Sunday, 27 January 2013

Loyal Anglicans : A historical view

A few years ago, the Church of England's General Synod passed a resolution declaring that both those who agree and those who disagree with the ordination of women are 'loyal Anglicans'.

Since then, this phrase has been repeatedly quoted by those who disagree with women's ordination. Look here, the argument runs. We are loyal Anglicans - Synod has agreed -  and we cannot be called disloyal just because we don't support the church's decision to ordain women. You have to let us have everything we feel we need to flourish. Separate bishops. Separate dioceses, preferably, but failing that certainly separate Chrism masses, separate ordination services, separate selection conferences. It isn't disloyal or separatist to ask for these things, we are assured: how can it be, when we know everyone involved is a 'loyal Anglican'?

Let's leave aside, for a moment, the illogicality of basing your argument on a declaration that both sides are loyal, and then using that declaration as an excuse for disowning your opponents as invalid innovators who are not loyal to the inheritance of faith.

Instead, I want to consider the phrase 'loyal Anglicans' as a historian. Because from a historical perspective, this phrase 'loyal Anglicans' is a very richly evocative phrase.

It is hardly going too far to say that the entire basis of Anglicanism is loyalty. Loyalty to the Crown over the Pope, mainly. And secondly, loyalty to a prescribed way of doing things rather than to our own ideas.

Reading the Book of Common Prayer, and contemporary texts such as the Book of Homilies, it is very clear indeed that loyalty, for the founders of the Church of England meant 1) Unquestioning obedience to the Crown, and 2) Conformity to the set forms of worship.

Much of the language in which this is couched sounds ridiculously sycophantic and even downright creepy to modern ears. But to put it in context, the early Church of England was being formed at a time of terrifying political and religious turmoil across Europe. Hundreds of thousands of people were killed in the wars that raged between Spain, France and the Low Countries. England's monarchs and ruling class were understandably petrified of being drawn into these wars. They were petrified of religiously motivated acts of terrorism - such as the Gunpowder Plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. They were terrified of invasion by Spain under the pretext of religion. They were terrified of invasion by France via Scotland, ditto.

In these circumstances, the equally fierce war of words between those of Catholic and those of Puritan persuasion within the Church of England was seen as a grave danger. Nothing that might cause the war of words to flare up into open violence could be tolerated, because it might give an opening to invasion from abroad. And anything that looked too much like Roman Catholicism was viewed as potentially treasonous, because the Pope had declared Queen Elizabeth to be an invalid ruler.

For several decades, it was uncertain how things would turn out. One key turning point was the Spanish Armada of 1588. As the mighty Spanish fleet sailed up the Channel, and Elizabeth made her famous speech at Tilbury, it was notable that several prominent Catholic noblemen were there with their retinues. The threat of invasion had cystallised their loyalties: they had decided that they were Englishmen first, and Catholics second.
You might be secretly harbouring a Catholic priest to say Masses for your household, you might regularly pay your fines for non-attendance at your parish church: but ultimately, loyal Anglicanism meant being there at Tilbury.

And if you were a thorough-going Calvinist, and thought candles, vestments and the BCP were a load of papist nonsense, you could believe, privately, what you liked: Elizabeth famously said that she had no wish to "make windows into men's souls". But you couldn't do what you liked. You were required to use the prescribed prayer book, preach only the prescribed Homilies (unless you were granted a special license to preach your own sermons), wear the prescribed vestments. Conformity was all.

So loyalty was the heart and soul of early Anglicanism. Loyalty to the Crown, and loyalty - shown by conformity - to the church. Explicitly not, ever, loyalty to your personal theological convictions, or the claims of any other church body. Explicitly not, ever, loyalty to a certain theological position over loyalty to that proclaimed by the bishops, monarch and parliament.

So I find these current pleas of loyalty rather unconvincing, especially when they come from those most eager to claim continuity with our traditions.

Loyal Anglicanism means accepting the decisions of the Church of England - and of the Crown-in-Parliament - and being prepared to act in conformity with them even if you personally think they are mistaken. Now, you might validly dislike that idea, and you might validly think that your loyalties are to a different body. But this is what the history and tradition of Anglicanism are.

Why else would a declaration in Synod be quoted so repeatedly, so triumphantly? The very fact that 'Synod says so' is being used as an argument is a tacit acceptance that Synod has the right to decide on such matters, and that conformity to Synod's rulings is appropriate.

But if Synod's statements are to be taken as the grounds for argument, there is no getting away from the fact that Synod has said that women can be ordained. That women can and should become bishops, that there are no fundamental theological objections to women's ordination. And since Synod has declared women can be ordained, there is no grounds for refusing to accept that your (male) bishop is a loyal Anglican, let alone demanding an alternative one with whom you can agree.

