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Reform Magazine | November 27, 2020

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Editorial: A problem with robes

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What kind of person would split a nationwide Church because they disapprove of the clothes the ministers wear? Someone with no sense of proportion? A fanatic? Someone who places their own opinions above the mission of the Church?

This is exactly the issue that split the Church of England in the time of the Reformation. Puritans hated the ornate ‘popish’ robes ministers were forced to wear, and a thousand of them quit the Church of England to start an illegal underground church in 1566. We remember them particularly this year because in 1620, 400 years ago, a group of them sailed on the Mayflower to found a settlement in New England (see ‘The church of the Pilgrims’, page 24.) We also remember them because they are the fathers and mothers of both the Congregational and Baptist movements, meaning that their spiritual offspring today number tens of millions.

Which makes it a little embarrassing that their starting point was as flimsy and small-minded as a quarrel over a dress code. Isn’t family embarrassing?

And yet, once they had formed their underground congregations, this gave them the impetus to totally – as we might say today – reimagine church. The Church is not a whole nation forced to agree in one set of beliefs, they said, it is a voluntary community of actual believers. The Church is not a monarchy, ruled by the Queen through her lord bishops, they said, it is the people of God, where every person’s voice has equal weight. Religion must be free, they said; coercion must end. They said: the state has no right to tell people what to believe, and the Church has no right to make laws for unbelievers. God’s will is discerned not by one person, they said, but by the whole people. And everyone should be able to take part.

This was properly revolutionary. The underground church was outlawed and many worshippers lost their lives for sticking with it. But they have won the argument and today western society is, you could say, built on their insights – freedom of belief, freedom of speech, the rule of the people.

Pretty good going for a bunch of small-minded fanatics.

So what do you want now, an edifying moral or an offer you can’t refuse? For moral fans: if we listen to people who seem to have obviously wrong and foolish ideas, we might find they also have something surprisingly and challengingly wise to say too. For the rest of you: rejoice! My new book The Journey to the Mayflower: God’s outlaws and the invention of freedom is now out from Hodder & Stoughton, and though it’s available from all good bookshops for £20. Reform readers can buy it from the best bookshop (the URC’s) for £14 plus p&p. Visit www.urcshop.co.uk or call 020 7916 8629.

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This article was published in the February 2020 edition of Reform

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