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Reform Magazine | December 2, 2023

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Three last thoughts on the Great Ejectment

Three last thoughts on the Great Ejectment

Though the 350th anniversary year of the Great Ejectment is drawing to an end, three aspects of its legacy in particular should continue to inspire us, says Alan PF Sell

hat a year of celebrations and commemorations 2012 has been! We have had the Queen’s Jubilee and the Olympic and Paralympic Games. Some will have commemorated the bicentenary of the birth of Charles Dickens, and also of the poet Robert Browning. Others will have recalled the centenary of the birth of Perry Como, the singer who once declared: “If I was [sic] any more laid-back I’d be asleep.” Almost certainly Dickens and Browning knew Toplady’s hymn, Rock of Ages, which Perry Como recorded, and without question Dickens and Browning (whilst on earth – who can say what heavenly entertainments await?) missed out on Como’s Bibbidy-Bobbidy-Boo.

Many of us in the Reformed traditions, as well as some of our ecumenical partners, have paid attention this year to the 40th anniversary of the United Reformed Church, and the 350th anniversary of the Great Ejectment. By St Bartholomew’s Day on 24 August 1662, some 2,000 ministers, including some of the ablest preachers, scholars and pastors, had, on conscientious grounds, lost their livings in the Church of England. How may we sum up the continuing significance of this event? I suggest that we think in terms of three levels of increasing depth.

First, there is a story of courage and commitment. We do well to give thanks for the witness of the saints of the ages, and in order to do this we need to know about it. Our children and young people should be inspired by the adventures of the ejected Oliver Heywood as he toiled around the Yorkshire Dales preaching in barns and caves; of Joseph Oddy, who preached to his flock in a wood at night, mounted on his horse lest the officers of the law approached; and of Thomas Jollie, who preached from a staircase, standing behind a split door, the top of which could be closed if the alarm was given. I hope that church members have been introduced to, or reminded of, the devotional writings of Thomas Watson; that ministers have been challenged by Richard Baxter’s practice of catechising old and young in their homes so as to build them up in the faith; and that those who educate our nowadays peripatetic ministerial candidates have given thanks for Richard Frankland whose academy was unavoidably peripatetic.

Secondly, there is the understanding of the church that has come down to us from the ejected ministers and their Separatist forebears. The Act of Uniformity of 1662 required all ministers and schoolmasters to give their “unfeigned assent and consent” to the Book of Common Prayer of the Church of England, and to use it only in worship. The ejected said no: (a) because they had reservations concerning parts of the Prayer Book; (b) because they believed that so to restrict the content of worship was to constrain the Holy Spirit; and (c) because it was not the prerogative of the King or parliament to prescribe the church’s worship. This last point is reaffirmed in the Basis of Union of the United Reformed Church: in things spiritual the church is “not subordinate to” the state.

Again, the Act required that ministers who had been ordained during the Interregnum, when the episcopal system was in abeyance, must now be episcopally (re)ordained, and that all future ordinations must likewise be under episcopal jurisdiction. The ejected said no (though some later conformed). John Howe, ordained in a Presbyterian service, gave the classic reply to his friend Bishop Seth Ward, who asked what hurt there was in being twice ordained: “The Thought is shocking… it is an absurdity. For nothing can have two beginnings. I am sure… I am a Minister of Christ… and I can’t begin again to be a Minister.”

It might seem that the “no’s” of the ejected manifest the negativity of an “awkward squad”. In fact they flow from the positive conviction that Christ alone is Lord and Head of the church. The ejected ministers refused to put their necks into a sectarian noose. By “sectarianism” I mean the attitude (found in all branches of the church) which says: “Unless and until you sign on the doctrinal dotted line with us, and/or order your church in ways of which we approve, we will not have full communion with you.”

As one who has had the privilege of organising and participating in a number of international bilateral dialogues between the Reformed family and other Christian world communions, I have found that, although increasing accord has been found on numerous issues, time and again we have become blocked by what is really a version of the Galatian heresy (Galatians 1), namely, the adding of “new circumcisions”, or conditions, to the Gospel. The result is the tragedy of the divided Lord’s table. I have also become convinced that for a variety of reasons, Christians will never agree on all points of doctrine or practice (indeed this is not achieved within any given denomination). So what is to be done?

I believe, thirdly, that at the deepest level the question that exercised the ejected ministers was: Who are the saints (the church members) and whence do they come? They believed (as did those who produced the statements of faith from 1647 to 1967 which are recognised by The United Reformed Church, and those who devised our Basis of Union) that God the Holy Spirit has called out one church, holy, Catholic and Apostolic, and that it comprises all who have been engrafted by grace as branches of Christ the Vine.

It should follow that all such are made welcome at the Lord’s table, in response to the invitation of the church’s Lord. Whatever prevents this is sectarian in nature. The remedy is obvious, though nobody would be more surprised than I if it were adopted by the churches worldwide.

We all need to eschew the sectarian spirit; to rejoice that God has (whether we like it or not) already established one church with one Head; to join in fellowship at the Lord’s table wherever it is set; and then, revitalised and viewing neuralgic issues through demisted spectacles, to go out in mission to the world. Ecumenism is not just about the churches, it concerns “the whole inhabited earth.”

The ejected ministers remind us that, as far as the churches are concerned, the first question is not: How do we understand church order, baptism, eucharist and ministry? It is: What has the God of all grace and mercy done for us all, and who is really the Lord of the church?

A fuller consideration of these issues can be found in chapter four of The Great Ejectment of 1662: Its Antecedents, Aftermath and Ecumenical Significance (Ed. Alan PF Sell, Wipf & Stock, 2012)


This article was published in the combined December 2012/January 2013 edition of  Reform.

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