You shall be free


Even today, the relationship between Church and State continues to change and not necessarily for the better. In the last of this series, George Austin compares the current situation to that envisaged in the Magna Carta


At Runnymede in 1215, King John signed the Magna Carta in the presence of barons and bishops, including the archbishops of Canterbury and Dublin and the bishops of London, Winchester, Bath and Glaston-bury, Lincoln, Worcester, Coventry and Rochester.

In an examination of Church/State relations, it is worth looking at its first clause: 'That we have granted to God, and by this present charter have confirmed for us and our heirs in perpetuity that the Church of England shall be free and shall have its rights undiminished and its liberties unimpaired. That we wish this so to be observed appears from the fact that, of our own free will and before the outbreak of the present dispute between us and our barons, we granted and confirmed by charter the freedom of the Church's elections - a right reckoned to be of the greatest necessity and importance to it - and caused this to be confirmed by Pope Innocent III. This freedom we shall observe ourselves, and desire to be observed in good faith by our heirs in perpetuity'

This was confirmed more succinctly in 1297, in the charter's endorsement by Edward I: 'First, we have granted to God and by this our present Charter have confirmed, for us and for our heirs for ever, That the Church of England shall be free, and shall have her whole rights and liberties inviolable.'

A positive step?

More than nine centuries later, perhaps it is time for the Church of England to demand that this agreement be acknowledged. Of course the Church has needed the strength and power of the State - usually in the person of the monarch - for its very existence, especially in pre-conquest days. And part of the meaning of the clause in the Magna Carta was in relation to the English Church's right to be free from papal interference.
Henry VIII ended that forever, but only to replace it with his own headship over the Church so that it was certainly not free, nor were 'her rights and liberties inviolable'. With the development of parliamentary democracy, the monarch's power over the Church has been exercised through the two Houses of Parliament.
It is extraordinary that only in 2007 did a dour Scottish Presbyterian Prime Minister declare that the Church should be allowed to choose its own bishops, with the two names no longer being filtered and purified in the back rooms of 10 Downing Street before presentation to the Queen. Could this mean that 'the freedom of the Church's elections' has at last been put into effect?

We should not be too euphoric at this. Appointment to the bench of bishops in the Eighties demanded the 'right' background - public school, Oxbridge, with theological training at Westcott House or Cuddesdon - and the next decade brought the rejection, as far as possible, of those whose theological understanding would not allow them to ordain women. When choice is entirely in the hands of the Church, the power of the dominant group will be all the greater - and the dominant group will be unforgiving liberal fundamentalists.


Parliamentary power

But the reason for seeking disestablishment for the Church must not be because it is expedient, but because it is morally right. And can it be right that a diocesan bishop on appointment must promise before the monarch that he (and soon she) will hand over to a secular ruler -however strong the faith of that ruler -not only the temporalities of the see but also the 'spiritualities'?

When Salome danced before King Herod, as thanks he offered to reward her with anything 'up to the half of my kingdom', and she demanded the head of John the Baptist. When asked how Herod ought to have dealt with that, a wise child replied that he should have said: 'The head of John the Baptist is from that part of my kingdom which is not mine to give away' But would a new bishop be prepared to sacrifice himself at the last fence?

In a television interview, I once asked a disestablishmentarian suffragan bishop whether any bishop had ever refused to recite the oath. He replied, 'No', but added that he thought some of them did so 'with their fingers crossed.' The phrase 'We have no King but Caesar' comes to mind.

In 1927, a revision of the Book of Common Prayer was overwhelmingly accepted by the Convocations and the Church Assembly. Archbishop Randall Davidson introduced it to the House of Lords and after a three-day debate it was passed by 204 to 88, but rejected by the Commons. A few changes were made, but in 1928, Parliament rejected it by an even greater majority. The bishops met and reluctantly agreed to allow the 1928 Prayer Book to be used.

Today, Parliament still has the right to reject decisions of the General Synod which are presented to its Ecclesiastical Committee, but has no power to alter them. But again, can it be right in an increasingly secular age in which many attacks are being made on faith bodies, especially the Christian churches, that a secular parliament should have any power whatsoever over the Church?

Help or hindrance

In the Middle Ages, bishops were landowners with similar rights and duties to those of other landowners. This brought with it not only the palaces and castles they still enjoy, but also, for some, the privilege of membership of England's most exclusive club, the House of Lords, even though they are now described as 'lords spiritual'. There is an argument for allocating a number of peerages to faith leaders, but in an age of television, it is at least open to question whether the House of Lords is the most effective place for a Christian contribution to be made on the issues of the day.

In earlier days, the Church needed the State's support for its very survival. But have we now reached a time when that 'support' has become a hindrance rather than a prop? The only buttress the Church needs is the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and its only submission should be to the King of Kings. Faithfulness to that is the strength which Catholics and Evangelicals can offer to the continuing mission of the Church. |jyp|

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