Friday, February 10, 2006

Charles I and the Puritans Deserved Each Other II: Now I Take on the Puritans

I’ve taken on Charles I and his Archbishop Laud. Now it’s time for me to take on the other protagonists in the English Civil War, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans. I do so with the caveat that I’m now reading Conrad Russell’s The Causes of the English Civil War which the Good Professor sent me. So my views could easily change in a few weeks.

Now I have two confessions to make. For most of my life, Puritans were my heroes. And at my old church, Oliver Cromwell was spoken of with reverence.

The second confession? What has turned me against the Puritans may be considered superficial by some. In short, I deplore their destructive iconoclasm, an important aspect of their short reign. Since I have a weakness for stained glass, I find their destruction of vast quantities of it particularly outrageous.

My visit to Ely’s Lady Chapel brought the Puritans' destructiveness home. Not far from Oliver Cromwell’s home, the Puritans destroyed virtually all the stained glass and statues in the chapel. Now it’s a strange place, both dark and glaring.

I’m probably imposing my values on a different time, but I don’t understand destroying so much of the art and heritage of the church.

They were destructive in other ways, of course, doing away with the prayer book – Cranmer wasn’t Protestant enough for them! – and with the episcopacy.

Although Cromwell’s rule was a good hundred years after the Reformation, its excesses reflect the excesses of the Reformation. The Reformation, though needed, all too often went beyond reform to destruction, to destroying too much that was good in the church. And that destructive tendency is part of why I’m not nearly as Protestant as I used to be.

Though the Puritans are still to be commended for their zeal for scripture and its authority, their zeal was often selective and misplaced. Did they not for one minute consider the Bible’s exhortation to worship the Lord “in the beauty of holiness” as they wantonly destroyed so much beauty in the church?

And they forever gave zealots for God’s word a bad name. Even today, those who hold strongly to the authority of God’s word are sometimes derided as “Puritans.”

In fact, a case could be made that they gave many in Anglicanism a phobia toward those who strongly hold to the authority of scripture. Perhaps the Puritans thus indirectly contributed to the creation of the liberal mentality that led to that screaming awful statue, supposedly of Mary, that you see in the background.

And, by the way, some of the glass the Puritans destroyed in Canterbury Cathedral has been replaced by truly awful 20th Century stuff, some cartoonish, some bordering on the pagan.

I wonder what Cromwell would think of his handiwork now?

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