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Bossuet's Interest in the Church of England
By W. J. Sparrow Simpson

American Church Quarterly volume 26, 1929
pp 43-50


THERE were obvious reasons why the greatest French bishop in the seventeenth century should take particular interest in the English Church. An age which saw the heir to the English throne a refugee in Paris, surrounded by the chief representatives of the English Church, was necessarily concerned with the religion of these Englishmen. And when the Restoration opened a new era to the English Church there was every reason why French Catholics should watch the development of its life with eagerness and anxiety. Reunion was one of Bossuet's ardent desires.

Bossuet's Exposition de la Doctrine Catholique brought him into relation with the English Church. A Benedictine in England translated it, in 1672, and more than 5,000 copies circulated in three months. Bossuet was told in 1686 that a third edition of the English translation was required. Its publication in England led to controversy, its principal opponent being William Wake, who was at that time preacher at Grays' Inn, and afterwards Archbishop of Canterbury. Wake had himself been resident at the Embassy in Paris in 1682. His controversial style compares unfavorably with the tactful and restrained language of Bossuet's Exposition. Wake remarked that it was not easy to conceive that a person so learned as M. de Meaux could sincerely think that a simple exposition of the Roman doctrine would suffice to convince us of its truth. Yet he paid Bossuet the tribute of saying that he was not unwilling to adopt the French bishop's method. Accordingly, he wrote an "exposition of the doctrine of the Church of England in the several articles proposed by M. de Meaux--in his exposition of the doctrine of the Catholic Church." Wake's reply to Bossuet was highly approved by leading Anglicans and was considered to have greatly diminished the influence of the French theologian over English minds.

When Bossuet was engaged in writing his History of the Variations on Protestantism he devoted a considerable study to the sixteenth century changes in English religion. For this purpose he read Bishop Burnet's History of the Reformation. He could scarcely have read an account more calculated to provoke his spirit and alienate his sympathies. In Burnet's estimate the Reformation was a work of light: to make its apology nothing was required but to write its history. Bossuet quotes these phrases, adding reflections on the blindness which sometimes falls on kings and peoples. The Gallican theologian and the latitudinarian historian were worlds apart. But Bossuet was by no means altogether dependent for his knowledge of the English Church on Burnet's representations. Only a few years before, the headquarters of the exiled Church of England had been in France. Clarendon and Bramhall, the future Irish Archbishop, and Cosin, the future Bishop of Durham, as well as the heir to the English throne, had resided in Paris. No proof remains to show that Bossuet encountered these Anglicans controversially. But no one so alert to the movements of his age, so well informed and highly placed as Bossuet, could have been ignorant of the Anglo-Catholic principles which such men as these represented. He is known to have read the works of Bishop Forbes of Edinburgh. He corresponded with Robert Nelson, the Nonjuror. He read with deep admiration and sympathy the writings of Bishop Bull of St. David's. Indeed, there are signs that the study of Anglican theology was carefully pursued by French clergy at this period. The learned Benedictine, Renaudot, was consulted by Bossuet on the subject, and placed his Anglican studies at the French bishop's disposal. Renaudot carefully instructed Bossuet about the English Calvinist Articles of 1660, and the Scottish Directory. Renaudot explained that these documents were drawn up in deliberate opposition to the Church of England, and would overthrow the whole system of Anglican religion. These documents, said Renaudot, are purely Calvinistic, and have nothing to do with the actual beliefs of the English Church. Oxford ignored them, and if Cambridge accepted them it was because that University was at the tune filled with Presbyterians. Renaudot went on to explain to Bossuet what the authoritative Articles of the Church of England actually taught. Renaudot insisted that Bishop Burnet had grossly misrepresented the teaching of the English Church. Burnet asserted that, according to the Articles, belief in the real or corporeal presence in the Sacrament was contrary to the doctrine of the Church of England. Renaudot informed Bossuet that Burnet, in saying this, had committed a notorious falsification. For he had taken "real" to be equivalent to "corporeal." Now Heylin had proved that, while the English Church rejected the doctrine that the presence in the Eucharist is corporeal, it maintained that it was real. Renaudot also quoted for Bishop Bossuet's advantage what Bishop Andrewes wrote in reply to the Jesuit Bellarmine: "We believe no less than you that the presence is real: but concerning the method of the presence we do not rashly define anything."

