A warped view of history has not endeared the royal supremany to Anglo-Catholics, but John Thurmer argues that it is nevertheless a vital institution for any possible forthcoming new province, and founded on sound baptismal promises

The ordination of women in the late twentieth and twenty-first centuries and the royal supremacy in the sixteenth have this in common – popularity. That is to say, they both stem from, and are carried along by, deep-seated attitudes in mental outlook and in social and political expression. From the Sixties if not earlier there has been a widespread rejection of the role of woman as ‘the angel in the house’, and a substitution of the theme of Annie get your gun – ‘Anything you can do I can do better,’ or in its more polite form ‘as well.’

Opposition to women’s ordination is widely seen – both in the church and elsewhere – as simply the dear old CofE being, as usual, behind the times. Hence, along with some unpleasing self-righteousness, the varying forms of indignation expressed as, for example, at the recent General Synod at York (July 2005). How shall we commend the church’s message unless we are really ‘with it’ in this matter?

Though it might be noted that such is the perversity of human nature that popular acceptance of women’s ordination does not, in practice, commend the Church’s message. Over the last ten years virtually every statistic of the Church of England shows decline (except the number of ordained women).

Medieval empire

The royal supremacy was also, and overwhelmingly, popular, and other European monarchs were not far behind Henry VIII, except as regards the details of the Aragonite marriage. The supremacy in Christendom of the emperor had strong practical and theoretical arguments, but after the Hildebrandine reform of the eleventh century the papacy had the better of it, so much so that when a local king like John of England tried to go it alone against Innocent III, he looked like a clumsy schoolboy taking on an astute headmaster.

But papal success in the struggle with the empire was achieved at terrible cost Dante’s Divine Comedy (c.1300), greatest of Christian epic poems and classic expression of Latin Catholicism, was fiercely imperialist, putting a succession of popes in hell for their wicked vendetta against their divinely appointed Lord the emperor. Then national monarchs, notably Philip IV of France, succeeded in asserting a primacy over the Church where emperors and John of England had failed. Marsilius of Padua’s Defensor Pacis (1324), as powerful now as then, demolished the entire edifice of the papal claim – the superiority of the spiritual power (i.e. the clergy) was a Platonic fiction, Peter never even went to Rome and human communities contain all power, spiritual and temporal, within themselves.

The papacy meanwhile suffered the Babylonish Captivity at Avignon and the Great Schism. Though painfully rehabilitated in the fifteenth century, it concentrated on being a successful Italian ruler like the Doge of Venice or the Medici in Florence. Meanwhile in England royal power was consolidated after the Wars of the Roses as the necessary expression of national unity and the controller of destructive factions.

Henry VIII was the first king for over a century to have no rival. His supremacy over the Church was partly a recognition of practicalities. Bishops and abbots had always been appointed in practice by the king, whatever the ecclesiastical niceties – and (we may note) before the dissolution and the disappearance of the mitred abbots these ‘lords spiritual’ were a majority in the upper house of Parliament. But the supremacy was also urged as a matter of right.

Popular royalism

‘This realm of England is an empire’ – that is, having all authority, temporal and spiritual, within itself, and the king, and the people of the realm whom he embodies, should assert their divine right against clerics at home or abroad.

How familiar these arguments sound! Women, as citizens, have a right to do whatever men do. As baptized Christians they have the same right as men to leadership in the church, and only prejudice in the past and mindless conservatism today deny this. And those who stand against the tide face a bleak prospect now as they did then.

All the bishops accepted Henry’s supremacy, except Fisher of Rochester whose ambivalence cost him his head. The only prominent lay opponent was Thomas More, and he accepted much of the contemporary mindset. Loving the king and not loving the pope, he hoped without violence to his conscience to survive by silence. But fierce popular enthusiasms put windows into men’s souls to destroy deviation. And so More went to his death, admired for his wit and rectitude but seeming to contemporaries quirky and strangely deceived.

