliament. He was 71 and so loathed that only his advanced age had spared him the gruesome evisceration that many wished to inflict on him.

Laud, with Thomas Wentworth, Earl of Strafford, had formed the chief support of the detested political and religious policies of Charles I, a painfully well-meaning man and one of the most egregiously unfit ever to occupy the English throne. Laud resisted the Puritans, the Tea Party of their day, suppressing unauthorized pamphlets and having their authors confined to the pillory with their ears sheared off. He walled off the east wall of churches to contain the altar and enforced bowing at the name of Jesus in the Anglican liturgy, as well as the wearing of the surplice. He and Strafford developed a policy they called “Thorough” for upholding the King's edicts that provoked howls of outrage in England and Ireland alike. Execrated by his opponents and laughed at behind his back by his royalist confrères—Queen Henrietta Maria saw him, accurately, as a fussy, pompous little man—he was unyielding in his determination to see things done as his judgment told him was best and wept while attempting to bestow a final benediction on his friend Strafford as the latter was being led to the block in 1641.

Laud was not a lovable man. Peevish, temperamental, self-important, impatient, suspicious—after a dinner party, he counted his silver spoons to make sure the guests had not stolen any—he was mocked even by the King's fool, Archie Moore, who quipped “All glory to God and little Laud to the devil.” His intolerance of opposition and his relentless insistence on a beautiful and orderly liturgy made him so hated that the first and only attempt to introduce his edition of the Book of Common Prayer into Scottish worship at St. Giles' Cathedral in 1637 provoked a riot. Macaulay, the paradigmatic Whig, objected to Laud's fate only because, as he put it, ignoring the deposed prelate would have been the best punishment that his Parliamentary foes could have inflicted on the “ridiculous old bigot.”

Typical of his imperious nature, Laud was a man of contradictions. He was Chancellor of Oxford, where he endowed a professorship of Arabic, but he expelled undergraduates and disciplined faculty who objected to his religious views. Detested as a crypto-Roman Catholic by thousands, he refused the offer of a cardinal's post from the Vatican if he would only convert.

Why remember him? Against all expectations, Laud, who had lived and died by the principle that a church that had “one Lord and one faith should speak with one heart and one mouth” influenced the course of his mother church more than he might have hoped or his enemies feared. Because of him, Anglicanism swerved neither to the right nor the left: it did not turn into a species of Presbyterianism with bare liturgical overtones or, on the other hand, a mere curiosity, a pale echo of the religion of Rome, a forlorn orphan pining for its parent. Anglicanism remained whole and complete, and echoes of Laud's standards and beliefs can be discerned in Anglican worship today; it descended even to the Episcopal Church of the new American nation when, following the Revolutionary War, the first bishop of the American Church, Samuel Seabury, had to be consecrated by Scottish bishops using Laud's prayerbook of 1637. English bishops could not consecrate an American, because their form of worship would have required a swearing of allegiance to the English King.

How ironic that a man so consumed with his own importance, so full of anger and peevishness, so capable of harshness and cruelty, should have been the means through which the spirit of his church was preserved! The Deity does, indeed, work in mysterious ways. Those contemporaries of Laud considered in his day to be among the lights of Christian piety—Lancelot Andrewes, George Herbert, William Juxon—are known today mostly to specialists of that period. Herbert's poems, beautiful as they are, are an assignment for graduate students in English. The figures of speech in Andrewes's sermons are sometimes ridiculously overdone, and his book of private devotions, valuable as it is, is seldom consulted. No one remembers any longer that it was Juxon who accompanied Charles I to his own appointment with the headsman on another January morning, 4 years after Laud's death, so cold that Charles wore two shirts so that onlookers would not think he was trembling from fear.

No, it was neither Herbert, nor Andrewes, nor Jeremy Taylor, nor even later luminaries like Thomas Ken who preserved Anglican worship as something worthy and distinct, but this cranky little man, nearly eaten alive with impatience that the world could not see things his way and that he could no longer whip it into conformity, forced to witness the gleeful dismantling of everything he had fought for, and finally crying out, in a sort of despairing faith, “Lord, I am coming to you as fast as I can,” as his contemptuous jailers came to lead him to the chopping block. In a final moment of uncharacteristic humility, he said this prayer, which is found today in the Book of Common Prayer. It is his best epitaph:
Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.

© Michael Huggins, 2011. All rights reserved.

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