Thursday, February 26, 2015

Rabbit Tracks

One of the figures that I keep running across in my reading is Thomas Wilson, 1663-1755, Lord Bishop of Sodor and Man from 1697/8 to 1755. The eighteenth century was not an era of hard and fast party divisions, and there were some bishops of decidedly independent mind, such as Wilson slightly younger contemporary Thomas Potter, the High Church WHIG who was Archbishop of Canterbury from 1737-47, or Edmund Gibson, the Canonist, who seems to have been independent of ecclesiastic affiliation. Wilson himself seems to have been exceedingly difficult to pigeon hole, being admired by early Evangelicals and Tractarians alike. Indeed, the Evangelical, Charles Simeon (1759-1836) learned the doctrine of substitutionary atonement from a short tract Wilson had written on Holy Communion, but the standard biography of Wilson appeared from the pen of no less a Tractarian than Keble himself almost a century after his death. Wilson also appears on a lot of the Rabbit Trails of eighteenth century Church history. He was a collaborator with Oglethorpe in the foundation of the colony of Georgia. Wesley respected him greatly, and there is some evidence that Law was also favourably disposed to the good bishop. His tracts were republished by SPCK long after his death, and word that one of his Sermons in Manx was to be read in one of the Island's parish churches was sure to draw a good congregation.

So what do we need to know about Thomas Wilson?

Firstly, it is important to remember that Wilson was a farmer's son, born at Burton on the Wirral Peninsular in 1663. He was educated by the local grammar school. His family could scrape together just enough money for young Thomas to attend Trinity College, Dublin, then much favoured by folks in the Northwest of England as a cheaper alternative to Oxford and Cambridge, and he graduate A.B. in 1683, and then studied medicine for a while before being ordained, with the express permission of the Archbishop of Dublin, to the diaconate at the age of 22 [1]. After a brief period in the ministry of the Church of Ireland, he returned to Lancashire as tutor to the sons of the Earl of Derby, who was also Lord (earlier, King) of Man [2]. He appears to have served as a tutor to the Derby family for some years, but was given the Vicarage of by them in 1694. He served there for a few years, but the death of the Baptist Levinz, the largely non-resident Bishop of Sodor and Man in 1694 changed the outlook.

The Earl of Derby was in no hurry to fill the post, but after an interval of eighteen months he offered it to Wilson, who promptly refused. He tried again a year later and received the same answer, and it was only when William III (Dutch Billy) became interested in the matter - telling Derby that if the Earl did not appoint a bishop he would - that Wilson finally accepted the offer of the Diocese of Sodor and Man. Wilson was consecrated as a Bishop in 1698 by the Archbishop of York, and set off to take possession of his diocese.

Sodor and Man was the smallest Diocese in the Church of England - just 17 parishes - and also the poorest - it brought in about three hundred and fifty pounds a year. Both the compactness of the diocese and its poverty was due to the northern end of the Diocese - the Western Isles of Scotland, Kintyre and various other odd bits of Argyll - having been spun off into the Diocese of the Isles in the 15th century by the King James II of Scotland. The transfer of the Western Isles to Scotland from Norwegian suzreignity also had the effect of removing the diocese of Sodor from the ecclesiastical Province of Nidaros (Trondheim) but like the Diocese of the Isles, which quickly became part of the Province of St Andrew's, Sodor remained without a Provincial affiliation until Henry VIII placed under Canterbury in 1534, then transferred it to York in 1543.

In the 150 years after the Reformation, Sodor had become something of an ecclesiastical backwater - not that it was ever really in the mainstream. The Bishops had even started to add 'and Man' to the title because they were now uncertain that the old term Sodor included the Isle of Man or not. This process was helped along by the fact that the Isle of Man was an independent Lordship for which homage was owed to the King of England, but was ruled by the Stanley Earls of Derby. Most of the population spoke Manx, not English, and most of the clergy were home-grown, and, if they received a university education at all, received it at Trinity College, Dublin, not Oxford or Cambridge. Wilson's installation as bishop was a typically Manx affair. Wilson had yet to acquire any Manx, the Archdeacon and most of the clergy were uncomfortable in English, so the service was conducted in Latin and the sermon preached in Manx. Wilson discovered that his cathedral lacked some essential amenities - like a roof; the Episcopal house - Bishopcourt - was showing signs of only irregular occupation; and to cap it all, the provision of churches on Man was inadequate and those there were needed repair.

