In 1673 James, Duke of York, was forced to resign as Lord High Admiral. Since James was in line to the throne, and would indeed become King James II, this was a fairly dramatic move. But James was a Catholic, and to hold any civil or military office he would have to take the newly introduced oath: “I, N, do declare that I do believe that there is not any transubstantiation in the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper, or in the elements of the bread and wine, at or after the consecration thereof by any person whatsoever.”
In 1678, the Test Act was extended to the House of Lords, to get rid of five Catholic peers; and for the next 150 years, no Catholic could sit in Parliament. The end of this prohibition in 1829 is often seen as an example of history’s progress towards toleration. But that history may now be going into reverse.
That seems, at least, to be the implication of Tim Farron’s resignation as Liberal Democrat leader. It was “impossible”, said Farron, for him to hold to the Bible and to lead a political party, at any rate a progressive political party. “A better, wiser person than me may have been able to deal with this more successfully,” Farron said – but he did not suggest how.
The historian John Charmley, a professor at St Mary’s University, Twickenham, argued even before Farron’s resignation that the media’s treatment of the Lib Dem leader amounted to a new Test Act.
There are many historical changes that lie between Catholics having to forswear transubstantiation, and traditional Christians of all denominations having to accede to sexual progressivism. But in both cases something is demanded of the believer, a question which cannot be escaped. Farron was asked about gay sex so often in the run-up to the election that it came to define the Lib Dems’ campaign.
Charmley says the example of the Test Acts is discouraging, in that they “actually worked as far as Catholics were concerned” – that is, they managed to bar Catholics from public life and marginalise the community. “What I would say is that we can learn that accepting our fate isn’t a good idea as we’ll never get back,” Charmley adds.
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