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How Jeremy Taylor Kept His Head, The Spirit, and the Prayer Book

How Jeremy Taylor Kept His Head, The Spirit, and the Prayer Book

The wind (spirit) blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit. (Jn 3:8)

Once upon a time people took their religion seriously, deadly seriously. Not just priests, bishops, theologians, but farmers, shopkeepers, publicans, the kind of people Jesus hung out with. Take the case of the Rt. Rev. William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury, who lost his head for wanting a little High Church reform. But when King Charles I lost his head for claiming his divine anointing as king, the notion of the Anglican Church having anything that smelled Roman Catholic was anathema, And heads rolled. Of course, there had been blood in the streets in the Early Church. The determination that Jesus was fully divine, and not just sort of divine. led to decades of bloodshed. In a shocking way, I find all this refreshing. Christians may have been missing the point, but at least they cared.

Jeremy Taylor (1613-1667) was one of several pietistic Caroline writers during the protectorate of Oliver Cromwell. The Presbyterian/Puritan movement overturned the Anglican Church. The Prayer Book was banned and the Episcopate disbanded.  In some ways both the remnant of the royalist/High Church and the Puritans were in a toe to toe battle over who was more devout. The Roman Catholics weren’t far behind with the Counter (or Catholic) Reformation thanks to the Jansenists, amongst others. The practice of religion was very serious, sometimes deadly, and grim. And everybody claimed, in long sermons and treatises, to hear the Spirit.

In this maelstrom Taylor spent time in prison for his association with the martyred Laud. We lose track of him for some years, but he finally found a patron in the wilds of Wales, and rode out the rest of Cromwell’s grip on religion. And he wrote, a lot. His prose can be both beautiful and turgid, and at least one of his prayers made it into our Prayer Book. His two most well known works were a treatise on the moral life and on preparing for a good death. Taylor wasn’t invited to participate in the Prayer Book revision of 1662, although he was already a bishop in Ireland.

One thing that all these factions had in common is that, at the beginnings of the great mercantile era in Europe, they looked heavenward. The Gospel readings for this feast, and, incidentally, the reading in the Daily Office, are from John 3. Taking the longer of the two, John 3: 1-21, Nicodemus comes to Jesus by night, and edges around the question of who Jesus is who can perform such signs.  As usual, Jesus answers another question. “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above (or anew)” What follows is Nicodemus’ literal interpretation and Jesus spiritual answer. The bottom line is, “You must be born from above.” And then the puzzling and frustrating Truth which I used as the epigraph at the beginning of this reflection. Jesus goes on to chide this rabbi for his blindness, and states his purpose and his future on the Cross. To be saved we must believe in the name of the only Son of God. Finally, “that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.” (Jn 3:19-21) And here is where we get into trouble. Everybody wants to believe they are in the light. Everybody wants to believe they (alone) hear the Spirit.  And everybody seems to forget that all that comes from above, not from the world of flesh, our world, our incarnate political world. A deafening world drowning out the Spirit.

The Prayer Book of 1928 was vertical, focused heavenward, and inward, and not much had changed from the English PB. The 1972 BCP, which, according to Calvin Lane in The Living Church, was not just a forty year change, but the result of four centuries of theological wrestling with the Gospel and the writings of the Early Church, was one which rewrote liturgy to stress the horizontal aspect, the unity of the Body of Christ. We are again wrestling with the content and purpose of the Book of Common Prayer. Although the issue of revision of the 1972 BCP is under consideration for a future date, the issue is still hot. While the matters seem different, we are in about the same state of flux that the Church was in Taylor’s day. One huge difference is the speed with which information and misinformation spreads. And how easily a subject becomes a crisis, or even a war between factions. One big subject is gender (female and LGBTQ inclusion).  

The effort to switch “him” to “her” is one suggestion; degendering the liturgy, starting with Jesus and his Father, is another.  Removal of “King”, “Lord”, and all hierarchical references is another. But we are taught in Scripture that God is our maker and owner of us all, and that only in devout and humble obedience can we ever hope to see the face of God. And fear of the Almighty is the beginning of wisdom, a truth that our entitled youth can’t possibly understand. Can we remove the mythological power of these terms and retain the awe of God? Can giving the persons in the Trinity functional titles reveal to us persons we want to pray to, depend on for our care, uplifting us in times of trouble? Our Father? Our Lord? Without the crowning achievement of the Resurrection of Christ to the Heavenly Throne is the Crucifixion merely juridical injustice? There is a reason why King Arthur, Aragorn/Strider, Aslan still touch our emotions deeply. Kings matter. Fathers matter. Sons who love and obey their fathers matter. Whatever the social merits of any of these positions, the question is, do they represent the Gospel of Jesus, or has the church just embraced the politics of today, rather than being the ethical stance on which Christians base their civil behavior and law? Revision is like translation. It isn’t just word substitution, but changing symbols, and symbols have meaning. It isn’t so simple. We must walk carefully.

Taylor and Laud thought that the majesty of kingship expressed over and again in the Eucharist and through the supernal act of Baptism were worth fighting for. And we are still struggling with that same core question. How do we see God, glorify God, live not of this world, as Jesus taught? For each of us the place is a little different. And the Spirit speaks in many voices. And we don’t always listen.

Dr. Dana Kramer-Rolls is a parishioner at All Souls Parish, Episcopal, Berkeley, California and earned her master’s degree and PhD from the Graduate Theological Union, Berkeley, California.


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It isn’t just word substitution, that’s for sure. I am particularly sensitive to those who have been hurt or left out of TEC and those who find language powerful tools or weapons. I have a healthy suspicion of clergy and the hierarchical nature of TEC that comes from being a child of the 50’s and 60’s and raised a Lutheran. I don’t understand why we can’t be welcoming, share leadership on this earthly planet and still see God as Lord of all. I guess we cannot be humble and kneel, or we cannot say “I am not worthy” because of all the 21st century connotations of lack of self worth as demeaning? It’s not the same thing. Do we see ourselves as Christ’s equal or not subject to God? This black and white thinking, not being able to hold several things at the same time is unfortunate and not worthy of us as a thinking church. I do think it is so much political correctness and unfortunate. But alas we are not living in a world of subtleties.

Sue Sommer

As with much of what Dana contributes to Episcopalcafe, I like this reflection a great deal. You may wish to correct the date of the current BCP in the fifth paragraph from 1972 to 1979.

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