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Reform Magazine | September 26, 2020

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Editorial: The London underground church

With the anniversaries of Luther’s 95 theses and Coltman’s ordination, 2017 has been quite a year for church history – which has to be a good thing in my book. (It’s a church history book.)

Here’s another anniversary I didn’t want to let the year pass without mentioning. In June 1567, 450 years ago, the Sheriff of London’s men raided Plumbers’ Hall. It had been booked ostensibly for a wedding, but the constables found 100 people gathered for worship without using the Prayer Book of the Church of England. The ringleaders were arrested and gaoled.

This was the point where an underground religious movement emerged into history. The worshippers were progressive Protestants who felt the Elizabethan Church of England had not been reformed nearly enough. Not being allowed to reform their own parish churches, they started meeting for worship in their own houses, in woods and in ships.

By splitting from the Church of England, they became the mothers and fathers of the first nonconformist denominations in England. They became the first Congregationalists, and, 42 years after their phoney wedding, some of their movement became the first Baptists. In the 1580s, one leader of the movement, Robert Browne, became a pioneering advocate for religious freedom, though another leader, his former friend Robert Harrison, called that idea ‘manifold heresy’.

We know the names of eight Londoners who had died in prison for this faith by 1581. Two East Anglians were hanged in 1583 for circulating writings by Browne and Harrison. In 1593, three leaders of the underground church were executed, at which point at least 16 had died in prison in the previous five years.

I am in awe of their commitment to their faith. When it comes to what exactly their faith was, I feel a bit more ambivalent. The issue over which they split from the Church of England was the ministers’ robes, which the nonconformists hated as a Catholic abomination. This seems to my modern sensibilities both trivial and bigoted. Though, if I had lived through Queen Mary’s genocide, I might feel differently.

Many English people disliked those robes, but this band of extremists went so far as to split the Church over it. Maybe it was because they were extremists that they came upon the brilliant, world-changing idea of religious toleration. The moderates whom nobody minds don’t need toleration. And by refusing to conform to the state Church of their day, these extremists helped to create a world where we are all free to dissent.

I think my gratitude to them outweighs my sniffiness about their priorities. And I wonder who among us today will receive the gratitude of future centuries for making a better world. Not comfortable opinion holders, I think, but campaigners.

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This article was published in the November 2017 edition of  Reform

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