Monday, 22 December 2008

Why the Church of England cannot lose its 'Head'

Suddenly, disestablishment is back in the news, thanks largely to the reporting of remarks by the Archbishop of Canterbury but also, I suspect, because there are those in our governing classes who have this in their sights as one of the last bastions of the old England which must be done away with.

Part of the ‘argument’ focuses on the rôle — or the supposed rôle — of the monarch as the ‘Head of the Church of England’ (I know the exact expression is ‘Supreme Governor’, but the word ‘Head’ is the original term, and has hung on since the time of Henry VIII).

I say ‘supposed rôle’, however, because this is something which is misunderstood almost from the top to the bottom not only of our society but of the Church of England.

Not just relatively well-informed journalists, but even bishops and archbishops seem to assume that if the Church of England were to be disestablished, the monarch would cease to be its Head. But (and it is hard to say this too strongly), that is simply not the case and hence the ‘argument’ is not the ‘argument’ people suppose.

Even if the Church of England were disestablished, even if Prince Charles became King and took the title ‘Defender of Faith’, even if his son converted to Islam and duly became our first Muslim monarch, the situation would be unchanged, because the theological understanding of the monarch’s role does not rely on either legal establishment or the monarch’s faith.

Back in 2002, I wrote an article on this for the Church Times, and I can do no better than quote from it here:

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 [VIII] ‘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’.

Please note, this is a permanent and abiding theological, not a temporary and expedient political, principle: the English monarch always has been, and always will be, ‘Head of the Church of England’. However, it doesn’t end there:

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.’

Thus, according to this understanding, George Bush is the ‘Head’ of the church in the USA, Nicolas Sarkozy the ‘Head’ of the church in France, and so on. Moreover, just as this applies to countries other than England, it applies to bodies other than the Church of England. Thus in these islands not only the CofE, but the mosques, the gurdwaras, the synagogues, the chapels, and yes, even the Roman Catholic church itself — all are under the monarch’s governance, and the monarch is, and so long as there is a monarch always will be, Supreme Governor of them all.

At one level, though, this is simply to say that the church, wherever it finds itself, is under the temporal authority of whoever are the ‘temporal authorities’. It is Romans 13:1-7 or 1 Peter 2:13-17 applied to the contemporary context.

The only extra ‘spin’ we must add to this is that in the English context the monarch was also given, by the Elizabethan Act of Supremacy, the right to correct errors in the Church of England. It is this which is the source of much of our present problems, however, because the monarch is clearly not going to do this and there is no-one else who legally, or constitutionally within the Church of England has that power. But that is another story.

Disestablishment is now almost inevitable. But if we are going to discuss it, we should at least get it right.

John Richardson
22 December 2008

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  1. Excellent point, John.
    I wholeheartedly concur with your views here, noting in particular that a woman may be the earthly head of a church!

    Peter Carrell
    Nelson, NZ

  2. Thanks for the comment, Peter. As I'm sure you're aware, though, Article XXXVII adds as an explanation, "Where we attribute to the Queen's Majesty the chief government, by which titles we understand the minds of some slanderous folks to be offended, we give not to our princes the ministering either of God's word or of sacraments, the which thing the Injunctions also lately set forth by Elizabeth our Queen doth most plainly testify: but that only prerogative which we see to have been given always to all godly princes in Holy Scriptures by God himself, that is, that they should rule all estates and degrees committed to their charge by God, whether they be ecclesiastical or temporal, and restrain with the civil sword the stubborn and evil-doers. The Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England."

    Nice try, though ;-) !

  3. Since when were theological, rather than political, matters decided by Act of Parliament? King Henry may have made all kind of blasphemous claims. Cranmer may have put forward all kinds of bad theology in an attempt to save his skin. (If Nero was head of the church in his day, then calling someone head of the church is not a political endorsement and so Cranmer could distance himself from Henry.) The current Parliament may do what they like to adjust those claims, including repealing Henry's acts. But that does not alter the fact that theologically, if the Church of England is a church at all and not an entirely worldly organisation, it has, always has had, and always will have just one Head, JESUS CHRIST! Interesting that he doesn't even get a mention in your post.

    Yes, the monarch has "that only prerogative which we see to have been given always to all godly princes in Holy Scriptures by God himself", but I fail to see where in Holy Scriptures any monarch except King Jesus is given the prerogative of being called Head of the church.

