This isn't a normal post, but a paper I wrote for one of my classes prompted by the ongoing discussion about the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant.
In the current debate over the proposed Anglican Communion Covenant, the most common argument against it is that it proposes a centralization of powers that is in some way “un-Anglican.” What is meant by this is that the long-held understanding of Anglicanism generally, and the Communion particularly, is that Churches are autonomous entities existing within particular boundaries, usually confined to a single nation. As the covenant seeks to create an international Church structure with real power it is claimed that this would be an abandonment of such an understanding of what an Anglican Church is.
But where does such an idea come from? Why are Anglican Churches confined, more or less, to national boundaries? And relatedly, why can only one Anglican Church exist within any such established boundaries? At the heart of these is the question, where does the locus of authority lie within Anglicanism? And, must it always be so?
At the heart of Anglicanism is episcopy. Historically, this arose out of the long habits of Church established prior to the Reformation. It would seem that Henry VIII’s desire to secure a male heir through the instrument of a new wife was the source of the Church in England’s split from the Roman hierarchy rather than any real reforming zeal on Henry’s part. It should be remembered that the Pope had granted Henry the title “Defender of the Faith” because of his defense of the Papacy in the book Assertio Septum Sacramentorum that sought to dispute the agitations of Martin Luther.
In the words of Philip Thomas’ essay in The Study of Anglicanism, the reforms of the Church in England that led to the formation of the Church of England were done within a three-part set of convictions; these were:
First there was the belief that the Church of England had a continuous history reaching back to Augustine of Canterbury and beyond.
Second, it was held that the life of the Church must be drawn into renewed conformity with the teaching of the Bible, and that this could be done without breaking the continuity of faith and history to which it was heir.
Third, while abuses were to be corrected, things of value were to be retained and therefore ceremonies and ideas which were not explicitly contradicted by scripture were simply left open to the continuing evaluation of the Christian community
Evidence of these can be seen in the Parliamentary Acts that formally endorsed the division of the Church of England from the Roman hierarchy. In the 1534 Act of Supremacy, Parliament declared that the Bishop of Rome had no more authority in England than any other foreign Bishop and declared the king to be the “only supreme head in earth of the Church of England.” Even earlier, in the Ecclesiatical Licenses Act of 1533, Parliament added this disclaimer to the Act that essentially prevented the payment of tithes to the Roman Church, that:
Provided always that [neither] this act nor any thing or things therein contained shall be hereafter interpreted or expounded that your grace, your nobles, and subjects, intend by the same to decline or vary from the congregation of Christ's Church in any things concerning the very articles of the catholic faith of Christendom (25 Henry VIII, c.21)
That Bishops were part and parcel of the received tradition of Church life is undisputed and certainly one of the things of value to be retained. However, that does not mean that episcopy went unexamined or that the nature of episcopy was not a concern for the early Anglican divines. In the wake of the Elizabethan Settlement, Richard Hooker, in his book The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity, noted about the office of Bishop that;
A Bishop is a minister of God, unto whom with permanent continuance there is given not only power of administering the Word and Sacraments, which power other Presbyter have; but also a further power to ordain ecclesiastical persons, and a power of chiefty in government over Presbyters as well as Laymen (Book VII, ch. 3)
In Hooker’s formulation we see a retreat from the idea of the Bishop as prince of the Church whose primary function is to be a member of the councils of state, but rather that the Bishop’s primary function is pastoral. Essentially, the Bishop is a presbyter who has some extra responsibilities.
But even Hooker believes that the office of Bishop and the inherent authority of such office to commission ministers and regulate the teaching of the faith derives from the Apostolic ministry of the disciples called personally by Jesus.
For in process of time the Apostles gave Episcopal authority, and that to continue always with them which had it…
The Apostles therefore were the first which had such authority, and all others who have it after them in orderly sort are their lawful successors (Book VII, ch. 4)
Episcopy, even under the Calvinist Church of Edward VI, seemed a given. But as the Reformation played out through the sixteenth and into the seventeenth century, it came increasingly under assault and was most in danger as the demands of Puritan reformers escalated. James I was famously known to have remarked “No Bishops, No King” when such Reformers pushed for a Presbyterian structure for the Church. And as tensions continued to grow between the Established Church and the Puritan Reformers, James insight was proven correct as Both ArchBishop Laud and King Charles I were executed in the convulsions of the English Civil War. However, as it turns out, the Protectorate under Cromwell did not usher in a period of peace and prosperity and many in England were dissatisfied with the experiment in Republican government. The return of the monarchy with the ascent of Charles II to the throne also signaled the return of episcopy.
