Back in March the relevance of one of the History Lectures is just too much to pass over. Here’s a direct lesson for us from the history of our own country. I’m very grateful to Stephen Rees for permission to quote from his lecture manuscript. I’ve edited it very slightly and the emphases in bold italics and brackets are mine, but here are a few quotations from the lecture to set the context:
…. Cromwell didn’t remove the concept of a state church. What he did was to insist the state church must be as flexible as possible – he wanted there to be room for almost any group of truly evangelical Christians to worship within the state church according to their own convictions. The way it worked was this. He appointed a committee of 38 men known as the Triers. A church – or any group of believers could put forward a man as a candidate to be recognised as the local minister. And the Triers tried him – they assessed his suitability. The only qualifications were that the candidate must be evangelical in doctrine and show evidence of a godly life. It didn’t matter if he were a presbyterian or an independent, or a baptist or a fifth-monarchy man. He could be appointed as minister of the local parish church – the local Church of England – he could be supported by public taxes, and he could lead the congregation according to his own convictions (My note: ‘his own convictions’ means according to the Bible). Many Anglican ministers were ejected from their churches by local committees, because of their ungodly lives or non-evangelical doctrine – and evangelical men were installed by the Triers in their places.
(My Note: This system of appointed ‘Triers’ presupposed a disposition not only towards the truth of the Word of God (The Bible) but also to the belief that such a thing as The Truth existed. This is not so today. And nowhere is this seen so clearly than in our National leaders. What’s on show in the State Church and in Politicians is sheer unadulterated relativism.)
And this was the way that Bartholomew Ashwood, at the age of 38 came to Axminster. Though he was operating within the state church, he had freedom for a little while to lead the church according to thoroughly Puritan, evangelical principles and to conduct worship according to his convictions.
But he knew that that freedom couldn’t last very long. Why not? Because in 1658 – since Ashwood had been admitted by the Triers, Cromwell had died. Now the country was on the point of calling Charles II back from exile. And Charles came from the line of the Stuarts who had persecuted consistent Puritans in England through two reigns. Before he was brought back from exile, Charles II promised that he would allow religious freedom – “liberty to tender consciences”. But men like Ashwood had no confidence at all in that sort of promise. He was very well aware that freedom might be very short-lived. Apart from anything else, whatever he promised, Charles would have very little freedom himself. He (Charles) had to meet the demands of the powerful individuals and groupings who had engineered his return.
Ashwood and his friends were convinced independents, believing that each church should be a company of believers, governed by its members under the Word (The Bible). Whether they were separatists, I think is unclear. It may be that if Ashwood had been free to build such an independent church “according to gospel rule and the pure institution of the Lord Jesus” yet remain within the overall structure of the state church, he would have chosen that option. But in any case he knew that that option was going to cease to exist.
This post is getting a bit long – So I’ll end it here. Link to Part 2.