The court is still out on William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury: the court, that is, of public opinion. Laud was Archbishop during the crucial period that led to the English Civil War. Laud stood athwart powerful forces of his own day. He was a theological Arminian, an anti-Calvinist, in a post-Reformation church that had been heavily influenced by Calvin. He enforced a new strict adherence to the rubrics of the Book of Common Prayer, in a church that had grown to tolerate nonconformity to the Prayer Book order. He was an influential advisor to the King and a supporter of the King’s personal rule, at a time when the restraining power of Parliament was on the rise.
In short, Laud was a contrarian, swimming upstream against the trend of his time. He made powerful enemies, which meant that after those enemies gained the upper hand he was executed by a Bill of Attainder, passed by Parliament after his trial for treason ended inconclusively. The case against him was an overstretch and could not be proven, but he was so unpopular that the authorities used this legal device to execute him anyway in 1645.
I say that the court is still out on him because his legacy is still debated. Patrick Collinson, the historian of the English Reformation, writes in his great book The Religion of Protestants that Laud’s leadership was “the greatest calamity ever visited upon the English Church.” That’s saying a lot in a Church that has seen a number of calamities!
In Collinson’s view, Laud’s policies in church and state resulted in the series of wars in Britain that led to the abolition of both episcopacy and the monarchy. Perhaps more importantly, when the King and the bishops came back, years later with a vengeance, the reaction from the theological “left” led to a permanent fracture in English religious life. All stemmed back to the policies of the contrarian William Laud.
On the other hand, the poet Tennyson wrote of Laud, “Prejudged by foes determined not to spare, / An old weak Man for vengeance thrown aside.” When the state “with madding faction reels” death brings “the Saint or Patriot… to the world that heals / all wounds…” (Ecclesiastical Sonnets 45). Tennyson goes on to write in a note on the poem, “In this age a word cannot be said in praise of Laud or even in compassion for his fate, without incurring a charge of bigotry.” In spite of this, amazingly, the Episcopal Church placed him on its Calendar of saints in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer.
All of this is by way of saying that the character and meaning of William Laud’s ministry remain controverted, a meditation on the longstanding complexities of history. Was Laud on the right side or the wrong side of that history? It seems impossible to determine that conclusively. Short of the judgment day, there is no fixed point at which human beings can determine the right and wrong sides of history (unlike actual right and wrong, about which we can make some determinations), because our vision is occluded by the nature of human life and history itself. We lack the divine perspective. Judgment belongs to God.
It seems like this concern with historical legacy may even be a confusion of category when it comes to sanctity. Instead of anxious extrapolations about the right side of history, and our place in it, what our Gospel reading places before us today is our willingness to lose our lives for Jesus’ sake. “Those who find their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will find it” (Matt. 10:39).
I think Jesus is commending a lack of self-regard, not least of all about our own legacies. If we are busy “finding” our lives, in the sense of securing them by our own efforts, then we are likely to be really losing them. As Jesus teaches earlier in Matthew, “So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today” (Matt. 6:34). Jesus focuses us on the moment, on the “today” in which we live and act. So much for historical legacy.
Jesus’ teaching to the twelve in the tenth chapter of Matthew is introduced by similar exhortations, “So have no fear;” “Do not fear;” “So do not be afraid” (Matt. 10:26, 28, 31). In this time we live in, the assassination of our reputations is probably the most we have to fear, unlike William Laud, who suffered judicial murder. Still, there is the call to discipleship, to have no fear, to take up the cross and follow the Lord. Jesus calls us to action, not paralysis; and if our actions ought to be graceful, inasmuch as we live in grace, they are also likely to be controverted by others. The right and wrong sides of history, what tomorrow will say, are beside the point. Tomorrow will take care of itself.
In our culture, members of Communion Partners are no strangers to controversy. There are no end of people who will opine about the right and wrong sides of history. But we ought to be light of heart; charitable in our estimation of others; graceful at all times: this too is part of Jesus’ call. This is our time for faithfulness, the “today” that is given to us. William Laud reminds us that there is power in the cross, in Jesus’ death and resurrection, and our job is to embrace it.