The Association of Presbyters

George Crowder

Baxter and the Local Association

The Motivation

Baxter’s initial inspiration for attempting the consociation of local churches seems to be a developing burden for peace and unity between warring denominations.[1] A great encouragement to him was that many already had sympathies with his antipathy toward the spirit of separatism. He writes,

I found that most (that ever I could meet with) were against the Jus Divinum of Lay Elders, and for the moderate Primative Episcopacy, and for a narrow Congregational or Parochial extent of ordinary Churches, and for an accommodation of all Parties, in order for Concord, as well as myself.[2]

Nevertheless he admits that he was too paralysed by despair to make an attempt for some years.[3]

Eventually, however, he was spurred into action by concerns closer to home. He avails, “the state of my own congregation, and the necessity of my Duty, constrained me to make some attempt”.[4] Baxter had “determined a way which was… most agreeable to the word of God”[5] for administration of the sacraments. He desired his people to submit to his authority and discipline and so he recollects, “I thought, if all the ministers did accord together in one way, the People would much more easily submit, than to the way of any minister that was singular.”[6] Harold Wood adds, “If an experienced pastor like Baxter felt it advisable to join with others so that their joint authority might be effective in all their parishes, it was particularly advisable to have such a system in the interests of younger pastors.” Indeed such concern for younger ministers came to be written into the agreement binding the association.[7]

Black reveals Baxter’s astute opportunism in appropriating the popular combination lectures as a vehicle for deepening ministerial association and collegiality.[8] He already met with local pastors on a regular basis, as there would often be a time of conference for them following the public lecture.[9] So Baxter himself recounts, “At a lecture at Worcester I first procured a Meeting, and told them of the Design, which they all approved: they imposed it on me, to draw up a Form of Agreement.”[10]

He defined the aim of the association most clearly in his description of how he undertook this task:

According to their desire I drew up some Articles for our Consent[11] which might engage us to the most effectual practice of so much Discipline as might reduce the Churches to order, and satisfie Ministers in administering the Sacraments, and stop the more religious People from Separation, to which the unreformedness of the Churches through want of Discipline inclined them…[12]

The Meetings

Meetings which addressed disciplinary cases were held monthly, and Baxter deliberately held his own parochial meeting the day before.[13] Those who refused the final exhortations and appeals to repent from the members of the parochial committee were given audience with the Association.[14]

By placing this first action within the forum of the parochial committee Baxter deliberately invokes a plurality of eldership at the level of the local church.[15] Baxter’s PCC was weighty and extensive. It comprised three Justices of the Peace, three or four ministers, and three or four deacons. It also included “twenty of the ancient and godly men of the congregation” who were not elders as such but were elected annually to represent the people.[16] While the pastor has governing authority, he must collaborate with an eldership and, on the matter of discipline, invite the discretionary judgement and support of the congregation.

At the Association meeting, Baxter testifies, “some ministers of other Parishes laboured to set it home, that the Offender might not think it was only the Opinion of the pastor of the Place and that he did it out of ill Will or Partiality”.[17] If the offender remained impenitent, with the consent of all of the Association, his own pastor was to publicly admonish him before his own church, and if still unrepentant, the church was to avoid him.[18] Needless to say that the Associated churches included themselves in this sanction.[19]

It is notable that this process, without compromising the pastor’s responsibility for discipline, makes him transparently accountable for his decision in the judgement of his contemporaries. Such is a comfort and help to congregation and pastor alike, and is the logical outcome of Baxter’s determination for the nearest concord on biblical terms.[20] In practice, the Association Meeting was also a forum for consultation as much as consent,[21] and the pastor could make himself accountable at an earlier stage of any given disciplinary case and seek the advice of the association accordingly. It stands to reason that if a pastor faces difficulty or opposition when judging professions of faith for membership, particularly in the early stages of reform, the Association should also be consulted, and the Agreement accounted for this.[22] Difficult matters could even be raised at a quarterly meeting of all the local associations in Worcester.[23]

The first business of each meeting was not actually discipline, or even the wider field of “Church business”, as Baxter puts it.[24] It was time of encouragement and edification, and began with a meal followed by a sermon and a disputation on a theological topic.[25] This format was clearly aimed at harnessing differences of opinion to bring greater understanding rather than conflict, and “proved of exceeding great benefit and comfort”.[26]

Baxter had established a foundation, a forum, and a fellowship where he was encouraged, supported and accountable in the work of promoting parish reform.[27] He could not have been happier and writes,

I must confess this was the comfortablest time of all my Life, through the great delight I had in the Company of that Society of honest, sincere, laborious, humble Ministers of Christ.[28]

