Somewhere, Beyond The Sea

Somewhere, Beyond The Sea April 17, 2015

As I described in my last post, the Non-Jurors were a High Church movement within the Church of England, who refused to take oaths to the new regime after the Glorious Revolution of 1688. Their leaders were pious and thoughtful, with a deep interest in church history and liturgy, and a special focus in the primitive church. As they tried to seek out an authentic church tradition to which they could attach themselves, they followed a path that closely foreshadows that of many modern Protestants and Anglicans.

As firm believers in episcopacy, church hierarchy and apostolic tradition, the Non-Jurors could not simply abandon the Church of England and become just another sect, like Presbyterians or Baptists. They believed that the church must still exist, even if flawed and politicized bodies like the then Church of England had abandoned its principles. But where might it be found? In the nineteenth century, many Protestants followed a similar logic along the path to Rome, but Catholicism was not a plausible option for believers c.1720 who were utterly convinced that the Papacy was the Antichrist.

But Rome was not the only option in terms of a “global” church clearly connected with the early Church and the patristic era, and which still retained such ancient institutions as bishops and sanctions. And that is why these Anglican dissidents made a remarkable approach to the world’s other great Christian tradition, the Eastern Orthodox. This early example of religious globalization has been well studied by earlier scholars, notably Thomas Lathbury, but here I am drawing chiefly on work by H. W. Langford. Among modern writers, Judith Pinnington has published Anglicans and Orthodox: Unity and Subversion 1559-1725 (Gracewing 2003).

From the late seventeenth century, England had multiple contacts with the Eastern Christian worlds. English merchants were heavily involved in the Mediterranean trade and the country was starting to think of itself as a power in the region. The Easterners particularly wanted to get English and Western help to relieve the persecutions inflicted by the Ottoman Turks. Greek and Middle Eastern Christians set up churches in London, which were the source of much curiosity by the English. For a few years after 1699, Oxford was even home to a college for Greek Orthodox students.

You can read Langford’s account in detail, but basically, around 1716, the English Non-Jurors approached the Eastern patriarchs to be acknowledged as a church under their jurisdiction, whether that of the Patriarch of Alexandria or Jerusalem. Although resident on English soil, they would nevertheless obey these distant masters, who represented authentic ancient Christianity.

The negotiations have been well preserved, and you can easily find Selected Correspondence between the Nonjuring English Bishops and the Eastern Orthodox Church, ca. 1716-1725. These texts are fascinating in terms of what the English would and would not accept. For all their interest in the early church, they were deeply unhappy about Orthodox ideas and practices that they found too Papist and Catholic.

The Non-Juror bishops showed in their correspondence a strong reluctance to ‘go behind’ the English Reformation Settlement, and were obviously very ill at ease in dealing with Orthodox belief on such subjects as transubstantiation and invocation of saints. With regard to the nature of the worship due to Our Lady, the patriarchs replied with some sympathy but with a possible touch of ridicule. “It is not to be wondered at for being born and bred in the principles of the Luthero-Calvinists, and possessed with their prejudices, they tenaciously adhere to them like ivy to a tree.”

Most interesting in light of later developments, the Non-Jurors were highly flexible about developing genuine English liturgies rooted in that country’s medieval past, which could mesh with Orthodox standards. The level of liturgical scholarship and awareness in these debates was impressive.

Given the enormous cultural disparities, the whole project was probably doomed. In 1725, Archbishop Wake wrote to the Patriarch of Jerusalem, telling the Easterners just who they had been dealing with. The Non-Jurors, in fact, were dissidents and schismatics, and the Orthodox would have violated multiple canon laws in taking them under their wing. That reluctance was all the greater when the Russian Tsar, Peter the Great, was so anxious to preserve good political relations with the English government.

Although the political environment was so radically different, the whole story sounds very much like present day dissident Episcopalians who reject the liberalism of their own US church, and place themselves under primates in Nigeria or Rwanda. We also think of the number of Western evangelicals who, since the 1970s, have gravitated towards Orthodoxy. In both cases, the quest for Christian tradition and authenticity could literally span the world. If you could not find a true church in your own land, then perhaps it existed somewhere out there … somewhere, beyond the sea.


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