Thursday, August 6, 2015

Foundations of the Anglican Church CXX

King's Chapel, Boston MA

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 deposing James II and offering the Crown to his daughter and son-in-law, William and Mary, marks an immensely critical shift in the British Constitution, and co-incidentaly in the Church of England.  Going back to Anglo-Saxon days, the Crown of England had always been seen—in theory—as “elective,” but the consistent practice of male-primogeniture had obscured the elective element of English Kingship and the theories of “Divine Right of Kingship” advanced during the Tudor/Stuart dynasties created a real moral dilemma for the Bishops of the Church of England at Parliament’s deposing James and inviting William and Mary to take the throne.  There had been dynastic shifts before, of course, such as when Henry VII seized the Throne after defeating Richard III, but the process had not been as blatantly parliamentary as the 1688 coup.  Henry VIII’s having Parliament ratify the Act of Succession granting the Throne to his son, Edward, and then—should Edward die without issue—to his daughters who were seen as illegitimate (his marriages to their mothers having been annulled) rather than to the next legitimate heir is another trace of the Crown being constitutionally elective (remember, the British Constitution is unwritten and subsists in the tradition rather than in a document), but even though it was by act of Parliament, the Crown was passing from father to children and male primogeniture sequence.  So following the 1688 coup, the bishops, in having to make a choice as to whether or not swear allegiance to the new monarchs, were on some pretty untested ice.  The Archbishop of Canterbury and the other eight bishops who refused to take the oath all subscribed to the theory that the King ruled not at the invitation and consent of Parliament but by Divine Right.  A cynic would suppose—and there is probably some truth to it, that the remaining bishops who did take the oath did so for the sake of political convenience—so that they could keep their jobs. To give them some moral credit, however, they also were concerned about the survival of their Protestant faith and preferred the Protestant William and Mary to the Catholic James—who had shown himself somewhat antagonistic to the Established Church.  But they—and others who favored the new monarchy—also perceived a wider reality.  They recognized that the Crown is not personal, that is that there is a difference between the Crown—the institution of kingship—and the individual who wears it.   An oath of loyalty to the King is not a pledge to an individual but to the institution he—or even more precisely—his crown, represents: the rule of Law in the nation. 
I bring this up because I think we religious people are often literalists who cannot see beyond the literal face of our symbols to the realties they represent.  Religious people are inclined to imprison themselves in thinking inside the box rather than apprehending the broader and more profound perspectives.  I think we are seeing this sort of blindness today in those who struggle with Pope Francis and his new vision for the Church.  They can’t move from a Church of power, a religious institution, a “we have always done it this way” (even when we haven’t), into the sorts of possibilities that Francis is presenting for the Church to grow into to better serve the world and the spiritual needs of its people.  For some the Church subsists in its traditional liturgy—or even its pomp—and its canon law.  When a Pope comes with a vision of how to make the Church’s mission to proclaim the Kingdom of God in a post-modern world, they see this as a departure from Tradition rather than the preservation of what has always been at the heart of the Tradition. 
In any event, as the High Church party among the bishops represented this stuck-in-the-past model of Church and Crown and thus supported James and (what was perceived to be) traditional kingship, under William and Mary there was a favoring of Whig government both in Parliament and in the Church. The Whigs believed in a dynamic approach to the English Constitution, not a static and preservationist approach.  Whigs were optimists who saw change as a positive factor permitting institutions to evolve into ever better forms. Whig bishops were particularly important to the government as the bishops sat in the House of Lords, which in the 18th century, was still the more powerful House of Parliament.  When Queen Anne came to the Throne, she favored the Tories but found that she too needed the Whigs to govern.  England was rapidly evolving from its old aristocratic/oligarchic monopoly on power to what was becoming a bourgeois democratic constitutional monarchy and there was no reversing the trend.  The economic vitality of the expanding British Empire was creating a new social class with the merchant and industrialist forces making their political power felt and the new rich were Whigs.  When upon Anne’s death the Hanoverians Georges (I, II, and III) reigned, the Whigs found themselves more often than not in power and the candidates put forward to the various episcopal sees tended to represent their social and political agenda.  Whigs tended to be Latitudinarian (Tories were High Church) in theology and Church polity.  This made for some pretty mediocre leadership in the Church of England in the 18th century. 
