The Church played a much larger part in the lives of all people in the C17th than it does today. “The thinking of all English people was dominated by the Church.” (C Hill) Why did the era from 1603 to 1640 witness a challenge to the power and to the very existence of the Established Church? The early C17th saw intellectuals questioning what was perceived as being the ‘norm’. This included the role of the Church. These ideas were only understood by a very small minority of the population, but they had great importance, as it was the intellectuals that fuelled Puritan ideology. They also influenced the men who sat as Members of Parliament. “The great physician William Harvey told a bishop during the Interregnum that he had met more diseases generated from the mind than from any other cause.” (Hill) The Puritans wanted the laity to rely on their own senses and consciences, and for the Bible to be interpreted with reference to social needs. The Church could not allow this to happen as it threatened certain vested interests. The state church wanted the populace to assume “that it is the ‘safest to do in religion as most do’ – hardly a belief conducive to spiritual zeal”. (N Stone) Among the faithful, “confidence in doctrine declined, to be compensated for by a rise in loyalty to the independent Church.” (Hill) In 1625, it was noted that “certainly there’s scarce one found that now knows what to approve or what to disallow.”
In the 1630’s it was still believed that only the state church run by corrupt men stood in the way of an acceptable agreement between the King, Charles I, and Parliament. As a contemporary writer recorded, “The state church hamstrings human effort.” Such was the standing of the church, that improvements that were made in the living standards of the clergy were overshadowed by its deficiencies, scandals and the fact that the Bible gave it no right to interfere in politics. Dissenting groups were bound to form. Yet in 1604, it had appeared as if the major religious problems of the day would have been cleared.
In 1604, there was a strong possibility that any religious quarrels between the Puritans and the State Church would be ended. This potentially good start ended but not without some success. While James had a tendency to irritate people, he did not do anything that would make people outright opponents of monarchy. After all, religious issues had been a problem for a number of decades in Tudor England – they did not suddenly start in 1603 when Elizabeth died and James ascended the throne. Ironically, it was these ‘good times’ that people remembered most when Charles was king. Compared to what was occurring in the reign of Charles, religious issues linked to government from 1603 to 1625 seemed almost acceptable.
James had initially become involved in religious issues at the start of his reign – as the Millenary Petition and the Hampton Court conference illustrated. The 1603 Millenary Petition that was presented to him listed many grievances against the state church. Principal among these grievances were absenteeism of preachers, pluralism and services that were too complicated for the congregation to understand. James grasp this problem and ordered that there should be “a resident Moyses in everye parishe.” The historian M Curtis wrote: “He (James) was readier than the bishops to acknowledge that the abuses in the Church were a serious matter.” As a result of the petition, James established the Hampton Court conference in 1604 but this served only to highlight the differences between the State Church and the Puritans.
By agreeing that the State Church and the Puritans should meet as equals at Hampton Court, James set up a dangerous precedence. Being treated as equal was a status that the Puritans were not willing to give up. “He induced the hope which he had neither the intention nor the power of fulfilling.” (Hill)
Some theoretical good did come out of the conference. An attempt was made to make the lives of parish preachers more comfortable so that a career in the Church would attract more learned men. Only “men of high honour” were allowed in the High Commission; preachers of ability were to be put in areas considered to be ‘popish’; the Book of Common Prayer was to be slightly reformed and excommunication was curtailed. James left the introduction of such reforms to the bishops who ensured most of it was not carried out (though the Prayer Book was slightly reformed) as they believed that any changes to the State Church would endanger their privileged position. As was typical of James, he saw no reason why he himself should have to oversee such issues.
The lack of any real reform angered the Puritans and drove an even bigger gulf between them. “They (the bishops) generated among the Puritans a new distrust of ecclesiastical authority. Whitgift and Cranfield hastened the formation of what can only be called an organised Puritan party in the Parliament of 1604.” (Curtis) The official write-up regarding the conference also served to anger the Puritans. Done by William Barlow, Dean of Chester, and titled “The Summe and Substance” it portrayed the Puritans as “bemused, if not silly men (belonging to) a confused and muddled party.” The bishops were portrayed as Godly and righteous men.
The attempt to improve the standard of clergy did meet with the Puritans approval but when the bishops attempted to increase and make independent the legislative power of the Convocation, this was flatly refused by Parliament.
In 1606, Parliament made its position clear when it issued a bill “for the more sure establishing and assurance of true religion (which) required that no alteration should be of any substantial point of religion but by Parliament with the advice and consent of the clergy in Convocation.” The bill failed in the House of Lords where the Lords Spiritual were influential but the words set a marker for where they stood.
In July 1610, the Commons presented a Petition of Religion to the king. This listed all the religious failings identified by the Commons in the previous six years. It pointed out that 150 ministers had been deprived of their benefices because they would not conform to the Church. The Commons titled these men the “silenced ministers” and they wanted the king to give his approval for those who had been effectively sacked to have a right of appeal.
The lack of any direct action to reform the State Church angered the Puritans in Parliament and also increased their numbers. The growth in lecturers who travelled the country served their cause. In 1622, James issued his ‘Direction to Preachers’, which gave the bishops more control over the lecturers. James also ordered that “no preacher of whatever denomination should fall into bitter invectives and indecent railing speeches against the persons of Papists.” This seeming support of Popery further worried the Puritans. Their fears that Catholicism was going to replace the State Church was a long way from the truth – but to the Puritans, it was a real fear.
James spent a great deal of time at the start of his reign addressing religious issues. But as his reign progressed, his interest in religious issues waned and other things occupied his mind, such as hunting and advancing the careers of his favourites. By the end of his reign in 1625, it would be wrong to assume that there was an impenetrable gulf between the State Church and Puritans, but there was little trust between the two and this only got worse when Charles was crowned king.