George Austin continues to trace the relationship between Church and State and shows how politics has influenced appointments through the centuries
The seeds of the present situation in Church/State relations in England took root in its earliest days, with the Church’s growth and its very existence depending first on the kings of the various provinces in the country; and secondly on the result of the deliberations of the Synod of Whitby making ecclesiastical Rome in the person of the Pope to be the supreme authority rather than the more independent Celtic church.
It was to create future difficulty, both in the relations between the English Church and Rome and between the Church and the monarchy, and was to be the source of conflict and divided loyalties, both personal and national. In the latter half of the twelfth century, the archbishops of York and Canterbury each met an untimely end.
William Fitzherbert had been chaplain to King Stephen and his appointment to York in 1143 was in effect as the kings nominee, to the fury of canons at the Minster and not least of Osbert de Baines, archdeacon of York. Osbert appealed to Rome on the grounds that William was no more than the king’s pawn and William was deposed. With a new pope eventually elected and the accession of a new king, Henry II, William was restored to York in 1154, only to die suspiciously a few months later. Was he really given a poisoned chalice by his archdeacon? Probably not, but it is a good story.
The conflict between Henry II and Archbishop Becket of Canterbury resulted from Becket’s firm and courageous stand against the king’s attempt to remove the right of clergy to be tried in ecclesiastical rather than civil courts, which Becket saw as an attack by the state on the proper rights of the Church. He had little support from the bishops, perhaps because of their reluctance to risk challenging the King.
Conflicts between Church and State reached a climax in the reign of King John, and in 1208 his foolishness resulted in Pope Innocent III issuing an interdict closing all the churches. The king used it as a means of seizing ecclesiastical property, but lost his battles with the powerful pope. The signing of the Magna Carta in 1215 was the culmination of attempts to curb the power of the throne, and significantly its first clause declared that ‘the English Church shall be free.’
But not entirely free, for the Pope had the power to intervene in disputed episcopal elections, and when Henry VIII declared himself to be ‘Supreme Head on earth’ of the Church in England, this not only marked the end of papal authority in England but was also one of a series of actions by Henry against the power of the Church and the privileges of the clergy.
From this point the Church of England was without any doubt the established church of this land, firmly under state control. In the eighteenth century, it was Edmund Burke who expressed one conception of the church’s place in the scheme of things when he declared that ‘politics and pulpit are terms that have little agreement. No sound ought to be heard in church but the healing voice of Christian charity’
Even so, in that same century it was unlikely that any clergyman who did not support – indeed, did not devote himself to promoting – the Whig interest would ever be thought suitable for preferment, and ambitious clergy knew how to play their cards right, preaching the right kind of sermons, publishing the right kind of pamphlets and making the right kind of contacts. Nothing changes much and we can all recall firm opponents of the ordination of women who experienced sudden conversions on the road to a Damascene purple. And of course that would happen in the Church, established or not.
By the end of the eighteenth century, with such a corrupt and corrupting system of preferment, the number of outstanding men in the Church inevitably grew less, and there was a general complacency that it should be so.
In the nineteenth century it was no better, and Tory clergy became uneasy at the appointments made by Whig Prime Ministers. Prime Minister Melbourne did attempt to appoint Whig clergymen who would nevertheless command the respect of the Tory clergy. His enquiries were once described thus: ‘Is he a good man?’ An excellent man: an accomplished theologian, an exemplary clergyman and much beloved by his people.’ ‘But is he a good man and a good Whig? Will he support the Irish Corporation Bill?’
The Tory Robert Peel had sufficient support in the House of Lords not to need the political support of the clergy so that he was able to raise Church patronage above party politics. But he would not appoint those following the high-churchery of the Puseyite Oxford Movement while raising many of the evangelical party.
The effect was not as intended: Pusey-ites were appointed to serve in the parishes of the poor and dispossessed and some suffered persecution and imprisonment for their views, advancing their cause more effectively in the end than if their leaders had become bishops. This should give cause for comfort and hope for the future to orthodox Catholics of today’s Church of England.
Meanwhile, gaining the Prime Minister’s patronage did no good to the evangelicals, who were often mocked. One commentator pointed out that it ‘lifted them from the pulpit or school where they offered words of life and buttoned them in a pillory of gaiters’
In the late twentieth century, there were many who would have echoed the words of Edmund Burke about politics and pulpit, and woe betide a country parson who declared himself to be a Labour voter or against foxhunting. It was assumed that since the Church of England was ‘the Tory party at prayer’ so then the clergy were naturally Conservative voters, with the clergy only ‘mixing politics and religion if they supported another party.
The inevitable result mirrored that of the eighteenth century, with the quality of the bench of bishops as leaders or even contributors of thought severely depleted, with only the Catholic Archbishop of Westminster and the Chief Rabbi seemingly able to express an independent comment from a religious angle on major moral issues of the day.
But could two new archbishops in the twenty-first century from outside the Establishment be a sign of hope for the future?