No King, No Bishop: Some reflections on “The Primer on Ecclesiology”

The House of Bishops Theology Committee released to the public its “Primer on Ecclesiology” last week, just in time for Thanksgiving and Black Friday. An earlier version of the document was presented at the Fall House of Bishops Meeting and I offered some comment on what we learned then here.

Crusty Old Dean provides a thorough reading of the document in his inimitably crusty style. He asks a number of pertinent questions and points out various places where the document is less than accurate historically. These misrepresentations are problematic because as the document states in its introduction,

The study of the Church begins with history and governance: how it came to be and how it makes decisions. To understand how and why The Episcopal Church functions the way it does today, we must start with its origins in the Church of England.

A lack of adequate historical understanding results in inadequate ecclesiology. I will leave aside a discussion of developments in America. What concerns me are certain misrepresentations of the History of Christianity in Early Modern England, matters about which I actually know something.

The first major problem I want to highlight has to do with the sixteenth century. It is quite true to see Henry VIII’s efforts to gain control over the Church in England in light of similar efforts by his contemporary European rulers. Kings did it; even the city councils of Imperial cities in the Holy Roman Empire used the Reformation to gain power to control the clergy in their territories. But to say that the matter was “purely a matter of governance and political power” and that Henry had no religious, theological, or ecclesiastical motives is a serious misunderstanding of the mindset of early modern rulers. Kings believed that not only would they be answerable for their own sins on the Day of Judgment but also that they would be held responsible for the Christian faith and morality of their subjects. It’s impossible to separate the motives of sixteenth-century people into distinct categories of religious and non-religious.

The primer’s discussion of developments after Henry is even more confused and confusing. It seems the authors are attempting, as they did in Henry’s case, to distinguish cleanly and completely between religious and non-religious spheres. So, for example, a sentence like this:

After his death, the first Book of Common Prayer was published in 1549, and a second Book in 1552, while Henry’s son Edward was king, reflecting the growing importance of doctrinal concerns to the Church.

There had been lively, passionate, divisive, even fatal debates over doctrine in England since the 1520s. Henry had executed both Evangelicals and Catholics who refused to toe the theological line. At times, reformers seemed to hold sway; other times the conservative Catholic party seemed in charge. Under Edward, it becomes clear that the Evangelical party (to call them “Protestant” is misleading; it doesn’t fit the English scene in the Tudor period) was setting policy.

Crusty points out the enormous problems in the brief treatment of Elizabeth. The Elizabethan Settlement is usually dated to 1559-1560, with the publication of the 1559 Book of Common Prayer and the Act of Supremacy. Elizabeth’s excommunication by Pius V only acknowledged the reality on the ground. The document overlooks one very important issue in the development of the settlement and the need to distinguish between the roles and competencies of Crown and Church. Elizabeth was a woman. A great deal of Henry’s desire to have a son was general uncertainty about the fitness of women to rule kingdoms and to have a woman as head of the church was an affront to many churchmen and reformers. John Knox fired off “blasts of the trumpet against this monstrous regiment of women” in which he voiced his opposition to Elizabeth’s reign. The attempt to distinguish “the Archbishop of Canterbury as spiritual head and the Crown as the governor of the church’s temporal existence” was in part an attempt to remove the possibility that Elizabeth, a woman, was “head” of the Church of England.

Crusty’s takedown of the paragraph on the seventeenth century is worth repeating:

The historical narrative here is confusing and problematic.  Cromwell and the Commonwealth are called the “zenith of Presbyterian experiment in the church of England.”  This is simply inaccurate.  Cromwell was an Independent (what we could call a Congregationalist) and actually introduced religious toleration.

He also alludes to the primer’s consistent and misleading of the terms “spiritual” and “temporal” to distinguish the roles of clergy and laity (or church and crown). The ultimate example of this confusion comes somewhat later in the document where it distinguishes between the clergy’s responsibility for worship, “the Church’s principal act” and the laity’s responsibility for finances.

Looking at the discussion of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in light of this distinction between spiritual and temporal, it becomes clear to me that the document is attempting to do something quite interesting. Its construction of the Elizabethan Settlement is an attempt to make a connection between the Church of England’s structure and governance with that of the Episcopal Church, each being adapted to the local context. Thus:

While the present monarch, Queen Elizabeth II, has only a formal role in governing her Church, she symbolizes the considerable power that the laity exercise across England. This original balance of her great ancestor’s Settlement has been a key element of Anglican provinces around the world, including the Episcopal Church, the first Anglican Church outside the British Isles.

In other words, the Elizabethan Settlement, with the Crown as “governor of the church’s temporal existence” and the Archbishop of Canterbury as spiritual head become the foundation for both the Episcopal Church’s hierarchical structure and for the existence of General Convention with its lay representation.

This is deeply problematic in at least two ways. First, it attempts to map onto the sixteenth century our categories of religious and secular (although using the terms “spiritual” and “temporal”). “Spiritual” in the sixteenth century did not mean what it means today. The English Bishops were lords “spiritual;” that is to say, they sat in the House of Lords by virtue of their appointment as bishops, yet exercised vast political power both in Parliament and in their own dioceses. “Spirituality” in the sixteenth century referred not to some nebulous, internal, religious state or mode of being; it referred to the clergy as an order, with unique political rights . The term “spirituality” used in our contemporary sense first appeared in France in the 17th century. To give just one obvious example of the Crown’s involvement in “spiritual” affairs in the 16th century: forced conformity to the Church of England. Elizabeth famously said there were “no windows into men’s souls” but she certainly demanded that everyone in her realm outwardly conform to the Church of England doctrine, discipline, and worship.

This raises the other difficulty I have with the document as a whole. As I read through it, I kept thinking of James I’s statement at the Hampton Court Conference, “no king, no bishop.” To tie the structure and governance of the Episcopal Church to historical developments in sixteenth and seventeenth century England ties the Episcopal Church to the English monarchy and to the Church of England’s establishment; in other words, “no king, no bishop.”

Of course, the Elizabethan Settlement is part of our history as Episcopalians, but the decision in the 18th century to bring the historic episcopacy to the United States was a theological decision, a creative response to the new political reality that emerged after the Revolution, born from the product of almost two centuries of the inculturation and adaption of Anglicanism to a new environment. That decision is clear evidence that the episcopacy is not dependent on monarchy for its existence,nor is the English monarchy’s involvement in the Church of England a determining factor for the laity’s involvement in the Episcopal Church. A primer on ecclesiology in the Episcopal Church should make that clear.

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One thought on “No King, No Bishop: Some reflections on “The Primer on Ecclesiology”

  1. Thanks for this very enlightening commentary. It would seem that before the HOB issues a “primer” on any phase of the history of the Episcopal Church that they would consult some professional historians. The errors of fact and the serious distortions that both you and COD point out raise serious questions about the competence of the authors. This might deserve a “C” grade from an undergraduate but in graduate school this “Primer” would not rate a “pass”.

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