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The Church of England and its 'head.'

In the arguments over the future of the Monarchy which have raged over the last year or two - since the Prince of Wales and his wife announced that they had separated, and later that they were to divorce - one of the recurrent themes has been the question whether the Prince could in the fullness of time become 'Head' of the Church of England, having so obviously fallen short of that Church's teaching on the meaning of marriage. It may therefore be useful to examine what the Monarch's position in the Church really is. This has to be considered historically; the Church of England took up its position vis-a-vis the State in the sixteenth century, and what was settled then remains the position now.

What, in fact, was settled? Through the sonorous language of the Acts and the Articles, and through their concentration on judicial process, one can see a pendulum in motion. It was started to swing by Henry, pushed hard under Edward, harshly reversed under Mary, and brought to a trembling halt by the good judgement of Elizabeth. It was all done in Parliament. The constitution of England was, as the constitution of the United Kingdom is now, perfectly clear and capable of being expressed in six words: the Crown in Parliament is absolute. When King, Lords and Commons are of one mind, they can do exactly what they like. In the reign of Henry VIII the winning of the initiative by the House of Commons was still two generations away. Historians sometimes describe Tudor Parliaments as being servile; this understates the flow of loyalty, amounting almost to adoration, which wrapped round Henry and his second daughter, Elizabeth. The young Henry was a golden, almost god-like figure, physically splendid (the suit of armour made for him as a young man, now in the Royal Armoury, shows this to perfection), jovial, well-educated (he was a second son, and there had been some idea of putting him into the Church) and in every way a vast improvement on any King even the oldest could remember. The obese, sick, dangerous tyrant of his last years was a long way in the future. So if the King, for reasons of his own, wanted reform of the Church, his loving Parliament - the Reformation Parliament - cried 'And about time, too!' and set about doing what he wanted with vigour.

There is a great dispute among historians at this point. Some say the religion of England was vigorous, and irresponsible reformers, borrowing ideas from Germany, wrecked something valuable and beautiful. Others say that the English had been fed up with clerical abuses for at least two generations and welcomed the opportunity for reform. Perhaps a clue lies elsewhere. Although no Western state had a bureaucracy, there was one running in Western Europe: the Roman Curia, the Western world's first modern civil service (China, of course, had had mandarins for centuries). Every bureaucracy follows two laws (I write as a lifelong civil servant). The first is that it seeks work to do, because it is aware of its own ability to do it. The second is that it seeks means to maintain itself, because the labourer is worthy of his hire. The reference of cases to Rome was onerous; and the financial burdens of the Papacy seemed to be growing. It was estimated in the early years of the sixteenth century that the revenue of 'two English counties' went out of the country as First-Fruits, Annates and Peter's Pence, plus the Roman custom of paying Curial clerics by appointing them to English livings which they never visited; that would be about 4 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product - incidentally, much the same as we pay to the European Community today, giving rise to much the same resentment.

It is the business of an historian to be interested in things that do not happen, as well as in those that do, when all the pointers indicate that something was likely. There was much expectation that the King of France, Francis I, would go the same way as Henry. He had the same grievance against the Papacy, that it was too much under the thumb of the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V. But there was not the same trigger mechanism; Francis was not seeking an annulment of his marriage. Henry craved the respectability which would make his expected heir legitimate; Anne Boleyn was pregnant, and there was no provision in English law to legitimise a child by the subsequent marriage of its parents. And sexual respectability was never an interest of King Francis.

The English Reformation was intellectual, emotional and financial, and the precise mix cannot now be known; but it is significant that the Reformation Parliament turned its attention first to Annates and First-Fruits and Tenths (financial) and Appeals (judicial and financial), and only then got round to creating a structure to replace what it had just destroyed. In 1534 came the Act of Supremacy; more than just an ornamental coping-stone on what had been done, it declared that 'the King our Sovereign Lord...shall be taken, accepted and reputed the only Supreme Head in Earth of the Church of England.' Henry filled this out in the Six Articles of 1539, which he intended as a definitive statement of faith (neither Papalists nor Protestants liked it, and called it 'the whip with six strings'), which declared him to be Head of 'this whole Church and Congregation of England'. And there, for the rest of Henry's reign, and his son Edward's, the matter rested.

