THE RECENT VISIT of Queen Elizabeth to Pope John Paul has once again revealed how little-understood is Anglican theology by English people. Apparently, Buckingham Palace was at pains to point out that the Queen was visiting the Pope merely as “another Head of State”, rather than as “Supreme Governor of the Church of England”, in an effort to distance her from any potential religious ‘flack’.

The sentiment was no doubt well-intentioned and, in that respect, wise. It would perhaps have been too tedious to attempt to explain the reality of the Queen’s rĂ´le to any potential objector – who probably wouldn’t have been listening anyway. After all, the Thirty-Nine Articles gave it a go in the sixteenth century, and even they aren’t as clear as they might be:

“Where we attribute to the King’s Majesty the chief government … we give not to our Princes the ministering either of God’s Word, or of the Sacraments … but only that prerogative, which we see to have been given always to all godly Princes in holy Scriptures by God himself; that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be Ecclesiastical or Temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evildoers.”

Hardly the stuff to put in a modern press release! But even well-informed Anglicans often don’t understand what is being said here. The clue lies in the last phrase with its reference to the “civil sword”, which is clearly an allusion to Romans 13:4,

“For [the secular ruler] is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.”

Of course, in the early part of the sixteenth century, this biblical concept, combined with Henry VIII’s reading of English history, became a convenient stick with which to beat the then Pope. Henry rediscovered that England was an Empire and that therefore it was he, not the Pope, who had absolute authority over the Church in the realm committed to him by God. Consequently, he had no qualms about titling himself the Head of that Church.

Elizabeth I later realized this was over-stating things somewhat, and opted for the modern “Supreme Governor”. However, by then the theological principle had already been refined in a manner which would probably have irritated Henry. At his trial, Thomas Cranmer gave the following significant clarification:

“Every king in his own realm is supreme head … Nero was head of the Church … for so he beheaded Peter and the Apostles. And the Turk, too, is head of the Church of Turkey … The king is head and governor of his people which are the visible Church … there was never other thing meant.”

The obvious conclusion from this theological understanding, still enshrined in the Anglican Formularies, is that Queen Elizabeth II could no more visit the Pope as ‘not the Supreme Governor of the Church of England’ than she could as ‘not the Head of the British State’. As the latter she is, willy nilly, the former. What is less obvious is that by the same token, the Queen is not exclusively the Supreme Governor of the Church of England, but Supreme Governor of the Church in England. As in Cramer’s day “the Turk is head of the [Orthodox] Church of Turkey”, so the Queen today is the ‘head’ of every Church in the United Kingdom – including the Roman Catholic Church.

Of course, it is open to people to dispute or reject the theology. But at least let’s handle it properly!