As Anglicans and Episcopalians, we tend to think that not a great deal positive happened in English church history during the English Civil War and the period known as the Interregnum between the reigns of the beheaded Charles the First and the monarch of the Restoration in 1660, Charles the Second when the Church of England with its bishops was suspended. However, today, December 8, in our church calendar, we commemorate Richard Baxter (1615-1691), a Puritan divine and theologian, whose hymn “Ye holy angels bright” we happily enjoy singing. Baxter was a remarkable irenic figure in singularly unirenic times! He was the Puritan preacher at Kidderminster on and off for about 20 years in those tumultuous times. There he worked at reforming the ministry of the church and produced one of his many important works, “The Reformed Pastor.” Such was the power of his preaching and his relatively moderate theology that he was even offered a bishopric in the restored Anglican Church. However, he was not one to compromise and turned down the offer. Baxter’s dream was of a truly inclusive national church. Sadly, that did not come about with restrictions being placed on Catholics and so-called Nonconformists (Presbyterians, Congregationalists and Baptists). Baxter paid for his principled stand with continuing harassment by the authorities right up to his death which even included jail time.
His modest legacy in the Episcopal Church is “Ye holy angels bright” (625 in the Church Hymnal) as well as being named among Holy Men and Women. I have a precious memory of the hymn when I had the privilege of ministering to the dying Frank Woods, the Archbishop of Melbourne who ordained me deacon and priest. Sitting by his bed one day he asked me what was my favorite hymn. Without waiting for my answer with eyes closed he recited the four stanzas of “Ye holy angels bright.” He paused after the stanza “Ye blessed souls at rest, who ran this earthly race, and now, from sin released, behold the Savior’s face, God’s praises sound, as in his sight with sweet delight, ye do abound” and said to me “That is what I want to do, abound.” Ten days later I was quite overcome as the packed cathedral sang that hymn at his funeral.
Thanks be to God for Richard Baxter, a giant of a human being, who kept the Faith in very difficult times. May we like him “abound” in the love and grace of God in both difficult and good times.