I have shown that the office of Bishop was a continuance of the structure of the Church from the Medieval Church through to the Reformation Church, and despite one short period when it was officially outlawed, it has remained close to the heart of the Anglican ethos. But what was the scope of authority of the Bishop? Traditionally, Bishops have held sway over particular geographical areas. That this structure evolved from the organization of the Roman Empire in which the Church first arose is undisputed and beyond the scope of this paper.
However, if the authority of the Bishop is derived from that of the Apostles then there is a tension because the Apostles authority was not necessarily geographically limited. Again, Hooker speaks of this in his Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity;
Now even as pastors, so likewise Bishops being principal pastors, are either at large or else with restraint: at large when the subject of their regiment is indefinite, and not tied to any certain place; Bishops with restraint are those whose regiment over the Church is contained within some definite local compass, beyond which compass their jurisdiction reacheth not
What Hooker seems to be saying is that while Bishops have a role in the governance of the whole Church, their specific authority can be limited. In the Church of England, the limits of that authority were determined by the power of the Crown (and by extension, Parliament). This is most clearly stated in the Ordination ceremony of a Bishop as found in even the earliest Prayer Book;
And then the Kynges mandate to the Archebisshoppe for the consecracion shalbe read. And the othe touching the knowledging of the kinges supremacie, shalbe ministred to the person elected, as it is set oute in the Order of Deacons. And then shalbe ministred also, the othe of due obedience unto the Archebisshoppe, as foloweth. (BCP 1549)
And despite the travails of the Puritan challenge to Episcopal governance that animated much religious discussion of the seventeenth century, the basic idea of the office of Bishop, especially the idea that the office of Bishop is subordinate to the Crown continued in the revision of 1662 that was created in the wake of the Restoration;
Then shall the ArchBishop demand the King’s (Queen's) Mandate for the Consecration, and cause it to be read. And then shall be ministered unto them the Oath of due obedience to the ArchBishop, as followeth,(BCP 1662)
A central concern of the Reformation was the need for the laity to participate fully in the religious life themselves. In some ways, the structure of the medieval Church created a system where the role of the laity was to support those who were religious on their behalf. Monastics took on the diaconal role of service, presbyters carried out the prayers and mediated with God through the sacraments, and Bishops served to maintain the governance of the system and represented the Church to civil administrators.
In the Reformation, these roles were altered so that the Church’s role became teacher and pastor for the laity, guiding them into the holy life previously limited to clerics. As Jewel noted in his Apology of the Church of England;
we believe that there be divers degrees of ministers in the Church; whereof some be deacons, some priests, some Bishops; to whom is committed the office to instruct the people, and the whole charge and setting forth of religion.
The Reformers, however, needed a bulwark of power to enable them to stand against the Roman hierarchy. In all cases, the Reformers turned to sympathetic civil rulers who, like the Church, were seen as holding their authority by God’s grace. This was true in England as can be seen in the reforms and counter-reforms of the Reformation era from Henry VIII through the Glorious Revolution.
The close alliance between Church and Crown then was an important and central aspect of the Church of England, having survived the interregnum of the Republic and Protectorate. Thomas Cranmer, even as the flames were about to be put to his martyr’s pyre had this admonition:
The second exhortation is, that next unto God, you obey your king and queen, willingly and gladly, without murmur and grudging. And not for fear of them only, but much more for the fear of God: Knowing, that they be God's ministers, appointed by God to rule and govern you. And therefore whoso resisteth them, resisteth God's ordinance.
But the consequence of this is that the authority of the Church became bound to the Authority of the Crown, meaning that though the Church might claim catholicity, it in fact was limited, or as Hooker put it, restrained. An episcopal Anglican Church was thus bounded by the extent of English royal power, and more importantly to willingness to be bound by fealty to the English Crown.
