Have we not been here before? Comparing 17th Century Persecution of Protestant Dissenters and the Looming Ofsted Debacle Facing 21st Century British Christianity
I recently had a conversation with a fellow brother in Christ about my concerns surrounding new and proposed powers for Ofsted regarding Fundamental British Values and the Prevent Duty (extremism). In response to a comment I made about this he asked, “I am interested to know what parallels you see between government response to extremism between 1662 and 1689 and our own times [i.e. Ofsted].” In answering this I will primarily be focusing on Christians but will seek to engage with other worldviews as far as I am able. This is a huge issue and I apologize in advance to anyone who recognizes I have not perhaps covered everything.
*To adequately respond to this I had to break my own rule of blogging brevity.
Let us take a journey back in time to 17th Century England. Beginning with the restoration of the monarchy in 1660 came an aim, driven by the partnership of both the church (the Church of England) and the State, to root out all “radicals” who had upset the country during the civil war and Commonwealth period. Similarly in the 18th Century when the Evangelical Revival began (which was really a revived attempt at reformation and spiritual renewal begun the previous century) Bishop Warburton (1698-1779) critiqued the movement labelling it that “old puritan fanaticism revived.”
Churchmen and traditionalists viewed the Puritan aims to reform the state, church and society to be more in line with God’s word as fanatics, and Puritans viewed the traditionalists as traitors for having moved so far away from what God’s Word said regarding a Christian England. The seventeenth century is best understood as a clash of worldviews.
Speaking of the restoration of the monarchy, the puritan Richard Baxter (1615-91) lamented in 1665 that, “Never were such fair opportunities to sanctifie a Nation, lost and trodden underfoot, as have been in this Land of Late!” He continued that had it not “been for these Impediments, England had been like in a quarter of an Age to have become a Land of Saints, and a Pattern of Holiness to all the World, and the unmatchable Paradise of the Earth.”  Under the influence of Puritanism England had witnessed not only spiritual benefits but also other society advancements as well in areas such as literature, science, economics, education, etc.
Beginning in 1662, however, Parliament passed a series of laws known as the Conventicle Acts meant to supress Puritan views and enforce conformity to the religious and societal values of traditionalists. The laws were meant to crush dissent to a view that was at its centre informed by human wisdom rather than godly wisdom (Prov 3:5-8). These acts sought to set the Book of Common Prayer (and its theology and forms of worship and church) as the national Christian standard. All ministers and public officials had to subscribe to them or face being ousted from their positions- in fact nearly 2000 ministers were ejected from their posts because of it, some of the ablest, most highly educated and most spiritual, to the detriment of society to be sure. Restrictions were also placed on how close these ministers could go to their old parishes. If one did not attend worship at the local parish church you would be fined. If you taught contrary to official church teaching you would be fined or imprisoned. To be able to worship outside of this regiment required a licence granted by the bishop (if it was indeed granted). Those who dissented were also barred from holding public office which in extreme instances went so far as to those whom government office bought their milk and firewood from.
Dissenters were systematically persecuted and driven to the edges of society, which meant the loss of some of the leading, brightest and loyal citizens of the realm. The end result? Far from ridding the country of such conscientious and Biblical examples the number of Dissenters (now organized as Independents or Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, etc) actually grew! Thankfully the government came to realize that conformity over man’s heart through power is impossible and was in fact counterproductive to their aims. The Dissenters fought for toleration so that we might have the freedom of religion we have today (we will come back to their understanding of that tolerance in a moment).
First, fast forward to the 21st Century and it doesn’t take much to realize that things have changed, but also to see that there is nothing new under the sun. Have we not been here before? We no longer live in the England of 350 years ago, however, there are some similarities. Through the state control of education (instead of by means of the church) the government is seeking to enforce conformity to a secular pluralistic [traditionalist] post-modern worldview to the exclusion of other views that oppose it. It is seeking to force opposing views (particularly religious) to conform to its agenda or face punishment. It is a clash of worldviews, but with one difference- the undoing of the hard won freedom of religious liberty. Historically the clash was regarding doctrine and matters of worship. Today it will often be ethical and surround truth claims.
|Then and Now Parallels
||A Christian UK- post-modern multi-faith, multi-cultural secular pluralism
|Clash of worldviews
||Secular Pluralism- Christianity and other Dissenting Voices
|Alliance (the winners)
||The intolerance of a State Church
||The intolerance of tolerance
||Dissenting Protestant Christians
||Authentic Christians and other Dissenting Voices
||Everyone but especially pastors and civil officials
||(Thinking primarily of Christians) Everyone but especially Christian pastors and leaders, civil servants (nurses, teachers, registrars), parents
||Conform or else
||Conform or else
From here on out I want to address a couple of matters like what is tolerance?, what is extremism?, how can societal freedoms be protected?, how can an increasingly polarized society coexist?, and what Christians should be preparing for if it is not.
