The Great Ejection
By Revd Canon Chuck Collins
Anglicans today look to the 1662 Book of Common Prayer as the standard for theology and worship, along with the Thirty-nine Articles (1571) and the two books of Homilies. These are known as the Anglican “formularies.” The 1662 edition of the Prayer Book was a crowning achievement of English Reformation and the Edwardian and Elizabethan Settlement in the Church of England.
But the new Prayer Book did not settle everything for everyone. With its publication came the terms of subscription that required every Church of England minister to give “unfeigned assent and consent to all and everything contained and prescribed” in the new book, and to swear an oath to never attempt to change anything in church or state. The problem for the Puritans was the requirement for absolute and unconditional subscription, not the Prayer Book itself. Many couldn’t agree to every single word of the new book as if it was inerrant and unchangeable, a devotion they kept for Holy Scripture alone. Puritans were Anglicans who felt that the Elizabethan settlement in the Church of England didn’t go far enough for reform. The majority were moderate Puritans who wanted to stay and work for further reform within the church, and there were others who were perfectly happy leaving and starting something new. The Great Ejection was a shotgun approach targeting both groups.
The “Great Ejection” refers to 1,000-2,000 Puritan Church of England ministers who were expelled from their pulpits by law following the Act of Uniformity of 1662 – an estimated 20% of all ordained clergymen in the Church of England! In 1630 there was a general Calvinist consensus in the Church of England, but by the 1660s the Calvinist Puritans were in a battle for their lives against the creeping anti-Calvinism (Laudian Arminianism) that threatened the teaching and ethos of the Anglican formularies with their high church ceremonies and understandings. The situation dramatically changed when Charles II became King in 1660. The high church bishops seized control with Charles’s support and, in revenge, demanded absolute conformity. The Great Ejection marked an important turning point in the English church in which clergy were required by law to conform to matters that were against their consciences as Evangelical Christians (not unlike the way some Episcopalians were forced from their pulpits in our own day because they became unwilling to sell their souls to the progressive values of the Episcopal Church).
On Sunday, August 17, 1662, St. Bartholomew’s Day, the expelled preached their farewell sermons. St. Bartholomew’s was significant because it was the appointed day when clergy were to be paid all the salaries and rents owed them. To leave then meant leaving behind their pay and vicarages for a completely unknown future. The ejected were not rebels or troublemakers; they were simply extremely loyal to the historic Anglican formularies that affirm the Bible as the only God-inspired authority that contains all things necessary to salvation. J.C. Ryle (Bishop of Liverpool) later referred to the Ejection as an “injury to the cause of true religion in England which will probably never be repaired.” A Service of Reconciliation conducted by Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams held at Westminster Abbey in 2012 to mark the 350th anniversary of the Great Ejection. For some, the 16th century ejection was a happy dismissal of the pesky Puritans who anchored themselves in the authority of Holy Scripture and the Anglican’s formularies. For others, it was a great tragedy that the church they loved didn’t have a place for them.
To the victor belongs the rights to write the story, and for many today “puritan” means something very bad. C. S. Lewis’s demon Screwtape takes credit for besmirching the name: “The value we have given to that word [Puritanism] is one of the really solid triumphs of the last hundred years.” Shakespeare, to show how evil the devil is, describes him as “the devil a Puritan that he is…” (Twelfth Night). In fact, the Puritans were members of the Church of England who took their relationship with God very seriously, called by one historian, the “hotter sorts of Protestants” (Collinson). Puritanism was not a cohesive movement with recognised leaders, but a rather diverse group who had different understandings of the atonement and justification, as well as varying degrees of religious intensity. They were united only by their common desire for greater reform than was exhibited in the Elizabethan Settlement. To write them off as Christmas-hating killjoys is to dismiss the whole for the fanaticism of a few, and to miss one of the richest movements and moments in church history for Christian devotion. J. I. Packer wrote that “the Puritans were strongest just where Protestants today are weakest, and their writings can give us more real help than those of any other body of Christian teachers, past or present, since the days of the apostles.” It would bless us to know the writings of Richard Sibbes and William Perkins in our own day. Michael Reeves’s book is a wonderful introduction.
The Revd Canon Chuck Collins is the Director for the Center for Reformation Anglicanism, www.anglicanism.info.