It is clear that Bossuet was being assisted in his Anglican studies by one who understood the spirit of the English Church better than some of its own episcopal representatives. The influence of Renaudot is plainly to be seen in Bossuet's Book of Protestant Variations. Of course, with his masterly independence and acuteness, he formed his own conclusions about the Church of England and its teaching, but none the less he was also indebted to Renaudot's learning and judgment.


When Bossuet came to write on the sacramental doctrine of the Church of England he quoted the Elizabethan Articles as teaching that the Body of our Lord Jesus Christ is given and received in a spiritual manner, and that the means whereby we receive is faith. On this doctrine Bossuet remarks that the terms are intentionally vague, but that the first statement "received in a spiritual manner" (understanding that to mean a manner transcending the senses and the order of nature) is true. And the second statement (if by reception is meant reception which is beneficial) is no less certain. Thus, according to Bossuet, the Anglican doctrine maintains concerning the Real Presence what Catholics and Lutherans alike are able to approve.

On the Parliamentary Oath imposed as a test in England in 1678 containing the declaration that in the Sacrament there is no transubstantiation of the elements of bread and wine into the Body and Blood in and after consecration, and that the Sacrifice of the Mass as it is in practice at present in the Roman Church is superstition and idolatry, Bossuet remarks that in the first place it is only directed against transubstantiation, and not against the Real Presence. And in this distinction it agrees with the Elizabethan changes made in the formulas of Edward. And further, the clause in and after consecration clearly admits belief in the Real Presence before reception, since all that is denied is change of substance. Therefore, said Bossuet, a good English Protestant is at liberty to believe that the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ are really and substantially present in the Bread and in the Wine immediately after consecration.

Bossuet went further and made similar remarks about the Eucharistic Sacrifice. He said that Englishmen were too familiar with antiquity not to know that at all times in the celebration of the Eucharist it is customary to offer to God what was afterwards distributed to the people, and that this offering was made for the dead as well as for the living. The ancient liturgies containing the formulas alike of East and West are in the hands of the world. And Englishmen do not charge them with superstition or idolatry. There is, therefore, a manner of offering to God for living and dead the Eucharistic Sacrifice which the English Church does not consider idolatrous or superstitious. If the English Church rejects the Roman Mass, it can only be on the assumption that it differs from that of the early centuries. Bossuet considered that the restoration of the chalice to communicants might much facilitate the return of England to unity.

The result of Bossuet's inquiries into Anglican history was to convince him that the variations from the Edwardine to the Elizabethan forms were considerable and, as variations, deserving to be condemned for their inconsistency; but, nevertheless, that the changes themselves were in various respects distinctly in a Catholic direction. He held that Anglicans had corrected their masters and reformed their reformers. But he expressed himself hopeful on that very ground. He was convinced that a nation with so learned a clergy as the Church of England could not continue in misconception. The respect which they showed to the Fathers, and their constant studies in primitive literature, must bring them back to the doctrine of the early centuries.

The validity of the Anglican Orders and the episcopal succession in the Church of England could not but enter into Bossuet's anxious thoughts. In a letter written in 1685 to the Benedictine Mabillon, who was then at Rome, Bossuet remarked, "As to the business of England, besides the difficulty with respect to the first bishops, the authors of the schism, there is another great one at the time of Cromwell, when it is contended that the succession of the ordination was interrupted. The English maintain the contrary: and as to the succession at the beginning of the schism, they maintain that there is no difficulty; and in this they seem to be in the right. This depends on fact: and the Holy See will not fail to act in this matter with its usual circumspection."

