Of all the Nonconformist preachers in Tudor Norwich it is Browne whose name has found its way into countless books on church history and even into the writings of Shakespeare, although few people probably realise that he had any connection with our city and even fewer would have read his revolutionary book, ?Reformation without tarrying for any man?.
The Rev. Robert Browne was a very volatile character, born around 1550 into a wealthy landowning family in Rutland and related to William Cecil, Lord Burghley - Queen Elizabeth's chief minister. He was educated at Cambridge where he became friendly with John Harrison, and early in 1580 when Harrison became master of the Great Hospital in Bishopsgate, Browne arrived in Norwich.
The two men spent many hours together in the master?s parlour, discussing the Reformation and especially church government. Both men were of the opinion that a minister should consult his congregation about the running of a church and the forms of service. Later that year they decided to implement their ideas at St. Helen's, the hospital chapel, and thus became one of the growing number of Separatist congregations around the land. Separatists were Christians who had unofficially opted out of the Anglican Church and formed clandestine congregations, hoping that the day would come when the Church would be changed to accommodate their ideas. They were now to all intents and purposes functioning quite independently from the national church, all matters of doctrine and practice being decided by Browne and Harrison in consultation with their congregation. However, the big difference between Browne and all the other Separatists was that in one sense he had not separated, since he was functioning publicly, in a parish church setting.
Such a highly illegal situation could not last for long, and in 1581 Browne was arrested whilst attempting to establish a Separatist congregation in Great Yarmouth. This was to be the first of 32 periods of imprisonment over the next 50 years. Harrison then led their congregation across the sea to Middleburg, and Browne joined them on his release. Whilst in Holland Browne published "Reformation without tarrying for any man", the contents of which must have been formulated during his time in Norwich.
In this book Browne presents the case for church independency. The essence of his case was that if men in government, or holding office as magistrates, are Christians then they should be members of churches and hence under the authority of the church leadership, so how can they have authority over their church leaders to impose doctrine and conduct on them. If such men are not Christians then they should not be in the churches nor have any authority over them. This was very radical stuff, since Browne was suggesting that some men in secular authority might not even be Christians He stopped short of saying that the monarch should not exercise any authority over the Church, but the implication was surely there.
The book was widely read and discussed throughout English speaking circles at home and abroad, and there were incidents of Brown's followers being executed for distributing it. Browne's ideas found a ready response in the hearts of many men and women, with various secret attempts to set up churches according to these principles, but most of those who sympathised with Browne were rather more cautious and tried to function more discreetly.
This Brownist movement developed into the Independent or Congregational Church, now merged with the Presbyterians to form the United Reformed Church, although we still find independent Congregational churches today such as the Old Meeting in Colegate. The movement further developed to produce the Baptists and all the various Free Churches, House Churches and Christian Fellowships world-wide. Such forms of church structure take us back through the confusion of Christendom to the simplicity of the early church, with its separation from the machinery of the state, allowing every citizen to follow their own conscience and make their own response to God. Browne and Harrison were heretics in their own time but today possibly as many as half of all the Christians throughout the world function within some such framework, and it constitutes a rapidly expanding section of the worldwide Christian community.
Having said this we must not get silly about Browne and see him as a super hero. The sad truth is that he was a quite unpleasant character, falling out with everyone including Harrison, and trying to control every situation in spite of his seemingly democratic approach. After a few years spent as a schoolmaster he went back into the Anglican ministry, but was subsequently fined for non- attendance, so presumably he had become a Separatist once again.
The last heard of him was in the Bedford area around 1630 when he was arrested after a drunken brawl with a watchman and died in prison soon afterwards. Harrison remained in Holland, dying there in 1585.
We might wonder how a man involved in such revolutionary activities could have survived. As mentioned above, Browne was related to Lord Burghley, and it was Burghley who rescued him on more than one occasion.
Browne's influence was obviously very strong in our region and in 1584 a group of Norfolk clergymen wrote to the government asking for help in countering it. Whitgift, the Archbishop of Canterbury, was pressing them to tone down their Puritanism and they were concerned in case a less reformist stance would result in members of their congregations moving off to other more strongly Puritan churches. "We have struggled to keep our church members from Brownism with great difficulty" they wrote. So widespread was Browne's influence that these early Congregationalists or Dissenters were referred to as Brownists. We read of some ministers with independent leanings objecting to being labelled in this way, saying "We are followers of the Bible not Browne". Generally speaking this was an underground or fringe movement, facing persecution from the established church and government, and not emerging as a major player in religious matters for another half-century.
An interesting sidelight is found in Shakespeare?s play Twelfth Night, Act III Scene II, where Sir Andrew Aguecheek, having been told that he will need to adopt either valour or politics to win his lady love, replies that he will have to use valour because he hates politics. "I'd had as lief be a Brownist as a politician", he says. The play was written within twenty years of Browne setting up the church in Norwich and yet the playwright could be confident that his audience for a popular theatre production would know what a Brownist was. They might not have known of any connection with Norwich, Shakespeare himself might not have known that, but they were all able to share the joke.
A visit to St. Helen?s church in Bishopsgate is an interesting experience. It is one of only two medieval churches in Norwich not to have been modernised during the Victorian age. A significant feature is the pulpit, which is placed centrally, thus becoming the focal point, with the communion table being placed in a side aisle. This is an arrangement that one would normally expect to find only in a Nonconformist chapel and is symbolic of the Puritan principle that preaching takes precedence over the administration of the sacraments. There is also a very early copy of the King James Bible chained in a cabinet.
With permission from Ted Doe. For more see; www.heritagecity.org/research-centre/churches-and-creeds/noncomformity-in-norwich.htm.
Attached to the Great Hospital.