Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nichols, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby and Dean of Westminster David Hoyle walk to the shrine of Edward the Confessor for a private prayer in Westminster Abbey on June 15, 2020 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
Artillery Row

What church for what England?

The difficult future of the C of E

With the recent census showing that those identifying as Christian include fewer than half the population, the idea that the Church of England might be described as “a people’s church” appears fanciful. The idea of an equivalence between the English people and the Church is, however, venerable and goes back to the equally Venerable Bede in the eighth century, who wrote an Ecclesiastical History of the English People. Moreover, when Jeremy Morris begins his story, with the Reformation break from Rome, state and religion were one and conformity tightly enforced. Despite Henry VIII’s quite conservative Catholicism and the flourishing of lay spirituality and practice, he oversaw the development of what is grandly called cesaropapalism, whereby the Act of Supremacy of 1534 rendered Henry the supreme head of the Church of England. Although the present King is now merely governor of the Church and guarantor of its order and doctrine, the link with monarchy remains and is one key reason why the Anglican Church can still claim a stake in the country. It will be the Archbishop of Canterbury who will crown Charles III next May at his coronation.

Jeremy Morris is a highly-regarded specialist in nineteenth-century religious history but he evidently relishes this broader focus of a narrative history in the mode of Tom Holland. He holds a balance between offering a coherent historical thread and challenging established preconceptions throughout. Only towards the end do we lose the momentum of quite an exciting story and that is because of the uncertainty of current trends: their outcome still has to be determined. So, we have a denial of the Anglo-Catholic view of Anglicanism as a via media from the very beginning of the Reformation and yet an acknowledgement that there was something unique about the frozen and partially unachieved nature of the Protestant Reformation in England, in which the threefold order of bishops, priest and deacons survived along with a purified version of the Catholic offices, through the liturgical genius of Thomas Cranmer. While the Calvinists were in the ascendent in Elizabethan England, Elizabeth herself was worshipping with candles, crucifix and Latin settings of the eucharist, often the work of Catholic musicians. The via media might be said to begin with her and her successor, James I, who, despite his Scottish upbringing, gave high church Lancelot Andrewes strong editorial control over the translators of what would often be called the King James Version of the English Bible and welcomed his baroque, poetic sermons at court. 

Jeremy Morris, A People’s Church: A History of the Church of England. Profile Books, 2022.

In his desire not to pre-empt too early a Catholic tinge to English Protestantism, Morris too easily, in my view, accepts Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Protestant view of the great Anglican theorist, Richard Hooker, partly because he focuses primarily on ecclesial order and not on its mystical underpinnings in terms of a theology of participation. Certainly, bishops are just one mode of church order and Hooker has a generous ecumenical acceptance of other arrangements, but there is a blessedness to the order we have, even if we might have had others.

That said, Morris demonstrates convincingly how little “middle ground” there was in the period between Elizabeth and Charles I, and how tenuous the Hookerian position was in a period where Puritanism made rival claims. One of the most interesting sections is devoted to the eighteenth century and the abandonment of a single ecclesial order after 1688-9 as well as the evidence for a more lively and missional Church in this period. Anglican orthodoxy, for example, holds up well against Enlightenment rationalism.

The chapter on the evangelical revival of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries is fascinating in its examination of the success in organisational terms of the movement. Charles Simeon’s policy of buying up patronage of parishes to ensure an evangelical succession is partly responsible for the maintenance of evangelicalism to this day. The nineteenth century is the time of missionary endeavours, but Morris is unable to follow these in any detail — only gesture towards the importance of empire and the Anglican communion, since these lie beyond his remit. Perhaps, this will be his next project, although so great is the acrimony between Anglican Churches of the north and south, that it will be a gloomy volume. One note of hope in the Victorian period is the evidence of a strong and often successful response by the Church to industrialism and urbanization in the form of church building and pastoral provision, even if its reach to the working-class was patchy.

One of the strengths of the structure of this book is the way it pauses for thematic chapters on the medieval parish, the great churches and the choral tradition. Ironically, while he chose these topics because they represent constant features of Anglican practice, these are the very modes which both most closely accord with a church for the English people as a whole and yet which are most under threat today. Cathedrals have found a renewed community function but struggle financially with the huge sums they must raise to maintain their buildings; their musical tradition is fragile. While claiming to put the parish front and centre, the Anglican hierarchy have led a move to establish a parallel competitive system of 10,000 alternative worshipping communities, without the public role of the parish. Reorganization schemes afoot in a number of dioceses are melding up to twenty parishes in one, where a parish will no longer mean anything recognisably local.

We have however, a loss of memory

In the 1950’s, in the afterglow of World War II the Church of England saw modest growth in attendance, baptism and confirmation numbers, but the story has been one of numerical decline ever since. Morris’s conclusion is gloomy, suggesting we will soon lose the choral tradition and also the breadth of churchmanship: “the compelling curiosity of a Catholic tradition and culture”. Yet this Christmas, village churches up and down the land will be packed and cathedrals will put on more and more carol services to accommodate increasing demand. 

We have however, a loss of memory, in which generations are growing up without a knowledge of the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, their own musical traditions. It means we have generations who will struggle to make sense of the art, literature and architecture of their past. What stories will replace them? What will unite us as a people? At its best the Church of England offered everyone an ecclesial home, pastoral care and an attitude to the land itself as sacred. In our greater cities, the Church’s backbone is now people whose families migrated here from the Caribbean or directly from Africa, as well as a significant number from parts of the Middle East. Will immigration, in the end, rescue the Church of England? And will the Church of England still try to serve the people of England, even if it is not “the people’s church”? Only time will tell.

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