  4. Peter K, you have missed the point of this post, which is not whether the theology is right but what, in the first instance, the theology actually is.

    We cannot have a sensible discussion of constitutional change if people don't understand the constitution.

    We can, of course, argue that the theological basis of the Church of England is wrong. In this, you and the Pope agree. But that is another matter, in which he is a Catholic, in the Roman sense, and you are not.

  5. PS to Peter K, this could be the point where I add, as you have often said to me, if you don't agree you could leave the Church of England. But I wouldn't do that at Christmas! ;-)

  6. PPS to Peter Kirk, you will be aware, of course, that it was Parliament that rescued us from the theological changes that would have been introduced by the 1928 Prayer Book. Some (like me) may say this was a good thing at the time.

  7. John, I won't tell you to leave just at the moment! But maybe I should leave myself, if it is indeed true that the theological basis of the C of E is fundamentally blasphemous.

    Fortunately I don't believe it is, because fortunately neither Cranmer's testimony at his trial nor Henry's Acts of Parliament are among the theological foundation documents of the church I am a member of. Look at what those documents actually are: the Creeds, the Councils, and the 39 Articles. You will find in them no mention of anyone other than Jesus Christ being Head of the church.

    Yes, there is a Supreme Governor, but, as you reminded us, her supremacy is limited to "that only prerogative which we see to have been given always to all godly princes in Holy Scriptures by God himself"; that is, her supremacy is clearly under God. The claims made for her authority are specifically limited to "estates and degrees" and restraining evildoers, and exclude any authority over ministry of word and sacrament. Although I have issues with some of these claims, such as the claim to authority over appointments of bishops etc, I do not consider these claims to be fundamentally blasphemous in the way in which Henry's claims were. So I will stay in the C of E for now.

  8. Peter K, I think one of your difficulties is trying to isolate the "theological foundation documents of the church" from their historical context, so that they say what you want them to, not what they must be understood as intending to convey.

    It is not just that the mind of the authors is in many respects well-known, it is that they themselves derive from past documents. The 39 Articles, for example, result from earlier Articles attempting to define Anglican belief.

    Article XXXVII, which uses the title 'Supreme Governor' is designed to allay the fears of those who, like yourself, disliked the term 'Head', but the intention of the Article is the same, and its outcome is undoubted.

    Henry's claim cannot, in the light of history, be casually dismissed as 'blasphemous', especially since his intention was not to remove Christ but the Pope from 'usurpation' of this office.

    You must, moreover, read the status ascribed in the Articles to Elizabeth I as Supreme Governor in the light of her own Act of Supremacy, which gave her authority, "... for reformation order and correction of the same [ecclesiastical state and persons], and of all manner of errors, heresies, schisms, abuses, offences, contempts and enormities [...]" in the Church.

    As far as I am aware, this is the one bit of the Act which is still in force!

    But to return to my original point, whatever the monarch is in relation to the Church of England, disestablishment will not change this. And as far as Anglican doctrine is concerned, the monarch will therefore remain its Supreme Governor.

    The real problem is what will happen to the authority of bishops. At the moment, they have their authority because they act as the monarch's agents (see Article XXIII). The monarch gives the bishops "public authority" to call and send ministers "lawfully".

    Take away the lawful authority of the bishops, however, and the whole picture changes.

  9. John,

    Can you tell us whether that in your view, disestablishment is a good or bad thing? Many Bishops such as Colin Buchanan seem to think it is. Why should Bishops be supportive of a move that reduces their parliamentary influence? (Assuming anyone takes notice of them that is...)

    Chris Bishop

  10. Chris, theologically it would make sense, but culturally it would be a disaster at this present time.

    Theologically, the present arrangement is no longer working because Parliament is no longer theologically literate. It is fascinating to look back on debates from the nineteenth to mid-twentieth century, when ordinary MPs and Lords display a firm grasp of theology and of the interplay between state and church.

    In the present day, most MPs (a) don't care and (b) don't know their theological Bp of Rochester from their elbow.

    However, the desire to disestablish expressed by the governing classes is not driven by a desire to do the right thing by the Church of England, but is rather a further pursuit of what Melanie Phillips has called, with some justification, a 'Year Zero' policy with respect to our culture. Nothing is to be left standing of the old, everything must be made new, with the intention of providing a clear 'playing field' for the 'Conditioners' CS Lewis warned us about.