This letter is quoted by the French monk, Fr. Le Courayer, in his book advocating the validity of English ordinations. (Ed. 1844, p. 301.)

The editors of Bossuet's letters--Urbain and Levesque--remark that Bossuet was disposed to accept the validity of Anglican ordination, although he does not pronounce with certainty, and reserves the decision to the Holy See. It appears that his belief grew stronger as time advanced. Fr. Le Courayer says that Bossuet spoke more positively in 1699 than he did in 1685 on the validity of the Anglican succession. Fr. Courayer heard Bossuet declare that if God gave Anglicans grace to renounce their errors and their schism, their clergy would need nothing more than to be reconciled to the Church and reinstated, and that he had spoken in this sense to the King of France.

When the distinguished French Protestant Du Moulin argued that the differences between Huguenots and other reformed communions were only verbal, Bossuet contended that this was certainly not true of the English Church. "For example, in the doctrine of the episcopate, in which the Church of England is so firm, and which it carries so far that it refuses to receive Calvinist ministers without ordaining them anew. That cannot be called a mere verbal difference. Is it nothing to regard a Church as having no pastors legitimately ordained?"


Another instance of Bossuet's interest in Anglican affairs was about the Declaration of the exiled James II promising to maintain the laws and privileges of the Church of England. The Declaration issued by James at Saint Germain in 1693 contained the following items:

1. "We likewise declare upon our Royal Word, that We will protect and defend the Church of England as it is now established by Law ... 2. We will with all earnestness recommend to the Parliament such an impartial liberty of conscience as they shall think necessary for the happiness of this nation. 3. We will not dispense with, or violate the Test; and as for the dispensing power in other matters, we leave it to be explained and limited by the Parliament."

This Declaration had been submitted, before publication, to six Doctors of Paris, and to the Bishop of Meaux. Bossuet's opinion, given in a letter to Cardinal Janson, was entirely favorable. The Doctors of the Sorbonne agreed and Louis XIV approved.

Bossuet's reasons for a favorable opinion were that the promise to protect the English Church as at present established by law involves nothing more than to leave the laws as they are and to administer in accordance with their directions. There was nothing in this to which James could not conscientiously consent, since the protection required is purely external: it obliged him to nothing beyond leaving this so-called Church in the state in which he finds it, without disturbing it or permitting others to disturb it. Protection given to a false Church is a very different thing from assent to the principles which it professes. It is a promise to maintain public tranquillity. Those who require James to make this Declaration take for granted that he is a Catholic, and treat with him as such. Bossuet compared the Declaration with the protection given to Protestants by the French Kings in the Edict of Nantes. The English King would be required to tolerate, externally, the Articles, the Liturgy and the Homilies, not to promote them.

To maintain the Test excluding Catholics from public functions must certainly be hard on Catholics. But they must remember how small a minority they are in the English realm. They must not exact from their King impossible conditions, but must remember the solid advantages which would ensue from having a King of their own religion, and a Catholic succession established in the country, results which open out prospects of an ultimate, if distant, reestablishment of the Catholic Church and its faith. If, on the contrary, they lose this opportunity and dictate to Protestants, who are after all the masters of the situation, they expose themselves to all sorts of evils, and will not restore their King.

Bossuet professed himself to have no doubt that the Pope would approve this course, but submitted himself of course to the Pope's supreme decision.

