William Laud was the Archbishop of Canterbury under Charles I. He was a devout and learned Christian with many good qualities, but as the leading bishop of the Church of England in turbulent times, he adopted authoritarian strategies that put him on a collision course with the equally intransigent Puritans. In the general mess of the English Civil War, everybody took turns persecuting everybody else, but on January 10, 1645, William Laud, having been convicted of conspiracy to subvert the Church of England, was brought out of his imprisonment in the Tower of London and publicly beheaded. By common consent, the 72-year-old bishop faced his fate bravely and with exemplary Christian graciousness.
It is hard to frame an unsectarian thought about Laud. If your theological convictions are arminian or Anglo-Catholic, you’re likely to think of Laud as a real martyr. If you’re more Reformed and low-church, chances are you think Laud really was a bad guy, even if not a decapitation-worthy bad guy. And beyond the theological positions, there are issues of culture, liturgical order, and, mainly, politics. You can practically feel your jaw muscles tighten up when you say his name (and if you don’t have that experience, see what happens if you say Lord Protector Cromwell three times fast). The general populace of England was ambivalent about him: his heavy-handedness was of course not popular, but then again when the Puritans started punishing people for dancing on Sunday, he punished the Puritans right back… and that was popular, in a double- or triple-negative kind of way. I mean, who doesn’t want to not miss out on not dancing on Sunday?
Personally, I have to confess an antipathy for Laud. I don’t like him and I don’t think he would like me. Even things I agree with him about, he tends to say in a way that makes me wish I disagreed with him. Rummaging through his collected works, I can hardly find a document that has enough instruction and edification in it to compensate for the irritants.
But here is something that satisfies: It’s a prayer from the published version of his private devotions. In praying for the church, he really does humble himself before the judgment of God, submit to the providence that has placed him in a fractious age and nation, and in doing so Laud instructs me in how to do likewise. I may not be able to think an unsectarian thought about (that sectarian!) Laud, but here is an unsectarian prayer: for the universal church, for your particular church, and for God’s church.
A prayer for the catholic church:
O eternal God and merciful Father, I humbly beseech Thee, bless Thy holy Catholic Church, wheresoever spread upon the face of the whole earth. Good Lord, purge it from all atheism, heresy, schism, superstition, factious maintenance of groundless opinions; that one Faith, one Lord, one Baptism, may in all places be uniformly professed, as Thy Church is, and can be but one. And grant, good Lord, that I may be, and continue, a faithful, living, and a working member under Christ the Head, in that Church the Body, all the days of my life, and through the hour of my death, through the merits, and by the grace, of the same Jesus Christ, our Lord and only Saviour. Amen.
For this particular church:
O merciful God, bless this particular Church in which I live ; make it, and all the members of it, sound in faith, and holy in life, that they may serve Thee, and Thou bless them, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
And Laud’s most famous prayer, which has been taken up into later liturgical forms and widely used:
O Lord, we humbly beseech Thee to keep Thy Church and household continually in Thy true religion, that they which do lean only upon hope of Thy heavenly grace, may evermore be defended by Thy mighty power; and that I may humbly and faithfully serve Thee in this Thy Church, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Gracious Father, I humbly beseech Thee for Thy holy Catholic Church, fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace.
Where it is corrupt, purge it;
where it is in error, direct it;
where it is superstitious, rectify it;
where anything is amiss, reform it;
where it is right, strengthen and confirm it;
where it is in want, furnish it;
where it is divided and rent asunder, make up the breaches of it;
O Thou Holy One of Israel. Amen.
O merciful God, since Thou hast ordered me to live in these times, in which the rents of Thy Church are grievous; I humbly beseech Thee to guide me, that the divisions of men may not separate me either from Thee or it, that I may ever labour the preservation of truth and peace, that where for and by our sins the peace of it succeeds not, Thou wilt yet accept my will for the deed, that I may still pray, even while Thou grantest not, because I know Thou wilt grant it when Thou seest it fit. In the meantime bless, I beseech Thee, this Church in which I live, that in it I may honour and serve Thee all the days of my life, and after this be glorified by Thee, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
O Lord, Thou hast brought a Vine out of Egypt, and planted it; Thou madest room for it, and when it had taken root it filled the land. O why hast Thou broken down her hedge, that all which go by pluck off her grapes? The wild boar out of the wood rooteth it up, and the wild beasts of the field devour it. O turn Thee again, Thou God of Hosts, look down from heaven, behold, and visit this Vine, and the place of the vineyard that Thy right hand hath planted, and the branch that Thou madest so strong for Thyself. Lord, hear me, for Jesus Christ His sake. Amen.
O Lord, except Thou buildest the house, their labour is but lost that build it; and except Thou, O Lord, keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain. It is but lost labour to rise early, and take late rest, and to eat the bread of carefulness, if Thou bless not the endeavours that seek the peace and the welfare of Thy Church. Therefore, O Lord, build Thy Church and keep it, and take care for it, that there may be no lost labour among the builders of it. Amen.
Tomorrow, January 11: the anniversary of the death of William Williams Pantycelyn