Saturday, 5 April 2014

The Church By Law Established

"Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law? Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England? And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?"

That's the Coronation Oath made by the British monarch before the Archbishop of Canterbury crowns them. Reading Harold Nicholson's account of the coronation of the Queen's grandfather King George V, I was struck by how seriously and simply that King took his religious duties, and how very similar the faith of Elizabeth II seems to be.

My friends overseas and my nonconformist and agnostic friends at home are baffled by the idea of the Established Church. Most assume it's all to do with Henry VIII's first divorce. But Henry was no Anglican. He was an angry, and I think rather nasty, man. Not born the heir, he became the heir, to a crown, and a fortune (his father being the thriftiest monarch we ever had), and he was tall and strong and clever and musical and talented and charming. And then it all went wrong. It went to his head. The Pope - who was being kept captive by the nephew of the wife he wanted to divorce - wouldn't do what he wanted. So, he sacked the Pope. He was the King of England, he could sack anyone. But he wasn't a Protestant - that was a European, specifically German, thing, and Henry was very British (unlike most of the people who have occupied the throne since). He had even written a pamphlet against Martin Luther for the Pope, so that he could be given the title "Defender of the Faith", to keep up with the Kings of France and Spain who also had religious titles from the Pope. He was suspicious of the vernacular, never permitted the clergy to marry (despite knowing full well that Archbishop Cranmer was married - a liberty which he introduced legally almost as soon as the old king was dead, and enshrined in what is now Article XXXII of the Church of England), and had by this time become too intellectually lazy to engage with theology at all.

Then there was Edward VI, from whom the nation was delivered by his early death, and Queen Mary I, whose even briefer reign caused utter chaos and bitterness. And then, for forty-five years we had the canny, hugely intelligent, glamorous, ingenious, devious, but utterly committed, Elizabeth I. She had a choice, and she chose the reformed religion of the mother she never knew, and her brother, but fashioned to her own tastes. This was to be a church for all the English people. We would go to church together, say our prayers together, receive communion together, and then go to the pub afterwards and argue about our beliefs, but go back together again next week. And Elizabeth intended there to be parish priests to supervise this, and bishops to stand up it for in Parliament. On the subject of the marriage of the clergy, she was old-fashioned, she didn't like it. But she reasoned that what was good for the laity - herself included - was good for the clergy, and good for the bishops. So, two of her three archbishops of Canterbury were married men. There is an irony in this, that of all the people in the land, Elizabeth herself was the least free to marry, even if she had wanted to.

She ushered in over four centuries (so far) of a distinctive way of being Christian and of doing Theology. In all of it, church and nation were united as one - argumentative and disagreeing - but normally able to keep their lids on their quarrels. And the monarch did as he or she was told - not by the church, but by Parliament, in which the church was represented by the bishops in the House of Lords. Of course, the monarch appointed those bishops, but usually on advice from ministers, and once they had their place, they had tenure for life, and could go rogue. The same was true of the parish clergy, largely appointed not by bishops, as now, but by lay people. But once the appointment was made, it was permanent until they died. If you wanted to be ordained, but knew your bishop wouldn't like you, you could seek "letters dimissory" and be ordained by another bishop who did. It was no centralised monolith, it was a fluid, flexible, going concern, delivering to the nation its spiritual welfare.

The weakest link in the decline of Establishment has been Prime Ministers - but for the best of reasons. Some of them, having little or no faith of their own, or beliefs rooted in other denominations, felt uncomfortable making appointments to the Church of England. This was to muddle their personal prejudices with their role as chief adviser to the monarch, the Supreme Governor of the C of E. In the meantime, the Church was itself rootling around with an eccentric version of democracy which became the General Synod. This was the lifeline that James Callaghan, the Prime Minister in 1976, sought for setting up a new relationship with the Church of which he was not a member, and despite his Baptist roots, felt that as an atheist, he was ill-suited to be choosing its senior clergy.

But what Callaghan did was to secede power to an undemocratic assembly, and the even more chaotically-selected House of Bishops. Parishes got no authority to nominate their own clergy, nor the people of a diocese their own bishop, still less the people of a province to elect their archbishop. And the world slowly went grey. The mavericks and dodgy bobs that Prime Ministers had appointed because they thought they might be a bit of fun, or the church needed livening up, were slowly got rid of. Gradually, as vocations and money got scarcer, and parish re-organisations had to happen, the bishops clawed away the power of appointment from the laity and to themselves. It was becoming harder and harder to break the rules, buck the trend, be true to something new, and be secure in your place to say it, and be it.

Then Archbishop Carey came along. He is a peculiar man, with tremendous pastoral gifts in private, who only ever seems like a great gallumphing buffoon in public. Not to his fans, of course, but to the wider world, which is the one the C of E is for - as Archbishop Temple said "the church of England is the only institution that exists primarily for the benefit of its non-members". And he was chosen by Mr Callaghan's system, but by a very different Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, who ignored the convention that the first name from the committee is the one the Prime Minister must choose, and instead selected the second, and there was no gainsaying her. There are those who say that Dr Carey's name was only on the list at all to make it absolutely clear who they really wanted. More fool them, more fool a foolish system.

