Latitudinarian was initially a pejorative term applied to a group of 17th-century English theologians who believed in conforming to official Church of England practices but who felt that matters of doctrine, liturgical practice, and ecclesiastical organization were of relatively little importance. Good examples of the latitudinarian philosophy were found among the Cambridge Platonists and Sir Thomas Browne in his Religio Medici. Additionally, the term has been applied to ministers of the Scottish Episcopal Church in Scotland who were educated at the Episcopal sympathizing universities at Aberdeen and St Andrews and that broadly subscribed to their moderate Anglican English counterparts.
Today, latitudinarianism should not be confused with ecumenical movements, which seek to draw all Christian churches together, rather than to de-emphasize practical doctrine. The term has taken on a more general meaning, indicating a personal philosophy which includes tolerance of other views, particularly (but not necessarily) on religious matters.
In the Roman Catholic Church, latitudinarianism was condemned in the 19th century document Quanta cura; Pope Pius IX felt that, with its emphasis on religious liberty and freedom to discard traditional Christian doctrines and dogmas, this attitude threatened to undermine the church. Latitudinarianism is still criticized within the Catholic Church under the epithet of Cafeteria Catholic. It has been perceived as a disingenuous claim to be Roman Catholic while ignoring, being indifferent towards, or denying Catholic dogma and praxis.
The latitudinarian Anglicans of the seventeenth century built on Richard Hooker's position, in Of the Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, that God cares about the moral state of the individual soul and that such things as church leadership are "things indifferent". However, they took a position far beyond Hooker's own and extended it to doctrinal matters.
As a positive position, their stance was that human reason is a sufficient guide when combined with the Holy Spirit for the determination of truth in doctrinal contests, and therefore that legal and doctrinal rulings that constrain reason and the freedom of the believer were neither necessary nor salutary. At the time, their position was referred to as low church (in contrast to the high church position). Later, the latitudinarian position was called broad church.
While always officially opposed, the latitudinarian philosophy was, nevertheless, dominant in the 18th century in England. Because of the Hanoverian reluctance to act in church affairs and all sides of the religious debates being balanced against one another, the dioceses became tolerant of variation in local practice. Furthermore, after George I of Great Britain dismissed the Convocation, there was very little internal Church power to either sanction or approve.
Thus, with no Archbishop of Canterbury officially announcing it, nor Lords adopting it, latitudinarianism was the operative philosophy of the English church in the 18th century. For the 18th-century English church in the United States (which would become the Episcopal Church after the American Revolution), latitudinarianism was the only practical course since it was a nation with official pluralism and diversity of opinion and diffusion of clerical power.
- Abbey, Charles J.; Overton, John H. (1896). "Ch. 4 & 5". The English Church in the Eighteenth Century (2nd ed.).