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Bishop Jeremy Taylor: The Irish Anglican

“I like not the condition of being a lecturer under the dispose of another, nor to serve in my semi-circle where a Presbyterian and myself like Castor and Pollux, the one up the other downe; which methinks is like worshipping the sun and making him the deity, that we may be religious halfe the yeare, and every night serve another interest.”

This was Jeremy Taylor’s first response to the offer of a post in Ireland, written to his dear friend John Evelyn on May 12th 1658. However this reluctance was overcome and even Cromwell gave him a passport and protection for himself and his family. It may be that it was seen as prudent to remove someone of such loyalty and talent to another shore. He arrived at Portmore on the shores of Lough Neagh and this was a beautiful place to continue his ministry. For the next couple of years he was busy visiting Lisburn once a week to deliver a lecture, he preached every Sunday and lectured in Ballinderry, Soldierstown, and Derriaghy once a fortnight and during his spare time continued his works of divinity.

In 1661 he was appointed bishop of Down and Connor and shortly after elected vice-chancellor of the university of Dublin. He undertook the task of collecting, arranging, revising, and completing the body of statutes that had been unfinished by his predecessor. Before his death he was also exercising care over the diocese of Dromore.

However to reflect on the title of Irish Anglican it is to his difficult task as an Irish bishop that I want to turn. He worked very hard in the diocese; he visited every parish and preached in many of the churches. However despite his labours he was contending with deep rooted problems that were not easy to resolve and indeed haunt us still in Ireland.

Bishop Taylor found himself in the middle of the quarrel and final secession of the puritan clergy from the church, in 1662. Both parties were agreed on the essentials of Christianity but this was a struggle with history, passion and the shadows of power.

There appears to have been three possible ways of dealing with this problem. The first was to attempt to find a compromise of such liturgy and church government that would satisfy both factions. The second was that uniformity of discipline and worship should not be insisted on, and in time filling vacancies with those episcopally ordained. The third and what may have appeared as the simpler option was to force the adoption of liturgy and practice on all. It is easy for us with hindsight to have alternatives but tolerance was not something easily found in the history of this religious struggle and as a modern day Irishman I can understand this in the most profound way. It also should be noted that in this part of Ireland that the clearance of Episcopalian clergy had been very effective. Suffice to say that their places where taken by very strong and staunch supporters of the covenant coming largely from Scotland.

I should lighten this for a moment and tell you that I was once informed by someone claiming to be a long lost relative that my great, great, great, great, great, great, great grandfather was a Scottish Presbyterian minister who was banished from Scotland because he was an alcoholic and for spite sailed to Cork and married a Catholic.

These staunch defenders of the covenant were not impressed by Bishop Taylor’s hard work, his tenderness, his preaching, and his visits to their homes and by his regular clergy gatherings. Although Reginald Heber in his critical examination of Taylor’s works writes the following:

“The nobility and gentry of the three dioceses, with one single exception came over to the bishop’s side; and we are even assured by Carte, that, the great majority of the ministers themselves had yielded, if not to his arguments, to his persevering and kindness and Christian example.” (The life of Jeremy Taylor, Lord Bishop of Down, Connor and Dromore With a critical examination of his writings”).

(page 120)

As I have reflected upon Bishop Jeremy Taylor as the Irish Anglican there are so many ways I can identify with the struggle and learn from his example.

I grew up in the heart of East Belfast in what was described as a loyalist or Protestant community although there were some Roman Catholic neighbours. During my teenage years I watched them be burnt out of their homes simply because they worshipped in a different church. As a young Anglican who was trying to make sense of faith and church this has left an indelible mark on my faith journey. Faith cannot be about a statement of belonging or religious identity without the truth of incarnation that breathes life into words and turns them into actions.

This journey was also fascinating as an Anglican in a religious culture of a university that was divided and polarised. I was a member of the Christian Union and it was very reformed. In my second year I was wrestling with a call to ordination, a call I was reluctant to follow but at the same time felt compelled to do so. I was invited for a coffee by two members of the prayer group I attended and with genuine concern they asked me; How could God be calling me into the Church of Ireland? They did not doubt the sincerity of my faith but the integrity of the church I was being called to.

As you can see I didn’t take their advice and have found the journey as an Anglican in Ireland fascinating. For me it has meant discovering the joy of some Catholic disciplines and treasures that were not part of my church upbringing, from spiritual directors, retreats, silence, meditation, using the sign of the cross and anointing. However more important because of the context today, learnt from my illustrious predecessor, is the value of relationship and exercising a ministry of inclusiveness and gentleness. 

In the context of division and suspicion especially when it comes to religious division, shouting eternal truths at each other across internal barricades and engaging in heated debate does not bring reconciliation. In my own journey I have found my faith enriched when I have met Jesus in someone from a different religious background but if we do not build relationship we miss out on so much of worth and value. This takes time and energy and a commitment to people to offer friendship support and genuine warmth despite differences, this was modelled by Bishop Jeremy Taylor.

He also modelled that great internal security in a faith that he had wrestled with all his life. His faith was worked out by study, debate and prayer. From his writings there is a profound sense of prayer rooted in word and sacrament. We cannot find Jesus in others unless we can rest secure in Him. If we are secure in Him we have nothing to fear from those that disagree with us.

Thank you for the delight and joy it is to be here and to celebrate someone who has given us so much in his writing, thought and by how he incarnated the truth he taught. I have been encouraged as an Irish Anglican to continue to seek to live in the middle of religious conflict in a way that in Jesus may make a difference.

Let me finish with words of Bishop Jeremy Taylor; “No man can hinder our private addresses to God, every man can build a chapel in his breast, himself the priest, his heart the sacrifice, and the earth he tread on, the altar.

Amen.