The Perth Assembly debates between 1618-1619 provide good opportunity for apprehending Anglican adiaphora and the general purposes of church canon. The assembly and conferences were summoned by King James to lay the ground work for greater Scottish discpline. An episcopacy had already been re-established in 1606, and James I wanted better conformity between the Scottish Kirk– still mostly regulativist in ceremony– and English ritual.
The Perth Conference:
The articles requested by the King rubbed raw Presbyterian regulativist worship. They included five-points; namely, private communion for the sick, kneeling during mass, sabbath-keeping upon the five principle feast days (christmas, easter, et al.), private baptism, and the rite of confirmation. Knowing all too well the stubbornness of Scottish dissent, King James warned respective bishops and nobles his authority would not suffer impunity. His letter at St. Andrew’s in 1617 thusly concluded,
“But I will pass that among many other wrongs I have received at your hands. The errand for which I have now called you is to hear what your scruples are on these points, and the reasons, if any you have, why the same ought not be admitted. I mean not to do anything against reason; but on the other hand, my demands being just and religious, you must not think that I will be refused or resisted. It is a power innated, and a special prerogative, which we that are Christian Kings possess, to order and dispose of external things in the polity of the Church, as we by the advice of our Bishops shall think most fitting; and by your approving our disapproving deceive not yourselves. In will never regard it unless you bring me a reason I cannot answer.” (p. 380, Lawson)
The King’s general tone was for common order, or what Ridley called ‘vera-adiaphora’. The reforms of that Stuart period, 1603-1640, generally built upon Elizabethan policy of proper upkeep and decking of churches. The strong associations plain-worship invoked with varieties of impropriety and iconoclasm, non-conformity was usually taken as a sign of disloyalty. Further complicating matters was the differing temper and ceremony of two national churches. The English had kept many medieval customs while the Scottish more radically looked toward an extremely primitive (pre-nicean) usage. Most controversial, according to Spottiswoode and Cowper (p. 401), was the proposition of kneeling in both prayer and communion. Both sides agreed the practice indifferent. But the Scotsmen protested kneeling and similar reverences had no utility in their kirk, ulitmately harming edification with unnecessary distrubance. Dr. Lindsey, in his record of the proceedings, described the presbyterian position partly, saying,
“first, Master John Carmichael brought an argument from the custom and practice of the Church of Scotland, which had been long observed, and ought not to be altered, except the inconvenience of the present order were showed, and the desired gesture qualified to be better…From this argument, they went to another of Christ and the disciples sitting at the first institution; in discussing whereof, they were brought to acknowledge the gesture not to be of the essence of the Sacrament, but alterable at the discretion of the Church: Only they held the custom formerly received to be better.”
Once Presbyterians admitted adiaphora, however, Episcopals only had to hammer-home the King’s authority, an authority found constitutionally in England in the 1559 Act of Uniformity. Bishop Faber easily turned Carmichael’s adiaphora argument around,
“I neither know scripture, reason, nor antiquity, that enforceth kneeling, sitting, standing, or passing, as necessary; but think them all indifferent: and therefore, that any of them may be lawfully used, when it is found expedient. And considering nothing to be more expedient for the weal of our Church then to keep peace with our gracious Sovereign, and not to contend for such matters, I judge, yeilding to his Highness desire to be the onely best.”
These matters belonged better, perhaps, to the wisdom of Solomon than a polarized synod. The Archbishop Spottiswoode sagaciously reminded the Assembly at Perth regarding the dangers of contention, begging churchmen to consider pastoral ends canons ought to serve,
“The Kingdom of God consists not in them [the Five Articles], but in righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. Away with fruitless and contentious disputings. Remember the work we are sent for is to build the Church of God, and not to destroy it; to call men to faith and repentance; to stir them up to the works of true piety and love, and not to make them think they have religion enough when they have talked against Bishops and ceremonies”. (p 393, Lawson).
Church Ceremony is Not Divine Law:
Dr. William Cowpar, Bishop of Galloway, likely gave the best defense for the King’s articles. He preached upon Christmas Day when the Articles were first enforced. A former pupil of Andrew Melville, Cowpar’s reason for re-instituting kneeling-at-communion was essentially the same as Cosin’s rationale for fixed altars. It, therefore, argues the temporary nature of 16th-century canons like the 1566 Advertisements that contained puritan zeal without abandoning earlier royal command, e.g., the Ornament Rubric. First, Cowper explains the nature of adiaphora (an idea both evangelicals and catholics today ought to re-familiarize themselves upon) by point out prior rites which have either been cast-off or restored.
“But, they say, We have no commandment in the word to do it. I answer, Let them distinguish betwixt that which is substantial and real in religion, and that which is circumstantial and ritual. A point substantial must have an express warrant in the Word commanding it; for that which is circumstantial, it is sufficient if it be not against the Word, it being left to be ordained by ecclesiastical authority. As, for example, to preach in season and out of season is a substantial point; for it we have an express command in the Word. What day of the week ordinary preaching should be beside the Sabbath, that is circumstantial, and left to the decision of the Church, who by the same authority that they may ordain preaching [on] such a day of the week, may also ordain preaching such of the month in a year. Again, he that sins openly shall be rebuked. This is substantial in religion, and we have an express command for it. But to set him on a pillar three days, or more, or fewer, is circumstantial, such as our Church without doing wrong to the Word of God hath determined. I acknowledge it to be a good order, and will any of these men condemn it because it is not an express command in the word? Marriage is honourable among all men, for man and woman to join without marriage is fornication. This is substantial, and hath the warrant of the Word. But that first they must be three days publicly proclaimed, is circumstantial, done by the Church for good order, which I acknowledge sufficient, because it is not against the Word”.
