A Lament on the Church of England
The extraordinary flexibility of Anglicanism built upon its history and the character of her priests, past and present.
As is often recalled the Anglican Church was founded on Henry VIII’s break with Rome in the 1530’s and executed by his infamous subaltern Thomas Cromwell. The crucial man was Sir Thomas More, close friend of that King, who would have kept England and Wales Catholic if he could have found a way to be conciliatory to the King, who had defended the Old Faith in an essay in his younger days. With More anything was possible in Henry’s eyes. Without doubt More had to make his stand, for which he paid with his life. Don’t blame it all on Henry nevertheless- a man of More’s stature could have turned the tide and the Pope may have come into line as well. Fisher and More were closely allied, yet More, no cleric, was the lead man of the two (Bishop John Fisher and Sir Thomas More) on account of his close liaison to the King himself. The “King’s matter” was finally settled between Thomas More and his monarch Henry VIII, both laymen. The Anglican Church was born out of that interaction of King Henry and Sir Thomas More in the 1530’s. The Anglicans were children of Catholicism, therefore if the wrong side of the blanket. That is no slur or defacement of Anglicanism. More almost gave his blessing to the Anglican Church. As he said I pray to the Pope first and the King second in so many words. In truth More who had been England’s most senior High Court Judge would never have wished harm on Henry VIII and the Anglican England that sprung up after his death. His Christian charity and humility drove him to submit to the executioner’s axe on Tower Green for the sake of English Christianity in its full extent – Catholic and Anglican. The act of supremacy was less important on my analysis than the personal relations of Henry VIII and Sir Thomas More which were instrumental in More’s stand for the Pope with or without that oath of allegiance to the King as Head of the English Church. He refused to take that oath and so went to his death. By then the die had been cast. That excellent film written by Robert Bolt, with Paul Schofield as Sir Thomas More brings the Henry VIII and More friendship and separation so clearly into the light ( A man for all seasons).
2. Anglicanism Past and Present
The proof is in the pudding. Anglicanism has scaled great heights theologically, pastorally, at home, in a network of parishes and schools; a very distinguished hierarchy over the last 400 years and its own Martyrs burned at the stake: Cranmer and Ridley, under Mary Tudor (Bloody Mary). Finally Anglicanism has been the Christian backbone of our British Empire from 1700-2000. Wherever the British went the Anglican Church followed throughout the globe. Newman was perhaps the greatest product of Anglicanism and his Catholicism always paid homage to the Church of England. So many converts have followed in Newman’s steps and all began as good and strong Anglicans. In the days of More virtually all Catholics were lead in to Anglicanism to conform, as they used to say. Now we have the ordinariate and the wholesale exodus of Anglicans into Catholicism. The process has turned around.
3. A Word of Caution
I would stress the inner strength and Christian warmth of the Anglicans. Also they are a Church militant who fundamentally seek to change the lives of non-believers. If Papal encouragement of conversion goes too far now we have a difficulty as the boundary lines will become blurred. Fraternization was frowned upon by the High Commands in Christmas 1914: World War I on the western front. Of course there is no “war” in that sense between Anglicans and Catholics. In Newman’s day there was verbal strife and arguments each way. This has all gone out the window and Christian church goers are stranded in “no man’s land”. Cardinal Hume said everyone should keep to his own religion. Let the dust settle (and there is a lot of difficulty and upset presently between Anglicanism and Catholicism) and when we can all see with clarity decisions may be made by the faithful and the hierarchies. Presently the “sand” is thrown in our eyes and we are temporarily blinded, Catholic and Anglican. Reunion of the churches is a long shot but accords, understandings and progress on ecumenical matters is possible. Inter-communion is not attainable in my view in truth.
4. Modern Anglicanism
This is constructed on Biblical Scholarship in the modern era, Stuart Divinity, Tudor Anglicanism and living alongside the 19th and 20th Century Catholic Church, particularly in England. Catholicism has welcomed Anglican recruits including some of very high quality e.g. Monsignor Ronnie Knox, Bishop Christopher Butler and Evelyn Waugh esq, (novelist), Bishop Alan Hopes latterly and of course Newman the Cardinal himself. Anglicanism is an outgoing church always looking for new contacts and friends. The Catholics are a little prickly and inward looking in comparison but the English Benedictine Monastic communities are shining examples, to this day of humble charity at work. The Anglican parishes were and are their engine room where so much good pastoral work has been done, visibly and invisibly over the centuries. In the same way their First and Second World War Anglican padres were outstanding priests. The Anglican Church has become so much part of English country life the two have been interwoven. That is a great compliment to the Anglican clergy and their spouses. The celibate Catholic priests cannot blend into the parish life so easily. He has his own solitary prayer life and preparation for Holy Mass and his weekly homily. The Anglican priest makes the preparatory steps assisted by his parishioners, his spouse and family. I would say modern Anglicanism is alive and well in town, university, schools and country side. Anglicanism has a great amount to offer at home and abroad in Africa, Asia and Europe, Australasia and the USA, to name some missions and Anglican churches.
5. The Way Forward
Anglicanism should do what it is good at: “saving souls”. Concentrate on savings its churches and parishes and all her ecclesiastical posts. Above all no one must separate Anglicanism from the Crown. That is her essence and her raison d’etre since the break with Rome in the 1530’s. Anglicanism is the Church of England first and foremost and let no one forget that. Henry VIII had the courage to break the bond with the Pope and all Anglicans should follow his lead as good Anglicans. The Pope has his dominions but his Roman Catholic Church has not ruled England since late Tudor times. That is down to the Anglicans who have kept the flame burning and will go on doing so, “La Reine est le tete de l’eglise Anglais”, make no error.
Clearly the English Christians should collaborate but respect should be the heart of the matter: Respect for the origins, history and diverse modern character of these churches. There must be freedom of expression and movement – no one should be leaned on. At the end of the day we should learn from each other and understand each other. The rest is in the hands of God himself: His Son and the Holy Spirit.
In nomine Patris et Filio et Spiritu Sancto.