But first I want to expose you to the reality of what Ofsted is being asked to promote in regards to Fundamental British Values and Extremism. The following examples come from Christian teachers who have sat in on Ofsted training.
- In terms of Religious Education (that is to say religious schools):
- Even if we ourselves have personal faith/beliefs that are contrary to what we have to teach we must remain neutral
- E.g. Catholic schools must teach about homosexuality being an orientation and normal although Catholic schools put up a fuss that this goes against their beliefs—they are not being respectful or tolerant
- To be on the lookout because extremism comes in many different forms:
- Ex. Need to look out for/ be aware of not just extremist/fundamentalist Muslims but also fundamentalist Christians
- Watch out for “my God is better than your God.”
- Statement: Although Christianity may have traditionally been the religion of the state we are a multi-cultural, multi-faith country who need to accept and include people of all faiths and cultures
- Religious Education classes in Church of England Schools may still be held as normal but must present the “norms” without being prejudicial (e.g. on matters pertaining to abortion, homosexuality as they are part of the “rule of law” and “individual liberty” so therefore cannot be presented negatively).
There is a lot in these short examples. I will do my best to address many of the matters raised as we look at the following questions:
What is tolerance?
Tolerance has come to mean something much different than the word originally meant. Today tolerance means accepting what others believe as equally valid and even embracing and celebrating them as one’s own. The change in meaning of this word must be seen within the wider cultural shift to post-modernity that sceptically denies that there is one grand meta-narrative that explains life.
Historically tolerance arose (largely as a concept championed by the Baptist and Mennonite traditions) by recognizing that while two people (or groups) may fundamentally disagree or be diametrically opposed to one another, it is not in either sides interest to kill one another, and so out of respect for the other grounded in the Christian teaching that we are all created in the image of God, it pledged to respect the other though they may fundamentally disagree; this was to be reciprocal.
To put it another way: I disagree with you (and believe that without faith in Christ you are eternally lost), but I respect your right to worship whatever god or non-god you choose. Increasingly, however, tolerance is taking on a slightly different connotation in the 21st century. Pluralists want to say that there is no correct position (of course, the irony is that pluralists won’t tolerate those who disagree!, thus making it self-evident that they in fact do believe in a meta-narrative—their own).
That brings up the intolerance of the modern usage of the word because the “tolerant” will not tolerate any competing, let alone exclusive, truth claims. This is what Timothy Keller writes of in his book The Intolerance of Tolerance.
If an historic usage of the word tolerance is not recovered than those who hold exclusivist views other than the majority can reasonably expect to be persecuted. Will common sense be restored?
What is extremism and fundamentalism?
Extremism is measured from ones distance from an accepted norm. It is therefore a relative term. It also has different usages ranging from radical, unusual, or even trendy or intense (think of a teenager saying, “that’s extreme!).”
Christianity didn’t used to be extreme when it was the norm. Now that it is not the norm and is not seen as fitting within the norm (because of its exclusive truth claims) it is seen as extreme. However, one needs to recognize that it is society that has moved, not Christianity. So from a Christian point of view Christianity is normal and secular pluralists are extreme (here I cannot see some humour in the term fundamental British values). Each group could also easily see the other as fundamentalist, ardently holding onto their convictions.
I suppose the true sense of a fundamentalist is when they cease to be people of ardent conviction and become militant and angry and attempt to force others to adhere to their beliefs and worldview.
Here we need to distinguish between lumping Islam and Christianity together. While Christians may disagree with someone because it is a religion seasoned with grace, love and respect there is a reason why authentic Christianity does not have militant versions. We need to seriously ask why “fundamentalist” [read authentic] Christianity does not breed the sort of radicalism we see in Islam? While Christianity may hold differing views than society and perhaps be viewed as extreme in this regard Christianity is not a fundamentalist or militant threat to the state or society but represents some of its most loyal, honest and faithful citizens (Ro 13:1-7, 1 Pet 2:13).
Praise item: It is encouraging to know that some Christian teachers are being chosen to teach about Ofsted’s Fundamental British Values and Prevent Duty by their schools because they are sensible, loving, and all round good people. May they add sobriety to this debacle! Indeed many Christians find themselves placed by the Lord in positions in which they can advocate for the Church as ambassadors of Christ.
How can societal freedoms be protected?
*In the next two sections I hope to reasonably convince, however, even more so to stir us to further reflection upon these points.