The President

Leadership of the Worcestershire Association naturally fell to Baxter, who necessarily defined the role with some precision in testimony to the prevailing maelstrom of contention about church government. He believed that nothing more elaborate than the nearest concord of local churches by “messengers, letters and synods” was jure divino,[29] so he judicously adopted the title president.[30] He saw no problem with holding the office for life, so long as the individual chosen remained “most able and fit”.[31]

He ascribed no more power to it than he considered necessary for good order and unity.[32] Essentially this entailed the authority to call the meetings, chair the debates, and be the focus of all communication.[33] Further to this, he grants the following:

power only to take notice of the state of things and gravely to admonish the pastors where they are negligent, and exhort the people, and provoke them to Holiness, Reformation and Unity, only by the perswasions of the Word of God, which is no more then any minister may do that hath opportunity[34]

A faithful and gracious discipline of pastors was hence made accessible, but without compromise to the integrity of the pastoral office. It was merely one pastor’s ministry to another. Though the President was in a position to receive and investigate complaints he could not, of course, censure without full consensus of the association.[35]

Baxter considered the presidency of an Association of pastors to have “greater resemblance to the ancient episcopacy than any of the rest”.[36] It is a simple observation that in the absence of a functioning episcopate Baxter did not simply abandon episcopacy, but took opportunity to re-assert it in what he believed was its authentic form. Rather than leap gleefully over the fence to graze in the pastures of some newer, greener polity he only had it in his heart to re-cultivate a true and primitive episcopacy.

Wood may be right to say that church discipline was the essential element in Baxter’s system of church government,[37] but Baxter may have been right have it so. Many other successful associations sprang up around the country, all following Baxter’s model. By 1657 there were associations in 14 Counties.[38] Nevertheless, his consistent priority for discipline meant that when reinstatement of diocesan bishops was at bay, Baxter opted to push for countrywide implementation of Usher’s model.

Usher and the Reduction of Episcopacy

In essence, Usher’s model was in the most part coincident with Baxter’s zeal for reform. Baxter met with Usher in 1655,[39] and as Nuttall recounts from his Sermon before King in 1660, they agreed on church government in “less than half an hours debate”.[40] His model was simpler, but vitally, it traded on structures and terms familiar to the Church of England. Wood discerns that, “by agreeing to support Usher’s simple plan of modified episcopacy, the Puritan ministers escaped the misunderstandings that would have accompanied Baxter’s complicated schemes, and yet they were able to advocate together with Baxter a ‘true, ancient and primitive episcopacy’”.[41] Baxter himself remarks that Usher’s model was not “the same in all points that we could wish”, but it was “the best that they could hope to offer”.[42]

In terms of discipline, the association of ministers was re-designated as a “deanery synod”, over which a suffragan bishop would preside.[43] So the number of Suffragan Bishops would be greatly increased, and the extent of their jurisdiction greatly reduced.[44] Plurality at parish level was retained by denoting “the Rector, together with the Churchwardens and Sidesmen” to be those empowered to take disciplinary action. But such action could not be made permanent without being upheld by the deanery synod.[45] Excommunication was to be “decreed” at the synod, and then “executed” in the Parish.[46]

There was still to be a collaborative consultative and advisory function, which included disciplinary appeals and clergy discipline. The suffragan bishop was “according to the major part of their Voices conclude on all Matters that should be brought into Debate before them”.[47] Usher reminds, “In the fourth Council of Carthage it was concluded that the bishop might hear no man’s cause without the presence of the clergy”.[48] Difficult or unresolved matters of discipline, doctrine or dispute could be referred to a twice-yearly diocesan synod, and then a triennial national synod.[49] Usher’s episcopacy worked from the bottom up not from the top down, and this is a most significant parallel with Baxter’s system.[50]

Both Benn and Reinken, in different ways, purport to find the seeds of modern ecclesiastical government in Usher’s proposals.[51] This is a remarkable development considering the complete rejection of the model in the Restoration Settlement.[52] The central principle is synodical government, but as Benn rightly observes, “our outworking lacks his [Usher’s] concern for godly discipline and gospel rule in our church”.[53] The disparity may be even greater than this, since the primary objective of the deanery synods in Usher’s model was the resolution of disciplinary cases. If discipline is not even mentioned then modern synodical government bears resemblance to his vision in little more than name and meeting schedule.

Critique for Adaptation

There is no question that both of these models, being so similar, are commendable. Baxter’s model has a heart for the local church. It gives the pastor’s administration of church discipline credence and accountability in the eyes of the congregation. Usher’s model only gives concessions where they are of no real consequence. The fact that deanery synod has come into common ecclesiastical parlance is a nagging reminder of what Anglican episcopacy could be.

