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  • Christy Wang

Combating Self-Righteousness

Part I

Throughout these past few months of lockdown, I have been meeting up with a student every Saturday. We regularly catch up and chat about all sorts of things—my research, her coursework, church, Christian Union events, theology, family, friends, and future plans. She attends a different church, and occasionally differences between her church and mine come up in our conversations.


It’s interesting how we are often more comfortable being friends with unbelievers than fellow brothers and sisters “from this other church down the road.” We often struggle to sympathise with people who are already similar to us. If we don’t normally raise our hands, jump, or dance when we sing at church, we sometimes dislike those who do so enthusiastically. We can’t always explain why. Perhaps sometimes we think they are being performative, insincere, or just weird. Perhaps this goes both ways. Friends from this other church might have been puzzled at our seeming lack of energy and even ‘coldness’ when we worship among them. Perhaps they even interpret our posture and temperament as a sign of disapproval. The truth is we know we can be judgmental sometimes.


Looking back at the history of the Church, unity has always seemed one of the unachievable ideals. Even though English Protestants in the past unanimously commended unity, moderation, and peace as godly values and repeatedly preached in support of them, vocal promotions of these virtues were often a coded language for particular agendas. This is not to say that Christians have always been hypocritical and only use religion as a smokescreen for personal gains (although sometimes this is sadly the case), but we are often trapped in our versions of godliness and orthodoxy and forget that it was the fundamentals that unite us. We have one Lord, one faith, and one baptism (cf. Eph 4:4-6), and this should motivate us to cultivate peace and love among us.


In the history of Anglicanism, there was a unique case of a “puritan bishop,” Edward Reynolds (1599-1676), whose pursuit of moderation in both ecclesiastical and political affairs proved deeply unpopular among many of his contemporaries. He changed from being a leading Presbyterian divine at the Westminster Assembly into bishop of Norwich after the Restoration in 1662. A royalist biographer, Anthony Wood, sarcastically cast Reynolds as an opportunist who first “flattered Oliver [Cromwell] and his gang” and then did the same to Cromwell’s son Richard, but upon the Restoration, willingly accepted the bishopric of Norwich “without a nolo” despite having preached against episcopacy throughout the civil wars.[1]


A closer look at Reynolds’ life reveals a different picture. He had conformed before the outbreak of war in 1642 so had never been a nonconformist. In 1642, when King Charles I and Parliament went to war, Reynolds preached against Parliament’s resort to arms. Like many fellow presbyterians, Reynolds strongly disapproved of the regicide in 1649 and resisted an oath demanded by the newly established Commonwealth to pledge loyalty to the new regime “without a king or House of Lords.”[2] This political defiance cost Reynolds both the deanery of Christ Church, Oxford, and the vice-chancellorship of the University in 1650-1. Lastly, although royalists like Wood were deeply critical of Reynolds’ motivation behind his conformity to the restored episcopacy in 1660, fellow presbyterians who did not accept the king’s offers of bishoprics, like Richard Baxter and Edmund Calamy, seemed very supportive of Reynolds’ decision.[3]


Seventeenth-century England was a time of political turmoil and religious conflicts. Even though everyone affirmed moderation as a virtue, they strongly disagreed with one another over the boundary of orthodoxy. As a former puritan and a moderate bishop, Reynolds’ efforts to bring in more nonconformists into the re-established Church in the 1660s and 1670s displeased many fellow Anglicans, who saw the bishop’s relaxed attitude towards ceremonial demands, such as kneeling at the receiving of the communion and wearing the surplice, as an affront to the restored episcopal ‘orthodoxy’, if not outright impiety. Divisions within the Church continued and debates over what were fundamental and what were things indifferent (adiaphora) that could be tolerated raged on.


We have gotten into an age that looks very similar to the times of turmoil in the past where moderation was outwardly commended but still often considered distasteful, if not outright sinful. Sometimes, it seems religion and politics are just as intertwined as before. Reynolds was the type of man who drew a lot of criticism and even hatred for his enthusiastic desire to be in the middle. Today, there were also many ‘Reynolds’ whose intentional ambiguity over certain doctrines and moderation in their social or political views are considered a fatal compromise to liberalism. Somehow, we tend to think that we need to have an opinion on everything, and not only those who oppose our position but also those who are deliberately moderate are wrong and should be denounced.



To be continued....

[1] Anthony Wood, Athenae Oxonienses, ed. Philip Bliss (London, 1817), iii, 1084. [2] "January 1650: An Act For Subscribing the Engagement.," in Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum, 1642-1660, ed. C H Firth and R S Rait (London: His Majesty's Stationery Office, 1911), 325-329. British History Online, accessed May 3, 2021, http://www.british-history.ac.uk/no-series/acts-ordinances- interregnum/pp325-329. [3] Richard Baxter, Reliquiæ Baxterianæ, or, Mr. Richard Baxters Narrative of the Most Memorable Passages of his Life and Times (London, 1696: Wing B1370), 281-2.


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Christy Wang is currently doing a PhD at the Faculty of Theology and Religion at Oxford University. Her research is on the Dynamism and Fluidity in the Shaping of Puritan Church Polities 1628-1680

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