One sombre footnote to Henry's Headship deserves to be recorded. His fifth wife, Katherine Howard, whom he called 'the rose without a thorn', was in fact a pretty, silly, promiscuous girl, who lost her head for it. In her only recorded attempt at discretion, she told one of her lovers, Thomas Culpeper, on no account to say in confession what he and she had done, or 'the King, being Head of the Church, should surely come to hear of it'.

Edward was a sickly boy, and died in his sixteenth year - leaving, as his heirs, his two elder sisters. He, and his ministers, were Protestants, who never saw any absurdity in declaring a tubercular teenager to be Supreme Head of the Church. But he was followed by his elder sister, Mary. She was a more interesting person than popular history has allowed. She was undoubtedly a cruel persecutor of Protestants, but, among other things, she married the young and dashing heir to the throne of Spain, later Philip II, who for two years was King-consort of England. He thought well of her younger sister Elizabeth. For forty years Elizabeth and Philip were to contest Europe between them: it is one of history's ironies that they had known each other, and that Philip was credited with saving Elizabeth from Mary's anger.

Mary regarded her father's Act of Supremacy as, at the least, an indecency, and lost little time in repealing it. She had no difficulty in obtaining from her Parliament a Statute of Repeal - Tudor Parliaments were always obliging (why should we, simple burgesses from Cornwall or Worcestershire, presume to know better than Her Grace, who has spent all her life immersed in these high matters?). That Act says 'that we may as children repentant be received into the bosom and unity of Christ's Church, so as this noble realm with all the members thereof may in this unity and perfect obedience to the See Apostolic and Popes for the time being...'. That was in 1555, twenty-one years after Henry's Act declaring himself head of the Church.

Mary had burnt an Archbishop and three Bishops at the stake, with some hundreds of lesser folk. It was a programme of persecution that the English people were never to forget. But she died sadly, abandoned by her handsome young husband, confusing dropsy - a symptom of her cancer - with pregnancy, and knowing that her next heir would undo much of her work. Elizabeth promptly set about doing just that.

She began at her sister's funeral. The monks of Westminster, showing in their faces some idea of what was coming to them, escorted the coffin. The preacher quoted the old saying 'Melior canis virus, leone mortuo' ('Better a live dog than a dead lion'). He forgot, perhaps, that Elizabeth the Queen, sitting below him, was a learned young lady, who knew exactly what he was saying, and what he meant by it, and promptly had him arrested.

Elizabeth's church settlement endures to this day. She had no wish to 'open windows into men's souls', and was seeking only a decent conformity which would not be unacceptable to Mary's Roman Catholic followers or to Edward's Protestants. She called for a 'Via Media', the Middle Way. But something had to be done about the headship: was the Pope, or was he not, to take cases from England and decide them in the courts of Rome? Within a year of her accession, Elizabeth's Parliament - not a packed Parliament, but fairly representative of the political class - had produced the Act of Supremacy of 1559, and done it, moreover, without even pretending consult the clergy. It starts by denouncing Mary's Act by which 'your humble subjects were eftsoons (ie, for a second time) brought under an usurped foreign power and authority.' It goes on to say that ' by any spiritual or ecclesiastical power or authority hath heretofore been or may lawfully be used for the visitation of the ecclesiastical state and persons...shall forever be united and annexed to the imperial Crown of this realm.' You can't say it more clearly than that. No appeals to Rome; no taxes to be paid to Rome.

But there was a difficulty. Elizabeth was a woman; given St Paul's well-known views on the subject, could a woman be Head of a Church? Probably Elizabeth herself shared these misgivings. Swift footwork by the draftsman of the Act neatly side-stepped the problem. The Act simply sets out an oath (a 'corporal oath', ie, a serious one, to be taken while touching the New Testament) to be taken by archbishops, bishops 'and every other ecclesiastical person' and every 'judge, justicer, mayor and other lay or temporal officer and minister', which simply describes the Queen as 'the only Supreme Governor of this all spiritual or ecclesiastical things or causes (ie, cases) as temporal.' Not Head of the Church; that is left to Jesus. As the Victorian hymn observes, 'The Church's one Foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.' But, on earth, worldly business has got to stop somewhere; and it is going to stop in this realm of England', not go on to Rome. Elizabeth, a woman of wisdom and judgement far beyond her years, was well content.