We should stop the creeping separation that we have allowed to infiltrate the Church of England since the Act of Synod. Let's all go to the same Chrism masses, the same ordination services. Let's enact unity, rather than talking about it. Or let's stop, please, claiming to be loyal.


  1. As a non-conformist (URC) I recognise that the kind of loyalty you point to is definitive of the Church of England but wonder how you would justify it theologically in contemporary circumstances.

  2. Miranda,
    I find this posting a bit troubling. I found this from someone posting it on another blog. Apart from the straw men you build, does this mean, "Loyal Anglicans" are only those who toe the line to a fallible institution? What you're saying ends up with exactly what the conservative types are fearing, a 1662 style, St Bartholomew's day, clergy & family not toeing the line, marched out of the Vicarages.

    1. I think Miranda's point is that those who choose to base an argument around a particular phrase should have regard for what that phrase has meant in practice before co-opting it and think carefully about what applying the term rigorously to their own situation would actually mean. In this case loyalty would entail giving precedence to the church's decision rather than personal belief. I disagree that it leads to the eviction of clergy & family from vicarage, emotive though that image is. It may entail difficult decisions for individual's as to whether they wish to continue as representatives of an organisation that has made decisions which they do not want, for whatever reason to accept. I for example, will need to reconsider if I can, in conscience remain a priest within the Church of England if any further provision is made for those opposed, because I am unwilling to collude with something that legislates FOR increasing disunity, and does such great disservice to the Gospel. That would be me saying I cannot journey with the church on this because I disagree with the position. It would not be the church chucking me out. To be a loyal Anglican I do not have to personally agree with every decision it makes. I do need to be willing to live with it & work with it, rather than carrying on my own sweet way. This is why the notion of two integrities is such an oxymoron and a papering over the cracks of schism.

  3. Licensetobless - you have said exactly what Id have said (but more clearly, obviously!).

  4. What I was doing was drawing on Miranda's use of history. Failure to conform in 1662 lead to the ejection of 1/3 of it's Ministers. Compromises were drawn up by men like Richard Baxter for some modest compromises, but were all ignored. Emotive, maybe. But that's what happened then & the loyalty demanded then and Miranda was holding it as a model for historic Anglican loyalty. (emotive is talking about evangelical enclaves). So a question would be, if these people are unloyal & you "get your own way"... what ARE you going to do with them if they don't change?

    Now, to some degree I agree with the pair of you. 2 integrities does paper over cracks (it held not badly for a while). Also, NB, I'm no longer in the C of E, so it's not "my" problem, other than "I believe in one holy, catholic & apostolic church".

    But, you've got at least 3 problems between what you've just said, Licensetobless.

    1st, sorry to sound a bit FiF, but these are the problems you get when you introduce something new into the mix. Even if it's a majority, you can't argue that it's new. We can't stop and start again, there are congregations well up for this & some that really aren't (often big, with cash, but not all).

    2nd, from the point of view of those objecting to change, we're not dealing with preference but obedience. It's not like saying, "right from now on, cassocks shall be orange" or "just new songs now", or the like. In their mind, it's about obeying God, or not. So, when saying submitting to the will of the church... which church? For 2,000 years we were pretty much agreed. It would be like Ahaz saying to Elijah, "look, there aren't many of you, we've voted, now chill out"

    3rd You mention that you would have to raise the conscience issue at some point if things stay as they are. That does raise an awkward question doesn't it? For some time these issues have been raised. There was a time that the C of E didn't ordain women at all. Then the issue was raised, then defeated, then raised & raised until it gets through. So, why not back then, did people leave such a sexist and unjust institution for the salvation army or methodists? This issue is always thrown on the fuddy duddies, but actually, it comes back to you guys too. I guess, "conservative" types have delicate consciences & this acute idea that God is watching, rather than winning. Others seem to be able to grin and bare it, because the ends justifies the means.

    OF course, I've avoided the big one... what actually is the gospel. Another time

    1. I'm sorry...'for 2000 years we were pretty much agreed'?! On the assumption that maleness was superior, yes, if thats what you meant. But hardly on all sorts of other fairly fundamental matters of faith, doctrine and church order. Hence the Chalcedonian/ non Chalcedonian churches. Hence the east/ west split. Hence the Reformation. The fact that something being new doesnt make it wrong is pretty deep in Christian DNA (eg the story of Paul's vision of the sheet filled with clean and unclean animals). It is also pretty deep in Church of England DNA - we were formed in conflict and deep conscientious division over what obedience meant. We should, therefore, be able to cope with this without splitting up into two separate jurisdictions (which is what 'proper provision' is code for).