No King, no Bishop
Recent pronouncements and discussions on establishment and the role of the monarch have revealed all too clearly that the Anglican church in this country has an inadequate understanding of its own constitution. In particular, the way that people (even leading clerics) talk carelessly about changing the status of the monarch as Supreme Governor of the Church of England shows that the original meaning of this phrase, and the undergirding theology which produced it, are almost entirely obscure to them.
Yet in reality, the Church of England cannot disestablish, and specifically cannot change its understanding of the role of the monarch, without revising its entire ecclesiology. The widespread assumption that the Church of England could simply disestablish and run its own affairs via the present system of episcopacy and synodical government does not stand up to historical scrutiny. In fact, to reverse the famous aphorism of James I, the Anglican view of the disestablished church ought to be ‘No King, no Bishop’.
A Peculiar Understanding
The Church of England justified its split with Rome in the sixteenth century on the basis of a particular, indeed in every sense peculiar, understanding of the nation and the monarch. The argument, enshrined in the 1533 ‘Act in Restraint of Appeals’ but drawing on the earlier notion of praemunire, was that England was an Empire and that therefore the king of England was, by divine right, in a position of supreme authority over all English affairs, both of state and of church. The subsequent 1534 ‘Act of Supremacy’ therefore did not make Henry ‘Head of the Church of England’, but simply affirmed that the English king had always been in that position as a matter of theological principle. The Act did not purport to introduce anything new, but was only a ‘corroboration and confirmation’ of the understanding that ‘the King’s Majesty justly and rightfully is and oweth to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England’.
According to the understanding at the time, therefore, the Act of Supremacy merely restored the rightful position of the monarch. And this was because in the theology of Thomas Cranmer himself, headship did not belong just to the English king, nor was it confined to the English church. Rather, Cranmer’s belief (as became clear at his trial), was that all rulers of nations are ‘heads on earth’ of the church in their lands. Thus under questioning he admitted that ‘Nero was the head of the church, that is, in worldly respect of the temporal bodies of men, of whom the church consisteth; for so he beheaded Peter and the apostles. And the Turk too is head of the church of Turkey.’ This means, however, that it is impossible to change the relationship between church and monarch today without revisiting Anglican self-understanding in its entirety.
The Godly Prince
But there is more. Cranmer believed, and subsequent official Anglican pronouncements therefore affirmed, that the power to command and enforce in the church belonged only to the monarch. Prior to the emergence of the ‘godly prince’, the church was, in fact, rightly governed democratically. Thus in 1542 Cranmer wrote, ‘In the apostles’ time, when there was [sic] no christian princes, by whose authority ministers of God’s word might be appointed, nor sins by the sword corrected, there was no remedy then for the correction of vice, or appointing of ministers, but only the consent of christian multitude [sic]’. With the advent of the godly prince holding the power of the sword, bishops could have authority to command, but only because they were ministers of the crown, standing in exactly the same relationship to the monarch as secular politicians: ‘All christian princes ... must have sundry ministers under them, to supply that which is appointed to their several offices. The civil ministers ... be ... for example, the lord chancellor, lord treasurer ... mayors, sheriffs, &c. The ministers of God’s word ... be ... for example, the bishop of Canterbury, the bishop of Duresme, ... the parson of Winwick, &c.’1
These ‘ministers of God’s word’ did not, however, have a personal right to rule the Church. On the contrary, the Homilies state that Christ and the Apostles ‘did forbid unto all ecclesiastical Ministers dominion over the church of Christ’.2 An Apostle could exhort. Only a king could command. A king, and under him the magistrate or the bishop, could enforce. A private citizen, whether legal expert or ecclesiastical dignitary, could only persuade.
This, then, was the foundation on which subsequent structures of the Church of England were built in this country. As Canon A 6 says, ‘The government of the Church of England under the Queen’s majesty by archbishops, bishops, deans, provosts, archdeacons and the rest of the clergy and of the laity that bear office in the same is not repugnant to the Word of God’. Deny the role of the Queen, however, and you pull the plug on the rest.
Of course, the Anglican church has been disestablished elsewhere without these issues being faced. But England is the theological home of Anglicanism and we cannot fudge them here, for they are tied into our very constitution. A disestablished Church of England should be a different body entirely from its established form - undoubtedly more democratic, arguably Presbyterian, and certainly less wedded to legalistic formulae. The alternative is to declare the English experiment of the last five hundred years to have been based on a theological error of the first order.
Revd John P Richardson
Senior Assistant Minister to the United Benefice of Henham, Elsenham and Ugley in the Diocese of Chelmsford. ‘No King but Caesar? The Headship of the Church in Anglican Theology’ should appear in a future issue of Churchman.
1. ‘Questions and Answers Concerning the Sacraments and the Appointment and Power of Bishops and Priests’ in Miscellaneous Writings and Letters of Thomas Cranmer, Ed J E B Cox (Cambridge: The Parker Society, 1846, reproduced by Regent College), 116
2. ‘Homily Against Wilful Rebellion’, 1562