Sunday, December 09, 2012

Established but not National

Curious the way things develop!

The Church of England came about during the Reformation as a Protestant Church keeping its Catholic shape. That seems about the best way to describe it. It is a wonderful period to study from the time of Henry VIII and his divorce, in my view one that he was theoretically entitled to, but with the Pope surrounded by armed forces loyal to his wife's family, he was not very likely to get it. Then there came Edward, a severely Protestant youth who would be thoroughly at home with our present conservative evangelicals. After him the pendulum tipped the other way with a Spanish King married to our English Queen Mary. The catholics were put back in the ascendancy. After her there was her sister, Elizabeth 1, "Gloriana", a Protestant pragmatist, well versed in Scripture and theology. As she tried to square the quarrelling adherents of a variety of theologies, the Pope cheerfully made it plain that it would be OK to assassinate her. What that did for the Catholic minority proved bloody, and unhelpful to put it mildly - centuries of persecution and revilement from the Protestants.

From time to time the problems abated, generally due to royal marriages and whatever religious persuasion happened to be accepted at court. Overall however the idea of a national Church was not, to my mind, ever contemplated except in the form  of a Church Established in Law and effectually defined by the religious preference of the monarch. There is a thread in the Church of England which has remained throughout its history from the Reformation on - it is established as the church of the monarch. In early days, Henry through to Charles II, perhaps it was wise and certainly safer to accept that.  Warring minorities in religious terms have been the metier of the Church in England throughout  from well before the Reformation.

Have we learned? Have we changed? Not much, I fear, but the idea of an Established Church which reflects "best practice" in religious matters has its appeal and would stem directly from the distinction between a National Church and an Established Church.

Of course I have simplified and jumped a whole lot of history which many might feel contradicted the above analysis. However, I would plead that to so contradict it would be to look only at selected detail rather than the overall sweep of things. As it is said, "The Devil in is in the details." Today that is merely to admit that God is probably at work in the overall processes at work around those details.

In Parliament there was a great deal of confusion over the nature of the Church of England in that many regarded establishment as equivalent to some sort of ancient nationalisation. Maybe in the past that was so. Now the role has changed. Instead the Church finds itself prolix in the statements, attitudes and beliefs of its members, and at odds with the secularised society within which it functions.

Not a bad thing, I suspect. In a free society it is a benefit that the government of the day has to hand its critics. In our country this function is met by the Law, the Press, and by having an Established Church, all separate in practice from the executive mechanics of government.

I would suggest that if the Church of England fails to provide an appropriate ministry for a minority of between a quarter and a third, then it cannot give proper comment as the Established Church on the plight of any minority at all. In other words our future bishops, male and female would be presiding over a church that had become merely a sect within society.

The oddest circumstance is, that despite the welcome ministry of so many women in our church today the number still opposed, mainly and firmly evangelical or catholic in background, has remained so high. Events in a Christian Union in the West Country remind us that it is not a conservative and elderly section that feel that way.

Even if the estimated percentage of 25 - 31% were proved untrue, and the opposition were only "a tiny minority", the stricture over failing to accommodate them within the structures of the church would remain. Surely, we should be looking towards remaining a "multi-faceted church for a multi-faceted society"?

I hope that it not too much to ask. It appears that only a slight movement of generosity on either side of the argument is needed. I hope that we can be astute enough to see that this shift takes place.