  11. Hi John
    You have been busy today while I have been sleeping Down Under.
    Um, so the Articles do not want the Sovereign to be a minister of word and sacrament, lucky forward thinking for those in the 21st century for whome the 'headship' of the church must be kept pure and untrammelled from a woman ... but then, to cite from your own comment above:

    "You must, moreover, read the status ascribed in the Articles to Elizabeth I as Supreme Governor in the light of her own Act of Supremacy, which gave her authority, "... for reformation order and correction of the same [ecclesiastical state and persons], and of all manner of errors, heresies, schisms, abuses, offences, contempts and enormities [...]" in the Church."

    Looks to me like considerable theological authority lies in the '(earthly) Head' of the church, the office of which with respect to the Reformation and today is nicely book-ended by Elizabeth 1 and 2!

  12. The Pope blasphemously claimed titles only Christ is entitled to. So for someone else to claim one of them from the Pope remains blasphemous. Elizabeth understood the objection and so renounced the title.

    "Take away the lawful authority of the bishops, however, and the whole picture changes."

    You mean, chaos ensues, as in the disestablished Church of Wales and TEC? Consider that as irony or not according to taste. TEC seems to have no problem with an unamended Article XXIII. But the American version of Article XXXVII is greatly amended and more suitable for a disestablished church:

    "The Power of the Civil Magistrate extendeth to all men, as well Clergy as Laity, in all things temporal; but hath no authority in things purely spiritual. And we hold it to be the duty of all men who are professors of the Gospel, to pay respectful obedience to the Civil Authority, regularly and legitimately constituted."

  13. Before this gets more complicated, I should point out that I'm not advocating to the letter every application that the English Reformers (including the relevant monarchs) made of their theological principles in the sixteenth century.

    My point is to observe the facts - that the understanding of the monarch's role was seen as dependent on their God-given position in society, irregardless of the status of the Church, and that the subsequent changes in the relationship between Church and State were conceived as bringing the Church into line with the rest of society by removing it from foreign jurisdiction.

    No doubt we may question their premises, as well as their conclusions. However, it is important to acknowledge that these have given rise to the subsequent self-understanding of both the English Church and State.

    Thus the Church of England is conceived as a geographical entity first and foremost, distinguished by this (rather than by a special theology) from other "particular or national" churches (Article 34)

    For the debate about disestablishment, this would mean recognizing first that this would not remove the Queen from her position as the Supreme Governor of the Church of England and, secondly, that the Church's governance would henceforth rely on internal rules, which would have to be written from scratch, not on state legislation currently in place.

    Thomas Cranmer's own view was that such a church would be not merely more democratic but congregationalist, since the bishop would no longer be acting under the authority of the monarch. So a further point would be that disestablishment would entail much more fresh thinking about the Church, once we realize the theological principles behind the Reformation changes in its governance.

    We may, of course, go so far as to dispute the whole basis of the sixteenth century English Reformation, but that would be to saw off the branch on which we sit. We cannot simply say, "Henry and Cranmer got it totally wrong," without either reconstructing our theology of the Church and the State, or apologizing to the Pope.

  14. John, I see your point at the end. But as I see it the 39 Articles are already a reconstruction of the theology of what Henry and Cranmer set up, and Mary destroyed. The differences are subtle, but they are there. And of course many thinkers have reconstructed the Anglican theology of church and state since then, but their ideas have not been officially adopted in England.

    Now I accept that for the C of E to lose its "Head", as an informal title for Supreme Governor, it needs to amend its own official documents, so this would not just be a matter for Parliament. But it is one thing to say that losing its "Head" will not happen automatically and another to claim, as you seemed to, that this is impossible.

  15. I've never quite understood in all this why England should be considered such a special case. Or why spiritual matters of such obvious importance should be subject to acts of Parliament. Very strange to my mind but happy to be educated.

  16. Anon, the big fat book to read is Diarmaid MacCulloch's biography of Cranmer - but it is very big! (I wasn't so struck on his Reformation, where I thought his personal tastes got the better of him.) I am sure there are some summary works out there, but nothing springs to mind.

    In the end, it comes down to history.

  17. Thank you Revd. I will investigate.