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.
22 December 2008