Archive for the ‘Toleration Act of 1689’ Tag

Valentine: Martyred for Marriage   Leave a comment

Seascape Valentine, date unknown

Seascape Valentine, date unknown (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I always look forward to Valentine’s Day. Not just because it’s the first cause for celebration in the New Year, but also because it’s often been a momentous day in my life. In 1980 I led a demonstration of international students outside the Welsh Office, receiving a police caution for doing so inside, after meeting with the Under-Secretary of State. Apparently, we needed permission to walk on the pavements in the civic centre in Cardiff, and the hearty and good-humoured chanting of ‘occupy the Welsh Office’ which I had nevertheless tried (unsuccessfully) to hush had reached the ears of the chief constable at the South Wales Police HQ nearby. Like many of his predecessors, he was not amused by our protest! Ever since, I’ve had to declare this long-spent caution on every application form I’ve filled in! Ten years later, on February 14th, 1990, I left my home in Coventry to begin my working and married life in Kecskemét, its twin town in Hungary, to which I returned this year after fifteen years in the UK and France. For me, Valentine’s Day is not just about erotic love between partners, but also the willingness to express ‘philos’, love between brothers and sisters which is the heart of civic life, and, of course, the love of God, ‘agape’ in Greek and ‘caritas’ in Latin, giving us the word ‘charity’. ‘Duw Cariad yw’ (‘God is Love’) was painted among the Welsh language slogans when I arrived in Upper Bangor in 1975.

It’s difficult to determine who Valentine was, but he was probably a Bishop in the early church in the reign of the Roman Emperor Claudius II. Claudius had issued an edict that soldiers should not marry, since domesticity reduced their fighting potential, but Valentine performed weddings in secret. When he was caught, arrested and imprisoned, he fell in love with the gaoler’s daughter, leaving a note for her when he was led out to his death, signed ‘Your Valentine’. The day became very popular in England after the Restoration of the Monarchy. In 1662, Samuel Pepys wrote in his diary:

This morning comes in W Bowyer who was my wife’s Valentine, she having held her hands over her eyes all the morning that she might not see the painters who were gilding the chimney.

A tiny 2-inch pop-up Valentine, circa 1920

A tiny 2-inch pop-up Valentine, circa 1920 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Although Mrs Pepys took Mr Bowyer for her Valentine that year, the previous year the first man she met, who therefore, according to tradition, became her Valentine, was Sir W Batten, who sent her ‘half a dozen pairs of gloves and a pair of silk stockings and garters’. These were very popular gifts and were always accompanied by sweet words on a pretty card on which a pair of ‘gloves’ could indicate a pair of ‘loves’. These early Valentine cards were all hand-made until the development of colour printing and the expansion of the Post Office made sure that two hundred thousand more letters were received on Valentine’s Day than on any other day. The Penny Post in 1840 and the Halfpenny Post in 1870 led to the employment of three to four hundred workers on February 13th. In the early twentieth century the Christmas card became more popular, but the Valentine’s card made a comeback with the growth of specialist greeting card shops later in the century. It would be pleasant to think that this commercial imperative is not the only motivation for the revival of the custom, but is accompanied by a heart-felt longing for the romantic element so essential in human relationships, so well exemplified in the saint’s simple little private note, ‘Your Valentine’ before his very public sacrifice and martyrdom at the hands of the Roman Empire for the sanctity of Christian marriage.

Esther Howland Valentine, circa 1850: "We...

Esther Howland Valentine, circa 1850: “Weddings now are all the go, Will you marry me or no”? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

One of my favourite hymns is ‘Love Divine All Loves Excelling’, and we sang this at our pre-nuptual Meeting for Worship in the Quaker Meeting House in Bournville, Birmingham, on 6th January 1990. Since the ‘real business’ of our legal wedding was to take place in Kecskemét on 17th March, our ‘Meeting’ was for celebration and blessing, including everyone from my Humanist family and friends through to my Quaker ‘Friends’ and colleagues to Hungarian Calvinists, Irish Presbyterians, Welsh Congregationalists, Coventry Baptists, Brummie Anglicans and Catholics. It contained very diverse forms of worship, including silence, hymn-singing, organ-playing, readings from D H Lawrence, prayers and blessings; a really positive celebration of all forms of love, human and divine. It had to be carefully planned and negotiated, however, to make sure that, while inclusive of all beliefs and none, it excluded any formal registration of the marriage on behalf of the state. All those present were left in no doubt that there was to be a clear separation between religious blessing and legal wedding. And yet it was clearly a public act of celebration for two public servants, teachers, from Coventry and Kecskemét, for whom civic and personal relations were inseparable. It seems to me that this is where there has been both a lack of legal clarity and a failure of human charity in the recent debate about marriage in the UK.

