A People’s Church: A History of the Church of England by Jeremy Morris
Profile Books, £30, 480 pages
The defining and unhappy image of the response of the Church of England to the Covid-19 pandemic was that of the Archbishop of Canterbury celebrating Holy Communion on his kitchen table at Lambeth Palace. It was Easter Day 2020, and he had closed the churches to “go the extra mile” beyond the Government’s lockdown guidance. How did an institution once central to the religious consciousness of the United Kingdom and its identity become reduced, at a time of national crisis, to a state of such grim pathos?
To write a history of the Church of England in one volume of 382 pages of text, plus the critical apparatus and a bibliographical essay, is a substantial challenge; to have done so successfully and with admirable clarity is no mean feat. Jeremy Morris writes as a “renegade Anglo-Catholic”, sympathetic to those who prize the Church of England as a continuation, mutatis mutandis, of the undivided church of western Christendom.
Dr Morris is aware and open about the size and complexity of the task; at one point he says that he knows he is “cutting a lot of corners”. Many of these paragraphs in which he summarises events, disputes, doctrines, clashes of ideas, theological and political cross-currents and societal changes are dazzling in their brevity and comprehensive reach. They are a spur to further reading of the matters that he can here only touch upon or outline.
He takes a linear approach apart from the occasional detour: one to discuss great church buildings, another church music. After a brief prologue on the medieval church, he begins his narrative when the Church in England – which looked to Rome for its authority – became the Church of England. The latter owed its fealty, under God, to the sovereign and parliament; despite a high degree of autonomy, it still does.
Morris rightly emphasises the importance of Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars of 1992 (the year that the Church of England first ordained women to its presbyterate), which recast the then-prevailing populist view of the Reformation as a triumph of Protestantism. As he suggests, it is better seen as unfinished business. Henry VIII was happy enough to take the money from monasteries he dissolved and to be Head of the Church of England, but he remained doctrinally a Catholic.
The nexus between Crown and State should never be under-estimated. Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer were both Protestants, but constrained in what they could achieve. All-out Protestantism’s best hope was Edward VI, but he died young; Mary I’s Catholic reaction was also cut short by her death. Had she lived, England might well have been re-established as a major Catholic power.
Elizabeth I’s religious settlement was an uneasy compromise. Morris is a sure-footed guide in the ebb and flow of this turmoil and its final outcome, in which he emphasises Elizabeth’s personal contribution.
It could never be said that the Church of England was the Church for all, or that any ecclesiastical structure could contain within its boundaries the whole range of possible belief and practice in the realm. There were always recusant Catholics, and there was a burgeoning stream of Puritanism. Even the Interregnum failed to see it off; that too was short-lived.
What did happen was that dissentient groups of Protestants of various doctrinal strands became quasi-independent, or broke away completely.
There may have been idle country parsons, complacent urban clergy and port-sodden bishops. Nevertheless, as the author points out, the 18th century was neither a period of religious torpor, nor of complacency. The Church of England faced challenges from Catholicism and from nonconformist sects: Unitarians, Presbyterians, and (most significantly then, if not now) Methodism. The Methodist schism was a severe blow to the integrity of the Anglian hegemony.
Even so, Anglican orthodoxy in the age of the Enlightenment “was not intellectually moribund but open to a discourse between human reason and natural religion”.
Morris is on home turf in the 19th century. The third great crisis that tested the relationship between Church and the State (following the Reformation and then the Commonwealth of the 17th century) came in 1828 and 1829. These significant years saw the removal of religious disabilities for dissenters, and Catholic Emancipation; the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy followed in 1850.
The tripartite division of the Church into Evangelicalism, Liberalism, and what later became known as Anglo-Catholicism emerged soon after. These were combative times, and the echoes of clashes then resonate now; Morris compresses a heady period with skill and impartiality.
Discussing the Victorian and Edwardian changes he writes that “church reform is hardly the stuff of drama and romance”, but it is vital to our understanding nonetheless and he does it well. The changes in Church governance and finance mattered then as now.
Once into the 20th century, he charts the Church of England’s response to both world wars, and chronicles the significant moves towards Christian Unity – in which he sees positive developments. The debacle of the 1928 Prayer Book and the desire for a greater degree of autonomy, which eventually resulted in the institution of the General Synod (the Church of England’s governing body), seemed to promise much. But the subsequent story is of decline, in which he sees the early death of Archbishop William Temple as a tragic and major loss for the post-war years. He writes admiringly about the craggy, almost shambolic figure of Archbishop Michael Ramsey as he navigated the swirling waters of social change in the 1960s.
A bleak coda comes with the coverage of more recent controversies, Anglican-Methodist Reunion, the ordination of women to the priesthood and episcopate, the unresolved issues of human sexuality, the current furore over safeguarding (or the lack of it, and the scandalous mishandling of so many cases) and the catastrophic decline in numbers. The last has been exacerbated, rather than alleviated, by endless reports, committees and initiatives. There are more bishops, more archdeacons, more bureaucrats – but no more worshippers in the pews.
Even in the quagmire of doctrinal dispute this book is consistently engaging – notwithstanding the frequent uses of “got” and “get” which grate in a work of this kind – and its author is scrupulously even-handed to the disparate tribes and factions that continue to roam the Anglican landscape. While nostalgia lingers, the worm in the bud for the Church of England is that an institution that was meant to be all things to all people was always, at some point, going to find that it meant little or nothing to anyone.
Jeremy Morris has written a fine requiem. He accentuates the positives without diminishing the negatives, but alas they are not enough to obliterate the image of Archbishop Welby grinning into a camera across a kitchen table, having eschewed the historic and spacious private chapel attached to his official residence. On the same morning, just across the river, Cardinal Vincent Nichols made a short journey down a corridor and celebrated the Easter liturgies at the high altar of Westminster Cathedral.
For the Church of England the end cometh not with a bang, but with a simper.
The Revd William Davage is a former Priest Librarian of Pusey House, Oxford
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