Wilson set about his task as best he could. His first two problems to address were the state of the Bishop's residence, and the lack of church accommodation in Castletown and Douglas. Payment of the arrears of royal bounty owing to the diocese (about seven hundred pounds) allowed him to restore Bishopcourt, and also fund the construction of St Matthew's Church, Douglas, on a constricted sites by the Market Place to replace a small chapel built a generation or so earlier. Funds from friends in England, and some surplus episcopal revenues allowed him to construct a new church in Castletown - St Mary's - to save the residents the longish walk out to Malew Parish Church - which still stands in splendid isolation at a crossroads about midway between Castletown and Ballasalla. Wilson also set about learning Manx so he could read the service and preach in the language of the people. He seems to have acquired enough competency in the language that his Manx sermons were still popular a century later. An analysis of Wilson's style reveals a preacher who was keen to lay the basic truths of the Gospel before his hearers. He was not afraid to preach about original sin, man's true condition, our need for a Saviour, and the salvation offered to mankind through Jesus Christ. This was a contrast to the dull moralism that was so often characteristic of Anglican Preaching between the Glorious Revolution and the Evangelical Revival.

Wilson also took practical steps to reconcile Dissenters to the Church of England. There were very few Popish Recusants on the Island, but there were a number of Presbyterian. The Bishop's approach here was twofold. Firstly, he did not insist on small points of ceremonial. One or two clergy had scruples about the surplice, so he insisted only that it be worn by them some times. Some lay folks had scruples about kneeling, so the bishop did not insist upon it with the result that in time most conformed to the Church. Wilson also had the good sense to address a usual Presbyterian complaint about Anglicanism - its lack of discipline. In addition to the usual cases of bastardy, matrimonial cases, failure to receive the sacrament; non-payment of tithe, and so on and so forth, the Bishop was not shy to rebuke gossips, and those who circulated scandalous books, especially those that attacked Protestant orthodoxy. His outspokenness resulted in a stretch of imprisonment in Castle Rushen during a dispute over the conduct of the Governor's wife. The imprisonment was harsh enough to leave the Bishop with only restricted use of his right arm, suggesting that he may have had a minor stroke during his incarceration.

Wilson continued as Bishop until his death in 1755. He was revered by High Churchmen and Evangelicals alike, but in his later years he had to deal with some reversals. The Governor's Household and the garrison increasingly claimed exemption from ecclesiastical discipline, with the result that Wilson's careful maintained system of oversight of religion, morals, and manners began to break down. Church attendance remained high on the island, however, and there are signs that to some extent Church life was far more 'lively' than on the neighbouring islands of Britain and Ireland. It was not until long after Wilson's death that Methodism gained a foothold on the island, and Dissent did not find its way to the Isle of Man until around 1800. The Methodists themselves did not become dissenters until 1812, but the practice of dual affiliation - to the Parish Church and to the Wesleyan meeting continued for many years. In some respects, the Wilson combination of disciple and piety made it easy for Manxmen to transition to Methodist once dull orthodox descended on the Church during the reign of Bishop Cornelius Criggan, and the unpopular George Murray. It is perhaps fitting to record that when the Bishop died, he was buried outside Michael Church in a coffin made from an elm tree he had planted when he first came into the diocese in 1698. His funeral, it is said, was attended by every able bodied male on the island, it being the custom of the islanders that women did not attend funerals.

Wilson stands out for his combination of piety, discipline, and common sense in an era when all three were in short supply, and rationalism and formalism prevailed. He preached the Good News of Jesus Christ. He took advantage of the freedom allowed by the Isle of Man's status outside of the United Kingdom to make necessary reforms, and thus reconcile tender consciences to the Church. He was also strict, but loving disciplinarian, opposed to both error in religion and viciousness of manners in an era when Church discipline had all but broken down. He seems to have been in some measure sympathetic to the Wesleys and their efforts at methodical religion, seeing it, perhaps, as a mainland counterpart to is maintenance of the old ways in his island bishop. Perhaps it would have been good for the Church of the Augustan Age if there had been a few more like him. [1] Canonical age for ordination to the diaconate is 23 in Ireland. [2] The title King of Man, or King of Man and the Isles disappears around 1509 to avoid unpleasantness with Henry VIII.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for this blog--full of useful information. I'm an ex-Episcopalian who ran from ECUSA's apostasy to Eastern Orthodoxy, but there is still much I like about Anglican spirituality, much I find useful. Your comments here and there about being a Prayer Book Anglican (as opposed to using, say, some Romanising missal) are right on the mark. I was always pretty content myself with Prayer Book, 39 Articles (well...maybe 35 1/2 or so) and King James Bible.

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