St Valentine's Day card, embossed and printed ...

St Valentine’s Day card, embossed and printed in colour, with silk panel and printed message “My Dearest Miss, I send thee a kiss”, addressed to Miss Jenny Lane Lowe, or Love of Crostwight Hall, Smallburgh, Norfolk, and inscribed on the reverse “Good Morrow Valentine” (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

On the one hand, Christianity should not need the official support of civic society to worship and celebrate anything in human relations. On the other hand, Humanists, whether Christian, Jewish, Muslim or Atheists, can and should surely make clear their solemn commitment to public service by acts of reflection and affirmation, as an appropriate way to approach to nurturing relationships of whatever kind. That is not to say that every relationship has to be given the same status in law. Marriage, as well as providing a proper context for erotic love and companionship, is also concerned with the civic duty of bringing up children. That’s why those who don’t want this role should have the freedom to enter into a civil partnership, regardless of their sexual orientation. As Christians, we cannot separate our family lives from our public duties. We approach both with sense of vocation. We don’t do our jobs simply to get paid, nor do we get married and have children simply for our own personal gratification and satisfaction. It is our form of ministry, just as in government this is indicated at the highest level by the use of the word ‘Minister’. Public administration and Christian ministry have always been two sides of the same coin in British life. MPs have been paid a salary for less than a century. Before that it was seen as a voluntary service, but one which excluded people who had to work full-time for a living. Therefore a change had to be made in order to ensure that all could have equal access to that ministry, not to do away with their different backgrounds and roles in society.

When I worked for Devon County Council in Hungary in the mid-nineties, the role of councillors in Britain as essentially charitable in nature, was a difficult concept for their professional, salaried, counterparts to understand. So, it is entirely appropriate that public meetings in Britain begin with an ‘act of prayer and affirmation’, unlike in Hungary and France, where, for historic reasons, there has been a strict separation in law and practice between Church and State. Religious ‘Liberty’ and ‘Toleration’ in Britain is upheld by a carefully ‘engineered’ compromise between the churches and the state. For this reason, the exemption given to the Church of England and the Church in Wales from the requirement to register same-sex marriages is paradoxical. Whilst the Queen in Parliament has the right to grant this exemption to the national churches, the ‘non-conformist’ churches, whether Protestant or Catholic, now have no protection from the requirement under European Law, if not the Law of England and Wales. The Toleration Act of 1689, guaranteeing freedom of worship, has been undermined by the passing of a flawed bill which allows Quakers to marry couples according to their conscience in a Meeting for Worship, but does not give equality of rights to local ‘dissenting’ congregations, ministers and bishops, to appoint and conduct acts of worship (which is what church weddings are)  in accordance with the biblical teachings of Jesus Christ, as interpreted through their consciences. No doubt, the aggressive atheists would be pleased to see the division this has created within the Danish Lutheran Church happen in the UK, thus picking apart the carefully woven cloth of five centuries. Already there is pressure on the German government to follow ‘the British Example’.

It is said that Charles Wesley got his idea for his hymn from a popular song of the day, ‘The Song of Venus’, which comes from John Dryden’s play, King Arthur, set to the music of Henry Purcell:

Fairest isle, all isles excelling,

Seat of pleasure and of loves,

Venus here will choose her dwelling, 

And forsake the Cyprian groves

John Wesley changed the second line of his brother’s fourth verse from ‘Pure and spotless let us be’ to avoid suggesting that Christians could achieve a sinless perfection in this world and indicate that sanctification, like justification, stems from the reception of God’s universal grace, which perfects us only when we take our place in heaven, ‘lost’ in the Love of God. Until then we remain both saints and sinners. However, through His ‘loving spirit’ in the here and now, our hearts are ‘set…at liberty’ and we are called to ‘pray and praise….without ceasing’ and to glory in His ‘perfect love’. Nowadays, the hymn is sung to two great Welsh Hymn tunes, ‘Hyfrydol’, by Rowland Hugh Pritchard (1811-57), a loom-tender’s assistant in a Holywell mill, and Blaenwern by William Penfro Rowlands (1860-1937), to which my Welsh friends also sang ‘Calon Lán’, the Welsh hymn which equates a happy heart with a clean, honest one, ‘whiter than the whitest lily’. If Dryden’s words remind us of the ‘excellence’ of our own island, the other two hymns remind us of our own human imperfections and our need for the help of a more divine love in our service and ministry to others. An acceptance that some of us ‘do do God’ in public life and that we feel the need to witness to this, is based on an understanding that Christians accept their own shortcomings, not that they occupy the moral high ground. If more ‘politicians’ adopted this more modest attitude, rather than an arrogant belief, stemming from aggressive atheistic attitudes, in their own superiority and invincibility, they might recover some of their standing in the public eye and help us recover a position of moral excellence and leadership as an island of tolerance and liberty, a model of multiculturalism and integration. Equality cannot be imposed from above, it needs to grow from below, in all its diversity. The traditional, organic, worms-eye view of society is also the most radical one.