Many of the Latitudinarian bishops of the late 17th and early 18th centuries sought to re-integrate the Dissenters (Presbyterians, Congregationalists, Baptists) into the Church of England and consequently were both soft on enforcing the official liturgy and did not see the importance of the doctrines that made the Church of England a via media between Protestantism and Catholicism.  Gone was the intellectual and spiritual vitality of the Caroline Divines.  The Church of England acquired the reputation for doctrinal vagueness that persists even today when there is no consistency of doctrine among Anglicans on such questions as the nature of the Eucharistic Presence, the nature of the ordained ministry, or even what constitutes the Church. In the 18th century even Unitarianism was condoned in Anglican circles leaving closet Arians secreted among clergy and laity alike, our American George Washington apparently being one.  Another example is King’s Chapel in Boston, an Anglican church founded in 1686 and whose minister, James Freeman, and congregation adopted Unitarianism in 1785.   Although the historic creeds have continued to be used in the Anglican liturgy they are often more formulaic than actually reflecting the faith of the Church’s members.  This spills over too into moral issues where often precise theological methodology has been trumped by a rather superficial liberalism and feeling of good will that has not asked some of the hard questions that need to be part of the theological critique regarding issues such as abortion, human sexuality, and Christian marriage.  And much like the situation at the time of the Glorious Revolution, Anglicanism is threatening to come apart at the seams because of a theological latitude that is more an indifference or at least an unwillingness to face hard issues rather than to sit down and hammer out a consistent theological framework rooted in tradition but able to respond to the contemporary world.  Other than N.T. Wright and Rowan Williams (and with no disrespect to the late John Macquarrie and J.A.T. Robinson), these days Anglican theologians are rare birds and you have buffoons like John Shelby Spong being sported as the intellectual du jour. Well, my biases are showing and I had better get back to the 18th century. 
One example of Whigish episcopal mediocrity in the Established Church was Thomas Tenison who, as Rector of the prominent London parish, Saint Martin in the Fields had preached the funeral sermon for Nell Gwynn in 1687.  Gwynn, an actress whose life had been marked by numerous sexual liaisons as she climbed her way up from the gutter (not just a figure of speech: her mother, drunk, had drowned in a gutter) to the palace, was the somewhat notorious mistress of Charles II by whom she bore two children.  Tenison pretended in his sermon that “pretty, witty Nell” (so termed by Samuel Pepys) had repented of her somewhat sordid life, a claim that was widely scoffed at by contemporaries.  Gwynn was a famously witty person and not one to take herself seriously.  Once, when her coachman attacked a man for calling Nell “a whore,” she broke up the fight insisting: “I am a whore; find something else to fight about.”  But courtesan though she was, she had been courtesan to a King and so Tenison was rewarded for his pastoral sensitivity to the King’s “Protestant whore” (to distinguish her from the King’s “Catholic whore,” the Duchess of Portsmouth), by being made Bishop of Lincoln and eventually Archbishop of Canterbury.  Today I think we would commend the generosity of a clergyman who conducted so public a funeral for a person of such shady repute: after all, prostitutes and tax collectors are entering the Kingdom of God before most of us more reputable Pharisees.  In the 18th century though it would have been thought more proper for the duty to bury such a sinner to be delegated to a more obscure clergyman than the Rector of Saint Martin in the Fields.  


  1. One aspect of James II's reign that I think we Catholics have sadly neglected is the extent to which the Whigs identified James's Catholicism with the royal absolutism of James's first cousin Louis XIV. I think for the Whigs, James II's Catholicism, his commitment to the divine right of kings, and his disdain for parliamentary government were part of a single whole they opposed. Like the brothers of Louis XVI, James II appeared to have forgotten nothing and learned nothing from Charles I's disdain for governing with Parliament, the Civil War, Charles I's execution, and his life in exile.

  2. I am glad you highlighted this. Yes, the Whigs were strong on Parliamentary Rule and saw Catholicism and its theological justification for royal absolutism as a threat to the developing English Constitution.