Thus the Reformation had the effect of implanting the notion that Church and State were inextricably bound, and this can be seen throughout Protestant Europe where each state created and established a Church to serve the religiosity of its citizens. Thus, the inheritance of the Reformation is that its progeny have a tendency to regard themselves as the “true Church” for a particular nation.
Historically we can see the results of this in the case of the Non-Jurors who refused to swear loyalty to the joint monarchy of Mary and William as well as in the (ineffective) efforts of the Church of Ireland to undermine Roman Catholicism and in the struggles of the Episcopal Church of Scotland, which was long regarded as the “English Kirk.” This linking of Crown and Church became an important issue as the English Church followed English traders and settlers around the globe to the far-flung colonial territories acquired by England, and later Great Britain in the seventeenth through nineteenth centuries.
In the wake of the American Revolution, the Anglican Church, which had been on the cusp of denominational dominance, nearly ceased to exist. The most distinguishing aspect of Colonial American Anglicanism was surely the lack of Bishops. All of America, in fact all of the Empire was nominally under the supervision of the Bishop of London. Anyone seeking to be ordained needed to go to England, which was a hazardous enterprise as one of every five men who set off to be ordained were lost at sea.
What this meant is that parishes exercised far greater control over their communal lives than did those back in England, and many were not served regularly by a priest. And of what few priests there were, the vast majority abandoned their offices as the Revolution spread because they could not, in good conscience, go against their ordination vows that bound them to the English Crown.
Those who wished to continue in the worship traditions of the Church of England were at a loss as to how to continue. William White, the rector of Christ Church, Philadelphia was an early leader in attempts to reconstitute the Church. He wrote an important tract entitled The Case of the Episcopal Churches in the United States Considered. In it he laid out a potential governance structure that, though it assumed a role for Bishops, relied on democratic governance by the laity and clergy combined.
White’s essential point was that without the Crown, the Church was reduced to a voluntary association, and that without the ability to consecrate Bishops, at least in the short term, the Church should establish structures that would foster “union and good government.” However, White’s vision was not alone in perceiving how a disestablished Anglican Church might be structured. Samuel Seabury of New York believed that, rather than a voluntary association, the Church was established by Christ through the agency of the Apostles. Thus, the role of Bishop was essential to the ordering of the Church and for the maintenance of fidelity to the Apostles and the earthly ministry of Jesus.
The Protestant Episcopal Church was organized along the lines of White’s vision, but later amended to the satisfaction of Seabury and his party by adding a separate House of Bishops alongside the House of Deputies, thus preserving the dignity and necessity of the office of Bishop. But it was not just in America that the concerns of the link between Church and Crown were to cause problems. As English colonies grew, local Anglican Churches also grew, and learning from the mistake of not providing Bishops to the American colonies, the Crown began to appoint Bishops to these colonial Churches.
But this did not turn out to be a long lasting solution, because as the colonies began to get responsible government, they also acquired partisan residents, some of whom did not like the Crown and Church of England being integrated so closely in their religiosity. The issue came to ahead in the faraway south African colonies in a dispute between Archbishop Gray and Bishop Colenso that was taken all the way to the Privy Council. In the case of Gray-vs-Long, in 1861, the Privy Council ruled that the Church of England’s authority went no further than the boundaries of England.
As we see in these cases, the primary appeal within Anglican Churches has been to follow in the footsteps of the “mother Church” towards addressing national concerns first and foremost. In all of the early colonial Churches, such as the United States, Canada, South Africa, Australia and New Zealand, as well as in the unestablished Scottish Episcopal Church governance by Synods was established that included the voices of laity and clergy as well as bishops. This too was the form in England where the role of the Crown in Church governance was effectively appropriated by Parliament. I would suggest that, just as in Parliament, the clergy and laity in Synod would naturally turn almost their exclusive attention towards being “the Church” only within their own national spheres.
In the United States, throughout the nineteenth century, the Episcopal Church developed several unrealized schemes to unite all Protestants under the leadership of the Episcopal Church. The first of these were the proposals of William Augustus Muhlenberg, submitted as a petition to the General Convention of 1853. This petition urged greater variety of worship styles in order to appeal to “the low classes of our population” as well as the recruitment of clergy from other denominations who would be ordained by Episcopal Bishops but who would be relieved of some canonical requirements. Despite support from the House of Bishops, this proposal was soundly defeated by the House of Deputies.
