No King; No Bishop

IT IS BECOMING increasingly clear that the Monarchy as an . institution is dangerously close to hitting the buffers. Though the figure of the Queen herself is for the time being sacrosanct, it is open season on all the other Royals. And almost everyone seems to think it excellent sport. Unlike the baiting of George IV and Caroline however, (with which the more learned pundits have chosen to compare the pillorying of the Waleses) this time it is the institution, not the individuals, under attack. To put it bluntly: if something dramatic or bizarre – an IRA bomb or a cataclysmic scandal – rendered the present succession unacceptable or not viable, the mood of the nation would not be to repeat the expedient adopted last time and import another less tainted line of succession. The show would be off the road.

These facts have serious implications for the Church of England, its position as an established Church and its internal cohesion, for the monarchy remains curiously close to Anglican self-understanding. It is wise to recall that the Church of England is as much the church of `Eikon Basileke’ and Filmer’s `Patriarcha’ as it is of the Thirty-nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer.

What happened at the Reformation was that all ecclesiastical power and authority previously vested in the papacy (over which the English monarchy had wrangled since the reign of Stephen) passed to the King. That fact was trenchantly expressed in the new oath administered on the appointment of diocesans (still, alas, in use):

‘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 that no foreign prelate or potentate has any jurisdiction within this realm, and I acknowledge that I hold the said bishopric, as well the spiritualities as the temporalities thereof only of your Majesty …’

Henry, it is true, practised his own variety of ‘consultative absolutism’, in Church as well as State. He acted sometimes through Parliament, sometimes through the Convocations, sometimes through the ever pliant Cranmer, sometimes through Thomas Cromwell, his Vice-gerent in matters ecclesiastical, and sometimes through the specially created vicegerential synod (comprising nominated clerical representatives from both archdioceses). But what no one doubted was that it was Henry who acted; control of the Church became an increasingly important feature of Tudor policy.

With the Stuarts came a more theoretical

autocracy. `No bishop, no king’, said the wisest fool in Christendom. And as the clouds of Revolution darkened, churchmen had ample opportunity to learn that he spoke out of his wisdom, not out of his folly. What they experienced only too painfully was the converse of the proposition: no king, no bishop. So even when it became clear that on their travels the restored King and his brother successor had made rather more than they need have done of the connection between monarchy and hierarchy, a goodly part of the Church of England kept faith with them, even when they became Roman Catholics.

Some have always thought that godly remnant the best part. In any case, the saintly Ken went into ecclesial occlusion and everlasting fame, while the remaining bishops slid supinely into a more or less prayerful whiggery, only to awaken to a different world.

While the Bishop of Cloyne and Derry was building temples and rotundas and racing curates for incumbencies along the Downhill sands, constitutional changes of significance were taking place. The establishment of Prime Ministerial and cabinet government with the ultimate and unquestioned supremacy of Parliament meant that it was no longer the King, but the Parliamentary majority which was Pope.

The more perceptive minds – Keble and Newman – saw in the suppression of Irish bishoprics, the beginnings of a crisis of identity. `No king, no bishop’ was seventeenth century experience: and now there was effectively no king and apparently a threat to the episcopate.

But whilst a trickle of churchmen and Parliamentarians began to argue for disestablishment (and the recall of the Convocations gave notice of a growing ecclesiastical independence), the majority solved the difficulty to their own satisfaction with a mixture of pragmatism and romanticism. The two still fuse when the Queen declares open a quinquennium of the General Synod: the presence of its Supreme Governor seeming to give the `Church’s Parliament’ an independent status in the constitution which it does not possess and which she can no longer confer.

The death knell of the moribund Royal Supremacy was finally sounded by Mr Justice Lightman in his judgement in the case of Williamson vs the Archbishops of Canterbury and York on November 11, 1993. Williamson had romantically argued that the Coronation Oath (to defend the doctrine of the Church of England) made it impossible for the monarch to sanction any significant doctrinal change. The Judgement took an opposite view:

‘An established religion is subject to state control as regards doctrine, government and discipline …The Church of England is established by law in England. The doctrine of the supremacy of Parliament means that Parliament may on its own legislate for the Church …According to established principles and in the eyes of English law, the change objected to, whether or not a change in doctrine and however fundamental, was validly effected.

Meanwhile, the emergence of Synodical government had opened a new phase in that ancient symbiosis between Crown and Church. The problem of integrating representative democracy with episcopacy is one which no church has previously faced. In England (where the General Synod is a semi-permanent body meeting more frequently than in any other province of the Communion) the problem proved most acute. Unsurprisingly, the most popular expedient being canvassed is the quasi-constitutional notion of the `bishop-in synod’. At first sight it seems to borrow ingeniously from secular developments; it is a very English solution. But there is a double irony. For the notion adapts, as a model for the future role of the bishop, the very constitutional fiction which has rendered the monarchy a mere impotent decoration; and it does so at a time when even that decorative function is in danger of being swept away.

The last fifteen years or so in the Church of England has been an era of unprecedented, ecclesiological ingenuity. It has seen the birth of `periods of reception’, `degrees of provisionality’, `Acts of Synod’, `undergirding apostolicity’, `provincial episcopal visitors’ `commissaries of the archbishop’ and any number of other ad hoc inventions of a hard pressed bureaucracy. All this has been at the expense of considering real issues. And first among them is the problem of reconciling hierarchy and democracy. That, after all, has been the great theme of our island history, which is now reaching its denouement. The bishop-in-synod’ idea is no lasting remedy, as events are about to make plain. The Church House apparatchiks will need to think again; and more deeply.

It would be entertaining, but tragic, were their preferred solution to be overtaken by events; if a church which found its ecclesiology in the loins of Henry VIII should lose it again in the marital indiscretions of Sarah Ferguson and Diana Spencer.

Geoffrey Kirk is Vicar of St. Stephen’s, Lewisham in the diocese of Southwark