This article was written by Margaret R. K. Parrish in the June 1950 edition of Progress, the monthly magazine of Romford Congregational Church.
Tuesday, May 9th, was one of those rare occasions when I read the Times, and I thought it a coincidence to find in it no less than three references to Congregationalism. One was a small paragraph referring to a resolution to be brought before the May Meetings expressing concern about the decline in church membership during the last 20 years. The other references consisted of two full columns entitled "'The Gathered Church': Robert Browne and the Tradition of Congregationalism", and a leader of the same subject.
These historical articles were inspired by the fact that as far as can be ascertained it is four hundred years since Robert Browne was born. He was a pioneer of Protestantism in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, and, like Thomas Cartwright, one of the leading Puritan thinkers of the time, he was educated at Cambridge. He was still up at the University when Cartwright, from the University pulpit and from his Chair as Professor of Divinity, was drawing attention to the differences between the ministry as it was in the New Testament, and the English Episcopate. There was at the time a strong Puritan movement in the Church of of England and the Church was divided by a struggle about the wearing of vestments by the clergy. Although this might seem a trivial subject for controversy, to the Protestant reformers it had a special significance because their break away from the Church of Rome was comparatively recent and they were then facing a strong Roman counter-reformation lead by the Jesuits and backed by the political power of Spain. Moreover they felt that by using vestments they were dividing themselves from the Continental reformers of Geneva and Zurich with whom many of the English churchmen were on close terms.
Contrary to what one might gather from some history text books, the Reformation was not a sudden event introduced by Henry VIII, but the climax of a reforming movement which had been evident ever since the days of Wyclif and the Lolards. Religious ideas had been introduced into England from the Continent and more particularly from Holland, whence Dutch refugees had brought with them their Anabaptist faith. A glance at Fox's Acts and Monuments shows that a surprising amount of radical religious literature was in circulation in the early years of Henry's reign, some of it native in origin and some smuggled over from Holland.
In the year 1580, Robert Browne formed his first separatist church in Norwich on the basis of a covenant. The members agreed "to join themselves to the Lord in one covenant and fellowship together and to keep and seek agreement under His laws and government." The idea of the covenant is one which dominated Puritan thought, and, derived as it was from Scripture, was applied first in the Church and then in politics. Those who heard Mr. Dean Acheson's broadcast speech at the Pilgrim Society's Dinner will remember his reference to the way in which the Pilgrim Fathers entered into a covenant to form a civil government from which developed the New England town meeting and from them in turn, the American conception of democracy. Our spiritual forefathers "solemnly and mutually, in the presence of one another" convicted and combined themselves together "in a civil body politic ..." thus forming themselves into a proper democracy. Incidentally, it is interesting to notice that one of the signatories to this document as recorded in the Chronicles of the Pilgrim Fathers, was Francis Cooke, presumably the man who is commemorated on the walls of our own church.
The poet Milton was the clearest and most trenchant exponent of the covenant conception of the origin of government, and in his political prose writings describes government as being based on a covenant or contract between men among themselves, and between the people and their rulers. Such a theory made it possible for Puritans to claim that a monarch or ruler who tyrannised over his people had broken the contract of government and could be dethroned by his people. Naturally the autocratic Tudor and Stuart monarchs thought such a democratic idea was dangerous, and indeed it was - for them. It was an idea which followed naturally from the puritan church covenant.
When the Church covenant was first advocated by Robert Browne it resulted in his having to leave the country in order to escape persecution, and he found asylum in Holland where Thomas Cartwright was also in exile. It was at this time that the differences of view between Browne and Cartwright became clear. Cartwright wanted to stay in the Church of England and direct a reformation on Presbyterian lines from within the Church, while Browne thought the time had come for making a complete break with the established Church because he thought the attempts at reformation were ineffectual. In fact Queen Elizabeth herself was entirely opposed to a Puritan reformation of the Church of which she was Governor, and events justified the steps which Brown took. He laid down the principles of Congregationalism in a book called "Reformation without Tarrying for Anie". declaring that the members of a church must be Christians (not merely all the people living in one particular parish) and the one and only ruler of the Church was Jesus Christ Himself. "The Church planted or gathered," he said, "is a company or number of Christians or believers, which by a willing covenant made with their God, are under the government of God and Christ, and keep His laws in one holy communion ... The Church government of the lordship of Christ."
The book was considered so dangerous that in June, 1583, a royal proclamation was issued against it in England, commanding the destruction of all copies of "the same or such like seditious books", and before long three men were hanged for reading it.
The comment of the Times leader writer on this teaching is interesting. He compares the Catholic view of the Church as a "divine society established at a particular time and in a particular place, embodied in a visible and permanent institution and acting as a necessary mediator between God and the worshipper", with a Protestant view (which emphasises the purely spiritual bonds which unite believers, and stresses the direct relationship between God and Man). He comes to the conclusion that Browne's Congregationalism is an almost pure expression of Protestantism and then suggests that the idea of the independence of the small religious groups which came as a "bombshell to an age which held absolute community of faith and ritual within any country to be a condition of public safety, has acquired a new meaning for the twentieth century." Ever since the modern German State has revealed "how far a centralised State could go in stifling independent centres of life within its borders" European political thinkers of many difference persuasions "have looked to the small governing group for the best protection against State absolutism and anarchic individualism. Though the controversy in its modern form is widely different from that of Browne's day, he may be seen in his struggle with Tudor authoritarianism as one of the pioneers of this movement towards decentralisation and voluntary social organisations".
In recent years Congregationalists have emphasised the spiritual nature of the Church meeting and its obedience to the Holy Spirit rather than its democratic aspect, and quite rightly, because the Church meeting is not supposed to be a kind of ecclesiastical committee. One might say that the theocratic nature of the Church government has received more attention than democratic. At the same time Congregationalism has apparently ceased to make the distinctive contribution to political thought which it once did. The first fact is not necessarily the cause of the second, and the emphasis which is now being laid on the true nature of the Church meeting is being made in order to save something which our churches had in many cases almost lost. The vigorous political thought which characterised our puritan forefathers went together with a high churchmanship and a strong belief in the Spirit. Their faith was firmly based on Scripture from which they derived both their religion and their politics.
To quote from the Times again, "Browne has an incontestable right to be remembered as one of the earliest champions and most thorough exponents of a theory of the nature of the Church which to-day ranks with Roman Catholicism and Presbyterianism as one of the three main categories of thought on the subject."
There are many otherwise uneducated people who regard Congregationalism as one of those obscure Christian bodies which exist outside of the Church of England. In fact a proper study of history shows that Congregationalism has had a major influence in matters of Church and State, and spread as it now is over the whole world, still has a special contribution to make. Browne was indeed justified in demanding "reformation without tarrying for any."