George Austin looks at the relationship between Church and State and the role played by the monarch in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and the limitations of the Act of Toleration

From the moment in 597 that Augustine arrived in Kent, Church and State co-existed in a relationship that was always uneasy and often stormy. There were clashes between the English church and the king, between king and Pope, sometimes between church and papacy.

After nearly a thousand years came the final breach with Rome and, in spite of attempts by Queen Mary to restore it, papal power was at an end. But Henry VIII had taken the spiritualities to himself, declaring that he was the Supreme Head on earth of the Church of England, with powers so great as even to include definition of dogma.

The via media

Queen Elizabeths first parliament met in January 1559, quickly passing two acts of major importance in strengthening the dominance of the State over the Church. The first of these was the Act of Supremacy which revived Henry’s legislation against Rome. It ensured that there could be no interference from Rome or from any ‘foreign prince, person, prelate, state or potentate, spiritual or temporal.’

Moreover, though it carefully avoided suggesting that the monarch rather than Christ himself could be ‘head’ of the Church of England, it did impose an oath on all ecclesiastical and lay officials acknowledging Elizabeth not as ‘supreme head’ but as ‘supreme governor’ of both Church and State.

Apart from this slight but significant alteration, this for the most part restored the position as it was at end of the reign of Henry VIII, and undid the pro-papal legislation introduced by Mary. It was pressure from Protestant sources that caused Parliament to pass a second bill, the Act of Uniformity, which reintro-duced the Book of Common Prayer and set the basis for worship – with severe penalties for disobedience.

It was followed by a set of Royal Injunctions encouraging kneeling in prayer and bowing at the name of Jesus, and enforcing regular preaching and catechizing. Clergy were not allowed to marry until the lady chosen had been approved by the bishop and two justices of the peace. With the Elizabethan Settlement, State control over the Church did produce a kind of unity and helped stabilize a divided and weakened Church, at least for a few decades.

The Act of Uniformity remained part of the law of the land until threatened by the Church and State report of 1970. As a result, the General Synod passed the Worship and Doctrine Measure, whose provisions included the repeal of the Acts of Uniformity of 1548, 1558 and 1662, although the 1662 Book of Common Prayer had to be retained both for use and also as a basis for the doctrine of the Church of England.


The via media became the officially accepted pattern for the Church of England, and resisted the pressure both of the Romanists and Calvinists. Bishops loyal to Rome who could not accept it were deprived of their sees and went into exile – in fact only two, Llandaffand Sodor and Man, were prepared to take the oath to fall in with the new regime.

there was a desire for an end to religious conflict after a hundred and fifty years of discord

However, Elizabeth was determined not to follow the bloody practices of her sister Mary’s reign and allowed dissenting bishops to flee into exile rather than forcing them to face public executions. She had no wish to be otherwise, be it with senior churchmen or with laity with tender consciences, though in the event her hands were forced as a result of the intransigence of Pope Pius IV.

Now in England the Church was supporting the State in the person of the Queen, and doing so against the power of the Pope in Rome, who enacted a papal bull which excommunicated and deposed Elizabeth. As a result, recusants in England, far from being tolerated, were now faced with the choice of compliance or possible death for high treason.

The papal bull of 1570 marks the final separation of England from Rome as well as the setting in concrete of the present Church establishment in its relation to the State; yet even though once again the State had preserved the Church, this time against a ‘foreign prelate’, the future was to hold many serious problems.

This was particularly so with the accession of a Catholic king in James II, who liked to present himself as the champion of toleration and may have wished to create an alliance between the Church of England and the Romanists. Nevertheless, the concessions he made to Catholics began to erode the support he had from the Established Church and in the end he was forced to flee the country.


When he was replaced by William and Mary, it produced a new problem in that bishops of the High Church party saw the king as holding his office by divine right, so that they – the ‘Non-jurors’

– could not accept that the lawful king was someone other than James II and therefore their allegiance had to remain with him.

But for the Church and the country as a whole, there was a desire for an end to religious conflict after a hundred and fifty years of bitter and often bloody discord. One of the results of this was the passing of the Toleration Act, giving free churchmen (though not Roman Catholics or Unitarians) the right to meet in their own churches.

However, it was a limited toleration too for some Anglicans, as followers of the Oxford Movement were to find in Victorian days. Protestants formed bodies like the Church Association with the purpose of fighting ‘ritualism’ by means of legal action, and were supported by the decisions of the Privy Council. As a result, priests like Fr Mackonochie of St Alban’s, Holborn were suspended for a period and the State passed in 1874 the Public Worship Regulation Act which enabled further pressure to be brought on recalcitrant clergy. Among others, Fr Tooth of Hatcham was imprisoned for one month and Fr Green of Miles Platting for more than a year. It was not persecution of the kind which had in earlier centuries brought faithful clergy to a violent and horrible end, but it was nonetheless persecution of the Church by the State.

It was not the Middle Ages, when State despotism was accepted as the norm. This may have been the moment when the seeds were sown for the unravelling of the Church/State relationship.