Saturday, 5 October 2013

The sect called Anglicanism

When was the Church of England founded? This was a dangerously divisive question back in the 1630s, with daring Laudians favouring the year 597 (Augustine’s mission to Kent, sponsored by the Pope) and stout Puritans insisting on 1559 (the Elizabethan legislation which repudiated the Pope). A case could even be made, sentimentally if not legally, for Henry VIII’s earlier antipapal legislation of 1534. The reason the question mattered, of course, was not chronology but identity: was this a Reformed Protestant church built de novo on the ashes of papistical abominations, or was it the ancient Church of the English, ecclesia Anglicana, whose Reformation was not a clean break with the past?

Both positions remain defensible, but my recent spell working on the mid-17th century has persuaded me of another view. In the modern Church of England, ‘Anglican’ has become a denominational identity, not a geographical description. (Personally, I deplore this, and I am deeply uncomfortable with ‘Anglicanism’ as such; but I am ploughing a lonely furrow on that one.) This is, at the earliest, a 17th-century phenomenon, now entrenched by such deeply sectarian documents as the Chicago-Lambeth Quadrilateral, which effectively turns episcopacy into a shibboleth for true Christianity.

So I’d argue that the real foundation date is 1662, when the Restoration regime decisively turned its back on the idea of a Church of England – that is, of a national Church, designed to comprehend all those English Christians willing to belong to such a body as best it could. ‘The Church of England’ was set on its route to what it is now, an organisational identity and even a brand name, rather than a simple descriptive term. It celebrated this turn by expelling some 2000 ministers who wished to remain within it.

And again, the point is identity, not dates. If the Anglican Church was founded in 1662, what is it? Neither the historic English Church nor the standard-bearer of the Reformation. Instead, it is a sibling of the dozens of other churches rooted in the same period: English Presbyterianism, Congregationalism, many Baptist groups, the Quakers, and other more obscure or shortlived sects.

Of course, that’s not quite the truth. The older roots are still there. So are the wider horizons which the residual aspiration to be (and legal obligation to be) a national Church impose. But I see this struggle underneath most of the CofE’s current squabbles. What will it be? The Church of England? Or the Anglican church, the largest of the Civil-War era sects?


  1. Thank you for this. I'd be interested to know what you feel is the reason for the debate about the founding of the Church of England resolving itself so decisively along Laudian/puritan lines in the 1630s. The lines weren't always so clear-cut, surely? In 1625, for example, we have the puritan William Crompton deriving the definition of the Church of England as ‘Christian-Catholike’ from the expression ‘Christiani Catholici’ in Augustine of Hippo’s _De vera religione_, and insisting that 'Augustine agreed with the Church of England, in all the maine poynts of Faith and Doctrine' (_Saint Avstins Svmmes_, 1625, title page). Admittedly, he had a bit of a run-in with James I about some of his views, but he came out of it pretty well, I think, and there were other puritan divines who, implicitly or explicitly, saw themselves as "ancient apostolic" Catholics during the earlier part of the 17th century. They may not have been so dogmatic as Churchmen on the question of the Church of England deriving its authority from apostolic succession from the times of Augustine of Canterbury on, but a number of them do acknowledge the authority of writers from the medieval and early Christian periods.

    John R. Yamamoto-Wilson
    Discourses of Suffering

  2. I'll go with Athelstan as founder, and 927 (when he was first styled King of the English) as the date.

    Holding with Hooker, that 'When we oppose the Church and the Commonwealth in a Christian society, we mean ... by the Church, [that] society with only reference unto the matter of true religion', I would maintain that what Ethelbert, on Augustine’s advice, founded in 597 by transforming his realm into a Christian society was not the C of E but the Church of Kent; later part of a federation of Saxon churches sharing a metropolitan but whose lasting fusion awaited Athelstan's achievement.

    The legislation of 1533 (or 1534) certainly cast Athelstan's church in a new light, but reforming rather than founding it. Crucially, its most important premises were retrospective. Pretensions of popes and indigenous clergy up to that date were not abolished for the future, but maintained always to have been usurped. That laws binding Englishmen flowed only from agreement of monarch and people, not from alien decrees, was declared a constitutional fact, not newly enacted - though medieval courts had clearly not understood it, and it would not fully sink in to England's judiciary till the 18th century.

    I'm not sure what fresh claim could be made for 1559. Elizabeth’s Act of Supremacy largely restored what Thomas Cromwell had already achieved. Some of it had survived the Marian regime and didn't need restoring.

    Certainly, at various points in time, the C of E became more or less comprehensive, making it easier or harder for a wide spectrum of views to exist within it. It did not, however, expel dissenters. It might hang or burn them, exclude them from ministry, fine them for not attending public worship or imprison them for attending conventicles. But the very fact it continued to expect them to follow its rules suggests it did not regard them as outside the fold. And the Toleration Act of 1689, on which all later toleration built, did not treat it as one church among many, but as THE church, whose dissatisfied members were to be relieved of certain - but not all - obligations and could form societies for alternative worship if they wished. (Initially, for instance, they were still to register their meeting-houses with the public religious authorities and, of course, to support the official religious provision financially.)

    I read you as singling out 1662 because that year's novelty, requiring episcopal ordination for preferment and for presidency at the Supper, was to become a trademark of so-called Anglicanism two centuries later, and also because those who voted with their feet in 1662 were more reluctant to go than, say, the Elizabethan separatists had been. Both true; but even so, only a shifting of goalposts. Where I am with you is that the clericalism and dogmatism of the Tractarians (for whose 17th century roots I defer to your research) spawned a new concept of the C of E, in which episcopal government and overseas links would outweigh national comprehensiveness.

    The Tractarian idea that bishops must oversee every congregation in the Prayer Book tradition coincided with colonial self-government and the Imperial Parliament’s unwillingness (possibly in the wake of the Durham Report) to pass non-essential legislation for the colonies. The consequential resort to voluntary structures by colonial bishops and their supporters (an idea which then caught on back home and led to a whole new set of extra-legal institutions, in particular the divisive 1903 innovation of the church electoral roll, from which today's General Synod derives much of its claim to legitimacy) created a denomination alongside the national Church, as a parent-teacher association may today grow up besides a maintained school. This took the national Church's name and its representatives tend to speak as 'the C of E'. But if you're challenging their standing to do so, then I think our furrows could easily merge!