Friday, February 14, 2014

Can Parliament tell us that Women Bishops and SSM are right?

Henry VIII: casts a long shadow.
Recently I had a little exchange on Twitter with 'Cranmer', aka Adrian Hilton, the conservative but also rather establishment Anglican blogger, who likes to refer to himself as 'His Grace'. He pointed put to me that, in response to his serious and reasoned position, I had responded with sarcasm and scorn.

It is true. Our exchange went like this. (I can't get a simple screenshot for various reasons).

Cranmer: "...since the English Reformation, the Church of England is, in law, the true Catholic church of the land..."

Me: Since when has Parliament had the power to overturn Divine Law?

Cranmer: Since Christians began to have very diverse views about the nature of the vocation that belongs to the See of Rome.

Me: oh right. So Christ wrote to say Parliament could take over. Can I see the letter?

Cranmer: His Grace gave you a reasoned, historic, theological and polite response, which you answer with sarcasm and scorn. Goodbye.

I should say, incidentally, that in Twitter terms Cranmer's response really does count as 'reasoned, historic, theological and polite', which is why it is useful to carry on the discussion on a blog.

I do confess I find it impossible to take Anglican claims to be 'the Christian Church in England' seriously. I find them, quite literally, ludicrous. It appeared after well over a thousand years of Christianity in these Islands which acknowledged the authority of the Pope, and did so, frequently, with a fervour which exceeded that of many other nations. At no point in its brief history has the Anglican Church, this 'Ecclesia Anglicana', had the support of more than about 80% of the population; in Catholic Lancashire and Puritan East Anglia Anglicanism was almost a besieged minority. Despite the shedding of oceans of blood, the attempts to impose this artificial religion on the peoples of Ireland and Scotland ended in pretty comprehensive failure. It wasn't much more successful in Wales. It is now many years since the number of worshipping Anglicans was below the number of worshipping Catholics.

Oh, but Anglicanism has been established by law - by Parliament! Take that, potato eater! 

So, Protestantism rejects the authority of the Pope. Each individual is supposed to be able to decide for himself, with the help of the Bible, what he should believe.  Anglicanism, on the other hand, claims that it is the Crown in the Parliament of England, and later in the Parliament of the United Kingdom which wields ultimate religious authority. (This is the position known as 'Erastianism'.)

Because after all that's what Christ said in the Bible, isn't it? Oh but that's sarcastic.

But to take this position seriously we have to ask what Adrian Hilton calls sarcastic questions. Is the British Crown in the UK Parliament, by some inscrutable Providence, the religious lode-star of the entire world? Ok, if that seems absurd, whence does lawful religious authority derive in countries which have not adopted Erastianism? And to what can we appeal when one Erastian state disagrees with another?

Where did religious authority come from before the English Crown decided to arrogate it to itself? And by what lawful means did it pass from one institution to another?

I'll tell you what this reminds me of: the Marxist theory that the Communist Party is the chosen instrument of History to liberate the Proletariate. Somehow the British Crown has this historic spiritual destiny... Well, codswallop.

I know there are many people of good will who have come to some kind of intellectual accommodation with the anomaly of Anglicanism. Having rejected the Pope, it might seem preferable to various alternatives. But that doesn't make Erastianism make sense. It is a position without any rational basis, and it would be dishonest to pretend otherwise.

It comes into the category of positions which are so silly that rational argument almost fails. To point out the Scriptural and historical absurdity of it doesn't do it justice. It needs ridicule. It needs to be said that this is not even a contender among views of religious authority. It is just a grubby historical expedient, left over from the age of Monarchical Absolutism. It's just Henry VIII saying: Who's going to stop me?

Catholics of all stripes, and in fact pretty well everyone, genuinely struggle to understand why we should be interested in what Parliament has to say, for example, about the ordination of female bishops. And yet it is increasingly clear that it is the secular political class, in Government and in Parliament, who are calling the shots on this and on the Anglican position on Same Sex Marriage. David Cameron memorably said:

"I think it's important for the Church of England to be a modern church in touch with society, as it is today, and this was a key step they needed to take."

The Church of England Synod had just rejected them. Cameron was menacing them: we'll give you time to sort this out, he said, but you know the result you need to get, so don't take too long over it. Oh, and they have.

The Archbishop of Canterbury has now taken Parliament's hint on Same Sex Marriage. 'there is also a great fear that our decisions will lead us to the rejection of LGBT people, to irrelevance in a changing society, to behaviour that many see akin to racism.' Setting aside this 'fear', he looks forward with hope and confidence to the Anglican Church of the future:

'It has incoherence, inconsistency between dioceses and between different places. It’s not a church that says we do this and we don’t do that. It’s a church that says we do this and we do that and actually quite a lot of us don’t like that but we are still going to do it because of love.'

We all know what this means. He's going to allow Same Sex Marriage in churches, provide some incoherent let-out clause for those Anglican clergy who don't want to do them, and then watch this let-out clause collapse under pressure from homosexual activists and the law.

Would anyone who disagrees like to give me odds on that? I'd be prepared to lay a substantial wager on it.

Refugees from Anglicanism as this unfolds will be very welcome in the Catholic Church, as many have been before them.


  1. The premise on which "Cranmer" responded to your questions, was that there is (from his point of view) bi spiritual authority this side of Heaven. The Reformers didn't simply reject the authority of the Pope, they denied it ever existed (claiming that the promises of Our Lord to Peter and the Apostles, applied to them only and died with them). Since they denied that Holy Orders was instituted by Christ but was instituted by the Apostles out of necessity, they viewed the Pope as the temporal ruler of the Papal States who also happened to be the bishop of Rome. Of course what form of church government was to replace the Catholic Church depended on the political ambitions of the new religion's adherents.

  2. If Parliament were to pass a law to say that there is no God, what then? Did not St Thomas More say something like that to Rich?

    Unjust laws are purely penal and are not binding in conscience.

  3. The best justification I’ve heard for the Church of England was given in a sermon at St. Martin’s, Canterbury (believed to be England’s oldest parish church). It was observed that the kind of Christianity encountered by parishioners over the centuries had varied considerably; and that this begged serious questions about the sense in which those present could be said to be in continuity with their predecessors. The answer was that continuity subsisted in each generation’s coming together in that place to worship in the manner of the time.

    As a convert to Catholicism I believe this argument to be flawed but I admire it for its honesty, appealing as it does to the experience of generations of locals who have seen ecclesiastical polity and fashion come and go. It is at least preferable to pompous attempts to claim “true” Catholicism on the basis of the law of the land.

  4. "It’s not a church that says we do this and we don’t do that. It’s a church that says we do this and we do that and actually quite a lot of us don’t like that but we are still going to do it because of love." I may be being na├»ve, but is this not exactly the opposite of the moral St. Paul is trying to teach regarding meat sacrificed to idols in 1 Corinthians 8:4-13?

    1. It seems the Anglican bishops have decided to agree with you.