Thankfully, in Europe at least, our faith is no longer tested through persecution, and we no longer need to win over an Empire, but the example of Valentine witnesses to our need to keep ourselves as clean as possible from the demands of warrior states and to reflect divine love in the love between humans, whether fraternal or erotic.

 

Prayer Book & Persecution III   Leave a comment

George Fox, founder of the Society of Friends, called ‘Quakers’, kept a journal, like Richard Baxter. In it, he describes his imprisonment in Scarborough Castle on the Yorkshire Coast:

‘One day the governor of Scarborough Castle came to see me. I desired him to go into  my room…and it was so filled with smoke from the little fire that when they were in it they could hardly find their way out again…(After) I was removed into a worse room where I had neither chimney nor fire hearth. This being to the sea-side, the wind drove in the rain forcibly, so that the water came over my bed and ran about the room. And when my clothes were wet, I had no fire to dry them; so that my body was benumbed with cold and my fingers swelled…The officers often threatened that I should be hanged over the wall…But I told them that if that was what they desired and it was permitted them, I was ready; for I never feared death nor suffering in my life’.

Fox was later better treated by the governor, who tried to get him released and the leading Quaker’s fearless suffering changed not just the governor’s attitude, but also that of the officers and soldiers, who reported him to be ‘as stiff as a tree and as pure as a bell; for we could never bow him’. Nor was Fox alone in this example of endurance. From the time of the Act of Uniformity of 1662 to the Toleration Act of 1689, the Quaker movement continued to grow, despite, perhaps because of, imprisonment and persecution. At least 21,000 ‘Friends’ suffered fines or prison sentences, many more than once, and at least 450 died in prison, or as a result of their sufferings while in prison. But whatever was done to them, like George Fox, they held firm.

In 1678, the King’s ‘Indulgence’ towards Catholics and Non-conformists was brought abruptly to an end by the supposed ‘discovery’ of a Catholic plot to kill Charles and put his brother James on the throne. Titus Oates made up this story, and also claimed that Catholics had been responsible for starting the Great Fire twelve years earlier. Ever since, Catholics had been blamed for every fire that had broken out, and Oates’ story of a plot brought back even earlier memories of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. Most people hated and feared the idea of a Roman Catholic King, and wanted the Duke of York passed over in favour of Charles’ cousin, William, the Dutch Prince of Orange. Baxter, however, did not believe everything he heard, and warned of the dangers to the future liberties of England of lying on oath, as Oates had done:

‘Only that those coming after may not be deluded I shall truly tell them that lying most impudently is become so ordinary a trade…that I must confess it hath greatly depressed my esteem of most history and of human nature’.

Of course, this view of human nature was one point on which he would have quarrelled with the Quakers, whose doctrine of ‘the inner light’ of the divine in each one of us led them to proclaim the essential goodness of human nature, in conflict with the more Calvinist view of its sinfulness held by Baxter and most Protestants of all persuasions at the time. The doctrine of ‘that of God in everyone’ also led to their rejection of a professional, trained ministry, and the 1667 ‘convincement’ of courtiers like William Penn, the son of Admiral Penn who appears in Pepys’ Diary, of these beliefs, had led the authorities to think that their might be plotters among the movement, despite its declared pacifism. Quakers were mostly of low birth, but they had ‘Friends in high places’ and their beliefs were therefore seen as a direct challenge to the authorities of Christ, the Church and the Stuart state. Baxter, of course, respected them, and had made a public show of this by holding a public disputation with Penn at Rickmansworth, in which he nevertheless tried to correct what he saw as their doctrinal errors.

