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Taylor the Bishop

Jeremy Taylor is famous as a theologian, as a writer of devotional works, as a man of prodigious literary talent; but he is not really known as a bishop.  Why should this be the case?  There is one view that Taylor the bishop is best forgotten, since his diocesan government was nasty, brutish and short.  Taylor belonged to that talented group of Anglican churchmen whose rapid rise to major office was rudely disrupted by the Civil Wars and Interregnum, in which he endured imprisonment and intermittent persecution, and only towards the end of his life, as the old order of Church and State was restored, did he become a bishop.  Nor was it an English bishopric, as he had hoped, but the see of Down and Connor, in North-East Ireland.  Nor was it a long tenure, Taylor being consecrated in 1661 and dying in 1667.  Nor, on some accounts, was it a happy experience.  The diocese of Down and Connor was a stronghold of Scottish Presbyterians, who denounced him as an Arminian, Socinian and heretic, and, it was rumoured, plotted to assassinate him; Taylor was up for the fight, and his own vigorous enforcement of conformity led to the ejection of thirty-six Presbyterian ministers from their parishes, but he failed to settle the diocese, and, according to some later commentators, he was largely responsible for permanent divisions within Irish Protestantism, between Anglicans and Presbyterians.  Taylor had written in favour of religious toleration back in the mid-1640s; now, in the mid-1660s, it was alleged that he was buying up spare copies of his book and burning them, so as to prevent Presbyterians from quoting his words back at him.  At his death, the Archbishop of Armagh referred to Down and Connor as ‘that disorderly and disaffected bishoprick’ while across the Irish sea, the Archbishop of Canterbury was glad that Taylor ‘left no more trouble behind him.  He was of a dangerous temper apt to break into extravagancies’.  In short, Taylor was a pugnacious and divisive diocesan who fortunately did no worse.    Not a record that this College may remember with much pride.

There is, however, an alternative and to my mind more compelling interpretation, which opens up Taylor’s precepts and practice as a diocesan and allows us to identity his distinctive profile as a bishop in the restored Church of Ireland.  Our starting point must be a phrase from St Paul’s epistle to Timothy:  ‘This is a true saying, If a man desire the office of a bishop he desireth a good work’.  That verse has a peculiar force in the context of the early 1660s, when Taylor was consecrated bishop.  The Church of Ireland had suffered from 11 years of civil war, the decapitation of its supreme governor, and, in the 1650s, the triumph of its enemies, Cromwell’s swordsmen and saints.  As Taylor put it, in 1660 bishops faced ‘the ruines of discipline, a harvest of thorns and heresies prevailing in the hearts of the people, the churches possessed by usurpers and intruders, mens hearts greatly estranged from true religion’.    So Ireland in 1660 was most certainly not, to quote from the first lesson, ‘a land flowing with milk and honey’.  Taylor, as a good disciple of Archbishop Laud, believed in obedience to the law and (as we have seen) tried to impose some uniformity and order in what was clearly the most polarised and difficult corner of Ireland.  But Taylor was not just a disciplinarian, but also a dedicated pastor.  He articulated a very demanding view of the office of bishop in a sermon which he preached (rather remarkably) at his own consecration as bishop in January 1661.  Here he emphasised the very great responsibilities and burdens of the office rather than its privileges and status: ‘we can no sooner consider Episcopacy in its dignity, as it is a Rule; but the very nature of that Rule does imply so severe a duty, that as the load of it is almost insufferable, so the event of it is very formidable, if we take not great care’.  Bishops must be men of great wisdom and spiritual insight, men of prayer and exemplary practice: as Taylor put it, ‘above all things… a most holy life be superstructed upon a holy and unreproveable faith’.  He warned too of the danger of failure, the loss of souls, the heaviness of divine judgement.  No wonder, Taylor reflected, that cry had been heard down the Christian centuries from St Bernard, St Dominic and many others: ‘noli episcopari’, I do not wish to be a bishop. 

