Among the Oxford Martyrs burnt at the stake by Queen Mary on Oct. 16th 1555 was the Anglo-Lutheran divine, Nicholas Ridley. As Bishop of London under Edward VI, Ridley signed the patent of succession against Mary for Lady Jane Gray’s enthronement, sealing his fate with the subsequent fall of the Seymour House. But less known than his martyrdom, was Ridley’s ardent defense of Church law against John Hooper’s vestment controversy. Ridley’s defense against private opinion in areas of ritual established the general argument used by Prayer Book apologies.
In 1550 John Hooper returned from exile in Geneva to England, bringing with him iconoclastic passions that were more or less common in the Rhineland at the time. From the outset, Ridley rightly identified iconoclasm with the ‘anabaptism’ Zurich was usually associated. The crisis reached a head when Hooper refused to wear either cope or surplice at his consecration to the Bishopric. Hooper’s argument basically argued unless scripture commanded such apparel, personal conscience was free to pick ceremony regardless of royal statute. In the eyes of high churchmen Hooper’s desired freedom threatened uniformity which was presuppositional to “public” prayer. Ridely, in contrast, defended the Crown’s role in deciding ‘things indifferent’ or adiaphora, laying the ground work for Prayer Book apologies written toward the end of Elizabeth’s reign, such as, Whitgift’s Answer to the Admonition and Hooker’s eight-volume Ecclesiastical Polity.
Public authority in areas ecclesiastical was a salient feature of the magisterial reformation, especially in England where the monarchy governed the provincial Church in matters external. As with worship during the medieval era, Prayer Book ceremony in Tudor England retained the force of public law. Given this rather long history of the cooperation of civil and ecclesial power, Hooper’s plea for private conscience in questions of ceremony was fairly revolutionary, anticipating later Puritan polemic and upheaval. Of such private opinion, Ridley was rather disgusted, saying in his letters,
“And whereas it is said, that the thing indifferent is to be left free to use it or not use it, as it shall seem profitable or disprofitable unto the conscience of the user, this is true in things indifferent not commanded thus, or so to used, by an order: but in public ordinance it is not lawful, except in lawful urgent cause, or in a case of necessity, to break the same; for then thou showest thyself a disordered person, disobedient, as a contemner of lawful authority, and a wounder of thy weak brother his conscience” (p. 430, Writings of John Bradford).
Compare this to Hooker’s pointed comment,
“Again, politic society has fixed laws as to food, which, as living in society, we are bound to observe: and likewise in the church, certain regulations (as fastings, etc.) have been instituted, to which our private discretion must bend, unless we would be the authors of confusion.” (p. 83, Digest of Hooker’s EP)
The ‘public ordinances’ Ridley speaks about were mainly canons, prayer book, and a number of other formulae the Crown had moved under Cranmer and given civil backing by parliamentary Acts of Uniformity. Ridley reminds Hooper the dignity of such law-makers, namely, Lords both spiritual and temporal, “Wherefore I cannot but wish the writer [Hooper] a better mind, both towards composers, which was the company appointed of learned men, and also towards the parliament, which was the stablishers of the Book of Common Prayer in England” (p. 441). Not believing ourselves superior, Ridley pleaded with Hooper for patience with common authority, especially where the church and Crown have already agreed,
“Sir, a short proof is this, not framed after your appointment, for the nature of the cause needeth it not. The church hath received these vestments by lawful authority, and with an agreeable consent, for causes to them seen good and godly: and, until it shall be otherwise dispossessed by order…and authority, we will plead a possession, and …if every subject shall be a judge, what profiteth or not profiteth, what order shall follow? Wise men can judge, though you and I should both hold our peace.” (p. 439)
Behind public law was polity. More specifically Anglican authority was ‘prelatic’, meaning hierarchical and having submission of parts. Ridley sketches the sorts of common authority, naming the Crown, bishops, and certain under-officers. The polity of the Church of England included both secular and clerical officials. Its outline was also given in British BCP litanies until the American Revolution where the King, next the bishops and clergy, and then the secular nobility were summoned in Privy Council and parliament. After the lords came common magistrates and judges and, last, the mass of faithful. Ridley makes reference to these estates as they existed in the 16th century:
“And I pray you tell me, if this be received [pseudoadiaphora], who shall in the order of the church regard either commandment of the king or of his council, either parliament, prelate or any other ordinary power, whatsoever they commanded, not commanded in scripture, though else it be never so good? And the aforesaid sentence– as a thing which is the subversion of good order, wholesome discipline and obedience, and of other many godly ordinances made for the amendment of people’s manners, as the case diversely doth require– and as also the very root and well-spring of much stubborn obstinacy, sedition, and disobedience of the younger sort against their elders, contrary to St. Paul’s doctrine” (p. 445)
For Ridley and high churchmen like him the larger principle at stake was St. Paul’s maxim, “all things are done in order”. While sola scriptura was understood to protect men from church abuse, private opinion didn’t mean civil and ecclesiastical authorities lacked sway over the individual person. For Ridley ‘freedom of conscience’ continued to have its corporate aspect, requiring the weaker party to seek remedy by lawful petition (through the chain of authority noted above) until finally rectified, especially when “the abuse is more easily taken away than the thing itself, then such are not, because they have been abused to be taken away, but to be reformed and amended, and so kept still” (p.431).
This was certainly a charge for moderation. Rather than overthrow indifferent ceremony, Ridley hoped vestments might be retained while clarifying their correct use for the sake of order and peace. As it was, Whitgift’s defense of conformity ultimately convinced the King’s privy council, and ‘right-use’ proved chief reason for Cranmer’s making of the Prayer Book, even foundational to England’s religious settlement.
Anglicanism’s modern crisis is largely one of authority. Without a Crown, where do Anglicans look? Perhaps a lesson or two can be drawn from Ridley. Though not an exhaustive of doctrine, formularies like the Prayer Book, Articles, Ordinal, and later canons were born (in part) of royal statute and can be treated as an anchor for English catholicism since at least the 16th century. These formularies might further be organized among each other according to the degree of reception by Crown, Convocation, and Parliament, of course with the test of scripture and tradition, With this consideration, Anglicans not only have a gradation of ministers but grades of profession or ‘prayer’ whereupon private opinion certainly exists but is patient higher authority, be it the Ordinary or Article. Ridley did much to open such discussion regarding the force of church ordinances that later Anglicans championed. Not only as an Oxford Martyr but as an early defender of uniformity, Ridley is worthy of memory.
More about church-state soon! Many wonder how this applies today, and the liberal catholic, Rev’d Campion (1889 AD), gives practical advice. Meanwhile, read more about the King’s seal/head with respect to our clerical and fatherly holy Oaths / Allegiance.