Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Why William Law Matters

Normally, I ignore the lesser feasts in the church year. Unless there is a “red-letter day” on the calendar, I like to read the Daily Office, and, if I’m preaching at a weekday service, I use that text—regardless of whether a Eucharist is celebrated. Today, though, I paused long enough to see who William Law was, and, at least on the surface, I find him intriguing.

In the late 17th century, Law was an well-educated, up-and-coming Anglican clergyman with a teaching position at Cambridge. According to a Christianity Today article, he was the “son of a prosperous business man” with a “solid future” ahead of him ( Then Queen Anne died without an heir, and George I of the House of Hanover took over the throne.

Apparently, there were many, many closer relatives to Queen Anne than George of Hanover, but all of them were Roman Catholic. A series of Parliamentary acts, the latest of which was the Act of Settlement 1701, had made it clear that none of them were entitled to ascend to the throne, so it passed to the German Lutheran George. The House of Hanover replaced the House of Stuarts, and William Law didn’t like it.

As a matter of conscience, Law refused to swear the oath of allegiance required for him to maintain his position in the University. By advocating for the Jacobites, he lost his job, lost any chance to progress in the Church of England, thus losing all sense of professional direction. He spent the rest of his days as a curate without a notable cure, writing theological texts that were cited as foundational by many 18th-century theologians (e.g., John Wesley). I haven’t ever read any of his works, and, given what I’ve read about them, I doubt I would like them all that much, but that’s not the point.

I must confess that as an avowed Protestant I find Law’s political position of supporting the Catholic claim to the English (and later British) throne troubling. But, as a Christian, I find his willingness to give everything up for a matter of conscience encouraging. I don’t know what his motives were, but I have respect for someone who is Anglican and yet is willing to give everything up to support what he thinks is a legitimate Catholic claim to the throne. He wasn’t Catholic, yet he stood up for what he thought was right.

It’s not very often we have the opportunity to do what Law did in a public arena like his, but we have the daily opportunity to give up our own claim to center stage on behalf of the gospel. I read a post today from the Mockingbird blog on Erik Spoelstra’s recent decision not to set the final play for his Miami Heat ( The post points to a humility that is rare in sports—rare, even, in human experience of all arenas. How might we do likewise? How might we care less about ourselves and more about the principle of the gospel, namely putting God’s kingdom first? What might we give up? How, as today’s gospel lesson exhorts, might we practice our piety in secret for a purely heavenly reward?

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