Wednesday, 4 July 2007

"No King, no Bishop": How Gordon Brown has deconstructed the Church of England

Ed: This article appeared in the Church Times in July 2002. I reproduce it here in the light of Gordon Brown's announcement that the Prime Minister will relinquish control over the appointment of bishops.

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


  1. It is worth noting point 57 of the government green paper:
    "The Church of England is by law established as the Church in England and the Monarch is its Supreme Governor. The Government remains committed to this position."

    Also, from point 62:
    "the Government reaffirms its commitment to the position of the Church of England by law established, with the Sovereign as its Supreme Governor, and the relationship between the Church and State. The Government greatly values the role played by the Church in national life in a range of spheres" [this is of especial importance as one of the "four guiding principles" of the green paper].

    I am not convinced that this necessarily implies a contradiction with Cranmer's position. Her majesty, the Queen, remains 'head' of the Church of England.

    The effect of the green paper is to remove the role of her majesty's "civil ministers" (in Cranmer's phrasing) in appointing ministers of the Word.

    Of course, whether Cranmer's understanding is correct is a moot point.

    And, of course, the church of England was in existence for most of a thousand years before Cranmer.

  2. A point of clarification for someone who hasn't had the time to read the Green Paper: do the proposals remove the role of the Queen or merely the channel through which she currently exercises her prerogative - her Prime Minister?

  3. I disagree. I think it's possible to maintain Cranmer's idea of headship by recognising that the church is subject to the rule of national law (which it frequently wasn't in pre-Reformation Europe), without retaining the constitutional position of the monarch.

    So Cranmer would argue that the President of the USA is head of all the churches in the USA, as he has power to legislate over them. That doesn't require that he appoint their ministers, but it does require that they shouldn't, for example, obey the Pope against the President.

  4. I think everyone above is right and everyone deserves prizes. My original article considered the 'extreme case' of disestablishment, which is not being suggested. Therefore what is proposed is still, technically, within Cranmer's model (right or wrong). Custard has got it spot on about the President of the USA being 'head' of the churches there.

    What bothers me about Gordon Brown's sweeping approach is that the role of the monarch, and how this works vis a vis the CofE is misunderstood even by those who ought to understand it.

    Take the statement "the Monarch is [the CofE's] Supreme Governor. The Government remains committed to this position."

    The Government could no more NOT be committed to this position than it could not be committed to the position that Gordon Brown is the Queen's subject. It is a position that was clarified (not decided) in the Act of Supremacy of 1534, which stated that "the King's Majesty justly and rightfully is and oweth to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England". The Act was issued merely for "corroboration and confirmation thereof".

    This is generally not well understood, as this kind of statement rather confirms!