The Cure I: A Little History
In 1561, only three short years into Elizabeth’s reign (and the year Francis Bacon was born), an Order of Council was issued on October 10 to deal with the Puritan clergy within the Church of England. They wanted to eradicate any vestige of what they considered to be “Popery” starting with the Episcopate and then moving on to kneeling, vestments, the church calendar, and the Sacraments to name only a few. What had disturbed the peace of the Church in this case was that the Puritan clergy had started smashing the old baptismal fonts in their parish churches. They were dragging them out into the fields and breaking them up with hammers. If they couldn’t do that, because of the piety of their parishioners who would have been outraged, they tried moving them from their place of prominence at the entrance of the parish church. The Order of Council emphatically stated “that the fonts be not removed from the accustomed place: and that in Parish Churches the Curates take not upon them to confer Baptisms in basins, but in the font customably used.” But the fight for Catholic order was not over by a long shot. One hundred years later at the Savoy Conference the same Puritan party wished the font, in their words, to “be so placed as all the congregation may best see and hear the whole administration.” But the Bishops were not fooled by the strategy. They were well aware that the Puritans were not so concerned that the people hear the service, as they were to trim back the iconographic dimension of the placement of the font and the bishops stated as much in their decree. In most cases a large stone font, known to be of ancient origin and filled with water, was to be found at the doorsill of the parish church. The Bishops replied to the Puritans, “The font usually stands, as it did in primitive time, at or near the Church door, to signify that Baptism was the entrance into the Church mystical: ‘we are all baptized into one body’ (I Cor. 12:21), and the people may well hear enough.”
The Bishop’s innocent sounding phrase “entrance into the Church mystical” was exactly what the Puritans objected to, because that meant that Christian baptism was, to use the language of the 39 Articles, an “effectual sign of grace.” An “effectual sign” is a sign that effects what it signifies. That means that baptism is the very “instrument” of the new birth, of forgiveness of sin, of grafting into the Church, of faith and heavenly virtues bestowed, and of our adoption by God. Of course the same tensions between neo-Puritans and Churchmen continue to exist today and we will say more about that later.