The voluntary consociation of local churches and the association of like-minded pastors have been practised as worthy ventures in themselves in one form or another throughout history. Baxter’s answer to the question of the pastor’s ultimate responsibility for church discipline, and thus membership, was to adapt just such a venture to great effect. Usher’s answer was to splice it into prevailing ecclesiastical structures. There are still no better answers and I believe we must be prepared to select and adapt the appropriate vehicle, and reconcile it with an understanding of the current Anglican system.

[1] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II, 139-146, especially §10, (141) and §16, (144).

[2] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §23, (146).

[3] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §24, (146).

[4] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §28, (148).

[5] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §28, (148).

[6] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §28, (148).

[7] Baxter, Propositions, Prop XX, Rule 14, (B4)

[8] J William Black, Reformation Pastors (Carlisle: Paternoster, 2004), 149-153

[9] Black, Reformation Pastors, 149

[10] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §28, (148)

[11] These articles were published, of course, together with a supporting “Explication” under the title, Christian Concord.

[12] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §28, (148).

[13] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §31, (149-150).

[14] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §31, (150).

[15] Which is very much promoted in the Worcester Association Agreement, see, Baxter, Propositions, Article XVII, (Sig. B)

[16] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §31, (150).

[17] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §31, (150).

[18] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §31, (150).

[19] Baxter, Propositions, Prop. XX, Rule 10, (B4)

[20] Baxter, Explication, 95-106; Baxter, Cases of Conscience, Question 56, (666-668).

[21] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §31, 149.

[22] Baxter, Christian Concord, Prop. XIX, Rule 11, (B3).

[23] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §31, (150).

[24] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §32, (150).

[25] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §32, (150).

[26] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §32, (150).

[27] See Black, Reformation Pastors, 157

[28] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §32, (150).

[29] Baxter, Cases of Conscience, Question 56, (666-668). Baxter, Treatise of Episcopacy, 98.

[30] Baxter, Five Disputations, 299.

[31] Baxter, Five Disputations, 299.

[32] Baxter, Five Disputations, 298.

[33] He also included a power to ordain in mitigating circumstances, and with the full approval of the Association. See Baxter, Five Disputations, 301-302.

[34] Baxter, Five Disputations, 334-335.

[35] Baxter, Christian Concord, Prop. I, A3, and Prop XX, Rule 9, (B4); See also, Baxter, Explication, 1-2, 109-110.

[36] Baxter, Treatise of Episcopacy, 291. This was in context with a background of rhetoric against Diocesan Prelacy in which he categorised twelve different kinds of bishop, with varying levels of approval (Baxter, Five Disputations, 14-21). The twelve kinds are as follows (with Baxter’s judgement):

[37] Wood, Church Unity, 101-102.

[38] Wood, Church Unity, 103.

[39] Wood, Church Unity, 106.

[40] G F Nuttall, Richard Baxter (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, 1965), 86.

[41] Wood, Church Unity, 32.

[42] Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II §99, (241).

[43] Archbishop Usher, The Reduction of Episcopacy unto the Form of Synodical Government received in the Ancient Church, proposed in the Year 1641 as an Expedient for the prevention of those Troubles which afterwards did arise about the Matter of Church-Government. Cited in Reliquiae Baxerianae II:240.

[44] Usher, The Reduction of Episcopacy, 240

[45] Usher, The Reduction of Episcopacy, 240

[46] Usher, The Reduction of Episcopacy, 240

[47] Usher, The Reduction of Episcopacy, 240

[48] Usher, The Reduction of Episcopacy, 239

[49] Usher, The Reduction of Episcopacy, 240

[50] Notwithstanding this Usher stood by the biblical expediency of a Diocesan Bishop (contra Baxter), based on two arguments. First, he considered that the OT pattern was not entirely superseded by the New Covenant, and was similar in principle. Second, he understood the Angel of Ephesus, in Revelation 2:1 to refer to the President, who was, 12 years later, addressed by Ignatius as Bishop. See, Wallace Benn, Usher on Bishops: A Reforming Ecclesiology (London: St Antholin’s Lectureship Charity, 2002), 11-20.

[51] Benn, Usher on Bishops, 22, 24; Dirk C Reinken, ArchBishop Ussher’s Proposal for Synodical Government (1641): Its Scriptural and Patristic Origins and Its Relevance for Today (link will open in new window). accessed 25th April 2007, 1.

[52] See, The Bishops Answer to the first Proposals of the London Ministers, who Attempted the Work of Reconcilement; which was brought to them afterward instead of their Concessions, before expected and promised. Cited in Baxter, Reliquiae Baxterianae, II:242-243.

[53] Benn, Usher on Bishops, 24.