Of the anniversaries falling in 1961, that of the Savoy Conference of 1661 deserves some brief consideration. In a very real sense it represented the last chance for a more or less united church in seventeenth-century England. It was held between those who had moved more and more to the high Anglicanism of the Caroline period and the Puritans who had been agitating for more radical reforms over the past generations. The restoration of the monarchy under Charles II provided the opportunity of a new settlement, and it was with a view to possible comprehension that the conference was summoned to the Savoy Palace from which it takes its name.

There were some favorable elements in the situation. Charles’ restoration had been made possible by an alliance of Presbyterians in Scotland and Royalist Episcopalians in England. Charles himself had promised “liberty to tender consciences” in the 1660 Declaration of Breda, and he seems to have meant this in spite of later legislation. Bishoprics were offered to moderate Puritans like Reynolds who accepted, and the famous Richard Baxter who declined. There were Episcopalians who genuinely desired comprehension; Bishop Ussher had a finely conceived plan for integration of Presbyterian and Episcopal polities.

Nevertheless, there were even more powerful unfavorable factors. Years of controversy and mutual suppression, culminating in the bitterness of civil strife, had left a legacy of hostility. If Puritans had suffered, fought, and died on the one side, Episcopalians likewise had endured conflict, eviction, exile, and death in support of the position previously authorized. Convictions had hardened to produce a stubborn will either to prevail or at least not to yield. On neither side was there any true appreciation of the principle of liberty to differ, but only of liberty for the system advocated. In the circumstances, there seemed little hope of any practical result.

In the event, the negative forces triumphed. The Puritans advanced a demand for full-scale revision both in general and in details. Amongst other things they required the discontinuance of all responses, the use of extemporaneous prayer, the abolition of the Calendar, the use of newer versions in the Epistles and Gospels, the alteration of the Articles, the presbyterianizing of ordination, and the rejection of such things as the sign of the cross in baptism, the ring in marriage, the surplice, or kneeling at the sacrament. On the opposite side it was argued either that some of these demands were already met (for example, the part of presbyters in ordination), or that the matters attacked were intrinsically justifiable (for example, the giving of a voice to the people in divine service), or that they lay in the sphere of things indifferent where the ruling of the church should be followed until there is lawful decision to the contrary. The conference ended in an almost inevitable impasse, and the new Act of Uniformity in 1662, while it brought many detailed changes, resulted in the eviction of many Puritans who felt that they could not conscientiously conform.

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As we survey the conference after 300 years we see first the generally unhappy consequence of legislating in church matters by civil law. The framework of operation made it inevitable that the failure should result in a curtailment of the liberty of conscience and action of the dissidents and in the condemnation of many of them to the eviction and suppression to which they had in fact supjected Episcopalians a decade before. There is another side to this relationship, and subsequent events have shown that it need not have these unhappy and unjustifiable implications. On the other hand, it certainly did so in the seventeenth century.

The conference also brings into focus the dangerous identification of unity with uniformity which can still play such havoc in our churches today. Naturally, a church has to have consensus on many matters. It cannot become a cacophony of discordant voices. On the other hand, in lesser points of exposition or practice there may surely be a degree of flexibility without denial of unity. A metrical psalm, a prose psalm, or both? a marriage with ring or without? a surplice, Geneva gown or ordinary suit?—surely these are not matters on which to divide the church by conformity or nonconformity. In fact, even a uniform order can and will develop wide varieties in spite of the legislators. But it is better to avoid the confusion at the very outset, and even within the more general framework to deal with sufficient flexibility and not with too little. Otherwise our denominational Savoys can all lead to similar disruptions.

This raises the third point that there are in fact indifferent matters or undecided points on which a church may rightly take order but in relation to which it must always remember the relative nature of its order. At Savoy both sides were led to contend for valid principles, the Anglicans for the lawfulness of accepted decisions, the Puritans for the right to resist or correct such decisions if they have no clear and binding biblical sanction. But unfortunately each party could see only the validity of its own position, where both were needed. Thus a church may prescribe a surplice or a Geneva gown for the sake of decency and due order. Most ministers will find it a lesser duty to abide by the accepted ruling until a majority may later change it. Yet this ruling obviously cannot be advanced as a biblical and therefore an absolute provision which makes it impossible to allow any freedom for tender consciences to which it is rightly or wrongly offensive. In sum, a positive obligation should not be imposed with respect to things indifferent.

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A more depressing aspect of the Conference, as we view it in retrospect, was the predominance and consequent mischief of the desire for mastery and basic obstinacy displayed on both sides. Here we note that both Puritans and Anglicans displayed a basically wrong conformity and failed to overcome the problem by the true conformity on both sides which might well have solved it. The wrong conformity manifested was that of conformity to the world and its practices, to the kind of spirit against which the Lord plainly warned his disciples: “It shall not be so among you.” In this respect Savoy would have been a happier and more fruitful conference if there had been a genuine nonconformity on both sides. The conformity which would have solved the problem is that of conformity to the mind and spirit of Christ. If the conviction, learning, zeal, and readiness for sacrifice, which were diverted to the prosecution of ecclesiastical causes, had been harnessed to this fulfillment of discipleship at a deeper level, it is hard to see how even the animosities and very real differences of Savoy could finally have prevailed.

A final historical lesson of Savoy is that of the serious consequences of its failure. Neither party derived any ultimate benefit from the disruption, nor did the cause of the Gospel in the land at large. Deprived of the erudite and earnest Puritans, the settled church entered on a period of lethargy and mediocrity which left it ill-prepared for the Great Awakening in the century which followed. Indeed, it suffered a more permanent theological and ecclesiastical injury which has hardly been made good by the more recent development of a powerful evangelical group within it. On the other hand, Puritanism itself also entered on evil days, and it displayed such strange impotence in the face of the rationalistic deism and Unitarianism of the succeeding generation that, while there were great individuals like Isaac Watts, traditional nonconformity played only a minor part in the great wave of evangelism and missionary endeavor which was to mark the eighteenth century.

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In the providence of God we cannot but say, of course, that even the results of this unfortunate conference were overruled for good. Yet, on a human reckoning, we can certainly see little profit compared with the great release of spiritual power that might have come had there been a real humbling before the divine Word and Spirit, and a genuine reconciliation, not a mere ecclesiastical arrangement. In such circumstances, all would have been ready to accept defeat from the human angle; but the Lord would have been the Victor, and therefore all would have been victors in him.

If there is a final lesson, it is that in such situations we should not miss this higher conformity to the Lord and his Word, and therefore that we should be content with no less than this higher and more meaningful triumph.

Professor of Church History

Fuller Theological Seminary

Pasadena, California

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