UPHOLDING THE ESTABLISHMENT
By THE BISHOP OF SOUTHWARK
ON what was probably the last full day of this Parliament, the House of Lords debated the nation's hospitals and the Commons the eucharistic vestments. A visitor to the Palace of Westminster would have found it hard to under- stand. A bishop in rochet and chimere sitting with the peers to discuss the Health Services, but not a single clergyman in the adjoining Chamber to decide what clothes a priest should wear when celebrating the Holy Communion. More briefly still, those taking part in the debate included Roman Catholics, Free Churchmen and agnos- tics. On the face of it, it seems absurd, and it is not surprising that when I remarked to the Patriarch of Moscow that English Christians feared the interference of the Soviet Government in Orthodox affairs, he retorted, 'At least we can revise our Prayer Book without seeking the per- mission of the Kremlin.' But let's look more closely.
The idea of an Established Church presup- Poses that Christianity impinges upon secular affairs and that the faith cannot be divorced from life. The bishop in full regalia on the episcopal bench in the Lords is a warning to those who think that religion and politics should be kept apart, while the commoner who votes on the niceties of clerical dress is a reminder to the professional ecclesiastic that a Church Which addresses itself to the nation must appear to be sensible and intelligible.
Like most of our institutions, the Establish- ment is illogical. The root idea of a National Church is that everybody belongs to it. Richard Hooker put it thus:
There is not any member of the Church of England but that the man is also a member of the Commonwealth; nor any man a member of the Commonwealth which is not also a member of the Church of England.
Granted that the definition of the Commonwealth has changed since Hooker's day, but so has the definition of the Church of England. It is no longer the Church of the country, providing the nation with one faith and one form of worship, but a Church among many. Yet that is not wholly accurate. The Church of England is part and Parcel of our history as is no other. Its cathe- drals bear witness to our culture and entomb our great men; its liturgy safeguards the loveliness of our language and links the generations in its Prayers; its parish churches are focus points for national rejoicing and sorrows and meeting houses for those who have private or public business with God; its ministry of word and sacrament has continued unbroken for nearly 1,400 years. And so long as the nation considers Itself Christian and requires a Church to express its religious conviction and to be involved in its affairs, there is a place for the Established Church.
It is sometimes argued that if the Church were to be disestablished, it would have greater free- dom. Perhaps, but freedom for what? T. S. Eliot, in The Idea of a Christian Society, writes: We must pause to reflect that a Church, once disestablished, cannot easily be re-established, and that the very act of disestablishment separates it more definitely and irrevocably from the life of the nation than if it had never been established.
It is for this reason that I am keen to preserve the association in spite of the difficulties. The Establishment drags the Church into the world and stops it from being a holy huddle. The fact that the bishops are in the Lords and the clergy in civic life is an invaluable discipline that helps to remind the Church that it exists to serve those who don't belong to it—a reminder that is often necessary. We have only to examine the records of the Church Assembly and the Houses of Convocation to realise what a dis- proportionate amount of time is spent on dealing with matters that have little or no bearing on contemporary life. For nearly twenty years the Church has been engaged on the revision of canon law --The composition of Communion tables, the shape of vestments and the minutiae of ecclesiastical drill. Perhaps it has been neces- sary, but I doubt whether our deliberations will win a single soul to the Christian cause, still less improve 'the image' of the Church. And if freedom means the liberty to determine these trivial affairs, I am not particularly interested. It is, moreover, possible that the realisation that the approval of Parliament has to be obtained has prevented the ecclesiastically-minded from going too far.
But I must be fair. The Church has a duty to evolve suitable patterns of worship. This is a difficult and demanding process and, while the laity and clergy must play their part, it is doubt- ful whether Parliament is a suitable forum. We cannot repeat the debacle of 1928, and if Par- liament is wise it will give to the Established Church of England the freedom that the Estab- lished Church of Scotland already enjoys in ordering its forms of worship. The Church Assembly has severe limitations and its com- position is far from satisfactory, but it is the best we have at the moment and in any case it is better qualified than Parliament to meet the liturgical needs of our people, Another freedom about which I am sceptical is the freedom of the Church to appoint its senior officers without reference to the State. The Church of England has its Catholic • and Protestant wings and if it chose its own bishops, deans and officials, ecclesiastical partisanship
'Remember, dinner's at eight, so don't go oft on some crusade!'.
would obtrude itself in a way that is refresh- ingly absent in Crown appointments. Of course, an irresponsible Prime Minister could use his position to damage the Church and, should that happen, we should have to defend ourselves. But recent history suggests that the Crown could not be more careful and impartial. It seeks to find men to play their part in the life of Church and State because of their individual qualities rather than to please ecclesiastical pressure groups.
There should be, perhaps, more consultation, but the behaviour of the Protestant underworld in the recent controversy on vestments should provide an amber light. if the extremists had the opportunity they would try to influence every appointment, and each vacancy would give rise to a clash between Highs and Lows, with the problem resolved by a colourless compromise. The• fact that other branches of the Anglican Communion elect their own bishops is no answer, because nowhere are the pressure groups so pro- nounced as in England.
Because the State holds the ring, and because the Establishment provides so many checks and counter-checks that nobody quite knows where power resides, a parson has a freedom of which others may well be envious. Providing he does not bring moral disgrace upon himself, he can say and do as he likes, and nobody can turn him out of his job. At times this may be em- barrassing, but there can be little doubt that this sturdy independence has contributed mightily to the well-being of the Church. Bishop Henson of Durham, Archbishop Temple of Canterbury, Bishop Barnes of Birmingham and Bishop Robinson of Woolwich all fell foul of their ecclesiastical superiors at some point in their careers, but the Establishment guaranteed their position and enabled them to proclaim the truth as they saw it. How different was the fate of the Methodist minister who a few weeks back was dismissed for heresy, and how much he must have wished that the proposals for uniting his Church with the Church of England had already taken effect!
Although I am prepared to defend my attach- ment to the Establishment on theoretical grounds, they are outweighed by the pragmatic. It works. It fits in with our history. It has done shocking things in the past by favouring persecution and reaction, but it has learnt its lesson and en- courages tolerance and freedom. It provides a spiritual home for all who want it, for there is no house in the country which is not in a parish under the pastoral care of a priest.
But it is my Christian Socialist convictions that draw me to it most readily, and a recent con- tribution to The Times on Christian ethics puts it in a nutshell :
The phrase 'religionless Christianity' is per- haps hopelessly misunderstood, but it may serve as a text to point a moral. Christians are now rightly rediscovering that the place where Chris- tian faith must be verified and the Christian life expressed in action is not in a closed en- clave of religiosity but in the secular affairs of God's world.
A disestablished Church can easily become a religious club. The Church of England, becahse it is established, still has a unique opportunity to involve itself in secular affairs and to fashion the pattern of community living.