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2 “Speaking Openly and Speaking First” John Donne, the Synod of Dort, and the Early Stuart Church Jeanne Shami n February 7, 1626, the clergy of the province of Canterbury met in Convocation at Westminster Abbey and elected John Donne to the position of prolocutor, the official representative of the lower house to the upper house of the Convocation. On Wednesday, February 8, Donne delivered a Latin oration to the full Convocation , to which Dr. Leonard Mawe, master of Peterhouse, Cambridge, responded. In the absence of the archbishop of Canterbury (George Abbot) and the bishop of London (George Montaigne), Dr. Samuel Harsnett, bishop of Norwich, responded to the speeches by Mawe and Donne. An eyewitness evaluated the entire event. Little significance, however , has been attached to this information.1 R. C. Bald, Donne’s modern biographer, knew only of Donne’s oration, which was first published in the 1650 Poems, and he included it as appendix D, part VII, of John Donne: A Life (573–75). Bald describes the oration in remarks more notable for their condescension than their insight (“It is to be feared that Donne was showing off” [482]), and he doubts that many in attendance could have understood fully what Donne was saying. In the end, Bald dismisses the oration as “hyperbolically extravagant,” designed only “to impress the simpleminded ” (482–83). To be fair, Bald did not know of two contemporary documents: the text of Mawe’s address and an eyewitness reaction to all three speakers. But, as Bawcutt and Kelliher remark, neither indicates a “simple-minded” audience (443). At issue for Bawcutt and Kelliher is the extent to which the hyperbolical discourse recorded by the eyewitness can 35 O contribute to our knowledge of Donne. In this vein, they conclude that the unmistakable praise of Donne documented by both Mawe and the contemporary witness in these two additional sources “demonstrates the status and reputation he [Donne] had achieved at this stage in his career” (444). Nonetheless, Bawcutt and Kelliher, too, suggest an embarrassing discrepancy between Donne’s supposedly “high attainments” and his official role as “little more than a messenger” (442) between the two houses. Bald also knew of, but rejected, church historian Thomas Fuller’s claim that Donne had also been elected prolocutor of the 1624 Convocation , assuming, it seems, that only one of these dates—1624 or 1626— could be correct.2 Recently, Gerald Bray has discovered that John Young, dean of Winchester, acted as prolocutor in 1624.3 However, Donne’s name continued to be associated with Convocation, and in both the 1628 and 1629 Convocations he was named as one of the sponsors of the new prolocutors, Walter Curll and Thomas Winniffe, respectively.4 Much that was occurring in these early months of 1626 suggests the political and religious significance of Donne’s election to this position. The York House debates on Arminianism in February, Parliamentary efforts to impeach Buckingham,5 and Parliamentary proceedings against Richard Montagu for his alleged Arminianism were consuming public interest and threatening serious internal divisions within the Church of England.6 During these months, “an Army” of books (Heylyn 155)7 was published against Montagu, alleging that his views were nothing but newstyle Pelagianism. But the doctrinal issues raised by his books were not brought to a vote by the clergy assembled in Convocation, where they might more properly have been discussed.8 By the time Parliament was dissolved in 1626, impeachment proceedings against Buckingham had been attempted but failed, the Commons had condemned Montagu for “publishinge doctryne contrarie to the Articles of the Religion established in the Churche of England” (Tyacke 128), and a proclamation for peace and unity in the church and Commonwealth had been issued, effectively muzzling public predestinarian dispute for some time to come. Although Donne and Montagu were both royal chaplains in the months preceding these events, Donne assumed the position of spokesperson for the lower clergy in Convocation, while Montagu was conspicuously absent from the proceedings altogether. This essay argues that Donne’s election by the lower clergy as their prolocutor in 1626 signals his importance and reputation as a middle voice on matters of religious controversy in these months. Furthermore, Donne’s oration betrays his anxieties about speaking publicly in this controversial atmosphere. Nonetheless, comments in his oration and in ser36 · Jeanne Shami mons of the first half of 1626 reveal Donne’s conviction that these public, conciliar processes are the best means for handling controversial...


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