Anglican orthdoxy was threatened from several sides. Methodism, to which we shall yet return, was a threat on the right side. On the left side there was the growing popularity of the concept of natural religion, another subject to be treated more amply. And within the body of the Church itself the rot set in.
As so many terms that later became quite current, `Latitudinarianism' was originally one of contempt. It came into use at the time of the Restoration of the English monarchy in 1660. In 1662 somebody in Canterbury found it a vague term, but he heard it being used.[i] An Oxonian told a Cambridge friend in the same year: "I can come into no company of late, but I find the chief discourse to be about a certain new sect of men, called `Latitude-men'", to which the other replied: "The name of Latitude-Men is daily exagitated among us, both in taverns and in pulpits, and very tragical representations are made of them."[ii] It appears that Latitudinarianism had rapidly become a quite common phenomenon.
The term was originally in use for the Cambridge Platonists, but was soon applied to a later generation of Anglican divines, among whom some well-known and influential bishops figure, like John Tillotson (1630-1674), who was to become archbishop of Canterbury, Edward Stillingfleet (1636-1679), bishop of Worcester, and Gilbert Burnet (1643-1715), bishop of Salisbury and the author of a six-volumed History of our times (1713) (it is reported of him that he spoke fluently Dutch); all these men were thought to incline towards Latitudinarianism.[iii] It was obviously firmly entrenched in the leading circles of the Church of England.
2. What does `latitude' mean?
It was widely understood that `latitude' stood for heterodoxy or religious laxity, for indiference and scepticism. Latitudinarians were accused of wanting to supplant orthodox Christian religion with natural religion.[iv] Yet seventeenth-century Latitudinarians were convinced that Anglicanism was seriously threatened by Roman Catholicism, and by Hobbes's philosophy, by Spinoza, by deism, and by scepticism. They conceived of themselves as orthodox Christians, because they accepted the doctrine of justification. However, they wanted religion to be `reasonable' and did not set great store by a highly developed theology. "They thought personal morality was more important than theological exactitude." Part of Anglican theology they found inessential; they favoured liberty of opinion and were averse to religious strife, which could endanger the peace of the Church.[v] They were great lovers of science; many of them were members of the Royal Society.
Bishop Burnet described the characteristics of a Latitudinarian in the following terms: "Belief in the sufficiency of the Bible alone as the standard and rule of faith; in the right of private judgment; in the simplicity and accessibility of Biblical teaching; in the essentially moral and practical nature of Christianity as a faith based on the truths of natural religion, though elevated above them by revelation; in the need to be charitable to fellow Protestants [i.e. Nonconformists], but ever vigilant against the threat of sacerdotialism [i.e. clericalism, explained as] (`the raising of the power and authority of sacred functions beyond what is founded on clear warrant in Scripture)".[vi]
Martin Fitzpatrick's summary of Latitudinarian belief runs more or less along the same lines: "first, an emphasis on simplicity; second, the belief that reason and revelation spoke the same language ...; third, that the essential truths were contained in the Bible; fourth, ... that these essential truths were accessible to all men; fifth, that apart from these truths all other truths are matters of opinion; finally, that men may serve God in several ways." He adds that this "ran counter to the religious absolutism of the Roman Catholics and of the Puritans", but also many Anglicand did not agree with this.[vii]
Latudinarians of the seventeenth century might state as forcefully as they could that they were perfectly orthodox, but those of the eighteenth century drifted in the direction of heterodoxy; there were deists and Unitarians (Arians) among them. Those of the seventeenth attempted to maintain the balance of orthodoxy and rationalism, of faith and reason, but later the ratio was getting pride of place. Latitudinarians were sworn enemies of all kinds of irrationality, of fanaticism, superstition, and enthusiasm. Naturally, Roman Catholics were viewed as hopelessly superstitious.[viii] Christians must be `reasonable'; they had to use their reason, a gift of God, in order to attain, not so much certainty in theological matters, but rather, moral certainty. Christianity was all about leading the good life.
Yet, how certain is Latitudinarian certainty? Does it mean more than that Christian doctrine is `highly probable'? "The Latitudinarians accorded to Christianity a degree of certainty that was lower than that attaching to the evidence of the senses or of mathematical demonstration ... They accorded to the facts of Christian revelation an epistemological status, which, in the final analysis, is not much different from that which they accorded to any reliable historical account of the past."[ix] The tenets of revelation had to pass the test of reason. One should not believe revelation, if it tells us something that is contrary to reason. A case in point was the dogma of Transsubstantiation.
Many Latitudinarians were sincerely convinced that they were defending Anglican doctrine against sceptics and `infidels', but they wanted to keep a low profile, when it came to doctrinal matters. Yet others were not satisfied with this moderate stand; they wanted controversy, even to the point of secession from the Church.[x] They were convinced that "some of the dogmas which had expressed the views of earlier ages, had now become obsolete and hindered the advance of religious knowledge";[xi] it goes without saying that these people were thinking of the dogma of the Trinity. No wonder then that High Church Anglicans found that Latitudinarianism was `a cloak for heresy'.[xii] It was evidently viewed as a Trojan horse within the Church of England. During the nineteenth century, writes Griffin, the term `Latitudinarian' was replaced by that of `Broad Churchman', the `Broad Church' being one of the four branches of the Church of England, the other three being the High Church, Anglo-Catholic, and the Low Church.
This Broad Church, which is "very much in the Latitudinarian tradition", scored a notable triumph in 1865, when it was no longer required of all Anglican believers to subscribe to the Thirty-Nine Articles, as `agreeable to the Word of God'. The term `Thirty-Nine Articles' was replaced by the more general and vague one of adherence to `the doctrine of the Church'.[xiii] There
can be no doubt that Latitudinarianism undermined Anglican orthodoxy and made the position of the Church of England less secure.
The Church of England, c.1689-c.1833. From Toleration to Tractarianism.
FITZPATRICK, Martin, Latitudinarianism and the parting of the ways: a Suggestion. In: The Church of England.
GRIFFIN, Martin J.J., Latitudiniarism in the seventeenth-century Church of England. Annotated by Richard H. Popkin. Edited by Lila Freedman. Series: Brill's Studies in Intellectual History. Vol.32. Leiden/New York/Köln, 1992 (19621).
WALSH, John, and TAYLOR, Stephen, The Church and Anglicanism in the `long' eighteenth century. In: The Church of England.
[i].Griffin, Latitudinarianism 3.
[ii].Griffin, Latitudinarianism 4.
[iii].Griffin, Latitudinarianism 4/5.
[iv].Griffin, Latitudinarianism 8.
[v].Griffin, Latitudinarianism 43.
[vi].Walsh/Taylor, The Church and Anglicanism 36/37.
[vii].Fitzpatrick, Latitudinarianism 211.
[viii].Griffin, Latitudinarianism 53.
[ix].Griffin, Latitudinarianism 82/83.
[x].Walsh/Taylor, Church and Anglicanism 27.
[xi].Quoted by Walsh/Taylor, Church and Anglicanism 37/38.
[xii].Walsh/Taylor, Church and Anglicanism 39/40.
[xiii].Fitzpatrick, Latitudinarianism 225.