“Yule Day, say they, was cast out of our Church. I answer, what they call Yule Day I know not; but a day reputed for the day of Christ’s nativity, and observed for the remembrance thereof, that I know. I find no ecclesiastical law standing in all our books of the Assembly to the contrary. But if it have been cast out, yet a thing not against the Word of God upon good considerations may be brought in again, albeit it had been left out. Instances of this I might bring from the Church of Geneva; one I bring from our own. Since baptism not upon a preaching day was cast out by act and practice, and yet is now received again, why may not the preaching of Christ’s Nativity, Passion, Resurrection, Ascension, and sending of the Holy Ghost, or such days, be received again, albeit it had been cast out?” (p. 417)
This idea of rites being ‘cast-off’ or ‘put-on’ to better correct abuse before restoring a prior custom might be read in the Perth Articles themselves, the first ordinance of which explains,
“Seeing we are commanded by God himself, that when we come to worship him, we fall down and kneel before the Lord our Maker; an considering withall, that there is no part of divine worship more heavenly and spiritual, then is the holy receiving of the blessed body and blood of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; like as the most humble and reverend gesture of the body, in our meditation and lifting up of our hearts, best becometh so divine and sacred an action: Therefore, notwithstanding that our Kirk hath used, since the Reformaiton of Religion, to celebrate holy Communion to the people sitting, by reason of the great a abuse of kneeling used in idolatrous worship of the Sacrament by the Papists: yet now seeing all memory of by past supersititon is past; in reverence of God, and in due regard of so a divine a mystery, and in remembrance of so mystical an union as we are made partakers of, the Assembly thinketh good, that the blessed Sacrament be celebrat hereafter meekly and reverently upon their knees.”
Cowper finishes his apology for kneeling by, once more, citing vera-adiaphora, if not Article XXXIV (Of Traditions of the Church),
“If I should condemn sitting at the table, I should do wrong to my mother Church– the Church of Scotland. If I should condemn standing, I should do wrong to that sister church of France which hath stood for the truth to the blood. If I should condemn kneeling, I should do wrong to the Church of England, glorious with many crowns of martyrdom, and many other Churches also. I like well that modest judgment of Peter Martyr, who thinks any of these, sitting, standing, or kneeling lawful. Our Church has determined that kneeling seems the most reverent form for receiving so great a benefit; and the rude gesture of many of our people in many parts of the land requires that they should be led to a greater reverence of that holy mystery, and taught that by humble kneeling we shall at length be brought to a joyful sitting with Him forever”. (p. 402, Lawson)
A Kind of Comprehension:
There are some vital principles that original Protestantism has since forgotten. One is adiaphora where church rites continue according to the temperament and edification of the people. We know Elizabeth suspended areas of the Ornament’s Rubric, but these were for reasons of peace and keeping weak brothers. Nonetheless, the Ornament Rubric covers acceptable ceremony, and those canons which followed are not like divine law. What is put away can be restored. The Ornament Rubric itself judged acceptable worship in the reformed sense.
Another maxim once engendered by original Protestantism was common order governed by the prince. Unlike Germany where Charles V ultimately caved into Papacy, the English monarch was already an Imperial throne working a successful Reformation. The King of Ireland, Scotland, France, and England ruled a commonwealth of national churches, and by marriage his dominion later crossed into north Germany. In Hanover Lutherans interestingly retained their bishops. At any rate, royal marriages would provide greater framework for a pan-protestantism, or a kind of northern catholicism, to grow by way of British empire. As different as the Scottish and English Church may have been, Perth was an early attempt to comprehend their respective Ecclesiastes. Perhaps it was a more principled than the Lambeth Quadrilateral.
The possibility of communion was known from Archbishop Spottiswoode’s rather optimistic report from the 1617 Assembly. While the assembly repeatedly rejected the King’s five-articles between, from 1617 to 1621, it was willing to adopt (modified versions of the) four of the five said statutes (pp. 400, 412, 418). But James and Charles I would have no half-way measure. For a time Perth succeeded, but Presbyterian resentment simmered until exploding in 1638 with the full imposition of prayer book and canons. Too often our two maxims– edification and common order– find themselves at odds. Rather than hurt the weaker brother, Mr. Scott, a presbyter at the conference, advised a kind of catechism until the apparent impasse was softened,
“In short, a very different feeling pervades Scotland on many of those matters, which even those who adhere to the covenanting fanaticism cannot deny. Intercourse with England, a better system of education, and other causes, might be assigned for the softening of the old and bigotted prejudices.” (p. 413)
A history of the Perth proceedings and Scottish Episcopal Church by Lawson can be downloaded here.