And Carey did two interesting things. He set up an Archbishops's Council, "Carey's Curia" as it was dubbed, to run things from the centre, which is not how they'd ever been run - nor ever needed to be. Apparently he used to shout a lot and bang his fist on the table, and when countered with opposition say "because I'm the archbishop of Canterbury", as if that would win hearts and minds. But his other interesting invention was "Episcopal Unanimity". And this came in after the "Issues in Human Sexuality" report was published in 1991. This was supposed to be a paper to encourage discussion. He made it dogma. And unless you agreed to it, you couldn't be a bishop, a dean, a canon, even an ordinand. This was "the teaching of the Church of England". No it wasn't! It was a pamphlet! Two of its authors have subsequently resiled from its conclusions. One, Lord Harries of Pentregarth (formerly, in a humbler life, Bishop of Oxford) even speaking mightily for the Same Sex Marriage Bill in the House of Lords.

Even in this Stalinist regime, the Establishment broke out, in the most unlikely voice of the now-Roman Catholic Prime Minister Tony Blair, who recommended to Her Majesty that Dr Jeffrey John, Canon of Southwark, an openly gay man, be made Bishop of Reading. The Queen said yes. And then the church's nerve broke. Dr John, whilst privately despising it, was prepared to adhere to "the teaching of the Church of England" on sexuality (invented by pamphlet in 1991), and live celibately with his partner. It was a vulgar episode in our church life when private things were made public that should not have been. But the Archbishop bottled, and Dr John and the Bishop of Oxford, were forced to back down. Carey - only out of power a few months - had triumphed. Were it not for the Callaghan Compromise, Mr Blair could have said "I don't care what the archbishop thinks, this is my recommendation, and it sticks", as Harold Macmillan had said long ago when the saintly Michael Ramsey thought Archbishop Fisher would not have approved of him as his successor.

And now we have the Same-Sex Marriage fiasco. You'd love them more if they could be honest about their past, but they now claim to be in favour of Civil Partnerships (which came in at the end of 2005), when in fact the House of Bishops opposed them tooth and claw, with spoiling amendments and poisoned briefings. They were, rightly, ignored. This time, they have kicked and screamed against reality and worked behind the scenes to establish a "quadruple lock" chastity belt to protect the church of England, any diocese, any parish, any priest, anyone wanting to get married, from exercising their own conscience in the matter of same-sex marriage. This was a fundamental betrayal of the Establishment relationship. The state operates towards the church a little like the monarchy to the government - it can advise, and warn. And what the Church of England needed was a clear line from the government that the law of the land concerning marriage now included gay couples, and if the individual parsons found that difficult, they would be free to decline to take the service.

There is an analogy here with the practice of marrying divorcees, and those married to divorcees, with a spouse still living. This was subject to blanket condemnation by the bishops for years, but individual priests continued to exercise their rights as civil registrars within religious buildings to conduct marriages of which their bishops might not approve, but which were regular and valid and legal. What was needed from Parliament in the latest exchange was to extend this same freedom to same-sex marriage - the freedom in conscience to refuse to take the service, the freedom in conscience to officiate at it. Very few parish priests would marry a gay couple knowing it would cause mutiny in their congregations. Very few congregations would mutiny. And the bishops could shrug and say "we don't approve, but it's not our fault, it's the law, and we have no power over that". Bishops like it when they are not to blame. But if you want to exercise power - and saying No to a sizeable proportion of both faithful clergy and laity is exercising power - you must take the blame if you are wrong. Mr Cameron could have saved them from this, but like Callaghan and Thatcher before him, he doesn't really understand Establishment, despite being the most establishment prime minister we've had since 1964.

And nor do the bishops understand establishment, if they think they can stand outside the law. By fixing the chastity belt locks onto the C of E, they have removed a centuries' old right of English people to be married in their parish church, and if the C of E ceases to be the church of ALL the people in England, it ceases to be Anglican.

I would argue for disestablishment now, although I think that would be a tragedy and turn us into a sect, except that if it happened now even more power would land in the hands of the bishops, not the laity, and the Church of England would lose even more its Anglican character. For the sake of Anglicanism in England (and Wales), the "quadruple lock" must go. Only Parliament can do this, that is the nature of Establishment, and it is to our representatives there that we must turn and ask them to change the law before it does more harm.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
April 2014


  1. Brilliant summary and end point.

  2. Bravo. But are they listening? By God Welby++ should be getting an earful today; and he's going to get it over here next week. I pray.

  3. This is just wonderful. May I please share with Integrity, USA?

  4. Please do share anything at all, Gloriamarie, and anyone else, but I'd appreciate a tiny attribution!

  5. Well done, old girl. Argued with your customary rigour. xxx