Western society was built on Christianity. From this came principles of liberty such as the freedom of religion, the freedom of speech and numerous individual liberties. Within a Christian context I can think of few Christians who would not have affirmed these as anything but positive. But religious liberty when not used to protect God given laws becomes a licentious means through which the chief sin of pride rears its ugly head. Many modern [and good] freedoms have been perverted along these lines.
It has to be recognized that these freedoms were established at a time when most people were Judeo-Christian, and even if they were not societal values and norms were based around a Judeo-Christian framework. The Judeo-Christian tradition formed the lowest common denominator fabric of society. Even if not all people worshipped, the moral fibre of society was jointly affirmed. In a post-Christian Britain we have lowered the lowest common denominator to such a point (and based on a faulty post-modern worldview) that we are not sure what it is. What is it that holds us together socially? What knits us together? We say it is “freedom” and that every view is equal but then become afraid of Islam (and other exclusivist claims) but do not really have any right to say they, or any other view, are wrong if we hold to a post-modern pluralist view.
In this setting as a Christian I want, for example, to affirm the right to worship freely (because I would want the same and know an atheist cannot be forced to worship) but immediately find the contradiction in this affirmation in that I’m not overly found of Satanists believing them to be less than helpful to society (acknowledging too that 20th century atheism was a destructive force as well). I am also not in favour of giving religions freedom whose central tenant is animal or human sacrifice. So “freedom” historically had its limits. What about today? Still today we have laws that exclude murder and polygamy and bestiality. Still today, though our pluralism denies it, there are things we know to be right and wrong (in part because God has given us consciences, Ro 2:15, though even they can become tainted). But what if these things you or I found to be wrong were found to infringe upon someone’s secular-pluralist rights? Rights either must have some limits or it is a free for all (which is the trajectory we have largely set for ourselves), we must ask ourselves how freedoms developed in a different era be adequately applied in a new one that may not easily mix with them.
As society becomes polarized [“multi”] how can I affirm the right to the freedom of worship, practice, etc, of someone I do not view as helpful (for example I want to affirm a militant Muslim’s freedom of speech but sense that such belief and promotion of it may lead to behaviour that causes bodily harm). Post-Christendom no longer has the parameters to adequately address many of the issue we are facing. So, much like the communist who realizes communism does work but still celebrates communism anyway, secular pluralism that championed diversity and freedom is now realizing just how difficult that is realistically to maintain. So it has begun to impose its views while still propagandizing that it is about diversity.
How can an increasingly polarized society coexist peaceably?
There is great difficulty in the government protecting people’s rights of freedom and balancing matters of justice, when society is made up of various truth claims and value systems. How can these coexist peaceably? How can fair treatment be maintained in a society that is now post-Christian and in many respects so multi it is no longer cohesive?
Aside from a revival that would see us return to the sensibilities of our Christian heritage I can only see one option that would avoid conflict and protect “freedom” and preserve societal cohesiveness that would see us avoid total anarchy. In a free for all society, to govern fairly within the historic notion of freedom, the government would have to (even if subscribing to or promoting a secular-pluralist worldview) allow dissenting views so long as they do not harm anyone, but not only allow them but protect them (much as many governments did with conscientious objectors [pacifists] during WWI and WWII). Where an individual or group found to be dissenting from the prevailing secular-pluralist society such dissent would need to be permitted to opt out of the prevailing worldview so long as this did not cause serious bodily harm. This is truly the lowest common denominator I can foresee.
Even if different expressions of worldview and religion may appear extreme, while we may not agree with them, we must respect that them if we are to subsist in a society in which “freedom” in a post-Christian sense is still heralded though I personally do not believe this is the best vision for society because I believe that reason behoves us to have a society (and for the government in performing its God given responsibility to enact just God fearing laws) built around the acknowledgement of the supremacy of God and his ways rather than to foolishly oppose Him and them (righteousness exalts a nation but sin is a reproach to any people, Prov 14:34).
What Christians should be preparing for if the above is not possible (i.e. that persecution finds us)?
First, regardless what happens, we must show our highest allegiance to Christ by considering not what others will think of us but in honouring Him (Jn 12:42-43). That Jesus is Lord is the central confession of the Church.
Second, we need to have a hearty trust in the sovereignty of God, regardless of what happens (Mt 6:25-34). May this spur us on to be better and bolder ambassadors (Eph 6:18-19).
Thirdly, Christians need to be praying for sense to prevail. We need to pray for our governments that they might recognize the heritage of this land and protect Christians so that they can live and worship in peace, recognizing us as trustworthy citizens who simply want to enjoy the freedom to live and worship.
Pray for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life. (1 Tim 2:1-2).
