J. Alan Smith argues that an established Church benefits both Church and State
It was well known at my primary school that the longest word in the English language was Antidisestablishmentarianism’. We did not actually know what the word meant. Perhaps, in the spirit of William Wordsworth in Yarrow Unvisited, it was sufficient to know that the word existed:
We will not see them, will not go
to-day, nor yet to-morrow;
Enough if in our hearts we know
There’s such a place as Yarrow
It is significant that the word was Antidisestablishmentarianism’ rather than `Establishmentarianism’ for the latter would imply a pro-active defence of the establishment of the Church of England rather than the reality that the former represents: a mere reaction to occasional attacks on the establishment that, unprovoked, lies dormant. Those who support the establishment must therefore welcome these attacks for the opportunity to put the case for the defence.
Two recent events have triggered a debate on the role of the Church of England in particular and all Churches in general. First there is the remark by David Cameron that we are a Christian country. Second there is the call by Nick Clegg for the 0,Lteen no longer to be the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and for Church and State to be separate.
Critics of the position of the Church of England, and Christianity in Britain generally, ignore the dimension of time. If the people of the UK had all arrived yesterday to a previously uninhabited country then the question of whether we are a Christian country would be different, but they didn’t so it isn’t.
Our national culture has developed over centuries of Christian influence. Our national flag bears the crosses of St George, St Andrew, and St Patrick. Our public holidays are largely derived from the Liturgical Calendar of the Church. Whether we are, in 2014, a Christian country should, perhaps, be left to future historians to argue about. Historians give the past a clarity that was not obvious to the people living at the time concerned. I do not think that, on the day after the Battle of Bosworth in 1485, anyone asked: ‘Does this mean that the Middle Ages have come to an end?’ Depending on what happens in the future, in a few centuries time, historians may perhaps assert either, ‘Britain ceased to be a Christian country in the 1960s when the Churches suffered a catastrophic loss of self-confidence’ or else, ‘Despite crises of self-confidence in the era following the 1960s, Britain remained a country with its national culture firmly rooted in Christianity’.
Appointment of bishops
In an introductory story to a performance of Greensleeves, Michael Flanders said: `Henry VIII is denationalizing the monasteries, but don’t buy one because Bloody Mary is going to nationalize them again: Behind this story is the view that, prior to Henry VIII, the Church was a private organization that ran its own affairs, but Henry made it a Department of State and, thenceforth, the government appointed the bishops and other senior clergy.
From the time of Constantine, monarchs have played a role in the appointment of bishops. Far from being an Anglican innovation, papal appointment of bishops was strongly resisted in the Middle Ages, as is shown by the Statutes of Praemunire (1353, 1365 and 1393) which sought to protect rights claimed by the Kings of England against encroachment by the Pope. Nominations of Roman Catholic Bishops in Great Britain and Ireland were being made by James TIT, the exiled Stuart claimant, until his death in 1766.
Old and New Testaments
Christian monarchy has its roots in the Old Testament, particularly Kings David and Solomon. Israelite kings ruled by divine consent but, unlike their pagan contemporaries, did not claim to be gods or descended from gods. Much of the ceremonial and ritual of the coronation service is rooted in the Old Testament: the anointing of the monarch with holy oil and the anthem Zadok the Priest, used at the crowning of every English sovereign since that of Edgar in 973.
The theme of kingship is an important element of the New Testament: Jesus told Pilate: ‘My kingdom is not of this world; Romans and 1 Peter show the respect Christians should pay to temporal authority. The theme continued: the Book of Common Prayer exhorts us to pray for ‘Christian kings, princes and governors’; Pope Pius XI responded to the age of dictators by instituting the Feast of Christ the King in 1925.
