Richard Baxter was born at Rowton in Shropshire in 1615. In 1633 he was at the court of King James VI & I but was so disgusted with the low moral standards there that he returned home in order to study divinity. He was ordained but, after the promulgation of an infamous Oath, in 1640, which required obedience to a string of persons ending in the trite phrase ‘et cetera’, he rejected belief in episcopacy in its current English form and went as a curate to a poor area of the west Midlands. He opposed the Civil War and played a prominent part in the recall of Charles II, but his continuing dissatisfaction with the way episcopacy was practised led him to decline the See of Hereford. This refusal led him to be debarred from further office in the Church of England, though he continued to contribute to its life as a prolific hymn writer. He died in the year 1691.
Jesus began to teach beside the sea. Such a very large crowd gathered around him that he got into a boat on the sea and sat there, while the whole crowd was beside the sea on the land. He began to teach them many things in parables, and in his teaching he said to them: ‘Listen! A sower went out to sow. And as he sowed, some seed fell on the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and it sprang up quickly, since it had no depth of soil. And when the sun rose, it was scorched; and since it had no root, it withered away. Other seed fell among thorns, and the thorns grew up and choked it, and it yielded no grain. Other seed fell into good soil and brought forth grain, growing up and increasing and yielding thirty and sixty and a hundredfold.’ And he said, ‘Let anyone with ears to hear listen!’
Richard Baxter had a long and busy life, allowing mini-biographies to be highly selective. He is commemorated today in the Anglican calendar with justifications such as that printed here. However, he is probably the only Englishman in that calendar who also has a United Reformed Church named after him, which is in Kidderminster where many saw him as a Presbyterian champion. His exasperation with the priorities and narrowness of the Church of England meant the second half of his life was a model of what today might be called pioneering ecumenism.
Whatever the ways in which his legacy has been adopted by different churches, Baxter himself was not a party man. That does not mean he favoured woolly compromise: he would not have been put in prison several times if that were the case. He did believe that those who named Jesus as Lord had a fundamental unity as Christians and the institutional Church should not make that hard to see. He worked tirelessly to establish forums where Christians of different traditions could meet to discover that unity. As the Church Secretary of a united URC-CofE congregation, I would gladly have Baxter as our patron saint.
The parable of the sower reminds us that the legacy of our work is unpredictable. Sometimes seeds stay dormant in the ground for a long period before new life appears. It took the Anglican and Nonconformist churches of Kidderminster two centuries before they were ready to unite in raising funds for a statue of Baxter. If you are one of those members of the United Reformed Church who still believe that when Jesus prayed that his people should be one he meant it, don’t despair. As Baxter’s hymn Ye holy angels bright reminds us, the Church on earth is not on its own in facilitating God’s purposes.
It is better to fail in a cause that will ultimately succeed than to succeed in a cause that will ultimately fail.
Lord Jesus who prayed that your people should be one, prick us with the pain of division; remind us of the saints who have lived for a better vision; refresh our commitment to the unity of the Church on earth; prepare us for the unity of the Church in heaven. Amen.
John Ellis, Immediate Past Moderator of the General Assembly and Secretary of Capel United Church in Kent