Parliament, Politics and People Seminar: Jason Frost, ‘Church, State and Parliament in the Late Eighteenth Century in the Martyrdom Day Sermons of 30th January’

Reporting back from our latest ‘Parliaments, Politics and People’ Seminar, Jason Frost (University of Westminster) spoke on ‘Church, State and Parliament in the Late Eighteenth Century in the Martyrdom Day Sermons of 30th January.’ Here he discusses his paper…

“…That every thirtieth day of January…shall be forever hereafter set apart to be kept and observed in all the Churches and Chapels of these Your Majesty’s Kingdoms of England and Ireland, Dominion of Wales etc as an Anniversary day of fasting and humiliation to implore the mercy of God that neither the guilt of the Sacred and Innocent Blood, nor those of other sins by which God was provoked to deliver up both of us and our King into the hands of cruel and unreasonable men may at any time hereafter be visited upon us or our posterity.” [Danby Pickering, The Statutes at Large from the Thirty-Ninth Year of Queen Elizabeth, to the Twelve Year of King Charles II Inclusive Vol. VII (Cambridge: 1763), p. 492.]

It was with the inclusion of this relatively short clause in the far more substantial Act of Attainder of several persons guilty of the horrid murder of his late Sacred Majesty King Charles I of May, 1660 that the Martyrdom Day observance was added to the Calendar of the Book of Common Prayer alongside the other great ‘official’ national commemorations of Accession Day of the reigning monarch and Gunpowder Treason Day (5th November). Preached every year between 1661 and 1795 and then again between 1807 and 1811, observances were held by the Court; at the Chapel Royal, the House of Lords; at Westminster Abbey, the House of Commons; at St Margaret’s Church, the Lord Mayor and the Corporation of the City of London; at St Paul’s Cathedral; the two universities; in both Houses of Convocation; the town corporations and in every parish church. Although the Sermon would never be uniform in composition and would differ depending upon where and in what year it was given, on this solemn annual occasion the focus of the entire nation’s attention would be commanded to remember that faithful day in 1649.

Having analysed the text of the available Sermons between 1779 and 1793 one can discern five key themes which amount to an ‘accepted political orthodoxy’: the Social Man, a Christian Identity, the Divinity of Government, Toleration and the Perfect Constitution. Throughout the Sermon series the preachers consistently rejected the ‘state of nature’ theories then being made fashionable by the likes of Rousseau. They argued instead that the only way man was able to preserve his individual freedom was to enter into society with one another. However, the necessity of such action was recognised as being insufficient to contain man’s natural desire for freedom. What was needed was a species of transcendental signifier; some concept of divine order which placed authority and legitimacy beyond the physical reach of any man and thus provided a guarantee of individual rights. This ‘vital spirit’, this ‘invigorating influence’ could not be found among the ideas of men. Only the influence of a religious faith could affect this bond, this identity between men. The Sermons define Christianity as the only true ‘national spirit’; it being the medium through which man can be united as a community.

As this community of faith grew in size and complexity the formulation and adjudication of society’s communally accepted regulations began to be delegated to a smaller group drawn from amongst that society. Divine Providence having made man insufficient to exist without society, to come to deny the emergence of this concept of order through delegated government was in effect to challenge God himself. However, although held together through this adherence to a Christian identity, the Sermons repeatedly emphasised the notion that the true spirit of Christianity is the spirit of love, humanity and moderation. They implicitly rejected the wholesale relevance of perpetuating denominational division based purely upon differences in creedal formulae. If a policy of toleration had the effect of making men loyal and orderly subjects, there could no longer be any justification for refusing to grant such in the case of fellow Trinitarian Christians. This more ecumenical attitude was in direct response to the changing nature of ‘the other’ confronting civilised society. No longer was the struggle one of an intercine battle for theological dominance. The new strains which the American Rebellion placed upon society and the violence and bloodshed apparent during the French Revolution rendered a conflict between doctrinal particulars largely irrelevant. The fault-line was now one between God and Atheism; order and anarchy. This new spirit of tolerance extended to include even Catholics; something which on the surface would appear to overthrow centuries of accepted political orthodoxy, as evidenced in at least two Sermons calling in which the congregation is called upon to grant assistance to those refugee prelates and clergy of the fallen Church of France. How would Britain forestall such a descent into irreligion and darkness? It would do so by holding fast to its superior constitution. Running throughout the Sermons were numerous pre-eminent declarations as to the near perfection of the British Constitution (as it had been settled during the Glorious Revolution). So faultless was this system that it was almost akin to the handwriting of God; the nearest a human system could come to establishing heaven on earth. To challenge any one part of it was to nullify the entire structure; a point made clear in the Bishop of Lincoln’s 1780 Sermon when he launched a veiled attack against the rebellious American Colonists by alluding to a body of men who foolishly believe that liberty can be ever achieved through the use of unconstitutional means.

From such themes can we deduce a vision of Church, State and Parliament during this period? Taken in that order, the Church is represented as both the propagator and custodian of the only authority truly capable of uniting men as brothers in society; of establishing a genuinely ‘national spirit’. It was only through the influence of this spirit that the Providential vision of human society could be realised. The Church, or more broadly in the light of the changing socio-political circumstances, Trinitarian Christianity, represented the means through which human relationships could be both ordered and civilised. Without the influence of this ‘vital spirit’ humanity could never be truly free. Only with an ordered society could man ever hope to reach his true potential. The role of the State was therefore cast as emergent from, and ultimately dependent on, the continued good order of society. The State, or Government, was essentially the delegated body charged with the regulation and adjudication of the mutually agreed framework of interaction and behaviour which formed the basis of human community. Its duty was to resolve the tensions inherent within human society so as to prevent any one individual or element within that structure raising rebellion against the rest, and thereby endangering the entire edifice. The State/Government was supposed to act as the medium through which the spirit of the Gospel, the vision of the Lord, was made reality on earth. But in the same way that the State/Government sought to restrain man’s inherent yearning to bridle against the divine order, it is the function of Parliament; conceived of as the physical embodiment of society as bonded by a national spirit, to safeguard society from the excesses of an overactive and/or tyrannous State/Government. Parliament acted as a permanent reminder that it is to the national interest that the God-ordained concept of State/Government was directed, never to the individual or minority interest. This vision was symbolically Trinitarian, Church; as Father and creator, State; the Son as physical manifestation of the Father on earth, and the Holy Spirit, Parliament; the conduit through which the national interest remains ever present.


Parliaments, politics and people will return in the new term!

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