As I have maintained in previous entries on this subject the identity of the Anglican Church is very complex and it is completely untrue to claim that it was established by Henry VIII. Historically the Church of England has always had an unique identity and while it was historically “in communion” with the Bishop and Church of Rome from antiquity until Henry VIII fractured those bonds in the sixteenth century, it had its own traditions, liturgies, and canons which were quite independent of the continental and Roman practices.
We had left off with the story of Thomas Becket and his murder by four knights of the court of King Henry II. Becket was fighting to maintain the independence of the Church from the Crown which, in turn, was trying to establish its authority to deal with criminal behavior of the clergy and to limit (note, limit not eliminate) the Church’s right to appeal over royal authority to the Pope. Becket did not die “for the faith” but “for the Church” and, in this particular case I am afraid for insupportable claims of the Church. No one today would argue that the Church should have exclusive rights to try and punish the clergy for criminal activities. Indeed the Catholic Church in the United States has lost valuable ground in the battle with an ever-more secularizing society precisely because some American bishops were trying to bloc justice’s pursuit of errant clergy. If Cardinal George’s dire predictions are to come true we must blame several of his fellow members of the Sacred College for the seemingly irreparable damage done to the Church’s credibility and the squandering of what had been an illustrious record hard earned by the women of the American Church and their two centuries of service to the poor, the immigrant, the sick, and the victimized regardless of religion. But let’s move on and go back to the English story.
Becket went to his grave in 1170 and Henry to his in 1189. Henry’s son, Richard Coeur de Lion (Lion-heart for you mono-linguists [I love being a pompous ass—maybe there is a mitre in my future]) succeeded him and in turn died in 1199. Richard spent very little time in England. His great love were his French possessions—Normandy, Anjou, Maine, the Aquitaine, and who could blame him? The English go to France on holiday; the French do not return the compliment—and there are reasons why, weather and cuisine not being the least of reasons. Richard was a great defender of the Church. He went off on the Third Crusade—as much for the love of a good war as for devotion to the Church. He was, a man’s man who by the way, had a thing for manly men. This is not to say he was gay, he was most likely bi-sexual, or perhaps better, omni-sexual. His unanchored sexuality seems to be one of the reasons for a piety that was both deep and superficial. I say deep as it could be quite extravagant; superficial in as that it never seemed to address the deeper levels of spirituality. His almost continual absence from England for Crusade and French domains was combined with a psycho-spiritual ambivalence as he seems to have had no interest in pursuing his father’s attempt to establish clear constitutional authority over the Church and its clergy. When Richard died, however, the throne went to his younger—and only surviving—brother, John. Henry II had been one of the greatest kings to sit on the Lion Throne; Richard was one of the greatest men to do so; John was a failure in both departments. And not only a failure, but an abysmal shadow of what a man, much less a king, is called to be.
In 1205, Hubert Walter, Archbishop of Canterbury, died. King John instructed the monks of Canterbury to elect the Bishop of Norwich, John de Gray, as Walter’s successor. (Remember, at this time Bishops were elected by their cathedral chapters, not appointed by Rome, though both Rome and various kings or nobles instructed the cathedral chapters on whom they wished to have elected.) The monks of Canterbury Cathedral, however, had their own candidate—their subprior, Reginald. In defiance of the King they elected Reginald. This shows how weak John was that a bunch of monks would defy him on a crucial issue such as who is to be the spiritual leader of the country. Meanwhile the suffragen bishops of the Province of Canterbury got into the act claiming—without any precedence—that they had a right to elect the Archbishop. They probably would have chosen the King’s candidate as they themselves owed their appointments to crown nomination. The monks, sly as monks are, had secretly sent a delegation to Rome for papal confirmation of Reginald. The bishops discovering this, sent their own delegation. So the matter ended up before Pope Innocent III. Innocent was as strong a pope as John was weak a king. And to make a point of papal power, Innocent appointed his own candidate, Stephen Langton, an English cardinal living in Rome.
John was furious. He saw Langton as an agent of his enemy, Philip Augustus of France. Langton had lived and taught at Paris before Innocent had brought him to Rome in 1203 and had ties to the French court. John refused to let Langton to enter England. Moreover, he seized the lands and revenue of the Archbishop of Canterbury for the royal treasury. The Pope, after an attempt at reconciliation, lost patience and put England under interdict, forbidding any and all religious services except baptism of children and absolution of the dying.
Now interdict was a serious matter in those days. You want to get married? Sorry, no can do. Granma can’t have a funeral or even be buried in consecrated ground. Sunday Mass?—no. Daily Mass? no. Holy Communion? no. confession? Only if you are dying. This is for everyone, the whole country. People begin to fear for their souls. They were getting restless. The clergy blamed the king. The people didn’t like the king anyway. He isn’t like his brother, Richard. John is taxing them too much. He is no warrior. He’s a bully.
John, for his part, turned against the clergy who were enforcing the interdict. He put them in jail. He confiscated the lands that support them. This wasn’t helpful to his cause. People may hate the Church but they usually like their priest. They know him and he knows them. When the priest grumbles about the King, it doesn’t help the King’s popularity. In 1209 the Pope played his next higher card and excommunicated the King but it was not as effective a move as he had hoped. John had no worries for his immortal soul—he was never one to think far in advance. Moreover, he was no more worried about the salvation of his soul than he had worried about the interdicted souls of his subjects. From his blasphemous humor and casual disregard for the things of religion, it seems that John may have considered the whole God thing something for lesser intellects than his, not that there were many minds more obtuse but such is the conceit of minds to shallow to apprise the abstract passions that burn within the human heart. Both Pope and King dug in their heels. But then Philip Augustus got into the act and began to plan an invasion of England to trounce the excommunicate King of England. This did make John nervous. Philip was a great warrior; John was not and had already lost Normandy and Anjou to the French King in 1204. The last thing John needed was for Innocent to sanction a crusade against England. So in 1213 John blinked first. In making peace with Innocent, John had to cede his kingdom to the Pope and receive it back as a papal fief. This meant that John recognized the Pope as his overlord not only in spiritual matters but temporal as well. The Pope was sovereign in England and the King was but his governor, a papal viceroy. While this was symbolic and had no practical effect on the day to day governing of the kingdom, in the medieval world symbol was everything and it gave the Papacy tremendous moral advantage over the English Crown. Perhaps the most serious outfall of John’s surrender is that it showed the barons of England how weak John was. They in turn challenged the Crown and confronted John in 1215 with a list of demands that severely limited royal authority, the Magna Carta. Innocent, as overlord, annulled the charter but it stood and has stood for both English and Americans as a foothold of democracy against arbitrary and unilateral authority.