The next most prominent was a plan put forth by William Reed Huntington, elaborated in two major works; Church-Idea: An Essay Towards Unity and A National Church. Huntington believed that the Episcopal Church was uniquely suited to be the National Church, in part because “The Church of the Anglo-Saxon…[was] a plant of hardy growth, … true as steel”. Huntington’s proposals are the Basis of the Chicago/Lambeth Quadrilateral and the inspiration for the building of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C.
In both of these proposals, rather than truly looking for ways to bridge differences and affect Christian unity and catholicity, the Episcopal Church was essentially inviting other Christians to shut down their own churches and join the Episcopal Church.
Arising at the same time though was a desire amongst the bishops to forge and maintain closer ties internationally. At the initiation of Provincial Synod of the Canadian Church in 1865, Archbishop Longley of Canterbury invited 150 bishops from British colonial Churches and the United States to attend a conference at Lambeth Palace in London. He made it clear though that this meeting would not be for the purpose of enacting canons or making binding decisions.
As well, the Oxford Movement and the Anglo-Catholic impulse attempted to provide a counter to the narrow provincial concerns of the various national Churches within Anglicanism. In response to British government plans to reorganize the Church of Ireland, John Henry Newman and others wrote the Tracts for the Times. In the first Tract, Newman wrote;
Should the Government and Country so far forget their GOD as to cast off the Church, to deprive it of its temporal honours and substance, on what will you rest the claim of respect and attention which you make upon your flocks?
Newman and the Anglo-Catholics that would follow were not arguing for a particular ritual piety but rather for an understanding of the Church that transcended the provincial concerns of the national Church. And, relatedly, reminding their readers that the Church, as Samuel Seabury had said in the arguments around the founding of the Episcopal Church of the United States, that Church is the Body of Christ that rests upon the earthly authority of the Apostles given them by Jesus.
Returning to the questions at the beginning of this essay, ‘why is the Covenant un-Anglican?’, we see that from its earliest incarnation in the Reformation, that the English religious impulse was essentially nationalistic, seeing the primary basis of their religious structures not in the full compass of Western catholicity, but in the provincial religious history of their own Island. Further, we see that in the English desire to conjoin the Nation and the Church they institutionalized structures whose very basis was limited to the national boundaries. These political and ecclesiastical ideas have been handed down to the inheritor states of the British Empire and their inheritor Churches as well.
In the same way that no American would tolerate multiple national governments (after all, “For the Union” was the rallying cry of the American Civil War) we seem unwilling to tolerate a non-national church. The long history of American anti-Catholic bias also bears this out, where as recently as 1960, John F. Kennedy had to answer concerns that the Pope would be telling him how to govern the United States. The corollary of this, and also arising out of the historical English experience, is a desire to see episcopy as the valid and true type of Church structure and a tendency to see the ‘episcopal’ Church as best suited to unite a fractured Christianity to conform the civil to the ecclesial society.
At the same time, the Church has been regularly reminded of its Apostolic Foundation and that it is meant to transcend worldly political and civil identities. Thus these two tension reverberate throughout the history of the Anglican experience. They are once again operative in the debate over the Anglican Covenant. Anglicanism, at its best, has sought to walk a dual path of being the Church, catholic and apostolic and being the church in a particular place and time. The fear of the Covenant of those who oppose it is that it will be a tool of dominance that favors the centralizing tendencies of being catholic. The fear of those in favor is the dissolving of unity inherent in following only our own provincial lights without regard to consequences of those to whom we are in deepest relationship.
For my part, I do not believe that the Covenant is un-Anglican as its motives are clearly within the trajectory of those who have supported the catholicity of the Church. At the same time it is an innovation and the question remains as to whether it is really needed. This particular covenant seems to overlook the long Anglican tradition of heeding the Spirit as voiced through the laity, whether through Parliament or Synod.
However, I do believe that a lessening of the nationalistic impulse within Anglicanism would be for the better. It is one thing for the whole of the Church in a particular place and time to have voice, it is quite another to suggest that any such body has the sole right to speak for the Anglican impulse within any man-made boundaries. Catholicity and locational specificity need not be enemies.