Fourthly, we must always remember to love our persecutors (Mt 5:43-47), showing them compassion (Mt 9:36) for having no saving knowledge of the truth in order that they may indeed be lead to the truth.
Fifthly, we need to be prepared (1 Pet 3:15b). How well do we know the reason for the hope that we have? Could we defend the faith, do we know what we believe and why? Today there is no room for uninformed Christians. The Puritans and Dissenters give us an example of not only how to live out one’s faith under fire but they also serve as a source of developing theological robustness, so like Paul before Agrippa (Acts 25:13-27) we might give our defence to Christ’ honour and for others benefit. In so doing we will have the delight to know our God better!
Sixthly, as persecution mounts we will soon discover whose faith is genuine and whose is fickle. Many so called Christians will continue to conform to societal pressures and disgrace their profession. Soon we will see any remaining distinctions made clear between the wheat and the tares (Mt 13:36-43). I believe the Lord is finishing pruning His Church in the UK of dead and unhelpful branches (Job 14:7-9). We may indeed be entering upon this final phase, after which I believe we shall see what many have been longing for, genuine revival in the face of godlessness and the Church bearing much fruit. The blood [or suffering] of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.
Seventhly, we need to recognize the spiritual nature of our present struggle (Eph 6:12)
Lastly we need to remember the privilege and blessing in Jesus words: Blessed [happy] are you when others revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. (Mt 5:11). Those NT passages on persecution that were so relevant for the early Church will become life giving promises for the Church of today once again.
Let me paint a possible picture of what the future could look like for Christians in the UK…
Imagine the following scenario. (If you don’t think it could happen, let me remind you that neither would many other Christians who have found themselves in similar societal situations in recent years or throughout history more generally).
Secular pluralism continues to grow as a worldview and as a force within society. Gradually the intolerance of the “tolerant” reaches a breaking point where exclusivist claims rub their own exclusivist claim the wrong way and there is backlash.
Now, Western society prides itself too much in liberty and freedom to openly persecute as such. Open persecution is what intolerant non-Western countries do. Yes, we are too priggish for that so it will come in more subtle ways, but come it will. Laws that seek to entrench secular pluralism and re-write societal norms and values like we are already seeing in OFSTED will by their very nature exclude and target those who do not conform (i.e. Christians).
Already with Ofsted, and given more time, Christian teachers who do not conform will be faced with losing their jobs (or worse, fines). Christian schools that do not conform may be shut down. Christian parents may be reprimanded for teaching or handling their children in a Christian manner, and in the worst case scenario have them taken by the co-parenting mentality of the state, viewing their parents as harmful to the child’s development. Christian employees may face discrimination and job loss. Christian businesses or employers (we have already seen this, i.e. the Christian baker and hotel owners who were shut down re: their views on marriage). Christian civil servants (especially thinking of registrars or those tasked with the responsibility of enforcing new norms) will lose their jobs or be forced to conscientiously step down. Worse of all would be the government requiring of employees to sign documents subscribing to “Fundamental British Values” to gain or maintain work. Loyal Christians with half a conscience would be forced to go elsewhere (maybe even moving internationally). While at this point much government control is seeking to use education and the safeguarding of children to filter extremism and promote the new norm, there may come a time when such censorship targets churches. A preacher who teaches contrary to a state law (i.e. sexual orientation), even in a non-hateful compassionate way (which is how sinners should be treated, remembering that it is by grace we were saved,1 Cor 6:11), could risk fines, rehabilitation or imprisonment. A church that puts up a fuss to such intervention robbed of its charitable status, taxed, or forced to close and move underground because of its “extremist” threat. God forbid that these should happen, and thank the Lord for where sense has prevailed, but it doesn’t take much of a stretch to see these warnings realized, as indeed some already have been.
Choose this day whom you will serve!
But as for me and my house, we will serve the LORD (Jos 24:15)
May we remain steadfast in the Lord,
In His strength
 Watts, Dissenters, I, 436.
 Reliquiae Baxterianae, ed M. Sylvester (London, 1696), first pagination 96f.
 These are all of course generalization and argued from a view that is unsympathetic to the traditionalist agenda of the period.
 While Christianity is exclusivist by nature of God’s own claims, and therefore I agree with this sentiment, as a statement (assuming how it could be said in pride), I disagree as while Christians hold our God to be the only true God and Jesus as the only way to Him, we must do so in humble confidence and not arrogant pride.
 While Christians ardently support the rule of law (1 Pet 2:13) we cannot in good conscience do so when earthly laws violate God’s laws (Mark 12:13-17; Acts 5:29).
 We fail to realize that we are slaves to sin and sin finds its greatest expression in our pride. Liberty comes when we cease to be slaves to sin and becomes slaves to Christ (Ro 6:18).