And what of his own practice in Down and Connor, and also the neighbouring diocese of Dromore which was entrusted to him?  Though the records are thin, there is enough to show that Taylor was a tireless Laudian pastor, preaching regularly, personally supervising his annual visitations (which was not invariably the habit of all bishops in this period), enticing from England a number of clergy who later became deans and bishops in the Irish Church, offering hospitality to the neighbouring gentry and clergy, founding the cathedral at Lisburn a project which he called ‘our great concerne’, rebuilding the cathedral at Dromore, and also building the parish church of Ballinderry.  We have two of his sermons preached on visitation, in which he addresses the life and doctrine of his clergy.  Just as he took a daunting view of the episcopal office, so too did he of the ministry: ‘You are holy by office and designation’; God has admitted you ‘so neer unto himself, and hath made [you] to be the great ministers of his kingdom and his spirit’.  Alongside his soaring rhetoric, Taylor had some very homely advice on the books they should read to better understand scripture: patristic writers, such as Augustine, Athanasius and Isidore, but also medieval theologians and even Counter-Reformation scholars such as Arias Montanus.  Taylor’s most celebrated writings of the 1640s and 1650s, such as Holy Living and Holy Dying, engaged with practical diurnal spirituality, the experience of the Christian life as lived; and we see the same concerns behind his Rules and Advices to the Clergy, issued on visitation and later printed.  In it, Taylor offered 87 points of guidance to the clergy relating to their duties, the prudence they must practise, their government, preaching, catechising, visitation of the sick and performance of divine worship.  To give you a flavour: rule 9 warns against oleaginous clergy: ‘take no measures of humility, but such as are material and tangible; such which consist not in humble words, and lowly gestures; but what is first truly radicated in your souls’.  In short, advice that Austen’s Mr Collins ignored.  What is striking is the unprecedented form of this pastoral instruction: Anglican clergy had often written advice manuals for their colleagues; bishops, by contrast, were wont to give short ‘charges’ or exhortations to their clergy on visitation, which were usually unrecorded and quickly lost to memory, but Taylor was the first Anglican bishop to offer such sustained advice and have it printed: Holy Living, as it were, for the clergy.

There is another important dimension to Taylor’s six years as bishop, namely his role as the public voice of the restored Church of Ireland, a voice of eloquence, learning and authority.  It was Taylor who was chosen to preach at the mass consecration of two archbishops and ten bishops in January 1661, marking the triumphant return of the Episcopal Church of Ireland; it was Taylor who was chosen, five months later, to preach at the opening of Parliament at Dublin; it was Taylor who was chosen to preach the funeral sermon of John Bramhall, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland in 1663; and it was Taylor who was chosen by the upper house of Convocation, the clergy’s parliament, to write in favour of the rite of confirmation and against the snares of Roman Catholicism.  Taylor willingly embraced these latter two commissions, since it enabled him to take up his pen again, what he called ‘my old delightful employment’.  His Discourse of Confirmation has been much admired from his time to this.  The rite had fallen into disuse in the 1640s and 1650s, and the high tide of division and schism then engulfing Ireland made Taylor claim that the whole Irish Church ‘hath need of confirmation’.  Taylor demonstrated its apostolic origins, and its inestimable value in the Christian journey; he wrote movingly of the ancient belief ‘that when Baptiz’d Christians are Confirm’d, and solemnly bless’d by the Bishop, that then it is a special Angel-Guardian is appointed to keep their Souls from the assaults of the Spirits of darkness’.  Taylor also saw the pastoral opportunities of the rite.  Usually a bishop was a distant figure to his people, more in touch with his clergy than with their congregations; but confirmation was ‘a means of endearing the Persons of the Prelates to their Flocks’ and, he hoped a means to achieve ‘a perpetual entercourse of Blessings and Love between them’.  Taylor’s other official writing were two volumes entitled A Dissuasive from Popery, which reminds us that the greatest challenge to the Church of Ireland was not from vocal Scottish Presbyterians but from the indigenous population of that island, more than 80% of whom owed their allegiance to Rome.  Finally, Taylor was very probably the author of the 1666 Form for consecrating and dedicating churches, very necessary after all the destruction of the preceding 20 years, but significant too as the very first consecration form sanctioned and approved in the Anglican communion of churches.

So there is good reason to respect Taylor as an active bishop, in his diocese and across the Irish Church, and there were bouquets as well as brickbats at his passing: the Duke of Ormonde, Lord Lieutenant of Ireland, wrote that Taylor’s death ‘was much lamented by his Brethren here and by all that love the Church’; indeed it was ‘a great and unseasonable loss to the Church’.  We are left with the treasury of his writings for what he called ‘the best Church in the world’, and let me finish by taking from it his description, at his own consecration, of the great and manifold blessings of episcopacy:

‘to be busie in the service of Souls, to do good in all capacities, to serve every mans need, to promote all publick benefits, to cement Governments, to establish Peace, to propagate the Kingdom of Christ, to do hurt to no man, to do good to every man; that is, so to minister, that Religion and Charity, publick Peace and Private Blessings may be in their exaltation.’

Amen.