Patrons and protectors
With the coming of Christianity; the Church became the principal intercessor between the people and God but kings gained a new role as protectors of the Church and the Christian faith. As Christianity spread, kings were generally the first converts, often through the influence of a Christian wife. St Columba, of Irish royal stock, ordained kings in Ireland, Scotland and Northumbria. The arrival of St Augustine in 597 at the behest of Pope Gregory the Great led to the conversion of Anglo-Saxon kings. By the end of the first millennium the institution of Christian kingship was firmly established throughout the British Isles; monarchs were the principal patrons and protectors of the Church.
England attained religious unity before it attained political unity The religious unity of England was achieved by the Council of Whitby in 664. The political unity of England was achieved under King Athelstan in 924/5. Athelstan’s half-nephew, Edgar, came to the throne in 959. However, he was not crowned until 973; the Archbishop of Canterbury, St Dunstan, delayed the coronation
until Edgar had amended his way of life. St Dunstan had devised the rite for the coronation service from European models. The Coronation Rite used today is, in essence, still the one developed by St Dunstan.
Anglicans regard States, not as necessary evils that must be borne as a consequence of living in a fallen world, but as part of the natural order, ordained by God for the well-being of his peoples: `Gratia non tollit naturam sed perficit; ‘Grace does not abolish nature but perfects it:
All States need an independent authority prepared to comment on the morality of their actions. Certainly from the days of King David and Nathan the Prophet this has been provided by a religious body. In recent history there have been moves to install a secular body with power not only to comment on the morality of government actions but to veto them: in the USA there is the Supreme Court and in Europe we have the European Court of Human Rights. These bodies replace moral judgements to which governments may conform if they choose with legal judgements enforced on governments which are not necessarily in accordance with natural law. In my opinion it is for better for parliaments to be able to pass unjust laws that future parliaments may change than for parliaments to be restrained from passing certain laws by a supreme court using criteria that are not necessarily moral.
An established Church benefits both Church and State. The Church provides the State with moral guidance and influences natural culture. The State provides the Church with opportunities for pastoral and teaching roles. Establishment today operates with the established Churches in England and Scotland working with other Christian Churches and non-Christian religious bodies to offer moral judgements on government actions.
There is a prevalent opinion that the disestablishment of the Church of England would not change things all that much; believe that this opinion is mistaken. The Church of Ireland was disestablished, as was the Church of Wales; both were Anglican and thus in communion with the Church of England. The differing establishment of the Church of Scotland could well survive the disestablishment of the Church of England. Nevertheless, England is different; it is the establishment of the Church of England that is the cornerstone of the British Constitution. Would it be possible to have the Eucharist as the central point of the Coronation Service without an established Church?
Some may think that disestablishment would simply put the Church of England on an equal footing with the other Churches in this country, but the effects would be more far-reaching than simply the removal of the Bishops from the House of Lords. The more probable result would be the abolition of any public role for Christianity and, possibly, the sidelining of all religions.
It would be a salutary exercise to list all the institutions and activities that could be swept away: ‘Ca ira!’ with a vengeance! Civic services could become a thing of the past. Certain colleges at Oxford and Cambridge could come under pressure to change their names to avoid giving offence to non-Christians: Trinity, Jesus, Christ’s, Christ Church, Emmanuel, Corpus Christi, and All Souls, let alone those with `St in their names. Magdalen(e), Keble, and Selwyn might escape as the religious roots of their names are less obvious.
The highest institution at risk from disestablishment is, of course, the monarchy. Would our coins continue to proclaim: `ELIZABETH II DG REG FD’ (DEI GRATIA + REGINA + FIDEI DEFENSOR)’: Elizabeth II, Queen by the Grace of God, Defender of the Faith? Indeed, would the Queen’s head remain on our coins? The old slogan could be revived in a modified form: `No Bishops, No Queen!’
For Christians, avoiding the dualism that sees religion and politics as separate and independent activities, a Christian monarch, anointed according to the rites of an established church, and ruling with the consent of his people, provides the best form of government that men have yet found. Not for the first time, attacks on the establishment of the Church of England play for sleeping traditionalists the role of the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come. Let us be prepared to act while we are still free to call it Christmas.