Freeing the People’s church

IT IS SAID that the collision which sank the Titanic initially sent only a barely perceptible shudder throughout the ship. In the same way, the rejection by Tony Blair of the two names put forward for the See of Liverpool by the Crown Appointments Commission was noticed by many, but at the time was hardly recognized as cataclysmic. With hindsight, however, it may have been the most significant event for the future of the Church of England to have occurred in this century.

Until recently, even such a doughty opponent of Establishment as Colin Buchanan was able to suggest that the control exercised by the English state over the English church was, to the Government, a source of embarrassment rather than enthusiasm. In the closing months of this year, however, New Labour has evidently discovered that the Church of England belongs to ‘the people’ and, as the government elected by those same ‘people’, it seems at last enthusiastic to dictate to the church on their behalf.

What is almost as curious as the hubris this betrays, however, is the startled reaction in many church quarters. Tony Blair’s veto of the Liverpool appointment has been treated as if it were an historical innovation, whereas it is, of course, the Crown Appointments Commission itself which is the innovation, having only existed since 1977. Blair has simply done what he is entitled to do – in fact has done far less than he is entitled to do.

For Anglican evangelicals in particular, this is a significant moment, for there exists in our collective psyche the myth that Establishment somehow preserves both church and nation against spiritual corruption in general and Roman Catholicism in particular. Much of the power of this mythology derives from a revisionist reading of the reign of Elizabeth I. Certainly under her, England found a security and national confidence which later enabled it to conquer much of the globe. However, Elizabeth herself was no friend to evangelicalism. Indeed, many of the features of church life which might be regarded as typical of or conducive to evangelical Christianity, such as home Bible studies or preacher training, were deliberately suppressed by the bishops she appointed for this very task.

The reason for this was, of course, straightforward. Elizabeth needed a church that would thrive without threatening. She would not or could not undo the theological impact of the Reformation. She could and did, however, control its social impact where it threatened to introduce too great an independency of mind amongst the general populace. And it is both a strength and weakness of evangelical Christianity to be contemptuous of all institutions, ecclesiastical or secular. Elizabeth certainly seems to have recognized this, but she was also wily enough not to carry out her repression through the secular arm. Better to appoint repressive prelates – and indeed the success of that policy is revealed by the reverence with which her memory is still treated by many of the spiritual descendants of those these bishops repressed.

If we are to learn anything from history it should be that an Erastian government will always aim for just such a church which thrives without threatening. And if we are to learn anything from the Bible, it is that such a church will never be good for the nation whose government controls it. The Church of England, as its very name suggests, always has been, and hopefully always will be, the church of the nation and for the nation. However, in order to fulfil this role it does not need to be a national institution. Specifically, it is important that it should not be tamed by the hand it occasionally needs to bite. We need, in the words of Colin Buchanan’s book, to Cut the Connection (beginning with the process of episcopal appointments). This, however, should not be as a piqued response by those whose opinions have been passed over but out of a desire for a healthier church and a healthier nation.