Opponents of women’s ordination can expect a parallel fate; not the scaffold, which has gone out of fashion, but schism or the wilderness. Some take comfort in the historic male-ordaining churches of east and west, to which they may go, with greater or less enthusiasm. But if Rome or the Byzantines are right, why wait for the delinquencies of the Church of England to propel you there?

Act of Settlement

The present relation of the supremacy is an ambivalent one. Royal power is now exercised through Parliament and (to some degree) General Synod, enabling change by majority votes. In this sense it is responsible for the ordination of women. But is also the supremacy which offers hope for the retention of some unity if and when the majority have their women bishops, and the minority retain a male episcopal succession. In that situation the only possible unity will be a lay and baptismal one. It cannot be provided by a quasi-patriarchal archbishop, who must, by his (or her) person and practice be on the one side or the other. But the position of the monarch is different.

The ancient tradition of sacral monarchy continues; firm (as with the present incumbent) but not strident. According to the Act of Settlement 1701, and still operative, the monarch must ‘join in communion with the Church of England’. The monarch, whether native English or not, would identify with this church and realm by his coronation, which reached its climax in the celebration and reception of the Eucharist. James II, the Roman convert whose sad three-year reign had precipitated the crisis, had been crowned and anointed by the Archbishop; but there had been no communion. This would not happen again.

So the monarch, though in a unique position, is not in holy orders. ‘We give not to our princes the administration of the Word or Sacraments’ (Article XXXVII). What has often been seen (rightly or wrongly) of an assertion of civil over ecclesiastical authority is also a reminder that the sacramental foundation of the Church is not ordination but baptism; and with baptism there is no serious dispute about the status of the minister.

Centrality of baptism

Here indeed the Pauline text, misused in the ordination controversy, applies in its fullness. Baptism into Christ transcends all divisions (Gal. 3.28). There have been earlier occasions where a recovery of the status and symbolism of baptism has had a powerful effect on the church. Martin Luther in his address to the German Emperor and nobility famously and powerfully asserted the primacy of baptism as the charter of Christian equality, even if Lutherans soon found (1ike others before and since) that though all Christians were equal some were more equal than others.

The modern ecumenical movement is based on our common baptism, and it was to this that Pope John XXIII appealed when he sought to make a fraternal approach to non-Roman Christians without denying any Catholic doctrine. The Church of England has within its own tradition and life a Christian lay authority which can help us all in the ordination controversy. If there were no royal supremacy we could maintain unity only by creating a lay high commission to exercise this role. But such an invention is unnecessary. We have it already; let us make positive use of it. For whatever provision is made for the continuation and operation of a male succession it will be done by the royal supremacy, some arm or expression of which must regulate the relation between the two episcopal successions.

No constitutional problem

Would this create constitutional difficulties for the supremacy? Surely it need not, for it already co-exists with a degree of ecumenism and inter-faith fraternization. The Prince of Wales’ aspiration to be Defender of Faith (without the definite article, which does not exist in the Latin anyhow) might include the role here envisaged.

We may expect difficulty from the ingrained clericalism of modern Anglican thought – a legacy of the evangelical and Oxford movements. The Tractarians in particular, faced with what seemed the end of their world, found the saving continuation of apostolic authority in the improbable embodiment of lawn-sleeved Hanoverian bishops – and thereby transformed the church. But an outcome of the movement has often been a scorning of the supremacy and an alliance of high-flying clericalists with political liberals to attack ‘establishment’, about which the attackers often know remarkably little.

We focus on archbishops and synods, but there is no help in them as institutional remedies. Ordained women show many signs of emulating the worst aspects of male clericalism – so much for the familiar bleat of the bishops about bringing the distinctive gifts of women into holy orders. It would be ironic and tragic if the opponents came together to thwart a lay focus of unity. Here is indeed a call for statesmanship, to save us from a schism like the Methodists in the late eighteenth century and the Free Church of Scotland in 1843.

From free churches, continuing churches and pure churches, good Lord deliver us!