The Church must have been reeling by this time. Any clergyman of seniority had now gone through Henry's administrative reformation, Edward's Protestant changes, Mary's violent reaction - and now this. The Church pulled itself together, and within three years had produced, in 1562, its most comprehensive statement of what it thought it believed - the 39 Articles. Article 37 sets out its view on the Supremacy question. The fact that it is so late in the list suggests that it was difficult to draft and approached with a good deal of trepidation. Undoubtedly it was seen and approved by the queen, and it speaks volumes for Elizabeth's good sense that she approved it. It is quite short, and mainly negative in tone. Since sensitive souls are worded by the idea of having a lay person, and a woman, at that, in the position, it wants to make clear that the Supreme Governor does not expound (or, by inference, settle) doctrine, or conduct services or administer the sacraments. The men of 1562 had not read Fraser or any other anthropologist; but they knew what a Priest-King was. There had been more than a touch of priestliness about the old monarchies of medieval Europe: the King of England had been the only layman to take communion 'in both kinds', ie, both bread and wine, which only priests did (and the Kings of France were ex-officio Cathedral canons - even today the French President is entitled to a canon's stall at St John Lateran in Rome), and they were not having any of that. All the Supreme Governorship means is that the Church as a body, and the clergy as individuals, are not privileged but like all other estates of the realm are subject to the Queen's authority and may not appeal beyond that.

To make the meaning perfectly clear, the Article observes crisply that 'the Bishop of Rome hath no jurisdiction in this realm of England.' It goes on to deliver a side-swipe at Christian pacifism by saying that 'it is lawful for Christian men, at the command of the magistrates (ie, the Government) to wear weapons and serve in the wars.' I strongly suspect that Elizabeth had that put in, as a trade-off for the negative description of her role in the Church.

The Monarch's position as Supreme Governor of the Church was not, therefore, different in essentials from her position as the supreme authority over, say, doctors, shopkeepers or hairdressers. There was the difference that, whereas not everyone is a doctor, etc., everyone was, or was supposed to be, a member of that universal corporation, Anglicana Ecclesia; it is still the formal position of the Church of England that everyone born in England is member of the Church until they decide to be something else. This is also the Roman Catholic position, but with the difference that everyone is entitled to use, and attend, the Church of England even if they are well-known to be Methodists, agnostics or even Buddhists; other denominations are entirely free to shut out non-subscribers if they wish, whilst the Church of England is not. It is, or course, still the mass provider of 'rites of passage', marking births, marriages and deaths for the great mass of the 'unchurched'.

The Queen does not have to be a doctor to give her authority to the courts which decide disputes concerning doctors; nor does she have to be particularly religious to sit at the top of a pyramid of courts and structures which decides disputes among Christian folk. It would, in fact, be rather alarming if she were; her right to appoint Bishops and Deans - which was also put on to the statute book in the sixteenth century - is far better exercised in the curious nebulous way in which all her practical functions are carried out by others - even if this means that much of the practical power has migrated to Downing Street.

In case I have given the impression that all the aggression of the sixteenth century was on one side, and a matter of the English attacking and throwing off the power of Rome, let me offer two quotations from 'Regnans in Excelsis', the Bull of 1570 (which a bold man nailed to the door of the Bishop of London): 'But the number of the ungodly hath gotten such power that there is now no place in the whole world left which they have not essayed to corrupt with their most wicked doctrines; and among others, Elizabeth, the pretended Queen of England, the servant of wickedness...' 'and we do also deprive the said Elizabeth of her pretended title to the kingdom... and we do command and charge all and every the noblemen, subjects, people and others that they presume not to obey her or her orders.'

These are 'old unhappy, far-off things, and battles long ago'; but they have a resonance even now, when people who ought to know better say that the Prince of Wales is to be Head of the Church (which he will not be) and that he cannot be King because he is in some way disqualified from providing the authority necessary to settle the affairs of an organisation much tied up in the world.

