In a new series of articles, George Austin, wondering whether establishment is still such a good idea, examines the Church’s relationship with the State in this country, meandering back to earliest times

In her Times Online weblog (always a good read by the way), Ruth Gle-dhill reported that the former archbishop George Carey had told her that ‘the Church of England must push for disestablishment if the Government opts for a wholly-elected second chamber.’ Able on a blog to express her own views, she added that though she was once a firm supporter of establishment, she now takes the opposite view in a world that has changed. As do I.

The Church, she said, is joining the celebrations for the abolition of the slave trade ‘without understanding her own enslavement.’ Not all slaves were badly treated because slave-owners ‘knew that if they made their slavery comfortable, with nice robes to wear and other perks denoting wealth and status, they would be less likely to rebel. So it is with the Church.’ Strong words indeed!

So for how long has the State in this country given a boost to the Church? We know little of the Church in Roman times, save that it existed, aided of course by the conversion of the Emperor Constantine. The diocese of London is credited as having been founded no later than ad 314, the first written record of a Bishop of London. Who he was and where he came from is not known, but the pattern in other parts of the Roman Empire was for bishops to be elected by the clergy and lay people of the city. It is said that the laity expected the bishops to be holy men.

With the collapse of the Roman Empire, Christianity declined, retreating westwards to Wales and Cornwall. Writing from Brittany in 547, Gildas was severe in his criticism of the British clergy – ‘unworthy wretches, wallowing, after the fashion of swine, in their old and unholy puddle of intolerable wickedness.’ Even so, there were bishops, summoning clergy to their synods; monasteries where rules of life were demanded; and above all, many Christian leaders now recognized as saints of God.

Augustine’s mission

With the coming of Augustine in 597, the Church immediately depended on the State. Pope Gregory had long hoped to send missionaries to Christianize the Angles’, at first buying slave boy Angles to train as priests and missionaries, and then giving Augustine the charge of leading an expedition to England. Where he landed is disputed but Ebbsfleet and Richborough are both strong possibilities, and the fact that the two provincial episcopal visitors of the province of Canterbury have been given these same episcopal titles could be a providential hint to link the past and the future.

For Augustine’s arrival brought a new strength to the Church in these islands – and it all depended on the attitude of the king of Kent, Ethelbert, or perhaps even more to the fact that his wife Bertha was a firm and committed Christian. On Pope Gregory’s instruction, the principle was established that the income of the Church should be divided into four parts – one for the bishop, one for the clergy, one for the relief of the poor, and one for the upkeep of the Church.

England was then not one nation but a collection of provinces, and after four years, Augustine was joined by another monk, Paulinus, who after 24 years in the south accompanied a Kentish princess, Ethelburga, on her journey north to marry Edwin, king of Northumbria. Again, it was the Church/State connection that was the basis for the growth of the Christian faith.

In the same way in East Anglia, it was a Christian king, Sibert, from Gaul who invited a Burgundian bishop, Felix, to set up a see at Dunwich. In Mercia, the heathen king was Penda, but in 653 he allowed Christian priests to enter his territory, one of who was Cedd (brother of St Chad).

Early difficulties

So the growth of the early English Church had a fundamental dependence upon the State – through the provincial kings – both for its establishment and for its progress in conversion. The death of a kingly supporter often had a catastrophic effect. In Kent, its roots did not go deep, in spite of widespread conversions, and when Edwin died and was replaced by a heathen king, it nearly disappeared.

Paulinus had great success in the north and was made bishop of York in 627 and then in 633 archbishop, but before even the pallium had reached him from Rome, Edwin was dead, defeated and slain at the battle of Hatfield Chase by Cadwallon of Gwynedd, and Paulinus had fled south. For a year, the church in the north was in chaos until Oswald, a devout Christian brought up by the monks of Iona, defeated Cadwallon at the battle of Rowley Moor and became undisputed King of Northumbria.

At once he set out to restore the Christian cause in Northumbria, bringing Aidan from Iona and, in a partnership described as ‘so perfect a symbol of what an alliance between Church and State ought to be’, on occasions accompanied Aidan on his missionary journeys, acting as his interpreter.

Culture clash

But it was a new mission: the Roman mission had collapsed, and though Christianity was re-established, it was according to the Celtic tradition, for Aidan and those he brought with him had been trained in the practices of the Celtic rather than the Roman Church.

The clash of the two ecclesiastical cultures caused difficulties, not least when in 663 differing practices meant that Oswy, King of Northumbria would be keeping Easter at the very time that his wife, brought up in the Roman tradition, would be in the middle of her Lenten fast.

An assembly was called together at Whitby, supervised by the abbess, Hilda, and with the king presiding. The Synod of Whitby produced a new unity in the Christian Church in these islands – and it was the king who gave judgement in favour of the Roman tradition. As a result the Church in England was at one with Western Christendom and in this, as well as in its growth, it had a fundamental dependence on the support of the State. But what was right for the seventh century need not be right for the twenty-first.