Parliamentary Bsihops in a State Church

The conflict between the interests of the State and of the Church in England goes back a very long way. The Church sought constantly to order its own affairs freely, without interference by the King. The very first clause of Magna Carta is concerned with such matters:

In the first place [we] have granted to God and by this our present charter confirmed for us and our heirs for ever that the English church shall be free, and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired; and it is our will that it be thus observed; which is evident from the fact that we willingly and spontaneously granted and by our charter confirmed the freedom of elections which is reckoned most important and very essential to the English church, and obtained confirmation of it from the lord pope Innocent III

The notion of being a free church, at least in spiritual terms , was the controlling ideology of the Oxford Movement. Was not the manifesto set out by Newman in the first of the Tracts for the Times an assertion of the apostolic succession as providing authority for the Church of England to minister in this country as the local expression of the catholic church’?

We have been born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. The Lord Jesus Christ gave His Spirit to His Apostles; they in turn laid their hands on those who should succeed them; and these again on others; and so the sacred gift has been handed down to our present Bishops, who have appointed us as their assistants, and in some sense representatives. (Tract1)

The older school of High Churchmen, such as Keble, had clung for generations to the illusion devised by Hooker of a Church and State united in one common purpose, despite all the evidence to the contrary, as the Church of England became fragmented by the rise of the Dissenting churches. Roman Catholic Emancipation in 1829 brought the Evangelical Newman into the High Church fold, and by 1833 it had become clear that the exclusively Anglican nature of the Establishment had broken down. In the Preface to Keble’s Assize Sermon there are clear echoes of much of the present situation in the Church of England:

How may they continue their communion with the Church established, (hitherto the pride and comfort of their lives) without any taint of those Erastian Principles on which she is now avowedly to be governed’? What answer can we make henceforth to the partisans of the Bishop of Rome, when they taunt us with being a mere Parliamentarian Church? And how, consistently with our present relations to the State, can even the doctrinal purity and integrity of the MOST SACRED ORDER be preserved’?

(These Erastian principles had in fact. been governing the Church of England for several centuries ParIiament had legislated for the Church ever since Archbishop Sheldon foolishly surrendered in 1664 the clergy’s long-held and precious right to tax themselves in Convocation, which was soon prorogued almost continuously.)

The Oxford Movement set out to revive the Church of England’s vestigial claim to have maintained the apostolic succession, and to reawaken the clergy to their spiritual calling. It brought about a growing sense of the apostolic authority of the episcopate, which under the influence of men such as Edward King and Charles Gore came to act more as a. college of bishops, and less like a component of the House of Lords.

Gore and others helped bring about the creation of a Church Assembly in 1919, which grew in stature until in 1969 the new General Synod combined the ancient Convocations with the Houses of Laity. The 1974 Worship and Doctrine Measure followed, and seemingly a decent separation of Church and State was complete.

Unfortunately, it is on the very question of the episcopate and its election that such a cosy illusion breaks down. Spiritual authority rests, not only upon apostolic succession but also upon the continuation of apostolic teaching. During the centuries following the Reformation, when bishops and their clergy paid little heed to the nature of their ordination, they were as much creatures of the State as of the Church, especially during the period when ParIiament legislated alone for the Church. Secular opinion openly shaped the Church in this fashion, and not least its bishops, whose manner of appointment remained as it is possible to imagine, at first by the Monarch, and in later times by the Prime Minister.

The very process by which a new diocesan bishop is appointed comes directly from Acts of Henry VIII, who not only severed the link with the wider Church, but ensured State control over the election of bishops. To this day the appointment is made by the Queen (on the advice these days of the Crown Appointments Commission), who instructs the cathedral chapter to hold an election, and simultaneously requires them to elect her candidate. Following his confirmation as the elected diocesan bishop, and his consecration (if he is not already a bishop) he must pay homage to the monarch, and swear allegiance in an oath which includes these words (my italics):

I do hereby declare that your Majesty is the only Supreme Governor of this your realm, in spiritual and ecclesiastical things as well as in temporal – – – and I acknowledge that I hold the said bishopric, as well the spiritualities as temporalities thereof, only of your Majesty…

A Church whose bishops are elected and appointed in such a manner can hardly rebut the charge of being tainted with Erastianism, or of being “a mere ParIiamentarian Church”. Keble’s fears for the doctrinal purity and integrity of the most sacred order of bishops appear to be well grounded in view of the Erastian method of election and appointment which continues to operate in the secular world of modern England.

Is it not time for the Church to choose its own bishops, without reference to secular opinion and without the intervention of any secular institution such as a monarch or a Prime Minister? Nowhere else in the world does such an arrangement prevail: the only reason for its survival is a continuing desire in some powerful quarters for the Church to be more influenced by worldly opinion than what it might otherwise become – a Church influenced directly by the Gospel.