The sixteenth-century formulations I have quoted are all cast in a judicial mode - they say whose courts, King's or Pope's, are to decide the cases that come before them. This is not because people were more litigious then, but because, in the absence of much Government machinery, most of what we now call 'administration' was done in courts of one kind or another. With the development of modem Government, there has been an interesting retreat by the Government from what goes on in courts: we call this 'the separation of powers', and it would have astonished the Tudors. It is a part of the more general retreat from Government management of the Church. We can compare the situation in 1928, when Parliament debated, and did not approve, a rather tame revision of the Book of Common Prayer (but which was published and widely used nonetheless), with the situation in the 1990s when no-one seriously thought that either Parliament or the Government should intervene in the much more serious step of the ordination of women. This was so even though two members of the Government (Ann Widdicombe and John Gummer) were so shocked that they left the Church and became Roman Catholics.

To be frank: no-one outside the Church really cares very much what happens inside it. A mere 3 per cent of the population regularly attend its services. If they were to develop an agreed view about their Supreme Governorship - a very unlikely event - it is difficult to imagine any Government blocking it. Least of all, a Conservative Government: they have long' given up hope of any consistent support from a markedly non-Tory clergy. (Some years ago, the Bishop of Durham was moved to say that the deregulation of bus services, of all things, was 'un-Christian'. This delighted the late Nicholas Ridley, the steely, witty Secretary of State for Transport, who observed: 'I love it when I get across a Bishop in public. They are such high-profile characters, and it's easy to knock them down because they never understand the issues.' So much for the relations between Church and State in our times.) The Church is increasingly governed by its Synod composed of Bishops, Priests and Laity. The general Synod, at least as at present constituted, has far too much good sense to think that its Supreme Governor need be a person of more than conventional virtue.

If the Prince of Wales were to want to re-marry after a divorce, he would have one more legal hurdle to surmount. The Royal Marriages Act of 1772 sets out a procedure a Prince or Princess must follow. Up to age 25, the Sovereign's consent must be obtained. Above that age, the same consent is needed, but with a right of appeal to the Privy Council and the possibility of Parliamentary intervention. If that procedure has not been followed, a marriage is - probably - no marriage in law. When the future George IV married Caroline of Brunswick, it was possible to argue that, for this reason, he was not committing bigamy. Indeed, there was an even stronger reason for hoping that his earlier form of marriage to Mrs Fitzherbert was void: she was a Roman Catholic, and to be married to one raised then a serious question about the Succession itself. It is always unsafe to prophesy about politics, but I venture to say that if some future heir to the Throne were to wish to marry a Roman Catholic lady, the Government of the day would introduce, and pass through all its stages in single day, a two-clause Bill repealing the offensive ban in the Act of Succession.

If Charles is himself King, he can give his own consent; then he has only his Prime Minister to deal with, as Edward VIII discovered to his discomfiture. He was dealing with Stanley Baldwin, who, apart from being Victorian in his upbringing, had taken a strong view that Edward was not the man for the job. Baldwin was as loyal to the Monarchy as an old-style Tory could be, and would never have initiated any step against the King. But when the King seemed determined to dislodge himself, Baldwin did little or nothing to prevent the story unrolling, beyond making absolutely sure that Edward knew what the situation was. He consulted the Dominion Prime Ministers, who were Victorians to a man (this was 1937, and anyone who was head of a government had been born and brought up at least fifty years before - there is a thesis to be written on the influence of time-lag in history), and was able to tell the King, a never-married man, that the Empire wouldn't stomach him marrying an American woman twice divorced.

These are factors that cannot recur. There is no Empire; and it is not possible to imagine the Prime Minister of Australia, who has a legitimate fight to a view on the question while the Crown is still head of the Australian state, taking the same view that was taken in 1937. Everything depends on what the Prime Minister of Britain at the time thinks of the Prince, and whether he can swing behind him the body of opinion that followed Baldwin's lead in 1937.

[George Wedd, C.B., is a former Under-Secretary in the Home Civil Service.]
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Author:Wedd, George
Publication:Contemporary Review
Date:Jul 1, 1996
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