When Charles II died in February 1685, James was proclaimed King, despite the efforts of many Protestants to prevent this. Unlike his brother, James II hated the Nonconformists, many of whom had opposed him. As Baxter had feared, he began to persecute them more than ever. Worse still, as the most famous Nonconformist preacher, Baxter was a clear target as a leader to be made an example of by being brought to public trial. Since he had given up preaching, and had sold all his books, Baxter could only be charged with sedition through his writings, especially his newly-penned commentary on the New Testament. So, on May 30th, 1685, Baxter was brought to what we would call today a ‘show-trial’ at the Guildhall by the Lord Chief Justice of England, Judge Jeffreys. The hall was packed with crowds, some of the more ignorant asking, ‘surely this Baxter is one of those who burnt the City?’ This comment shows that it was perhaps now more fashionable to accuse the Nonconformists, rather than the Catholics, for starting the Great Fire, as they had sometimes been in the past. Jeffreys would not let Baxter’s lawyers answer the charge against the ‘commentary’, but continued to rant and rail against the ‘old rogue..with his Kidderminster doctrine‘ in the dock before him, giving such a performance that some in the crowd began laughing out loud. Baxter calmly replied:

One day, all these things will surely be understood and it will be seen what a sad and foolish thing it is that one set of Protestant Christians are made to persecute another set. I am not concerned to answer such stuff (as I am accused of) but am ready to produce my writings, and my life and conversation is known to many in this nation’. 

The jury had been hand-picked by Jeffreys and didn’t even bother to leave the court to reach their ‘Guilty’ verdict. Baxter was fined 500 marks, but Jeffrey’s attempts to have the ‘old knave’ whipped through the streets, was ‘stamped on’ by all the other judges. Later the same year, however, Jeffreys did have his fill of bloodshed and cruelty against the Nonconformist agricultural workers of  the West of England who rose up in support of the Duke of Monmouth’s ‘Pitchfork’ Rebellion against the tyrannical rule of James II. Monmouth, Charles II’s son by an earlier, secret ‘marriage’, landed at Lyme Regis and gathered his supporters together in Dorset before marching into Somerset, where he was defeated at the Battle of Sedgemoor. Jeffreys was sent to try the poor farmers and fishermen who had followed him, hanging as many of them as he could in what became known as the Bloody Assizes. When his master, James II, was forced to flee England in 1688, ‘the hanging judge’ Jeffreys tried to escape disguised as a sailor. However, he was recognised trying to board a ship in Wapping, and was nearly torn apart by the angry crowd. He was rescued and sent to the Tower, but never recovered from the ‘justice’ he had received at the hands of the people.

Meanwhile, refusing to pay the fine which had been imposed on him, Baxter remained in prison for eighteen months, until, in a belated attempt to appease the Nonconformists, the beleaguered James II released him. Baxter continued to preach at Charterhouse Yard  to crowds reported to be bigger than any Cathedral congregation in England. William III’s Parliament passed a ‘Toleration Act’ in 1689 which grant the right of religious worship to Protestant non-conformists as long as they agreed  to certain tests. Baxter persuaded many of his friends to agree to these, but died in December 1691, sad that there still had to be divisions and quarrels and that his dream of one Church was still only a dream. Although everyone was allowed to worship as they liked, Catholics and Nonconformists were not yet allowed to go to the universities or take jobs in the government, including the standing army and the Royal Navy. This meant they were still excluded from public service and the ‘mainstream’ of ‘established’ English society, though they were no longer punished for their beliefs and could build any sort of chapel or church they liked to worship in.

In 1672, Baxter published ‘a psalm of praise’ to the tune of Psalm 128, Ye Holy Angels Bright. This is the last verse of the famous hymn:

My soul, bear thou thy part,

Triumph in God above;

And with a well-tuned heart,

Sing thou the songs of love.

In 1838 John Hampden Gurney took Baxter’s verses as the basis of a new hymn, which became a favourite congregational hymn. An Anglican educated at Cambridge, after 23 years as a curate at Lutterworth in Leicestershire, he became rector at St Mary’s, Bryanston Square in London and in 1857 was made prebendary of St Paul’s Cathedral. So, Baxter’s words were brought home to the City of London. However, if there’s one group of people to which Baxter’s ‘well-tuned heart’ belongs, it is not the Church of England, nor even his parishioners in Bridgnorth or Kidderminster, nor John Hampden and the independent soldiers of Cromwell’s Army, nor the Royalists of Charles II’s Restoration, nor the Protestant Nonconformists. He belongs to all those believers persecuted for righteousness’ sake and, above all, to to all those who, like him, deserve the blessing, Blessed are the Peacemakers for they shall be called the Children of God.

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