Cardinal Janson, however, while agreeing entirely with Bossuet's opinion on the case, held that it was most undesirable that any reference should be made to the Pope to ascertain his judgment. For even if such reference were made under the seal of secrecy, they could not be certain that the secret would be kept, since according to the maxims of many theologians of the Papal Court, the Pope is not bound by the laws of secrecy. Nor is there, wrote the Cardinal, any Court in the world where secrecy is less religiously guarded. For however greatly they pride themselves on their subtlety and their prudence, matters which require the profoundest secrecy are divulged through disputes about them. Not only that; if the House of Austria, which is personally interested in preventing the restoration of James II to the English throne, were to have its suspicions awakened the difficulties and embarrassments which the Pope would incur would become very gravely increased. The Cardinal added his own opinion that Declarations of this kind were prompted by the necessity of preserving public peace. Did not Cardinal d'Ossat say as much? (Letters 1732, ii, 430-8.) Moreover, if the matter were referred to the Pope, there was very little or no advantage to be gained even if a papal appeal were secured. However, the Pope shrewdly suspected that movements were going on to restore James II, and enquired direct of Cardinal Janson what he knew about them. The Cardinal wrote to tell Louis XIV about this, and to say that he informed the Pope under the seal of confession, which made the case inviolable. The Pope expressed himself rejoiced to hear the news, and assured the Cardinal that the secret would be safe. James II desired the Cardinal of Norfolk, brother of the Duke of Norfolk, to inform the Pope about the matter. But the Cardinal considered that to bring the matter before the papal court would be indiscretion. And with this view Louis XIV agreed, and took upon himself to inform James of the Pope's approval, insisting at the same time that Bossuet's memoir should not be shown to anybody for fear of raising further complications.


There are further illustrations of Bishop Bossuet's knowledge of the theologians of the English Church. Robert Nelson, author of Fasts and Festivals, himself an Anglican, was on terms of personal friendship with Bossuet, whom he describes as "a considerable prelate." Nelson sent to the Bishop of Meaux a copy of the work by Bishop Bull of St. David's, on the judgment of the Catholic Church of the first three centuries on the divinity of our Lord. The book reached Bossuet during a session of the General Assembly of the French Episcopate in Paris. He read it with the greatest admiration, lent it to several bishops, and wrote a letter of thanks to Robert Nelson (1700) expressing himself in the warmest terms. The subject could not be treated with greater learning and greater judgment. Bossuet asked Nelson to convey to the Bishop of St. David's the congratulations of the French Episcopate assembled in Paris for the service which he had rendered to the Catholic Church in so well defending the divinity of the Son of God. At the same time, Bossuet desired to know what precisely the Bishop of St. David's understood by the Catholic Church. Is it the Church of Rome and those who adhere to it? Is it the Church of England?

The Bishop of St. David's replied: "Monsieur de Meaux seems to think the Roman and the Catholic Church to be convertible terms, which is strange in so learned a man, especially at this time of day. Cannot the Catholic Church be mentioned but presently the Roman Church must be understood?"

"But I wonder why M. de Meaux should ask me whether by the Catholic Church I mean the Church of Rome, or the Church of England. He knows full well, I mean neither the one nor the other. For to say either of the Church of Rome, or of the Church of England, or of the Greek Church, or of any other particular Church, of what denomination soever, that it is the Catholic or Universal Church, would be as absurd as to affirm that a part is the whole."

The Bishop of Meaux never saw Bishop Bull's reply. Bossuet died before the letter could reach him, 12th April, 1704.

Bossuet's appreciation of the Bishop of St. David's was very cordial. Some sixteen years before this date he had read Bishop Bull's Defence of the Nicene Faith. He was deeply impressed to read the emphatic terms in which the Anglican Bishop had insisted, if in a doctrine of this fundamental character the pastors of the Church were supposed to be deceived, that he did not see how the promise of Christ to be perpetually present with his Apostles and their successors could be maintained. That implied the infallibility of the universal councils of the Church. When Bossuet read it his comment was--God bless the learned Bull, and in reward for his sincerity and for his zeal in defending the divinity of Jesus Christ may he be delivered from the prejudices, which obscure from his sight the Catholic Church, and enabled to realize the necessary implications of the truth which he affirms.

Altogether, the relations between the Church in France and the Church of England during Bossuet's ascendancy presents many aspects which bear favorable comparison on the whole with the conditions which have sometimes existed. It is not surprising that the opening years of the eighteenth century saw Dr. Wake, Archbishop of Canterbury, engaged with Doctors of the Sorbonne in efforts towards a better mutual understanding.

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